Was Rommel right to advance on the Egyptian frontier in April 1941?

Was Rommel right to advance on the Egyptian frontier in April 1941?

Bundesarchiv Bild 146 1985 013 07 Erwin Rommel 2

Porträt Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel mit Ritterkreuz und Orden Pour le Mérite (BAMA via Wikimedia)

Introduction

One of the enduring images of the desert war is that of the rapidly advancing Afrikakorps sweeping all before it. This is certainly what happened in April 1941, and it led to considerable gains of terrain for the Axis, and substantial losses in men and equipment for the Empire forces, and the siege of Tobruk. This advance was against clear orders given to Rommel, namely to await the arrival of 15. Panzerdivision in May 1941 before commencing any major operations.

Raids however (the Wehrmacht used the same term) were allowed. These were presumably considered useful in that they would keep the Empire forces off balance, and would deny them peace and quiet during which to prepare for their planned advance on Tripoli. Rommel commenced his raid on Agedabia, and when testing the Empire defense found it weak, and unleashed his forces for a deep penetration and with the aim to completely defeat the enemy in the western desert. This was of course of major propaganda value, and it has shaped the image we have of Rommel today, with a victorious German force (the Italians are normally overlooked) advancing rapidly, encircling and defeating all before them.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 783 0109 11 Nordafrika Panzer III in FahrtNordafrika.- Panzer III in Fahrt durch die Wüste (Panzer III on the march in the desert); PK “Afrika” April 1941 (BAMA via Wikipedia) 

A Counterfactual Approach

Modern historiography however has not been kind about this rash advance in defiance of orders from Berlin, and the general view today is that Rommel was out of his depth and never really got to grips with the logistical challenges his theatre forced him to confront.

The official German history Das deutsche Reich und der zweite Weltkrieg considers this advance the original sin, which put the Axis forces into a logistically impossible situation from which they never recovered, while not achieving a decisive outcome, when the assaults on Tobruk in Apri and May failed. It is hard to disagree with this view, once one reads the Panzergruppe war diary appendices, which are a long story of supply concerns through all of 1941.

My view is that modern historiography is correct, and that the move towards the east and the conquest of Cyrenaica and Marmarica did fatally damage the ability of the Axis to sustain its campaign in North Africa. The terrain gained was worthless without Tobruk and while the losses inflicted were heavy, they were far from fatal, and both tanks and men could be replaced on the Empire side.

A counterfactual consideration

Of interest here is the counterfactual – what could have happened, had the advance not taken place? This post will provide some thoughts on the matter, based on the following assumptions:

1) The campaigns in Greece, Syria, Iraq, and Abyssinia proceed unchanged.

2) There is no change to the speed of the build-up or the force allocations on both sides.

3) The strength of the tank force on both sides is the decisive factor in the timing of any major operation.

4) Light tanks such as the Italian L3 series, the German Panzer I, and the British Vickers Mk. VI are ignored on both sides.

5) Only raids are undertaken on both sides, neither is trying to advance in strength with the intent to hold territory, and any tank losses from these are temporary or replaced.

6) The exact numbers of the tanks don’t matter as much as long as the ball park is correct. In particular for the Empire side, getting to the right numbers is very difficult, as they did not know themselves for much of the first half of 1941.

The tank balance to autumn 1941

First, without the advance, the forces facing each other in Cyrenaica are reasonably well balanced at the end of March. Including some replacements for ten tanks lost in the fire on the Leverkusen, by mid-April the Axis can field 75 Panzer III, 20 Panzer IV, 45 Panzer II, and 32 Panzerjaeger I, and two battalions of Italian M13/41 medium tanks, with about 100 M13/40 tanks between them. This is a total of 272 combat capable vehicles, facing 112 British cruisers[1], 60 captured Italian M tanks, and 40 I tanks, for a total of 212 tanks, of varying reliability. It is clear that this force balance does not allow the Empire forces to consider a successful offensive, and that they need to await a substantial force build-up.

