12 September 1941 – the Tembien Convoy

Added German Navy AA Report Information – 22 September 2018

Introduction

The summer of 1941 was primarily spent trying to build up the Axis forces in North Africa to prepare for the assault on Tobruk and the subsequent invasion of Egypt. While the supply route overall was delivering, with the vast majority of supplies reaching their destination, losses were suffered on a regular basis. I have previously written about the quite harrowing experience of the Malta Blenheim IVs of Nos. 105 and 107 Squadrons engaging the Axis supplies at this link.

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Bristol Blenheim Mark IV, V6014 ‘GB-J’, of No. 105 Squadron RAF Detachment in a dispersal at Luqa, Malta. Canvas covers protect the cockpit and glazed nose section from the sun. From July to September 1941, 105 Squadron was detached from the United Kingdom to Malta, to operate against targets in the Mediterranean and North Africa, losing 14 aircraft during the period. Note the modified gun mounting under the nose. Courtesy of the IWM Collection.

Nevertheless, while the loss rate on daytime shipping strikes was brutal, the reward was high, when a fully laden merchant with vital supplies could be sent to the depths of the Mediterranean. This happened on 11-13 September 1941, when the Malta strike forces had a good outing against the 44th convoy with Italian and German supplies, known to the Italians as the TEMBIEN convoy, and also sank the single runner SS Alfredo Oriani. While the loss of three vessels in two days was a remarkable success, it came at a price.

Air/Sea Battle on the North Africa Route 11-13 September 1941

The period saw heavy anti-shipping operations by the Malta-based British aircraft, covering the 11-13 September, with substantial losses on both sides.

The 12th of September 1941 day saw the heaviest anti-shipping operations, with a total of 22-29 aircraft operating out of Malta according to the Malta War Diary, 7x Wellington of No. 38 Squadron in a night attack, 8x Blenheim of No. 105 Squadron in the afternoon, and 7x Swordfish of No. 830 Squadron F.A.A. operating possibly twice during the night and the afternoon.

Losses were heavy, with 3x Blenheims lost, those of S/Ldr Charney D.F.C. with Observer Sgt. Porteous and Wireless Op./Air Gunner Sgt. Harris, Sgt. Mortimer with Observer Sgt. Reid and Wireless Op./Air Gunner Sgt. Owen, and Sgt. Brandwood. The latter and his crew were rescued by HM/Sub Utmost on 14 September, and the former two crews were all killed. Another Blenheim belly-landed on Malta due to damage from the naval anti-air fire.

Two ships were sunk, SS Caffaro by No.105 and SS Nicoló Odero by No.38 Squadron, both out of the Tembien convoy. Furthermore, on the 13th the  Italian 3,059t steamer SS Alfredo Oriani, a merchant with an identical name to the escort leader of the Tembien convoy, sank halfway to Benghasi following an air attack while on the way to Benghasi, from Patras, on 11 September, probably again by No. 105 Squadron. Thus, the R.A.F. sent a total of over 15,500 tons of shipping carrying thousands of tons of supplies and hundreds of vehicles to the bottom of the sea.

Based on information from Lorenzo Colombo, who runs the excellent Con la Pelle appesa a un Chiodo blog detailing all Italian vessel losses, the butcher’s bill for the three days was amounted to 26 on the Axis side, to which need to be added six R.A.F. crew members in two of the lost Blenheims and the German army officer who died of wounds in Tripoli, for a total of 33 killed:

  • SS Caffaro carried 228 men, including 168 Germans; 224 survived and four were missing (two Italian crew members and two Germans)
  • SS Nicolò Odero had 285 survivors, the victims were about twenty including 4 crew members (the other being troops and AA crews)
  • SS Alfredo Oriani had 50 men aboard, two were missing and 48 survived.

There are substantial discrepancies between the British and the Italian accounts, which I am aiming to clear up below. A big gap is the lack of an operations record book for No.830 Squadron. I have inquired with the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton, but to no avail. I will also add a bit more analysis on the issue of who sank SS Alfredo Oriani.

Official Accounts and Memories

The write up in the Malta war diary is below:

An Italian convoy of steamers TEMBIEN, CAFFARO, NIRVO, BAINSIZZA, NICOLO ODERO, and GUILA[1] departed Naples on the 10th, escorted by destroyers ORIANI and FULMINE and torpedo boats PROCIONE, PEGASO, ORSA, and CIRCE from Trapani, and OERSEO[1] which joined at 0600/13th.

Italian steamer CAFFARO (6476grt) was sunk by British Swordfish of 830 Squadron from Malta 105° northwest of Tripoli in 34-14N, 11-54E.

Italian steamer TEMBIEN (5584grt) was damaged by 830 Squadron attack.

Italian steamer NICOLO ODERO (6003grt) was damaged in the attack. She was sunk on the 14th by RAF bombing in 32-51N, 12-18E after the convoy arrived at Tripoli on the 13th.

One of the air crew of No 830 Squadron, Sub-Lt. Campbell describes the attack thus at this link:

12/13.9 – If my memory serves me right this was the night about which the Malta Daily Paper headlined as “Ducks and Drakes in the Med”. The Squadron took off at dusk to attack a large Convoy heavily escorted by Destroyers. We found the Convoy and attacked individualy, splitting it up completely. At least three ships were hit and Destroyers were racing about all over the place. We returned to base and my flight were sent out again to finish off the remaining ships. As we approached the scene of the previous engagement, I saw a Destroyer racing along at high speed. I decided to follow it to see if it would lead me to the remaining ships, this took some doing in a “Stringbag”, if there had been any wind against me I couldn’t have done it. After awhile I saw a large MV and attacked it. There was a bright flash and then it just blew up.

The above two accounts are severely flawed. Fortunately though on the British side, a fairly detailed account by No.105 Squadron has survived, in AIR27/826, the Operations Record Book (ORB) of No. 105 Squadron, and a less detailed account in the ORB of No. 38 Squadron.

11 September

First, the attack that I believe claimed SS Alfredo Oriani on 11 September, even though the timing of the attack reports in the British and Italian accounts diverges by a day, and the British pilots reported another merchant present. Nevertheless, the description of the attack and the location of it and the sinking are so close that I believe No.105 Squadron was responsible for her loss, following a check in the Nos. 11, 14, 55 and 107 Squadron Operations Record Books. The Malta Admiralty War Diary describes the attack thus:

Italian steamer ALFREDO ORIANI (3059grt) was sunk by British Blenheim bombers in 35-05N, 20-16E.

The steamer which had departed Petrasso on the 11th was escorted by torpedo boat CANTORE.

Oriani

SS Alfredo Oriani in peacetime, from Wrecksite.eu

No. 105 Squadron ORB states that five Blenheim IV went out on a shipping sweep at 0645am on 11 September. The attacking aircraft returned at 1211pm, while two returned early at 0750am. Crews were S/Ldr Smithers with Sgts. Harford and Green, F/Lt. Duncan with Sgts. Smith and Lyndall, Sgt. Bendall, with Sgts. Hindle and Brown, Sgt. Mortimer, Sgt. Weston, with Sgts. Storey and Kindell.

Five crews were detailed for an offensive sweep of the Ionian Sea.

The aircraft departed in two waves, the first sighting two MERCHANT VESSELS and DESTROYER escort in position 35°33N. 20°35’E.

One aircraft – SQUADRON LEADER SMITHERS – attacked first dropping bombs from stern to bow and registered a hit amidships.

The other aircraft attacking the same ship claim one hit each but not confirmed.

The MERCHANT VESSEL when last see appeared to be settling in the water in a sinking condition.

The second wave – FLIGHT LIEUTENANT DUNCAN and SGT. MORTIMER – returned with engine trouble.

