Air Transport to North Africa

Crusader and the associated naval activity by the Commonwealth led to a severe supply crisis for the Axis forces.  This is reflected in the sudden increase in air-transported materials and men throughout the months of October to December.

The data below comes from Santoro again, L’Aeronautica Italiana Nella II Guerra Mondiale, p. 130


Men 9,032

Material 321 tons


Men 3,728

Material 234 tons


Men 1,170

Material 836 tons

The numbers indicate that 79% of personnel and 68% of material flown in between February and December 1941 were flown in during the fourth quarter, with December alone accounting for 38% of the material flown in during the year from February. I suspect a lot of the supply was either fuel, or specialty ammunition of which the Axis forces were running low.

While the numbers are low, compared to total needs of Panzerarmee Afrika, one needs to keep in mind that seaborne supply had collapsed in late November and December except for emergency runs of naval units, and that these had very low capacity.  For example, when the large ocean-going submarine Carraciolo was sunk by HMS Upholder off Sicily in early January, she carried only about 160 tons of supplies on board.

Italian air force frontline strength throughout Crusader

The following information is similar to that provided for the German side in this post and is based on Santoro’s not particularly satisfying L’Aeronautica Italiana Nella II Guerra Mondiale published in the 1950s. Unfortunately the Aeronautica Militare Italiana’s historical office is busy churning out pretty coloured books with aircraft drawings instead of getting on with a proper operational study of the Regia Aeronautica in World War II. But hey, a man’s gotta work with what he has got, so here it goes.

At the end of the 1941 section of this book, Santoro has inserted some data which is very interesting.  Unfortunately he does not provide loss data for the period by month, but only in total between 7 February and 31 December, so I won’t bother with that here.  For the table below, which shows average effective (serviceable) frontline strength, I have included September as starting date since it was fully outside the Crusader air offensive.

The list is quite interesting, in that it gives a nice overview of the high variety of types present with the Regia Aeronautica, and the relative weight.  It is also interesting to note that average frontline strength did not drop very much in November compared to October, but crashed in December. This was probably related to the loss of landing grounds east of El Agheila.

Of particular interest is the reduction of 50% of the availability of G.50 fighter planes, indicating either a withdrawal (which I think unlikely), or the complete inferiority of the type (which I think is more likely) and high losses in escort and ground attack operations.  On the other hand, the introduction of the very fine M.C.202 in November must have come as a shock to the Commonwealth fighter pilots.

The biplane Cr.42 is quite an interesting one – apparently it was used as escort (which appears madness to me) for Ju 87 dive-bombers (saner explanation – they were coming along as ground attack planes to give the attack more weight), and (far more sensible) for convoys for which it was quite well suited, because of its ability to keep a low speed and the good visibility provided by the open cockpit (thanks to Jonas for those points).

Average Monthly Frontline Strength Sept - Dec 41

Average Monthly Frontline Strength Sept - Dec 41

History of 4th Armoured Brigade

I am not in any way linked to the publisher of this, except that I have in the past made an order with them.  Merriam has for years now provided a very good service to researchers by making available (at low cost) material that otherwise would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to get, and require mortgaging your house or selling off your first-born to pay for it, such as original unit histories written shortly after the war, or post-war studies done by German generals for the Allies.

Today I came across this one on Google books:

4th Armoured Brigade History – with the chapter on the relief of Tobruk available as a free read.

To order it go here – it is available very cheaply if you are happy with the PDF. If you wanted to purchase the original now, presuming you could find it, it’ll probably set you back by about 100 dollars.

The impact of air operations

The impact of air operations


A discussion on the AHF (linked here) allows us to track individual unit strength of Luftwaffe (GAF) units during the campaign.  This is based on three snapshots, on 11 October (before Coningham’s air campaign in support of Crusader started), on 27 November (from an ULTRA intercept, after more than a week of operations), and on 27 December, after the retreat from Tobruk and the fall of Benghazi.


German Ju 87 Stukas being readied for an operation, date, location, and unit unknown. Probably early 1941. Collection.


There are some important observations to be made.  First of all, despite a major effort by the Allies, neither availability nor serviciability of the major types dropped significantly (with the exception of the Ju 88).  This is likely because of a major effort in reinforcement, bringing in additional flights and squadrons, especially of dive bombers and destroyers. For the Italian air force, I have some data, which will be posted in a separate post.

On 27 December the longer range strike planes had disappeared – this is a reflection of the fuel situation and the retreat, which made it pointless to keep planes based in North Africa that could operate towards key targets such as Tobruk from Greece and Crete. It also reflected the difficulty of keeping the strike force operational in a remote theatre.

It is very interesting to see the effect of reinforcement on the destroyer availability.  This is likely because these planes were used to protect convoys against air- and/or seaborne attack (with mixed results, one might add). 