4081861

TOBRUK – AN ITALIAN CARRO ARMATO M13/40 MEDIUM TANK FROM BARDIA IS TAKEN OVER BY THE AIF AND SUITABLY MARKED WITH A KANGAROO SYMBOL. TROOPER H. R. ARCHER IS THE ARTIST. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY). (AWM 005047)

By the end of May, the Axis will receive the full force of Panzerregiment 8 as well as the other divisional units of 15. Panzerdivision, with the last of the tanks reaching Tripoli in the first days of May. The Axis tank force now numbers 91 Panzer II, 153 Panzer III, and 40 Panzer IV, as well as 32 Panzerjaeger I and the 100 Italian Mediums, for a total of 416 vehicles. 

At the same time, the Empire forces also receive reinforcements by tanks being returned from workshops, and the Tiger convoy arriving in mid-May shortly after, which then enabled operation BATTLEAXE to proceed. On 7 May, prior to the arrival of the Tiger convoy, the Empire tank force, assuming the April battles did not take place, numbers 115 cruisers, 59 I-tanks, and 60 captured Italian M tanks, for a total of 234 vehicles, meaning that the Axis now has a substantial superiority in tanks fielded in North Africa. Furthermore, the Empire tank force relies still on tanks with high mileage, and captured tanks of dubious combat value for its advantage.

By the end of June the picture does change. The Italian tanks are reinforced by another battalion, bringing the total to 138 M13/40 tanks and the Axis total to 454. On the Empire side, further returns from workshops as well as convoy arrivals, especially Tiger convoy, add large numbers of cruisers, bringing the total to 303 available[2], and the number of I-tanks rises to 201, to bring the total to 563 tanks including the 60 captured Italian tanks. Still, over half of the Empire margin of around 100 tanks is accounted for by the captured Italian tanks, and as noted it is unlikely these would have had much value in battle, given the situation with spares and ammunition. Again, in my view this makes any major Empire offensive before the end of June unlikely, and a successful one practically impossible. This is before considering the pressures of having to deal with the desaster in Greece, the campaigns in Syria and Iraq, and the remaining resistance in East Africa.

The tank balance only shifts later in the summer, with the arrival of the WS9a and b convoys, and most importantly the arrival of the first M3 Stuart tanks directly from the US (detailed at this link). By September, there are 100 operational M3s in theatre, and 298 British cruisers[3], together with 298 I-tanks[4], and most importantly crews and support units had time to familiarise themselves with the new vehicle. Assuming the captured Italian tanks are now retired, the Empire tank force now numbers almost 700 vehicles, giving the Middle East Command a substantial tank margin, with which to plan and execute a substantial attack would be possible, for the first time.

Athlone

The SS ATHLONE CASTLE transporting troops. Convoy WS19 (IWM A10610)[5]

Other considerations

Both sides benefit and suffer from the Axis not advancing to the Egyptian border. The Empire holds Benghazi and the airfields of northern Cyrenaica, forcing Italian convoys to take the westerly route via Tunisia, where they can more easily be intercepted. They do not need to supply a besieged Tobruk, and they do not suffer the substantial distraction of an Axis force on the border during the rout in Greece and Crete. It is in my view unlikely that the RAF could have done much to protect the forward area and the port of Benghazi during this period, given its commitment to and losses in Greece.

On the downside therefore, Benghazi is exposed to air attack, making it an unsatisfactory port for building up an army level offensive. It needs to be kept in mind that the supply of Tobruk worked because it was for an overstrength division that was not expected to be mobile. So while the pressure on naval assets is reduced, the Empire coastal convoys are now taking a more exposed and longer route to Benghazi, and need to deliver substantially more supplies. This adds to the pressure on the RAF, which is at the same time heavily committed in Greece.

Given the above, it is likely that overland supply would have been key to building up for an offensive and keeping the force in western Cyrenaica supplied. The overland route from Tobruk, which would have been the safest harbour, to Mechili and west of it is hundreds of miles. Apart from the lack of tanks, the need for trucks to cover this adds substantially to the supply difficulties for a further advance. Even to support a Brigade-size forces that far west of the railhead was estimated to have taken 2,000 trucks shuttling back and forth (see this earlier entry on the planning for the BENCOL advance during CRUSADER, at this link). I consider it likely that the Egyptian railway would have been extended to Tobruk in this scenario, at least easing the supply concerns.

