A Hard Lesson Learnt

Following the end of the CRUSADER battles and the counteroffensive, Panzerarmee Afrika took stock, and made a number of requests for re-building and improving the capability of the Panzergruppe for the summer. These were wide-ranging. Of particular note are a very detailed proposal by 15. Panzerdivision for a wholesale restructuring of the tropical (as the German army jargon called it) Panzerdivision, based on the realization that its main combat power lay in the artillery and the tanks, the request to form a leichtes Afrika-Korps by building two light Africa divisions out of 90. Leichte Division, supported by a tank battalion, and a wholesale restructuring of the rifle companies in North Africa.

The history of MG Batl.2 confirms that the change illustrated below was carried out latest on 1 April 1942, when the battalion became the 3rd battalion as Panzergrenadierbatallion in Panzergrenadierregiment 115 of 15. Panzerdivision. The heavy company was dissolved, with one MG platoon added to each Grenadier company, as well as one 81mm mortar and one 5cm AT gun Pak 38.

I want to focus on the proposed restructuring of the rifle companies. I have previously written about the plight of these, when faced with an attack by tanks – see here. At the same time, the (probably) unauthorized increase in light machine guns had itself shown to be effective, as shown in the attack by 2 Black Watch during the break-out from Tobruk – see here.

It is interesting to compare the newly requested organization with that of the prior special North Africa organization in the Oasenbatallion 300, which you can find here.

Oasenbatallion 300 Rifle Battalion Company Reorganisation 1942 (proposed) Rifle Battalion Company Organisation 1941 (estimated)
Number of rifle companies in battalion(1) 5 4 3 (plus one heavy company with 12 heavy MG and 4 heavy mortars)
Number of Weapons in company / battalion
Submachineguns Unknown 13 52 Unknown
Light Machine Guns 12 60 18 72 18 57
Heavy Machine Guns 0 0 2 8 0 8
Light Mortars 3 15 0 0 3 9
Heavy Mortars 0 0 3 12 0 6
Light Anti-Tank Rifles 3 15 0 0 3 9
Heavy Anti-Tank Rifles (2) 0 0 3 12 0 0
Anti-Tank Guns (3) 0 0 6 24 0 0
  1. The Oasenbattalion was a special, one-off formation, while the proposed rifle battalion organisation would have applied to the armoured divisions and 90th Light.
  2. These were the far more capable 28/20 sPzB41.
  3. Either 5cm Pak 38, 7.5cm French Schneider m1897, or 7.62cm Russian Zis-3 captured guns. The latter were intended for the companies of 90 leichte Afrika-Division, the former for the companies in 15. and 21. Panzerdivision.

What is immediately noticeable is the significant increase in automatic firepower. Also, the very heavy equipment with anti-tank weapons at company level, and the official disbandment of the heavy company, in favour of parceling out the weapons that it would normally control. Doctrinally, this would indicate a departure from the battalion as core combat formation towards the company. In the 1941 standard rifle battalion in the Wehrmacht, the main purpose of the heavy company, which held the heavy MGs and the mortars, was to be the central point of fire support to the battalion. Alternatively, in a widely spread out position, the company could be split out into three equally strong fire support groups, and these could be attached to the rifle companies. So in a way, this proposal almost completely removed the possibility of fighting the battalion as a unit. This was probably the right response to the conditions in North Africa, where individual company or platoon strong-points were far more the norm, and where these were often sited far away from support, simply because of the need to cover large areas with low numbers of troops. In particular the combination of heavy mortars and heavy machine-guns would enable the company to pin attacking infantry at a longer distance. The anti-tank guns could then engage e.g. infantry tanks that are trying to bring the infantry forward again.

Monthly Supply Requirements of German forces in Africa – Nov. 1941

From the DAK War Diary appendices on supply, I can provide the following numbers on supply requirements for the Panzergruppe and Luftwaffe in Africa, which make quite interesting reading. The document is dated 19 November 1941, and a reply to a letter of Comando Supremo from 13 November 1941, which refers to a conference held in Rome on 11 November 1941.

The first table gives the strength on which the requirement is based. It is noteworthy that the number of planes is considerably higher than any I have seen reported for North Africa for the same time-frame. In general, Fliegerfuehrer Afrika seems to have had about 230-260 planes during the period, of which about half were serviceable. I am not sure where the overestimation comes from.

German strength in North Africa:

Ration strength:

65,000 men

of which 60,000 in Cyrenaica.

Vehicles:

13,200

Planes:

325

 

The tonnage given in the table below is for monthly requirements, but only for ongoing consumption, it does not include any stock-building. For each day of stocks to be built, another 1,100 tons need to be added to this. I am a bit puzzled about the high weight of rations. This is 4.5kg of rations per man per day. Since water was not shipped over, one wonders what else is included in this number, since that sees a lot of food, even if one considers wastage!

Supply Requirements German Forces North Africa Nov. 1941

Recipient

Type

Weight

Share

Share of Total

Army

Rations

9,000

48%

28%

  

Ammunition

750

4%

2%

  

Fuel

7,500

40%

23%

  

Volume Cargo (spares)

1,500

8%

5%

  

Total

18,750

100%

58%

Luftwaffe

Fuel

10,000

74%

31%

  

Ammunition

2,000

15%

6%

  

Engines and Spares

1,500

11%

5%

  

Total

13,500

100%

42%

German Forces

Total

32,250

2

100%

 

It is interesting to note that ammunition was only a small part of this requirement, while fuel was the most. But also here it is interesting to note that the requirement for the Luftwaffe outstripped that of the army considerably.

There are some puzzling items in this list, and I wonder if there was a purposeful attempt to inflate numbers a bit.

Capacity of Tripoli and Benghazi Harbours, 1941

This post received a major update on 9 July 2012 based on a discussion with Stefan Westermann.

A lot of discussion and research about the war in North Africa focuses on supply. This is quite right, since supply was the decisive factor in the battle. What is of interest in this discussion is that there are few hard, reliable numbers being used. This is surprising, given that the German and Italian documents are available, and provide a lot of the answers.

One question that has arisen to me is the validity of the often cited numbers by the historian Martin van Creveld, from his book ‘Supplying War’ (which I would highly recommend). The question is how, if the monthly capacity of Tripoli is 45,000 tons, much higher delivery rates could be achieved in some months. Another question is how, if Tripoli is supposed to be the major harbour in Libya, it’s daily capacity is considerably below Benghazi’s (1,500 daily tons to 2,700 daily tons, according to ‘Supplying War’)? For those who do not own the book, an article citing the numbers can be found at this link, and it is well worth reading too.

Based on the book, the port capacities of Tripoli and Benghazi are 1,500 tons/day and 2,700 tons/day, respectively, with RAF attacks downgrading Benghazi to 750 tons/day (while I presume this is for 1942, I should have thought that RAF bombing in 1941 also had significant impacts). No footnotes are given for these numbers, and it is quite strange, since many other things are very well footnoted, and van Creveld clearly had access to primary documents. In any case, this equates to a monthly capacity of 46,000 tons for Tripoli and 82,000 tons (ideal)/23,000 tons (effective) for Benghazi. Based on further discussion, I think it can safely be said that van Creveld is quite completely wrong on this. The situation in reality appears to be as follows:

Tripoli
On ideal days, 5,000 tons could be discharged in summer’41 (remark by Admiral Sansonetti during a staff discussion on supply in Rome in September 1941, to be found in Panzergruppe War Diary Appendices Chefsachen).

Benghazi
O
n ideal days, 1,700 tons had been discharged during summer 1941, and on average 1,000 tons had been discharged over the summer months, with a plan to move this up to 1,500 tons. The German view was that 2,000 tons was attainable, and the Italian navy did not dispute this in the meeting.

Constraints in getting additional supplies across the Med were multi-faceted, and direct port capacity was only one aspect, as the conference minute from 12 September 1941 makes clear. Even before the heavy losses of merchant vessels in the last quarter of 1941, there was a shortage of shipping space and convoy escorts for the North Africa route. At the Italian end, capacity of the railways made it difficult to load ships up to ideal weights. The sending across of motor vehicles led to ships ‘cubing out’ before they ‘weighed out’ – i.e. the trucks took up a lot of space compared to their weight, meaning that they restricted overall load. In assembling the convoys, restrictions in number of berthing space at the Libyan end had to be taken into account, limiting the number of ships, but then ships were sunk, leaving capacity in the receiving harbour idle. In those harbours, trucks were missing to handle transport of goods from the quays, Benghazi and probably Tripoli were missing storage, and there were not enough lighters and barges. RAF attacks restricted capacity further, both in Benghazi and Tripoli, with part of Benghazi blocked due to ships sunk in harbour. But this is all related actual capacity, rather than real capacity.

