One for the Wargamers – OOB of Italian 21 Army Corps

Below a table showing how the Italian 21 Army Corps was structured for the attack on Tobruk, dated 18 November 1941. My thanks to Michele who found this in the Italian archives.

The corps was commanded by General Enea Navarini, who unlike many other Italian commanders remained with his command from 1941 to 1943. It was a relatively powerful formation, with over 200 field and medium guns, and 19 rifle battalions and a good number of support battalions. For the attack, the Corps was subordinated to Panzergruppe Afrika, together with the D.A.K., and it was supposed to play a crucial role in the attack, and had been reinforced for this, e.g. by the addition of the 31st Assault Engineer Battalion. It is however of note that while it had a lot of guns, most of them were quite out of date, with design dates for guns ranging back to 1890. Furthermore, the light guns of the Italian infantry divisions simply could not deliver the weight of fire and/or range required to support typical combat in World War 2. Nevertheless, it had substantial firepower, and if a troop of British tanks were to encounter the truck-mounted naval 76/40 guns, it probably wouldn’t have made the tank commanders feel better to know that it was first designed in 1898.

A WW1 vintage 152/37mm heavy gun being transported on a trailer in North Africa. This was a standard mode of transport for guns which had not been modernised with rubber wheels between the wars. Note that this form of transport did nothing to the mobility and agility of the guns. Source: Wikipedia

Italian Artillery Positions, Tobruk, 18 Nov 1941.

Italian Artillery Positions, Tobruk, 18 Nov 1941. Roman numerals are the Group, Arabic the Regiment. Trento and Bologna sectors only. Red line indicates position of main defensive line. Source: Attachments to War Diary of Corps Artillery Command, 21 Army Corps (Click on the link to open better picture in new window)

While it may appear weak in anti-tank (47mm Boehler) and anti-air (20mm Breda) guns, these were part of the support battalions in infantry regiments, so the Corps as a whole would have been reasonably well equipped with these weapons, although the Corps had only a very small floating reserve for allocation in critical situations, and none left once that had been parcelled out prior to the attack taking place.

It lacked armour however, and in fact for its role in the attack on Tobruk requested a German medium tank company in support. Nevertheless, as a operations in October around the seizure of the Bir el Azazi had shown, armour was quickly brought up from the frontier in support of operations around Tobruk.

A note on the number of guns – this is always an extrapolation by me, assuming 4-gun batteries (bty) were standard throughout. More importantly though, in a few cases I also had to make assumptions on the number of batteries in a group (I assume it’s always 3 batteries/group). I would welcome corrections on this. Some other questions I would be interested in are the number of companys (coys) and tanks in V Light Tank Battalion, and the number of companies in XXXI Assault Engineer Battalion. I also assumed that both Regia Marina units were equipped with truck-mounted guns.

Order of Battle 21 Army Corps 18 November 1941
Command Level/Unit

Type

Strength

 

Guns

Comment

Origin

Corps Troops
VI Group Lancieri Aosta Cavalry Machine Gun Squadrons          
V Battalion Carri ‘L’ CV33 Light Tanks          
IV Battalion Carri ‘L’ dto 2 coys        
Corps Artillery
16 Corps Artillery Regiment XV Group 105/28 3 bty  

12

Obsolete Italian
  XLIV Group 105/28 3 bty  

12

Obsolete Italian
  XLIX Group 105/28 3 bty  

12

Obsolete Italian
5 Artillery Regiment 149/35 XX Group 3 bty  

12

Obsolete Italian
  XXI Group 3 bty  

12

Obsolete Italian
  XXII Group 3 bty  

12

Obsolete Italian
8 Artillery Regiment XXXIII Group 149/40 3 bty  

12

Modern Italian
  LII Group 152/37 2 Bty  

8

Obsolete Austro-Hungarian
  CXXXI Group 149/28 2 Bty  

8

Modern German
  CXLVII Group 149/28 2 Bty  

8

Modern German
Mixed Regiment XIX Group 149/35 3 bty  

12

Obsolete Italian
  Group 120 Regia Marina 3 SP bty  

12

Obsolete British
Corps Engineers
XXXI Battalion Guastatori Assault Engineers 3 coys        
X Battalion Artieri Pioneers 1 Coy        
Services            
LXV Battalion Collegamenti Signals 1 coy+        
Pavia Infantry Division            
Various units            
Two motorised ambulances            
Pavia Infantry Division
Divisional Command            
Infantry 27 Inf Regiment 2 rifle batt        
    1 support batt        
  28 Infantry Regiment As 27 Regiment        
  XVII Battalion a.a. e c.c. Support        
Artillery 26 Artillery Regiment I Group 100/17 3 bty

