Divisione Motorizzata “Trieste” – before and after CRUSADER

In a previous post linked here, I have added information comparing Italian divisional strength after the CRUSADER battle, comparing it to the authorised strengths of the division.  I recently received Salvatore Loi’s book Aggredisci e Vincerai, the history of the Trieste division.  Most of it is focussed on 1942/43, but there is some good information about the division’s role in CRUSADER in there.  Here I want to use this information to show what the impact of the losses was, by showing the structural change of the division following the battle.

But first a bit of background on the division. It arrived on the big liner convoys in August and September, and suffered 450 killed when Gritti, Oceania and Neptunia were sunk. Loi states that the CO of IX Gruppo of 21 Artigliera died when the latter two were sunk by HMS Upholder. Montanari, the official Italian historian of the war in North Africa, puts the division was around Homs in early September. On 25 October small elements of the division already undertook recce towards Segnali and Mechili. On 8 November the division was in the sector Bir Hakeim-Bel Harmat-Mteifel el Chebir. There is an interesting diary entry at this link from a subaltern in 66 Reggimento Fanteria. The officer writing the diary was posted missing after CRUSADER, he is in the 66 Fanteria casualty list in Loi.

Based on the information in the earlier post, I am presuming Trieste lost about 4,000 men.  It is the nature of losses in battle that they fall largely on the infantry, meaning that while the division as a whole may ‘only’ have lost 22%, the effect at the sharp end is likely to be far more pronounced, and this is shown when looking at the structural change of the division after the battle.  In the case of the Trieste division, it started the battle with 7 infantry battalions and 4 battalions of AA/AT (armi di accompagnamento), and ended it with 6 infantry battalions and 0 AA/AT battalions, a 45% drop in frontline strength. Furthermore, the two infantry regiments went from three companies of 81mm mortars to one per regiment, severely reducing their firepower. The regiment most involved in the fighting, the 9th Bersaglieri lost two battalions, one infantry and its AA/AT battalion.  In the process of the battle, the two infantry regiments lost their regimental mixed AT/AA battalions (my guess is that the guys in these battalions were used to make up numbers in the remaining two infantry battalions), and the divisional AT/AA battalion was also dissolved to provide reinforcements at the end of January.

OOB 101st Motorised Infantry Division Trieste September 1941

Staff

65th Infantry Regiment

2x infantry battalion

1x AA/AT battalion

Motorised transport column

66th Infantry Regiment (as 65th)

9th Bersaglieri Motorcycle Regiment

3x Bersaglieri battalion

1x Bersaglieri AA/AT battalion*

Medical Section

508th AA/AT Battalion (undergoing re-establishment – the battalion may have been disorganised because of losses suffered in transit)

21st Artillery Regiment

4x artillery battalion

1x AA battalion

52nd mixed engineer battalion

90th Medical Section (incomplete – might have suffered losses on transfer to Africa)

176th Supply Section

80th Motorised transport column

This changed as below by the end of the battle:

OOB 101st Motorised Infantry Division Trieste January 1942

Staff

65th Infantry Regiment

2x infantry battalion

1x 81mm mortar company

66th Infantry Regiment (as 65th)

9th Bersaglieri Motorcycle Regiment

2x Bersaglieri battalion (the AA/AT battalion was dissolved at the end of January to bring the rifle battalions up to strength)

508th AA/AT Battalion (dissolved on 22 January with remaining men going to the 65th regiment and the 251st independent gun company)

21st Artillery Regiment

52nd mixed engineer battalion

90th Medical Section (incomplete – might have suffered losses on transfer to Africa)

176th Supply Section

80th Motorised transport column

*According to a contemporary source provided by Michele, the  “Battaglione di armi anticarro e di accompagnamento” (=”antitank weapons and support weapons batalion”) in theory had a contingent of about 600 men, and consisted of:

– 1 HQ-platoon
– 1 AA company (20 mm)
– 1 towed AT company (47mm)
– 1 mortar company (81 mm)
– 1 MG company (probably Breda MGs on tripods)

Source: “Nozioni di organica per i corsi allievi ufficiali di complemento”, S.M.R.E., Roma, Luglio 1941-XIX, page 50.

Regia Aeronautica fighter planes during CRUSADER

I have previously posted about the Italian air force’s frontline strength during CRUSADER, in this post. Today I would like to add a bit about the types of fighter planes used by the Italian air force, how they compared to the Commonwealth planes they were fighting, and how they were used.

