Canon de 155 Mle 1917 Schneider C – who used them?

During 1941 Vichy France supplied 20 heavy howitzers of the type Canon de 155 Mle 1917 Schneider C to the Axis forces in North Africa. It is possible that at least part of these were in action during CRUSADER.  This particular gun was a very popular gun, in use by many armies between the wars, and also serving with the US Army in the late 1930s and early 40s (although I am not sure if any saw service overseas).  It was however obsolete by 1940, due to the very short range it had (only 11,900 metres), compared to more modern guns such as the Soviet 152mm gun-howitzer ML-20 (>17,000 metres) or the British 5.5″ gun which entered service in 1941 (about 15,000 metres). Shell weight at 43kg was similar to the German sFH18, as well as the Soviet and British guns.

The French army, after mobilisation in 1940, had 535 of them available for service, according to David Lehmann’s PDF document 1939-1940 French Armament (available at this link).  After the end of the campaign, and the conquest of Greece and other countries using this gun, it was put into German service as sFH15,5cm 414(f) (heavy field howitzer 155mm 414(f) where the (f) indicates the country of origin.  It was also in use by the Regio Esercito as Obice 155/14, where 14 indicates the barrel length in multiples of gun calibre diameter.  Since both Axis forces active in North Africa were familiar with this gun, it is not clear to me who would have used it.

Request for information:

I would appreciate any information on:

1) which army received the guns;

2) which units used them;

3) where they were used; and

4) for how long they served the Axis forces in North Africa before they were lost.

Many thanks in advance!

Update: According to Jason Long on the Italianisti Group, 12 of the guns served in Heereskuestenartillerieabteilung 533 in North Africa. While the choice of such a short-ranged gun is unusual for a coastal defense purpose, I guess it comes down to beggars not being able to be choosers. The use in coastal defense is also confirmed by Jeff Leser.  From looking at Jason’s Gazala battle OOB, it appears that by May 42 many more of these guns had made their way to Libya, but on the other hand, HKA 533 by this time did no longer have any of them on strength, instead it was equipped with captured 25-pdrs. Whether that meant they had lost them in the retreat from Tobruk, or whether they had traded them in, is a mystery at this stage.

Update 2:

Today I came across an ULTRA intercept stating that on 17 Nov. 41 4 of these guns left Tripoli for the front on 4 lorries of supply column 2/148.

A picture provided by Manuferey from the AHF below, the picture my late grandfather took outside Leningrad could no longer be linked. The picture shows that these guns were not modernised for motor towing. Instead they had to be loaded on the back of a heavy track using ramps.

155mm Schneider C howitzer imported from Tunisia, in use by German artillery in the desert

The Regia Marina’s Emergency Supply Programme of 22 November 41

This is a translation of a report 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 i1976 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.

On 4 December ULTRA reported an item of 13 November, from OTTO TIGER (probably Panzergruppe Ia or commander) to OTTO HAMSTER (Panzergruppe Quartermaster) and IDA PINTSCHER (probably von Rintelen in Rome), as follows:

The supply situation demands temporary transfer of centre of effort (Schwerpunkt) from 20/11 to delivery of fuel and rations[1].  For this purpose is is necessary to employ submarines and destroyers in increased numbers purely for the transport of supplies. IDA QUALLE (probably Quartermaster in Rome) has been informed in detail of the supply position.

[1] The attack on Tobruk was to begin on 21 November, and therefore weapon or personnel would have been of little use at this point.

This particular report describes this programme in detail. The naval emergency supply programme was obviously planned after the destruction of the BETA or Duisburg convoy, and instituted in late November 1941. It ensured that the Axis forces in North Africa would at least receive a minimum of supplies, even if no more merchant ships would be able to make it across the Mediterranean.  Considering the dire situation of fuel oil available to the Regia Marina at this stage, and the actual volume that could be transported on the naval vessels each run, the emergency programme was a highly wasteful effort which was nevertheless required to head off a complete collapse of the Axis forces in Libya.  In this, it succeeded, together with the air supply flown in during the battle, and the arrival of some single runners of the merchant fleet (see this list of successful runs).

What is also notable is the importance of Suda Bay on Crete to the ability of the Regia Marina to execute such a programme.

SANSONETTI

I. Exchange of letters between Admirals Weichold and Riccardi

LIAISON OFFICE OF THE GERMAN ADMIRAL AT THE ITALIAN NAVY

SECRET RESERVED TO THE ADDRESSEE

Translation N. 366/41 22 November 1941

To the Chief of the General Staff of the Royal Italian Navy, His Excellency Squadron Admiral Designated D’Armata RICCARDI

Following on from my verbal commication to the Deputy Chief the General Staff I have the honour to submit to Your Excellency, in the name of the Grand Admiral, the following:

The Grand Admiral begs you to take into consideration, regarding the current situation in North Africa, all possibilities for resupply of gasoline, ammunition, and anti-tank weapons for the Cyrenaica with light naval units and submarines, even if this requires to run risks with them that normally would not be appropriate. The lack of supplies can be of great importance for the joint conduct of the war and for the holding of the Italian colony.
WEICHOLD

