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.

Canon de 155 Mle 1917 Schneider C – who used them?

During 1941 Vichy France supplied 20 heavy howitzers of the type Canon de 155 Mle 1917 Schneider C to the Axis forces in North Africa. It is possible that at least part of these were in action during CRUSADER.  This particular gun was a very popular gun, in use by many armies between the wars, and also serving with the US Army in the late 1930s and early 40s (although I am not sure if any saw service overseas).  It was however obsolete by 1940, due to the very short range it had (only 11,900 metres), compared to more modern guns such as the Soviet 152mm gun-howitzer ML-20 (>17,000 metres) or the British 5.5″ gun which entered service in 1941 (about 15,000 metres). Shell weight at 43kg was similar to the German sFH18, as well as the Soviet and British guns.

The French army, after mobilisation in 1940, had 535 of them available for service, according to David Lehmann’s PDF document 1939-1940 French Armament (available at this link).  After the end of the campaign, and the conquest of Greece and other countries using this gun, it was put into German service as sFH15,5cm 414(f) (heavy field howitzer 155mm 414(f) where the (f) indicates the country of origin.  It was also in use by the Regio Esercito as Obice 155/14, where 14 indicates the barrel length in multiples of gun calibre diameter.  Since both Axis forces active in North Africa were familiar with this gun, it is not clear to me who would have used it.

Request for information:

I would appreciate any information on:

1) which army received the guns;

2) which units used them;

3) where they were used; and

4) for how long they served the Axis forces in North Africa before they were lost.

Many thanks in advance!

Update: According to Jason Long on the Italianisti Group, 12 of the guns served in Heereskuestenartillerieabteilung 533 in North Africa. While the choice of such a short-ranged gun is unusual for a coastal defense purpose, I guess it comes down to beggars not being able to be choosers. The use in coastal defense is also confirmed by Jeff Leser.  From looking at Jason’s Gazala battle OOB, it appears that by May 42 many more of these guns had made their way to Libya, but on the other hand, HKA 533 by this time did no longer have any of them on strength, instead it was equipped with captured 25-pdrs. Whether that meant they had lost them in the retreat from Tobruk, or whether they had traded them in, is a mystery at this stage.

Update 2:

Today I came across an ULTRA intercept stating that on 17 Nov. 41 4 of these guns left Tripoli for the front on 4 lorries of supply column 2/148.

A picture provided by Manuferey from the AHF below, the picture my late grandfather took outside Leningrad could no longer be linked. The picture shows that these guns were not modernised for motor towing. Instead they had to be loaded on the back of a heavy track using ramps.

155mm Schneider C howitzer imported from Tunisia, in use by German artillery in the desert

Combat Report Panzer Regiment 8 for 29 Nov attack on Ed Duda

Panzer Regiment 8

Africa, the 4. January 1942

Combat Report

Attack on Ed Duda 29. 11. 1941

On 28 November the regiment in its role as point of attack of the division receives the order to take the height of Ed Duda. The attack progresses quickly, as usually despite heavy flanking fire of enemy artillery, but unexpectedly finds an Italian position at 10.30 hours at Bu Cremisa. At 12.30 the regiment again starts in a northerly direction. Despite heavy artillery fire it succeeds in gaining the descent at Bu Creimisa without loss, and to cross the two valley bottoms quickly.

Already at 13.00 hours the regiment crosses the Trigh Capuzzo and gains, advancing under the heaviest artillery fire, at 13.10 Bir Salem. An Italian strongpoint with artillery remains there. A terribly heavy artillery fire, including a number of heavy batteries from Tobruk, hits the regiment when it continues to drive, reaching the Axis bypass road and there turns east onto Ed Duda. To ease this turn the regimental commander leads ahead to Ed Duda with raised command flag and the clear order “Follow the leader!”, thereby having the regiment turn in eastwards behind him. Since the ground, because of the Wadis to the right and left of the Axis Bypass Road, did not allow a broadening of the regiment, the regimental commander decided to organize the regiment in two echelons, first echelon Captain Kümmel, second echelon Captain Wahl. Once the regiment had taken up the direction and structure as ordered, the regimental staff falls back in with the first echelon. Enemy machine gun and infantry positions on the western slope of Ed Duda to the left of the Axis Bypass Road are quickly overrun. Shortly before reaching the height of Ed Duda the regimental commander orders the 1st Battalion to attack the northern part of Ed Duda, while the 2nd Battalion should continue to advance along the Axis Bypass Road drawing level with the 1st Battalion.