Italian fighters were all built for high maneuvrability at the expense of speed, but the pre-war designs all suffered from having weak engines, and lacked sufficient armament. Although in fairness, by early war standards the armament was probably considered sufficient, and the destructive power of the two 12.7mm MGs fitted should compare favourably with that of British fighter armament of the time.  By the time of CRUSADER one modern type had been fielded, the Macchi Mc. 202, which used a modern German engine, and therefore could stand up in performance to anything the Commonwealth could fly against it. But it was still undergunned.

Fiat CR.42 Falco (Falcon)

A bi-plane fighter designed as successor to the Cr.32 in the late 1930s and first taking to air in 1938.  While the epitome of bi-plane fighter design (and an aerobatic gem in the view of a British test-pilot who flew the captured one pictured below), by the start of World War 2 it was considered obsolete, yet soldiered on until the end of the war.  It was used for close escort of bombers (where I presume its maneuverability would make up at least somewhat for its lack of speed), near-shore escort of shipping, and ground attack. Because it continued serving for so long in an air war for which it was clearly not built, it has attracted a good amount of attention from airplane enthusiasts, and here is another article about it. The picture below shows the Fiat Cr.42 that made a forced landing at the beach of Orfordness during the Battle of Britain.  A wartime picture showing the same plane with RAF markings can be seen at this link.

From Hakan’s blog entry here, it also appears that a Cr.42 pilot, of a machine flying in German colours, fielded what must be the final claim of an air kill by a biplane, on 8 February 1945, with the claim being a USAAF P-38 Lightning. I am usually very skeptical about claims, but this one could well have some validity to it.

 

Fiat Cr. 42 at RAF Museum Hendon - from Wikimedia Commons

Fiat Cr. 42 at RAF Museum Hendon - from Wikimedia Commons

Fiat G.50 Freccia (Arrow)

The first monoplane retractable wheels fighter to enter service with the Regia Aeronautica in 1938.  It was, as all Italian fighters of the period, underpowered and undergunned.  By the time of CRUSADER an improved version had been fielded which became the main production version. The G.50 was probably used a lot in the ground attack role during CRUSADER, and  with the Cr.42 it formed the mainstay of the Regia Aeronautica’s fighter force in North Africa during the battle.

 

Fiat G.50 Freccia captured by Commonwealth forces in North Africa

Damaged Fiat G.50 Freccia captured by Commonwealth forces in North Africa - from Wikimedia Commons

 

A Fiat G.50 in flight, 1941 - courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Bundesarchiv project

Macchi Mc. 200 Saetta (Lightning)

Similar in looks to the G.50, this plane was designed around the same time, but entered service about 2 years later in 1940, due to necessary re-designs relating to aeronautic instability. It utilised the same engine and followed the same armament philosophy, with predictable consequences. It was produced in considerable numbers, but only few were in North Africa during the CRUSADER period.

 

Picture from Wikimedia Commons, taken by the observer of a SM.79

Picture from Wikimedia Commons, taken by the observer of a SM.79, maybe during a mission to Malta or Tobruk

Macchi Mc. 202 Folgore (also Lightning, indicating the close relationship of the two, maybe?)

This was the first truly modern fighter to be built in Italy for a number of years, and it was built by a simple solution, marrying the high-performance German DB601A aeroengine with the aeronautically well-developed frame of the Mc.200.  The result was a good-looking, fast, and highly maneuverable plane that was at least the equal, but probably superior to anything the Commonwealth was flying in North Africa at the time of CRUSADER. It entered service in summer 1941, and arrived in North Africa in November, during the CRUSADER battle. Commonwealth pilots seem to often have mistaken the Mc.202 for German Bf109, since they were used to Italian fighters with radial engines. It was also the first Italian fighter with a fully enclosed cockpit.

 

From Wikimedia - Mc.202, one of two left in the world

From Wikimedia - Mc.202, one of two left in the world

The following links will lead you to the PDFs of pages of a Flight Magazine article from 1940 introducing the Italian fighter planes:

http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1940/1940%20-%201827.html

http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1940/1940%20-%201828.html

http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1940/1940%20-%201829.html

http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1940/1940%20-%201830.html

http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1940/1940%20-%201833.html

Another article at the link below discusses the Mc. 202. While the comparison to a 1943 Spitfire is probably unfavourable for the Macchi, I think the Commonwealth pilots in their Hurricanes and Tomahawks in late 1941 would have taken a less sober view, even though, as the picture at this link shows, the Mc.202 was hardly invincible:

http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1943/1943%20-%200034.html

Happy reading!