On the Axis side, conversely, the supply situation is substantially eased. The distances over which supplies are carried are much shorter, coastal convoying is possible to Sirt, and a very good main road is available. It is thus likely that the building up of supplies can be accelerated considerably.

In terms of operational opportunities, the relatively open terrain south of Agedabia allows deep raids into the Empire rear that are hard to defend against. Vehicles and men can be trained thus, while not using them up too much. The Sommernachtstraum raid of 14/15 September is an example of what would have been possible. An outflanking move into the desert, a quick hit on the Empire rear, chaos, confusion, and then retreat behind the Marada – Agheila line.

In terms of defense, the position from Marada north is relatively strong, and harder to flank due to the presence of salt marshes. An attack in the centre is possible, but would channel the attacking force considerably and expose it to hits from the north and south, similar to what happened to 22 Armoured Brigade at the end of December 1941 at Wadi el Faregh. A defense in depth, with infantry in the line, and tank forces to the rear to back them up, would have the potential to savage any attacker.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 783 0150 28 Nordafrika Panzer III

Nordafrika.- Panzer III bei Fahrt durch die Wüste, im Hintergrund brennender Lastkraftwagen (LKW); (Panzer III on march through desert, in the back burning truck) PK “Afrika” April 1941 (BAMA via Wikipedia)

Conclusion

The Empire forces were in no position to attack at Agheila or Marada prior to September, simply based on tank numbers, before even getting into considerations of supply, where the need to build up substantial supplies to support not just the initial attack but an advance on Tripoli, several hundred kilometers to the west, would have taken time. From early May to the end of June the Axis tank forces and supply position would have been far superior to that of the Empire forces, inviting an attack by the Axis. 

If Rommel had waited and stuck to his orders, he would have kept the initiative until the beginning of summer at least, and would have been able to choose where an how to attack. The Axis force build-up was considerably faster than that of the Empire forces, and shortening the supply lines by hundreds of kilometers, and not wasting precious fuel and ammunition as well as spares on the initial advance in April and the failed attempts at Tobruk would have given the Axis ample reserves to work with.

An Axis attack out of the Agheila – Marada position before the end of May, with the full force of three armored divisions and substantial logistical preparation, and a substantial superiority in tanks would have promised much greater success than the lightweight attack at the end of March, and could easily have carried the Axis forces through well into Egypt. This could have been planned to co-incide with the invasion of Crete, thus forcing the Empire to look into two vastly different directions at once.

This was in my view a missed opportunity due to the impatience of Rommel.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 782 0009 01A Nordafrika Panzer III

Nordafrika.- Kolonne von Panzer III passieren großes Tor, (Column of Panzer III pass large gate) März-Mai 1941; PK Prop.Zg. Afrika (BAMA via Wikimedia)

Featured Image: Nordafrika.- Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel im leichten Schützenpanzer Sd.Kfz. 250/3 “Greif” (Field Marshal Rommel in the light armoured personnel carrier ‘Griffon’); PK “Afrika” (BAMA via Wikimedia).

Footnotes

[1] This is assuming the 72 tanks lost by 2 Armoured Brigade during Rommel’s advance, together with the 60 captured Italian tanks which were also lost, remain present.
[2] Assuming the five tanks lost during BREVITY remain on strength as well.
[3] Assuming the 30 cruisers lost in BATTLEAXE remain on strength.
[4] Assuming the 98 I-tanks lost in BATTLEAXE remain on strength.
[5] SS Athlone Castle was a regular on the WS route and participated also in WS9b.

Sources

Bechthold, M. Flying to Victory

Munro, A. The Winston Specials.

Parri, M. Storia dei Carristi 

Rommel’s Riposte: NARA Loading lists for German convoys to North Africa. See this post.

Rommel’s Riposte: Equipping a New Army

Schreiber & Stegmann Das deutsche Reich und der zweite Weltkrieg Bd. 3

UK TNA CAB120/253 for Empire tank numbers.