All aircraft landed safely at BASE.

In the Italian official history, her loss is described thus.

11 September 4am from Patras to Benghazi. Steamer A. Oriani. Escort Escort Destroyer Cantore then Altair (from 1700 hours on 13 September). Attacked  and repeatedly hit by bombers at 1400 hours on 12 September, 60 nautical off Cape Matapan, sinks at 1800 hours on the 13th.

Screenshot 2018 04 08 22 44 08

The position of SS Alfredo Oriani’s sinking is not 60nm, but over 100 nautical miles off Cape Matapan, and about .

Screenshot 2018 04 08 22 48 17

More puzzlingly, at the time of the attack, she would have steamed about 190nm. A solid 17 hours of steaming at 11knots, her top speed. Pretty much impossible in the ten hours since she left port according to the Italian OH. Furthermore, the timing of the No. 105 Squadron operations on that day and the attack timing do not line up. Nevertheless, there is no record of another Blenheim unit attacking a vessel in the Ionian Sea on 11 September 1941.

A possibility would be that the Italian OH is wrong here. It is clearly wrong giving the position of Oriani being attacked as 60nm off Cape Matapan (the actual position of the attack is almost on a  straight line from Patras to Benghazi, while 60nm would be too far east), and is also wrong in giving the position of her sinking as 80nm north of Benghazi. It is therefore not impossible that the time or date of her departure and the actual time of the attack are also wrong. For example, an average speed of 7 knots would have put her almost straight into the attack position around 0800 hours on the morning of the 11th, had she departed Patras on 10 September at 0400 hours in the morning, instead of the 11 September. The location is about an hour and a halfs’ flying time in a Blenheim IV from Malta. Given that No. 105’s Blenheim’s left at 0645 hours, they could have been there at 0815 hours.

RN Cantore5

RN Generale Alfredo Cantore, an obsolete destroyer, downgraded to Escort Destroyer. She was lost on a mine in 1942. Courtesy Wikipedia.

SS Alfredo Oriani sank two days later on 13 September at 35°05’N 20°16’E, about 80 nautical miles north of Benghazi according to the Italian official history, although this position is more like 180 miles north of Benghazi. That position is 19 nautical miles west and 28 nautical miles south  of the attack position given in the No. 105 ORB, indicating that the vessel drifted about 33 nautical miles, or a speed of less than a knot after the attack. It is also physically impossible for Oriani to have made it to the position of the attack if her departure date is correct even if steaming at maximum speed of 11.5 knots. Patras is about 14 hours of steaming as the crow flies, given Oriani’s speed, from the location of the attack. My guess is that the Italian official history is not correct when it comes to the time/day of her departure.

12 September

The first to attack were No. 830 Squadron with their Swordfish, without success.

In the afternoon of the 12th, eight Blenheim IV were despatched by No. 105 Squadron. This time, it did not go so well for them. The crews were S/Ld Smithers with Sgts. Harbord and Fisher, Sd/Ld. Charney with Sgts. Portous and Harris, F/Lt. Ballands, F/O Greenhill, Sgt. Brandwood with Sgts. Miller and See, Sgt. Weston with Sgts. Storey and Kindell, Sgt. Bendall with Sgts. Hindle and Brown, and Sgt. Mortimer with Sgt. Reid and F/O Owen.

Eight crews were detailed to attack a CONVOY attacked by SWORDFISH aircraft the previous night.

The CONVOY was estimated to consist of six MERCHANT VESSELS of 6000 – 12000 tons and six escorting DESTROYERS and was attacked at 1415 hours.

Two aircraft – SQUADRON LEADER SMITHERS and SGT. WESTON – claimed two hits each with 250lb and 500lb bombs respectively. This MERCHANT VESSEL was left a mass of flames and a later reconnaissance report indicated that it had probably sunk.

One aircraft – SGT. BENDALL – attacked a 10000 ton MERCHANT VESSEL and scored two direct hits with 500lb bombs causing a large fire.

Two aircraft – FLIGHT LIEUTENANT BALLANDS and FLYING OFFICER GREENHILL – did not bomb as their approach was obstructed by other aircraft. Anti-aircraft opposition was intense from the DESTROYERS and three MACCHI 200 FIGHTERS and three C.R.42’s were reported diving out of the clouds though no attacks were witnessed.

One aircraft – SQUADRON LEADER CHARNEY – was shot down in flames near the CONVOY with little hope of survivors. One aircraft – SGT. MORTIMER – failed to return and nothing further was heard of the crew.

Another aircraft – SGT. BRANDWOOD – came down into the sea about 12 miles from the convoy but the crew were rescued the next day by a submarine.

Five aircraft landed safely at BASE, one of these – SGT. BENDALL – was forced to execute a belly landing owing to damage to the hydraulic system. The observer – SGT. HINDLE – was slightly wounded.

The British accounts are incorrect in several aspects, and need to be read with the Italian account of the battle. Fortunately, the Italian official history La Difesa del Trafico Vol. I has an account of this convoy battle as well, which would lead to the total loss of two of the five steamers with their important cargo. For example, while there were six merchants and six escorts, none of the merchants came in at 12,000 tons.

An adventurous voyage, albeit marked by painful losses, was that of the TEMBIEN convoy, which left Naples the morning of the 10th for Tripoli. This was the second convoy of cargo vessels bound for Libya in the month of September and, since it was composed of slower vessels, it had orders to follow the route of the Marettimo Channel of Sicily to the Kerkennah Banks, the route called the Ponente [2].

The steamers TEMBIEN, CAFFARO, NIRVO, NICOLO’ ODERO and BAINSIZZA were part of the convoy; the escort[3] consisted of the destroyers ORIANI[4] (Convoy Leader Commander Chinigò[5]) and FULMINE[6] and the torpedo boats PROCIONE, PEGASO, and ORSA[7], with which the torpedo boat CIRCE[8] united in the Sicily Channel.

During the night 11/12 November the convoy was discovered by a nighttime reconnaissance plane south of Pantelleria. Thus at 03.10 hours of the 12th an attack by torpedo bombers followed, avoided  by the maneuvering of the convoy, a smoke screen, and the anti-air reaction of various units.

The following morning the formation navigated without incident or alarm along the Kerkennah following diverse routes. But at 14.00 hours, while under escort of Italian planes, it was again attacked by airplanes, this time by bombers. This was the second air attack during the crossing. Not the last one however, since two more times, between Zuara and Tripoli, during the nights of the 12th and 13th, the convoy was attacked from the air.

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RN Alfredo Oriani underway. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On the daytime attack of the 12th, and the two following nights, the Escort Commander, Commander Chinigo, referred thus in his report:

The 12th

14.00 hours – Eight enemy planes are sighted[9], coming from the west at low height towards the formation. The escorting units and the steamers open targeted and barrage fire. Numerous water columns are seen close to the escort units and the steamers. Three of the attacking planes hit by the anti-aircraft fire crash in flames.

14.10 hours – The CAFFARO, hit by a bomb, takes fire. I am ordering CIRCE and ORSA and then FULMINE to come to the aid of the unfortunate steamer. I send the standard signal of having been discovered.

15.00 hours – Continued observation of flames from the fire in the direction of CAFFARO, and more and more explosions can be heard.

15.55 hours – I inform Supermarina[10] and Marina Tripoli[11] of the air attack with the reservation that further information cannot be provided yet.

16.05 hours – I observe a strong explosion in the direction of CAFFARO. Immediately after CIRCE signals that the steamer has sunk.

16.50 hours – CIRCE, FULMINE, ORSA report that they have on board 110, 35, and 79 shipwrecked, respectively. CIRCE and ORSA also that they have no-one particularly badly hurt.

