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

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

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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 during the re-conquest of the Cyrenaica and Marmarica provinces of Libya. It led to considerable gains of terrain for the Axis, and losses in men and equipment for the Empire forces. The offensive culminated in 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 operations. 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.

Raids however (the Wehrmacht used the same term) were allowed, as long as they did not end with the occupation of terrain. 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 defenses found them weak. He then took the opportunity to unleash his forces for a deep penetration into Cyrenaica, with the aim to completely defeat the enemy in the western desert.

At the end of April, Rommel found himself in a tricky situation, far away from his supply sources, with dispersed and weakened forces, and exposed to Empire counter attacks on the line of the frontier between Libya and Egypt. What rescued his force at this point was the thundering defeat that had been suffered by the Empire forces in Greece, which prevented Middle East Command from taking advantage of this weakness. By the time sufficient forces could be scrounged together in Egypt, the moment had passed, with the arrival of the first elements of 15. Panzerdivision in the area of operations. The first co-ordinated Empire counter-offensive, BREVITY, came about two weeks too late, and the desert war settled into a pattern of periodic offensives and counteroffensives for half a year.

The outcome of this initial offensive was that the Axis forces in North Africa were strung out, at the end of a precarious supply line, and highly exposed. This had been foreseen in Berlin, but not appreciated by Rommel, who did not have much interest in the question of logistics. The modern assessment of this initial offensive is that it ultimately doomed the Axis effort in North Africa. This article sets this out in more detail, drawing on period documents and participant views.

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) 

The Situation in Berlin and Planning for North Africa – March/April 1941[1]

On 1 March, Generaloberst Halder, Chief of the Staff of the Army High Command, the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) noted that Rommel’s operational intentions needed a sound basis, and should be reviewed based on what was practically possible. Halder that day held a conference with Oberquartiermeister I (Senior General Staff Deputy Logistics) Paulus[2], who also was the First Deputy Chief of the General Staff and the Leiter Operationsabteilung (Chief of the Operations Department) General Heusinger[3], discussing the situation in Libya, and Rommel’s preparations for the forthcoming attack. These men were the top trio of the German army’s operational planning. Later that day Major Ehlert, the designated Ia (chief operations officer) of the Afrikakorps reported in, and was briefed on the ideas of the army leadership regarding offensive operations in North Africa.

On 3 March, a discussion was held between Halder with Field Marshal von Brauchitsch[4] regarding the offensive possibilities in the short and longer term, when it was expected that troops could be released from Barbarossa.

On 7 March Kapitän (or army Captain) von Both, who had been on an inspection tour to Libya, reported back to the OKH. He noted that supply services should be centralized, and that the supply route to Libya, via Rome and Naples, had room for improvement.

On 10 March, another conference with von Brauchitsch was held in which General Heusinger noted that Rommel had been instructed not to advance his front too far ahead before the arrival of 5. lei. Div., and sufficient Italian forces.

On 12 March, the following offensive options were set out for North Africa by the Generalquartiermeister (Quartermaster General), Gen. Wagner[5]:

a) Mounting a major offensive from Agedabia with the main thrust on Tobruk.

b) Starting several minor offensives in sectors along the coast.

Wagner assessed that the first option would require four supply column battalions in addition to the four already in Libya, while the second option was possible with the four that were already sent, but would lead to a loss of time and lower striking power. A memorandum to OKW was requested. This needs to be seen in the context that the Afrikakorps already had substantially better supply capacity than the Army Groups tasked for Operation Barbarossa, far in excess of the divisional slices allocated to these.[6]

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German Map of North African Theatre, showing situation on 30 April 1942. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

On 14 March Halder notes that there were difficulties with the Italian commander in North Africa, General Graziani, who was soon to be relieved by General Gariboldi. Also, a report was made by Oberquartiermeister IV[7], which estimated that fifteen British divisions, including two armoured, were in North Africa, of which four to eight, including the armoured divisions, were in Libya. This was a considerable over estimate of the British forces then available, and also did not seem to consider the demand of the Greek expedition.

On 17 March a general staff conference was held with Hitler, where he agreed to a forward shift of the defensive line in North Africa, and that preparations should be made to allow an offensive once a favorable force balance had been attained. He did however decline the sending of further troops, as well as the conduct of a landing operation in Tunisia, which had been the wish of the Italians.

On 20 March Rommel presented his plans to the OKH in person, on his overall impression of the situation, the operational situation, and what was possible in terms of operations with the forces available. The two leaders of the supply department of the German Army, the Oberquartiermeister I and the Generalquartiermeister, then conferred with Rommel, and he was tasked to present an estimate of what could be achieved with the available forces prior to the onset of the hot season.

According to Halder, the assessment by Rommel was that the British were passive, and focused on defense, treating the area around Agedabia as no-man’s land. It was expected that their defense would focus on the Jebel Akhdar area to the north of Cyrenaica. This was considered to eliminate the possibility of an attack on Tobruk via Msus, on the direct line through the desert, until the British forces in the Jebel were beaten. This was a task the Afrikakorps was not considered to be capable of at this stage, and consideration was instead given to occupying the area around Agedabia, and to prepare for a drive on Tobruk in fall 1941.

In the afternoon of the same day Paulus reported back to Halder on his meeting with Rommel, in line with the situation as set out above. This discussion led to the issuance of an order from von Brauchitsch to Rommel, as below. It sets out the tasks of the Afrikakorps. These are to work with the Italians to ensure the defense of Tripolitania, and to prepare for offensive operations to recapture Cyrenaica. The first step for this was to take the area around Agedabia, after the arrival of the whole of 15. Panzerdivision in the middle of May 1941. A further advance on Tobruk was then dependent on whether the battle of Agedabia would lead to a decisive defeat of the British armoured forces. 

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ObdH Order to Rommel, 21 March 1941. NARA T-78 R324

Rommel in the Rommel Papers recalls from the meeting that he was not happy at what he saw as efforts by von Brauchitsch and Halder to keep down the numbers of troops sent to Africa, since this in his view left the future of the campaign there to chance. He also considered that the in his view momentary British weakness in North Africa should have been exploited energetically, in order to gain the initiative once and for all for ourselves.

Following this visit by Rommel, there is little consideration for North Africa in the war diary of Halder, since the rapidly escalating situation in Yugoslavia and the Greece demanded the full attention of the OKH until the end of April. Thus Libya took a backseat, other than an observation by Gen. Wagner, based on the report by one of his officers, on 1 April that Rommel showed no interest in supply, and that supply vehicles remained idle in Naples, rather than being shipped.

On 3 April then the report arrived in Berlin that Agedabia has been taken. This brought North Africa back up the agenda, and it lead to a direct order from Hitler through the Armed Forces High Command channel (the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht – OKW) that first congratulated the Afrikakorps, but then made it clear that there was no room for recklessness, no Italian reinforcements could be expected, and Luftwaffe assets were soon to be withdrawn for the campaign in the Balkans. Any further advance was only authorized if it was clear that Empire tank forces had been withdrawn. For some reason, this order was interpreted by Rommel as giving him “complete freedom of action” (see the war diary entry at this link and also The Rommel Papers).

On the same day, Rommel writes to his wife (emphasis by me):

We’ve been attacking since the 31st with dazzling success. There’ll be consternation amongst our masters in Tripoli and Rome, perhaps in Berlin too. I took the risk against all orders and instructions because the opportunity seemed favourable. No doubt it will all be pronounced good later and they’ll all say they’d have done exactly the same in my place. We’ve already reached our first objective, which we weren’t supposed tc get to until the end of May. The British are falling over each other to get away. Our casualties small.[…]

On 11 April, Halder notes Wagner’s comment that Rommel was now making “preposterous” demands that could only be satisfied as long as the preparations for Barbarossa were not affected.

On 13 April, Halder notes that Hitler was considering adding a motorised infantry regiment to North Africa, which had previously been refused by the OKH, on the following grounds:

a) Matter had been considered for a long time

b) No spare troops considering need for task Barbarossa

c) No shipping available until May when all units of 15. Panzer had reached North Africa.

d) Impracticable given lack of transport and fuel.

e) Lack of air support made embarking on large-scale operations unwise.

f) Getting closer to Egypt, British resistance would stiffen.

