Successful supply runs for the Axis – November 1941

Successful supply runs for the Axis – November 1941

Background

I think it was Kriebel, Ia (operations staff officer) of 15. Panzerdivision, or maybe von Mellenthin, Ia (intelligence staff officer) of Panzerarmee Afrika who claimed that from the destruction of the Duisburg (Regia Marina designation: “Beta”) convoy by Force K on the night 8/9 November until the arrival of Ankara at Benghazi on 19 December, no supplies reached the Axis forces in North Africa.  In the immortal words of Good Omens, this is not correct.  While it is correct that until the successful M.42 operation on 19 December no major convoy came through, and that very important merchants such as Maritza, Procida, and Mantovaniwere sunk, a good number of merchants made it through.

RCT Zeno 1942 ANMI MI

Navigatori Class Destroyer Nicolo Zeno during an escort mission in 1942, showing the experimental ‘Claudius’ dazzle camouflage that she would likely have carried on convoy duty in late 1941. Wikipedia.

Naval Units

First of all, there were the naval units carrying emergency supplies, as well as reinforcements (e.g. Sonderverband 288 arrived in parts on Italian destroyers).  See this older post for the emergency supply programme. Also, there were a few runs of purely civilian supply ships carrying food, coal and cement, and a run by the water tanker Leneo with water supplies for Tripoli harbour, probably from Tunisia. Furthermore, there were runs by submarines to various ports in North Africa, and the Giussano-class Condotierri light cruiser Cadorna crossed with fuel and ammunition.

Merchants

At the same time, some small merchant convoys also made it through.  Below is a list of these, including their cargo.  The information is from the official history of the Italian Navy, Vol. VIII La Difesa del Trafico con L’Africa Settentrionale and various websites.  One should note that the Med was a very dangerous place to be at the time if one was in an Italian merchant.  Of the nine ships that made the run successfully, four were lost within the next six weeks, one of them on the return run, and one in harbour in North Africa while unloading.

The list may not be complete. Naval History Net’s Day-by-Day list at this link states that German steamer Brook and Italian trawler Amba Aradam, escorted by Tp Partenope arrived at Benghazi from Brindisi on 18 November. My current information is that this is not correct, but that it was instead a coastal convoy from Tripoli.  The list also does not include the four F-lighters that went from Trapani to Tripoli on 2 December.

Supplies and reinforcements delivered on merchants during this period total as follows (not complete):

Tanks M13/40 24
Troops (Italian & German) 2,846
Vehicles and prime-movers 322
General stores and rations (military) 5,885 tons
Ammunition (Italian) 896 tons
Air force fuel 675 tons
Ammunition and various materials for the Germans 330 tons
General war stores for the Germans 3,383 tons
Undefined Up to 2,300 tons on Bolsena 1 December

Arrival dates, detailed cargoes and escorts as follows:

Arrival Date 16 November
Location Benghazi
Escort(s)

Ct da Verrazano (1)
Ct da Pigafetta

Ship(s) Name(s) Città di Napoli (2)
Città di Genova
Cargo by ship Città di Napoli
General Supply and Rations 130 tons
Troops 697
  Città di Genova
General Supply 60 tons
Rations 104 tons
Troops 562
   
Arrival Date 21 November
Location Benghazi
Escort(s) Ct Zeno

Tp Partenope (3)
Ship(s) Name(s) Città di Palermo
Cargo  
General Supply 92 tons
Troops (Italian) 428
Troops (German) 260
   
Arrival Date 23 November
Location Benghazi
Escort(s) Tp Orione

Ct Strale
  Tinos (4)
Cargo by ship Bolsena
General Supply and Rations for the Italians 341 tons
Ammunition 395 tons
Vehicles and Prime Movers 5
Food and other Materials for the civilians 140 tons
Ammunition and various materials for the Germans 330 tons
  Tinos
War stores for the German forces 3,383 tons
War stores for the Italian forces 14 tons
Vehicles and Prime Movers 4
   
Arrival Date 23 November
Location Tripoli
Escort(s)