12

Obsolete Austro-Hungarian
    III Group 75/27 3 bty

12

Obsolete German
Engineers XVII Mixed Engineer Batt.          
Services            
Reinforcements 3 Light Artillery Regiment II Group 75/27 2 bty

8

Obsolete German
    III Group 75/27 2 bty

8

Obsolete German
    2 batteries 20mm        
  24 Corps Artillery Regiment I Group 105/28  

12

Obsolete Italian
  36 battery 65/17    

4

Obsolete Italian
  90 battery 65/17    

4

Obsolete Italian
  XXXI Batt. Guastatori 2 coys        
  XXVII Batt. Artieri 1 Coy        
Bologna Infantry Division
Divisional Command            
Infantry 39 Infantry Regiment 2 rifle batt        
    1 support batt        
  40 Infantry Regiment 2 rifle batt        
  III/40: 2 platoons 20mm        
    1 platoon 47mm        
    1 MG platoon        
    1 81mm platoon        
  XXV Battalion
a.a. e c.c.
Support        
Artillery 205 Artillery Regiment I Group 100/17 3 bty

12

Obsolete Austro-Hungarian
    III Group 75/27 3 bty

12

Obsolete German
    IV Group 75/27 3 bty

12

Obsolete German
    1 battery 20mm        
    1 battery 47mm        
Engineers XVII Mixed Engineer Batt.          
Services            
Reinforcements 24 Corps Artillery Regiment II Group 105/28  

12

Obsolete Italian
  XXXI Batt. Guastatori 2 coys        
  XXVII Batt. Artieri “Sabratha” 1 Coy        
  1 battery 20mm “Brescia”          
Brescia Infantry Division
Divisional Command            
Infantry 19 Inf Regiment 3 rifle batt        
    1 coy 81mm        
    1 bty 65/17  

4

   
  20 Infantry Regiment 3 rifle batt        
    1 coy 81mm        
    1 bty 65/17  

4

   
Artillery 1 Light Artillery Regiment III Group 75/27 3 bty

12

Obsolete Austro-Hungarian
    IV Group 75/27 3 bty

12

Obsolete German
    1 battery 20mm        
Engineers XXVII Mixed Engineer Batt.          
Services            
Reinforcements   1 Group 100/17  

12

Obsolete Italian
  340 Guardia Alla Frontiera 1 Group 77/28  

12

Obsolete Austro-Hungarian
  858 Bty Guardia Alla Frontiera 1 bty 149/12  

4

Obsolete German
Trento Motorised Infantry Division
Divisional Command            
Infantry 61 Infantry Regiment 2 rifle batt        
    1 support batt        
  62 Infantry Regiment As 61 Inf Rgt        
  7 Bersaglieri Regiment 2 motorised battalions        
  DLI Battalion a.a. e c.c. Support        
Artillery 46 Artillery Regiment I Group 100/17 3 bty

12

Obsolete Austro-Hungarian
    III Group 75/27 3 bty

12

Obsolete German
    IV Group 75/27 3 bty

12

Obsolete German
    1 battery 20mm        
Engineers LI Mixed Engineer Batt.          
Services            
Reinforcements 340 Guardia Alla Frontiera 1 Group 77/28  

12

Obsolete Italian
  1 battery 76/40 Regia Marina 1 SP bty  

4

Obsolete British
  IX Group 105/28 “Trieste” 1 Group  

12

Obsolete Italian
Artillery Strength

Number of Guns 100mm or above calibre

 

220

   

Of which no. of Guns 149mm or above

 

88

   

Number of guns 65mm to 77mm calibre

 

144

   

Source: Attachments to the War Diary 21 Army Corps, Ufficio Storico Esercito

Command Conference, HQ of 21 Italian Army Corps, El Adem, 21 Nov. 1941, from left:
Seated: General Enea Navarini, Commander 21 Army Corps, General Rommel, Commander Panzergruppe
Standing: Unknown, Colonel Diesener, German Liason Officer to 21 Corps, Unknown, General Gause, Chief of Staff Panzergruppe – Source: Bundesarchiv, Wikipedia

A Hard Lesson Learnt

Following the end of the CRUSADER battles and the counteroffensive, Panzerarmee Afrika took stock, and made a number of requests for re-building and improving the capability of the Panzergruppe for the summer. These were wide-ranging. Of particular note are a very detailed proposal by 15. Panzerdivision for a wholesale restructuring of the tropical (as the German army jargon called it) Panzerdivision, based on the realization that its main combat power lay in the artillery and the tanks, the request to form a leichtes Afrika-Korps by building two light Africa divisions out of 90. Leichte Division, supported by a tank battalion, and a wholesale restructuring of the rifle companies in North Africa.

