Book Review – Levine

The War Against Rommel’s Supply Lines

Alan J. Levine

Four Stars out of Five

This is a very good book providing an in-depth analysis into the battle raging against the umbilical cord tying the Axis forces in North Africa to their base in Italy. In my opinion, no student of the war in the Mediterranean will be able to ignore it.

The book covers the whole of the supply struggle waged in the Mediterranean, but focuses on the period following the Alamein battles and the invasion of North Africa by US and British forces, when it became imperative for Allied planners to prevent a permanent lodging of Axis forces in Tunisia, to the surrender of Axis forces in May 1943. Five out of six chapters are devoted to this effort, while the first chapter provides a concise, yet highly informative and well-researched summary of what went on during 1940-42.

The focus chapters deal with the planning of the invasion of French North Africa, and in particular the role and establishment of 12th Air Force. The author describes well the troubles this formation went through when it was first established, and the very difficult command arrangements at the start of the campaign in Tunisia. The following chapters discuss the invasion, the attack against the build-up of Axis forces in Tunisia, which is rightly described in a very critical manner, the re-organisation of the forces engaged in the logistical battle from January 1943 onwards, and their contribution to the eventual victory. The book gives time to both US and British forces engaged in the battle, and is quite (and justly) complimentary to the Italian effort in keeping the Axis forces in Tunisia supplied.

The author manages well to weave a narrative integrating theatre strategy and individual actions, although at times the information packed into single sentences or paragraphs can become overwhelming. I am also not convinced about the need for as much detail as is sometimes provided and editing could maybe have parsed the text a bit more of unnecessary detail.

The book is very well-researched, going through archival material such as unit records of air formations engaged in the battle, or patrol reports of submarines, and it makes very good use of official histories, of both sides. This is a particularly outstanding feature of the book – where possible, the author made the effort of trying to verify claims made by Allied forces against air and sea targets, by checking the Axis records. While this is no doubt a thankless task, and often a wild goose chase, it is one that cannot be lauded enough. The author has also gone to good length in providing a background on the technical capabilities of the Allied weapons available for the task, highlighting the planes and submarines in particular.

The book sports an index, an extensive literature list, and a good set of endnotes – in other words, it is a serious research work. What is missing is a list of maps, although since there are only two, so maybe that was not considered necessary. Which leads me to: sufficient in number and detail maps are missing, so I recommend having an Atlas of WW2 handy while reading it, unless you have a North Africa map in your head. The selection of pictures is appropriate to the topic, and the quality is acceptable, especially considering the price. What I really would have liked to see are diagrams of air-sea attack formations. These are described verbally, but a picture would help very much in understanding the roles of the various planes engaging shipping targets. But that is really the only major gripe I can think of.

Thanks go to Stackpole for not only publishing a book that is clearly dealing with a somewhat esoteric topic (why bother with logistics – when you could have the umpteenth 750-page colour book about Waffen SS-Tigers?), but making the effort to create a very attractive presentation, and pricing it very reasonably. Highly recommended.

Interesting discussion on the AHF

There is a lot of very good information in this discussion on the Axis History Forum, started by Cédric.

http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?f=83&t=126391

Since I have now left that forum, a quick response to the point raised on page 3 by Oasis on what KG Burckhardt was ordered to do – I don’t think he is right, but I’ll check. 🙂

Edit months later:

Turns out that while Burkhardt was ordered to take over the position at Marada, his battle group never seems to have made it there.  Instead it was used to plug the whole between the Italian Xth and XXIst Corps, between the divisions Brescia and Pavia. This covered part of a line running along a Uadi, roughly from Maaten Giofer to Maaten Belcleibar.

