British and US tank deliveries to Egypt July 1941 to January 1942

In previous posts I have provided information on German (at this link) and Italian (at this link) tank deliveries to North Africa. At the request of David, here’s an overview of tank reinforcements sent to Egypt. It is broken down by convoy, except for the US deliveries, for which this information is not available. Here instead I have used the closest report to month end (they were issued weekly to the Prime Minister), taken the ‘in theatre’ number for that report, and substracted the ‘in theatre’ number for the previous month-end report. So e.g. for end July 40 M3 Light are reported ‘in theatre’, while for end August 109 are reported. August deliveries are therefore 69. It’s not perfect, but in the absence of convoy information it’s the best I can do. I hope readers find this useful.

What is clear from the table below is that the allied supply chain outdelivered the Axis chain by a very considerable margin during this period. In fact, it delivered more tanks in these six months than the Germans managed in the more than two years they shipped tanks to North Africa! The convoys that did this were the W.S. series (nicknamed ‘Winston Specials’). You can find detailed information about the movements and arrival times at this link or at this link. I noted in particular the delivery of 60 M3 light tanks on W.S.12, the only ones to come to Egypt via the UK. I wonder who decided on that…

What is shocking however is to compare the number of deliveries with the number of tanks operational on 7 February, in this older post, and that is where it becomes clear why this high level of deliveries was desparately needed to stay in the game in North Africa.  With 1,184 tanks delivered, and another 356 on hand, substracting the 100 that had been sent to Burma with 7 Armoured Brigade, but adding another 66 M3 Medium that had arrived in the interim, leaves a total of 1,506. Yet on 7 February only 350 were operational, i.e. less than had been operational on 2 July 1941, while another 893 were estimated to undergo repairs and maintenance, and 36 M3 Light were with 10 Armoured Division in Palestine, making for an estimated total of 1,279. This implies 227 total losses, but this was quickly revised upwards, to an estimate of 390 (180 Crusader (sic!), 130 M3 Light, 80 I-tanks). I believe to these losses have to be added the losses of 7 Armoured Brigade and 1 R.T.R., which were equipped with older Cruiser marks, and this would increase losses by another up to 150. By 9 February GHQ M.E. had decided that older Cruiser marks were no longer considered for the tank strength return, since they had become obsolete and/or so worn out not to matter anymore on the battlefield. Total losses of about 540 cruiser and I-tanks sounds believable to me.

In terms of types, I would guess about half of the UK I-tank deliveries would have been Matilda II, the other half Valentines. For the British cruisers, most if not all of them would have been Crusaders, I would guess.

Convoy

 

Month of Arrival

M3 Light (Medium)

UK Cruiser

I-Tank

Light Tank Mk. VI

Armoured Cars

W.S.8b 07/41 12 14
W.S.8x 07/41 50 50
W.S.9 07/41 20 20 251
US 07/41 402
W.S.10 08/41 21 30 251
US 08/41 69
W.S.10x 09/41 1663
US 09/41 53
W.S.114 10/41 30 60 35 501
US6 10/41 152(2)
W.S.12 11/41 60 124 52 35 831
US6,7 11/41 9(1)
US6 12/41 97(11)
W.S.12z 01/42 55 381
Totals  By type 480(14) 478 226 65 221
Totals 1,184 tanks
227 Light tanks and ACs

1 Humber Armoured Cars (probably Mk. I), could also include a small number of Daimler Armoured Cars

2 Includes 4 M2A4, mentioned here for completeness.

3 22 Armoured Brigade

4  Remainder 1 Armoured Division

5 AA tanks with Besa Quad MG mounts, belonging to 1 Armoured Division, but lent out on arrival to 1 Army Tank Brigade.

6 Number in brackets are M3 Medium tanks received in theatre during the month.

7 8 M3 Light reported as ‘lost at sea’

On a side note, Churchill was not a happy man about the situation with conflicting tank strength reports, as shown by this rather cranky note of his:

Prime Minister’s Personal Minute – Serial No. D223/1

Colonel Jacob.

Where are the 120 odd [tanks] which were to have arrived on the 8th [July], and where are the rest of the first 60 Americans? Why did the Minister of State say the other day “We have only 100 tanks fit for action” when you show 211? Are these figures telegraphed from Cairo, or do you make them up here, or do the War Office.

W.S.C.

