Rapid advance of Rommel

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

The naval war of the Mediterranean 1939-1945

The rapid advance of Rommel is held in check and the air forces of Malta are reinforced

(source: G. Mezeviris  Vice- Admiral R.H.N.,"The Conclusions of

the Naval War of the Mediterranean 1939-1945", Athens 1961)

 

“As we have previously exposed, one of the serious problems of the Italian Navy was the issue of fuel availability, because the Germans didn’t keep-up the promises they had given for frequent supply.  According to the Italians, this essential shortage didn’t allow them to take full advantage of the naval superiority of weaponry they disposed since the beginning of 1942.   At the end of April, the fuel supplies of the Navy on land had been depleted and Fleet movements depended only on the fuel onboard the ships.

 

In the summer of 1942, when the Axis armies were marching towards the Suez Canal and an Italian Fleet intervention in Eastern Mediterranean would have been vital, the convoy ships heading to Libya were refuelling from the fuel tanks of the battleships and cruisers that were thus condemned to inactivity.  It was for that reason essentially that in mid-June, after the battle, the battleships stopped participating in war missions and later the small ships were placed in reserve.

 

At the end of December 1942 the Italian war Fleet disposed only 2 large battleships, the RN LITTORIO and RN VITTORIO VENETO, increased to 3 after May 1943 with the addition of a same type battleship, the RN ROMA.  From the fuel sufficiency point of view, the situation relatively improved in the second quarter of 1943, when around 200.000 tons of fuel was delivered.  It was however very late as the war in North Africa was coming to its end.

 

When the German Air force was recalled form Sicily and the Malta operation was postponed, because of the imminent attack of Rommel, it had been agreed with the Italians that in any case the German advance would not proceed further than Solum, in order for the airplanes to be assigned to the seizure of the island.  However, although the British line of resistance broke on June 18, on June 21 Tobruk was seized and on June 23 the Axis armies reached Solum, Rommel refused to apply what had been agreed.  He refused to interrupt his winning advance and Hitler and later Mussolini agreed.  He had covered at an amazing speed 200 kilometres of desert, but the supply lines had been dangerously elongated and he hoped that that his armies would be able to re-supply from the supplies abandoned by the British.

 

Until that moment events justified Rommel’ insistence and he assumed that after he re-supplied he could reach very fast the Suez Canal.  It was then that the Fleet of Alexandria started to withdraw towards the Red Sea, leaving the Central Mediterranean area free to the Italian Navy.

 

Fro that point-on developments are well known.  The Axis advance couldn’t continue and with the passing of time the situation worsened for him.  The main re-supply port was Benghazi and from there supplies had to be transported to the Army positions at a distance of about 1,000 kilometres, mainly through desert roads.  Advanced re-supply bases from sea were installed in Tobruk – the port of which was almost totally destroyed- and at the Marsa-Matruk anchorage, which was receiving continuous air attacks.    

 

Re-supply by sea would have been largely facilitated if, instead of the usual transport route from Italy towards Libya, the Aegean Sea route was used. To that end, there was need for the main Italian naval forces to move to mainland Greece and to Crete and for the appropriate bases to be installed for the control of East Mediterranean.  However, this move was meaningless since the ships were condemned to immobilisation for lack of fuel.

 

It is frequently maintained that Rommel’s advance was held in check in July 1942, mainly because of supply shortages and especially fuel, as a result of very important losses during their sea transport. This is only partly true.  In June around 35,000 tons of supplies and some 7,000 tons of fuel were loaded in Italy for Libya. The corresponding losses due to air attacks from Malta reached 23% and 18% respectively.

 

Besides, Rommel himself attributes the suspension of his advance to the following reasons: 1) delayed attack due to land minefields, 2) failure to surprise, 3) enemy air superiority and 4) fuel shortage.  It seems that when supplies reached Libya’s ports, their land transport to the front was delayed.

 

The German Admiral Weichold reported on the subject that if the supplies reaching the front were insufficient, this was mainly due to an unavailability of transport means of the Africa Korps.

 

During that period when land operations in Libya were developing so adversely for the British, the later didn’t stop continuously reinforcing Malta’s Air forces.  Between June and August 1942, 6 airplane carriers and around 200 fighters were sent to the island.  The Allies already disposed torpedo planes with action range of about 400 miles and the American Liberator bombers could cover the whole Mediterranean.   The activity of the British Navy against enemy transports having significantly been reduced, because of the reduction to a minimum of the Alexandria Fleet and the movement of the submarines base – first to Alexandria and then to Haifa -, the maximum of available air forces was assigned to cover the Mediterranean.  

 

It is estimated that during September 1942, the percentage of Italian convoys air attacked had increased eightfold compared to June.  Each convoy was sometimes attacked up to ten times during its trip, frequently in combined attacks by torpedo planes, bombers and even fighters that were machine gunning against the decks of the escorts.

 

Later, when the base of the British submarines was re-established on Malta and their activity became more intensive with the development of new methods of night attacks in cooperation with reconnaissance planes, the danger from them became important again.

 

In spite of these conditions, during the month of July 1942, the Italians succeeded to transport to Libya more than 90,000 tons of supplies with losses of only 6%.  These quantities were sufficient compared to those considered necessary for the land operations of the Axis.  If that month there was shortage of ammunitions and fuel at the front, this was mainly due to land transport problems from the rear.  However, from the following month sea losses of supplies transported from Italy significantly increased and the re-supply of the Axis armies was becoming more and more difficult, while on the other hand plenty of reinforcements of the 8th British Army was arriving through the Suez Canal.

 

Since Rommel was nailed in El-Alamein, the mater was lost for the Axis. Eventually, there would still be some chances left if retreat to more fortified positions was ordered in time and their Mediterranean air forces were reinforced.  The Supreme German Command however, didn’t order either. The air forces weren’t reinforced and retreat wasn’t decided for psychological reasons.  The Italians requested at least the assignment of a sufficient number of fighters for the air protection of the convoys. But Hitler response was that there was no need for that, because in any case the Germans would soon reach the Suez Canal through Caucasus and the Palestine.

 

After the reinforcement of the Malta air forces, bombings of the Italian Fleet bases in Messina and Sardinia became so intensive that they were forced to withdraw the large ships from there and send them to Taranto and Naples.  In addition, from July 1942, they installed a cruiser squadron in Navarino to react from there to any attempt by enemy naval forces against the Libya supply routes. However, the British didn’t dispose that time sufficient forces to undertake such operation.  Of course, they couldn’t have guessed that at some point of time the cruisers at Navarino were unable to undertake any attack operation, because their fuel reserves were exhausted.  The squadron remained in Navarino, receiving continuous air attacks, until the collapse of the El-Alamein front in the beginning of November 1942.”