SUPERMARINA 22 November 1941

To Admiral Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy in Italy, His Excellency Admiral WEICHOLD

Re: Traffic with North Africa

SECRET RESERVED TO THE ADDRESSEE

Responding to your letter n. 366/41 of today

I would like to ask you to assure the Grand Admiral that Supermarina sees the current situation in exactly the same manner as he expressed it in his letter. Already going beyond the most serious requirements and confronting risks of war and seafare that in other times it would not be justified to take, a light cruiser and three destroyers will soon be be made available for the transport to Benghazi of the German battalion which Your command is preparing. You also know, as you are constantly kept aware of all decisions of Supermarina, that the transport of gasoline will be expedited with all means at our disposal, including a light cruiser, as you know. Also and especially now in this difficult moment the perfect coincidence of the views of our two navies is manifest.
THE CHIEF OF THE GENERAL STAFF RICCARDI

II. Regia Navale Emergency Supply Plan for North Africa of 4 December 1941

1. Submarines
One per day to Bardia or Derna
a. Fuel transport
Cagni (All with 140 tons fuel and 3 tons variable supplies.)*
Saint Bon
Millo
Carraciolo
Micca (105 tons of fuel oil in submarine tanks , 70 tons various fuels in jerry cans, total 175 tons.)

b. Ration transport**
Menotti 14 tons in pallets
Settimo 11 tons in pallets; (or for either submarine 20 tons of heavier rations)

2. Destroyers/torpedo boats***
One or two per day. Each destroyer could carry 95 tons of fuels, in 4,000 jerry cans and 140 barrels. Each torpedo boat could carry 65 tons of fuels in jerry cans and barrels. Depot ship Bellona supplied from German Wachtfels at Patrasso and then ran to Suda escorted by Turbine, while Wachtfels remained at Patrasso.

a. For Benghazi running a shuttle service from Benghazi to Suda Bay.
i. First pair: Two destroyers Vivaldi  [?], from Leros, then Suda Bay and Benghazi
ii. Second pair: Destroyer Pessagno from Leros, then Suda Bay and Benghazi
Destroyer Pigafetta from Taranto to Benghazi and then to Suda Bay
iii. Third pair: Two destroyers Da Recco and Usodimare from Naples to Benghazi, then to Suda Bay.
b. For Derna, running a shuttle service from Derna to Suda Bay.
i. Torpedo boat Orsa leaves Taranto for Derna and then Suda Bay.
ii. Torpedo boatProcione runs from Argostoli to Benghazi and then Suda Bay, thereafter shuttle between Derna and Suda Bay.
iii. Torpedo boat Orione runs from Brindisi to Derna and then Suda Bay.

3. Special vessels One or two per week for Benghazi depending on availability of the port.
a. MS Calitea from Brindisi to Benghazi, to leave only when the port at Benghazi was free. Estimated transport ability 1,000 tons of various materials.
b. German steamer Ankara from Taranto for Benghazi to leave when battleship Duilio and the VIIth Division [of cruisers] could escort it . Estimated transport ability 5,500 tons of various materials.

4. Cruisers (special traffic)
a. Cadorna – at Taranto to leave for Benghazi at date to be settled, coordinated with loading of MS Veniero and depending on weather conditions.
Freight:
• 325 tons of gasoline in jerry cans
• 100 tons of fuel oil in the cruiser’s bunkers
• 20 tons of rations
• 10 tons of small arms ammunition
• 100 men
b. Da Barbiano Da Giussano**** – from Taranto to Palermo and on to Tripoli. Both cruisers depart at a date to be settled depending on the lunar phase.
Freight (each cruiser):
• About 300 tons of rations
• About 20 tons of ammunition for 88mm AA guns
• About 500 tons of fuel oil in the bunkers
• 120 men

* These were large, ocean-going submarines.  Carraciolo and Saint Bon were lost on these missions. See the older entry at this link for background.

**Both of these were submarines of 1,153 tons displacement submerged, comparable to the German Type IX boats, and were named after Italian politicians of the early 19th century.

***See the older entry at this link for an explanation of Regia Marina ship classes.

****Both of them sunk with heavy loss of life in the most spectacular, if one-sided, surface engagement during CRUSADER. See the older entry at this link for background.

German Antisubmarine Equipment on Italian Vessels

In the files of the German naval command in Italy held at NARA, I found something completely new to me (as one does).  In autumn 1941 the German navy had started to equip Italian escort vessels withASDIC active sonar equipment (S-Geraet) and depth charge launchers (WBW).  The priority was apparently given to equipping escort units in the Aegean, where allied submarines had been active and successful for a while.  In December 1941, the Kriegsmarine established a sub-hunting flotilla at Piraeus to be able to contribute to the Regia Marina’s effort.  Italian vessels were equipped with the German sonar when they went into wharf in Italy for general maintenance, i.e. they were not pulled from service to have this equipment fitted. My guess is they were stretched so thin already that this would not have been possible.  Until the German sonar came along, the Italian vessels had to use passive listening devices to locate submarines.  One is tempted to conclude from the significant successes achieved by Allied submarines that these were not very good at fulfilling their purpose.