Book Review: Very Special Ships by Arthur Nicholson

Book Review: Very Special Ships by Arthur Nicholson

 

Five Stars out of Five – Buy

 

IMG 5843

Overall

This book is what Siri should show you when you ask it what a ‘Labour of Love’ is. The author has gone not one, but several extra miles in putting it together, and it is a beautifully produced, highly informative, and well-written book on a small but important sub-class of Royal Navy combat vessels in World War 2.

The author, Seaforth as the original publisher, and the Naval Institute Press for this print run should be congratulated for this work. It’s the kind of book I would love to be able to write. It is well-balanced between engaging narrative and technical detail, with numerous pictures and personal stories that add to the understanding of the history of these very special ships.

Mr. Nicholson has gone through a lot of detail to accomplish what is likely to be the first and last history of this class of vessels, since I doubt there is much more to say on them.

 

Considerations

The book covers the detailed service history of all Abdiel-class fast minelayers, including their loss and where applicable peace-time service. Where possible it notes losses suffered by Axis forces on minefields laid by the ships.  

The clear focus of the book is on the history of service of the ships. This is told through a mix of service history from the official records, and very well-placed personnel recollections or letters and personal diaries. It really brings the vessels to life. There is substantial detail, but it never gets too technical, or turns into a dull ‘then she moved here, and then there’ narrative. The writing is engaging, and the book well edited. 

Very helpfully, the book commences with a short history of mine warfare in the Royal Navy, followed by an introduction to the service of the first Abdiels in the First World War, and the considerations that led to the production of this unique, and as I would agree with the author, beautiful class of ships that could outrun any other ship in the Royal Navy, and on occasion did so. This includes a very useful technical discussion of the design decisions that were taken with these ships.

My personal interest is of course the service in the Mediterranean, which is well described, including the circumstances of the loss of HMS Latona on the Tobruk Run, and HMS Abdiel on a magnetic mine in Taranto harbour after the armistice with Italy. 

Welshman

What would have been a familiar picture in Malta 1941/42: ‘HMS Welshman in the Grand Harbour on her way to her berth in French Creek’, 15 June 1942 (IWM A 10420)

 

Room for Improvement

I find it hard if not impossible to think of anything. There is the odd repetition, in particular in relation to the loss of HMS Latona on the Tobruk Run, which the author (fairly or unfairly) lays at the feet of the Australian government, and it is here that there is a clear sense of grievance, but nothing serious.

 

Production

The paper version is coffee-table format, which is great since it allows quite a bit of detail in the pictures to be discerned. It is very well produced, and no doubt will last a long time.

The book is well illustrated with a wide range of pictures that are relevant to the material presented. Photos come from both official and private collections and again I would like to congratulate the author on making the effort to track these down.

There is an extensive colour plate section showing the evolution of the ships’ camouflage over the course of the war, and a detailed plan of HMS Abdiel.

As can be expected in an academic work, the bibliography is extensive and a full index is provided. The research that has gone into this book is clearly extensive, and the bibliography provides ample avenues for further research.

 

Notes

The review is based on the print version of the book. It was not provided for free and I have no commercial interest in the book.

 

Featured Image

Latona

HMS Latona and a flotilla of submarines at Sliema Creek, Malta. (Art.IWM ART 3133)

Messerschmitt ME109 Trailer 2 – YouTube

This aircraft is a Me109G-2, Schwarze 6, captured in Tunisia in 1943, and in the colours of JG77. No longer flying unfortunately but can be seen at the RAF museum in Cosford.

The G did not serve in North Africa during CRUSADER, but its predecessor, the earlier F-4 did and was a major headache for the allied fighters, remaining superior to anything the Empire air forces could field in North Africa until the arrival of the first tropicalised Spitfires in late spring 1942.

JG77 did not serve in the North African campaign in the early stages in 1941/42 . They only arrived as reinforcement during the final stage of the El Alamein campaign, having previously served in the Malta air campaign, in late October 1942.