18.40 hours – Notify Supermarina and Marina Tripoli of the sinking of CAFFARO and the number of shipwrecked rescued. Communicate furthermore that FULMINE is navigating for Tripoli with one severely wounded.

23.54 hours – At point C of the safe route to Tripoli. Steamers proceed in line astern.

It is worth noting that the German documentation on the downed Blenheims is somewhat more precise. German navy AA crews were on board of at least the steamer Nirvo. They reported that all three Blenheims were downed at 14.35 hours, one directly by the Kriegsmarine AA embarked on Nirvo, one by AA from a destroyer, with support from the Kriegsmarine AA on board Nirvo, and the other downed by AA weapons of embarked troops on Nirvo. Ammunition use was 23, 13, and 62 rounds of 2cm AA, respectively. The weather is described as clear and sunny, with medium visibility.

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Vickers Wellington Mark IC of No. 38 Squadron RAF Detachment, taxying at Luqa, Malta. Seven aircraft of the Squadron were detached to Malta from Shallufa, Egypt, between August and October 1941 for operations over the Mediterranean and Italy. Courtesy of the IWM Collection.

13 September

While the ORB of No. 38 Squadron places this attack on the 12th, I am certain it actually happened in the night 12/13 September, from 0340am to 0455am, seven Wellingtons of No. 38 Squadron bombed the convoy. They suffered no losses. Crews were led by Sgts. Robotham, Brine, Earl, Pottis, Secomb and Hawes, and F/Lt. Davis.

Target – Convoy – proceeding to Tripoli. Convoy was located 25 miles N.W. of Tripoli and was attacked from 03.40 to 04.55 hours.

Bombs dropped 24,500.lbs.

Results: four ships were hit, fires starting on two of them.

Opposition: light flack from escorting destroyers.

The timing of the attack fits exactly with the timing of the aircraft noise report by Tp Circe. The hits reported were then on SS Nicoló Odero. The earlier attack was almost certainly again a torpedo attack, with the standard attack pattern.

The 13th

01.05 hours – Four or five airplanes are seen on a course of 240 degrees with landing lights illuminated. Issue the air alarm signal to all units.

01.20 hours – Numerous flares light up to the left of the formation. Order the escort units to make smoke. The units and the steamers fire targeted and barrage. A total of 18 flares are counted.[12]

02.30 hours – The attack ceases and the formation is reordered, and normal navigation proceeds.

03.33 hours – Marina Tripoli informs me that the PERSEO leaves Zuara and will join the convoy to strengthen the escort. Further informs that at sunrise a MAS will be the pilot for the safe route.

03.45 hours – CIRCE signals aircraft noises to the rear.

03.55 hours – A flare light is seen on the right of the convoy. I issue the standard signal of having been discovered. Escort units and steamers open barrage fire. Smoke is made.

04.00 hours – An explosion on one of the steamers is observed.

04.04 hours – CIRCE signals that the steamer ODERO was hit.

04.24 hours – A bomb hits in our wake at about 100 meters from the stern. Fire is opened with the machine guns.

04.30 hours – CIRCE signals that there are men in the water and requests that another escort is sent. I order ORSA and PERSEO, which during the attack rejoined the formation, to get close to CIRCE and cooperate in the assistance of the hit steamer and to the rescue of the  shipwrecked.

05.00 hours – The attack ceases and the formation is taken up again, and we proceed on the safe route.

05.05 hours – CIRCE signals that the ODERO has fire on board, but that she is not sinking, and requests sending a tug.

The steamer NICOLO’ ODERO, even though in flames, remains afloat for many hours, with the support of the torpedo boats ORSA, CIRCE, and PERSEO which, in the first instance, are engaged in saving the men embarked on the merchant.

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Torpedo boat RN Perseo, lead of her sub-class of Spica torpedo boats.

In support of the steamer, the tugs PRONTA and PORTO PALO leave Tripoli at sunrise,  seeking with any means to extinguish the fire which is still raging on the merchant. The PORTO PALO even goes alongside the ODERO, sending men to fight the fire.

Only when it is clear that the flames cannot be doused do the two tugs take the burning steamer in tow, first trying to reach Tripoli, and then to beach it on the coast. During the whole night, the two tugs and two motor trawlers, also coming from Tripoli, remain close to the steamer with the hope to ultimately save it, but during the afternoon of the 14th September a hold with ammunition blows up, causing the destruction of the NICOLO’ ODERO.

No. 38 Squadron then ‘visited’ Tripoli on the 13th, again I believe this was the night of 13/14, probably to attack during the unloading of the convoy.  The report of Odero having been beached, which only happened on the 14th, is a give-away in this regard.

Numerous bombs on the harbour edge are reported and six  Italian soldiers killed in a direct hit on their MG position near the lighthouse. Seven Wellingtons went out, with the crews of Flight Officer Pascall, Pilot Officer Ridgway, and Sgts. Cooper, Fell, McManus, and Nankivell. None were lost.

Target – Tripoli – shipping alongside Spanish Quay. Attack lasted from 03.00 to 04.35 hours.

Bombs dropped 27,500. lbs.

Bombs fell on or near the Quay.

Aircraft reported a large ship aground 30 miles W. of Tripoli. This M/V presumed to be one of those set on fire during previous night’s attack on convoy.

Opposition: effective smoke-screen. Heavy A.A. aimed at aircraft, not barrage fire. Light A.A. as usual. Eleven searchlights operated.

Assessment

It is clear from the Italian account that the British accounts were severely mistaken about the impact of their attacks. No ships had been hit in the night attack by No. 830 Squadron on 11/12 September. In the afternoon attack by No. 105 Squadron, only one merchant had been hit, not two. The second attack by the Swordfish is not mentioned at all.

What is also interesting is that the Italian air escort is not mentioned by the Italian report.

Sub-Lt. Campbell of No. 830 Squadron seems to overstate the case of his attack somewhat regarding his hit on what must have been Caffaro.  At this stage I am doubtful regarding his claim, and what could be surmised is that the explosion leading to the end of Caffaro was actually caused by a torpedo hit. But overall his story does not stack up, while the time of the Blenheim attack, the description by the escort commander, and the losses all seem to fit.

The official Italian history claims she was hit by a bomb, which appears the likely reason. The Italian report of eight attacking planes, of which three were shot down, is therefore to be considered an accurate account of the loss of Caffaro.

As for No. 105 Squadron, this was to be one of the last operations it flew in the Mediterranean. It suffered two more losses. Sgt. Bendall and crew on 17 September when attacking a small convoy, and Wing Commander Sciviers and his crew on 22 September, when his plane collided with that of Sgt. Williams during an attack on the barracks at Homs in Libya. The attack on the small convoy on 17 September is again well documented.

First the British side:

Three aircraft took off to attack one small MERCHANT VESSEL, one TUG and two SCHOONERS. One SCHOONER was left a mass of flames and the other was seen to blow up and disintegrate. One aircraft failed to return from this OPERATION. The crew were – SGT. BENDALL – Pilot: Sgt. HILL – Observer. SGT BROWN – W/OP/A.G.

PILOT OFFICER ROBINSON of No. 107 Squadron also proceeded on this operation and failed to return.

From the Italian side:

14 September 2200 hours from Trapani to Tripoli. Steamer Ascianghi, Steam Tug Mirabello del Parco with Minesweeper Pietrino in tow; Motor Schooner Filuccio. Escort Escort Destroyer Clio. At 1600 hours of 17 September, 15 miles north of Zuara, the convoy is attacked by bombers. Three are shot down and one of these crashes on Mv Filuccio, provoking a fire and her sinking. The Ascianghi rescues 10 out of 13 members of the crew. On the 18th at 0900 hours at Tripoli without Mv Filuccio.