From Italy
Ct Usodimare
Ct Saetta
From Tripoli

Ct Sebenico
Tp Centauro

Ship(s) Name(s) Fabio Filzi (5)
Cargo  
General Supply and Rations 3,073 tons
Tanks M13/40 (Italian) 10
Vehicles and Prime Movers 123
Civilians 110
Troops 115
Fuel for the airforce in barrels 675 tons
   
Arrival Date 24 November (6)
Location Benghazi
Escort(s) Ct Malocello
Ship(s) Name(s) Città di Tunisi
Cargo  
General Supply 103 tons
Troops (Italian) 476
Troops (German) 289
   
   
Arrival Date 1 December
Location Benghazi
Escort(s) Ct da Verrazano
Ship(s) Name(s) Sebastiano Venier (7)
Cargo  
General Supply 1968 tons
Troops (Italian) 19
Civilians 118
Ammunition 591 tons
Vehicles and Prime Movers 190
Tanks M13/40 14
   
   
Arrival Date 1 December
Location Tripoli
Escort(s) Tp Centauro
Ship(s) Name(s) Bolsena
Cargo No information but see above run for capacity.

Notes:

(1) Ct = Cacciatorpediniere, a larger destroyer, I think these would be Fleet Destroyers (large, well-armed, fast) in Royal Navy classification.

(2) The four Città vessels were classed as naval auxiliaries D1 to D4 and carried an armament of 4x120mm guns and AA equipment. They were relatively fast (19 knots for Genova and Palermo, 17 knots for Tunisi and Napoli) passenger/cargo ships with about 5,400 tons displacement. Only Città di Tunisi survived the war and was broken up in 1970ish.  Città di Palermo did not even survive CRUSADER, she was torpedoed and sunk with very heavy loss of life by HM Submarine Proteus (Lt.Cmdr. Francis) off the Greek island of Cephalonia on 5 January 1942.
(3) Tp = Torpediniere, a smaller destroyer, I think these would be Destroyer Escorts (small, medium armament, medium speed, designed for convoy duty) in Royal Navy classification.
(4) Tinos was bombed while in the harbour of Benghazi. Most of her freight (AA ammunition and bombs) could be salvaged however.
(5) Mn Fabio Filzi was a new ship, commissioned in 1940. She was a fast and large merchant (16 knots, 6,836 tons displacement), and clearly seen as a high-value addition to the Italian merchant fleet, judging by her escort. It did not help her much, she was lost off Taranto to HMS Upright, together with what looks like her sister Carlo de Greco, while carrying 45 German tanks and about 600 or so troops. 453 shipwrecked were rescued by the accompanying destroyers.
(6) Mn Città di Tunisi ran in convoy from Suda Bay with Città di Genova to arrive on 21 November, but suffered an engine breakdown and had to return to Suda Bay with Malocello. After fixing the malfunction she set out again. She was damaged by bombs on the return run, according to radio interception by the British Admiralty.
(7) Tragically, on the run back Sebastiano Venier was torpedoed by HM Submarine Porpoise (Lt. Cdr. E.F.Pizey DSO) and had to be beached on Navarino. Of about 1,800 British and Commonwealth POW she transported, over 300 were killed. There is a lot of detail on this tragedy at this link.

Reports by HMS Aurora on actions of Force K, 1941

Reports by HMS Aurora on actions of Force K, 1941

Substantial updated this post 24-11-2019

Aurora

Captain W G Agnew, CB, RN (in centre) with his officers and ship’s company on board HMS AURORA. This picture was taken in November 1941 in Malta. IWM A6291

BAckground

Force K was a striking force based out of Malta, tasked with interrupting Axis naval supplies between Italy and North Africa consisting of Leander-class cruisers HMS Aurora (flag), HMS Penelope, and the L-class destroyers HMS Lance and HMS Lively.

Following an initial success on the night 8/9 November, when the force destroyed the so-called Duisburg, or BETA Convoy on the march to Tripoli, also sinking one of the escorting destroyers, it went on to sortie several times in pursuit of Axis shipping.

The force was informed about the sailing dates, hours, and likely tracks of Axis merchants through ULTRA, and struck Axis supplies hard, three times, with a material impact on the land battle being fought in North Africa at the same time, Operation CRUSADER.   