Continuing, the 1st Battalion soon met 20 Matilda tanks attacking from the north and commenced the firefight with them immediately. The 2nd Battalion meanwhile combated frontally the numerous, wire protected, machine gun and AT gun positions on the height.

At 14.15 hours Captain Kümmel reports that the enemy tanks are withdrawing towards north-east behind the height and that a further advance of his battalion was not possible because of a deeply cut Wadi athwart him. The regimental commander in a quick decision pulls Battalion Kümmel to the right wing and the regiment attacks with impetuous drive the height, now with the main effort on the right, in the following structure: ahead left battalion Wahl, ahead right Battalion Kümmel, with regimental staff. Captain Wahl in particular distinguished himself here by driving his battalion forward without regard, giving a personal example, despite heavy enemy mining, despite K-rolls and of a large number of enemy AT guns, while Captain Kümmel fought down the enemy crew (Tobruk garrison, Essex Regiment) in a rapid drive, destroying a number of Matilda tanks which meanwhile had appeared from the northeast. At this time arrive single riflemen of the rifle battalion which was sent after the tanks.

At 17.15, despite strong artillery fire, the regiment stands on the hotly fought over height of Ed Duda as ordered, while the attack by the riflemen had stopped shortly before the height. Because of the heavy firefight of the afternoon the regiment had fired off about 20% of its ammunition at this time. To be able to smash enemy attacks at any moment the regimental commander ordered to resupply on the battlefield, despite the heavy artillery fire. As always, this task is solved by First Lieutenant Lindner and his men in a first class and brave manner.

A counter-attack in darkness costs the enemy the loss of two tanks. In this defense shared particularly the Panzer II, thanks to their rapid fire with 2cm tracer. At 20.00 hours the regiment is withdrawn under divisional orders.

Successes:

Destroyed 5 Matilda, numerous AT guns and infantrie material. 150 POW were made.

Own losses:

3 tanks damaged by mines which could be repaired. Some dead and wounded.

Here is the map from the KTB of the 1a 15.PD for this battle:

Battle Map 15th Panzerdivision

Many thanks to James for finding and sending me this one from NARA!

Here is the Australian history map on this battle (all Australian stuff from this page, Chapter 10 :

Now, it is very interesting to read the New Zealand history on this here:

In particular on what happened after the tanks withdrew  – the first para of the following excerpt refers to the first attack by four Matildas which was beaten off by the Panzer IIs.  But it all went a bit pearshaped for the Germans after that:

When the light began to fail, some of the British tanks edged forward and the air was filled with tracers as the enemy engaged them. The Pzkw IIs came into their own in this twilight clash and their 20-millimetre automatic cannon blazed in deadly fashion at the Matildas, knocking out two them. The Matildas in the end gave ground and the panzers followed them slowly, ending up in brilliant moonlight at 6.35 p.m. on the edge of the Australian position. German infantry also spread out and some began digging in 200 yards from the headquarters of 1 Essex. To Colonel Nichols the position looked desperate.

Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows of the Australian battalion prepared to counter-attack; but the moonlight was too bright, the German tanks still very much in evidence, and he decided to hold his hand until the moon was lower. His B Company on the right and C on the left formed up on either side of Nichols’s headquarters, A Company covered 1 RHA, whose gun positions were now very close to the German tanks, and D stayed in reserve ‘along the western approaches to Ed Duda’.