Finding your way around the battlefield – German style

Michael Dorosh kindly provided (for my old website on counterbattery) the following information from the Canadian Army Training Memorandum No. 24, March 1943, which came as a welcome piece of information to me, since I understood the theatre grid system of the Commonwealth armies, but had never even thought about how the Germans did it.  Turns out they used a Stosslinie, thrust line (or point), drawn on a map.  This is a variant of the offset method, in which a location is expressed by giving the distance to two edges of the map – except that the distance is given in relation to a randomly chosen line on the map.

The differences in locating units on the map were quite astounding to me, and I originally wondered why the Germans ever came up with such an unwieldy system.  But I guess that in application it is not actually unwieldy, and it has the advantage to add to secrecy. While David Irving claims that Rommel invented this system to help his tanks advance in France, I simply doubt that this is true (David Irving making things up?), since it appears to be a universally used system in the Wehrmacht.

In North Africa, the thrust line was determined by Panzergruppe HQ during CRUSADER, and my guess is that this did not change when the HQ was upgraded to army status.  I believe that in other theatres thrust lines were determined by Corps HQs (a Panzergruppe was equal in status to a Corps HQ), but I am not certain about this.   During CRUSADER I have come across two changes of Panzergruppe’s thrust line, but there may have been more. There is also a good discussion on the system at this link.

So, in the German system, a unit would report something like this, and the note below explains it:

Following executed relief CAM* assembled, with Ariete in area around 48.5 left 4.5, with Trieste around 48.5 left 5.5. CP CAM from 17 January 10h00 48.5 left 5.

The header carried by the document is preserved in this post. The Allied armies put out this kind of information to inform their soldiers about the capabilities of the German forces. The most famous of these may well be the manual to the 8,8cm AA gun published by the US Army. A lot of these information leaflets are published at the excellent Lone Sentry website.

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED
The information contained in this document is not to be communicated, either directly or indirectly, to the Press or to any person not holding an official position in His Majesty’s Service. **

THE GERMAN MAP REFERENCE

1. The Germans have a map reference system which they call “stosslinie”, which means “thrust point.” A line is drawn on a map. Theoretically, it may run in any direction, but in practice it is found to run either in the direction of the German intended advance or down the axis of a reconnaissance unit.
2. The line begins at a fixed point and continues indefinitely in the required directions. For convenience it is usually divided into centimeters. To give a map reference, a perpendicular is dropped from the reference point to the thrust line. Measurements are then given from the starting point of the line to the point where the perpendicular cuts the thrust line; then along the perpendicular to the reference point. Since the point may lie on either side of the thrust line, the second figure has to be prefaced by either right or left as one looks toward the enemy.
3. A typical reference would be 12 right 3.5. The figures always are centimeters; therefore, the actual distance on the ground represented by each unit will NOT always be the same but will vary according to the scale of the map.
4. In order to make the code more secure, the following variations may occur:

1. The scale may start with an arbitrary figure; that is, the starting point may be called sixty instead of zero; so that our map reference would read 72 right 3.5.
2. Dummy figures are often used. By previous arrangement, it is agreed that the first, third and fifth figure of any map reference will be dummies. The above map reference, for instance, might be given as 87329 right 83359.
3. Finally when more than one thrust line is being used, perhaps by a Corps or Army, they are numbered and map references begin with the number of the thrust line.

5. Instruments have been found that consists of a rule in translucent material graduated in millimeters, with a shorter ruler similarly graduated, fixed at right angles which slides up and down on the larger ruler.
6. Operators with practice can give references very quickly.

The US Army also issued an explanation of the system to its soldiers.

Excerpt from chapter 14 of Artillery in the Desert”, Military Intelligence Service, Special Series No. 6, November 1942:

One of the most interesting methods of enabling map references to be sent in the clear with security is the “thrust line” method used by the Germans. (This method is similar to the code described in FM 18-5, “Organization and Tactics of Tank Destroyer Units,” June 16, 1942, paragraph 231 b (2) (e).) It consists of a line drawn upon a map which theoretically may run in any direction but which actually usually extends in the proposed direction of advance or down the axis of a reconnaissance unit.

The line, which begins at a fixed point and continues indefinitely in the required direction, is usually divided into centimeters for convenience. To give a map reference, a perpendicular is dropped from the reference point to the thrust line. Measurements are then taken from the point of origin to the point where the perpendicular cuts the thrust line, then along the perpendicular to the reference point. Since the point may lie on either side of the thrust line, the second figure must be prefaced by either “right” or “left”, as one looks toward the enemy.