Sinking of Maritza and Procida

These two German merchants had moved from Italy to Piraeus where they took on additional freight, and were known to move north of Crete to Benghazi. Their moving sailing date had been followed through ULTRA. Force K received the instruction of where the convoy would be verbally from Flag Officer Malta (who had received it from ULTRA).

The convoy was considered crucial to the British success in CRUSADER, not just by the British, but also by the Luftwaffe, and Churchill took a personal interest in the destruction of these two vessels.  It was known that they were critical to the Axis supply situation, in particular the Luftwaffe, carrying large volumes of B4 aero fuel, as well as bombs. At a time when stocks in North Africa had deteriorated to 730 tons B4, the vessels were to bring 2,300 tons of this fuel. The daily consumption rate stood at about 120-150 tonnes of B4 during the battle, so this would have been sufficient for 15-20 days of air support.

Captain Mimbelli, one of the most highly decorated Italian sailors of the war acted as commander in his Spica-class torpedo boat Lupo. His report on this particular disaster is in this post linked above.  From the report of Captain Agnew, additional detail is available. In Captain Agnew’s report he points out that Force K was shadowed for most of the approach by Axis planes, but that HMS Lively used an ‘amusing’ way of jamming.  In Lively’s report, this is explained – apparently the radio room on Lively identified the call signs for one ground station and one or two planes, and simply ordered radio silence, using the correct radio protocol.  This was promptly observed for 30 minutes.  When radio transmissions started again they were partially jammed, and the trick then repeated.  Force K also observed aerial supply traffic from Crete to North Africa and in two cases engaged a He 111 bomber and a Ju 52 transport with no effect.

When closing in on the convoy, Ju 88 bombers engaged Force K, but were deterred by the heavy volume of AA fire and their bombs fell away from the ships causing no damage. This must have happened outside the range of notice of Commander Mimbelli of Lupo, who was waiting for the intervention of the Luftwaffe to rescue his convoy.

HMS Penelope’s log describes the action in the terse terms of a naval log book.

1524 sighted smoke bearing 347 degrees set course towards.

1536 Make out 2 MVs and 2 DRs

1540 Opened fire on enemy a/c

1545 Opened fire on DRs

1631 Cease fire both MVs sunk

1647 Set course 275 degrees speed 29 knots

1659 Smoke bearing 318 degrees

1700 Commence 2/2 No. 10.

1702 Second column of smoke bearing 333 degrees. Reported by aircraft to be 2 DRs.

1730 Speed 25 knots.

1740 Passed floating mine

Captain Agnew is also dismissive of the effort by the Italian escort, describing their action as ‘making off to the north and abandoning the freighters to their fate’.  The fire by the Italian vessels was also ineffectual, causing nothing more then splinter damage above the waterline of HMS Penelope. This is quite a contrast to the claims of 2-3 observed hits on a cruiser, and makes one wonder where the 304 rounds of 10cm fired by Lupo and Cassiopeia actually went.

After the engagement the destroyers were left with only 36 hours of fuel, which led Captain Agnew to order a return to Malta instead of a pursuit or further operations.

While an immediate rescue operation was mounted by the Germans and Italians, including the despatch of a hospital ship, no survivors were found of either vessel.

MN Adriatico1

Adriatico in Peacetime. Courtesy Wikipedia

Sinking of M/N Adriatico

In the night 30 Nov to 1 Dec 41 at about 3.30 am Force K sank the Italian naval auxiliary Adriatico.  Until I requested the reports from the 6″ cruiser HMS Aurora at Kew today I thought she was just a merchant vessel, and wondered why she tried the run from Argostoli (Greece) to Tripoli unescorted.  Turns out that she was under command of a Capitano di Corvette (Lieutenant Commander) of the Regia Marina, and armed with two 102 or 120mm guns (identified as 3″ guns by Captain Agnew during the engagement), two 20mm AA guns and 4 12mm heavy machine guns.   Her crew seems to have been fairly heavy at 90, 40 of which were naval ratings and officers. Below is a condensed excerpt from the report Captain Agnew of HMS Aurora failed after his return to Malta.

Adriatico was picked up at 12 nautical miles distance by a very sharp-eyed sailor[1].  Agnew decided to close to 6,000 yards before engaging her.  At 0304 hours he ordered a broadside fired and signalled to Adriatico to abandon ship. Adriatico steamed on, ignoring the signal.