Captured fly-worthy enemy planes were of great interest to the RAF for research purposes, as can be seen in the picture below.

me109g.jpg

Pilots of No. 43 Squadron RAF inspect an abandoned Messerschmitt Bf 109G of 6/JG53 at Comiso, Sicily. (IWM CNA 1045)

Her complete history is at this link (opens PDF).

m.youtube.com/watch

Not CRUSADER – The day they captured the Italian Army’s Comedian

Every so often the dreariness of the records and looking at industrialized slaughter is broken up by some levity. This one I came across yesterday, it is from the Alamein period. I think the intelligence officer in 30 Corps is a bit unkind, putting this down to the prisoner in question not being the brightest light in the attic. I recognize the humour quite well.

IMG 5598

Fact and Fiction and Alan Moorehead – 19 November 1941

Fact and Fiction and Alan Moorehead – 19 November 1941

The first clash of 4 Armoured Brigade with German tanks is probably best remembered for Alan Moorehead’s vivid description of the battle on 19 November, which evokes memories of Trafalgar with tanks going side-by-side, and cavalry charging enemy lines – probably intentionally so.

Moorehead claims to have been an eyewitness from the location of 7 Armoured Division’s battle H.Q. – a claim that seems improbable, if not impossible, given the locations and distances involved. His description of the battle in The Desert Trilogy is below:

Gatehouse […] lifted up his radio mouthpiece and gave his order. At his command the Honey’s did something that tanks don’t do in the desert anymore. They charged. It was novel, reckless, impetuous and terrific. They charged straight into the curtain of dust and fire that hid the German tanks and guns. They charged at speeds of nearly forty miles an hour and some of them came right out the other side of the German lines. Then they turned and charged straight back again. They passed the German Mark IVs and Mark IIIs at a few hundred yards, near enough to fire at point-blank range and see their shell hit and explode.

There are a few improbables here that bear correcting. First, Moorehead was probably over 10km away, so it is doubtful whether he could see what Brigadier Gatehouse was doing. Second, the maximum road speed of the M3 was 36 miles per hour. Even on relatively smooth desert ground it would have been less. Thirdly, the battle was fought at a much more normal engagement range of no less than 700 yards which while short, is not yard arm-to-yard arm point blank. Finally and most importantly, there was no M3 Stuart charge into the enemy tanks. The Stuart tanks of 8 Hussars advanced towards the advancing German tanks, but they had reached their ordered position when the German tanks came within gun range[1].

While the passage by Moorehead is great journalism, and has certainly inspired many young readers about the exploits of British tanks in the desert, it is unfortunately likely to be what we would call ‘fake news’ today, and what was propaganda then. An analysis of the war diaries of the participating units makes it clear that events did not happen as described by Moorehead. In fact the only ones who actually sought to get stuck in closely were the Germans, as the passage from the 8 Hussars war diary below shows.

The enemy force consisted off between 70 and 100 MkIII tanks, supported by MkIVs. They advanced in a compact formation from the North. When within 1,500 yds of our position, they opened out to a certain extent and commenced to fire. Their shooting was very accurate and a number of our tanks were laid out before they came within effective range of our guns. They advanced to within about 700yds, but did not make any attempt to come much closer, except in the later stages of the battle, when they made an attempt to break through on our left flank, which position was being held by 5RTR.

This is also confirmed by the war diary of Panzerregiment 5.While not much is written on the form of the action in the war diaries for 19 November, the Panzerregiment 5 report for the morning fight of 20 November indicates the methods that the veteran tankers and cavalrymen of 4 Armoured Brigade used.

The opponent fought highly mobile and on longer distances, evading the regiment, which advanced to a better firing distance, towards the southeast, and attempted, fighting across the widest possible front, to envelop on the right (west).

A  considerably better observation of the battle is provided by the US observer(s) present with 4 Armoured Brigade to observe the M3 Stuart tank being taken into action for the first time. This was relayed to Washington on 30 November 1941 by the US Military Attaché in Cairo, Colonel Bonner Fellers[2]:

Part 1: Following is based on notes brought in from Libya by Mente, who collaborated with Cornog and Piburn.

[…]

4th Armoured Brigade was attacked on 19 November by approximately 100 tanks of 21st German Panzer Division in vicinity of previous night’s bivouac. Germans had heavy anti-tank guns accompanying each wave of tanks during attack, British had none. Panzer Division driven off. There were no casualties in 3rd and 5th tank regiments; unreliable casualty reports list 22 tanks of 8th Hussars missing of which 15 are known to be destroyed and 7 unaccounted for.

