Naval Personnel Losses during Operation CRUSADER

Naval Personnel Losses during Operation CRUSADER

Background

In an older post (at this link), I have provided loss numbers by army during Operation CRUSADER. These are almost certainly ground forces, and in any case, air force losses would not have added significantly to them, in terms of overall volume. One thing I did not consider until now however are the losses of the two large navies supporting the battle, the Regia Marina and the Royal Navy. Reading up on the sinking of Citta di Palermo on 5 Jan 1942, which caused heavy loss of life (921 dead and missing presumed dead), made me think about this aspect however.

Losses at Sea

Having had a quick look, it is apparent that the personnel losses on both sides are about equal to the losses suffered at land, further reinforcing the nature of Operation CRUSADER as a campaign fought in three dimensions, and probably at the time, the largest one ever fought in this way. These two older posts provide information on unit losses, both large and small.

In the table below I have ignored any losses by merchants, and anything outside the period. I have also not included German submarines. With one exception, losses happening apart from the on the day the unit was lost are not considered. For the Royal Navy, the sources are the HMS Barham Association and HMS Neptune Association websites, and the excellent Naval History Net. On the latter, it appears that in some cases losses for damaged ships (e.g. torpedoing and beaching of HMS Glenroy) are not given. This, and the exclusion of losses on operations (with one exception, a casualty from air attack on HMSAS Sotra on 1 Jan 42) understates the overall losses. For the Italian navy, it is the Italian Wikipedia, which I deem to be reliable in this. Kriegsmarine losses are based on information on Uboat Net. For the Italian side, I have estimated the losses of Citta di Palermo as 350 men. Losses of passengers are excluded.

 

HMS Barham

HMS Barham Explodes (FLM1984, IWM)

The end result is that the Italian navy lost about 40% more men killed at sea than the army did on land during Operation CRUSADER. For the Commonwealth, losses at sea reach close to 2,600, while during land operations about 2,900 were killed (plus about 800 who were drowned later as POWs on Sebastiano Venier, Ariosto and Tembien, in December 41 and February 1942). But in direct operations, Royal Navy losses reached over 90% of losses during land operations.

German losses were primarily with the six submarines they lost (one had no casualties), and these come to 186 killed. In addition, the Germans lost naval personnel embarked on freighters Maritza and Procida to man AA guns (Marinebordflak), and maybe some smaller numbers on other vessels (e.g. some of the instructors for the sonar on Alvise da Mosto), but I don’t have those numbers. In any case they would be small, so total losses will probably not be more than 250.

Scale of Losses

It is worth noting that while none of the Regia Marina vessels was lost with all hands, both the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine suffered such losses. HMS Salvia (the featured picture, from IWM FL18637), HMSAS Sotra, HMS Lady Shirley and HM/Sub Triumph were lost with all hands. So were U557 (rammed in error by Italian Orione) and U577 (sunk by a Swordfish of No. 815 Sqdrn.) HMS Neptune, HM/Sub Perseus, U374, and U451 had only one survivor each.

It is further worth noting, as Urs Hessling points out, that HMS Barham and HMS Neptune are amongst the highest personnel losses the Royal Navy suffered in World War II, while the combined loss of Alberico da Barbiano and Alberto da Giussano probably also ranks amongst the highest losses of the Regia Marina in a single action, and these do of course affect the picture.

Incrociatore Alberico da Barbiano

Condottieri class light cruiser Alberico da Barbiano, pre-war in Venice. (Wikimedia Commons)

Lest we forget.