On the same day Paulus received a “colossal request” from Rommel via the liaison office in Rome, but again notes that Barbarossa has precedence.

On 14 April, two days after he has been heavily defeated at Tobruk in the Easter Battle, Rommel makes a formal request to advance to the Suez Canal, which Göring is willing to support. A discussion between Halder and Jodl (OKW) notes that this is only possible as a raid, since there were neither troops nor supply facilities available to hold Suez. Hitler then makes the final decision that the prime objective is to establish a frontline along the border from Sollum to Siwa Oasis inclusive, and apart from that only raids were to be conducted.

On 15 April, von Brauchitsch is looking for ways to support Rommel, by adding German submarines and sending the airborne division to North Africa. Halder disagrees, noting that submarines should be Italian, and also that once in North Africa, the airborne troops would be footboard. On the same day, a report from Rommel arrives, admitting that he is in trouble, and that he now requires support from two Italian divisions to shore up his position. Halder gleefully notes that “at last he is constrained to state that this forces are not sufficiently strong to allow him to take advantage of the “unique opportunities” afforded to him by the overall situation. That is the impression we have had for some time over here.”

The next day, 16 April, Gen. Wagner, following a discussion with Halder, makes reinforcements available to the Afrikakorps, to address the crisis situation. These consist of four infantry battalions, the Engineer Training Battalion (Pionierlehrbatallion, renamed Pionierbatallion 900 z.b.V.) equipped as an assault engineer battalion, and two coastal artillery battalions, H.K.A.A. 523 and H.K.A.A. 533, equipped with the powerful French 15cm GPF guns captured in 1940. Wagner noted that day that a crisis point had been reached, although not at Tobruk but at Sollum, and that this was expected to last for about 10 days, by when 15. Panzer should arrive. Wagner expected a high likelihood of Rommel being beaten at Sollum. The OKH leadership agreed that nothing could be done about this.

That same day a telegram from Rommel arrived reporting increasing pressure at Bardia, and a telegram went out to him telling him that he was on his own for the time being. Nevertheless, the transport of men to North Africa was accelerated, and on 27 April, a wave of 46 airplanes landed one rifle battalion and two rifle companies of 15. Panzer. These air transports, while not considered satisfactory, since the men would lack any equipment other than small arms, was to continue the next day.

On 5 May, Kapitän zur See Loyke reported from Libya with the insight that as long as Malta was held by the British, no offensive east was possible for Rommel.

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Halder War Diary Entry, 23 April 1941, famous for calling Rommel ‘this soldier gone stark mad, and rather belying Rommels expectation in his letter of 3 April that all would be pronounced good.

 

A Counterfactual Approach

Modern historiography has not been kind about Rommel’s 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. This is discussed in detail in the official German History, Das deutsche Reich und der zweite Weltkrieg Vol. IV. which considers this advance the original sin that ultimately made victory in North Africa less likely, since it put the Axis forces into a logistically impossible situation from which they never recovered. The critical failure was that the advance failed to achieve a decisive outcome when the assaults on Tobruk in April 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, while the drain on the Axis supply chain was permanent.

 

The Counterfactual Consideration

There are a few instances in the campaign in North Africa that warrant an analysis of the counterfactual, and this is one of them. What could have happened, had the advance not taken place and Rommel had stuck to the plan and his orders of 21 March? This article will provide some thoughts on the matter, based on the following assumptions:

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

2) There is no change to the speed of the force build-up.

3) There is no change to the force allocations on both sides.

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

5) Light tanks such as the Italian L3 series, the German Panzer I, and the British Vickers Mk. VI are irrelevant to combat operations.

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

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

7) Both sides have logistical challenges that prevent them from concentrating fully on North Africa until the end of June 1941, in the form of other active campaigns in the Middle East, the Balkans and Greece, and East Africa. These effects cancel each other out.

Taking the above, the counterfactual will therefore focus on the tank balance, and consider when an ideal moment for battle would have come for the Axis. It is understood that this is simplistic, but it is also considered helpful to focus on the decisive element.

 

The North African Tank Balance to Autumn 1941

First, without the Axis advance taking place, the forces facing each other in Cyrenaica are reasonably well balanced at the end of March and early April. Including some replacements for ten tanks lost in the fire on the SS 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[8], 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. As the historical record shows, the balance did allow the Axis a successful, but not a decisive campaign.

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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 early May, the Axis will receive the full force of Panzerregiment 8 as well as the other divisional units of 15. Panzerdivision in the operational zone, 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 main combat 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 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, almost 2:1 superiority in tanks fielded in North Africa. Furthermore, the Empire tank force relies still on tanks with high mileage, and a large number of captured tanks of dubious combat value.

By the end of June the picture does change, turning against the Axis. While the Italian tank force is reinforced by another battalion, bringing the total to 138 M13/40 tanks, no more German tanks are received  and the Axis total rises only slightly to 454. The main additions to the Axis are now infantry formations and heavy artillery, sent in response to the failure at Tobruk. On the Empire side, further returns from workshops as well as convoy arrivals, especially the Tiger convoy, add large numbers of cruiser tanks, bringing the total to 303 available[9], and the number of I-tanks rises to 201, to bring the total to 563 tanks if we continue to include the 60 captured Italian tanks. Still in this case, over half of the Empire margin of superiority of 109 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 need to eliminate the remaining Italian resistance in East Africa.

The tank balance only shifts decisively 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[10], together with 298 I-tanks[11], 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. This would become Operation CRUSADER in the original time line.

Athlone

The SS ATHLONE CASTLE transporting troops. Convoy WS19 (IWM A10610)[12]

Other considerations

Both sides benefit and suffer from the Axis not advancing to the Egyptian border. The Empire forces continue to hold 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 however 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. 

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 by reducing the dependence on shipping. Overall this adds to the pressure on the RAF, which is at the same time heavily committed in Greece and which poses a significant challenge to building up and maintaining a large force forward of Tobruk.

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 (see this link). 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 the end of June, 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. No large scale operations were considered possible in the hot season from July to September.

If Rommel had waited and stuck to his orders as issued on 21 March, he would have kept the initiative until the beginning of summer at least, and would have been able to choose where and how to attack. The Axis force build-up was considerably faster than that of the Empire forces during this period, and shortening the supply lines by hundreds of kilometers, as well as 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 conduct a successful offensive. 

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 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. The planning in Berlin for an attack in mid-May was therefore clearly the right approach, since it would have maximized tank superiority, even though this was not known to the OKH planners.

Moving from a raid towards Agedabia to the full blown conquest of Cyrenaica and Marmarica in early April was was therefore a missed opportunity, lost due to the impatience and insubordination of Rommel.

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Nordafrika.- Kolonne von Panzer III passieren großes Tor, (Column of Panzer III pass large gate (Arco dei Fileni)) 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 based on Halder’s war diary.

[2] General Paulus, later commander of 6th Army at Stalingrad.

[3] Heusinger survived the war, and became one of the fathers of the Bundeswehr.

[4] Field Marshal von Brauchitsch was the commander of the German Army (Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres). He was sacked by Hitler in December 1941, and survived the war.

[5] General Wagner, respectively later one of the co-conspirators of 20 July 1944. He committed suicide rather than letting himself be arrested. 

[7] Also of interest is an overview of transport capacity allocated to army groups and theatres on 26 April. It notes that North Africa had 2,190 tons of transport capacity, compared to e.g. 25,020 tons for Army Group Centre. In North Africa, this had to sustain 2.5 German divisions, once 15. Panzer arrived. In Army Group centre, it had to sustain 42.5 German divisions.So for about 17 times as many divisions, Army Group Centre had only 11.4 times the transport capacity, or 50% more. This likely understates the advantage given to North Africa, which had a smaller division (5. lei.), and a smaller slice of army troops.

[7] The Deputy Chief of Intelligence, General Gerhard Matzky. Under him were two departments, Foreign Armies East, and Foreign Armies West. 

[8] 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.

[9] Assuming the five tanks lost during BREVITY remain on strength as well.

[10] Assuming the 30 cruisers lost in BATTLEAXE remain on strength.