The history of MG Batl.2 confirms that the change illustrated below was carried out latest on 1 April 1942, when the battalion became the 3rd battalion as Panzergrenadierbatallion in Panzergrenadierregiment 115 of 15. Panzerdivision. The heavy company was dissolved, with one MG platoon added to each Grenadier company, as well as one 81mm mortar and one 5cm AT gun Pak 38.

I want to focus on the proposed restructuring of the rifle companies. I have previously written about the plight of these, when faced with an attack by tanks – see here. At the same time, the (probably) unauthorized increase in light machine guns had itself shown to be effective, as shown in the attack by 2 Black Watch during the break-out from Tobruk – see here.

It is interesting to compare the newly requested organization with that of the prior special North Africa organization in the Oasenbatallion 300, which you can find here.

Oasenbatallion 300 Rifle Battalion Company Reorganisation 1942 (proposed) Rifle Battalion Company Organisation 1941 (estimated)
Number of rifle companies in battalion(1) 5 4 3 (plus one heavy company with 12 heavy MG and 4 heavy mortars)
Number of Weapons in company / battalion
Submachineguns Unknown 13 52 Unknown
Light Machine Guns 12 60 18 72 18 57
Heavy Machine Guns 0 0 2 8 0 8
Light Mortars 3 15 0 0 3 9
Heavy Mortars 0 0 3 12 0 6
Light Anti-Tank Rifles 3 15 0 0 3 9
Heavy Anti-Tank Rifles (2) 0 0 3 12 0 0
Anti-Tank Guns (3) 0 0 6 24 0 0
  1. The Oasenbattalion was a special, one-off formation, while the proposed rifle battalion organisation would have applied to the armoured divisions and 90th Light.
  2. These were the far more capable 28/20 sPzB41.
  3. Either 5cm Pak 38, 7.5cm French Schneider m1897, or 7.62cm Russian Zis-3 captured guns. The latter were intended for the companies of 90 leichte Afrika-Division, the former for the companies in 15. and 21. Panzerdivision.

What is immediately noticeable is the significant increase in automatic firepower. Also, the very heavy equipment with anti-tank weapons at company level, and the official disbandment of the heavy company, in favour of parceling out the weapons that it would normally control. Doctrinally, this would indicate a departure from the battalion as core combat formation towards the company. In the 1941 standard rifle battalion in the Wehrmacht, the main purpose of the heavy company, which held the heavy MGs and the mortars, was to be the central point of fire support to the battalion. Alternatively, in a widely spread out position, the company could be split out into three equally strong fire support groups, and these could be attached to the rifle companies. So in a way, this proposal almost completely removed the possibility of fighting the battalion as a unit. This was probably the right response to the conditions in North Africa, where individual company or platoon strong-points were far more the norm, and where these were often sited far away from support, simply because of the need to cover large areas with low numbers of troops. In particular the combination of heavy mortars and heavy machine-guns would enable the company to pin attacking infantry at a longer distance. The anti-tank guns could then engage e.g. infantry tanks that are trying to bring the infantry forward again.

Order of Battle – 8th Army, 18 November 1941

In WO216/15 an overview of 8th Army units is given, probably dating to mid-October 1941 which I reproduce here. Based on my research, and on the report by GOC 8th Army after the battle (WO201/2693), I have amended it a bit, with explanations given in the notes.

8th Army (General Cunningham)

XIII Corps (Lt.-General Godwin-Austen)

2 New Zealand Division (Major-General Freyberg)

4 Indian Division (less one brigade)* (Major-General Messervy)

1 Army Tank Brigade (less one regiment)** (Brigadier Watkins)

Corps Troops

64, 67, 68 Medium Regiments RA

65, 2 SA AT Regiments RA

A Sqdn 6 SA Armoured Car Regiment

37 RTR (dummy tanks)

XXX Armoured Corps (Lt.-General Willoughby-Norrie)

7 Armoured Division (Major-General Gott)***

7 Armoured Brigade (Brigadier Davy)

22 Armoured Brigade (Brigadier Scott-Cockburn)

Support Group (Brigadier Campbell)

4 Armoured Brigade (Brigadier Gatehouse)

1 South African Division (less one brigade)**** (Major-General Brink)

22 Guards Brigade (Brigadier Erskine/Brigadier Mariott)*****

Tobruk Fortress (Major-General Scobie)******

70 Infantry Division (Major-General Scobie)

Polish Brigade Group (Major-General S. Kopanski)