Loss by Service and Vessel

Arm of Service

Unit

Type

Individual Loss

Total Loss

Regia Marina

Alberico da Barbiano

Light Cruiser

534

1,436

 

Citta di Palermo

Auxilary Cruiser

350

 
 

Alberto da Giussano

Light Cruiser

283

 
 

Alvise da Mosto

Destroyer

138

 
 

Amm. Saint Bon

Submarine

75

 
 

Corazziere/Granatiere Collision

Destroyers

24

 
 

Alcione

Torpedo Boat

17

 
 

Amm. Carraciolo

Submarine

15

 
         

Royal Navy

HMS Barham

Battleship

841

2,651

 

HMS Neptune

Light Cruiser

764

 
 

HMS Galatea

Light Cruiser

470

 
 

HMAS Parramatta

Sloop

147

 
 

HMS Kandahar

Destroyer

73

 
 

HMS Chakdina

Armed Boarding Vessel

72

 
 

HM/Sub Triumph

Submarine

62

 
 

HMS Salvia

Corvette

59

 
 

HM/Sub Perseus

Submarine

59

 
 

HMS Lady Shirley

A/S Trawler

33

1
 

HMS Rosabelle

A/S Yacht

30

1
 

HMSAS Sotra

Mine-Sweeping Whaler

23

 
 

HMS Gurkha

Destroyer

9

 
 

HMS Queen Elizabeth

Battleship

8

 
 

HMS Chantala

Armed Boarding Vessel

1

 

Note 1: Both HMS Lady Shirley and HMS Rosabelle were sunk by U-374 when it entered the Mediterranean.

Losses of 15. Panzerdivision during CRUSADER

Losses of 15. Panzerdivision during CRUSADER

Background

I am in the fortunate position to have a copy of the whole of 15. Panzerdivision’s war diary for the period thanks to a fellow researcher. At the end of it, there is an overview of the losses suffered by the division during CRUSADER and the counter-offensive. It is quite instructive, especially in terms of officer losses, which seem very heavy to me.

Overview of Losses of the Whole Division
Time Period Killed Wounded Missing Comment
18 Nov to 31 Dec 435 (43) 1,361 (52) 1,820 (35) Main battle, loss of Tobruk, retreat to Agheila
1 Jan to 12 Jan 2 5 1 Establishment in Mersa el Brega Position
13 Jan to 20 Jan 1 4 (2) 9 (1) Static Defense in Mersa el Brega Position
21 Jan to 26 Jan 11 (2) 41 (4) 1 Counter-Offensive towards Msus
27 Jan to 2 Feb 8 (1) 23 (2) 7 Battle for Benghazi & the Jebel
3 Feb to 10 Feb   4 4 Move up to the Gazala line
Halfaya Pass     280 (3) 1./SR104
11 Feb to 20 Feb 23 (1) 48 (1) 15 (1) Static Defense in Gazala Line
Total 480 (47) 1,486 (63) 2,137 (40) Total for division 4,103 (150)

Number in brackets officer casualties, contained in total number.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 784 0208 32A Nordafrika Erwin Rommel Alfred Gause Erwin Menny

North Africa.- Erwin Rommel mit Generalmajor Alfred Gause und Oberst Erwin Menny; PK “Afrika” Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv Bild 101I-784-0208-32A – while the picture is dated June 1942 (itrelease date), I am reasonably certain it dates to the counteroffensive in January 1942, or even earlier during Operation CRUSADER. The clothes are what Rommel wore during the winter period. The Bundesarchiv label says it shows Rommel during a visit to Italian troops. This is almost certainly a mislabelling, and it is far more likely to show a visit to the HQ of either 15. Panzerdivision or 15. Schuetzenbrigade. 

Observations

Of particular note is the very small number of officers in the battalion lost at Halfaya when the position surrendered on 17 January 1942. In total the division lost six battalion commanders, one regimental or battalion commander (Lt.Col. Zinke – maybe someone can confirm his command?), and its General Officer commanding, killed, wounded or missing.

Of further note is the very high share of officers killed, compared to those wounded, or missing (10%/4%/2%). Probably something about officers leading from the front.

On 10 February the unfilled positions compared to war establishment in the division amounted to 6,201 (159 officers). The discrepancy could be due to sick/evacuated, and maybe the division was a bit understrength before the start of the battle.

On 11 February the division reported a ration strength (this includes sick and those on holidays, as well a subordinated units drawing supplies from the division I believe) of 5,354. If this number is combined with the understrength figure, we arrive at a war establishment of 11,555, which is probably not unrealistic, and of which 54% were not present. Indeed, on 11 November the division reported a ration strength of 12,160.