HMS Aurora fired a second broadside, claiming one hit. Adriatico stopped, and the signal to abandon ship was repeated, but no reaction observed.  Instead, at 0315 hours  Adriatico opened fire on HMS Aurora. (This was a very brave, or maybe foolish thing to do, depending on how you look at it).

Aurora immediately engaged with 6″ guns, and Adriatico was on fire all over very quickly.

Adriatico’s crew now abandoned ship, and a number of explosions were observed.  One of the destroyers was ordered to sink her before leaving the scene.

A number of Adriatico’s crew were rescued and subsequently interrogated. According to the surviving crew, this was the first trip of Adriatico to North Africa. Until then, she had worked around Italy and in the Adriatic, mostly as escort vessel.  I am beginning to suspect that her trip was part of the emergency supply programme (see also this older post). 

The interrogation reports in HMS Aurora’s files are interesting reading. It appears that the commander of Adriatico considered her a naval vessel, and therefore felt he had to engage the far superior force pursuing him. It is also possible he believed that an engagement would attract attention by a superior Italian force including battleships which he had been advised were in the vicinity. Force K had been alerted to Adriatico’s voyage and course by ULTRA intercepts.

Adriatico was completed in 1931 as a mixed passenger/freighter of 1,976 tons at Riuniti Adriatico, and before being taken over by the Regia Marina was owned by Puglia S.A. di Navi, Bari .  (see Miramar ship index)

[1]The ‘sharp-eyed sailor’ was almost certainly radar.

Alvise Da Mosto5 da La difesa del traffico con l AS vol VII

Navigatori-class destroyer Alvise da Mosto at sea during the initial months of the war. Courtesy Wikipedia, USMM Photo.

Sinking of Motocisterna Iridio Mantovani and RM Alvise da Mosto

There is already quite a bit of information on this particular disaster in this post linked above.  From the HMS Aurora report it appears that an ASV Wellington (a Wellington bomber equipped with air-to-sea surface radar) led Force K to the general vicinity of the two-ship convoy, but then transmitted erroneous bearings.  In this case however, the standing air patrol arranged over the stricken tanker was its undoing.  Lookouts on HMS Aurora spotted planes circling, and Captain Agnew correctly deduced that they would not circle over nothing, so pointed his force towards them.  After a short time masts were spotted, and the fate of Mantovani was sealed.  The air escort went to have a look at Force K,but when engaged left the scene quickly, presumably giving rise to the complaint by da Mosto’s commanding officer outlined in the older post.

In the report, da Mosto is correctly identified as a Navigatori class destroyer.  Captain Agnew is dismissive of her efforts to protect her charge, calling her fire ineffectual.  After a short engagement she was on fire and finally blew up.  The tanker was then engaged quite quickly and left on fire with explosions going off on her in intervals (presumed to be when the fire reached a new tank). When Force K was about 30 nautical miles away, a large explosion was observed, which must have been her end.

Lively

HMS LIVELY, BRITISH L CLASS DESTROYER, AT SPEED. JULY 1941.IWM A4654

Air Transport to North Africa

Crusader and the associated naval activity by the Commonwealth led to a severe supply crisis for the Axis forces.  This is reflected in the sudden increase in air-transported materials and men throughout the months of October to December.

The data below comes from Santoro again, L’Aeronautica Italiana Nella II Guerra Mondiale, p. 130

October

Men 9,032

Material 321 tons

November

Men 3,728

Material 234 tons

December

Men 1,170

Material 836 tons

The numbers indicate that 79% of personnel and 68% of material flown in between February and December 1941 were flown in during the fourth quarter, with December alone accounting for 38% of the material flown in during the year from February. I suspect a lot of the supply was either fuel, or specialty ammunition of which the Axis forces were running low.

While the numbers are low, compared to total needs of Panzerarmee Afrika, one needs to keep in mind that seaborne supply had collapsed in late November and December except for emergency runs of naval units, and that these had very low capacity.  For example, when the large ocean-going submarine Carraciolo was sunk by HMS Upholder off Sicily in early January, she carried only about 160 tons of supplies on board.