A typical reference would be “6 right 3.” (See fig. 15.) The figures are always in centimeters; therefore, the actual distance on the ground will vary with the scale of the map used. The scale may start with an arbitrary figure, and have dummy figures interspersed, or it may start with the number of the thrust line when there are several in a given area. These devices make the code difficult to break rapidly.

Thrust Point - From www.lonesentry.com

Thrust Point – From http://www.lonesentry.com

Figure 15.–The “thrust line”

Instruments have been found consisting of a transparent ruler graduated in millimeters, with a shorter ruler similarly graduated and fixed to slide up and down at right angles to the longer ruler. Practiced operators can give references very quickly.

The whole document is worth reading, by the way.

Here is an example order fixing a thrust line, which I found in the files of 21st Panzer Division.

stosslinie

Order from Panzergruppe Afrika fixing a Thrust Line

Translation:

Secret Command Affair

German Africa Corps                                       CP, the 16 November 41
Operations Section                                          17 copies
No. 1274/41 secret Command Affair       12th Copy

Re: Thrust Line

To:

Distribution List

For the map Libya 1:400,000, German “preliminary special issue I 1941” (Leaf Bardia), the following thrust line is ordered:
A = 0 = Gr. el Arid (near Trigh Enver Bel, 50km west of Bardia)
B = 15.8 = Gr. el Abd (14km south of Sidi Omar)

For the German Africa Corps

The Chief of the General Staff

An example of a Stosslinie can be found in this post.

Some further info and thoughts

The picture below is from an article (in German only) on the Austrian army website which provides further background into Austrian mapping, and shows how the thrust line looks like, you can open the picture at this link. It is interesting that the Austrian army found the thrust line system insufficient for their needs during the border crisis of 1956 (Hungarian uprising), and switched to a grid system.  My guess is that the thrust line is better suited to mobile operations along a single axis, as opposed to static defense.

The use of a temporary, operation-dependent system is very different from the Commonwealth system, which used a permanent ‘theatre’ grid superimposed on a map of the area of operations, or even wider. The UK National Archives website explains it quite well at this link.  This system had originally developed in World War I (World War I was to the artillery what the French revolution was to politics), and the development during the war to end all wars is very well charted at this link. Locations on the map would be expressed through two numbers with identical but variable length. The longer the number, the more precise the location information. Information on this can be found on Nigel Evan’s site at this link.  This system, or one like it, is now universally used by the western armies at least.

*Corpo Armata di Manovra (Mobile Army Corps, not Mobile Armoured Corps as one reads sometimes!), the later XX Corps in the Italian army, consisting of the Ariete armoured and Trieste motorised divisions and the RECAM reconnaissance detachment.

**Since His Majesty is dead, I guess I have been released from that obligation….

Book Review – “Fighting Flotilla” by Peter C. Smith

Anyone who has looked at previous book reviews knows that I am a great fan of Peter C. Smith’s work. That’s why I bought without hesitation Fighting Flotilla when it was recommended to me in the marvellous naval bookshop Maritime Books in Greenwich. I was not disappointed!

Fighting Flotilla is the very aptly named history of the Royal Navy’s L-Class destroyers and their service in World War II. It does not just address the service however, but also contains a long and involved discussion on the design of the class, the various options that were considered in terms of size, armament and engine power, and the compromises that were made in their design.

The L-class, with its flottilla leader HMS Laforey, comprised eight vessels and I think it would be fair to say the class did not have a good war, since six of them were lost to enemy action, in some cases with heavy loss of life.  Three of them, HMS Lance, Lively and Ghurka, did not even manage a year’s service between their completion and their loss, such was the pressure on the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean at the time. The class is of particular interest to me since two of them, HMS Lance and HMS Lively* were part of Force K throughout the CRUSADER period, while HMS Legion participated in the sinking by 4th Destroyer Flotilla of the two light Italian cruisers di Giussano and da Barbiano and joined Force K afterwards.  It is interesting to note that all threee of these would be lost by April.  HMS Lively sunk by aircraft in the waters between Crete and Tobruk, while HMS Lance and Legion were sunk at their moorings in Grand Harbour in Malta while undergoing repairs, but not before Legion claims to have engaged the Italian battleship Littorio in a gun duel at point blank range (4,400 yards) during the 2nd Battle of Sirte in March 1942 (eyewitness accounts of this action are in the book)!

