Successful supply runs for the Axis – November 1941

I think it was Kriebel, 1a (operations staff officer) of 15. Panzerdivision, or maybe von Mellenthin, 1c (intelligence staff officer) of Panzerarmee Afrika who claimed that fromthe destruction of the Duisburg (aka Beta) convoy 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.  This is not true.  While it is correct that until the successful M.42 operation on 19 December no major convoy came through, and that very important vessels were sunk, some vessels made it through.

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.

But 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.  I’ll check it.

Supplies and reinforcements delivered on merchants during this period total as follows:

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) Ct Usodimare
Ct Saetta then 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

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, as Captain Agnew remarks.  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.

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

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)

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.

Sinking of Maritza and Procida

The Italian escort commander’s report on this particular disaster is also in this post linked above.  From the report of Captain Agnew, additional detail is available.  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.  The fuel it carried could have enabled the Luftwaffe to wrest control of the air from the RAF.

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.

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.

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.