Capacity of Tripoli and Benghazi Harbours, 1941

Capacity of Tripoli and Benghazi Harbours, 1941


A lot of discussion and research about the desert war in North Africa focuses on supply. This is quite right, since supply was the decisive factor in the battle for North Africa. 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. Much of the discussion is often based on Martin van Creveld’s ‘Supplying War’, which contains a chapter on North Africa. 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.


Kleiner Befehlswagen (command tank on Panzer I chassis) of Panzerregiment 5 being unloaded in Tripoli, February/March 1941. Collection.

Logistics in War

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 have highly recommended prior to writing this article). The question is how, if the monthly capacity of Tripoli is 45,000 tons, as he claims, could the much higher delivery rates that are observed in the data 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’)? The next question is why his numbers diverge so substantially from those we can find in the primary documents.

Based on van Creveld’s 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 Actual Situation

The situation in reality appears to be as follows:

On ideal days, 5,000 tons could be discharged in summer1941 (remark by Admiral Sansonetti during a staff discussion on supply in Rome in September 1941, to be found in Panzergruppe War Diary Appendices Chefsachen).

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.

So the primary data supports that daily discharge rates could be a combined 6,700 tons, while van Creveld claims it was no more than 2,250 to 4,200 tons/day.

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 however a shortage of shipping space and convoy escorts for the North Africa route. At the Italian end, capacity of the railways in Italy made it difficult to load ships up to ideal weights. The need to ship substantial numbers of of motor vehicles, sometimes hundreds in a single convoy, 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 the number of berthing spaces at the Libyan end had to be taken into account, limiting the number of ships. Of course, in a number of convoys ships were sunk, leaving capacity in the receiving harbour idle. In the Libyan harbours, trucks were missing to handle transport of goods from the quays,  while Benghazi and probably Tripoli were missing storage, and there were not enough lighters and barges to discharge ships that could not be brought alongside. 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.

The minute of the staff conference in September further does talk about a ‘calculated’ port capacity in Benghazi of 2,000 tons/day, which it was recognized that it was unlikely to be reached (see table below). 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 in September 1941. Those 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.

So one could maybe argue that van Creveld is talking about presumed capacity taking all this into account. But that doesn’t work 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 attained above 1,500 tons/day in three out of four months listed below, and Benghazi reached over 850 tons in one month. It is important to note that the ports would not have operated at capacity (even considering restrictions outlined above), with flow of goods related to convoy arrivals. So there would be days of heavy activity followed by days of no activity. Better scheduling of convoys could have taken advantage of this spare capacity.






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 Handling 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 Receipt 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

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!

Finally, this concerns itself mainly with the transport of vehicles and supplies. Transport of troops by air is more fuel efficient than by sea, but was restricted by a lack of available planes (100 planes required, but only 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 12 September 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). Transport had obviously been authorized again by January 1942, when the liver Victoria participated in operation T.18, and was promptly sunk by aerial torpedoes, again with heavy loss of life.

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: 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.


Sir John Charles Oakes Marriott by Walter Stoneman bromide print, 27 May 1947. The National Portrait Gallery.

BenCol’s intended 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.

4. And in the end

BenCol came into existence, but rather than cutting off the retreating Axis ended up chasing it.

Submarine Supplies to North Africa – May to November 1941

Submarine Supplies to North Africa – May to November 1941


Submarines played a minor but interesting role in the supply of Axis forces in North Africa, even before the Regia Marina’s emergency programme of November. Throughout the campaign they delivered fuel, ammunition, and rations. The small amounts of fuel supplied by the submarines were nevertheless valuable. For example, a single run by a Cagni class submarine could supply sufficient aerial fuel to keep the Luftwaffe planes in North Africa flying for one day. Nevertheless, the value of 1kg of supplies landed in Bardia was estimated to equal 6kg of supplies landed in Tripoli, so even the small loads were worth it.

While surface vessels were tested, Bardia was too exposed for a regular service, and too close to Empire airfields. See this older post for an experiment with small steamers at this link. Submarines by comparison had the advantage of stealth, and they were small enough to use the smaller harbours along the coast, such as Derna, thereby reducing the need to spend fuel on forward transport, or to slot into capacity-constrained harbours such as Benghazi with additional supplies. They also consumed far less fuel then destroyers or even cruisers which were also used.

This was not risk-free. Two large Italian submarines were lost on supply missions during CRUSADER, Carraciolo (sunk on 11 December by depth charges from Hunt-class destroyer HMS Farndale after a failed attack on a Tobruk convoy) and Saint Bon (sunk on 5 January by HM/Sub Upholder south of Sicily). Both of them were large ocean-going submarines of the Cagni class. 

When Bardia was invested in November 1941 during the early phase of CRUSADER, submarines were used to evacuate officer prisoners of war, such as Brigadier Hargest, commander of 5 New Zealand Brigade, who was captured on 27 November 1941 when his Brigade HQ was overrun, and high-ranking Italian officers or specialist Italian and German personnel who were evacuated to serve again when it became clear that Bardia was a lost cause.

0028 watermark

General Rommel at Bardia, 1941, with Italian submarine Zoea moving in the channel below. Rommelsriposte Collection.


Request for an Overview

On 21 November the German Navy Command (Seekriegsleitung) in Berlin requested from the Commander Naval Transport Italy (Seetransportchef Italien) an overview of German army supplies transported by submarine to North Africa, probably in the context of the ongoing supply crisis due to the interception of the BETA or Duisburg convoy during the night 8/9 November by Malta-based surface units of the Royal Navy.

On 28 November the Seetransportchef responded with an overview that unfortunately does not contain dates, and for most of the missions fails to name the submarine. It is nevertheless of interest.

On 6 February 1942 an update was provided which gave additional information. It is important to note that Italian supplies are not included in these volumes, and neither are those of the Luftwaffe.

The documents are translated below.

Berlin W 35 the 21 November 1941

Tirpitzufer 72-76

Fast Memo (Schnellkurzbrief)


Seetransportchef Italien


For the submarine transports carried out until now a list has to be supplied immediately, including the names, dates of leaving and entering harbor, and the type and volume of goods transported.


High Command of the Navy

Skl Qu.A. Via 10419/41 geh.



Quartermaster Rome                                        28 November 1941


No. 6466/41 geh.




Referring to the meeting of Oberlt. Vogel and Lt. Kostas, Qu Rom sends the attached list of submarine transports thus far.


1 Attachment                                            The Quartermaster




Quartermaster Rome


Supply Runs with Submarines thus far with supply for the Army (starting in May [1941])


























































Saint Bon












Saint Bon














Saint Bon







Seetransportchef Italien Rome, 6 February 1942

B.Nr. Geh. 841/1942



German Navy Command Italy

Attn. Lt.Commander Stock

Attached we submit an overview of submarine transports during the year 1941.


Submarine Transports

Total supply since start (10 May 41 to 31 December 41):

1,086 tons fuel

1,072 tons ammunition

203 tons rations

No supplies were shipped in the month of September.

From 20 November to 30 December the following were shipped in 8 voyages:

675 tons fuel

9 tons ammunition

203 tons rations

Italian submarines transported until July only ammunition for the army (about 1,000 tons), from August to end of November fuel and a small volume of ammunition (900 tons fuel and 20 tons ammunition).

During December primarily Italian rations were transported, and at the end of December 4 voyages brought:

139 tons fuel

203 tons rations

for the German Afrikakorps.

Putting Submarine Supplies into Context

To get an overall idea of the volume of submarine supplies compared to other measures, it is useful to look at the files of a single harbour loading unit. In this case the Seetransportstelle Brindisi, reporting on traffic ex-Taranto for the month of December.

Total supply was 12,116.6 tons, in the following categories:

259 men

100 vehicles

6 motor cycles

1,326 tons for the German army

359.5 tons for the German navy

10,431.1 tons for the German air force

Seven submarines were loaded for a total of 440 tons of army supply. By comparison, the cruiser Cadorna brought 233 tons and 88 men in one voyage, while 6 destroyers brought 49 men and 315.9 tons of supplies.

This article at gives a nice overview of Italian transport submarines.

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General Rommel and German army and navy officers meeting Italian Submarine officers of the crew of Zoea, Bardia, 10 August 1941, on the occasion of the first submarine transport to Bardia. Rommelsriposte Collection.

The Regia Marina’s Emergency Supply Programme of 22 November 41

The Regia Marina’s Emergency Supply Programme of 22 November 41

This is a translation of a report from the Italian Navy’s official history “La Difesa Del Trafico con L’Africa Settentrionale” (The Defense of the Traffic with North Africa – Volume II), which was published i1976 as part of the 8-volume complete history of the Regia Marina in World War II. The translation was done by me – apologies for the possible errors. My Italian is far from perfect.

Empire Knowledge

On 4 December ULTRA reported an item of 13 November, from OTTO TIGER (probably Panzergruppe Ia or commander) to OTTO HAMSTER (Panzergruppe Quartermaster) and IDA PINTSCHER (probably von Rintelen in Rome), as follows:

The supply situation demands temporary transfer of centre of effort (Schwerpunkt) from 20/11 to delivery of fuel and rations[1].  For this purpose is is necessary to employ submarines and destroyers in increased numbers purely for the transport of supplies. IDA QUALLE (probably Quartermaster in Rome) has been informed in detail of the supply position.

Regia Marina Report

This particular report describes this programme in detail. The naval emergency supply programme was obviously planned after the destruction of the BETA or Duisburg convoy, and instituted in late November 1941. It ensured that the Axis forces in North Africa would at least receive a minimum of supplies, even if no more merchant ships would be able to make it across the Mediterranean.  Considering the dire situation of fuel oil available to the Regia Marina at this stage, and the actual volume that could be transported on the naval vessels each run, the emergency programme was a highly wasteful effort which was nevertheless required to head off a complete collapse of the Axis forces in Libya.  In this, it succeeded, together with the air supply flown in during the battle, and the arrival of some single runners of the merchant fleet (see this list of successful runs).

What is also notable is the importance of Suda Bay on Crete to the ability of the Regia Marina to execute such a programme.


I. Exchange of letters between Admirals Weichold and Riccardi



Translation N. 366/41 22 November 1941

To the Chief of the General Staff of the Royal Italian Navy, His Excellency Squadron Admiral Designated D’Armata RICCARDI

Following on from my verbal commication to the Deputy Chief the General Staff I have the honour to submit to Your Excellency, in the name of the Grand Admiral, the following:

The Grand Admiral begs you to take into consideration, regarding the current situation in North Africa, all possibilities for resupply of gasoline, ammunition, and anti-tank weapons for the Cyrenaica with light naval units and submarines, even if this requires to run risks with them that normally would not be appropriate. The lack of supplies can be of great importance for the joint conduct of the war and for the holding of the Italian colony.

SUPERMARINA 22 November 1941

To Admiral Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy in Italy, His Excellency Admiral WEICHOLD

Re: Traffic with North Africa


Responding to your letter n. 366/41 of today

I would like to ask you to assure the Grand Admiral that Supermarina sees the current situation in exactly the same manner as he expressed it in his letter. Already going beyond the most serious requirements and confronting risks of war and seafare that in other times it would not be justified to take, a light cruiser and three destroyers will soon be be made available for the transport to Benghazi of the German battalion which Your command is preparing. You also know, as you are constantly kept aware of all decisions of Supermarina, that the transport of gasoline will be expedited with all means at our disposal, including a light cruiser, as you know. Also and especially now in this difficult moment the perfect coincidence of the views of our two navies is manifest.

II. Regia Navale Emergency Supply Plan for North Africa of 4 December 1941

1. Submarines
One per day to Bardia or Derna
a. Fuel transport
Cagni (All with 140 tons fuel and 3 tons variable supplies.)[2] Saint Bon, Millo, Carraciolo, Micca, (105 tons of fuel oil in submarine tanks , 70 tons various fuels in jerry cans, total 175 tons.)

b. Ration transport[3] Menotti 14 tons in pallets Settimo 11 tons in pallets; (or for either submarine 20 tons of heavier rations)

2. Destroyers/torpedo boats[4] One or two per day. Each destroyer could carry 95 tons of fuels, in 4,000 jerry cans and 140 barrels. Each torpedo boat could carry 65 tons of fuels in jerry cans and barrels. Depot ship Bellona supplied from German Wachtfels at Patrasso and then ran to Suda escorted by Turbine, while Wachtfels remained at Patrasso.

a. For Benghazi running a shuttle service from Benghazi to Suda Bay.

i. First pair: Two destroyers Vivaldi, from Leros, then Suda Bay and Benghazi

ii. Second pair: Destroyer Pessagno from Leros, then Suda Bay and Benghazi Destroyer Pigafetta from Taranto to Benghazi and then to Suda Bay

iii. Third pair: Two destroyers Da Recco and Usodimare from Naples to Benghazi, then to Suda Bay.

b. For Derna, running a shuttle service from Derna to Suda Bay.

i. Torpedo boat Orsa leaves Taranto for Derna and then Suda Bay.

ii. Torpedo boatProcione runs from Argostoli to Benghazi and then Suda Bay, thereafter shuttle between Derna and Suda Bay.

iii. Torpedo boat Orione runs from Brindisi to Derna and then Suda Bay.

3. Special vessels One or two per week for Benghazi depending on availability of the port.

a. MS Calitea from Brindisi to Benghazi, to leave only when the port at Benghazi was free. Estimated transport ability 1,000 tons of various materials.

b. German steamer Ankara from Taranto for Benghazi to leave when battleship Duilio and the VIIth Division [of cruisers] could escort it . Estimated transport ability 5,500 tons of various materials.

4. Cruisers (special traffic)

a. Cadorna – at Taranto to leave for Benghazi at date to be settled, coordinated with loading of MS Veniero and depending on weather conditions. Freight:

  • 325 tons of gasoline in jerry cans
  • 100 tons of fuel oil in the cruiser’s bunkers • 20 tons of rations
  • 10 tons of small arms ammunition
  • 100 men

b. Da Barbiano Da Giussano[5] – from Taranto to Palermo and on to Tripoli. Both cruisers depart at a date to be settled depending on the lunar phase. Freight (each cruiser):

  • About 300 tons of rations
  • About 20 tons of ammunition for 88mm AA guns
  • About 500 tons of fuel oil in the bunkers
  • 120 men

[1]The attack on Tobruk was to begin on 21 November, and therefore weapon or personnel would have been of little use at this point.
These were large, ocean-going submarines.  Carraciolo and Saint Bon were lost on these missions. See the older entry at this link for background.

Sommergibile Caracciolo

Carraciolo being fitted at the wharf in Monfalcone. (Wikipedia)

[3]Both of these were submarines of 1,153 tons displacement submerged, comparable to the German Type IX boats, and were named after Italian politicians of the early 19th century.
[4]See the older entry at this link for an explanation of Regia Marina ship classes. 
[5]Both of them sunk with heavy loss of life in the most spectacular, if one-sided, surface engagement during CRUSADER. See the older entry at this link for background.

The Italian ‘Liberty’ Ships

Updated 22 May 2010

Well not quite.  But thanks to the excellent Miramar Ship Index, I have been able to ID a few key merchant vessels supplying North Africa which were built to what appears to be a standardised design. If I am wrong about that, corrections are welcome!

From 1939, the Riunito Adriatico shipyard at Monfalcone produced a number of standardised, fast merchant vessels of about 6,330/6,830 tons for foreign and Italian clients, which were taken over by the Sidarma shipping company in Fiume.  Many of these vessels were involved, and quite a few of them lost, on the trip to North Africa.  Many of them were named after historic figures, such as former Doges of Venice (Sebastiano Venier), or more recent Italian heroes, such as Fabio Filzi. The vessels played a significant role in supplying the Axis forces in North Africa, and 8 out of 10 were lost plying the North Africa route, with some of them surviving only a few months.

The vessels I could identify thus far out of this series are the following:

Pietro Orseleo (completed 1939, outside the Med in June 1940, sunk off Lorient 1943 – named after the Doge of Venice 991 – 1009)

Vettor Pisani (completed 1939, survived the war, broken up 1971 – named after a 14th-century Venetian admiral)

Andrea Gritti (completed 1939, sunk by a/c bomb (this source says a/c torpedo) with considerable loss of life while transporting troops, 3 September 41, off Sicily – named after the Doge of Venice 1523 – 1538)

Marco Foscarini (completed 1940, hit by a/c bomb and beached off Tripoli, 27 May 41 – named either after the Doge of Venice 1762 – 1763 or the commander of a Venetian galley at the Battle of Lepanto, or both)

Sebastiano Venier (completed 1940, hit by s/m torpedo 9 December 1941, wrecked off Cape Methino, Greece – named after the Doge of Venice 1577 – 1578) [actually, this was a captured Dutch vessel, originally called Jason]

Francesco Barbaro (completed 1940, sunk by s/m torpedo off Navarino, 27 September 41 – named after a 15th century Venetian humanist)

Fabio Filzi (first of the ships with a 500t increase in displacement, completed 1940, sunk by s/m torpedo off Taranto, 13 December 41 – named after an Italian 1st World War hero executed as a traitor by the Austrians)

Carlo del Greco (completed 1941, sunk by s/m torpedo off Taranto, 13 December 41 – named after an Italian 1st World War hero who died when his submarine engaged Austrian submarine U-5 under command of (the) Ritter von Trapp in 1915)

Gino Allegri (completed 1941, sunk by s/m torpedo off Benghazi, 31 May 42 – – named after an Italian 1st World War pilot)

Reginaldo Giulani* (completed 1942, hit by a/c torpedo off Benghazi, 4 June 42, and scuttled 5 June 42 – name provenance unknown to me)

Mario Roselli (completed 1942, survived the war, broken up 1972 – name provenance unknown to me)

*confusingly, an Italian submarine completed in 1940 carried the same name.

Transport Ship Tonnage Losses during CRUSADER

In a prior entry at this link I posted the arrival information for freight in North Africa by month, from the Italian navy’s official history. This entry will complete this information by adding monthly merchant and military (where used for freight transport, not escort – but see note on December) tonnage losses on the Libya route. I am presuming that German merchant vessels lost are included.

I am also presuming that the difference between ‘sent’ and ‘lost’ does not equal the tonnage that actually arrived, but instead includes the tonnage that abandoned the attempt. This is a particular important caveat in November, when the large convoy ‘C’ returned to port in Italy after it had been attacked from the air and by submarine, as well as the damaged Iseo and tanker Volturno. I have a separate post on successful voyages in November 41, which you can read at this link.

Numbers for returned tonnage are lower not just because of the losses, but also because vessels were held back for cabotage traffic along the Libyan coast, or because they were damaged.

As part of their very useful statistics, the USMM also provides success information by type of attack, even though this is not elaborated on further (e.g. how they counted joint attacks by air/surface, such as on Iridio Mantovani on 1 December). These numbers seem only to relate to actual attacks, not sorties:

Surface vessel – 10 attacks, 100% success rate*

Submarine – 33% success rate

Aerial – 32% success rate


Sent 161,043 tonnes

Lost  54,011 tonnes (33.5%)

Returned 35,042 tonnes

Lost 0 tonnes


Sent 79,930 tonnes

Lost  31,436 tonnes (39.3%)

Returned 30,266 tonnes

Lost 6,311 tonnes (20.9%)****


Sent 107,602 tonnes

Lost  13,098 tonnes (12.2%)*****

Returned 71,532 tonnes

Lost 5,741 tonnes (8.0%)

*I can identify four (five if attacks on Regia Marina vessels transporting goods are included) of these ten attacks to have taken place during the broader CRUSADER period:

Destruction of the Beta/Duisburg convoy

Sinking of Maritza/Procida

Sinking of Adriatico

Sinking of Mantovani (Adriatico and Mantovani were sunk on the same day, but in separate engagements)

Sinking of light cruisers da Barbiano/di Giussano (possibly included)

**Most of these losses fell on the Beta– or Duisburg convoy which was entirely destroyed.  But other ships were lost as well, such as Capo Faro to air attack on 30 Nov.

***The numbers here could be inflated by the loss of two Italian light cruisers da Barbiano and di Giussano with between them over 13,000 tonnes on 13 December. On the other hand, just adding up the losses of Iridio Mantovani, Adriatico, Fabio Filzi and Carlo del Greco, gets us to 26,189 tons, so it appears that the cruisers were not in fact included.

****This was Sebastiano Venier, torpedoed by HM Submarine Porpoise and beached on the Greek coast on return from North Africa, with Prisoners of War on board. A lot of detail on her loss and the consequences can be found at this link. I can state with reasonable confidence that while the Royal Navy knew of her passengers before she left harbour (Naval Headlines 159 issued on 8 December 1100 hours states that she was to leave harbour on 8 December 1600 hours with 2,000 POW), it is exceedingly unlikely that the  commander of HMS Porpoise could have known this, since he would have been at sea well before the naval headlines were circulated.

*****This was the large liner Vittoria, sunk by aerial torpedo attack as part of the T.18 convoy on 23 January.

Book Review – “Fighting Flotilla” by Peter C. Smith

Book Review – “Fighting Flotilla” by Peter C. Smith

Anyone who has looked at previous book reviews knows that I am a fan of Peter C. Smith’s work. That’s why I bought without hesitation Fighting Flotilla when it was recommended to me in the marvellous naval bookshop Maritime Books in Greenwich. 


Fighting Flotilla is the very aptly named history of the Royal Navy’s L-Class destroyers and their service in World War II. It does not just address the service however, but also contains a long and involved discussion on the design of the class, the various options that were considered in terms of size, armament and engine power, and the compromises that were made in their design.

The L-class, with its flottilla leader HMS Laforey, comprised eight vessels and I think it would be fair to say the class did not have a good war, since six of them were lost to enemy action, in some cases with heavy loss of life.  Three of them, HMS Lance, Lively and Ghurka, did not even manage a year’s service between their completion and their loss, such was the pressure on the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean at the time.

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The class is of particular interest to me since two of them, HMS Lance and HMS Lively* were part of Force K throughout the CRUSADER period, while HMS Legion participated in the sinking by 4th Destroyer Flotilla of the two light Italian cruisers di Giussano and da Barbiano and joined Force K afterwards.  It is interesting to note that all threee of these would be lost by April.  HMS Lively sunk by aircraft in the waters between Crete and Tobruk, while HMS Lance and Legion were sunk at their moorings in Grand Harbour in Malta while undergoing repairs, but not before Legion claims to have engaged the Italian battleship Littorio in a gun duel at point blank range (4,400 yards) during the 2nd Battle of Sirte in March 1942 (eyewitness accounts of this action are in the book)!

HMS Lance entering Grand Harbour, La Valetta, Malta - from Wikimedia Commons

HMS Lance entering Grand Harbour, La Valetta, Malta – from Wikimedia Commons


As usual with books by Peter C. Smith, this one is a good mix of document-based research and facts emanating from personal recollections.  The book is basically covering two parts, the development of the class, in the context of the constraints of the Naval Treaties at the time and the threat assessment, followed by the service history of the eight vessels of the class.  This is a good approach for a reader like me, since it gives me the context of how these vessels came to be, and then follows it by the very interesting stories of their lifes and ends.  In doing so the book does not only provide a deep insight into the world of Royal Navy ship procurement towards the very end of the inter-war period (the L-class was built as part of the 1937 Royal Navy estimate), but also provides a good technical overview of the various challenges and trade-offs involved in destroyer design during this period. This was a class that was planned before and built largely during the war, and it underwent many changes while on the stocks because of it, to accommodate experience from the war and the need to get ships out into the sea to fight the Axis. This is why half the class ended up with the advanced, fully enclosed 4.7″ turrets, while the remainder received open 4″ high-angle turrets, which made them very useful as AA defence vessels. The different turrets also had a visual impact – in my opinion the 4″-armed L-class vessels have a far more balanced look to them than the 4.7″-armed.  See e.g. this photo of HMS Lightning  (4.7″) versus this of HMS Legion (4″).

Apart from the information in the text, the book also contains a raft of photographs and diagrams, e.g. cut-away and detailed technical drawings of the design of the two types of main gun turret (4.7″ and 4″) used on the L-class, and the ships as a whole, comparing design and as built.   The selection of photographs indicate that the author spent a lot of time going through the IWM’s photo archive, and some of them seem not to have been reproduced in many places, if at all elsewhere.

The eyewitness accounts of the actions are well placed in the general text, relevant, and add to the depth of the immersion.

Appendices cover the main weapons system, fire control, general fixtures and fittings and the crew compliments in peace and war.  At the end, all the ship’s badges are reproduced, with heraldic information, as well as pendant numbers and the names of commanding officers.  I seriously doubt that there is much else to know about the L-class after the reader finishes this book.

I can only highly recommend this book (like anything by Peter C. Smith, but I think I am repeating myself) to anyone interested in naval actions in the Mediterranean during World War II, or interested in inter-war destroyer design in the Royal Navy.  Unfortunately you’ll have to look for a used copy, since it is currently not in print.


You can also find a detailed account of the life and death of WW2’s HMS Lively at this link. She was the sixteenth and last of the name in the Royal Navy for now at least. I think somebody needs to start a campaign to get that name re-assigned to a vessel.

* HMS Lively has another appeal for me, since she was one of the ships commanded by fictional Royal Navy hero Jack Aubrey. By coincidence, Jack Aubrey’s HMS Lively of 1804, a 28-gun frigate, was in real life also lost while on convoy escort in 1810, wrecked  in the Mediterranean off Malta.