23. 7. 41

Colonel Jacob probably thought ‘Ouch!’ when he read this.’ His reply then explained the matter a bit further, and is quite clear in what probably went on regarding the difference, explaining that the difference probably related to tanks unloaded from W.S.8(b) and (x), but not yet received by a depot in the Delta, tanks undergoing minor repairs, and excluding the tanks in Tobruk. Still, poor Colonel Jacob could probably have done without this…

Capacity of Tripoli and Benghazi Harbours, 1941

This post received a major update on 9 July 2012 based on a discussion with Stefan Westermann. I have updated the article on 1 October 2019.

A lot of discussion and research about the desert war in North Africa focuses on supply. This is quite right, since supply was the decisive factor in the battle for North Africa. What is of interest in this discussion is that there are few hard, reliable numbers being used. This is surprising, given that the German and Italian documents are available, and provide a lot of the answers. Much of the discussion is often based on Martin van Creveld’s ‘Supplying War’, which contains a chapter on North Africa. For those who do not own the book, an article citing the numbers can be found at this link, and it is well worth reading too.

Based on van Creveld’s book, the port capacities of Tripoli and Benghazi are 1,500 tons/day and 2,700 tons/day, respectively, with RAF attacks downgrading Benghazi to 750 tons/day (while I presume this is for 1942, I should have thought that RAF bombing in 1941 also had significant impacts). No footnotes are given for these numbers, and it is quite strange, since many other things are very well footnoted, and van Creveld clearly had access to primary documents. In any case, this equates to a monthly capacity of 46,000 tons for Tripoli and 82,000 tons (ideal)/23,000 tons (effective) for Benghazi. Based on further discussion, I think it can safely be said that van Creveld is quite completely wrong on this.

One question that has arisen to me is the validity of the often cited numbers by the historian Martin van Creveld, from his book ‘Supplying War’ (which I would have highly recommended prior to writing this article). The question is how, if the monthly capacity of Tripoli is 45,000 tons, as he claims, could the much higher delivery rates that are observed in the data achieved in some months. Another question is how, if Tripoli is supposed to be the major harbour in Libya, it’s daily capacity is considerably below Benghazi’s (1,500 daily tons to 2,700 daily tons, according to ‘Supplying War’)? The next question is why his numbers diverge so substantially from those we can find in the primary documents.

The situation in reality appears to be as follows:

Tripoli
On ideal days, 5,000 tons could be discharged in summer1941 (remark by Admiral Sansonetti during a staff discussion on supply in Rome in September 1941, to be found in Panzergruppe War Diary Appendices Chefsachen).

Benghazi
O
n ideal days, 1,700 tons had been discharged during summer 1941, and on average 1,000 tons had been discharged over the summer months, with a plan to move this up to 1,500 tons. The German view was that 2,000 tons was attainable, and the Italian navy did not dispute this in the meeting.

So the primary data supports that daily discharge rates could be a combined 6,700 tons, while van Creveld claims it was no more than 2,250 to 4,200 tons/day.

Constraints in getting additional supplies across the Med were multi-faceted, and direct port capacity was only one aspect, as the conference minute from 12 September 1941 makes clear. Even before the heavy losses of merchant vessels in the last quarter of 1941, there was however a shortage of shipping space and convoy escorts for the North Africa route. At the Italian end, capacity of the railways in Italy made it difficult to load ships up to ideal weights. The need to ship substantial numbers of of motor vehicles, sometimes hundreds in a single convoy, led to ships ‘cubing out’ before they ‘weighed out’ – i.e. the trucks took up a lot of space compared to their weight, meaning that they restricted overall load. In assembling the convoys, restrictions in the number of berthing spaces at the Libyan end had to be taken into account, limiting the number of ships. Of course, in a number of convoys ships were sunk, leaving capacity in the receiving harbour idle. In the Libyan harbours, trucks were missing to handle transport of goods from the quays,  while Benghazi and probably Tripoli were missing storage, and there were not enough lighters and barges to discharge ships that could not be brought alongside. RAF attacks restricted capacity further, both in Benghazi and Tripoli, with part of Benghazi blocked due to ships sunk in harbour. But this is all related actual capacity, rather than real capacity.

The minute of the staff conference in September further does talk about a ‘calculated’ port capacity in Benghazi of 2,000 tons/day, which it was recognized that it was unlikely to be reached (see table below). Constraints were the removal of unloaded goods from the quay, and the storage of goods that could not be removed from the port area immediately. Both of these of course directly related to the shortage of trucks in North Africa. Berthing space in Benghazi was given as two large (max. 3,500 GRT, 7 m draft), one small vessel, and one tanker. Only eight Italian and four German merchants fitted that bill in September 1941. Those merchants which fitted Benghazi were further restricted by being able to only take itemized cargo or vehicles, but not both. Maximum realizable capacity was therefore seen as 45,000 tons/month, or 1,500 tons/day, even though recently daily discharge had reached rates up to 1,700 tons – but of course this was dependent to some extent on the types of goods being discharged, and their specific weight. Realistic capacity was assumed to be 1,000 tons/day.