Then the Australian B Company suffered a tragic blow. As it moved forward a heavy shell landed directly on 10 Platoon, killing eight and wounding ten of its total of twenty-six men. The other two platoons, ‘displaying exemplary battle discipline, moved past the stricken platoon, disregarding the pathetic cries of the wounded and the dying’.1 The stretcher bearers were soon on the scene and the gap in the Australian ranks was filled when a platoon of A Company and the remnants of B Company of 1 Essex spontaneously lined up to join the attack. Nichols and Burrows had meanwhile

1 Bayonets Abroad, p. 150.

406

called for tank support, and as the moon was waning eleven tanks came forward, all that was left of 4 Royal Tanks. These lined up astride the By-pass road ‘with only a foot between the horns of each tank’ and Willison inspected them there.1

When the I tanks counter-attacked, late at night, they ran all through the German lines, creating panic. Then the Australians fell with great vigour upon the two bewildered battle groups of 115 Regiment, ‘slew an undetermined number’,2 and took 167 prisoners, at a cost of only two killed and five wounded Australians. Mopping-up continued for the rest of the night and many small parties of enemy wandered in by mistake and were taken prisoner. The two Australian companies reorganised with the remainder of 1 Essex as a composite battalion under Colonel Nichols, occupying much the same ground as was originally defended.

On the enemy side six officers and about fifty other ranks, the remnants of those elements of 115 Regiment which took part in the action, fell back 1000 yards to the west and formed a new position alongside 15 Motor Cycle Battalion. This unit of 200 Regiment had been brought forward to continue the attack through to Belhamed next day with 8 Panzer Regiment. A second attack on Ed Duda was briefly considered, but there were too few German infantry at hand to undertake it. Then Panzer Group, signalling to 33 Reconnaissance Unit to come under its command and report at once to El Adem, used by mistake the call sign of 15 Panzer, which therefore withdrew at once and reached Bir Salem before the mistake was discovered.3 Thus the whole division was back where it started and the attack on Ed Duda gained nothing. Like the first attack on Capuzzo, it exposed weaknesses in the defence which were soon remedied so that any further attack would be harder still.

Below is the relevant excerpt from the official Australian history, Chapter 10, Ed Duda.  Many thanks to JonS for pointing out to me that this is the place to look for the action, since 2/13 Battalion carried out the counterattack.

About 1 p.m. the 15th Armoured Division began forming up to attack Ed Duda from the west. Captain Salt of the 1st R .H.A’s Chestnut Troop broadcast a running description of their deployment and approach, and of the early development of the battle. The first German assault on the westernmost positions of the 1 /Essex was thrown back by the infantry and anti-tank gunners. Colonel O’Carroll of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment ordered all tanks to the top of Ed Duda and those at hand went with him; about eight, including some acting as armoured command posts for the 1st R.H.A., went on to the main feature. (Footnote 8 – Not all the tank commanders managed to comply with this instruction. The charge is made in a British narrative that some non-participation arose because a tank commander “had been seized as a suspect by the 2/13th Australian Infantry Battalion and not released until 9 p .m. ” On the likelihood that any such irresponsible action was taken by the experienced, earnest and realistic Australians, no comment is offered.) For a time the German tanks stood off and bombarded the pits and sangars of the Essex infantry, neutralised their machine and anti-tank guns and cleared the minefields with patrols. Captain Salt’s tank was hit and he was killed. Major Goschen’s tank was also knocked out; Captain Armitage rescued him and his crew. This disorganised the artillery support, and about 4 .30 p.m. the enemy started closing in from the west.

It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was behind them. Three of our tanks came up on the side of our position, later joined by a fourth. They were Matildas. They started withdrawing in pairs, firing as they went. As the heavy tanks got nearer the position, the German light Mk. IIs moved up on our flank, and swept the area with machine-gun fire. Some posts continued firing. The German tanks, twenty of them, fanned out and formed a line right across the middle of the battalion position. Our four tanks had cleverly withdrawn behind us to a hulls-down position. It was starting to get dark. They had halted just short of where our tanks could engage them. (Footnote 9 – Martin, The Essex Regiment 1929-1950, pp. 635-6. From a description by Lieutenant P. P. S. Brownless.)