[11] Assuming the 98 I-tanks lost in BATTLEAXE remain on strength.

[12] SS Athlone Castle was a regular on the WS route and participated also in WS9b.

Sources

  • Bechthold, M. Flying to Victory
  • Halder, War Diary
  • Munro, A. The Winston Specials.
  • Parri, M. Storia dei Carristi 
  • Rommel, E. The Rommel Papers
  • 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.
  • US National Archives, Captured Documents Section, T-78 R-324, Sonnenblume OKH files.
Bardia, Halfaya, and the January Offensive

Bardia, Halfaya, and the January Offensive

3952080Bardia, Cyrenaica, Libya. Re-captured by Allied forces on 2 January 1942, Bardia was repeatedly attacked from the air. The harbour seen during a raid by bomber aircraft of the South African Air Force shows the first bomb bursts. (AWM MED0273)

Bardia

Bardia is a town on the border between Libya and Egypt, flanked by Sollum. It has a small, natural harbour, and is otherwise pretty unremarkable. During the war it was besieged twice, and fell each time to Empire forces, almost one year apart. It was to change hands another two times in 1942, but each time without being defended.

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BARDIA, LIBYA. 1942-01. RUINED BUILDINGS ON THE FORESHORE OF THE HARBOUR. (Courtesy AWM 022707)

Bardia

Commonwealth Map from Operation COMPASS.
1: Halfaya Pass
2: Sidi Omar
3: Bardia
4: Fort Capuzzo

Bardia becomes a fortified sector

Following the visit to North Africa by the OKH representative, General Paulus in May 1941, the importance of the border was recognised. South and east of Bardia the Axis forces subsequently established a substantial system of modern fortifications, shielding the town to the east and blocking the coastal road at the Halfaya Pass, and providing cover to the rear of the right wing of the forces encircling Tobruk. Axis forces were also placed in the Egyptian border town of Sollum, which was located just east of Bardia, with Upper Sollum on the escarpment, and Lower Sollum on the sea.

The line of successive fortifications ran from Halfaya Pass to Sidi Omar in the west, and it was occupied by German Oasenkompanien and regular Italian infantry, with 21. Panzerdivision‘s II./S.R.104 under the famous Major Bach holding the Halfaya pass position. The system of border fortifications was integrated, and depended on Bardia for supplies. From November 1941 these fortified locations were slowly rolled up from the west by first 4 Indian Division, and then 2 South African Division, or abandoned as the ability of the garrison to maintain the posts continued to shrink, due to lack of supplies.

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Detail of fortifications on the border at Sidi Omar, from 42 R.T.R. War Diary. UK National Archives, WO169/1421

Bardia as a logistics hub

During the late Spring and through summer of 1941, Bardia had become a hub for the German forces in particular, with some supplies delivered into the harbour directly by submarine, and surface vessels dodging the Royal Navy control of the sea lane between Alexandria and Tobruk. The value of supply into Bardia’s harbour was estimated to be six times that of supplies arriving in Tripoli, because there was no need for fuel to transport them over long distances to reach Tobruk. Due to its size, the harbour could only take small vessels however, and due to its forward location it was very exposed to Royal Air Force attacks.

Isolation during CRUSADER

With the withdrawal of the Axis forces from the Tobruk perimeter on 5 December 1941, Bardia had become isolated, with no immediate hope to re-establish a connection. Rommel argued for an evacuation, Dunkirk style, but the Italian navy was in no mood to risk its fleet and vessels for the purpose. In the end the only course left open was to order the border positions to hold on until the last round, and to hope that a counter strike could relieve them. The latter was a very long shot, and it failed to come to pass.

General Arthur Schmitt, since September commander of the rear area of the Panzergruppe (Korueck 556) had been installed as Commander of ‘Sektor West’ (Bardia) in November, when Division z.b.V. Afrika, which previously controlled the area, had been moved to the Tobruk siege line for the planned attack on Tobruk. Captured after surrendering his command, he returned from captivity after the war and was briefly employed by Egypt in 1949/50 to help create a pan-Arab army, an then engaged in far-right politics in his home state of Bavaria. He died in 1972.

‘Sektor Ost’ was the Halfaya Pass itself and the remaining chain of fortifictions extending south-west from there. It was commanded by Italian General Fedele de Giorgis General Officer Commanding 55 Infantry Division Savona, who in turn surrendered his command to the South Africans on 17 January, having run out of food and water. After returning from the war he commanded the Carabinieri from 1947 until 1950. The Savona division was the only Italian division subordinated to German command at this time.

Schmitt was, judging from his communications with Rommel, a spiteful character, and very anti-Italian. He spent quite a bit of ink accusing his Italian co-commander of seeking an early surrender. It is ironic therefore that after the complaints by Schmitt about de Giorgis, whom he accused of seeking to surrender as quickly as possible, the Italian general held out over two weeks longer, buying the Axis forces at the Marada – Mersa el Brega position critical time. Both generals received the Ritterkreuz for their defense of the border sector, with de Giorgis being the only Italian to receive it in North Africa in 1941/42, and one of only nine to do so throughout the war.

The existence of the fortification system shaped the battle around Tobruk. Rommel’s ill-advised ‘Dash to the Wire’ was meant to relieve the pressure exerted on the border fortifications by 8 Army’s 13 Corps. The existence of the garrisons led to 5 New Zealand Brigade being stationed at Sidi Azeiz, where they were overrun by the Afrikakorps on 27 November. On 25 November, 4 Indian Division destroyed almost all that remained of 21. Panzerdivision‘s armoured strength at Sidi Omar.

Even after the end of the siege of Tobruk, with the land route to Bardia permanently cut, two German vessels made the perilous journey into Bardia in mid-December, Marinefaehrpraehme (MFPs or F-Lighters) of 2. L-Flotille. To the chagrin of the fortress commander though, the first one (F-150) only carried useless supplies of just 4 tons of engine oil, and had only been despatched with a view to picking up much needed replacement tank engines from stocks in Bardia. So much for the vaunted German planning. The second one (F-146) brought much needed supplies however, carrying 70 tons of food, 20 tons of ammunition, and 2 tons of mail. It then remained in Bardia to enable supply to be ferried from Bardia to Sollum. It was however lost within days to Empire artillery fire on 24 December 1941.

Following a relatively inactive siege of about four weeks from the end of November 1941, 8 Army’s 30 Corps and the South Africans of 2 South African Division, supported by the infantry tanks of 8 Royal Tank Regiment and British and Polish artillery, as well as the Royal Navy, commenced the assault on Bardia on 31 December. After a short but sharp battle, the final assault drove into the Axis lines at 0030 hours on 2 January 1942, and Bardia fell for the second time in a year, surrendering unconditionally on the same day. This was the first time in WW2 that a German garrison surrendered, and the first time that German general to surrender his command in WW2.

The Axis forces lost about 12,500 men in the two fortress sectors. At the same time, several thousand Empire force prisoners held in Bardia and Halfaya were returned. After Bardia had been cut off, these men could no longer be evacuated. Some senior officers, such as Brigadier Hargest of 5 New Zealand Division, captured at Sidi Azeiz on 27 November, were evacuated by submarine.

While the losses of men and material were painful to the Axis, there was a clear benefit to the Axis of not considering an evacuation. The defense of the border sector had created a serious logistical challenge for Middle East Command, since it presented a block on the only relevant road on which supply could move in the theatre. By blocking the Halfaya Pass, Axis forces forced the Empire forces to make a very long detour through the desert, eating up time, vehicle space, and fuel, before they could turn north and rejoin the tarmacced coastal road, the Via Balbia. While Tobruk was open as a port, it could not supply the required amounts, and after the fall of Benghazi on 24 December 1941, it took about a month to make the port operational again, because of the need to deal with deliberate destruction and to sweep for mines.

The Empire Forces thus missed a major opportunity to end the war in North Africa when they decided to let Bardia and Halfaya be in December, starving them out, rather than risking the casualties that a full-scale assault could bring. It was the second time in six weeks that Norrie, GOC 30 Corps failed to undertake energetic action, this time by not ordering 2 South African Division attack. There was probably a concern about the ability of the South African forces to sustain heavy casualties, after the loss of 5 South African Infantry Brigade at Sidi Rezegh in November 1941.