So one could maybe argue that van Creveld is talking about presumed capacity taking all this into account. But that doesn’t work either. Below is an excerpt from a radio transmission from the DAK war diary, giving monthly figures unloaded for May to August 1941 in Tripoli and Benghazi. An issue in Tripoli’s capacity to me seems to be the transfer to coastal shipping. I would presume that in many cases this transfer would be done while the ships involved are not necessarily moored, but are somewhat offshore, and that it is done directly from ship to ship, or by barge from ship to ship, and therefore does not necessarily constitute a direct impact on the port facilities beyond requiring barges.

Nevertheless, as the table clearly shows, Tripoli attained above 1,500 tons/day in three out of four months listed below, and Benghazi reached over 850 tons in one month. It is important to note that the ports would not have operated at capacity (even considering restrictions outlined above), with flow of goods related to convoy arrivals. So there would be days of heavy activity followed by days of no activity. Better scheduling of convoys could have taken advantage of this spare capacity.

Port/Classification

May

June

July

August

Tripoli German Cargo 20,300 17,000 35,800 17,400
Tripoli Italian Cargo (includes civilian) 26,000 45,000 28,800 49,300
Tripoli Total Cargo 46,300 62,000 64,600 66,700
Tripoli Coastal Transfer 16,380 14,700 11,720 13,820
Tripoli Daily Cargo Discharge 981 1,551 1,734 1,734
Tripoli Daily Coastal Transfer 537 482 384 453
Tripoli Total Handling Daily 1,518 2,033 2,118 2,187
         
Benghazi German Direct 1,420 4,570 3,470
Benghazi German Coastal 10,580 7,100 5,720 7,920
Benghazi Italian Direct 5,000 3,500 7,100 10,700
Benghazi Italian Coastal 5,800 7,600 6,000 5,900
Benghazi Total Receipt 22,800 18,200 23,390 27,990
Benghazi Daily 748 597 767 918
         
Total North Africa 52,720 65,500 76,270 80,870

On 1 November 1941 a note is appended to the war diary of German Naval Command South that states that the situation has not changed since the memo of 11 August 1941, and that based on experience to date the capacity of the harbour was assumed to be 30,000 tons monthly, but that it was feared that weather conditions and expected damage from air attacks would reduce this over the next few months. It crucially does state however that the real discharge capacity is higher, and has not been reached due to a combination of adverse weather conditions, enemy action, and a lack of shipping.

The inescapable conclusion of this is that van Creveld’s numbers on port capacity are wrong. It is important to note that this does not affect his main argument however, which is rather concerned with port distance from the frontlines, and which I continue to believe stacks up.

Other items of note:
– in terms of the impact that distance had on the effectiveness of supply, a German claim in a document on submarine supplies to Bardia, namely that 100 tons of cargo discharged in Bardia were of equal value as 600 tons discharged in Benghazi!

Finally, this concerns itself mainly with the transport of vehicles and supplies. Transport of troops by air is more fuel efficient than by sea, but was restricted by a lack of available planes (100 planes required, but only 15-20 available with a capacity of 30 troops each (I presume Sm.82), and these need heavy maintenance after just two round-trips). Shortly after the 12 September conference, Mussolini prohibited transport by sea in passenger liners in any case, following the sinking of the Neptunia and Oceania (see here) in which 384 soldiers and sailors lost their lifes, and which had been preceded by the loss of MV Esperia in August (see here). Transport had obviously been authorized again by January 1942, when the liver Victoria participated in operation T.18, and was promptly sunk by aerial torpedoes, again with heavy loss of life.

There are good pictures of Neptunia, Oceania, and Victoria, which was lost to aerial torpedoes on 23 Jan 42 at this link.

Another weird co-incidence – Ankara 2011 and Ankara 1941

I came across a short article in The Times today about a Turkish ferry which has carried out a humanitarian mission to Misratha, bringing wounded civilians to Benghazi.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/world-africa-12953538

In 1941, another Ankara, a German railway ferry vessel, brought German tanks to Benghazi, just in time for the Afrikakorps to strike back at the pursuing 22 Armoured Brigade and quite comprehensively defeat it in a series of battles between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 1941.

You can find some detailed info about it here: http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=130956