The sections show again how easy it was to get things wrong.

In October No. 105 Squadron was withdrawn back to the UK, to convert to Mosquitos. It did maintain a Blenheim I as a ‘hack’ plane. No. 107 Squadron took over operations on Malta, with similarly tragic performance.

Impact

According to the German loading lists, Nicoló Odero did not carry any German supplies on this voyage. Caffaro however did. She went down with substantial numbers of vehicles, rations, and ammunition, losses that the German forces could ill afford, and that further delayed the build up to the attack on Tobruk, which in turn enabled the Allied forces to attack first. The full list of her German load is given below. She almost certainly also carried Italian cargo, but I have not been able to find the manifest for this. While Caffaro carried a substantial number of soldiers, primarily drivers for the vehicles of 7./Flak 25, Heeresfunkstelle XVIII and Stab Panzergruppe, most of these are likely to have been rescued, with 224 men being picked up.

Screen Shot 2018 04 07 at 4 05 08 PM

Footnotes

[1] Should be MV Giulia. Orseo should be Perseo, Spica class boat, the staple Regia Marina escort. Displacing 1,020 tons at full load, they were armed with 3x10cm guns, four 450mm torpedo tubes, and a reasonable set of AA and ASW weaponry, running 34 knots top speed.
[2] Western
[3] This was a powerful escort with substantial AA capabilities. Strangely, the report omits to mention the MV Giulia, which was definitely part of the convoy,.
[4] The Orianis were a class of four modern, large destroyers. An improved repeat of the Maestrale class, with 2,470t at full displacement, 4x120mm main guns and six torpedo tubes as main armament, and a claimed top speed of 38 knots. They carried improved anti-air guns compared to the Maestrales. Oriani survived the war and served in the French navy until 1954.
[5]Commander Chinigò survived the war and after the war rose to the rank of Captain and commanded the Littorio, being her last captain.
[6] A Folgore class destroyer, an older ship, she was sunk in the Duisburg/Beta convoy battle on 9 November 1941 with the loss of 141 men including her commander, Lt.Cdr. Mario Milano. The Folgores were not a lucky class, with all four ships lost during the war. They displaced 2,096 tons at full load, carried 4x120mm guns and six torpedo tubes as main armament, and had a claimed top speed of 38 knots. A repeat of the Freccia class they had less stability and range than her predecessor due to a reduction in their beam.
[7] Orsa-class torpedo boats, an enlarged version of the Spicas (see below). At 1,575 tons full displacement, they traded one 10cm gun for improved AA and ASW equipment, carrying also 4x 450mm torpedo tubes and only running at up to 28 knots. Pegaso claimed four Royal Navy submarines, which if confirmed would make her one of the top submarine hunters of the Regia Marina. There are however doubts over this record. Pegaso and Procione scuttled on the armistice, while Orsa survived the war and continued to serve until 1964.
[8] Circe was also a Spica-class boat. Circe destroyed four confirmed Royal Navy submarines during the war, making her one of the most successful sub-hunters of the Regia Marina.
[9] This are likely to have been the eight Blenheims of No. 105 Squadron out of Luqa, Malta, on their attack run.
[10] Regia Marina High Command
[11] Naval Command Tripoli
[12] This was standard attacking practice for the torpedo bombers. The lead aircraft which carried radar instead of a torpedo would drop flares behind the convoy, to silhouette it, and enable the attacking planes to approach from the dark.

Sources

British

Operations record books of Nos. 11, 14, 38, 55, 105, 107, and 272 Squadrons R.A.F..
Admiralty War Diary, Malta

Italian

Official history: La Difesa del Trafico con l’Africa Settentrionale Vol. I

German

War diaries Naval Transport Offices Benghazi, Tripolis.

Cargo Manifests, Naval Transport Office Naples

Websites:

Malta War Diary

Royal Navy Day by Day

Wrecksite

Personal Diary – Major Ling 44 R.T.R.

Came across this one today through a link on ww2talk. Very good read. The CRUSADER section starts on page 5, where he has lost the date (second column). Can be found at this link (pdf).

I have previously posted about the 44 R.T.R.’s role in the famous night attack on Belhamed at this link. I will post accounts on the battle outside Tobruk in the coming days.

A brief history of the regiment during the war can be found at this link.

Major Ling has his own entry in Tank Men by Robert Kershaw, at this link. He was promoted to Major on 13 December 1941,

His private papers are preserved at the IWM with a description at this link.

Happy reading!

Operations of Italian XXI Corps in the Western Desert and Tripolitania – Report by Lt. Gen. Enea Navarini

 

 

I received the report below for translation from David Katz, who was then researching his book on the South African participation in North Africa, since published. David had helped me with access to war diaries of South African forces, so it was natural that I was only too happy to return the favor. The report is held at the South African military archives in Jo’Burg. I have to apologize for the low quality of the translation. Italian is not my native tongue, and while my Italian wife showed a certain forbearance, that only went so far. Furthermore, she is not a military expert, so a lot of this made less sense to her than to me. Nevertheless, I am quite happy to offer this up as an additional Italian perspective, and hope that once readers come to grips with the style, they will find it useful.

General Navarini had a long career in the Italian Army, being retired only at the surrender of the remaining Fascist forces in 1945. His career details are well described at this link, with a picture at this link.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183 1982 0927 502 Nordafrika Navarini Rommel Diesener
Prop.-Kp. PZ, Afrika Film-Nr.: 73/39 Bildberichter: Moosmüller Ort: Afrika Datum 21.11.41 General [Erwin] Rommel im Hauptquartier des ital. Armeekorps. Kartenbesprechung mit dem ital. Armeegeneral [Enea] Navarini u. dem Verbindungsoffizier Oberst Diesener

The original report is typed up in something similar to Courier New, and the odd approach to paragraphing is following the original. I’ve been trying to reproduce that. Typos and translation errors are all mine, and I am sure they are numerous. 

Resized 20160211 104041 1Report Cover Page

 

 Operations in the Western Desert and Tripolitania

 Italian XXI Corps July ’41 – Jan ‘43

By

Lt. Gen. Enea Navarini 

NAREP – ME: 13 

Foreword 

With the present account I set out in a succinct manner my activities in North Africa at the helm of XXI Army Corps during the above time and within the circumstances set out below:

August – November 1941

Siege of the fortress of Tobruk and preparation of the assault on same

November 1941 to January 1942

Retreat up to the position of Mersa-Brega, Maaten Giofer, Marada, and preparation for the defense of the same.

February to May 1942

Reconquest of Cyrenaica and following from this preparation of the defensive line Bengasi – Sceleidima – Giof el Matar – Saunnu

April – May 1942

Occupation of the position Tmimi – Bir Temrad – Sidi Bregheisc and preparation for the offensive against the forces of the British 8th Army.

May – June 1942

Offensive of the Panzerarmee Afrika against the fortress of Tobruk, leading to success and the capture of the fortress Marsa Matruh.

July – October 1942

Attack and defense at the position of El Alamein.

November 1942 to January 1943

Retreat across Cyrenaica and Tripolitania

January 1943

Reaching line of Mareth and preparation for its defense.

In the following I set out in detail how the operations outlined above unfolded, with some considerations of strictly operational character.

This will be followed by a section with observations of a general character by me, concerning questions related to the organisation of our operational forces in North Africa.

These observations, representing my experience of 19 months of the Libyan-Egyptian campaign, should not have a dogmatic character, but are simply meant for information.

The XXI Army Corps operated under the tactical dependence of the Panzerarmee Afrika.