HMS Lance entering Grand Harbour, La Valetta, Malta - from Wikimedia Commons

HMS Lance entering Grand Harbour, La Valetta, Malta - from Wikimedia Commons

 Now, about the book.  As usual with books by Peter C. Smith, this one is a good mix of document-based research and facts emanating from personal recollections.  The book is basically covering two parts, the development of the class, in the context of the constraints of the Naval Treaties at the time and the threat assessment, followed by the service history of the eight vessels of the class.  This is a good approach for a reader like me, since it gives me the context of how these vessels came to be, and then follows it by the very interesting stories of their lifes and ends.  In doing so the book does not only provide a deep insight into the world of Royal Navy ship procurement towards the very end of the inter-war period (the L-class was built as part of the 1937 Royal Navy estimate), but also provides a good technical overview of the various challenges and trade-offs involved in destroyer design during this period. This was a class that was planned before and built largely during the war, and it underwent many changes while on the stocks because of it, to accommodate experience from the war and the need to get ships out into the sea to fight the Axis. This is why half the class ended up with the advanced, fully enclosed 4.7″ turrets, while the remainder received open 4″ high-angle turrets, which made them very useful as AA defence vessels. The different turrets also had a visual impact – in my opinion the 4″-armed L-class vessels have a far more balanced look to them than the 4.7″-armed.  See e.g. this photo of HMS Lightning  (4.7″) versus this of HMS Legion (4″).

Apart from the information in the text, the book also contains a raft of photographs and diagrams, e.g. cut-away and detailed technical drawings of the design of the two types of main gun turret (4.7″ and 4″) used on the L-class, and the ships as a whole, comparing design and as built.   The selection of photographs indicate that the author spent a lot of time going through the IWM’s photo archive, and some of them seem not to have been reproduced in many places, if at all elsewhere.

The eyewitness accounts of the actions are well placed in the general text, relevant, and add to the depth of the immersion.

Appendices cover the main weapons system, fire control, general fixtures and fittings and the crew compliments in peace and war.  At the end, all the ship’s badges are reproduced, with heraldic information, as well as pendant numbers and the names of commanding officers.  I seriously doubt that there is much else to know about the L-class after the reader finishes this book.

I can only highly recommend this book (like anything by Peter C. Smith, but I think I am repeating myself) to anyone interested in naval actions in the Mediterranean during World War II, or interested in inter-war destroyer design in the Royal Navy.  Unfortunately you’ll have to look for a used copy, since it is currently not in print.

You can also find a detailed account of the life and death of WW2’s HMS Lively at this link. She was the sixteenth and last of the name in the Royal Navy for now at least. I think somebody needs to start a campaign to get that name re-assigned to a vessel.

* HMS Lively has another appeal for me, since she was one of the ships commanded by fictional Royal Navy hero Jack Aubrey. By coincidence, Jack Aubrey’s HMS Lively of 1804, a 28-gun frigate, was in real life also lost while on convoy escort in 1810, wrecked  in the Mediterranean off Malta. 

Italian Naval Vessels in Convoy Escort during CRUSADER

During CRUSADER a range of Italian naval vessels were engaged in protecting traffic across the Mediterranean. The aim of this post is to give a short overview of some selected types were involved and what their capabilities were. The focus is primarily on the smaller escort vessels, but I give some information on the work of the cruisers and battleships as well. One thing that is not well understood is that the Regia Marina made an all-out effort to support the forces in North Africa, even risking battleships in the close escort role.  But all the heroism and dedication of the Italian sailors could not overcome the odds stacked against them by ULTRA interception of their messages, failure to subdue Malta, and a lack of fuel hampering operations throughout.

One area that took me by surprise was how advanced the Regia Marina was compared to the Royal Navy in the area of anti-aircraft (AA) defense of its vessels.  All the small units had multiple light AA guns and AA MGs from 1936 onwards, maybe because of the experience made during the Spanish civil war.  By comparison, even British destroyers planned in the late 1930s had weak close-in AA armament, consisting of a single 4-barrel Pompom gun and a single high-angle gun, but their main armament was able to fire at high angles for AA defense, even though the 4.7″ gun on the L-class was not able to fire at very high elevations above 50 degrees. It appears from this site with information on the Italian 120mm and 100mm destroyer/torpedo boat guns, that these were not able to fire at very high elevations, which made them less useful for AA work.  I suspect a difference in design philosophy here, but would welcome comments on this. It is interesting to note that both navies significantly increased close-in AA capabilities after the start of the war.