Book Review – Afrika Korps Tome 1 – 1941

Afrika Korps Tome 1 – 1941
by Cédric Mas

 Batailles & Blindés Hors Série No. 6

Four Stars out of Five
While not technically a book, this special issue of the French magazine Batailles & Blindés, written by fellow forum member 13eme DBLE, alias Cédric Mas, certainly contains all that would make for a very good book, plus some added goodies for modelers that are only available in magazines. While I can find some things to criticise, overall I think that anyone who speaks French and is interested in the war in Africa should get this, if they can (it is almost sold out), or at the very least Volume II, and hopefully Vol. III in the future. You’ll regret not following my advice.
The book (for want of a better term) is about 130 pages, in A4 format. The format has been put to good use, since it contains a vast number of pictures from Cédric’s personal collection, a number of very well drawn maps, and (modelers behold), detailed plan drawings of seven vehicles that served with the Commonwealth and Axis armies in North Africa, as well as a good number of beautifully executed colour drawings of vehicles and guns of both sides.
The text is a straightforward, well-researched narrative that follows the development of the battles in the desert in a lot of detail. It is obvious that Cédric has done his research, and then some. While I would certainly not always agree with him on his assessment of particular actions, overall I cannot but tip my hat to him, and even where I disagree with him, the issues are not always clear-cut. If you speak French and want a readable and accessible history of the actions in the desert, you need to look no further than this. The text is well written and marvelously supported by the large number of rare photographs that Cédric has made available for the book, all of which have been treated with care to make for good quality prints. What is nice is that Cédric is at the end of each of the three chapters addressing the key questions one may ask about a particular event or battle described in them, in the form of a set of questions and answers which address these issues. Cédric has clearly thought them through, and the analysis he provides in his answers helps to round off the narrative. It is also nice to see the Italians getting a very fair treatment in the text. A pleasant change from the usual Italian bashing.
So why only four stars? Well, first of all it is in French… Okay, I am joking, that is not the issue. There are serious problems with the editing, in particular Commonwealth unit names are in some cases consistently wrong (e.g. “11th Hussards”, instead of “11th Hussars”). This may seem a minor niggle, but it starts to grate after repeated reading, also because it is such an easy mistake to avoid. Unfortunately also, the book lacks a literature list, something I would be very keen on reading, and an index. All of these things together would normally suffice to bring a book down to three stars in my view, but this would be unjustifiably harsh on the excellent research that Cédric has presented us with. So the missing star to five should be seen as an encouragement to add those missing items in the next volume, while the added star from three is a recognition of his achievement in research and presentation.
A must-read, in my view. Hopefully somebody will be able to translate it into English one day.

Book Review – Battles of the Malta Striking Forces

The Battles of the Malta Striking Forces

by Peter C. Smith and Edwin Walker

5 Stars out of 5

This is the second book I have read by Peter C. Smith, and like the first (“Hold the Narrow Sea”), it was a delight, and is highly recommended.

“The Battles of the Malta Striking Forces” deals with the history of the Malta-based surface striking forces in 1941, a time during which they proved a veritable thorn in the side of the Axis, and contributed directly to the Commonwealth victory on land in Operation Crusader, which started in November 1941. The narrative describes in detail the key actions in which the striking forces were involved, most importantly the convoy battles on 16 April 41 and 8/9 November 41 and the destruction of the light cruisers da Barbiano and di Giussano by the Royal Navy’s 4th Destroyer Flotilla. The book ends with the first battle of Sirte, and the destruction of Force K on a minefield north of Tripoli on 18/19 December 1941. It also describes the strategic situation in the Mediterranean, and how these actions were linked into events in other parts of this theatre. Appendices describe the warships used and list them, the load of the Beta convoy (better known as Duisburg convoy) which was entirely sunk on 8/9 November, signals from and to HMS Penelope sent during the fateful night of 18/19 December, and an interesting list of gunnery effects during the Duisburg convoy battle. An index is also included, which is a great help. The numerous pictures and maps selected for inclusion are not only helping understanding the events, but add life to the book as a whole.

The authors have obviously gone to great lengths to research this short but important section of Malta’s history in the Mediterranean war, looking both at unit records on the Royal Navy side, and the official history of the Italian navy. While there are minor niggles (e.g. the consistent misspelling of the Duisburg as Duisberg), and some typos and date errors, I think this book shows clearly that history books do not need to be dry, heavy tomes that can double as weights in a fitness programme or door stops. It is packed with information, yet readable. At just 120 pages in a pocket-book format, this book contains all one might want to know about the actions of Malta-based strike forces in 1941. With one clear exception however – the book does not discuss the role of ULTRA intelligence in the actions of the Royal Navy forces. But this is clearly not the fault of the authors, who researched, wrote and published in 1974 before the role of ULTRA in the Mediterranean became known. For those interested in this aspect, I can only recommend Santoni’s “Il vero Tradittore”, or as a second-best for this specific aspect, Hinsley’s official history of British intelligence, Vol. II.

A particularly welcome aspect of this book is the positive and respectful attitude the authors show towards the performance of the Regia Marina, the Royal Navy of Italy, which has been slandered far too often in the memoirs and papers particularly by German officers. The brave and determined actions of commanders and ships companies, such as Capitano di Fregata Mimbelli of the Lupo and Capitano di Fregata dell’Anno of the Antonio da Mosto, both of whom conducted hopeless defenses of their charges in the face of a vastly superior force in November and December 1941, or of the destroyer Luca Tarigo, which sank the destroyer HMS Mohawk with a torpedo fired by a junior officer while she herself was disabled and on fire, are recorded in detail, and with the respect they deserve. Reading this book it is clear that the Regia Marina was no push-over, and that the successes in the Mediterranean had to be fought for by the Royal Navy, and did not come for free.

I do not think that any serious student of the sea war in the Mediterranean can do without this book, and those looking at the land war in North Africa should also get themselves a copy. I would hope that Mr. Smith would find the time to update the book, or maybe expand it to include the role of the British submarines, and the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force units operating from Malta.

This review refers to the 1974 Ian Allan hardcover edition, published in the Sea Battles in Close-Up series as Vol. 11

Large Naval Unit Losses and Damage

A number of large naval units on both sides in the Mediterranean were either lost or severely damaged during the timeframe of the Crusader battle. I believe this list is complete, but if not, corrections are welcome. Small units and subs to follow. Sources are varied, include Italian Navy, Regiamarina.net, official histories, etc.

Italian

Battleships

* Vittorio Veneto (damaged, submarine torpedo, 14 Dec 41)

Heavy Cruisers

* Trieste (damaged, submarine torpedo, 22 Nov 41)

Light Cruisers

* Duca degli Abruzzi (damaged, aerial torpedo, 22 Nov 41)
* Alberto di Giussano (lost, surface encounter, 13 December 41)
* Alberico da Barbiano (lost, surface encounter, 13 December 41)

British

Aircraft carriers

* Ark Royal (lost, submarine torpedo, 13 Nov 41)

Battleships

* Barham (lost, submarine torpedo, 25 Nov 41)
* Valiant (damaged, frogmen attack, 19 Dec 41)
* Queen Elizabeth (damaged, frogmen attack, 19 Dec 41)

Light cruisers

* Neptune (lost, mines, 18 Dec 41)
* Galatea (lost, sub torpedo, 15 Dec 41)
* Aurora (damaged, mines, 18 Dec 41)

The multinational battle

Crusader was unusual in that it brought together a vast number of nationalities in a battle where almost none of them had anything to do with the place they fought over in the first instance. A total of three nationalities on the Axis side, and another 10 on the Allied side.

If anybody has further info on No. 272 Squadron (Blenheims) which seems to have contained a good number of Belgiums, please email me.

On the Axis side:

Ground Forces
Germans (15th, 21st Panzer, Div. z.b.V. Afrika/90th Light)
Italians (Armoured Div. Ariete, Mot. Div. Trieste, Trento, Inf. Div. Bologna, Brescia, Pavia, Sabratha, Savona)
Libyans (native troops, auxiliaries)

Air Forces
German
Italian

Naval Units
Italian
German (submarines, MFP lighters)


On the Commonwealth side
(counting formations at least battalion size or large naval units from destroyer or up or air units from Squadron up):

Divisions:
British (1st and 7th Armoured, 70th Infantry)
Indian (4th Infantry)
South African (1st and 2nd Infantry)
New Zealand (Infantry)

Brigades:
British (22nd Guards, 1st and 32nd Army Tank)
Polish (Carpathian Brigade)
Free French (Groupe Larminat – official name apparently Corps Francais du Western Desert) involved in the end of the siege of Halfaya

Battalions:
Australian (2/13)
Czechoslovak (under command of the Polish Brigade)

Air Squadrons:
British (various)
South African (various)
Rhodesian (No. 237 Squadron, engaged in tactical recce)
French (Groupe de Bombardement ‘Lorraine’ from the start and later Groupe de Chasse Alsace)
Greek No.335
Australian (No. 450 Army Co-Operation)

Naval Units:

British (various)
Australian (Cruiser HMAS Hobart, Destroyers HMAS Nestor, Nizam, and Napier, Sloops HMAS Parramatta and Yarra)
Dutch (Destroyer HrMS Isaac Sweers, submarines)
Polish (submarine ORP Sokol)
Greek (Destroyer Panther of 1911 vintage, Torpedo-boat Niki of 1906 vintage, and the modern Kondouriotis and maybe Spetsai – ironically, the latter two built to Dardo-class specifications in Italian shipyards in the early 1930s)
South African (22nd and 25th A/S Groups with 7 whalers in total, 166th, 167th M/S groups of converted whalers)

Italian Navy Reports on Surface Engagements with Force K

Italian Navy Reports on Surface Engagements with Force K

This post should be read together with this post showing the action from the Royal Navy’s side, at this link
 
These are translations of reports from the Italian Navy’s official history “La Difesa Del Trafico con L’Africa Settentrionale” (The Defense of the Traffic with North Africa – Volume II), which was published in the early 1960s as part of the 8-volume complete history of the Regia Marina in World War II. The translation was done by me – apologies for the possible errors. My Italian is far from perfect.
 
Torpedo Boat Lupo 1024x540
Spica-class Torpedo Boat Lupo, May 1941, on entering Taranto after her night action off Crete. USMM.
1. Report by the Head of Escort Section Procida and Maritza convoy, Commander (Capitano di Fregata) Francesco Mimbelli

Extract from the report of Captain of Frigate Mimbelli regarding the engagement of Destroyer Escort Lupo on 24 November 1941

Omitted

b) The fire of the two Destroyer Escorts, considering the particularly difficult conditions under which it was conducted (frequent change of approach to avoid bracketing by the enemy; reduced visibility by smoke-screen; impossibility for Lupo to measure range etc.etc.), had a fairly satisfying result. As was already told, an Arethusa class cruiser was hit once or twice by Lupo. Previously, this same cruiser had already been hit by Cassiopea shortly before. In total 304 rounds of 100/47 [main armament of the torpedo boats] were expended: 116 by Lupo and 188 by Cassiopea. Perfect in every regard the performance of the munitions and guns: not one dud round. Less well however was the performance of the smoke generators on the two Destroyer Escorts, which generated smoke alright, but not of the density and opaqueness that could have been wished for.

c) After sighting, the enemy tried to disturb our radio communications on the naval frequency (m.55) by emitting a constant signal for several minutes. This probably aimed to stop or blanket our signal of discovery, and to prevent indirectly the assembly of naval or air forces in our support. Despite the efforts by the enemy, our signal of discovery was promptly received by the radio station of Naval Command South East.

d) The tactical conduct of combat by the English was in my view based on not running risks. Instead of aiming for the complete destruction of the enemy forces, which would not have been difficult to achieve given the great disparity in forces and the measurable distance in speed, they contented themselves with only sinking the steamers in the care of the Destroyer Escorts, in a way that could not cause significant damage to their own units The enemy destroyers remained all the time rigidly close to the cruisers and did never attempt a gamble, even though their higher speed would have allowed them to. When the two Destroyer Escorts had to leave the field of action, they renounced to pursue, or at the least pursue as far as possible. The fire of the English was as always heavy, but I can not say I was favourably impressed by the precision and the speed. It must of course be said that a Destroyer Escort taking high-speed evasive actions is anything but a simple target.

e) For the part concerning the conduct of the action on our side, I maybe allowed to observe that I missed the information from aerial reconnaissance about the approach of the enemy forces. If I had known of the approach of the English division towards me just a few hours before, I could most likely have evaded contact until sunset, and then return quickly to the Morea coast. When sighting the enemy forces I quickly understood that the steamers were practically condemned: we missed two hours to sunset; there was no support group nearby; the coast was too far. Only one hope remained for me: that of an intervention by German bombers. It was above all that hope which made me look for delaying, for as long as possible, the approach march of the enemy units and the destructive effect of their fire on the steamers. I had to renounce twice to conduct the attack to the finish with Lupo because the enemy, free of any restriction to maneuver, by turning bow to me, immediately conducted the counter-maneuver that is at the same time easiest and most effective. When at 16.30 hours I saw that nothing could be done to rescue the Maritza and the Procida, and that remaining close to them would lead only to the loss of the two Destroyer Escorts, I decided to abandon the two steamers with their precious cargo and their brave crews. Never before have I had to take such a painful decision which is in such contrast, at least apparently, to that which should be the creed of every torpedo commander: aggressiveness. I had to shut up the sentiment and obey the cold reasoning which ordered me to save Lupo and Cassiopea for other endeavours.

