Technical vs. battle losses during the first days of CRUSADER – PR5

It is quite rare to come across reasonably reliable data for technical losses of tanks during battle, i.e. how many tanks fell out because e.g. their transmission conked out, or some other part of the complex mechanism failed.

Fortunately enough the war diary for Panzerregiment 5 survives, and contains such information for at least the first few days of CRUSADER. The table below gives this. Panzerregiment 5 had the oldest tanks in the Mideast, which would have clocked up substantial mileage by the time of CRUSADER.

While not 100% clear, I suspect that these are permanent losses, as ascertained after the battle, when the war diary was written up, and an explanation what caused them. The reason for this is that each of the losses for tanks needing recovery is followed by a note on why and where the tank was lost. Causes of loss are outright destruction, mobility kill in enemy territory that could not be recovered, mobility kill that was recovered but was lost later at a concentration point, or in a workshop.

It is likely that the extent of technical problems is understated here too. The regiment started moving on 18 November. Between 18 and 19 November, it’s strength reduced by a total of 37 tanks (11x II, 23x III, 3x IV), or 31% of its reported tank strength on 18 November, and it is not far-fetched to suppose that many of these tanks may not have been able to move, or quickly broke down, given that only 8 tanks were reported as complete losses on the day.

23 November was the day of the battle of Totensonntag, Sunday of the Dead, when 5 South African Brigade and 7 Support Group were taken to the cleaners at Sidi Rezegh.

25 November was the day when PR5 was sent into the two disastrous attacks on 4 Indian Division’s position outside Sidi Omar.

It is also worth noting that on 27 November, when the regiment was left with 2x IV, one of them had to be cannibalised (and was lost in consequence), to get the other one going again. These two technical failures are not accounted for in this list.

On 30 November it is noted that the regiment received 3x II, 4x III, and 2x IV as repaired vehicles from the division’s workshops. The strength returns make clear however that some tanks were received throughout, maybe after their crews undertook minor repairs to get them going again. 

II = Panzer II
III = Panzer III
IIICd = Panzer III Command Tank (grosser Befehlswagen)
IV = Panzer IV 

Date

Combat Loss TWO1

Combat Loss (MK2)

Technical Loss (MK)

Total Loss

Technical Loss Share

19 Nov

2x III

1x II
4x III

1x III

8

13%

20 Nov

1x III

2x II
1x IV

 

4

0%

21 Nov

1x III

1x III

1x II
1x III

4

50%

22 Nov

1x III

3x III
1x IV

2x II
2x III
1x IIICd

10

50%

23 Nov

2x III

1x IV

5x II
6x III
1x IV

1x II
1x III

17

12%

24 Nov

2x III

1x III Cd3
2x III

 

1x III4

6

17%

25 Nov

1x II
9x III

1x II
1x III
1x IV

1x II
1x III

15

13%

Total

20

31

13

64

20%

1 TWO = Total Write Off, tank was destroyed by enemy action on the battlefield

2 MK = Mobility Kill, Vehicle had to be towed off the battlefield

3 This was later repaired and rejoined

4 Report not complete


 

A note on tank losses in CRUSADER

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.

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.

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.

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:

a) The initial tank state of Ariete
b) 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.

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..

 

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.

First Battle of Bir el Gobi – What Happened There?

Much has been made of the defense of Biro l Gobi on 19 November 1941 by the Italian Ariete division. One can easily argue that this is where it all started to go wrong for the Commonwealth. But then again, with the possible exception of the taking of Sidi Omar by 7 Indian Brigade, it is hard to see what went right at the start…

Facts

22 Armoured Brigade put in a piecemeal attack on Bir el Gobi early on 19 November. They got checked by the Ariete division and its supporting units, and had to withdraw after suffering losses. The attack was not renewed, instead 22 Armoured Brigade went to help out (and be destroyed in the process) at Sidi Rezegh on 21 to 23 November, and 1 South African Division’s 1 South African Brigade was then tasked with ‘masking’ the Bir el Gobi position. Ariete stayed in the area a few more days before moving off north to participate in the ‘dash to the wire’ on 24 November.

Claims

Now for some of the claims that are being made. These include that 22 Armoured Brigade lost over 50 tanks that day; that this battle was a big victory of the Italian forces; that it demonstrated the prowess of the Italian army at arms; that it derailed CRUSADER; that 22 Armoured Brigade and 7 Armoured Division command blundered into the position, not knowing that Ariete was there; that 22 Armoured Brigade put in a mindless Balaklava frontal charge into the position; that Ariete was supported by German forces; that the Commonwealth forces did not consider Italian tanks serious opponents, and were not aware of their number, underestimating Ariete’s strength; that the Commonwealth command considered Bir el Gobi a defeat at the time.

Sources

War diaries are available online at this link for the three armoured regiments participating (2 Royal Gloucestershire Hussars RGH, 3 and 4 County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) CLY), with 4 CLY missing November 1941 at this link, unfortunately, and for the 11 Hussars, the reconnaissance unit of 22 Armoured Brigade. 22 Armoured Brigade war diary, and after battle reports and war diaries from 7 Armoured Division are available too, including its message log. None of these conclusively addresses the issue of British tank losses, but taken together they help form a picture. Further material is available in the UK archives, as well as an after action report by Ariete, which is held at NARA, in College Park. War diaries for Ariete are also available. We also have access to the regimental history of the 2 Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, and hopefully soon to that of both CLY regiments, as well as Viscount Cranley’s book about 3 CLY. The UK sources are of variable quality and reliability, and the Italian report is written in that peculiar Italian style…

In our book, we intend to discuss this battle in detail, drawing on the period sources available to us. We hope we will be able to deal with some of the misconceptions at least, and provide as closely as possible a definitive account of the battle. This is just one of the areas where we hope to add to the knowledge of what happened during Operation CRUSADER.