In terms of their main armament, the Italian destroyers went for a higher number of guns (six versus four)  than the Royal Navy did at the time, maybe because of their proposed role of chasing around the much more heavily armed French ‘super’-destroyers of the Chacal and Guepard classes (5x 130mm and 5x 138mm, respectively)  which came into service at the same time as the Navigatoris.   But the arrangement in a twin-turret seems not to have been ideal, especially since the Italian 120mm used 2-piece ammunition, while the British guns were QF type with single-piece ammunition. This is easier to handle, and makes a significant difference in rate of fire, especially on smaller vessels subject to being affected significantly by swell.

Spica-class Torpedo Boats (Italian description here)

This was a large class of small escort vessels built from the mid-1930s onwards which served prominently on the convoy route, typical workhorses of any navy, doing lots of the dreary work and being recognised very little for it. They were produced in four sub-classes: Spica (2 vessels, sold to Sweden in 1940 and endearingly named Romulus and Remus); Climene (8); Perseo (8); and Alcione (17).  Their standard displacement was of 650-680 tons, with full load displacement of 1,100 – 1,200 tons, and a crew of 116. Their closest equivalent in the Royal Navy in terms of their role would probably be the Hunt-class destroyer escorts even though these were slightly larger and better armed.  The Spica’s main armament consisted of 3x100mm guns (one forward, two aft), plus AA guns, torpedoes and depth charges. Later in the war they shipped very considerable AA protection. They also had the ability to lay up to 20 mines. Like all Italian vessels, they were built for a relatively high top speed of 34 knots (compare that to the 27 knots of the Hunts).

Notable events with these vessels during CRUSADER include the sinking of the German steamers Maritza and Procida on 24 November, who were escorted by Lupo (under the command of the famous Commander Mimbelli) and Cassiopeia, which engaged in a firefight with the far superior Royal Navy Force K but failed to safe their charges from destruction.  On 11 December Alcione was damaged so severly by torpedoes from HM Submarine Truant off Crete that she had to be beached and was declared a total loss (you can see a picture of Alcione being hit at this link). By the time of CRUSADER these units or at least some of them may have received German active sonar.

Orsa-class Torpedo Boats (Italian description here)

A class of four based on the Spica-class and with a difference in armament. The Orsas lost one of the 100mm guns and made up for this with enhanced anti-submarine capability (four launchers instead of two) and endurance.  Their initial AA armament was weak, with only 4x 13.2mm HMGs, and they carried four torpedo launchers.  The Orsas displaced 1,016/1,600 tons, had a crew of 154 and a top speed of 28 knots, considerably slower than the Spicas.  They participated in convoy protection throughout CRUSADER, and none were lost during this period. Two of the Orsas were lost in 1943, while the other two served to mid-1960s with the Italian navy. They are significant because they were the first Italian vessels to carry active sonar for submarine hunting.

Orsa Class TB side view - from the Italian Navy Website

Orsa Class TB side view - from the Italian Navy Website

Pegaso, Orsa-class TB - from Italian Navy Website

Pegaso, Orsa-class TB - from Italian Navy Website

Navigatori-class Destroyers (Information in Italian)

These were a class of 12 units of relatively large fleet destroyers (in the Royal Navy terminology) of about 2,400 tons standard and 2,700 tons full displacement, named after famous Italian seamen of the past, the Navigators.  Their crew consisted of 173 officers and sailors.  They were at first called light souts (esploratori leggeri) by the Regia Marina, indicating the role they were supposed to serve in while working with the battle fleet.  While designed for very high speeds of 38 knots (with Antonio Pigafetta reaching 41.6 knots during her trial) they were supposed to be very fast, but after rebuilding in the late 1930s they were apparently reduced to 28 knots (with the exception of two smaller ones, still capable of doing 33 knots),  and relabeled later as destroyers. The rebuilt was necessary because as designed the ships had stability problems, and quite radical measures were taken to (successfully) address this.  My guess is from the rebuilt on they were mostly supposed to work as convoy escorts, since they would have struggled to keep up with most cruisers and battleships of the Regia Marina and the change in armament reflects this as well.  They were originally armed with 6x120mm guns in three twin turrets arranged forward/centre/aft, 2x40mm and 8×13.2mm (in four twin-mounts) for AA defense, 6x torpedo tubes in two sets of three (reduced to 2×2 later) and mine-laying gear with an ability to carry 56 mines. They did not have anti-submarine capabilities at first, but received two depth-charge launchers when they were rebuilt for stability reasons. At the time of their construction they had  a relatively strong armament for destroyers, while the later armament was much more of an alround nature.

Notable events involving Navigatori include the sinking of the large tanker Iridio Mantovani on 1 December. This was escorted by Alvise da Mosto. Its captain, Commander dell’Anno decided to fight it out, and had his ship blow up under him.

