Holding a Tiger by the Tail

Thanks to Jan I now have a copy of the Afrikakorps (D.A.K.) war diary from 6 February 1941. I wanted to have a look at it to see how Rommel ended up in the mess in front of Tobruk. It is quite interesting reading. Of particular interest is the analysis of the situation by Rommel at the end of April 1941.

Transcript of radio message D.A.K. to O.K.H. (High Command of the Army – Berlin):

Situation in front of Bardia, Tobruk, more difficult day-by-day due to additional English forces being brought up… If Bardia-Sollum were lost or encircled, the battle for Tobruk would have to be abandoned because of a lack of forces for a defense [sic!] in two directions. A change of this strongly crisis-like shape of the situation is only possible by accelerated arrival of German forces by air, incl. bringing up to strength of 5.lei.Div. and the immediate reinforcement of the air force, especially ground attack planes, as well as by tasking submarines along the coastal strip of Sollum – Tobruk … Italian troops cannot be relied on.

To which O.K.H. felt compelled to reply:

Addition of forces by air transport not possible at the moment, since transport space is not being available to Army by O.K.W. (High Command of the Armed Forces). Afrikakorps can, until early May, only expect the forces arriving as planned by sea, from May amelioration of arrival by sea and restricted air transport potentially possible …

Reading this you can someone see their head shaking in Berlin. It is no wonder that General Paulus was despatched to have a look into the goings-on in North Africa.

Also of interest is what had happened to individual units in the rapid advance and initial attack on Tobruk on 11/12 April. The heavily used 8th Machine Gun Battalion (M.G.Batl.8) had been reduced to 300 men combat strength, compared to 1,400 men ration strength (note that this does not mean 1,100 men had been lost, the two strengths cannot be compared, for example temporarily detached units would still be on the ration strength, but not on the combat strength).

What is more instructive is what was left in terms of combat strength. On 14 April it could field the following:

Sub-Unit Strength
1st Company 2 heavy MG (s.M.G.) platoons
2nd Company 1 platoon with 4 s.M.G. and one AT rifle (ATR)
3rd Company 1 s.M.G. section, 1 ATR
4th Company 2 AT guns, 2 heavy mortars (81mm)
5th Company Only trucks and supply vehicles/installations
6th Company Not used yet, remains in the rear in training

This would amount to 14 s.M.G., 2 each ATR, AT guns, and heavy mortars, and no light mortars, roughly equivalent to a MG company, all told, with about 1.5 times the manpower of a normal MG company. By comparison, a full company is described at this link. It would field:

12 heavy machine guns

3 light mortars

3 anti-tank rifles

While the heavy company would field:

6x 3.7cm AT gun

6x heavy mortar 81mm

Adding the 8 s.M.G. in the staff company (see this link) gives you 44 s.M.G., 9 each light mortars and ATRs, and at least 6 each AT guns and heavy mortars, as strength for the battalion. While M.G.8 had additional reinforcements assigned to it, it is not clear to me where these were at this point in time.

There’s a hadn-written note next to the entry on the battalion’s strength, which I cannot decipher – any help much appreciated:


Nevertheless, on the day the battalion managed to break into the fortifications, but then couldn’t expand the breakthrough. The men of the battlion were noted in 1 Royal Horse Artillery’s B/O Battery’s war diary as passing through ‘D’ Company positions (presumably of 2/17 Australian Infantry Battalion) at 0500, and occupying the house which was the observation post of the Rocket Troop. At 0800 the diarist notes with some satisfaction ‘The results of the battle was 300 prisoners and an equal number or more killed’ and ‘The enemy were completely ROUTED and withdrew showing complete lack of fight when faced with the bayonet.’

I must say I can’t blame them, after what must have been a harrowing dawn, constantly under fire, with many killed already with headwounds due to constant MG fire traversing their foxholes, and a lack of steel helmets.

The specific remark about the bayonet charge probably refers to the charge of a small number of Australians from B Company 2/17 Battalion, described thus in its war diary (available for download at this link):

0630 15 enemy located in ruined house NORTH of post 32 [i.e. further towards Tobruk]. B Coy [Company] was then about to counter-attack. B Comd [Company Commander] left post 32 and rejoined his Coy which had already been in action, Lieut. Owen having been wounded, in clearing the ruined house behind post 32. Rejoined (less 1 pl[atoon]) and found enemy about 0730 on hill below house and arty [artillery] OP [observation post]. They were then engaged, and a charge made by two sections [about 20 men] with Coy Comd. Enemy 100-150 strong. All were either killed or captured. […]

Initial Transport of the Afrikakorps to North Africa

While not strictly related to CRUSADER, this information is nevertheless of interest and relevance. This post was born from this discussion thread on the Axis History Forum.

Below the initial transports of Army units covering 5.lei.Division (later to become 21st Panzer) and I./Flak 18, as well as some smaller units I guess. Where available the size of the ship is given when it is first mentioned (thanks to Mescal on AHF for this), and any damage due to enemy action is also mentioned. Luftwaffe transports are not included in this. The organisational unit of were small convoys, termed ‘Staffel’ in German. Attached to these were supply ships which carried purely supply apparently, rather than new units.

