A Counterfactual Consideration of Rommel’s 1st Offensive

A Counterfactual Consideration of Rommel’s 1st Offensive

Following some further work on the older blog article at this link  I have now turned this into a more substantive and better referenced article, which can be dowloaded here:

Counterfactual Considerations on Rommel’s First Offensive.

The conclusions of the blog are refined in this article, but they remain fundamentally aligned with those of the blog entry.

Happy reading, and comments as always welcome.

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Rommel and Gariboldi during a Planning Meeting, probably February 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

Loss of Armando Diaz, 25 February 1941

Loss of Armando Diaz, 25 February 1941

Background

The initial transport of the Afrikakorps (see this link)to North Africa went without any losses on the south-bound route until one of the last convoys saw the German merchant Herakleia sunk at the end of March. Despite this success though, it was not without losses overall.

The most serious strike by the Malta-based submarines happened on 25 February 1941, when a Condottieri-class light cruiser of the early two series of six vessels went down, this time it was the Cadorna sub-class RN Armando Diaz. 

The first loss of a light cruiser of this class had occurred in July 1941 at the Battle of Cape Spada, when RN Bartolomeo Colleoni was sunk by HMAS Sydney.

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RN Armando Diaz at Melbourne in 1934 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The early Condottieris

By the the start of the war, the early Condottieris could be considered obsolete due to their lack of protection, and their degraded top speed, which for  Armando Diaz seems to have declined from 39 knots when launched in 1932 to 31-32 knots by 1941. They were primarily to be used for convoy escort, mine-laying, and training, or indeed as transports in their own right, although da Giussano did serve in the battle fleet at Punto Stilo in 1940.

These early vessels of the Condottieri  class also had construction weaknesses, and the rapid sinking of Diaz confirmed their low survivability. These light cruisers were built for high speed, with the aim to be able to chase and engage on superior terms the French ‘super- destroyers’ of the Chacal  and  Guepard  classes. The test speed of some of the early vessels was astounding, reaching well over 40 knots (64 km/h).

The design for speed of these six early  Condottieris caused them to suffer from multiple issues however, including strong vibrations, and a lack of stability due to being top-heavy. The latter ultimately required the removal of the original tripod mast behind the bridge, which was present in the first vessels.

On the six vessels of the follow-on sub-classes, a completely new armoured forward structure was introduced, giving the Montecuccoli sub-class it’s very distinctive look, and the final iteration of the two Abruzzi-class light cruisers were in my view two of the finest 6″ cruisers of the war.

Sinking of Armando Diaz

On 25 February 1941, while moving south to reach Tripoli, Armando Diaz was torpedoed off Kerkenah Bank in position 34°33’N, 11°45’E by HM/Sub Upright under command of Lt. Norman, D.S.C. RN, who was on his last patrol with this submarine.

Diaz was acting as distant escort to the German 4th Convoy to Libya, consisting of the German merchants Marburg, AnkaraReichenfels, and Kybfels. On this mission she was part of the 4th Cruiser Squadron, together with the di Giussano sub-class RN Giovanni delle Bande Nere and the modern Soldati-class destroyers  Ascari and Corazziere.

Diaz was hit by two of the four torpedoes that HM/Sub Upright fired at her, resulting in catastrophic explosions in her magazine and boiler rooms, leading to rapid sinking. Over 500 sailors were lost with her, and only 153 men were rescued. Ascari was also near-missed, and she proceeded to attack HM/Sub Upright without results.

Details on the attack can be found at this link, and in Italian at this link

Upright

HM/Sub Upright returning to Holy Loch submarine base, Scotland, 17 April 1942, Lieut J S Wraith, DSO, DSC, RN on the left, her 1st Lieutenant on the right. (IWM A8424)

A full article on the operations and fate of the early Condottieris is under preparation.

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.

D.A.K. war diary 13 March 1941

D.A.K. war diary 13 March 1941

13 March 1941

Marada is taken under control by a German-Italian detachment under German command.

The command staff of the Afrikakorps (Commander, Chief of Staff, IaIc, and IIa[1] with aide de camps, support officers and office personel moves to Sirt. The Commander flies with the Chief of Staff and 2nd Lt. v.Goerne at 14.00 hours with an Italian Ghibli[2] from Melaha. Because of a sand storm the flight turns around and force lands in Melaha. From there continuation of the journey in a car put at his disposition. Arrival in Sirt only at midnight due to sand storm.

Major Ehlert (Ia)[3] and Lt. von Hoesslin (O1)[4] with the office personnel cannot take off and remain in Tripoli during the night, to fly to Sirt the next morning.

