A note on tank losses in CRUSADER

A note on tank losses in CRUSADER

Background

On a blog I follow (at this link), the question about tank losses in CRUSADER was raised. It’s one of those that seems easy, until you dig into it. a bit more. Since I have done a bit of the digging, here’s my view, by the armies involved. The below is from memory, and serves to illustrate the problem, not to provide an answer.

Define ‘Loss’

A few things need to be considered. First, what is considered a ‘loss’ differs at the tactical and operational scale. Tactically, a loss is a tank that is no longer able to participate in battle. This includes damaged but repairable and technical breakdowns, as well as destroyed and captured intact tanks. At the operational level, the first two categories are only losses if the damaged/broken down tanks cannot make it to the workshops, or if the workshops with them in are lost to the enemy. Both of the latter cases often, but not always, happened to the Germans, and probably the Italians. So over an operation lasting weeks, a tank could be lost more than once, if it was damaged, brought to the workshop, repaired, and returned to fight another day, and be lost again. Operationally, the easiest way to look at this is to pick a start date, check the tank inventory, add any known arrivals during the period of the operation, pick an end date, check the inventory, and do the maths. It’s more difficult in reality but still straightforward, if you have all the information.

The use of the numbers is of course completely different. To the commanders on the field, tactical losses mattered, and the reason for them wasn’t necessarily that important. A tank that’s gone is gone. This affects the ability to conduct operations, in some cases severely. For example, within four days of starting the counteroffensive in January, the Germans lost almost half their tank force, even though their written off tank numbers are miniscule (that’s a recurring theme across all theatres they fought in, by the way). 

For historians on the other hand, the operational losses are what matters, since they allow the researcher to evaluate the battle performance in relative terms. It is also a great topic of debate to make the Germans look better than they were in terms of battlefield performance, as in ‘yes they lost, but look at how much it took to take them down…’. More seriously though, operational loss numbers were used to inform high-level planning, so in the case of CRUSADER, the very high British losses drove considerations of the required numbers to be able to attack again.

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Indian Soldiers examine an abandoned Italian M13/40 tank of Ariete Division in Benghazi, end of December 1941. IWM 

Estimating Losses

So with all this said, here is my view of tank losses in CRUSADER.

1) The Germans

This is the most straightforward of the bunch. We have the starting numbers, we have daily tank states through to 30 January (so all that matters), and we know how many tanks arrived as replacements. So anyone who has done a fair amount of research can feel confident not just about how many tanks the Germans lost, but also what their daily tank strength was. There were few repair returns during the battle, and most tanks that went to the collection points or workshops were simply lost when these were overrun in due course. The Germans received about 100 replacement tanks in December and January, and fielded about 100 tanks in mid-January.

My estimate therefore is that the Germans lost all of their 255 runners that they had at the start of the battle, and the total loss figure could be a bit higher once we account for returns from workshops. In addition the Germans lost another 45 tanks sunk in the Gulf of Taranto. The German official number is 220 tanks lost, or 85%, excluding those sunk, but I would put the total at about 300 including those sunk.

2) The Italians

Here matters get more difficult. The easy question is: how many light tanks did the Italians lose (they fielded a good number of CV light ‘tanks’ (really glorified MG carriers, some equipped with flamethrowers). The answer is: all of them (about 180 or so, I think). The Mediums (all M13/40 during CRUSADER) are where we have conflicting information. What we know is:

  • The initial tank state of Ariete
  • Arrivals during CRUSADER

Where things get hazy is how many mediums were held with a rear unit in Agedabia, but it was probably low teens, up to 20. Now… the official Italian history claims that 63 were lost. I don’t believe that for one second. In my view, almost all of the Italian mediums with Ariete were lost. The reason for this is that after Ariete reaches Agedabia, it has only about 20 runners left, according to its war diary, but at this stage it would have been reinforced by the training tanks, and possibly the 24 tanks arriving at the end of November. Returns from workshops are unknown. By mid-January Ariete is fielding 80 mediums, and it had received about 80 reinforcements.

So if someone asked me, I would peg Italian medium losses at over 130 tanks, and consider that a low-ball estimate. In addition the Italians lost another 52 tanks sunk in the Gulf of Taranto. So about 200 tanks lost seems not unreasonable.

This would make combined Axis losses of about 500 tanks in total.

3) The British

Here things get far more difficult. We know the starting state, we know the end state, and we know how many were held in initial reserve. What we don’t know is how many were added on top of the initial reserve from convoy arrivals in Egypt, and how many of those tanks available in February 1942 are due to returned repairs and or convoy arrivals. We also don’t have consistent numbers on a daily basis.