 

Side view of a Navigatori - from the Italian navy website

Side view of a Navigatori after rebuilding - from the Italian navy website

 

Alvise da Mosto - from the Italian Navy website

Alvise da Mosto - from the Italian Navy website

Dardo-class (2nd) Destroyers (Information in Italian)

This was the second evolution of the first modern destroyers designed as such after the Great War.  The class consisted of four units, armed with 4x120mm in two turrets, 4x40mm AA guns (WW1 designs by Vickers, later replaced by 8x20mm HMGs) and 6x torpedo tubes in two sets of three (after 1940, but probably not by the time of CRUSADER the aft launcher is replaced with 4x37mm AA guns and 2x depth charge launchers, reflecting the increased emphasis on convoy work and the need to provide more AA protection). They were capable of carrying 60 mines and had a crew of 156 with a displacement of 1,650 standard, 1,920 full load, comparable to the Royal Navy’s L-class designed at the end of the 1930s.  The Dardos had problems with stability and sea-keeping.

The most notable event during the CRUSADER period was the sinking of Fulmine by Force K in the battle of the Beta, aka Duisburg convoy during the night 8/9 November.

Dardo 2nd Class Views - from Italian Navy Website

Dardo 2nd Class Views - from Italian Navy Website

Fulmine - from Italian Navy Website

Fulmine - from Italian Navy Website

Maestrale-class Destroyers (Information in Italian)

Another class of fleet destroyers based on the Dardo class, smaller than the Navigatori and built after them in a class of four units.  They displaced about 2,000 tons standard and 2,250 tons full load. As a consequence had weaker armament, of only 4x12cm in two turrets fore and aft, with 2 torpedo launchers in the centre, and from 1936 had very strong AA armament of 8x20mm MGs and a 37mm gun. They were capable of a high speed of 38 knots as well, and carried a crew of 168. Unlike the Navigatori they were apparently not able to lay mines.  They were not very stable, and one of the class, Scirocco, was lost in a storm at the 2nd battle of Sirte in March 42.

The most notable event during the CRUSADER period is the sinking of Libeccio by HM Submarine Upholder after the battle of the Beta convoy, while she was picking up survivors.

Camicia Nera or Soldati-class Destroyers (1st) (Information in Italian)

These were the most modern of the Italian destroyers, relatively large, well-armed, and fast at 39 knots. They displaced 2,140/2,460 tons, had a crew of 187, carried 6x120mm, 8x20mm, 6x torpedo launchers in two sets of three, and could deploy 52 mines. During CRUSADER their primary role was to act as protection for the heavy cruisers and the battle fleet and they sortied only together with these as far as I know.  None were lost during this battle.

Light Cruisers (Information in Italian)

Three light cruisers figured prominently during CRUSADER.  Cadorna ran petrol across the Mediterranean in December 1941 as part of the emergency programme.  The Condottieris were designed as lightly armoured scout cruisers, sacrificing protection for speed, and their appearance begat a race on the part of the French and British navies to develop powerful destroyers to counter them. But in wartime reality it was difficult to find a role for these cruisers with the battle-fleet, and unlike the Royal Navy the Regia Marina did not have many opportunities to employ light cruisers in what amounted to roving commissions or on small stations, so the Condottieri found themselves used to protect convoy traffic or to undertake emergency deliveries of supplies. They were well armed with 8x152mm and 6x100mm, as well as 16x AA (8x37mm, 8×13.2mm) , 4x torpedo launchers, and carried 2 seaplanes. They displaced 6,571/6,950 tons and were capable of 37 knots on paper (although real speed may have been slower), with a crew of 507.

The most notable events involving Condottieris during CRUSADER occured when Da Barbiano and da Giussano were caught by a group of British and a Netherlands destroyer on the night of 13 December while trying to do the same, and were sunk with heavy loss of life.   The more modern and comparatively well-armoured Condottieri-class Duca degli Abruzzi participated in the escort of the convoy on 19 November, and was torpedoed and damaged by aircraft from Malta.

Heavy Cruisers (Information in Italian)

Heavy cruisers played a role in the Beta convoy operation, with both Trento and Trieste part of the distant escort. They had no effect on the battle.  Not even two weeks later, on 19 November they are at sea again in the same role, together with Gorizia. During this operation, Trieste is torpedoed by HM Submarine Upright and heavily damaged, reaching Messina only with difficulty.   Following damage on another cruiser, Duca degli Abruzzi, by an aerial torpedo attack the convoy is ordered to return to Tarento, after Force K and the British battle fleet from Alexandria are also reported to be at sea.