[1] Ia = Senior staff officer. This was a critical and powerful position. The Ia had the right to contradict the commanding officer, and to go past him directly to the command staff of the army in Berlin. Failure to agree on a course of action between the commanding officer and the Ia had to be documented in the war diary. During CRUSADER, Lt. Col. Westphal used this power to the extreme, at some point directing operations by most of Panzergruppe Afrika.  The Ia also was the officer in charge of the staff and the line manager for all other staff officers. Ic = Intelligence Officer IIa = Personnel officer

 [2] Caproni Ca.309, a multi-role twin-engined plane built specifically for and used heavily by the Italian air force in North Africa, for armed reconnaissance and liaison duties.

[3] Major Ehlert had taken up his post in North Africa on 7 March. On 1 March he had been to OKH in Berlin, where he was briefed by Halder on the plans for offensive operations in Africa. He was quickly replaced by Lt. Col. Westphal, in the middle of June. He rose to Colonel and Chief of Staff of LII. Corps in early 1944. When the Romanian front collapsed in August 1944 his Corps was swallowed in the disaster and he went missing.

[4] Senior Aide-de-Camp of the Ia

caproni_ca-309

Ca.309 Ghibli pre-war. Image from Wikipedia.

First blood: D.A.K. war diary entry 24 February 1941

First blood: D.A.K. war diary entry 24 February 1941

24 February 1941

Enemy situation: elements of an Australian division[1] apparently pushed forward to Agedabia and south of it. 40km north-east of el Agheila strong enemy forces noted. The area of the Oasis Marada apparently evacuated by the enemy.

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Afrika-Korps troops of Aufklärungsabteilung 3 advancing, Spring 1941, unknown date and location. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

During the morning hours successful push of a reinforced patrol of Forward Detachment Wechmar in the area of el Agheila: 2 enemy armoured cars, 1 truck and 1 car destroyed. 1 English officer and 2 other ranks captured, 1 Englishman killed, 1 escaped. No losses of our own.

Commander arrives around midday in Tripoli, coming from Sirt. Courier from Berlin with important news:

e.g. Announcement of the soon to come subordination of former German soldiers of the French Foreign Legion.

[1]This was 6th Australian Division.

D.A.K. war diary entry for 19 February 1941

D.A.K. war diary entry for 19 February 1941

19 February 1941

Forward Detachment Wechmar with subordinated Italian reconnaissance company Santa Maria and one Italian machine gun company moves off on en Nofilia as ordered at 06.45 hours and reaches it at 14.00 hours. Armoured car patrols pushed ahead don’t have contact with the enemy.

23 Stukas of II./Stuka 2[1] attack vehicles at el Brega with good success, dropping 21 500kg bombs. 1 Ju 87 force landed at en Nofilia on return flight, crew recovered. The escort of 7 Me 110 shot down 4 Hurricanes in air combat. 1 Me 110 ditched into sea. Crew rescued by sea rescue plane on 20 February.

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Stukas, probably of II./Stuka 2, being readied for a mission in early 1941. Clearly visible the long-range external fuel tanks. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

 

X.Fliegerkorps attacks port of Benghazi during the afternoon, damaging two merchant vessels.

[1]2nd Group of 2nd Dive Bomber Wing. A full group would consist of 36 planes organised in three squadrons. Only II./Stuka 2 was present in North Africa, not the whole 2nd Wing.

16 February 1941, German troops reach the forward zone

16 February 1941, German troops reach the forward zone

D.A.K. war diary entry for 16 February 1941

Arrival and Departure of Subordinated Troops

Arrived in the forward zone of operations:

Pz.Jaeger Abteilung 39, A.A. 3

Commanding General, Chief of Staff and General Raotta[1] fly to Sirt. Exploration of harbour installations in Sirt. Short conference with with the Commander of Italian Pavia Division, Major-General Zaglio.

Around 15.00 hours arrival of first elements of A.A. in Sirt. Receives order to remain in Sirt as mobile reserve for the time being.

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One of the heavy armoured cars of Aufklärungsabteilung 3, which reached the forward zone on 16 February 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

On 17 February for the first time to push joint reconnaissance with Italians into direction of Nofilia.

For the next days a push of Vorausabteilung Wechmar[2] is planned up to Nofilia.

Conference with General Raotta about task and subordination of air forces. Italian air force to be coupled with German, proposal for tasking of both to be made by Commanding General to General Gariboldi.

Conference with General Raotta, joined in the evening by General Gariboldi, regarding the written proposals for future direction of combat operations. General agreement on all questions.

Evening conference with German and Italian air force commanders[3].

Supply transports via sea from Tripoli to Buerat initiated. First vessel with about 250 tons already loaded.

Notes

[1]Roatta.

[2]A Vorausabteilung was a forward detachment consisting normally of troops from various units, and fully motorised. It was stronger than a reconnaissance detachment, and meant to be able to engage in combat activities ahead of the main force, e.g. to keep enemy ofrces off balance. They were normally named after their commander, in this case the highly experienced Maj. Freiherr von Wechmar, who had commanded A.A.3 in Poland and France.

[3]The Fliegerführer were not formally in command of an air force unit or group of units, but responsible for operational control in a detached location, such as Africa.