Naval Personnel Losses during Operation CRUSADER

In an older post (at this link), I have provided the losses 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.

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.

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.

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, 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.

Lest we forget.

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

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

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.

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 Wani 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

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 when 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.

On 9 December, 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 Commonwealth POW died in the attack.

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

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 SS Tembien, launched in 1914.  390 out of 468 Commonwealth POW on board died.

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.

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 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.

Losses in Operation Crusader

There are some interesting discrepancies in the statistics.

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 – 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%) (of these 4,500 Bardia/Halfaya)
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%) (of these 8,000 Bardia/Halfaya)
Total 1,412/20,300 (21,712)

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

Axis Material (Share total strength on 18/11/41)
Tanks 220/120 (85%/80%)
Guns 42/181 (40%/48%)
Aircraft 170/105 (160%/150%)

The Panzerarmee War Diary assumes Commonwealth losses as this:

10.000 KIA/WIA
12.000 POW
1.623 armoured vehicles (tanks/AC/carriers)
2.500 motor vehicles
329 Aircraft

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

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

British losses 118,000/2,900/7,300/7,500/17,700/15%

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 able to break out. Nevertheless this must account for most of the discrepancy in the POW numbers of the Commonwealth forces.

Now for the real puzzle: 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/NCO/OR/Libyans/Total:
1,945/2,674/34,974/2,674/42,185
Material:
Autom. support weapons: 3.200
Mortars 89x81mm/307x45mm
Tanks 63 medium/187 light (all light tanks lost)
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 including chaps 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.

If anyone has further insight, please contact me.