32 Army Tank Brigade (Brigadier Willison)

Fortress Troops

Corps Troops

4 SA Armoured Car Regiment

51, 60 Field Regiment RA

7 Medium Regiment RA

73 AT Regiment RA


Jarabub Group (Force E)

29 Indian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Mariott/Brigadier Reid)*******

38, “F” RTR (dummy tanks)

 

2 South African Infantry Division at El Alamein (Major-General de Villiers)

2 South African Infantry Brigade at Matruh Fortress (Brigadier Poole)

Army Troops

Total Strength:

118,000 men

849 medium, field, and anti-tank guns

529 cruiser tanks

205 infantry tanks

Notes:

* 11 Indian Infantry Brigade, held back at Mersa Matruh

** Probably a regiment held back in reserve

*** Detailed breakdown not in the document.

**** The division consisted of 1 and 5 SA Brigades in the line and 2 SA Brigade at Matruh.

***** Brigadier Erskine was replaced by Brigadier Mariott around 20 October 1941, to let Brigadier Reid take charge of 29 Indian Brigade and the Jarabub Group. I have no idea what happened to Brigadier Erskine, since he seems to be a different Erskine to the BGS XIII Corps.

****** This detailed breakdown is not in the WO document, but from me. The fortress came under command 8th Army on the night 30/31 October, and was under operational control XXX Armoured Corps, which would give the order to start the breakout. Later in the battle it went under control XIII Corps.

******* Only HQ 29 Indian Infantry Brigade and one infantry battalion, otherwise support troops including a lot of armoured cars.

8th Army’s Order of Battle and Tank Strength after CRUSADER – 7 February 1942

On 7 February 1942 the War Office in London reported to the Prime Minister on the state of forces in North Africa,as it was known at the time in London. The document can be found in WO216/15 in the National Archives in Kew. The document shows how much the main units which participated in the battle had suffered.

Disposition of Troops in Cyrenaica & Egypt
Sector Command Formation Remarks
(a) Western Desert
(i) 13 Corps
1 S.A. Division Less one Brigade
4th Indian Division [Should be: less one Brigade]
200th Guards Brigade
150th Infantry Brigade Group
Free French Brigade Group
Polish Brigade Group
Six Armd. Car Regts.
Reserve column from 1st Armd. Divn. Under command H.Q. of 1st Support Group.
(ii) Reserve in forward area
1st Armoured Divn Less Reserve column and 200th Gds. Bde.
Temporary Composition of division is:
H.Q.
2nd Armd. Bde.
Composite Rgt. From 22nd Armd. Bde.
200th Gds. Bde.
1st Support Group
38th Indian Inf. Bde.
(iii) In Frontier and Railhead area under command of H.Q. 30th Armd. Corps
1st Army Tank Brigade
2nd S.A. Divn.
7th Indian Inf. Bde. Reorganising
(b) British Troops in Egypt
(i) At Mersa Matruh
5th S.A. Bde. Reorganising
(ii) In Delta and Canal Areas
2nd N.Z. Divn. Reorganising and training
7th Armd. Divn. Less 7th Armd. Bde sailing for Far East – reorganizing and re-equipping
22nd Armd. Bde ex 1st Armd. Div Re-equipping
32nd Army Tank Bde Elements only; awaiting reorganisation
3rd Indian Motor Brigade Shortly arriving from SYRIA as reserve for VIII Army.
Two British infantry battalions Including one M.G. Battalion
Three Indian State Forces battalions
One Czech Infantry battalion
2nd Armd. Divn Remnants only; awaiting reorganisation

The same document also gives the tank situation in the Middle East, and it is here that we can see very clearly the hammering the Commonwealth forces had received in the recent operation, but also the effort that was made to rebuild them. A document in the same folder, from mid-October, shows the expectation that by 1st November the 8th Army would be able to field 508 cruiser tanks (340 British of varying marks, 168 US M3 tanks) and 150 infantry tanks, and this number almost certainly excluded the 95 British tanks in Tobruk (28 Cruisers and 67 Matildas).

A more detailed document from around the same time gives the following figures, including Tobruk: Cruisers British 372 + 29 immediate reserve; Infantry Tanks 189 + 38 immediate reserve; Cruisers US 166 + 32 immediate reserve; light tanks 94. Total Cruisers and Infantry Tanks: 628. Tanks under repair/inspection and unloading in the Delta: Cruisers British 66; Infantry Tanks 48; Cruisers US 91; light tanks 14. Total Cruisers and Infantry tanks under repair/inspection and unloading: 205. Total number of tanks in North Africa (excl. light tanks) therefore 833.,of which 75% were available for the operation.