The loss of Ed Duda was reported to Burrows about nightfall when he was called to a tank in direct communication with Willison’s headquarters. The possibility of a counter-attack by the 2/13th Battalion was discussed. Burrows indicated that he was prepared to attack infantry but not tanks. The issues were hammered out at a conference at Willison’s headquarters about 8 p.m.; it was conceded that 2/13th would not be expected to attack against tanks without tank support. The 2/13th Battalion was to counter-attack at Ed Duda with two companies and provide one company to protect the 1st R.H.A’s gun area near Belhamed. The rest of the battalion was to be organised to hold the escarpment where the battalion was then situated.

The 2/13th headquarters were on the escarpment about 1,000 yards north-east of the Ed Duda pass. “C” and “D” Companies were detailed for the counter-attack, but when it appeared that the outlying “D” Company would not reach battalion headquarters by the time prescribed for leaving, Burrows issued a last-minute order that “B” Company (Captain Graham) would take its place and move off with “C” Company (Captain Walsoe) . The two companies were then assembled by platoons in column of route at the foot of the escarpment on its northern side. A troop of 25-pounders was firing directly over their heads from behind a ridge to the north-east but the night was otherwise quiet. The guns stopped firing and almost as they did so a shell landed in the middle of a closely-bunched platoon of Graham’s company, killing or wounding almost all.

It was necessary for Burrows, so as to be on time at the rendezvous, to order the rest of the column to march past. As the men did so with exemplary discipline, heart-rending cries from the stricken platoon assailed hem. They were then led in silence round the foot of the escarpment to a start-line laid for an attack south-west on both sides of the “pimples» of the Ed Duda feature. The forms of enemy tanks could be identified through binoculars on the objective some 500 yards away. Burrows refused to allow the attack to proceed. The start was postponed while he went back to Willison’s headquarters. Only one conclusion was possible. If Ed Duda was to be retaken, the German tanks would have to be dislodged; if Willison’s tanks could not do this, there was no other way. It was decided that it would have to be a close-in tank-to-tank and man-to-man fight without artillery support. This may have been influenced by the fact that the 1st R.H.A’s “A/E” Battery had withdrawn to Tiger after dusk and Colonel Williams had ordered “B/O” Battery back in the belief that the by-pass road was not blocked. The 4th R.T.R., however, was maintaining a block just forward of the 2/ 13th with three tanks and the 44th R.T.R. was maintaining another to the east. It was decided that the battery’s departure could no longer be delayed.

So, while in the desert not far to the south Gott’s armoured brigades again spent an untroubled night in a leaguer off the battlefield, Willison’s tanks, which had been in the thick of the fight for nine days, came forward with devotion and pluck to try conclusions with the main tank force of the Africa Corps.

Accounts of the battle are difficult to reconcile. Some misunderstandings have arisen because descriptions of incidents have been read as descriptions of an entire engagement, which was a long one. The tanks fought for about three hours, the infantry for about fifteen minutes. The battle began when eight Matilda tanks approached the Ed Duda escarpment from low ground in front and fought the German tanks skylined above .The contest provided a most spectacular fireworks display . Streams of small-arms tracer fire, which seemed to issue from holes in the hill, and fiery marbles spat out by automatic cannon converged on the British tanks’ hulls and ricocheted from them like splashing molten metal. The Matildas stabbed back with rapid Besa machine-gun fire. Sharp exchanges of 2-pounder or 50-mm shot rang out; some tanks and vehicles on either side caught fire. The British tanks outnumbered by about three to one continued to engage, but the worrying question was whether all or most had been immobilised. Soon it was answered when some were seen to advance a short distance. Then it was puzzling to observe the same tanks withdraw. But they returned to the fray. In the end the puzzle of the battle was that the German tanks, after having appeared to have the upper hand, withdrew and did not come back. The Germans later blamed the receipt of a wrongly coded message purporting to recall the 8thArmoured Regiment, but the battle had been decided before the message was received. British tank crews had for once fought German tanks in an action in which the Germans could not employ their guns to weight the odds against the British ; at the end the outnumbered British were there, the Germans gone .