1st Staffel 8 Feb 41 (back in Naples 18 Feb, so 10-day roundtrip):
Ankara (4,768 GRT)
Arcturus (2,596 GRT)
Alicante (2,140 GRT)

2nd Staffel 12 Feb 41
Kybfels (7,764 GRT)
Adana (4,205 GRT)
Aegina (2,447 GRT)
Ruhr (5,954 GRT)

3rd Staffel 17 Feb 41
Menes (5,609 GRT – torpedoed and damaged on return journey by HM/Sub Regent, who herself was damaged in the counter attack)
Arta (2,452 GRT)
Maritza (2,910 GRT)
Herakleia (1,927 GRT)

4th Staffel 23 Feb 41:
Ankara
Marburg (7,564 GRT)
Reichenfels (7,744 GRT)
Kybfels

5th Staffel 25 Feb 41:
Leverkusen (7,368 GRT)
Wachtfels (8,467 GRT)
Alicante (2,140 GRT)
Arcturus

6th Staffel 1 Mar 41:
Castellon (2,086 GRT)
Ruhr
Maritza
Amsterdam (8,673 GRT – Italian vessel, not sure whether she carried German load)

7th Staffel
Adana
Aegina
Arta
Herakleia
Sabaudia (1,590 – Italian(?) attached as supply ship)

8th. Staffel 5 Mar 41
Ankara
Marburg
Reichenfels
Kybfels

9th Staffel 7 Mar 41:
Alicante
Arcturus
Wachtfels

10th Staffel 12 Mar 41
Castelleon
Ruhr
Maritza
Leverkusen (this was after the famous fire which caused the loss of 13 tanks, according to WD CO Naval Transport)

11th Staffel 14 Mar 41
Adana
Aegina
Herakleia
Galilea (8,040 GRT)
Arta (supply ship)

12th Staffel 16/17 Mar 41
Marburg (16 March from Naples)
Reichenfels (dto)
Ankara (17 Mar from Palermo, re-directed to pick up 150 urgently needed vehicles)
Kybfels (dto)

13th Staffel 19 Mar 41
Arcturus
Wachtfels
Santa Fe (4,627 GRT?)
Procida (1,842 GRT)

14th Staffel 22 Mar 41:
Alicante
Leverkusen
Castellon
Maritza

15th Staffel 26 Mar 41:
Adana
Herakleia (sunk by submarine HM/Sub Utmost off Tunisian coast, 69 out of 206 soldiers on board lost)
Ruhr (damaged by submarine HMS Utmost off Tunisian coast)
Galilea (damaged by submarine HM/Sub Upright on return journey, beached in Tripoli a few days later)
Samos (2,576 GRT – supply ship)

Also 26 Mar 41, tanker Persiano (2,474 GRT) with fuel for the army from Naples.

16th Staffel – 29/30 Mar 41
Marburg (29 March from Naples)
Kybfels (dto)
Ankara (30 Mar from Palermo)
Reichenfels (dto)

17th Staffel – 2 Apr 41
Maritza
Procida
Alicante
Santa Fe

18th Staffel – 8 Apr 41 (last troops of the original contingent)
Wachtfels
Arcturus
Leverkusen
Castellon

19th Staffel – 11 Apr 41 (last load of original units, possibly first load of 15th Panzer)
Ankara
Marburg
Kybfels
Reichenfels

Various Runs – 10 Apr 41
Persiano (tanker – attacked 40nm north of Tripoli by HM/Sub Tetrach, set on fire and sunk)
1st Supply Runs to Benghazi:
Samos from Tripoli
Ramb III (3,667 GRT, Italian vessel) from Naples, effective loading capacity only 1,100 tons due to ballast
Motor sailing vessels for coastal traffic from Trapani:
Rosina
Giorgina
Unione
Luigi
Frieda

The organisation of the transport had to be made with the consideration of several constraints.

1)  Harbour capacity in Tripoli was restricted by a policy of not unloading at night, to reduce the risk of enemy air attacks disrupting unloading and maybe blocking quays by sinking ships alongside. My guess is that at dusk ships were moved off the quays into more open water. This essentially reduced capacity by about 50%, is my guess. See this older post on port capacity.

2)  Ships were of different sizes and speeds, so slow and fast convoys were organised, and optimisation of unloading was an issue, since ideally convoys were supposed to return together.

3)  Italian reinforcement convoys continued at the same time as the German transports, and convoys were timed to reduce the number of ships in Tripoli harbour at any given time. This also indicates the very heavy call on Italian escort vessels, which would have been in service non-stop.

4)  There was a conflict between the Kriegsmarine and the army (Rommel/Halder, who for a change saw eye to eye on something) about the loading of ships. The navy wanted to send troops and vehicles separately, to presumably reduce risk to losing troops if a slower supply vessel was sunk, while the army wanted them to be sent together, in order to have the units immediately ready for action once they hit the quayside in Tripoli. Following a number of ship losses the navy method was adopted.

5)  There was no capacity at first at the receiving end to handle navy matters, and everything had to be run from Italy. This included coastal convoys in North Africa.

6)  Not all ships were available immediately, and arrived in drips and drops throughout the period. Furthermore, not all ships were protected against magnetic mines from the outset.

7)  The Luftwaffe had to be given space on the ships as well, but it wasn’t fully integrated into the transport system, and there appears to sometimes have been a lack of clarity on when supplies would arrive.

8)  AA armament on the ships had to be organised, and when the Luftwaffe refused to provide it, it had to be borrowed from the Italians. This left vessels relatively weakly equipped for AA defense, and they had to rely on the escorts. Navy AA detachments (Marinebordflakkompanie Sued)only arrived during the period. See this older post for AA equipment about half a year later.

Source for all this: War Diary Naval Transport Command South for 1941, while the identity of the attacking subs is based on Royal Navy Day by Day. Many thanks to Dirk for sending this war diary through!