Overall these numbers tell an interesting story, but it may not be the one usually told. What they miss are the temporary reinforcements that came and went in the period. While the initial reaction by the Luftwaffe was to immediately reinforce North Africa with large numbers of all types of planes, within two weeks it had become clear that the fuel and overall supply situation did not allow this reinforced contingent to be maintained, and many of the planes were withdrawn again to Italy or Greece. Ju 88 could more easily strike targets operating from their base in Tatoi, Athens, with Heraklion on Crete as a jumping off point for refueling, while fighters were needed to escort the strike forces attacking Malta from Sicily.

Unit Overview

The list is by unit, with the first number indicating planes present with the unit, and the second serviceable.

Tactical Reconnaissance

2. (H) 14 (specialised short-range reconnaissance)

  • 11 Oct 21/6 Bf 110C-4 and Hs 126
  • 27 Nov (data not available due to communications breakdown)
  • 27 December 20/12 Bf 110C-4 and Hs 126

Single-Engine Fighters

I./JG 27 (single-engined fighters)

  • 11 Oct 31/17 Bf 109E-7 Trop (about to be phased out)
  • 27 Nov unchanged from day before (which is not available)
  • 27 December 24/10 Bf 109F-4 (these were a substantial upgrade in terms of capability)

II./JG 27 (single-engined fighters) minus 6./JG27

  • 11 Oct 28/13 Bf 109F-4 Trop
  • 27 Nov 19/12 Bf 109 F-4 Trop
  • 27 December 24/10 Bf 109F-4 Trop

Heavy Fighters

Staff ZG 26 (twin-engined destroyers)

  • 11 Oct (unit was not in theatre)
  • 27 Nov 2/2 Bf 110C
  • 27 December (unit was not in theatre)

7./ZG 26 (twin-engined destroyers)

  • 11 Oct (unit was not in theatre)
  • 27 Nov 9/8 Bf 110C
  • 27 December (unit was not in theatre)

8./ZG 26 (twin-engined destroyers)

  • 11 Oct 12/8 Bf 110D-3
  • 27 Nov 7/5 Bf 110C
  • 27 December (not available, unit may have been withdrawn at this point)

9./ZG 26 (twin-engined destroyers)

  • 11 Oct (not available – unit may not have been in theatre)
  • 27 Nov 5/4 Bf 110 C
  • 27 December (unit was not in theatre)

Medium Bombers

III./LG 1 (twin-engined medium bombers )

  • 11 Oct 31/15 Ju 88 A-4 Trop
  • 27 Nov 27/2 Ju 88 (with 3 more aircraft in Derna after diverting)
  • 27 December (not available – unit withdrawn from theatre)

Dive Bombers

I./StG 1 (single-engined Stukas)

  • 11 Oct 39/26 Ju 87 B-1
  • 27 Nov 27/18 Ju 87 + 1 Cant. 445
  • 27 December 32/17 Ju 87 B-1

II./StG 1 (single-engined Stukas)

  • 11 Oct 31/26 Ju 87 B-1
  • 27 Nov 26/17 Ju 87 R-2/4
  • 27 December  (not available – unit may not have been in theatre)

Staff StG 3 (single-engined Stukas)

  • 11 Oct 7/2 Ju 87 B-1 and He 111 (twin-engined medium bomber acting as courier plane)
  • 27 Nov 3/? Ju 87 R2/4 + 3/? Bf 110C + 4/? He 111 H5/6 + 1/? Bf 108 (liaison)
  • 27 December  9/5 Ju 87 B-1 and He 111 

I./StG 3 (single-engined Stukas)

  • 11 Oct (not available – unit was not in theatre)
  • 27 Nov 26/23 Ju 87 R2/4
  • 27 December 30/18 Ju 87


Additional information for 27 November:


10 KG zbV 1 (Transport)

  • Ju 52 12/0 with 4 aircraft on operations

Liaison Flight JG27(?)

  • No information

Staff flight Fliegerführer

  • Me 110C 1/0


  • Ju 52 1/0
  • C 445 9/0
  • FH 104 1/0
  • Me 108 1/0
  • Fi 156 1/0

Desert Rescue Squadron

  • Fi 156 8/4 of which 1 in Benina, 3 in Derna

Tabular Overview

The table below is based on the numbers above, but is not 100% accurate.  I calculated this myself. Note that the 27 November number for the Bf 109 type is understating the issue, since the data was missing from the ULTRA intercept. Also note that qualitatively the Bf 109 underwent an improvement during the battle, with the I./JG27 reporting 31 ‘Emils’, an earlier type of the Bf109, while by 27 December they reported 24 BF 109F, a much improved type, which was superior to anything the Commonwealth forces fielded in the North African theatre at the time. This of course depends on the 11 October type info being correct, something which I am having serious doubts about (it is apparently from RIng & Shore “Fighters over the Desert”.


Availability chart for major types in Africa during Crusader

Availability chart for major types in Africa during Crusader.