Five Knights Crosses seem to have been awarded for the battle, to Colonels Menny and and Crassmann on 26 December 41, Captain Wahl on 6 January 42, First Lieutenant Struckmann on 21 January 1941, and posthumously to Major Fenski on 2 January 42 (he fell on Totensonntag).

The tragedy of the POWs killed at sea

The tragedy of the POWs killed at sea

Introduction

Operation CRUSADER saw about 8,500 Commonwealth soldiers become prisoners of the Axis forces, in the fighting around Tobruk and during the counter offensive in January. See this older post for a discussion of losses suffered by each side. This post here is based on research around the internet.

In general, as the old line goes, ‘For you [insert nickname here], the war is over!’. In the case of North Africa, this was however not the case for the Commonwealth POW. In order to secure them and relieve the supply situation in North Africa, beginning in December 41 they were shipped off to Italian-controlled territory, either to Italy or to Greece (and thence to Italy, I guess), either on naval units or on homeward bound merchants (the New Zealand Official History has a good account of the situation of the POW at this link – note that Sebastiano Venier is called Jantzen in this account).  This could be dangerous, since POW transports were not marked, and since even if ULTRA had given warning to the Royal Navy that a particular transport carried POW, it was likely impossible to warn the submarine commander without risking a breach in the ULTRA secret (e.g. if the submarine commander were to be taken POW himself, and informed his captors about the warning he was given about leaving a particular transport alone).

In consequence, several hundred Commonwealth POW lost their lives during or shortly after the end of Operation CRUSADER and the counter-offensive in three separate sinkings. The casualty figures were high because of overcrowding on the vessels.

Screenshot 2019 10 12 16 15 44

 

HMS Porpoise in harbour, from Ebay.

The loss of Venier

At 1435 hours on 9 December 1941, the large mine-laying submarine HM S/M Porpoise (Lt.Cdr. Pizey DSC) attacked Sebastiano Venier, ex-Jason, off Cape Methone. She is so badly damaged she has to be beached and is written off. Around 300 of the 2,000 Commonwealth POW estimated to be on board died in the attack, most of them when the torpedo struck the forward hold of the Venier.

Entry in Log of HMSub Porpoise describing the attack on Sebastiano Venier

The fact that Venier had POWs on board was known in London since at least 1100 GMT on 8 December, the day before, and probably earlier than that. The document below is a compilation of intercepts that was passed on to Downing Street. This would indicate that there would have been some time to alert submarines to not attack merchants moving north, albeit of course with the risk that this would lead to compromising the secrecy around the radio interception. Furthermore, a later intercept indicated that Venier would only leave Benghazi at 1600 on 9 December, a time at which she was well aground off Cape Methone.

Naval Headlines

Naval Headlines 159, 1100 GMT, 8 December 1941. UK National Archives, HW1/308

Nevertheless, it is clear that in other circumstances, the Middle East command did play fast and loose with the protection of this secret (see this older post).

The incident is well described in the New Zealand Official History ‘Prisoners of War’:

On 8 December a large draft of 2100 had left on the Jantzen , an 8000-ton cargo vessel, with rations sufficient for the 36-hour dash across to Italy . In the middle of the next afternoon, just off Cape Methoni, near Pilos on the south-west coast of the Greek Peloponnese, she was struck by a torpedo in one of the forward holds. Five hundred or more of the prisoners packed there were killed, and the hatchboards falling in with men lying on them killed others as they crashed below. As soon as they had recovered from the shock of the explosion, men rushed to the decks up ropes or still usable ladders. The rugged coastline of Greece could be seen a mile or two away with heavy seas breaking on it, lashed by a bitterly cold wind.