An additional problem is that the same tank may have been lost more than once. For example, 35 M3 tanks are lost when the HQ of 4 Armoured Brigade is overrun. At least 8 of these are recaptured by the New Zealanders a few days later. What happened to these then is anyone’s guess. There are numbers for tanks lost as of 9 January, which come to about 800, and to which another about 150 need to be added for the losses of 2 Armoured Brigade in January. This is just about 100 tanks short of the starting state on 17 November, which was 1,038 of all medium types. On 8 February, the tank returns reported that 1,123 tanks were either repairable or awaiting evacuation, destroyed, or fit/unfit in Ordnance Workshops in the Delta, which means that total losses would have been about 100 higher than the starting date.

Total

So, my rough estimation is that compared to a total of about 1,450 tanks at the start of the battle, almost 1,500 tanks or thereabouts were lost, ignoring light tanks, MG carriers and armoured cars. Of the losses, about 2/3rd were lost by the British, and the remainder by the Axis, who also lost about 100 tanks at sea.

All forces lost almost the totality of their tank numbers from the start of the battle, if not more. These tank losses, in particular combined with the comparatively low personnel losses, make CRUSADER a fairly extraordinary operation, and one of the larger tank battles of the war.

If it were in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it…

If it were in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it…

The below is from the H.Q. Tobruch Fortress Intelligence Summary No. 10, issued on 1 November 1941.

Own Ground Activity

(b) Patrols

[…]

The Polish Officer missing from a patrol night 30/31 Oct has returned. A full report has not been received. It seems that he posed as a GERMAN, and having previously bandaged his head, hailed a passing lorry and ordered the ITALIAN driver to take him to the hospital. During the day he took cover in a gun pit near the DERNA rd and spent the day observing. At dusk he returned by lorry, this time driven by a LIBYAN, and debussing in the MEDAUUAR, made his way successfully through to our lines. Details of the information gained will be given when available.

The report is contained in the next day’s intel summary No. 11, 2 November 1941, although it appears to me that the officer wasn’t Polish after all, going by the surname, unless it is an Anglicisation of the Polish name similar to the one in the picture below (a Polish speaker may have a view?).

A report has been received of the activities of 2/Lieut. RUSHILL who, as mentioned in yesterday’s summary, penetrated the ITALIAN lines on the night 30/31 Oct.

Whilst concealed in an arty pit near the DERNA Rd, he noted a considerable amount of movement West to East. He located 4 fd guns at 394433 on the left of the road, and 2 fd guns on the escarpment at about 39504315. He also noticed about 8 tanks dispersed near the escarpment.

The locations are about 10 km NNE of Acroma, within the Axis bypass road perimeter.

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Canon de 155 Mle 1917 Schneider C – who used them?

Canon de 155 Mle 1917 Schneider C – who used them?

During 1941 Vichy France supplied 20 heavy howitzers of the type Canon de 155 Mle 1917 Schneider C to the Axis forces in North Africa. It is possible that at least part of these were in action during CRUSADER.  This particular gun was a very popular gun, in use by many armies between the wars, and also serving with the US Army in the late 1930s and early 40s (although I am not sure if any saw service overseas).  It was however obsolete by 1940, due to the very short range it had (only 11,900 metres), compared to more modern guns such as the Soviet 152mm gun-howitzer ML-20 (>17,000 metres) or the British 5.5″ gun which entered service in 1941 (about 15,000 metres). Shell weight at 43kg was similar to the German sFH18, as well as the Soviet and British guns.

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155mm Schneider C howitzer imported from Tunisia, in use by German artillery in the desert, private collection, included in a Germany memoir.

The French army, after mobilisation in 1940, had 535 of them available for service, according to David Lehmann’s PDF document 1939-1940 French Armament (available at this link).  After the end of the campaign, and the conquest of Greece and other countries using this gun, it was put into German service as sFH15,5cm 414(f) (heavy field howitzer 155mm 414(f) where the (f) indicates the country of origin.  It was also in use by the Regio Esercito as Obice 155/14, where 14 indicates the barrel length in multiples of gun calibre diameter.  Since both Axis forces active in North Africa were familiar with this gun, it is not clear to me who would have used it.

Request for information:

I would appreciate any information on:

1) which army received the guns;

2) which units used them;

3) where they were used; and

4) for how long they served the Axis forces in North Africa before they were lost.

Many thanks in advance!