This shows that by February the number of tanks in North Africa had risen to be higher than before CRUSADER, but that the number of operational tanks had reached a low. One book-keeping item to keep in mind is that 7 Armoured Brigade was sent off with 106 M3 tanks (if I recall correctly) to the Far East. Had that not been the case, the number of operational tanks would have been more comfortable to Middle East command in Cairo.

Distribution of Tanks in Egypt and Cyrenaica as known in War Office on 7.2.42
Status Cruisers Infantry Tanks Remarks
Serviceable Tanks
Cyrenaica
2nd Armoured Bde. And composite Regiment from 22nd Armoured Brigade 128 Including tanks handed over by 22nd Armd. Bde.
Frontier Area
1st Army Tank Bde. 111
Delta Area
4th Armd. Bde 106
Base Ordnance Depots 5 Ready for the field by 15th February
(b) Tanks in Command not accounted for above (i.e. tanks under repair and being made desertworthy and in use as training vehicles) 654 239
Estimated total in Egypt and Cyrenaica 888 355
Note: Exact figures for tank casualties are not known in The War Office. The above figures are therefore based on estimates only.

Order of Battle of 7 Armoured Brigade for Operation CRUSADER

7 Armoured Brigade had a short and exciting (in the Chinese curse sense of the word) Operation CRUSADER. Mauled at Sidi Rezegh just days after the operation started, it was withdrawn from battle and returned to the Delta, except for some smaller composite units that remained engaged in the battle for another fortnight, such as composite squadron NEMO of 2 RTR. From the report written after the battle, here is some information that may be of use to wargamers. This OOB differs from Nafziger’s OOB for the battle which can be found at this link. The most important difference is the absence of the Northumberland Hussars (102 AT Rgt. RA) from this OOB. Maybe someone can comment on that.

Order of Battle – 7th Armoured Brigade 18 November 1941

(based on WO201/514)

Unit Commander Equipment
Brigade HQ Brigadier Davey Cruiser Mk.II (A10) tanks
3 Squadron 7 Armoured Division Signals Major H.W.C. Stethem
7 Hussars Lt.Colonel F.W. Byass DSO MC (killed at Sidi Rezegh) Cruiser Mk.II (one squadron), Mk.IV and maybe Mk.V tanks
2 Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) Lt.Colonel R.F.E. Chute Cruiser tanks (mix of Mk.IV and Mk.V)
6 RTR Lt.Colonel M.D.B. Lister (killed at Sidi Rezegh) Cruiser tanks (no confirmation, probably Mk.V)
LRS (Light Recovery Section?) Cpt. N. Barnes
OFP (Supply??) Cpt. C.C. Lambert
Reconnaissance Section Capt. T. Ward
‘A’ & ‘B’ Sections 13 Light Field Ambulance Capts. Hick and Williamson
4 Royal Horse Artillery (less one battery) Lt. Col. J. Curry
F Battery RHA Major F. Withers MC 8 25-pdr
DD Battery RHA Major O’Brien.Butler 8 25-pdr
‘A’ Company 2
Rifle Brigade
Major C. Sinclair MC
Det. 4 Field Sqdn Royal Engineers Corporal Lee (sic!)
‘A’ & ‘B’ Troops 1 Lt. AA battery 1 Lt. AA Regiment Royal Artillery Major Edmeads Bofors 40mm light anti-aircraft guns

The total number of tanks on this day was 129, consisting of a mix of various cruiser marks. While difficult to disentangle, it appears that 26 Cruiser Mk. II (A 10) which formed one squadron in 7 Hussars and equipped Brigade HQ, and at least 16 Mk.IV (A13 Mk.II), which seem to have been primarily in 2 R.T.R., 16 of which had been issued as replacements for 16 Mk. IV tanks which had to be sent to base workshop in October, and were reported ‘unfit for action’ by the commander of 2 RTR, because they were missing essential kit, but they were nevertheless taken along. Other shortages reported were wireless (throughout the Brigade) and Bren guns (particular in 6 RTR which had issued theirs to the Polish units going to Tobruk in October). Mechanical reliability seems to have been a serious issue – on 19 November 7 Armoured Brigade was down to 123 tanks, and on 20 November to 115, without really having seen much combat.

Training state was reported good except in Squadron and Troop maneuver, which was restricted by mileage restrictions and the wireless silence before the operation.

Any comments on the above, in particular relating to the tank composition, would be very much welcome. Note there are discrepancies between the original report and various information found on the web.