The Italian captain and crew had taken themselves off in two of the three lifeboats, the other having capsized in launching, and some of the men jumped overboard in an attempt to swim to the shore. Nine New Zealanders reached one of the boats, which eventually made a nearby uninhabited island where they spent the night, and they were taken over to the mainland next day. Fifteen got away on a raft they had managed to launch, but more than half of these died of exposure. Meanwhile a German naval engineer had taken control of the ship, explaining to those on board that the engines would still go and that there was a good chance of reaching safety. He ordered everybody aft in order to keep the weight off the damaged bow and organised rescue parties to bring up to the officers’ quarters the injured from the lower decks. Although the wind and sea were still strong, the ship was brought in stern first and beached about 5 p.m. broadside on to an open piece of coast. In spite of the bitter cold many now swam the remaining fifty yards to the shore, and when darkness fell many others made their way to safety along ropes secured to the rocks.

Next day dawned fine, and those still on board came off in the remaining lifeboat or on stretchers slung to the ropes. A check made later showed that a little over two-thirds of the British prisoners had survived, the remainder (including 44 New Zealanders) having perished either in the explosion or in the events which followed.

Nlnzimage

Ship Sebastiano Venier aground at Point Methoni, Greece, New Zealand Archives PAColl-2242-1-2

Other Incidents

On 14 February 1942 the brand-new HM S/M P.38 (Lt. Hemingway) attacked a small convoy consisting of Italian steamer Ariosto, German Atlas, and escorts Ct Premuda (ex-Yugoslav Dubrovnik) and Tp Polluce. Ariosto was sunk, hit by two torpedoes, and going down after a few hours in the early hours of 15 February, with 138 Commonwealth POW are lost, almost half the contingent.

On 27 February 1942 the most famous of the Malta submarines, HM S/M Upholder (Lt.Cdr. Wanklyn, VC) sinks the old steamer SS Tembien, launched in 1914.  390 out of 468 Commonwealth POW on board died, together with 68 Italians and 10 Germans.

In total therefore, over 800 POW are killed in these attacks, or around 10% of the number of POW taken during CRUSADER and the counter-offensive.

All three submarines undertaking the attack were to be lost with all hands during the war. HM S/M Porpoise was to become the last Royal Navy sub to be sunk by the enemy in the Malacca Straits in 1945. HM S/M P.38 was lost on 23 February on the patrol after she sank Ariosto in a counter-attack by Tp Circe.  HM S/M Upholder was sunk on 14 April 1942, possibly by Tp Pegaso, or she may have run on a mine.

It is of note that Tp Circe, a Spica-class escort destroyer, was already fitted with German S-Geraet active sonar and depth charges (see this older post). She was on a roll in February 1942, sinking HM S/SM Tempest on 13 February, and HM S/M P.38 on 23 February (misidentified as a ‘Unity-class’, presumably U-class), showing quite well the capability of the new equipment.  I have reports by the captain of Circe and a member of the German sonar crew, which I have posted at this link.

Many thanks go to Brian Sims who has researched this topic exhaustively, and to Barb Edy, whose father Don of No. 33 Squadron RAF was on the Ariosto as a POW, and suvrived the sinking. An account of her sinking by Don can be found in Don’s book ‘Goon in the Block’, which I would highly recommend.

Pizey

 

Captain G B H Fawkes with Commander (S) E F Pizey, DSC, RN. IWM16004 – Picture is part of a series showing the men and boats of the Submarine Flotilla in Algiers, February 1943, during their operations against Axis supply traffic to Tunisia.

Losses in Operation Crusader

Losses in Operation Crusader

Background

Operation CRUSADER was a major bloodletting for all participants, by the standards of the Desert War (it paled into insignificance compared to the war in the Soviet Union, or Normandy). When looking at the comparative losses on the Axis and the Empire side, it is clear, that there are some interesting discrepancies in the statistics. Axis losses were about 1/3rd of those present at the start of the operation. Empire losses by comparison about half that, at 15%.

This list does not include losses at sea, which were substantial (see this blog article), and I presume does not include air crew losses.

UntitledImage

Temporary Grave of Captain R.J. Williams, Adjutant of 10 Royal Hussars, killed in action on the retreat march to the Gazala position. He was the gunner of the regiment’s commanding officer’s tank, and was severely wounded on 23 January, dying of his wounds on 28 January. He is now buried at Tobruk War Cemetary, while the remainder of his regiment who were killed on 23 January 1942 are now buried in Benghazi War Cemetary.