So one could maybe argue that van Creveld is talking about presumed capacity taking all this into account. But that doesn’t fly either. Below is an excerpt from a radio transmission from the DAK war diary, giving monthly figures unloaded for May to August 1941 in Tripoli and Benghazi. An issue in Tripoli’s capacity to me seems to be the transfer to coastal shipping. I would presume that in many cases this transfer would be done while the ships involved are not necessarily moored, but are somewhat offshore, and that it is done directly from ship to ship, or by barge from ship to ship, and therefore does not necessarily constitute a direct impact on the port facilities beyond requiring barges.

Nevertheless, as the table clearly shows, Tripoli easily attained above 1,500 tons/day in two months of 1941, Benghazi in one month, and presumably the ports would not have operated at capacity (even considering restrictions outlined above), with flow of goods related to convoy arrivals.

Port/Classification

May

June

July

August

Tripoli German Cargo 20,300 17,000 35,800 17,400
Tripoli Italian Cargo (includes civilian) 26,000 45,000 28,800 49,300
Tripoli Total Cargo 46,300 62,000 64,600 66,700
Tripoli Coastal Transfer 16,380 14,700 11,720 13,820
Tripoli Daily Cargo Discharge 981 1,551 1,734 1,734
Tripoli Daily Coastal Transfer 537 482 384 453
Tripoli Total Daily 1,518 2,033 2,118 2,187
         
Benghazi German Direct 1,420 4,570 3,470
Benghazi German Coastal 10,580 7,100 5,720 7,920
Benghazi Italian Direct 5,000 3,500 7,100 10,700
Benghazi Italian Coastal 5,800 7,600 6,000 5,900
Benghazi Total 22,800 18,200 23,390 27,990
Benghazi Daily 748 597 767 918
         
Total North Africa 52,720 65,500 76,270 80,870

The minute of the staff conference further does talk about a ‘calculated’ port capacity in Benghazi of 2,000 tons/day, which (see table above) it was recognized that it was unlikely to be reached. Constraints were the removal of unloaded goods from the quay, and the storage of goods that could not be removed from the port area immediately. Both of these of course directly related to the shortage of trucks in North Africa. Berthing space in Benghazi was given as two large (max. 3,500 GRT, 7 m draft), one small vessel, and one tanker. Only eight Italian and four German merchants fitted that bill. These merchants which fitted Benghazi were further restricted by being able to only take itemized cargo or vehicles, but not both. Maximum realizable capacity was therefore seen as 45,000 tons/month, or 1,500 tons/day, even though recently daily discharge had reached rates up to 1,700 tons – but of course this was dependent to some extent on the types of goods being discharged, and their specific weight. Realistic capacity was assumed to be 1,000 tons/day.

On 1 November 1941 a note is appended to the war diary of German Naval Command South that states that the situation has not changed since the memo of 11 August 1941, and that based on experience to date the capacity of the harbour was assumed to be 30,000 tons monthly, but that it was feared that weather conditions and expected damage from air attacks would reduce this over the next few months. It crucially does state however that the real discharge capacity is higher, and has not been reached due to a combination of adverse weather conditions, enemy action, and a lack of shipping.

The inescapable conclusion of this is that van Creveld’s numbers on port capacity are wrong. It is important to note that this does not affect his main argument however, which is rather concerned with port distance from the frontlines, and which I continue to believe stacks up.

Other items of note:
– in terms of the impact that distance had on the effectiveness of supply, a German claim in a document on submarine supplies to Bardia, namely that 100 tons of cargo discharged in Bardia were of equal value as 600 tons discharged in Benghazi!

– transport of troops by air is more fuel efficient than by sea, but restricted by a lack of available planes (100 required, 15-20 available with a capacity of 30 troops each (I presume Sm.82), and these need heavy maintenance after just two round-trips). Shortly after the conference, Mussolini prohibited transport by sea in passenger liners in any case, following the sinking of the Neptunia and Oceania (see here) in which 384 soldiers and sailors lost their lifes, and which had been preceded by the loss of MV Esperia in August (see here). There are good pictures of Neptunia, Oceania, and Victoria, which was lost to aerial torpedoes on 23 Jan 42 at this link.