Damage to vehicles consists mainly of broken tanks, tank fires, broken turret rungs and damaged suspension system. Apparently armor plate quality superior to that of German.

30 November 1941

Part 2: Following interesting facts revealed all from personal observations:

[…]

All personnel enthusiastic about 37 MM gun. Best range under 1200 yards which gave Germans with heavier weapon slight fire power advantage. The 37 mm will penetrate front sides and rear of German Mark III and Mark IV tanks.[3]

 

Footnotes

The featured picture shows 8 Hussars training in the western desert, 28 August 1941. IWM E5062

[1] It is also doubtful whether any sane M3 Stuart commander would have fired shell, rather than shot, at German tanks.

[2] This was probably read with great interest in Rome and Rommel’s command post. At this stage, the Italians had cracked the US ‘Black Code’ and were regularly and quickly reading any correspondence sent in it. 

[3] If this is correct as a maximum engagement range then it suggests that 8 Hussars were facing tanks with only 30mm of frontal armour, which in turn suggests Panzer IIIG or Panzer IVD. Panzerregiment 5 still had some of the older G model.

Equipping a new army – M3 Stuart Tank Deliveries up to CRUSADER

Equipping a new army – M3 Stuart Tank Deliveries up to CRUSADER

Operation CRUSADER saw the first use of an American-designed tank in battle, the M3 Stuart tank[1]. I have written about the experience with this tank in prior posts, at this link, and this link. This short article provides an insight into the building up of 4 Armoured Brigade as a fighting formation with the new US-built tanks.

Background – Design and Delivery of the M3 Stuart

In terms of overall design, the M3 Stuart was a very fast tank, compact, if with a slightly high profile, and had relatively weak armour, compared to other contemporary tanks[2]. A major drawback was the short range of the very thirsty aero engines which drove it. The Stuart would continue to serve until the end of the war as both a frontline tank in a reconnaissance role, and in various support versions, including as an armoured personnel carrier. In 1941 the M3 was considered a cruiser tank by the British army, designed for mobile warfare. The tank was equipped with an M5 37mm gun, a reasonably well-designed piece for its calibre. It was about equal to the British 2-pdr gun[3], but the US tanks had been provided with HE shell and possibly also cannister anti-personnel rounds in addition to the AP shot, and thus had additional capabilities compared to the British tanks which relied on their Besa machine guns for infantry/anti-tank gun defense.

The first production version of the M3 Stuart was ready in March 1941, and from July to the end of October 1941, over 300 M3 Stuarts, including four predecessor M2 models, had arrived in Egypt under the lend-lease arrangements between the UK and the US. Four convoys had come directly from the United States between July and October, bringing 36, 69, 52, and 154 M3 tanks respectively, including the four M2A4 light tanks in the first, and also two M3 Medium Grant or Lee in the last. By the end of October, other than the 188 tanks issued to 4 Armoured Brigade, 90 M3 tanks were with ‘B.O.W.’ ‘Board of Ordnance Works’, i.e. undergoing modifications at central workshops in the Nile Delta region. Most of these were probably tanks that had come off the October convoy being made fit for the desert. Four more M3 tanks were held with 4 Hussars in the Delta, used for training crews[4], and 16 with school/training units, for a total of 315 tanks[5].

Honey

R.T.R. tank crews being introduced to the new American M3 Stuart tank at a training depot in Egypt, 17 August 1941. Note the Matilda in the background and the A9 Cruiser in the foreground, still sporting a machine gun in the secondary turret. IWM Collection E3438E.

4 Armoured Brigade Converts

As part of XXX Corps’ 7 Armoured Division, 4 Armoured Brigade at the start of Operation CRUSADER fought exclusively in the M3 Stuart. Substantial desert testing had occurred over the summer, leading to some modifications to the vehicles. Training on the new tanks continued throughout the summer, while the regiments were brought up to strength in other articles, such as trucks, and absorbed replacements.  Overall the crews considered the tank a good, very reliable machine, earning it the nickname ‘Honey’, and the experience with the tank in Operation CRUSADER seemed to bear that out.