At one stage it had been planned to delay the infantry attack until the moon set behind the western ridge but when it appeared that the German tanks had departed Willison and Burrows decided to attack a t1 .30 a.m. German war diaries make it plain that complete surprise was achieved because the attack was made without artillery support (as though an offence against the ethics of war had been perpetrated) . Burrows, however, was more interested in frightening than surprising the enemy and told the men to call out “Australians coming” as they assaulted. In the same spirit the Matildas advancing on the flanks soon had their tank engines roaring at full throttle and were firing wildly when on the move. Unfortunately battles often do not proceed according to plan. Soon the enthusiastic British tank gunners were shooting up the charging Australians, mistaking them for retreating Germans, and the ignorant Germans, despite the Australians’ shouted attempts to identify themselves, were crying out “Engländer kommen”.

The following are extracts from an account written by a soldier about two months after the battle: (Footnote 2 – CO Thompson of 2/13 Bn Int Sec.)

Captain Walsoe fired a green Very flare and the attack started with two platoons of B Company on the left and C Company on the right. C company had first to ascertain whether the men to their front belonged to the Essex Battalion or were Germans. Soon however a German was captured. Colonel Burrows moved with the men telling them to call out “The Australians are coming” when they charged . The men went forward at a steady walking pace until they sighted the enemy. There was no need to advise them to shout when they went in : shouting, yelling, cooeeing like madmen, they charged with the bayonet . The enemy seemed stupefied. There was no concerted resistance. Those who did not run either threw themselves on the ground or held up their hands. As the attack progressed through the enemy’s positions Germans could be heard running in front calling out “Englander kommen” . . . . The advance was continued to a distance of 500yards beyond the top of the opposing ridge, but though Germans were heard running and shouting in the distance the men were recalled, since it would have been unwise to have gone further. Small pockets of enemy were soon mopped up and the companies withdrew to the southern slope of Ed Duda. B company sent out a patrol and took another 15 prisoners from a post on the left flank.

Enemy motor transport was heard moving about in confusion but could not be captured in the darkness, but a motor cyclist was stopped by a burst of TSMG fire and captured.

Although at the moment of assault the men charged with vigour and elation, Walsoe and Graham kept their companies in hand and platoon commanders and section leaders maintained control. Organised resistance was met only on the fringes, and there, by initiative and with confidence in night fighting based on patrol experience, the Australians kept on top .On the right, for example, Sergeant Searle (Footnote 3 – Capt J. E. Searle, DCM, NX21876; 2/13 Bn . Bank officer; of Cudal, NSW; b. Bathurst, NSW, 10 Mar 1919) put in a quick charge and subdued a pocket of enemy that opened fire when challenged. Two men nearby who were slow to stand up and surrender were about to be dispatched with the bayonet when they identified themselves as Australian stretcher bearers captured by the enemy that evening. On the other flank Private Ferres (Footnote 4 – Cpl H. Ferres, MM, NX17484; 2/13 Bn. Labourer; of Paddington, NSW; b. Sydney, 12 Dec 1919) firing his Bren gun from the hip and leading three other men assaulted a troublesome enemy post and took the surrender of 25 Germans. The prisoners taken in the attack—almost all by the Australians—numbered 167. Only 7 Australians were wounded, two mortally.

The Australians were quickly reorganised to form a compact two-company front in the centre of the Ed Duda position, where they prepared for an immediate counter-attack. What was needed was to get belowground at once and be concealed as much as possible by dawn, but only one or two picks or shovels could be found. Infantry could hardly have been placed with less protection in a more vulnerable position than these men on Ed Duda at the very hinge of the Tobruk corridor; but no immediate counter-attack was made.

Here is the Australian history map on this attack: