Book Review – Levine

The War Against Rommel’s Supply Lines

Alan J. Levine

Four Stars out of Five

This is a very good book providing an in-depth analysis into the battle raging against the umbilical cord tying the Axis forces in North Africa to their base in Italy. In my opinion, no student of the war in the Mediterranean will be able to ignore it.

The book covers the whole of the supply struggle waged in the Mediterranean, but focuses on the period following the Alamein battles and the invasion of North Africa by US and British forces, when it became imperative for Allied planners to prevent a permanent lodging of Axis forces in Tunisia, to the surrender of Axis forces in May 1943. Five out of six chapters are devoted to this effort, while the first chapter provides a concise, yet highly informative and well-researched summary of what went on during 1940-42.

The focus chapters deal with the planning of the invasion of French North Africa, and in particular the role and establishment of 12th Air Force. The author describes well the troubles this formation went through when it was first established, and the very difficult command arrangements at the start of the campaign in Tunisia. The following chapters discuss the invasion, the attack against the build-up of Axis forces in Tunisia, which is rightly described in a very critical manner, the re-organisation of the forces engaged in the logistical battle from January 1943 onwards, and their contribution to the eventual victory. The book gives time to both US and British forces engaged in the battle, and is quite (and justly) complimentary to the Italian effort in keeping the Axis forces in Tunisia supplied.

The author manages well to weave a narrative integrating theatre strategy and individual actions, although at times the information packed into single sentences or paragraphs can become overwhelming. I am also not convinced about the need for as much detail as is sometimes provided and editing could maybe have parsed the text a bit more of unnecessary detail.

The book is very well-researched, going through archival material such as unit records of air formations engaged in the battle, or patrol reports of submarines, and it makes very good use of official histories, of both sides. This is a particularly outstanding feature of the book – where possible, the author made the effort of trying to verify claims made by Allied forces against air and sea targets, by checking the Axis records. While this is no doubt a thankless task, and often a wild goose chase, it is one that cannot be lauded enough. The author has also gone to good length in providing a background on the technical capabilities of the Allied weapons available for the task, highlighting the planes and submarines in particular.

The book sports an index, an extensive literature list, and a good set of endnotes – in other words, it is a serious research work. What is missing is a list of maps, although since there are only two, so maybe that was not considered necessary. Which leads me to: sufficient in number and detail maps are missing, so I recommend having an Atlas of WW2 handy while reading it, unless you have a North Africa map in your head. The selection of pictures is appropriate to the topic, and the quality is acceptable, especially considering the price. What I really would have liked to see are diagrams of air-sea attack formations. These are described verbally, but a picture would help very much in understanding the roles of the various planes engaging shipping targets. But that is really the only major gripe I can think of.

Thanks go to Stackpole for not only publishing a book that is clearly dealing with a somewhat esoteric topic (why bother with logistics – when you could have the umpteenth 750-page colour book about Waffen SS-Tigers?), but making the effort to create a very attractive presentation, and pricing it very reasonably. Highly recommended.

Large Naval Unit Losses and Damage

A number of large naval units on both sides in the Mediterranean were either lost or severely damaged during the timeframe of the Crusader battle. I believe this list is complete, but if not, corrections are welcome. Small units and subs to follow. Sources are varied, include Italian Navy, Regiamarina.net, official histories, etc.

Italian

Battleships

* Vittorio Veneto (damaged, submarine torpedo, 14 Dec 41)

Heavy Cruisers

* Trieste (damaged, submarine torpedo, 22 Nov 41)

Light Cruisers

* Duca degli Abruzzi (damaged, aerial torpedo, 22 Nov 41)
* Alberto di Giussano (lost, surface encounter, 13 December 41)
* Alberico da Barbiano (lost, surface encounter, 13 December 41)

British

Aircraft carriers

* Ark Royal (lost, submarine torpedo, 13 Nov 41)

Battleships

* Barham (lost, submarine torpedo, 25 Nov 41)
* Valiant (damaged, frogmen attack, 19 Dec 41)
* Queen Elizabeth (damaged, frogmen attack, 19 Dec 41)

Light cruisers

* Neptune (lost, mines, 18 Dec 41)
* Galatea (lost, sub torpedo, 15 Dec 41)
* Aurora (damaged, mines, 18 Dec 41)

Small naval unit losses and damage

Update:  08-03-14. Lorenzo Colombo kindly alerted me to an error, which I have now corrected. ORP Sokol did not damage Aviere in Navarino harbour.

Update: on 21-6-09 I completed a full trawl of Naval History Net and now have considerably more confidence in the completeness of this list.