Battleships

All five operational battleships of the Italian navy participated in convoy protection operations during CRUSADER, and the four of them that remained operational at that date participated in the inconclusive 1st Battle of Sirte. This was an operational success of the Regia Marina however, since the Italian convoy went through unscathed, while the British Malta convoy had to turn back.

Refurbished battleships

Caio Dulio was part of the close escort of M.42.  Both Giulio Cesare and Andrea Doria were part of the distant escort during this operation.

Modern battleships

Vittorio Veneto was part of the distant escort of the M.41 convoy on 14 December, during which it was torpedoed and severely damaged by HM Submarine Urge. This led to the breaking off of the operation and rescheduling as M.42 a few days later.  Littorio then was part of the distant escort for the M.42 convoy.

Transport of Sonderverband 288 to Africa

A unit that has attracted a bit of attention disproportionate to its size is Sonderverband 288 (literally: Special Formation 288).  You can find some more information on this unit here (but be careful, not all of the information at the link is correct).  Elements of the unit were ordered across to North Africa from Greece in November, to be included in an ad-hoc unit called Sperrverband Daumiller (blocking detachment Daumiller, named after its commander, Captain Daumiller).  We meet this unit in the Agheila position at the end of December.

The first transport was by air on 24 November, when 9 Junkers 52 flew a unit of Gebirgsjäger under the command of Hauptmann (Captain) Daumiller to Benghazi, to act there as a blocking detachment. These  were probably initially two platoons of Gebirgsjäger (specialised mountain troops) of a total strength of 90 men, equipped with 25 anti-tank rifles and a ‘plentiful’ supply of ammunition were flown to Africa from Greece in Ju 52. These were the only Gebirgsjäger to serve in Libya throughout the duration of the war 5A regiment of these troops fought in Tunisia in 1943). This transport brought, according to British intelligence, the total of arrivals to 269 men brought in by plane.

By the two torpedo boats (small destroyers, probably Alcione and Lira, the former was sunk on 11 December by HM Submarine Truant near Crete), it was planned that at mid-day 24 November (departure time is my guess), the HQ of the Heavy MG Platoon, two platoons of engineers with blocking material and 12 light flamethrowers would be brought over to Derna.  Also 3 anti-tank rifles, 2 5cm Anti-tank guns, and 3 armoured cars. In total 100 men, 24 vehicles and 12 motor-cycles.  Additionally fuel for the vehicles to cover 1,000 standard kilometres (10 consumption units/Verbrauchssätze), and 3 days of rations. However, it is possible that this trip was cancelled, because of the more urgent requirement to bring in fuel on the naval units. Remaining elements could not be transported, but it is likely that this move was later postponed to free the naval units for transport of more important items or because the armoured cars could not be transported on the relatively small torpedo boats.

On 29 November, General Osterkamp, who was then in charge of the sector around Benghazi, appealed for urgent transport of the armoured cars to counter the threat posed by Force E, if necessary by using Junkers 90 heavy transport planes, destroyers, or even a cruiser.

On 30 November, German air command decided that while the remainder of SV 288 should be transported as soon as possible, fuel had to take precedence.

On 1st December it was then stated that 5cm AT guns of 5th Mountain Division should be flown from Crete to Derna. I presume these belonged to Daumiller’s outfit.

It is furthermore pointed out that the unit would not be ready to act as a fully equipped and mobile blocking detachment, because it lacked sufficient vehicles, anti-tank guns and its Sturmgeschütze (Stugs – fully armoured assault guns with 75mm guns), which would have to be transported on a slower transport ship. In the event, these Stugs did not appear in combat until the Gazala battles in May 1942, when one was captured by South African armoured cars.

Overall, this little episode shows a few things:

First, the ability of the Wehrmacht to improvise in the face of urgent necessity.  They had little qualms to take specialised units (SV 288 was originally destined for Iraq and contained Arab-speaking personnel) and throw them into battle elsewhere when needs demanded.

Secondly, already one week after the start of CRUSADER the Axis was scrambling to plug what they saw as serious holes. In this case, it is Brigadier Reid’s Force E that had them running scared all along the coastline, because there were almost no Axis ground forces capable of stopping Reid’s force from raiding the airfields and supply installations and western Cyrenaica.

Thirdly, again after one week of combat, the Axis was reduced to weighing equally unpalatable options. Should they send an urgently needed ground force to protect the airfields from possible raids? Or should they send in petrol to keep planes in the air? Or should they send 5cm AP ammunition of which its own tanks were beginning to run short?