Relations with the allied command and the German comrades were always characterised by maximal cordiality.

 

EVENTS OF WAR

The siege of Fortress Tobruk and the preparations for the attack on same

XXI Army Corps, consisting of the Brescia, Pavia, and Bologna divisions, by the end of July 1941 had the task of establishing the siege belt of the Fortress Tobruk, to avoid the escape of the defenders, and to prepare the conquest.

Activities carried out by the troops of the Army Corps consisted of:

–                 Patrolling actions in reaction to the analogous activity carried out by the enemy;

–                 Creating jumping off positions for the attack, of particular importance those for the breaching of the positions which had been prepared for defense for a long time (such as those of the munitissima of Fortress Tobruk)

During this time the XXI Army Corps, the only one involved in the siege operations, working closely with first a German regiment (155th Rifle Regiment) and then with the 90th Light Africa Division, carries out its assigned tasks well. During the beginning of November, with the valuable support of the German artillery, it had been possible to squeeze the circle and to prepare in a relatively efficient way the attack operations, for which it had been decided to use the support of the whole of the German Armoured Corps.

In particular the divisions Pavia and Bologna underwent comprehensive training to ingrain a range of procedures for attack understood to be the most efficient in action against defensive systems of permanent character.

It is worth keeping in mind that the attack on the Fortress Tobruk in the autumn of 1941 could have had a favourable outcome, just as at the end of Spring 1942, since the same procedures adopted for the attack of 1941 were then put into action.

Nevertheless I observe that the attack of 1941 would have run the serious risk of having to abort to face the British offensive which was initiated exactly on 21 November of that year.

 

Retreat up to the position of Marsa-Bregar, Maaten Giofer, Marada and preparation for defense of that position

The British offensive began on 21 November, utilising the forces coming from the east, and those of the Fortress Tobruk.

Enemy objectives were:

–                 Releasing the besieged forces in Tobruk;

–                 Destruction of Axis forces operating in Marmarica

At the end of November the British offensive began to take a turn against us and soon the enemy succeeded, partially, to achieve a meaningful link between the troops attacking towards Tobruk and those which had sortied from it.

A good half of the forces of XXI Army Corps, the division Bologna and a good part of the division Trento found themselves in a critical position, because they were taken both in front and back.

This unfortunate situation forced the retreat of our forces towards the west. This operation, planned in the first days of December, began on 9 December, and concluded in the first days of January 1942 with a good outcome for our troops since many of them reached the new line of Marsa el Brega.

The reasons why the battle of annihilation failed for the enemy were essentially two:

1)      insufficient strength from the start of the offensive of both troops and equipment, compared to his left wing which advanced through the desert;

2)      failure to fully follow-up successes by the enemy (comparative ones) with the standard stop of attacks and movements at sunset.

It is however also necessary to point out that the retreat  was well executed by the German command (General Rommel) and the Italian commands without losing their heads and sacrificing the least necessary amount of forces and equipment.

 

Reconquest of Cyrenaica and subsequent preparation of the defensive line Bengasi – Sceleidima – Giof el Matar – Saunnu

On 20 January the counteroffensive of the Italian – German troops commenced and developed rapidly, which within a short timeframe succeeded in re-occupying the Cyrenaica up to the Uadi Derna.

The XXI Army Corps, not being motorised, does not participate in this attack but was utilised to arrange an advanced defensive line (situated east compared to that of Marsa el Brega), connecting the following locations: Benghazi – Sceleidima – Giof el Matar – Saunnu.

 

Occupation of the positions of Tmimi – Bir Temrad – Sidi Breghisc and preparation of the offensive against the British forces of the 8th Army.

The non-motorised Italian Army Corps, the X and XXI were placed into the first line during the months of April and May, to give the armoured Axis troops the opportunity to train and prepare themselves for the offensive against the Fortress Tobruk.

The XXI Army Corps, always under my command, reaches with few vehicles, and therefore with numerous successive truck movements, the line of Tmimi – Bir Temrad – Sidi Bregheisc.

In this line it established in a short time a number of field fortifications to be able to confront any possible attack by the enemy.

At the same time it engaged vigorously in the replenishment of the various units of the Army Corps for their participation in the forthcoming offensive. Men, munitions, and various materials were assigned in good measure until, by mid-May 1942, the combat effectiveness of the 21st Army Corps had reached a more than satisfactory level.

The only shortage experienced in the Libyan theatre of operations was that of motor vehicles. They were always short in numbers, and those available in bad condition because of over-use, yet needed because of the long distances

to traverse, the requirement to move over diverse forms of ground, often sandy, and the environmental and climatic conditions. This was a question well known to all, but which it is necessary to consider, had a negative influence on the execution of operations.

 

Panzerarmee Afrika’s offensive to take the Fortress of Tobruk, its success, and the conquest of the Fortress Mersa Matruh.

26 May the offensive of the Axis forces began.

The XXX.C.A., under my command, placed north at the point of the Via Balbia, with the task to invest frontally the positions of Ain el Gazala. Once these have been overcome, the XXI. C.A. attacks from the west the Fortress Tobruk, entering into it, on the second day of the attack.

Based on the orders from the command of the Panzerarmee Afrika, the pursuit of the enemy retreating eastward is immediately carried out.

Therefore, the 100 km travelled to reach the jumping off positions at the Fortress Tobruk, have another about 200 km added to them to first reach Bardia and then Sollum.

Thus, while in the line Tmimi – Bir Temrad – Sidi Breghisc movement in the most possible compact battle order was required, it was necessary to have the infantry march on foot, while during the break-in phase the time factor was of highest importance and it was necessary to rapidly reorder the forces to move them by motor transport which was only available in small numbers.

It was indispensable to act decisively until reaching the border line to deny the Fortress Tobruk the space to maneuver to the east and to thus prepare better conditions to recommence offensive action towards the east.

Of this, I as commander of one of the Army Corps was fully convinced and did not miss to put into action any effort to respond in the best way to the requests by the higher command (in this case German) which, used to rapid execution, without discussion, of whichever operational order was given, did not allow discussions.

Once reaching the line of the Libyan – Egyptian border, the Command of the Panzerarmee Afrika immediately fixed the task of reaching the distant strategic objectives, the base of Alexandria in Egypt, Cairo, and the Nile Valley.

Little or no thought had been given with this decision to the rigours of battle, Ain el Gazala – Got el ualeb and Bir Hacheim, the assault on the Fortress of Tobruk and finally the pursuit up to Bardia, which had affected the forces and equipment of the operational Corps.  Rigours which were not just due to losses in battle but also were determined by the distance of about 300 km of desert which had to be crossed with the best logistical support in order to arrive at the assigned objectives.

As far as the action of the XXI C.A. as part of Panzerarmee Afrika is concerned, one has to observe that the straight and simple frontal attacks which it had been asked to undertake could not have resulted in decisive outcomes without being combined, at army level, with the actions in the south.

Especially difficulty was found by the Army Corps in overcoming the mine fields, which the enemy had laid everywhere to make motorised movement more difficult.

Laying of mines and the difficulty to remove them has also made movement quite slow in North Africa. Real mine fields, fake mine fields, sometimes placed at the front and in depth (first with some indication on the ground of their existence and later not), and with machine gun and anti-tank positions inserted into them, constituted a novelty that few were prepared to overcome.

Thus developed, for laying and destroying them, a technique based on experience which in future needs to be deepened and improved to make all arms familiar with it and to become a specialty of the Army.

Once it reached the border line between Libya and Egypt, the XXI.C.A., as mentioned before, had the order to proceed immediately to the east to carry out the occupation of Sidi Barrani: about 130km of travel.  And while of the enemy there was no further trace, new orders came from the command of Panzerarmee Afrika, proposing to move further east to reach Mersa Matruh: another 120km to go.