The constant convoy battles either on the Italy/Greece to Libya or the Alexandria to Tobruk routes took a severe toll on smaller units on both sides. This list is probably not complete – I have tried to ignore losses in the western Med, and in Greek waters, since these would not have been directly relevant to the North African convoy battle. I will eventually also add merchant shipping losses for the period. Sources are the two excellent sites Naval History Net and the Chronik Seekrieg site at the Landesbibliothek Stuttgart.

I think that these losses show quite clearly the commitment that the Regia Marina had to the convoys and the supply of Axis forces in North Africa. Something that is often not appreciated by those who think that the Italians were not pulling their weight. Also note that any aerial torpedo losses or damage to Royal Navy vessels are almost certainly due to Italian aircraft.

The list does not include very minor damage that did not take ships out of commission, or damage/sinkings caused by collisions with friendly ships.

Italian Regia Marina/German Kriegsmarine

Destroyer

  • Fulmine (lost, surface engagement, 8/9 Nov 41)*
  • Libecco (lost, sub torpedo, 9 Nov 41)*
  • Euro (damaged, surface engagement, 8/9 Nov 41)*
  • Grecale (damaged, surface engagement, 8/9 Nov 41)*
  • Aviere (damaged, submarine torpedo, 19 Nov 41)**
  • Alvise da Mosto (lost, surface engagement, 1 Dec 41)***
  • Corazziere (heavily damaged, collision with Granatiere, 18 Dec 41)****
  • Granatiere (heavily damaged, collision with Corraziere, 18 Dec 41)

Escort Destroyer/Torpedo Boat

  • Alcione (total constructive loss after beaching, following damage by sub torpedo, 11 Dec 41)

Mine Hunter/Mine Layer

  • Zirona (damaged/beached, air attack, 25 Nov 41)

Submarines

  • Saint Bon (lost, sub torpedo, 4 Jan 42)*****
  • Caracciolo (lost, depth charges, 11 Dec 41)******
  • U557 (lost, rammed in error by Italian escort destroyer, 16 Dec 41)*******
  • U451 (lost,sunk by aircraft depth charge off Tangiers, 21 Dec 41)
  • U79 (lost, depth charges, 23 Dec 41)
  • U75 (lost, depth charges, 28 Dec 41)
  • U374 (lost, sub torpedo, 12 Jan 42)********
  • U577 (lost, aircraft depth charge, 15 Jan 41 off Mersa Matruh)*********

Auxiliary Warships

  • Adriatico (lost, surface engagement with Force K, 1 Dec 41)
  • Cittá di Palermo (lost, sub torpedo, 5 Jan 42)

* All four destroyers lost/damaged during the battle of the Duisburg convoy, by Force K operating out of Malta.

**The attack was carried out by Polish sub ORP Sokol while Aviere lay in the harbour of Navarino. Aviere probably did not suffer too much damage.

*** Sunk by Force K while attempting to defend her charge, the large tanker Iridio Mantovani. Her commander received the Gold Medal of Military Valour for this action.

**** This collision occurred at high speed around 6 am on 18 Dec after the first battle of Sirte. Both destroyers had their bows sheared off and up to 20 members of their crews were killed. One of them was towed to Greece by German tug Max Behrens, and Granatiere was under repair until September 1942, while Corazziere could return in May 1942.

***** Sunk on a supply mission to North Africa.

****** Sunk on return from a supply mission to Bardia.

******* On return from the attack that sank HMS Galatea.

******** She was first depth-charged on 10 January by HMS Legion and HMNS Isaac Sweers, and damaged to an extent that did not allow her to dive anymore. In this condition she ran into HMS Unbeaten, which sank her two days later.

********* The successful attack was made by a Swordfish of 815 Squadron FAA operating from a shore base in Egypt. It was previously thought that a Sunderland of RAF 230 Squadron sank her on 9 Jan. Instead, this attack hit U568 causing only minor damage. See here.

Commonwealth/Royal Navy

Destroyer

  • HMS Jackal (severely damaged, aerial torpedo, 30 November 41)
  • HMS Kandahar (lost, mine, 19 Dec 41)*
  • HMS Jervis (damaged, charge placed by frogmen, 19 Dec 41)**
  • HMS Kimberley (severely damaged, sub torpedo, 12 Jan 42)***
  • HMS Ghurka (lost, sub torpedo, 17 Jan 42)****

Sloop

  • HMAS Parramatta (lost, sub torpedo, 27 Nov 41)
  • HMS Flamingo (severely damaged, air attack, 7 Dec 41)*****

Corvette

  • HMS Salvia (K97 – a Flower-class) (lost with all hands and  about 100 passengers which she had rescued before from merchant Shutien while on Tobruk run, sub torpedo from U-568, 24 Dec 41)