Bringing 4 Armoured Brigade to operational readiness in the space of four months from July to October 1941 was a remarkably fast build-up by all standards, since it included the rapid conversion from British to US cruiser tanks for the three regiments to which the M3s were issued, 3 and 5 R.T.R.[6] and the 8 Hussars. The fact that all three regiments had been in operations since the beginning of the war against Italy in 1940 almost certainly helped with the speed of the conversion. The pictures below show 8 Hussars putting their new mounts through their paces.

Hussars august

The 8th Hussars testing their new American M3 Stuart tanks in the Western Desert, 28 August 1941. (IWM Collections E5065)

Hussars

The 8th Hussars testing their new American M3 Stuart tanks in the Western Desert, 28 August 1941. This picture nicely shows the attached kit, including the .30 Browning anti-aircraft MG, and the US tank helmets worn by the crew. The officer signaling is probably a commander. Flag signals were widely used – one advantage being that they could not be intercepted. (IWM Collections E5085)

Running Short of Tanks

Despite the undoubted qualities of the M3 Stuart, combat experience quickly showed the need to provide for substantial reserves of both tanks, but also ammunition, a particular challenge when the ammunition used in a tank is not the same standard as that used on all the other tanks in an army. Thus, while the availability of 188 tanks for a 156-tank Armoured Brigade may seem a generous number of tanks, at the end of the first two days of battling Panzerregiment 5 on 19/20 November 1941, 4 Armoured Brigade had completely utilized the Brigade’s M3 Stuart tank reserve of 30 tanks and had also experienced very heavy ammunition expenditure[7]. This prompted a set of phone conversations given below.

 

SECRET

Record of telephone conversation with Lt-Col BELCHEM, G1, S.D. HQ Eighth Army, at 2300 hrs, 20 November 1941

Eighth Army require as many M3 American tanks as possible on top priority. That is to say, this type of tank is required more urgently than other types, as the reserve held by Eighth Army is all gone.

Eighth Army require to be informed how many M3 American tanks can be sent as a result of this request and when they may be expected.

Further stocks of ammunition for the weapons mounted in M3 American tanks are urgently wanted. It was understood that this request referred to 37mm rather than .300”. Lt-Col Belchem said that a quantity of this ammunition was being held at Alexandria for onward despatch, and that if this reserve was already on its way forward well and good; if not he recommended that as large a quantity as possible should be flown up. 

The above demands have already been referred to the D.D.S.D.[8]

The following day, the rather scarce transport plane capacity of Middle East Command was put at 8 Army’s disposal to service this request, and the Bristol Bombays of No. 215 Squadron flew ten tons of ammunition up to L.G. 122 for 4 Armoured Brigade, ‘at short notice’ as the RAF report noted.

Two days later, on 22 November another phone conversation, this time between Brigadier Galloway, the B.G.S.[9] of 8 Army, and Lt.Col. Jennings, discussed the matter of American tanks.

6. They require every American tank we can send up as well as every reinforcement capable of driving the American tank. (Note – Suggest we should examine whether the ammunition situation warrants our sending up many tanks. I understand that ammunition for< American tanks is becoming exhausted.)

Following this, on 24 November, Lt.Col. Jennings noted for the war diary the following:

2. Forty American M3 tanks now en cas mobile are to be ordered forward immediately. DAFV[10] is to arrange 40 drivers from 4 Hussars for ferrying them ahead of R.H.[11]

Footnotes

The featured picture shows an M3 being hoisted out of a ship onto the quayside at Alexandria, 19 July 1941. IWM Collection E4310

[1] Nicknamed ‘Honey’ by the crews because of the smooth and untroubled ride they provided. The nickname is sometimes used in war diaries and reports.

[2] In fairness though, given the overall combination of weight, size, gun equipment, and armour, Stuart’s may have had one of the best gun/armour/weight combinations in the Western Desert at this stage.  Older German Panzer IIIG models without uparmouring could not compete. The more recent H version or the uparmoured G were better however, at least over the frontal arc.