When they did attack, it is also not clear why the focus was on Bardia, rather than Halfaya. The town and harbour itself was of little value, and could easily be by-passed. If the resources had been expended on attacking and clearing Halfaya pass from the east, it is likely that this would have succeeded in clearing the coastal road two weeks earlier.

By weakening the ability of the Empire planners to supply the forward area, the failure by the South Africans to robustly assault and take Bardia and Halfaya in early December contributed to the success of the Axis counteroffensive in late January.

As an aside, the siege of the Border fortifications saw the entry into battle of the Free French Brigade, which was to make a name for itself at Bir Hakeim just half a year later. The Empire troops consisted at various stages of South African, British, Indian, New Zealand, Polish, and Free French ground troops, British, Australian, and Free French air force units, and British and Australian naval units.

The End of the Affair

A British Pathé film records the surrender. You can watch it at this link.

Related posts

Art

3796533

Dargie noted, “Shortly after we had re-taken it [Halfaya Pass] from the Italians and Germans in January ’42. Behind the knocked-out British tank can be seen one of the large guns, with French markings, which the Germans had mounted at the top of the Pass”.

The gun in the picture above is a 15.5cm GPF gun used by German coastal artillery. By the end of the siege these powerful guns had pretty much run out of ammunition. The Matilda infantry tank in the foreground carries the white/red/white mark required for the identification of British armoured vehicles during the operation. This Matilda II would have been from ‘C’ Squadron, 8 R.T.R, or from 44 R.T.R. – ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons 8 R.T.R. were in Valentine tanks, and it is likely that this picture presented itself in the Bardia area, rather than at Halfaya Pass.

Photos

large_0000006T

he scene on board HMS AJAX as round after round of 6″ shells are fired into Bardia. (Courtesy IWM8037) This bombardment was undertaken by the Royal Navy’s 7th Cruiser Squadron, out of Alexandria

3881074

Bardia, Cyrenaica, Libya. 6 January 1942. Aerial view taken on the day that Bardia fell shows a long line of prisoners stretching down the road being rounded up by the Allied land forces and transported in the back of trucks. (Courtesy AWM MED0280)

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Dv-En-mXgAAVv47.jpg

A Matilda tank captured and put to use by the Germans, most likely 15. Panzerdivision, and most likely re-captured by New Zealanders in November 1941, west of Bardia. This picture wrongly associates the tank with the successful recapture of Bardia on 2 January 1942.

large_0000005.jpgThe gun turret of a Matilda tank that had been captured and concreted into position to be used as part of the defences of Halfaya Pass, 16 March 1942. A Valentine tank passes by in the background. (Courtesy IWM E9320). Note the tank still carries the Operation Crusader tank marking of white/red/white.

Running out of tanks – 4 Armoured Brigade 19/20 November

Running out of tanks – 4 Armoured Brigade 19/20 November

Introduction

This article started off because of a note in the high-level traffic files of 8 Army on a request by 4 Armoured Brigade to scour the Delta for additional M3 Stuart tanks[1] and ammunition for their 37mm guns. The battle that gave rise to the phone conversation was fought over two days, with the initial contact between the forces occurring at or just after 1600 hours on 19 November, and combat broken off due to failing light about 2-2.5 hours later. Combat then recommenced the next morning, when both sides found that their night leaguers were just 3 miles away from each other. At the end of the two days, 4 Armoured Brigade had completely utilized the M3 Stuart tank reserve and also experienced very heavy ammunition expenditure. This prompted the phone conversation that gave rise to this article, appended at the end of this article. An officer in 5 R.T.R. claimed that on 20 November the tanks A Squadron 5 R.T.R. went through 250 rounds of 37mm ammunition each[2].

Large 000001

‘Bellman’, an M3 Stuart tank of 8th Hussars, 7th Armoured Division, knocked out near Tobruk, 15 December 1941. IWM Collection

 

The note that started the research, from the situation reports of 8 Army, is 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.

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 M3 gun ammunition up to L.G. 122 for 4 Armoured Brigade, ‘at short notice’ as the RAF report noted.

Large 000005

Bombay Mark I, L5845 ‘D’, of No. 216 Squadron RAF, undergoing engine maintenance at Marble Arch Landing Ground, Tripolitania, while engaged on the transportation and resupply of No. 239 Wing RAF, the first Allied fighter wing to operate from the landing ground after its capture on 17 December 1942. Courtesy IWM

Two days later, on 22 November another phone conversation, this time between Brigadier Galloway, the B.G.S.[3] 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[4] is to arrange 40 drivers from 4 Hussars for ferrying them ahead of R.H.[5]

We have published an in-depth analysis of the first day of 4 Armoured Brigade’s two-day battle with Panzerregiment 5 on 19/20 November at this link

The purpose of the expanded article is to analyse in detail the events surrounding the first clash of 4 Armoured Brigade with the enemy, in the process also correcting what I perceive as errors in the historical record that have affected the view we hold of it, and to offer a new perspective that raises questions about both the performance of British armoured units at regimental level, and that of the 21.Panzerdivision

Endnotes

[1] Confusingly, the US forces used ‘M3’ to name the M3 Stuart light tank, the M3 Medium tank (both Grant and Lee versions), the M3 37mm gun, and the M3 75mm gun. Troops nicknamed the M3 Stuart the ‘Honey’ because of the smooth and untroubled ride it provided. The nickname is sometimes used in war diaries and reports.
[2]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’
[3]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.
[4]Director, Armoured Fighting Vehicles
[5]Railhead

 

Fuel Allocation Request – Artillery Regiment 33

Fuel Allocation Request – Artillery Regiment 33

Background

There is a lot of talk about how the desert required higher fuel allocations than foreseen for the German forces, but very little evidence of how this worked out in detail. I have just now come across some information in my files, which I will post below.

Fuel Needs

Fuel was by far the most urgent and heaviest (by weight) of items in the German supply requirements. In the context of the desert war, fuel was crucial – no fuel, no movement of anything. The armies in the desert were dependent on trucks for moving supplies, and no attempt to ameliorate the situation by using coastal shipping, railways, or pipelines (all of which were used), could do more than lessen the requirement. 

Fuel was needed to carry everything, including fuel. The further away from supply entry points an army got, the worse the ratio of useful load/fuel use got. In the German case, the Panzergruppe  Command estimated that 1kg delivered to the port of Bardia was equivalent to 6kg delivered to Tripoli harbour, which should be read that to deliver 1kg of goods from Tripoli to Bardia, 5kg of fuel were needed – in other words it was hugely inefficient. 

Furthermore, for any movement off the main coastal road (which was in quality comparable to European roads), fuel consumption went through the roof. Moving vehicles of any type in desert terrain was not easy on the fuel use.

Standardisation

Finally, German fuel logistics were based on the concept of Verbrauchssaetze (loosely: ‘consumption units’), which used a set unit of output to determine a supply requirement. For fuel, this was the amount of fuel needed to move the vehicle 100km of distance. For weapons, it was called Ausstattung, and was the ammunition quota needed to carry out about 3-4 days of combat. For those wanting to know more, you can have a look at this link.

Now, after this explanation, here is the short but informative request, translated from a captured document, and found in WO208/3173 in the UK National Archives in Kew:

REPORT OF PARTIAL FUEL REQUIREMENTS (10 DAYS)

26 September 41: Artillery Regiment 33 reports to the 15. Panzerdivision

The 3,100 liter allowed to the Rgt. for every ten days is insufficient. The Rgt. asks for a raise of the allotment according to  the following key:

Water supply: 1,850 liter
Ration collections: 650 liter
Post collection: 350 liter
Fuel, ammunition, and spares collection: 360 liter
Evacuation of the sick: 650 liter
Inspection drives: 320 liter
Battery chargers: 700 liter

Total: 4,880 liter

Some items of note here. AR33 was stationary during the period in question. It’s supply point was Bardia, while it was stationed east/south of Bardia. The high number of fuel requirement for evacuation of the sick may reflect the high incidence of sickness in Panzergruppe during this period.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7a/Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-782-0006-22%2C_Nordafrika%2C_Nachschub%2C_Soldaten_mit_Feldflaschen.jpg

Delivery of supplies in North Africa, March/April 1941, courtesy of the Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia.

