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.

Bardia, Halfaya, and the January Offensive

Bardia, Halfaya, and the January Offensive

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.

4117694BARDIA, 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

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.

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 1.48.22 PM

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

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.

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 XIII 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 XXX 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 XXX 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.

Related posts

Order of Battle of Savona Infantry Division

ULTRA Intercepts and Air Raids on Bardia

The End of the Halfaya Garrison

Losses in Operation Crusader

Free French Air Force Operations

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_0000006The 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

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]

I intend to publish an in-depth analysis of the first day of 4 Armoured Brigade’s two-day battle with Panzerregiment 5 on 19/20 November. This will be published as a separate article, and given its nature I am looking for e.g. a magazine to place it. 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.PanzerdivisionIf anyone has any ideas who might be interested in something of this kind, please let me know.

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

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.

First a bit of background. 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.

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.

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

Capacity of Tripoli and Benghazi Harbours, 1941

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Port/Classification

May

June

July

August

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

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

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

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

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

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

BenCol: Advance on Benghazi I – Planning

BenCol (Benghazi Column) was an evolving concept during Operation CRUSADER. The aim was clear – envelop the southern flank of the Axis forces, push a sufficiently large force onto Benghazi, and thereby cut the Axis forces in eastern Cyrenaica off their lifeline, by taking out the only harbour worth mentioning, and cutting the coast road, as well as taking out the Benina and Barce airfields, which were important bases for the Axis air forces.

Had the operation been carried out, it would almost certainly have been written about and heralded as a daring  example of command. Combining two smallish, highly mobile forces, with their own air support,  supplied over a sea controlled by enemy air forces, a dashing paratroop special forces raid thrown in, to reach far into the rear of the enemy. The Germans at least were extremely concerned about it, and strengthened their defenses in western Cyrenaica. Over the course of CRUSADER however, with increasing losses and uncertainty in the key battle around Tobruk, the ambitious plans had to be scaled back, and finally abandoned when the battle had moved beyond it.

The distance of advance from Tobruk to Benghazi, using the best possible route, was 350 miles.

The information is from WO201/635 – Bencol Advance on Benghazi.

1. 7 Armoured Division to March West

In an undated document from November the idea was for a mixed Army/RAF force, led by 7th Armoured Division HQ, to carry out this operation once the battle around Tobruk had advanced to a point where command could be certain that the force (then called ‘Column “F”) could carry out its mission, advancing either via Antelat, or Er Regima in the north, although it was pointed out that no fighter cover could be guaranteed on the northern route.

At this point in time the strength of the force was foreseen to be substantial – and interestingly quite close in balance to a late-war armoured division (although much weaker in artillery):

HQ 7 Armoured Division (General Gott commanding)

4 Armoured Brigade

Composite Brigade Group comprising:

Elements of Support Group 7 Armoured Division

22 Guards Brigade w/3 infantry battalions

One 25-pdr Field Regiment

C.R.E. (Commander Royal Engineers) 7 Armoured Division & 3 Field Squadron RE

Det. 142 Field Park Sqdrn.

One A/Tk battery

One Lt. AA Rgt.

One Armd. Car Rgt.

Supply Column

It was supposed to meet with Brigadier Reid’s ‘Force “E”‘ at Antelat, south-west of Benghazi, with Reid’s men advancing from the south towards the coast at Agedabia, taking the airfield there, and cutting the coastal road. Before arriving there, a party of parachutists under Captain Stirling was supposed to jump onto the airfield, destroying all the airplanes there.

The RAF element consisted of six fighter squadrons, with one of these permanently based on L.G.125, deep in the desert south-west of Tobruk.

The time to get to Benghasi was estimated at 3.5 days. The original vehicle requirement of the column was ca. 2,200 organic vehicles, and another 2,000 for supplies, but this was not seen to be possible, and instead the column was expected to carry five days of supplies, and should then be supplied by (truck?) convoys.

The latest documents I can find refering to this are dated 30 November.

2. Scaling Down – Bencol is born

When the battle around Tobruk made it impossible to send anything from 7 Armoured Division, a scaled-down version of the plan was introduced, and the name “Bencol” introduced. First orders seem to have come out on 1 December. The new order of battle for Bencol simply removed all elements from 7 Armoured Division, i.e. HQ, 4 Armoured Brigade,  engineers, and elements of Support Group. Command of the advance would be exercised by Brigadier Marriott, Commander of 22 Guards Brigade.

Strength is given as follows:

22 Guards Brigade HQ (102 men, 23 trucks, 9 motorcycles)

Spec. Signals Section (85men, 8 trucks, 14 motorcycles)

3 infantry battalions with LADs (2 Scots Guards, 3 Coldstream Guards, 1 Worcesters) (2,376 men, 459 trucks, 36 motorcycles, 132 carriers)

One Armd. Car Rgt. (11 Hussars)  (582 men, 91 trucks, 7 motorcycles, 58 armoured cars)

One 25-pdr Field Regiment (51 Fd Rgt) (24×25-pdr) (697 men, 145 trucks, 6 motorcycles)

One A/Tk battery (73 A/Tk Bty) (123 men, 39 trucks, 8 motorcycles)

One Lt. AA Rgt. (1 LAA Rgt) (12 40mm guns) (281 men, 57 trucks, 8 motorcycles)

Bde. Coy RASC (400 men, 189 trucks)

Supply Column (5.5 motor transport companies, 2 water tank companies) (1,575 men, 919 trucks & 428 men, 158 tankers)

Total: 6,649 men, 2,088 trucks, 88 motor cycles, 132 carriers, 58 armoured cars, with weekly supply requirements of about 1,000 tons. Additionally, RAF strength had increased to 12 Squadrons, and was expected to be 4,500 men and 500 trucks, with supply requirements of 500 tons (this was a guesstimate).

To ensure supply once Benghazi had been taken, the Royal Navy was requested to send a ship to Benghazi to land supplies not before 12 December, especially fuel and ammunition, once the port had been taken. This would presumably have been one of the more interesting assignments on offer at the time.

By 9 December planning had changed slightly, adding back CRE 2 Armoured Division, 3 Fd. Coy RE, 142 Fd Pk Det., a squadron of M3 Stuart tanks, and reducing infantry to two battalions and the LAA Rgt. to a single battery.

The RAF component was to be under the command of Adv. HQ No. 258 Wing and was called ‘Whitforce’. It consisted of No. 2 (SAAF), No.4 (SAAF) (both Curtiss Tomahawks), No.33 (ground attack Hurricanes) and No.250 Squadrons (Curtiss Tomahawks), as well as of light and heavy AA, No. 2 Armoured Car Regiment, and various maintenance and supply units.

On 17 December, following a few bloody days on the Gazala line, the operation order was given to Bencol.

3. Not enough trucks – and Benghazi is no longer the objective

In the period 9 to 20 December the availability of trucks exercised the mind of planners. In the meantime, on 18 December the Axis forces retreated from the Gazala line, and 13 Corps opened the pursuit, making the original role of Bencol surplus to requirements, and more importantly requiring so many trucks that it was no longer practicable to operate Bencol independently. The truck allotment was consequently reduced again, and Bencol was ordered to move straight west, towards Msus, and thence drawing on 13 Corps supplies.