According to Jason Long on the Italianisti Group, 12 of the guns served in Heereskuestenartillerieabteilung 533 in North Africa. While the choice of such a short-ranged gun is unusual for a coastal defense purpose, I guess it comes down to beggars not being able to be choosers, and HKAA533 had lost its guns during the retreat from Tobruk it seems. Rather than being a coastal defense battery, it had now become part of the general service heavy artillery park of the Panzerarmee.  From looking at Jason’s Gazala battle OOB, it appears that by May 42 many more of these guns had made their way to Libya, but on the other hand, HKA 533 by this time did no longer have any of them on strength, instead it was equipped with captured 25-pdrs, which had been captured during the January 1942 counteroffensive. 

An ULTRA intercept states that on 17 Nov. 41 4 of these guns left Tripoli for the front on 4 lorries of supply column 2/148.

 

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155mm Schneider C howitzer imported from Tunisia, in use by German artillery in the desert, private collection, included in a Germany memoir.

Italian division strengths at the end of the battle

Italian division strengths at the end of the battle

Background

An Italian document from NARA shows the strength of all Italian divisions on 1 Feb 1942, and compares them to their authorised strength.  It makes sombre reading and shows the impact of the CRUSADER fighting on the Italian formations, most of which I would presume (but be happy to be corrected about) to have been at pretty close to full strength under the 1940 North Africa (Africa SettentrionaleTipo AS40 organisation when the CRUSADER battles started. In this document however, the relevant strength level applied to them is the Tipo AS 42 organisation.

The A.S.42 Organisation

A.S. 42 was a divisional organisation that was really more reflective of Italian capabilities in terms of maintaining frontline strength in Africa while building it up significantly in Russia at the same time (where the Expedition Corps was built up to an Army in 1942).  Quite simply, Italy took on more than she could handle with the Russian adventure. Between Russia, the occupation of Greece and Albania, and the need to protect the homeland, little if nothing was left for the last remaining colony of the would-be successor to the Roman empire.

It looks as if the conversion to AS42 was ordered around the start of January 42, and it may well have been an organisation type that achieved two advantages for the Italians. First, it significantly reduced the supply needs for the infantry divisions which in the view of commanders on both sides always had a marginal role in Africa (notwithstanding the fact that the Empire infantry divisions together with the British I-tanks won CRUSADER).  At the same time, it reflected the very heavy losses suffered by the Italian divisions during CRUSADER.  If the strengths at the end of the battle are compared to the AS40 organisation, they do look a lot worse. A.S. 42 replaced manpower with firepower to an extent. 

Nevertheless, because the Italian divisions were already weak, what AS42 meant in terms of their combat capability is bleak. They became divisions in name only. In terms of strength, they were closer to an Empire infantry brigade than anything else. So when we are talking about Italian divisions in the desert, this needs to be kept in mind. Essentially, the two Italian infantry corps would have a combat value comparable to, although probably slightly above (depending on what artillery the Corps was furnished with) that of a single Empire infantry division each.

NewimageM13/40 tank advancing in the desert, January 1942, colourised by Painting the Past.

Strength of divisions by Corps

X. Corpo Armato (10th Army Corps) – all divisions should have 6,865 men under the Tipo A.S.42 organisation

  • Bologna – 3,897 (56% of authorised strength under the AS42 TO&E/36% compared to the A.S.40 TO&E)
  • Brescia – 4,108 (59%/37%)
  • Corps Troops – 1,522 (no comparison possible)

XXI. Corpo Armato (21st Army Corps) – Pavia and Sabratha divisions should have 6,865 men under the Tipo A.S.42 organisation, Trento should have 10,831 as Div. Ftg. Autotrasportabile or 8,731 as Div. Mot. tipo A.S. (maybe someone can confirm which type this division was? The document seems to indicate only Piave was organised as the latter type)

  • Pavia – 4,651 (67%/42%)
  • Sabratha – 5,084 (73%/46% – Sabratha was not involved in active combat in CRUSADER, providing only a blocking force at Mersa el Brega; it was however involved in COMPASS and was rebuilding in Tripolitania during the year 1941)
  • Trento – 4,518 (52% assuming it was a North African Motorised Division (Div. Mot. tipo A.S.)
  • Corps Troops – 3,551

XX. Corpo Armato di Manovra CAM – Mobile Army Corps

  • Ariete – 5,707 (62% – as armoured division should have 9,274)
  • Trieste – -6,795 (78% – Trieste should have 10,831 as a metropolitan motorised division (Div. Ftr. Autotrasportabile) or 8,731 as Div. Mot. tipo A.S. – but the question is the same as with Trento)
  • Corps Troops -555

Various Force Elements

  • Western Libya – 4,540
  • Eastern Libya – 517

Lost:

  • Divisione Savona – 0 (division lost at Bardia/Halfaya)

 

This link contains good information about Italian divisions, but in German.

Leo Niehorster’s site has pages on the organisation of the A.S.40 Infantry Division and the A.S.42 Infantry Division.