[3] A 40mm gun with reasonable performance in 1940, but rapidly approaching obsolescence. Unlike the M3 Stuart’s 37mm M3 gun, no HE rounds were provided to British tanks with the 2-pdr at this stage of the war.

[4] The regiment was used to train replacement crews and to act as T.D.S. (Tank Delivery Squadron), whence fighting regiments could draw new crews and tanks ready for battle.

[5] WO169/952, 11 November 1941 tank statement – note that this is one more than the 314 M2/M3 that came off the convoys

[6] Royal Tank Regiment

[7] An officer in 5 R.T.R. claimed that on 20 November the tanks of A Squadron 5 R.T.R. went through 250 rounds of 37mm ammunition each. If the number is correct, this would equal more than two complete loads, and be almost equal to the whole supply per tank that was available in North Africa at the time, 260 rounds according to Niall Barr in ‘Yanks and Limeys’

[8] Deputy Director Supply Department (or Division)

[9] Brigadier General Staff – essentially the Chief of Staff. Brigadier Galloway of the Cameronians was a well-regarded staff officer, who rose to command 1 Armoured Division in 1943, although illness meant he never led it in battle.

[10] Director, Armoured Fighting Vehicles

[11] Railhead

David Greentree: British Submarine vs. Italian Torpedo Boat (Osprey Duel 74)

David Greentree: British Submarine vs. Italian Torpedo Boat (Osprey Duel 74)

Four Stars out of Five – Buy

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Torpdiniera Sagittario – a Spica-class, Perseo-sub class torpedo boat equipped with German ASDIC from early 1942. On 8 February 1942 she detected and rammed HM/Sub Proteus, which did however come off the better (see this link). Sagittario  survived the war and continued to serve until 1964 in the Italian navy. (Wikipedia)

Overall

I have to come clean here – there is no way I would not rate a book where my blog is the first item in the bibliography a buy. 🙂 So go out and buy it. I got it in a Kindle sale, and am happy I did.

Considerations

The book covers the period of the Italo-British war from June 1940 to the Italian armistice in September 1943, with a short post-script covering the continued service of the Italian torpedo boats under the Kriegsmarine flag from 1943 to 1945. 

The clear focus of the book is on the engagements between Italian escort torpedo boats and British submarines. The Italian navy, the Regia Marina, is usually dismissed due to the prevalence of a narrative driven by the Royal Navy memoirs which considered them shy adversaries. Anyone who has looked at the performance of the Italian escorts on the North Africa route knows that this is at best a caricature, and at worst an insult, both to the Italian sailors and to the British sailors in submarines and some surface vessels who fell victim to them. 

The author has gone through a range of secondary sources and relies to a large extent on the official Italian history, which is a great service to those who do not speak Italian and/or would struggle to access this rare and expensive work.

The book is well rounded, and provides a very decent overview of tactics, technology, weaponry, and engagement detail for both sides, given its compact size. I consider it an important reference work and very helpful for anyone researching the naval war in the Mediterranean, which was for the most part a convoy war, the few major fleet actions notwithstanding.

Room for Improvement

Some interesting actions are left off, probably because they did not fit the torpedo boat/submarine engagement, but which are clearly relevant, such as the sinking of Destroyer da Mosto, which had a German ASDIC crew on board (see this older post). My guess is that this is because the other relied on secondary sources, rather than the German original sources in NARA, some of which I have.

So yes, this is not the definitive history of fighting the Royal Navy subs in the Mediterranean, but it is definitely a work that whoever is going to write that history cannot ignore.

Production 

The Kindle version is well produced and very readable. There are a few action diagrams which are clear and informative, allowing the reader to follow the sequence of engagements. The book is well illustrated with a wide range of pictures that are relevant to the material presented, many from private collections.

There is a bibliography that is helpful in guiding further research, and more than I would expect in an Osprey work, since these are not normally considered academic works.

Notes

The review is based on the Kindle version of the book. It was not provided for free and I have no commercial interest in the book.

Hms p38 submarine

HMS P.38, sunk with all hands by Torpediniera Circe with the use of German ASDIC on 23 February 1942. The detailed report by Commander Palmas of Circe can be found in this older post. Lest we forget. (Wikipedia)