A little analysis shows that the requirement was about 57% higher than the allocation. Water supply was by far the highest requirement, at 38% of the new requirement, and almost 60% of the original allocation. What is interesting is the high requirement for battery charging – not something one reads a lot about in the context of military logistics in WW2. It’s over 14% of the new requirement, and almost 23% of the original allocation.

Motor Transport Organisation and Numbers in 8 Army, November 1941

Motor Transport Organisation and Numbers in 8 Army, November 1941

Background

In a thread on the Axis History Forum (see here) Tom and Norm raised some good questions on the supply and use of trucks by Allied forces in North Africa.

The questions Tom and Norm raised are below:

  • How many trucks were in the Middle East before the war broke out?
  • How many arrived per month after the declaration of war?
  • What was the average wastage rate?
  • Which units arrived with vehicles and which without?
  • How many trucks per month came from the US, Canada, South Africa and India?
  • What were the vehicle requirements of an infantry or tank division in the Western Desert in 1940/41/42/43?
  • How many trucks were there in a second or third line transport company and what vehicles did they use 3 ton/5 ton/10 ton?

All good questions, with not a lot of answers in my research. But what better way to remember the start of Operation CRUSADER 72 years ago than talking about the unsung workhorses of the war, the trucks and lorries, and their drivers. This post is building on an older post at this link. A word of warning, I am no logistics expert, and there are likely a number of errors in this, which I would be happy to see corrected. This post may well leave people more confused than they are now, but I’d really be very grateful for further explanations.

Having said all that…

Supply of everything was the domain of the R.A.S.C., the Royal Army Service Corps, which made sure that any form of supply would be delivered to the units in order to keep them functioning. The R.A.S.C. consisted of companies at Brigade level (lowest level I can make out) up to Army level. At the battalion level, drivers and supply platoons would be members of the actual unit, not the R.A.S.C. There was also the R.A.O.C. or Royal Army Ordnance Corps, but I believe they did not drive munitions around, but would be happy to be corrected.

Supply Needs

The supply challenge for 8 Army is laid out starkly below:

The supply problems were gigantic. Gathering for battle were 118,000 men—almost the entire population of Wellington city—and 17,600 vehicles. Soldiers would eat each day 200 tons of food. Every day the vehicles carrying them would use 1,500 tons of petrol and oil; guns and rifles would need 480 tons of ammunition a day, and 350 tons (79,400 gallons) of water would be wanted. Altogether the Army would need 2,972 tons of supplies every day.

From No. 4 and 6 RES M.T.

The general supply need outlined above is however maybe better understood by an example of a more manageable formation with a specific task. In this case, the planned advance of Bencol in December 1941 from the area south of Tobruk to capture Benghazi. During this advance it would not have been able to draw on any dumped supplies. The calculations are outlined below. So, in order to maintain from Tobruk in Benghazi a force as follows:

22 Guards Brigade

2 infantry battalions (motorised, 2 Scots Guards and 3 Coldstream Guards)
1 Field Regiment (24x 25-pdr guns)
Royal Engineers
1 Anti-Tank Battery (12x 2-pdr portee guns)
1 Light AA Battery (12x 40mm Bofors light AA guns)
1 Light Field Ambulance
1 Armoured Car Regiment (Marmon Herrington or Daimler)
2nd Line Transport
Total 5,354 men, 1,152 motor vehicles.

Daily requirement was calculated as follows.

86.7 tons total, consisting of:

48.4 tons rations and POL
23.3 tons ammunition
15 tons water

Supplied from Tobruk, this would require 289 lorries, or about 2.5 3-ton coys of 120 lorries each, assuming a 10-day turn-around on the Tobruk-Benghazi run (700miles return). The assumed daily distance that could be covered was only 70 miles. This was due to short daylight hours, the need for substantial dispersion in order to protect the vehicles from air attack, and regular breaks. This example should put the 17,600 vehicles, of which maybe 2,000 were fighting or direct fighting support vehicles of various types (tanks, scout cars, Bren gun carriers, gun tractors) into perspective. Basically, the planning assumption was that one transport company of 120 3-ton vehicles could ensure 360 tons of supply per day over a distance of 35 miles. For every additional 35 miles, another company with 120 3-ton trucks was needed.

Now for some definitions. For the purpose of this post, I shall largely ignore tractors and passenger cars. So what are trucks and lorries in 1940s British military parlance? Ellis’ British Army Handbook has the following definitions for vehicle types:

  • trucks are <1 long ton carrying capacity (1,016kg)
  • lorries are >30 cwt long ton (presume a long cwt = 1,524kg)
  • a van is a truck with a fixed top
  • a tractor is a towing vehicle

I presume that if a manufacturer had proposed a vehicle with a load-carrying capacity >1,016 but <1,524kg, some War Office bureaucrat’s head would have exploded.

Furthermore from Ellis, on what is 1st/2nd/3rd line transport:

  • 1st line transport is transport integral to a unit, responsible for picking up stuff from a delivery point within the divisional area
  • 2nd line transport is transport used to move stuff from rendez-vous points and depots to the delivery points for a unit
  • 3rd line transport is transport used to move stuff from a supply column/refilling point or Corps petrol park to a rendez-vous or petrol refilling point

My guess is that in 1941 the system may have been slightly different, since Ellis seems to describe the system in the UK, which may well have been based on the system that was developed for CRUSADER.

The desert supply was based on the following in autumn 1941:

  • Railhead at Mersa Matruh for 8 Army and harbour at Tobruk (for TobFort)
  • Field Maintenance Centres (FMC) in the desert, consisting of a number of sub-centres

The supply base (railhead/harbour) would be controlled by a Sub-Area. I believe in the case of 8 Army this was Sub Area 88, which was later lost when Tobruk fell in June 1942. From the railhead onwards a Line of Communications (L. of C.) Column, commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel, would control the transport, consisting of Reserve Motor Transport (RES M.T.) and specialised companies for water, petrol, ammunition, to the Field Maintenance Centre (FMC = Supply Column/Corps Petrol Park), from where divisional transport would take over.

An important innovation for Crusader campaign was a Corps organisation for co-ordinating supply and maintenance of the fighting formations, known as a field maintenance centre. This would contain an FSD, a field ammunition depot, a petrol, oil and lubricants dump, a water point, a prisoner-of-war cage, a field post office, a NAAFI/EFI store (for canteen supplies), and other services, all functioning independently but making economical use of a common labour and transport pool and subject to the headquarters of the FMC for the initial layout of the whole area, the marking of routes and traffic control, local administration, security, and general co-ordination. Each corps had several of these FMCs, those of 13 Corps numbering from 50 upwards and those of 30 Corps numbering from 60 upwards, with the chief components similarly numbered. Thus 50 FMC, just inside Egypt and three miles east of the frontier wire at El Beida, included 50 FSD, 50 FAD, and so on. As it happened this FMC had a NZ headquarters—’A’ NZ FMC—and the co-ordination was therefore carried out by New Zealanders, although the dumps and services were operated by troops from the United Kingdom. The headquarters of another NZ FMC—’B’—was at that time waiting at 50 FMC to move forward and set up 51 FMC some 20 miles west of Sidi Omar. Some idea of the enormous size of these installations can be gained from the fact that 50 FMC covered an area of 35 square miles. So wide was the dispersion and so effective the camouflage that a German armoured division later drove through the northern fringe of this area without realising that the supplies and services for the whole British corps lay within its reach. New Zealand Official History – Supply Company

In terms of organisation, I believe that any of the 2nd Line could be integral to a unit or formation, or be assigned to it from a pool, while 3rd Line would always be assigned from the pool, usually in the form of a Line of Communication Column(s) to a Corps, which would have a number of RES M.T. under command, or individual Res M.T. Coys to a division. Army and Corps commands would normally have a pool of load-carrying units, called Reserve Motor Transport Companies (RES M.T.), which they would be able to assign to lower formations as required, e.g. to deal with shortcomings in supply, and/or to supply rapid advances. Those RES M.T. retained by the formation would be 3rd Line transport. Apart from general transport (which could be used for anything, including carrying personnel), 8 Army also had specialised units that were dedicated to the transport of water, petrol, tank transport over longer distances, and ammunition.