Panzerarmee Analysis

The first set of numbers is from the Panzerarmee War Diary, drawn up shortly after the battle.

Abbreviations:

  • OR = other ranks (soldiers who are not officers)
  • KIA = killed in action
  • WIA = wounded in action
  • MIA = Missing in action

German losses

Officers/Other Ranks – Loss by cause/Share of total strength on 18/11/41

  • KIA 104/1,032 (7%/7%)
  • WIA 144/3,339 (8.5%/7%)
  • MIA 201/9,940 (10.5%/20%)[1]
  • Total 449/14,311 (14,760)

Italian losses

(Off/OR – Share total strength on 18/11/41)

  • KIA 85/951 (3%/1.5%)
  • WIA 155/1.967 (4%/3%)
  • MIA 1.172/17.382 (34%/30%)[2]
  • Total 1,412/20,300 (21,712)

Axis total: 1,816 Off/35,060 OR (36,876)

Axis Material (Share of total on 18/11/41)

  • German Tanks 220 (85%)
  • German Guns 42 (40%)
  • German Aircraft 170 (160%)[3]
  • Italian medium Tanks 120 (80%)
  • Italian guns 181 (40%)
  • Italian Aircraft 105 (150%)[3]

The Panzerarmee War Diary assumes Commonwealth losses as this, including the counter offensive in January, and overstating personnel losses by about 30%:

  • 10.000 KIA/WIA
  • 12.000 POW
  • 1.623 armoured vehicles[4]
  • 2.500 motor vehicles
  • 329 Aircraft

Empire Analysis

The British official history, which is based on German/Italian records and of course the Empire unit records, gives the following losses to mid January, without Rommel’s counter offensive.

Axis Losses

  • German
  • Strength 18/11/41 65,000
  • KIA 1,100
  • WIA 3,400
  • MIA 10,100
  • Total 14,600/22%
  • Ital.
  • Strength 54,000
  • KIA 1,200
  • WIA 2,700
  • MIA 19,800
  • Total 23,700/43%
  • Axis total
  • Strength 119,000
  • KIA 2,300
  • WIA 6,100
  • MIA 29,900
  • Total 38,300/32% (13,800 of these MIA
    in Bardia/Halfaya)

Empire losses

  • Strength 118,000
  • KIA 2,900
  • WIA 7,300
  • MIA 7,500
  • Total 17,700/15%

The counter offensive at end Jan. was no big deal for either side interms of losses, apart from the ca. 1,000 POW of 7th Indian Brigade which was encircled east of Benghazi but mostly able to break out. Nevertheless this must account for most of the discrepancy in the POW numbers of the Commonwealth forces.

Things not adding up

Italian numbers for Italian losses are much higher than either the British or German numbers:

Italian losses from Italian Official History 15/11/41 to 15/1/42

  • Officers 1,945
  • NCO 2,674
  • OR 34,974
  • Libyans 2,674
  • Total: 42,185

Material:

  • Autom. support weapons: 3.200
    Mortars 89x81mm/307x45mm
  • Tanks 63 medium/187 light[5]
  • Armoured Cars 25
  • Anti-Aircraft guns 320
  • Guns all calibres 584
  • Motor vehicles 5.000

The Italian official history also gives Axis strength as higher than the British OH:

Germans 70,000
Italians 100,000 (they count everyone in Libya, is my guess)

As you can see there are significant discrepancies in the numbers, and the KTB of PAA has to be seen as the absolute lowest for the Axis losses. It is likely that the most relevant number is the one from the British official history.

Notes

[1] Of these 4,500 Bardia/Halfaya

[2] Of these 8,000 Bardia/Halfaya

[3] This is possible because both Axis air forces were substantially reinforced

[4] Includes tanks, armoured cars, and carriers

[5] All light tanks lost – the number of medium tanks lost was almost certainly much higher, I estimate over 130

If anyone has further insight, please contact me.