Basically, after these 300 km of travel with some difficulty to position itself at the border between Libya and Egypt, another move of 250km was ordered to the troops of the XXI. C.A.

The current tactical situation, seen as favourable to us, leads the command of Panzerarmee Afrika to consider this deep move, and of this opportunity I, as commander of the Corpo Armato, was well aware.  The basic difficult was to match the forces to be transported with the means at our disposal, and in particular the vehicles to move men and equipment.

Confronted with the need to move to be able to carry out the task set to the Army Corps, there was only one way: to lighten the subordinated elements to reach an appropriate level of forces and vehicles.

This was carried out and mostly due to this expediency was it possible to push forward in depth up to Marsa Matruh, attack the fortress, and take it.

No particular observation of operational characters emerges from the events described above, during which almost exclusively the logistical aspect was the determining element for the success of the operation.

 

Attack and defense of the El Alamein position

Once the operation to conquer the fortress of Marsa Matruh was finished, the command of Panzerarmee Afrika (assessing the opportunity in light of the favourable situation) wanted to once more push to the full depth to reach the already set distant objectives.

The XXI.Corpo Armata therefore moved in the direction of Fuka and el Daba until it made contact with the enemy in the El Alamein position, another 200km to add to the already 550km traversed since the begin of the offensive.

 Another notable logistical effort to achieve which presented a new strenuous effort to the troops and the vehicles of the subordinated elements.

No compromise was possible between the tactical and the logistical requirements, in order to execute quickly the new advance, it was absolutely necessary to give precedence to calculate who could follow and be transported with the few motor vehicles available.

Today, after the events, it is easy to judge that after Marsa Matruh the Panzerarmee Afrika had been extended to its logistical breaking point and therefore, also its tactical one.

On the other hand, after the successive successes, it was logical to think that the moment had come to work on the basis of the assumption that every audacious move, not normally possible or even considered ridiculous, was possible.

Myself too, after reaching El Daba with a small share of the XXI.Corpo Armata, just 100km from Alexandria in Egypt, receiving as objective this enemy base, asked seriously whether this was possible with the my weak available forces, or whether instead it was forcing too much these dangerous events to create dangerous situations leading to the good outcome of the operation.

It was a momentous opportunity that presented itself and on the other hand the orders received did not allow discussions of letting it go! In the first days of July the XXI. Corpo Armata  was in contact with the enemy in the El Alamein position.

The reactions from the first moment was such that it was quickly clear that the dead end had been reach, in which our extended forces were no longer able to overcome the resistance of the enemy.

On the contrary, it was quickly necessary to move over to the defense, because the arrival on the frontline of forces and equipment had become much faster and smoother for the enemy because of the closeness of Alexandria as a major base.

The enemy attacks carried out in July, the first of which (10 July) hit exactly on the XXI.Corpo Armata, changed quickly the situation.

We thus arrive at the enemy offensive of Autumn 1942.

It is my personal conviction that our offensive, once it had reached the battlefield of Marsa Matruh, should have stopped, with all available forces being placed on the line Marsa Matruh – Siwa Oasis. Once all available forces had been assembled, it would have been possible to determine, with a rational view, the line to follow, such as:

–                 either to attack again in depth with a view to reach the Nile Valley or even better Suez – Port Said;

–                 or to assume a defensive – counter-offensive posture considering the inevitable enemy attack.

To repeat, with hindsight it is easy to judge what would have been better to do in June 1942, once the Egyptian territory had been reached. The difficulty was to decide this at the opportune moment.

Nevertheless, today, at least from the point of view of history, one can affirm that the tremendous cost suffered by the units, once they had reached Marsa Matruh, should have led to a serious hesitation in the continued pursuit of the offensive.

To attack into the depth, as was done, it should at least have been clear that the enemy was effectively reduced to the few surviving forces of the 8th Army.

Which wasn’t the case, as the facts showed.

 

Retreat across Cyrenaica and Tripolitania

The natural consequence of the successful enemy offensive was our retreat, intended as the extreme act to save what was saveable by fleeing the annihilation battle which the enemy had sought at all cost to rapidly achieve a great strategic result.

The XXI.Corpo Armata at the head of the Via Balbia, after have survivied the first violent attack of the enemy, and after having battled with alternating events for several days had to initiate the retreat, by necessity losing numerous and important positions of our forces.

The road nevertheless allowed the movement towards the west of many parts of the Corps, something that did not arrive for the X. Corpo d’Armata positioned to the south which was, almost completely, overrun by the advancing adversary.

The stages of the withdrawal: line of Marsa el Brega, line Buerat, were nothing but halts on the inevitable movement towards Tunisia.

From my point of view there was nothing else to be done, and the result of having made the enemy advance more slowly constituted for the forces of the Axis, something worthwhile.

During the retreat the scarcity of motor vehicles was felt even more than during the offensive phase, because, as is always the case in these circumstances, all those who remain behind because of a lack of transport capacity are inevitably lost.

The XXI. Corpo d’Armata could count only just on about 1/3rd of the required number of motor vehicles that would have been needed to transport the whole Corps at the same time.

From this it is easy to understand the effort that had to be undertaken to manage the move of the rest of the XXI. Corpo d’Armata, over a distance of 2,500km, taking account of the distance from the position of El Alamein to the Mareth Line.

 

Arrival in the Mareth Line and Defensive Preparations there

The recent official information from our High Command had put some stones in the way which were clearly evident when arriving in the occupation of the Mareth Line with the quality and defects of the same.

The presence of defensive elements, even if only of limited consistency, and the ability to give a good depth to the defensive system in the south of Tunisia let the defect of the Mareth Line move to secondary considerations: the ability to outflank it to the west.

Notwithstanding this, the defensive system Mareth – Akerit convinced also me, as one of the first Italian commanders to be in post there that in these positions, with a bit of time, it would be possible to meet the enemy in battle.

It was the grave unknown from the west, to the south and the north of the Ahotta zone. The recent battle, fought bravely by our 1st Army, showed clearly that, without the grave threat from the west, the British 8th Army could have been held.

 

OBSERVATIONS OF GENERAL NATURE

Logistical requirements

The war in the operative frame of North Africa, although it never assumed the form and aspects of the real and proper colonial war, because in general the combat activities were restricted to the coastal belt, has nevertheless presented notable difficulties in the logistical aspect, because of the arid climate between May and September,  the general character of the desert, and the almost total absence of resources, including water, which was scarce and not always potable.

The large-scale, even exclusive use of units from the Italian homeland in this theatre, has constantly and in all commanders created serious preoccupation with life and actions of the troops.

Those who know the life of the troops can say that each unit, in a short time, suffered heavy reductions in its organic form, reducing it in the end to 50, 60%.

The elements which succumbed were those which were less adapted to life in these territories, because they could not support the burdens and privations of the special environment of living in Libya.

Thos who resisted, once they had favourably overcome the challenge of the environment, resisted well. The proof is in the fact that a good number of our soldiers reached and exceeded 30 months of permanent stay in North Africa, and remained healthy.

It is however true that over time the difficulty of life cut a lot into the moral of the soldiers.  The fact that they had to live with a rancid heat during the day, drink brackish water, or very dark water (because it was rich in calcium carbonite), that they had to renounce eating fresh vegetables, that they could not purchase some […] that they properly liked without covering a long distance, discouraged the soldier and made them feel as if they had been abandoned, as a being which had been badly treated by fate.

Thus it was easily possible to degenerate up to and arrive at the manifestation of muslim-type fatalism. And when the soldier arrived at this point, it was clear that his spirit and moral were low.

Those who fought in Libya at the time during which the major part of the operational forces consisted of native troops, could not fail to have had a sense of pain considering the difficulties of life to which our troops in North Africa had to submit in the war against the English. It’s enough to think that even the modest two litres of  water a day arrived at the soldier after the motor vehicle that transported them had to cover a return voyage of 200 kilometres.

One also has to recognise that the leaders did all their best to ensure the best possibilities of life for the soldiers, and that the soldier, who always saw his officers live the same life, faced the hard life of the war in North Africa with serenity.

It is well known that the logistical requirements presented by the colonial theatre of operations were a categorical imperative against whichever will, even the most tenacious, had to subordinate itself.

To the XXI. Army Corps, during my long presence in North Africa, in the most averse circumstances, nothing was missing, and this demonstrated the great merit of our quartermaster.

I always had dark doubts about the possibility for us to force an operation across long distance, such as the one to bring us almost to the doors of Alexandria in Egypt.

In light of the facts, the possibility manifested itself in reality, even with some difficulties.

I have to confirm here however, that the use of the standard infantry divisions in North Africa is not advisable, because of the great hardships required of the troops, in operations that require movements of hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. And one cannot praise our soldier highly enough, who in May and June of 1942 had to constantly march on foot, for days at end, under the force of an unforgiving sun.

North Africa represented the ideal theatre for motorised and mechanised troops. In the fight against rebel formations, we have always used indigenous troops, limiting the employment of those from the homeland to where they could be moved by truck; primarily because, against a fully motorised opponent, there is very little hope they can be defeated, because they have the net advantage of time and space.

With motorised units, and with adequate numbers of mechanised vehicles, I am convinced that the operation of summer 1942 would not have stopped at El Alamein, but could have reached the long distance objective of the Suez Canal, with evident and secure advantages for the general conduct of the war.

Therefore, the question of logistical requirements can be reassessed in two words: motor vehicles and fuel.

 

COOPERATION WITH ALLIED FORCES

I can confirm, in full honesty, that in North Africa the co-operation between the allied forces was always undertaken with maximum cordiality and respect on both sides.

The German units proved themselves to the fullest during the combat they underwent. It is true that they were better equipped and armed than ours, and had a higher number of motor vehicles at their disposal.

Differences in temperament, approach, in conceptualising military discipline, did sometimes lead to misunderstandings, overcome by a spirit of devotion to duty which in North Africa constantly animated the Italian and German troops.

The relations between the Command of the XXIst Army Corps and the Command of the Panzerarmee were always very cordial.

Likewise for the other Italian Corps.

The fact that the Italian large formations, equipped with few motor vehicles during the offensive of May – June 1942, pushed forward in depth without considering the difficulties they had to overcome, constitutes proof of the spirit that animated leaders and followers to collaborate until the final outcome with the Germans.

On the other hand, the large contribution in blood paid by the German troops in North Africa,  openly recognised by the Italian fighter,  constituted a solid element of getting along in colour. For on the grounds of Africa, they succeeded many times, thanks to the means at their disposal, to turn parts of the hard fight in which we were involved there in our favour.

The spirit of camaraderie never was missing at tactical level.  Some difficulties showed when it happened that German units had to be subordinated to the command of ours. There could appear sometimes a formal, rather than substantial subordination, while the same could not be said when Italian units were put under the orders of German commanders. It is possible that this could be because of the sense of superiority that the latter could badly hide from the Italians, superiority not much of spirit, but more material,  based on the fact that it was clearly apparent what were the means which the German forces could dispose of, compared to ours. During my time, I have always had some German forces under my command. Commanders, officers, and troops always showed themselves as disciplined comrades, deferential, and obedient.

 

WEAPONRY

Infantry Weapons

Nothing to say about the rifle, the light machine gun, and the machine gun. These are optimal weapons that proved themselves well in any circumstance.

The 47mm anti-tank gun against 25-ton tanks equipped with frontal armour of 80mm showed itself incapable to fire with a certainty of effect. The main conclusion, drawn in a number of circumstances, is that the 47mm gun was not up to its task.  In the end the weapon gave the soldier little confidence.

During the siege of Tobruk the 81mm mortar proved itself well.

 

Artillery

Our 75mm and 100mm divisional guns, and the 105mm Corps gun served well for the tasks of support and barrage.

This cannot be said however for the task of counterbattery.

The English equipment with a high muzzle velocity, and therefore longer range (compared to our artillery), could always fire from a distance, outside our fire range.

This was often a cause of discomfort for our soldier who did not feel himself adequately supported by our artillery.

The English gun of 88mm managed to hit our troops everywhere, and even though it did not cause great damage, achieved the result of depressing the morale of our soldiers.

The typical and very useful flying artillery of the English, trained to act in isolation, moved quickly from one point to the other.  The English knew well that our light and medium guns had a notably inferior range, and made sure they profited from it, always conscious of the morale effect they achieved.

 

DRESS AND EQUIPMENT

Initially did not respond well to the need. Our regiments went to North Africa dressed as in Europe. Grey-green uniforms made from drape, metal helmet and heavy  loads on their backs.

In North Africa, and especially in Marmarica and in the Egyptian desert, it is not possible to live in such a condition.

The troops became despondent and performed less well. Later there was clear progress in the matter, uniforms made of cloth were distributed on a grand scale.

The enemy came clothed and equipped colonial-style from the start, and could do this thanks to his abundant possibilities.

Instead it must be said that for our soldiers the care of the items distributed to them lacked, and under the special circumstances of life in North Africa, the officers did not always act with the severe duty and energy to avoid severe wastage.

 

ORDER OF BATTLE

The A.S.1942 order of battle became the definitive representation of the Metropolitan units to adapt them to the special circumstances of the war in North Africa, where the first element of the struggle that was fought had always been the armoured vehicle.

Thus one arrived at the decentralisation of the anti-tank gun down to infantry companies: three guns for each company.

The infantry company, the basic unit of the army, became constituted of the following subunits:

–        one platoon with six light machine guns

–        one platoon with three machine guns Breda 37

–        one platoon with three 20mm AT rifles

–        one platoon with three 47mm AT guns

The elements of the platoon were reduced as much as possible to have the smalles possible number of men.

The uniformity of the organic structure did not lead to grave inconveniences because also the combat ground on which the various units were called and acted was mostly similar.

The inconveniences which presented themselves were of other nature, to be precise:

–        the platoon, as it was structured, did not act as such, because it was necessary to balance the various fire centres, which always led to dispersion.

–        the infantry company showed itself to be the adequate/suitable to the defense, but on the other hand not the attack since the riflemen, really the assaulters

had been reduced to few men, in the rifle platoon;

To each soldier it was necessary to assign a specialty and for various reasons of deficiency this was noteworth, that it was not known how to replenish open positions without moving to reduce the battalions from four companies to three, and also to two. All the units, battalions, regiments, and divisions did also not have, during the defensive, organic units under their direct control with which they could react to enemy attacks: the battalions, because by necessity their three or four companies had to occupy the strongpoints, the regiment and the division because of the inherent shortcoming of the binary organisation. At the level of the Army Corps, this was addressed by assigning additional troops at the following scale:

–        one regiment of Bersaglieri.

–        one regiment of Corps Artillery

–        one battalion of “M”-type tanks

The latter was an important maneuver element in the hands of the Corps Commander, but remained permanently on paper. Thus, almost always, against the enemy attacks the large Italian formations had to count on the counter attack by the German units.

For the normal Army Corps, such as the XXIst under my command, there was no assignment of:

–        reconnaissance units

–        mobile artillery.

The mixed reconnaissance units, constituted of motorised infantry, armoured vehicles and artillery, would have given a very useful service to the Army Corps. The command of Panzerarmee Afrika, when it was possible, assigned temporarily its reconnaissance units to our large formations, but this assignment had the basic drawback that it came from another army, and therefore was not as easily commanded as would have been desirable.

Of the mobile artillery one sensed well the absence, since the truck-borne small-calibre guns, at long range, which the desert terrain

Always presented, could act by improvised fire from various points.

Because of these shortcomings in the organic structure, the tactical actions of the Commander of the Army Corps were often restricted to assuming a mostly modest aspect, and limited to only using the Corps Artillery.

During the last months some battalions of 90/53 were assigned to the XXIst Corps. These were enthusiastically accepted. The results were most appreciated.

 

COOPERATION WITH THE AIR FORCE

The Army Corps never had their own aviation unit. For tactical reconnaissance a request had to be made to the High Command, sufficiently in advance. When it arrived over the battlefield it was often too late. I am convinced that assigning air assets directly under the command of the Army Corps would have rendered essential services with the stormy intervention of the planes and the immediate passing on of information. The concentration of all the air assets in the hands of the High Command reduced the links between ground and air forces with negative effect on the general performance. Dispersal, even of only some, has some inconveniences, but when everything is considered the I am of the view that the Army Corps Commander should be able to dispose directly, also in Africa, of his own air assets.

 

PREPARATION OF PERSONNEL

Actions by the Commands, also the lower ones, are difficult in the colonial operating theatre requires solid and well selected personnel. Most of our officers were di complement, of which many had been recalled. In North Africa high- and low-ranking officers arrived who had not been recalled for a long time; most of which had never been to the colonies.

To the defective technical professional preparation had to be added the complete environmental disorientation.

These officers did what they could, but contributed only modestly.

It was foreseen to have officer training centres, but I have the impression that these elements could not, for a number of reasons, fully respond to the tasks given to them. One question of particular importance, regarding the officer training, was that of orientation. All the officers showed grave deficiencies regarding secure movement in the desert.

Our commands could only count on the work of well trained navigators in the during the spring of 1942.

Furthermore compasses were not owned by all, and not all could securely operate them.

 

TACTICAL PROCEDURES

Since tanks and guns had shown themselves to be the fundamental arms in action on desert-like terrain, it followed that the rules of combat for North Africa, for attack and defense, had by necessity to take full account of these means of combat.

Based on the numerous experiences made it is necessary to outline all the drills to establish practical modalities of action so that, especially in the case of lower commands, these knew how to act.

The war in the desert regions of North Africa required judgement and an agile temperament which the mass of us possessed in at least equal measure, although not superior to the Anglo-Saxons. One just had to use one and the other.

Our enemy knew how to obtain great training from three years in the Libyan campaign, and based on this, reviewed if not creatively, his procedures for action.

It is however true that means and procedures of action integrate with one another; but one also has to keep in mind that the combination of few vehicles with optimised abilities for action can give equal if not better results than having many vehicles with insufficient capability.

Keeping in mind that this discussion goes beyond what has been requested of me, and I therefore allow myself to treat it at high level.

 

SPRIIT OF THE TROOPS

I would like to conclude my note with a brief overview of the important discussions which, during the long months of my time in North Africa, I could observe many times.

The Italian soldier, like basically all soldiers of the world, has optimal qualities.

First among these was the ability to adapt, which is a maximum requirement and by virtue of which, even with scarce means, our units overall carried out their duty well, in the special and difficult environment of life in North Africa.

The long stay in North Africa of the frontline troops has to be avoided at all cost. It gave room to disgruntlement without leading to manifestation of ill-discipline.

The fact of knowning that, after 12 or at most 18 months, the soldier could, even for a short time, return to Italy, was one of the positive elements of undisputable value to keep the spirit of the troops high.

I believe that keeping complete units based in Sicily would have been sufficient, from which the combat units in North Africa could have drawn reinforcements.

This draw of troops could definitely have become the practical means by which the combat troops in North Africa could have been gradually replaced.

In this way it could also have been avoided to have entire battalions arrive in blocks which practically could only operate after a certain amount of time.  And it would have avoided the even worse case of the immediate employment in the frontline of entire battalions which had just arrived from the motherland, which inevitably ended with them not doing well.

North Africa devoured soldiers in an extraordinary manner.

The regiments of the XXI. C.A. arrived at seeing 4-5,000 men pass through their ranks.

When reflecting on the combative spirit one can say that our soldier, when he could, fought well, arousing the admiration of the Germans, our allies, and of their enemies.

We did however have to suffer the phenomenon of numerous prisoners being made which could leave many, far from the combat zone, wondering about the real desire of our soldiers to fight.

In this regard it is important however to keep present the characteristics of fighting in North Africa.

The real enemy, No.1, was the tank.

Our soldier, when he noted that he was not sufficiently prepared and equipped for the fight against tanks, lost courage.

One has to note that in any circumstance our soldier feared becoming prisoner. They accomplished feats that aroused admiration. Simple soldiers returned into our lines after overcoming major challenges.

Consideration came a bit late that the tank threat could be neutralised with adequate means and relevant procedures. Nevertheless, the phenomenon existed and we had to suffer it harshly.

Apart from that our soldier needed to see the enemy in front of him, something that wasn’t always possible in North Africa because, due to the vastness of the theatre of action, the enemy could always infiltrate into our lines or go around our positions.

In the end our soldiers lacked solid and capable officers.

Never, as in North Africa, was the old saying “As the officers, so the troops” more true.

The vast frontline, the notable distances between units, gave a sense of isolation which had a negative effect on troops not well lead.

Where the officers were always at their place, and showed themselves assured, things went well and the enemy had to halt, and even desist in his offensive.

 

CORPS GENERAL

COMMANDER

(Enea Navarini)

 

German Tank Deliveries – Part I 5.lei.Div.

Post updated based on feedback and comments received, 07 April 2018. Deliveries now updated to end of March 1942.

It was pointed out to me that the original post at this link contains errors. I have therefore gone back into the actual cargo ship loading manifests to try and correct it. The result is attached in the form of the PDF, which can be downloaded here: Tank Deliveries up to March 1942 (corrected 07 Apr 18). The file is at present published for comment and corrections prior to finalisation.

I will continue this work through to the end of my documentation of manifests, which is sometime towards the end of 1942, as time permits me. At present the file covers to 30 July inclusive.

Explanatory notes:

  1. Yellow highlighted cells indicate interpretation of tank type based on weight. I.e. no vehicle type other than ‘Panzer XX tonnen’ was given. 5-7 tons is a Panzer I or kleiner Befehlswagen (command tank on the basis of Panzer I chassis), 10 tons is a Panzer II or a Panzerjaeger I or a kleiner Panzerbefehlswagen for Panzerjaegerabt. 605, 20 tons is a Panzer III or grosser Panzerbefehlswagen (command tank on Panzer III chassis), and 22 tons is a Panzer IV.
  2. Peach highlighted are sunk tanks. S/S Adana and Arta were part of the ill-fated Tarigo convoy which was sunk in its entirety off the Kerkennah banks off Sfax, Tunisia, during the night of 16/17 April 1941. This convoy primarily carried units of 15. Panzerdivision. The two tanks would almost certainly have been grosse Panzerbefehlswagen, while that on Arta is difficult to tell.
  3. This list does include tanks delivered on Italian cargo ships, such as Andrea Gritti.
Burning_Panzer_I_Libya_1942

Burning kleiner Panzerbefehlswagen in Libya, from the AWM via Wikimedia Commons

adana_small_

German steamer S/S Adana in better days. From Wrecksite.eu