Other units/Auxiliaries

  • HMS Chakdina (sunk, aerial torpedo, 5 Dec 41)******
  • HMS Chantala (sunk, mine, 7 Dec 41)
  • HMS Glenroy (damaged, aereal torpedo, 23 Nov 41)*******
  • HMS Sotra (mine-sweeping whaler) (lost with all hands 80m east off Tobruk, sub torpedo from U-431, 29 Jan 41)

Submarines

  • P.31/HMS Uproar (damaged, air attack, 14 Jan 41)
  • N.36/HMS Perseus (lost, mine, 7 Dec 41)********
  • N.18/HMS Triumph (lost, causes unknown, 31 Dec 41)

*Lost in the same minefield as HMS Neptune

**Secondary damage from the explosion of a tanker in Alexandria harbour during the Xa MAS attack.

***Her stern was blown off by the explosion, and she would only return to duty in early 1944.  She was one of only two K-Class destroyers to survive the war.

****This was and L-Class, not a Tribal-class destroyer, she was the second HMS Ghurka during WW2, the first one having been lost on 19 April 1940 off Norway.  She was torpedoed by U133, which was in turn attacked by HMS Maori, but suffered only light damage.

*****She would only return to duty in 1944.

******HMS (or sometimes SS) Chakdina (3,033 GRT) was an armed boarding vessel commandeered by the Royal Navy and acting as a hospital ship (my guess is not as an official hospital ship however). She was sunk shortly after leaving Tobruk by attack from an Italian S.79 torpedo bomber. She carried a large number of wounded and POW, many of whom died when she sank in just three minutes. One of the POWs was German general von Ravenstein, former commander of 21. Panzerdivision. He survived. HMS Chakdina and Chantala belonged to the same owner before the war. You can see a picture of the similar HMS Chakla under air attack in Tobruk harbour at this link. Armed Boarding Vessels were a kind of armed merchant cruiser, usually armed with obsolete guns. In the case of Chakdina, Chantala, and Chakla, they were used for transporting troops and stores in and out of Tobruk, and all of them were lost on the Tobruk Run.

*******HMS Glenroy was a large infantry landing ship, originally a fast freighter belonging to the Glen Line, with a deckload of caiques (traditional trading vessels of the Med) for Tobruk harbour.  She was so severely damaged that she had to be beached for a few days off Mersa Matruh, before it was possible to bring her into Alexandria. You can read a first-hand story of her ordeal at this link.

********HMS Perseus was lost with 59 out of 60 men. The remarkable escape of stoker John Capes, ascending from 52m below the surface of the sea, is retold at this link.

Supply statistics for North Africa

Supply statistics for North Africa

Background
These are calculations I have done based on data in Dati Statistici Vol. I 2a Edizione USMMM Roma 1972. The figures very clearly show the extent of the autumn supply crisis, which almost cut off supplies to North Africa at the very moment the fighting reached the highest pitch of intensity of all year, and how much the situation improved prior to Operation Venezia in May 1942.
 
Oriani
SS Oriani, sunk by No. 105 Squadron R.A.F. on 13 September 1941, while travelling from Patrassos to Benghazi on a supply run. Unknown origin.
 
Data
Arrival rates of all military[1]supplies in NA, Italian navy data, all units, volume of military supplies received in 1,000 tons (for the two key months the information on military supplies sent is added):
 
Jul 41 – 81% (61.5kt)
Aug 41 – 87% (75.6kt)
Sep 41 – 79% (66.3kt)
Oct 41 – 76% (56.2kt)
Nov 41 – 26% (16.2kt/61.9kt)
Dec 41 – 78% (29.7kt/38.2kt)
Jan 42 – 100% (60.5kt)[2]
Feb 42 – 100% (56.8kt)
Mar 42 – 80% (38.7kt)
Apr 42 – 99% (142.0kt)
May 42 – 92% (76.6kt)
Jun 42 – 79% (30.1kt)
Jul 42 – 92% (74.4kt)
Aug 42 – 66% (49.0kt)
Sep 42 – 81% (77.3kt)
Oct 42 – 50% (33.9kt)
Nov 42 – 74% (60.3kt)
 
Notes
[1]The quite considerable deliveries for civilian needs are excluded from the calculations. For example, in November 41, 13,604 tonnes of 17,310 sent arrived in North Africa. In December, all 9,441 tonnes sent arrived.
[2]
Note that this is not fully correct – about 200 tons of January supplies were lost at least on submarine Saint Bon (sunk 5 January by HMS Upholder) and liner Vittoria, sunk by combined air/sub torpedo attack on 23 January.
 
Note that ‘non-arrived’ does not necessarily mean sunk, since it could also include convoys that departed but had to turn back (e.g. Convoy “C” on 24 November 41).
 
Detailed Tables for download
These tables were created by user Paspartoo for this thread on the Axis History Forum. Please let me know if they read okay once opened in a separate window.
Rommel con a2
 
Rommel con a1