The sonar equipment on the Italian vessels was operated (maybe only initially) by German sailors, and one of the first Italian units to be outfitted with the German equipment was the destroyer Alvise da Mosto, sunk in a surface engagement with Force K from Malta on 1 December 1941, off Tripoli (see this older entry). It had only been outfitted at the Italian navy shipyard in Fiume two weeks beforehand, it appears.

A report by the two surviving German sailors found its way into the files of the German naval command, and is preserved at NARA.  Both of these men were re-assigned to other Italian escort vessels and helped sink HM Submarine Tempest on 13 February 1942 (this article describes the incident), Ordinary Seaman Maidenoff being credited with re-establishing her location when she was submerged.

The report must be from after March 1942, since it refers to the death of Commander del Anno who was lost when his destroyer went down in a gale  at the 2nd battle of Sirte. While probably not a completely accurate report, it is an interesting eye-witness statement. Below is a translation of the report.

Report about the Actions of the Destroyer “Da Mosto” from 18 November 1941 to 1 December 1941 based on the Statements of the two Rescuees Petty Officer Rublack and Ordinary Seaman Maidenoff

German listening crew consisting of:

Petty Officer (Bootsmaat) Rublack

Able Seaman (Matrosengefreiter) Hartmann

Able Seaman Macar

Ordinary Seaman (Matrose) Maidenoff

Ordinary Seaman Retter

During the move from Fiume to Pola on 18 November a submerged Italian submarine located at 4200 [metres].  Echo remained good until the end. Speed 16 knots.

During the move Pola -Tarent on 24 November one steamer escorted. Defect on the motor cinema [screen of the sonar, I guess]. Mirror running too slow, therefore no correct distance.  Reason: strong variations in net. Turning the unit off leads to only slight improvement.

Around 0700 [hours] perfect echo ranged at 320 degrees. Distance could not be fixed. Boat [this refers to Da Mosto] zig-zags at high speed, steamer turns away.  This location was very probably an enemy submarine since a few hours later  an attack occured on another steamer in the same area (statement by the commander).

Enter Taranto on 25 November around 1500. With help from a German mechanic the cinema motor is changed against another one from the installation of another boat.  The work is completed shortly before the boat leaves harbour.

On 26 November 1500 left harbour with a tanker for Trapani.  In the Messina Straits submarine alarm raised by another boat. Search by Da Mosto without result.

At the southern tip of Sicily an unknown mine barrier was well located.  Moved according to location by S-Geraet.

28 November at 2000 entered Trapani with tanker.

30 November at 0300 left harbour with tanker on western route to Tripoli.  On the way location of a floating mine, a buoy, and a wreck.  Furthermore three French coastal vessels were located on 3600 to 3800 metres, which were only then recognised from the bridge.

During the course of 1 December attacks by English bombers occured in several waves. The tanker was hit in the stern and remained motionless. Attempts to take it in tow failed.  Air defense of tanker was weak.  Around 1730 English surface units came into view.  Da Mosto immediately went into the attack and achieved hits on a cruiser [this is not correct].  After a short time Da Mosto was hit in the stern.  Ammunition and the Italian depth charges went off.  During the sinking the forward torpedoes were fired, but without hit. Da Mosto sank around 1800. The crew gave cheers to its ship, the Duce and the Fuehrer.  The English destroyers drove through the swimming crew without attempting to rescue someone, and shouted derisively “Good bye boys”.

Petty Officer Rublack swam to the tanker with two Italians to bring a still intact boat into the water and to sink the tanker. A destroyer opened fire hozever, so that the intent could not be carried out.  The tanker then also sank soon afterwards.  Another destroyer appears to have had the intent before that to take it into tow [again this is wrong].

The S-Geraet was kept manned until the start of the engagement when the boat went to high speed.  The listening crews thereafter went to their battle stations on the guns.  Petty Officer Rublack and Ordinary Seaman Maidenoff were on the bridge. Able Seaman Macher fell at the rear gun.  Nothing has been observed concerning the whereabouts of Able Seaman Hartmann and Ordinary Seaman Retter, who until the last moment manned the S-Geraet.

Around 2300 the torpedo boat Prestinari reached the site of the engagement and took the survivors on board.

The commander, Fregattenkapitaen (Commander) del Anno was very complimentary about the performance and the brave behaviour of the German listening crew. Petty Officer Rublack received the Iron Cross 2nd Class and the Italian Bronze Medal of Valour, and Ordinary Seaman Maidenoff the Iron Cross 2nd Class and the Italian War Merit Cross. The commander received the Gold Medal (later killed in action as commander of Scirocco).

A very informative article on the anti-submarine warfare development of the Kriegsmarine can be found at this link (search the document for “magnetostrictive” to jump directly to the ASW section). A very informative, but highly technical, article on German passive sonar can be found at this link.