1st Line transport

Some information on first-line transport in cruiser regiments and a fully motorised reconnaissance regiment is below. First, from 3 CLY War Diary (Cruiser regiment) for October 41 – the numbers and types what they went into battle with, I have no idea if that was what they were supposed to have. They would call these their ‘B’ vehicles. ‘A’ vehicles were those meant to be fighting, i.e. tanks and scout cars. Note that this should not be confused with ‘A’ and ‘B’ echelon – most of the vehicles could be in ‘A’ Echelon I should think, if they were assigned such. By comparison, 2 Royal Gloucester Hussars reported 112 ‘B’ vehicles.

Vehicle Type

Number Present

3-tonner lorries

66

3-tonner fitter lorries (mechanics store)

2

15-cwt trucks

18

15-cwt water trucks

4

15-cwt office truck (should be van?)

1

8-cwt trucks

2

Total trucks and lorries

93

Utilities

8

Wireless Transmission van

1

Light Vehicles

9

Total ‘B’ Vehicles

102

War Diary, 3 CLY, Oct. 1941


So for 22 Armoured Brigade, of which 3 CLY and 2RGH were part, just the three cruiser regiments would get you to about 300 lorries and trucks, and the Brigade R.A.S.C. company would add another 160 or so, for a total of 460 for the Brigade. So for four cruiser/army tank brigades outside Tobruk we would get to 1,800 or more lorries and trucks in 1st Line and Brigade 2nd Line transport alone.

Next example, the Central India Horse Reconnaissance Regiment of 4 Indian Division. It’s ‘B’ vehicles consisted of 114 trucks and lorries, and 20 other vehicles, so about equal to an armoured regiment. It’s ‘A’ vehicles were 21 carriers, presumably the India Pattern, which was a wheeled light scout car. It presumably had more vehicles because all the infantry in the regiment had to be completely motorised.

An Indian Pattern Carrier Mk 2A named ‘Dhar IV’, 10 April 1942. From the IWM, via Wikipedia.


For the artillery, Nigel Evan’s excellent site at this link is a key source. For a 3-battery regiment I count 82 trucks/lorries in 1st Line, excluding the tractors (and only 60 trucks/lorries for a 2-battery regiment) Based on the artillery order of battle, I have 10×3 battery, 9x 2 battery, including Tobruk. Furthermore 88 trucks for a medium regiment, of which there were two. Total first line trucks for these units would be 1,536, although some of them would have been in Tobruk, so with fewer vehicles in 1st Line, one would presume.

At this point we are getting close to 3,000 trucks and lorries just for 1st Line transport already, without considering the infantry battalions, AT-regiments, LAA/HAA units, 2nd and 3rd Line divisional transport the Corps and Army pool. As an example below, the table outlines the supply troops under 7 Armoured Division in November 1941:

7 Armoured Divison Supply Troops Nov. 41

Unit

Notes

H.Q. 7 Armd Div R.A.S.C.

 

7 Armd Div Tps Coy

53 Coy

7 Armd Bde Coy

 

22 Armd Bde Coy

 

7 Armd Div Sup Gp Coy

550 Coy

1 Lt A.A. Regt R.A.S.C. Section

 

C Transport Coy

(less Det) Tank Transporters

30 Res M.T. Coy

 

Source: War Diary GS Branch, 30 Corps

 

A British Army 15-cwt truck throws up a cloud of sand and dust while moving at speed along a desert track in North Africa, 1 November 1940. Source: IWM

A Scammell tank transporter named ‘Snow White’ carrying an A9 Cruiser tank to the workshops for an overhaul in the Western Desert, 18 July 1941. Source: IWM

2nd and 3rd Line Transport

During CRUSADER, apparently 120 lorries of unspecified type per RES M.T. line company, either 3, 5, or 10 ton, although the New Zealand Official History states that establishment was 147 3-ton vehicles. In mid-December, 13 Corps and 8 Army pools together accounted for 22 3/4 transport coys in 13 Corps and 8 Army pool, i.e. 2,730 trucks at 120 trucks per company. 30 Corps held another five companies in its pool, or another 600 lorries. RES M.T. companies assigned to divisions are presumably not part of the pool, and would be extra.

Extrapolating Ellis’ system would make it 3rd Line transport gets stuff from the railhead to the FMCs, and thence to the rendez-vous points and depots. 2nd Line then gets stuff to the unit delivery points in the divisional areas. This would fit with the assignment of e.g. 2 L. of C. Column to 30 Corps, with 5 RES M.T. coys, or at least 600 lorries, under command. The column was responsible for general deliveries to 30 Corps during the operation.

 

H.Q. 30 Corps R.A.S.C.

 
 

346 RES M.T.

No. 1 L. of C. Column

3 ‘P’ Division Companies (Supply, Ammn, Petrol)

No. 8 Water Tank Coy

No. 2 L. of C. Column

5 RES M.T. Coys

No. 3 L. of C. Column

6 Water Tank Coys (no. 1-6)

No. 38 RES M.T. Coy

No. 5 L. of C. Column

3 L. of C. Coys (5,6, 39)

4 DID (?) (4 HAA Bde, 44, 52, P)

4 FMC (D, E, F, G)

Source: War Diary, G.S. Branch, 30 Corps

 

Composition of 2 Line of Comms Column Oct/Nov 41

Unit Name

Former Name

1 RES M.T.

19 General Transport Company (G.T.C.)

5 RES M.T.

97 G.T.C.

15 RES M.T.

922 G.T.C.

36 RES M.T.

240 G.T.C.

37 RES M.T.

241 G.T.C.

Source: War Diary, 2 L. of C. Column (courtesy of Tom O’Brien)

 

Each company consisted of an H.Q., 4 transport, 2 increment, and 1 workshop platoon.

An open-topped CMP (Canada Military Pattern) 3-ton truck and motorcycle of 11th Royal Horse Artillery (Honourable Artillery Company), 1st Armoured Division, 22 April 1943. From the IWM via Wikipedia.

Further Reading

New Zealand Official Histories:

Petrol Company

4 and 6 RES M.T.

Supply Company

22 Armoured Brigade R.A.S.C. Coy War Diary

From Tom O’Brien comes this transcript of the war diary of 22 Armoured Brigade R.A.S.C. Company, the Brigade’s transport company.

1 October 1941 On Board H.M.T. ORION
Ship Anchors at 1400 hours. E.S.C. comes aboard and gives order of marching off ship. The Company leaves after first unit – 22 Armd Bde. H.Q. Sqn. Men have to wait three hours on ferry whilst four other units disembark. Shore reached at 1900 hours. O.C. is waiting to meet the Company. The men are given some tea and eat their haversack rations which have been issued on board. E.S.O. gives entraining order for Mob Centre, Qassassin. On arrival at 0400 hrs, 2 Oct, the Company is met by M.T. and taken to tented camp.

2 October 1941
O.C. reports to Mob Centre and is loaned one three ton vehicle for Company use, he having to return Staff Car he had been using whilst with Brigadier. At 1600 hrs O.C. calls Company Parade. Casualties due to sickness from time of embarkation to today, is four drivers. Capt. Budgen goes to Cairo to make banking arrangements for Company and draw air mail letter forms for men.

3 October 1941
Company Parade at 0800 hrs followed by Arms Drill and short Route March.
1415 1415 hrs – kit inspection.
Capt. Wells goes to Suez with party of drivers to trace possible Company vehicles which may have been on other ships in the Convoy. Disembarkation Order had been marks [sic] ‘Company with M.T.’ It is hoped they may be able to bring back Coy. Office equipment.

4 October 1941
Company Parade 0800 hrs. Route March. Working Parade 1400 hours.
Company paid money drawn on Field Cashier. Still without Imprest Number.
Two three tonners and one staff car taken on charge. Loads of G.1098 stores coming forward daily from Suez. Capt. Wells at Port with party of drivers to collect vehicles which may have been in Convoy.

5 October 1941
Church Parade at 0840 hours.
Company draws 19 x 3 ton Chevrolets, 2 Dodge trucks, 4 x 15 cwt Bedfords.
Col. Eccles, 2 Lt. Fld. Amb. O.C., and Capt. N.C. King, Brigade RASC Officer arrive to enquire about their transport from Mob. Centre. Major Bailey goes to 2nd Echelon to deposit documents.
2/Lieut. B.S. Baker and Baggage Party rejoins the Company, having forwarded G.1098 stores without loss.

6 October 1941
Authority arrives for Company to draw from V.R.D. 20 Chevrolets and 14 Motor Cycles. Capt. G.N. Budgen goes to Cairo to arrange collection.

7 October 1941
Capt. J.W.A. Wells (W/Shops Officer) and 2/Lieut. B.S. Baker collect vehicles from 10 V.R.D. Most vehicles only done a few miles.

8 October 1941
Training Programme is carried out. Vehicles and kit are handed over by Workshops to Sections.

9 October 1941
Sections continue Company Training Programme. Section Officers start short runs across Country with Prismatic Compass. Waiting for an issue of Sun Compasses with which to start training. One or two Air Mail letters are coming through for the Company.

10 October 1941
All drivers of vehicles are issued with Paint Brushes, and commencement is made with Camouflaging. Workshops Section draws Fitter’s Tool Kits from 6 M.T.S.D.
Major Bailey goes to Cairo to attend conference in connection with increased W.E. of Company to deal with Brigade attached Units.
Capt. N.C. King arrives with six Universal Sun Compasses which are very welcome for training purposes.
Coy. provides party under Capt. R.P. Brown for collecting Tank Transporters at Port Said, for delivering to Mob Centre, RASC.
2/Lieut. P.F. Edmiston leaves with vehicles for 2 Lt. Fd. Amb. at AMIRIYA.
Camp Comdt inspects Camp – impresses on drivers importance of correct lashing of canopies.

11 October 1941
Major L.S. Bailey receives official notification that the W.E. of the Company is to be increased due to the Brigade strength being increased by one motor battalion, 1 R.H.A. Regt., 1 Anti-Tank Regt., 1 Field Park R.E., 1 Field Sqn R.E. The Company will be increased by 110 men, 53 load carrying vehicles, 2 Dodge Staff Vans.
It is decided that the Ammunition and Petrol Sections will be duplicated and known as ‘A.1’ and ‘A’2’ and ‘B.1’ and ‘B.2’ Sections.
Pay Parade at 1400 hours. Each man handed Air Mail card and Green Envelope.

12 October 1941
Coy. Parade 0830 hours. At 0900 hours, Coy. falls in with towels and haversack ration for bathing at Ismalia. Company is detailed to provide Mob. Centre Mobile Party daily, proving a handicap on Company while we try to work on vehicles drawn and continue with our training.

13 October 1941
C.I.M.T. lectures to Company in hourly classes to all drivers on special points of desert maintenance. One period for Officers. A good lecture and a lot of useful tips and information gained.
Major L.S. Bailey receives orders to report to Brigade H.Q. on 14th Oct. Authority received for drawing a further 53 Chevrolets, 1 Humber 4-Seater and 3 Bedfords 15cwt.
Mob. Centre detail for tomorrow:-
1 Officer, 2 Sergeants, 23 men – Mobile Party.
1 Officer, 50 Drivers – Suez.
1 Sergeant, 20 men – V.R.D.
2 Corporals, 12 men – Fatigue Party, Mob Centre.

14 October 1941
Major L.S. Bailey leaves 0700 hours for Brigade H.Q.
Capt. J.W.A. Wells Workshop’s Officer draws 1 Technical vehicle, 1 Stores Vehicle, 1 Breakdown Vehicle from 9 V.R.D.
Company on Route March.
Camp Commandant inspects location and orders that 400 gallons on a ‘B’ Section Lorry, carried for Company use, should be buried.

15 October 1941
P.T. 0600 hours. Company Parade 0800 hours. Company sick today totals 12. The large sick parades of the first few days now adjusted itself.
Today’s Mob. Centre duties:-
1 Officer and 80 Drivers, 9 V.R.D.
2 NCO’s and 12 Drivers – Fatigue Party.
1 Offr, 2 Sgts, 20 Dvrs – Mobile Party.
2/Lieut. J.G. Harrison rejoins Unit, having been in No.2 General Hospital for seven days.

16 October 1941
P.T. 0600 hours. Company Parade 0800 hours. Route March in morning.
Workshops spray for camouflage, all canopies in H.Q. and W/S Sections.
Warning Order for move is received. Company is still without Water Trucks or trailers.
Capt. G.N. Budgen reports to Mob. Centre to receive date of departure. No satisfaction received as to Company obtaining water carrying vehicles or 2 gallon cans. Very few items still to be drawn from Ordnance.

17 October 1941
P.T. 0600 hours. Company Parade 0800 hours. Route March.
Workshops spraying ‘A’ Section vehicles. All Bren Guns Motley Mountings fitted on Company Defence Trucks. CQMS loads one vehicle with heavy stores. Sections load G.1098. One HQ vehicle in workshops having half of available space fitted for carrying small canteen stock. All drivers on vehicle maintenance. A good deal of work required on new Chevrolets drawn, due to careless assembly. All nuts finger tight.

18 October 1941
Usual Company Parades. Pay Parade 1345 hours. Morning given to maintenance. ‘B’ Section canopies finished. Orders received from Mob. Centre for all available vehicles to load with petrol.
12 x 2½ tonners to Shell Depot, Suez. Officer i/c Capt. Brown.
48 x 2½ tonners to Petrol Depot, El Kirch.
Officer i/c Loading 2/Lt. Baker. Officer i.c 2/Lt. Holliday.

19 October 1941
Major L.S. Bailey returns from HQ 22 Armd Bde.
92 O.R’s, 2/Lt. P. Warner and 2/Lt. A. Fairhead join Unit from Mob Centre.
Authority for increase of vehicles received. Company drew 53 Fordsons, 3 Bedford Defence Trucks and one Staff Car, Movement Order received for Company move to AMIRIYA.
A further draft of 24 O.R’s received at 1930 hours.

20 October 1941
The Company breakfasts at 0430 hours and leaves under Major L.S. Bailey at 0530 with 307 O.R’s and 90 vehicles. Capt. G.N. Budgen and 2/Lt. C.J. Holliday, 160 O.R’s and 70 vehicles, left as Rear party. 2/Lieut. C.J. Holliday goes with R.E’s stores and 53 Fordsons. Company sleeps at WADI NATRUH.

21 October 1941
Rear Party leaves EL TAHAG at 0500 hours. Company delivers loads and takes up position in new location. HQ, B, C and D Sections camp 15 miles from AMIRIYA. ‘A’ Sectoin at IKINGI.

22 October 1941
Company commences to supply Units in Bde with rations and petrol.
All sections taking part in RASC Meeting Point for practice.

23 October 1941
Major L.S. Bailey leaves for Bde HQ to attend an administration exercise.
A small number of nets drawn and a start it made to garnish them.
Total rations supplied by ‘C’ Section today, to five units, is 2,754. Petrol delivered 4,724 gallons.

24 October 1941
Further units move into area. Arrangements are made for drawing rations from 10 D.I.D. – a saving of mileage and time will be effected. ‘A’ Section commence to fill up with amn for C.L.Y. CQMS draws last of desert equipment. Company is paid and Canteen opened, which is much appreciated by men. All drivers and spare drivers garnishing nets.

25 October 1941
Brigade starts to move into area. 3 C.L.Y. first to come in. Their supply vehicles break down on way to RASC pt, and then, later in the night, have to collect from this Company’s location. Brigadier calls and warns Company that vehicles unpainted and nets ungarnished must be finished.
Rations delivered 3407; Petrol, 3,512 gallons.
2/Lieut. P.P. Edmiston goes to Cairo to draw M.T. stores and returns in the day.

26 October 1941
All personnel working on nets and W/Shops camouflaging canopies. From today, the Company is only to supply rations to the Brigade. Attached Units to draw direct themselves from D.I.D. ‘B’ Section still supply them with petrol.

27 October 1941
Major L.S. Bailey returns from administrative exercise. Petrol Pt opened from 0930 to 1130 for Units attached to Bde. All the units to use RASC replenishing Pt.

28 October 1941
‘A’ Sec. joins Coy from IKINGI. Five Units make use of the arrangement whereby Units may detach one man to this Unit to check Unit ration levels.

29 October 1941
Bde A.P.O. attached to this Company. One Wireless Truck on loan from Bde Signals. Capt. Budgen collects last of controlled items during the day.

30 October 1941
R.A.S.C. R.P. changed from 1630 hrs to 1000 hrs. Supply Section draws twice a day to adjust supplies to new times.

31 October 1941
Coy is put on water discipline; ½ gallon for mens’ personal needs; ½ gall. To Cookhouse; 1 gall. held as storage by “C” Section; 4 gallons on vehicles reserve.

Initial Transport of the Afrikakorps to North Africa

Initial Transport of the Afrikakorps to North Africa

Background

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

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

Original Convoys

  • 1st Staffel 8 Feb 41 (back in Naples 18 Feb, so 10-day roundtrip):
    Ankara (4,768 GRT)
    Arcturus (2,596 GRT)
    Alicante (2,140 GRT)
  • 2nd Staffel 12 Feb 41
    Kybfels (7,764 GRT)
    Adana (4,205 GRT)
    Aegina (2,447 GRT)
    Ruhr (5,954 GRT)
  • 3rd Staffel 17 Feb 41
    Menes (5,609 GRT – torpedoed and damaged on return journey by HM/Sub Regent, who herself was damaged in the counter attack), Arta (2,452 GRT) Maritza (2,910 GRT), Herakleia (1,927 GRT)
  • 4th Staffel 23 Feb 41:
    Ankara, Marburg (7,564 GRT), Reichenfels (7,744 GRT), Kybfels
  • 5th Staffel 25 Feb 41:
    Leverkusen (7,368 GRT), Wachtfels (8,467 GRT), Alicante (2,140 GRT), Arcturus
  • 6th Staffel 1 Mar 41:
    Castellon (2,086 GRT), Ruhr, Maritza, Amsterdam (8,673 GRT – Italian vessel, not sure whether she carried German load)
  • 7th Staffel
    Adana, Aegina, Arta, Herakleia, Sabaudia (1,590 – Italian(?) attached as supply ship)
  • 8th. Staffel 5 Mar 41
    Ankara, Marburg, Reichenfels, Kybfels
  • 9th Staffel 7 Mar 41:
    Alicante, Arcturus, Wachtfels
  • 10th Staffel 12 Mar 41
    Castelleon, Ruhr, Maritza, Leverkusen (this was after the famous fire which caused the loss of 13 tanks, according to WD CO Naval Transport)
  • 11th Staffel 14 Mar 41
    Adana, Aegina, Herakleia, Galilea (8,040 GRT), Arta (supply ship)
  • 12th Staffel 16/17 Mar 41
    Marburg (16 March from Naples), Reichenfels (dto), Ankara (17 Mar from Palermo, re-directed to pick up 150 urgently needed vehicles), Kybfels (dto)
  • 13th Staffel 19 Mar 41
    Arcturus, Wachtfels, Santa Fe (4,627 GRT?), Procida (1,842 GRT)
  • 14th Staffel 22 Mar 41:
    Alicante, Leverkusen, Castellon, Maritza
  • 15th Staffel 26 Mar 41:
    Adana, Herakleia (sunk by submarine HM/Sub Utmost off Tunisian coast, 69 out of 206 soldiers on board lost), Ruhr (damaged by submarine HMS Utmost off Tunisian coast), Galilea (damaged by submarine HM/Sub Upright on return journey, beached in Tripoli a few days later), Samos (2,576 GRT – supply ship)
  • 16th Staffel – 29/30 Mar 41
    Marburg (29 March from Naples), Kybfels (dto), Ankara (30 Mar from Palermo), Reichenfels (dto)
  • 17th Staffel – 2 Apr 41
    Maritza, Procida, Alicante, Santa Fe
  • 18th Staffel – 8 Apr 41 (last troops of the original contingent)
    Wachtfels, Arcturus, Leverkusen, Castellon
  • 19th Staffel – 11 Apr 41 (last load of original units, possibly first load of 15th Panzer) Ankara, Marburg, Kybfels, Reichenfels

0063

A leichter Befehlswagen (command tank on Panzer I chassis) of Panzerregiment 5 being unloaded in Tripoli, Feb/Mar 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

Various Runs

  • 26 Mar 41, Italian tanker Persiano (2,474 GRT) with fuel for the army from Naples.
  • 10 Apr 41
    Persiano with fuel Naples to Tripoli, (attacked 40nm north of Tripoli by HM/Sub Tetrach, set on fire and sunk)
  • 1st Supply Runs to Benghazi: Samos from Tripoli Ramb III (3,667 GRT, Italian vessel) from Naples, effective loading capacity only 1,100 tons due to ballast issues)
  • Motor sailing vessels for coastal traffic from Trapani: Rosina, Giorgina, Unione, Luigi, Frieda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source

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

Convoluted Supply

Below a short ULTRA message that shows how complicated life got in terms of keeping the Axis forces in North Africa able to fight, after about three weeks of the CRUSADER battle. This was a period when shipments by merchants were reduced due to the heavy losses which had been suffered recently, and destroyers were employed as a costly expedient.

Dept. for AFRICA Transport has arranged for the delivery of most important supplies for AFRICA to PATRAS and SUDA BAY: from there, they will be sent on, partly on destroyers, and partly by air. Dept. for AFRICA Transport will direct freighters and destroyers to PATRAS, or SUDA BAY (as the case may be): ALBATROS is available for the journey to PATRAS. AMSEL for SUDA BAY: arrival probably not before 5/12.

Cargo of AMSEL:
G.A.F.: 353 cubic metres B4
Army: 90 tons M/T fuel, 400 tons ammunition (of which part has been unloaded at ARGOSTOLI).

Cargo of ALBATROS:
G.A.F.: 1,396 cubic metres B4, 96 cubic metres Rotring, 334 tons Flak ammunition, 271 tons equipment, including 25 (illegible), 100 auxiliary tanks, 43 cases Flak gun barrels (2 cm), 6 cases Flak gun barrels (3.7cm), 19 bottles accumulator acid, 40 a/c tyres, 130 tons canteen supplies, 69 tons bombs.

S.S. Sturla is to move to and fro between ALBATROS and AMSEL, to make up the AMSEL’s cargo. Further freighters are intended to be sent: times of departure and cargo lists will be issued in due course.

Air transport for G.A.F. supplies is required only for B4, a/c engines and Flak gun barrels. Of the army cargo, the Panzer ammunition is urgent. We request list of amounts of supplies sent by air or transhipped on to destroyer, so that supplies can be sent forward punctually.

Should destroyer arrive in SUDA BAY before the BELLONA, then they will (in accordance with orders of Dept. for AFRICA Transport, and SULTAN) be specially available for supplies of B4 to AFRICA.

Note:
ALBATROS = Wachtfels
AMSEL now thought to be BELLONA

A few days later further items were decoded, stating that Wachtfels had moved to Patras from Brindisi, and that it was now to transship directly onto destroyers (presumably at Patras). While saving time, by cancelling the transfer via S.S. Sturla, and by allowing the higher speed of the destroyers to come into play for the whole stretch from Patras to Benghazi, rather than have a slow merchant go to Suda from Patras, this was very costly in terms of fuel. Furthermore, it was now stipulated that the AA gun barrels were to be sent by air.

Patras at the time was also an important transshipment location for fuel to be loaded from ships to airplanes operating from close-by Araxos airport. This was more efficient, since the distance Araxos – Derna was only 394 miles, while a trip via Maleme would have brought the total distance to about 450 miles, and required another landing/take-off (thanks to Great Circle Mapper for this data). While I have no certain information on this, I would presume that the Ju 52 could easily carry its maximum payload over this distance, and might even be able (depending on wind) to return without refueling, as long as the return flight was empty, saving even more fuel in Africa.

G.A.F. = German Air Force
B4 = type of aircraft fuel with lower Octane rating.
M/T = motor transport
Rotring = not known, probably lubricant?
a/c = aircraft