CHIEF OF THE SQUADRON

Commander FRANCESCO MIMBELLI

 

Francesco mimbelli e48f4499 fa5f 44b0 910b d6d412427b9 resize 750

Commander (later Admiral) Francesco Maria Mimbelli, MOVM. USMM

Commander Mimbelli survived the war, and rose to the rank of Admiral, ultimately (in a supremely ironic twist) becoming the Italian representative of the NATO forces in the Mediterranean, based in Malta. In 1961 he took command of the Italian fleet for one year, before retiring due to illness. In 1993 the Italian navy named a guided missile destroyer after him.

Mimbelli D561

The Italian guided-missile destroyer Francesco Mimbell (D 561) at La Valletta, Malta.

2. Exchange of letters between Supermarina and Naval Command Trapani on the loss of tanker Iridio Montavani

COMMAND OF NAVAL BASE TRAPANI

Trapani, 21 December 1941/XX Office O.A.

SUPERMARINA SECRET – RESERVED – PERSONAL

Re: Mission report escort battle with enemy and sinking of Royal Destroyer Da Mosto

In conjunction with dispatch no. 28861 dated 16th of the current month relating to the same affair.

While returning the mission report of the commander of Royal destroyer Da Mosto I would like to allow myself to present the following:
The losses we have suffered in the channel of Sicily in the last six month because of increased activity of enemy air forces are in my view due to imperfect air-sea co-operation. Leaving aside the reasons why this co-operation has thus far not been effective, it is a fact that the convoys, in particular those of one or two units with a naval escort, do not have aerial escorts for the whole daylight time, or don’t have it at all. This allows enemy air reconnaissance a lot of liberty and following that deadly attacks. It can also be observed that often the attacks happen when fighters are absent. Reiterating that the convoys, against which Malta is an effective air base, which can be seen at the moment, should not venture south of Pantelleria without aerial escort during the day, and can therefore not leave the final port of call in Italy before that escort is available and assured. 1. In the case we are looking at here, the attack at 13.00 hours, the fighters which were present from 10.40 hours, did not intervene. In the second attack at 16.50 hours, with the aerial escort absent, the attack could develop with only board weapons against it. 2. Finally the sighting of the two cruisers and the accompanying destroyer occurred just when, by fatal coincidence, the Da Mosto expected the Malocello and the Prestinari. Even this uncertainty could have been avoided had the aerial reconnaissance worked, and rapidly signaled the discovery. This would have allowed Da Mosto to be informed of the presence of enemy warships, and enabled her to make for Tripoli, only 60 miles away, avoiding a day-time battle without hope of success while having shipwrecked on board. Because of the situation created by the uncertainty, a retreat would almost certainly not have allowed to prevent the destruction of Da Mosto by the enemy force, and her commander therefore decided to take on the battle, leading his ship with determination and bold daring to her glorious end.

ADMIRAL OF DIVISION

Commander of the Naval Station

LUIGI NOTARBARTOLO

SUPERMARINA TO NAVAL STATION TRAPANI

Re: Mission report escort battle with enemy and sinking of Royal Destroyer Da Mosto

SECRET – RESERVED – PERSONAL

Referring to sheet 3/1716 S.R.P. dated 21 December 1941 – XX

Regarding the aerial escort of the Da Mosto convoy, this was assured for the whole duration of daylight. During the first attack of 13.00 hours the fighters, while present, did not intervene because they were not aware of the presence of enemy aircraft. While this is inconvenient, this has already been verified on other occasions, and continues to be verified until it is possible to have an adequate system of communication between ships and planes, since the visibility from the planes is limited, and the first spotting is always effected by the naval unit. During the second attack at 16.50 hours the fighters, while in flight, were not in the sky above the ships because the attacks happened during the change of escort, when the first patrol, at the limit of fuel, had turned away to return to base, while the second patrol had not yet arrived above the convoy.

CHIEF OF THE GENERAL STAFF