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Levine, Alan J. The War against Rommel's Supply Lines, 1942-1943. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999
Although its bibliography and chapter notes include some unpublished
manuscripts and microfilms from the Center for Air Force History and the
National Archives, the new book from Alan J. Levine is assembled for the
most part from relatively accessible published sources (such as the US,
British, and Italian official histories). What it lacks in originality is
more than compensated with an unblinking focus on the subject, an
exhaustive investigation of the relevant sources, and a careful evaluation
of the evidence. While many books have been written about the Tunisian
campaign and plenty of other accounts include material on the air-sea
aspect of the campaign, no single book can match Levine's thorough
examination of the Allied efforts to interdict the Axis supply route to
Tunisia with fighters, fighter-bombers, torpedo bombers, medium bombers,
heavy bombers, submarines, surface warships, and mines. Similarly, Levine
has provided fresh insights on the mechanics of that interdiction,
including the timing and coordination of air strikes, how escorts learned
to protect bombers, the evolution in bombing tactics as the Allies tried
new combinations of formations, altitudes, approaches, and ordnance, and
the obstacles to taking full advantage of Ultra and other Sigint to
actually find and sink enemy shipping.
Since June 1942, the Royal Air Force in the Mediterranean and the Middle East had been joined by American units. Contrary to what is widely supposed, the first American air operations against the European Axis were not carried out by the Eighth Air Force from England but in the Mediterranean theater. In that area, the Army Air Force with the help of the RAF gained valuable experience, some of a sort quite different from anything it could have picked up in Britain. In the Middle East, the AAF learned much about tactical air support and keeping up with the ground forces in a rapid war of movement.
In the second chapter, Levine reviews the Allied planning for the invasion
of North Africa and details the formation of the Twelfth Air Force. He also
evaluates American bombers and fighters, offering in-depth analysis of
their performance in different environments and emphasizing the shortcomings of
aircraft models and doctrinal limitationsas well as pilot inexperienceas they existed in late 1942 and early 1943 in North Africa. The author
has clearly done his homework.
It soon became clear that hopes that Sicily's proximity to Tunisia assured an easy solution to the Axis' supply problems were illusory. To be sure, the Axis never could have supplied Tunisia without Sicilian ports and airfields, but most of their logistics effort had to be based much farther back. Indeed, most of the factors that had initially seemed to favor the Axis supply effort, even when real, proved wasting assets. The problem was basically insoluble. There were not enough ships nor escort craft or planes to defend them. But partly because of Allied mistakes, partly because of conditions beyond anyone's control, and also because the Axis used what they had intelligently, the struggle to cut the Axis supply route to Tunisia was neither short nor easy. The Axis managed to parry some sorts of attacks, even if they lost in the end.
This Levine underlines with a thorough review and numerous statistics on Axis supply bottlenecks, shipping shortages, vulnerabilities to air attack, constraints on rail traffic in southern Italy, Sicilian civilian requirements for coal delivered by merchant shipping (which competed with the Tunisian route for ships and escorts), and the ongoing supply needs of Sardinia, Corsica, and the Aegean islands. Levine covers port facilities, unloading capacities, and other facets of the interdiction campaign in considerable detail:
Minefields: The Germans and Italians laid two protective fields to provide a corridor for their transport routes to Tunisia, making them safe from Allied surface and submarine attacks. But the Allies gradually laid mines in the "safe" corridor to funnel shipping into very constricted and vulnerable lanes.
Ferries: In addition to merchant vessels, the Axis employed a variety of "Kriegstransporter" (KT boats), "Marinefahrprahm" (MFP, or F-boats), Siebel ferries, and "motozattere". "By January 1943, the Germans had 3 KT ships, 45 MFPs, and 45 Siebel ferries on the Tunisian route.... The ferries were a nuisance to the Allies, but as valuable as they were, there were never more than a fourth of the number needed to supply Tunisia. Even if enough had been built to replace conventional ships, it seems unlikely that they could have been supplied with cargo, berthed, or fueled in the Sicilian ports."
Airlift: The Axis assembled a plethora of aircraft of assorted models, including gigantic Me 323 transports, to fly troops and supplies to Africa. Although most supples and equipment reached Tunisia by sea, the aircraft were an important supplement, especially for troops. Of course, throughout most of this period the needs for airlift capacity to Africa competed with the need for airlift capacity to Stalingrad.
Like the Allied forces as a whole, Malta-based air forces were slow to turn their attention from the Libyan routes to the new Tunisian ones, but they gradually began to intercept Axis transports bound from Tunisia.
They scored their first big success on November 12; a half dozen Beaufighters ran into as many Savoia-Marchetti 75 transports near Pantellaria and wiped them out. The next day, eight of the big twin-engine fighters caught a Dornier 24 flying boat off the coast of Tunisia. They went on to shoot down six Ju-52s and SM 81 troop carriers, which were armed and far from sitting ducks; the soldiers aboard also fired from the windows. One Beaufighter went down, others were damaged; one had to be written off when it returned to Malta.
However, for the most part the Axis retained air superiority near the
African coast, making such attacks dangerous and costly.
For the North African invasion, the Allied submarine force in the Mediterraneanwhich was overwhelmingly Britishhad been built up to a temporary peak of 31 boats (five more were on their way out); this was a strength that could not be continually maintained. The eastern Mediterranean flotilla, still based at Beirut, was operating in the Aegean. It thus contributed only indirectly to the African campaign. The Tenth Flotilla, based at Malta, and the Eighth, based at Gibraltar, were the main forces operating against the African supply route and accomplished most of the sinkings in the middle sea. After the landing, the Eighth Flotilla gradually moved to a new base at Algiers; submarines newly arrived in the Mediterranean, however, usually stopped at Gibraltar and carried out a full war patrol there before reaching the Algiers base.
Despite Axis minefields, ASW air patrols, surface escorts, and unfavorable weather conditions, submarines were "the most effective single weapon the Allies had against the Tunisian supply line in late 1942." Levine provides much information about these submarine patrols, including adventures far afield such as landing SBS men near Genoa to blow up a train.
By the end of 1942, the Allied effort to stop traffic between Italy and Tunisia had not been very successful, but it had not been negligible either. The Italians calculated that 23 percent of the material dispatched in December was lost en route to Tunisia, while the Twelfth Air Force, in particular, had delayed or destroyed much material after it was unloaded. German records report the loss of 54 tanks, 111 guns, and 964 vehicles at sea (although this may count some material on the fading Libyan route). Some 32 ships of over 500 tons were sunk at sea or in port in the whole of the Mediterranean, 16 of these, according to the Italians, had been sunk at sea on the Tunisian routesix by submarines, four by naval surface attack, and two by air torpedo attack. The performance of the air forces, however, had not been satisfactory, and it was worrisome that most sinkings in December were by forces that were a wasting asset or that the enemy could counter to some degreesurface ships and submarines. The submarines did remain an important factor, but only planes could stop the traffic in the Sicilian Strait.
Following significant Allied air reinforcements and replacements in the
second half of December and a reorganization of air assets along functional
lines at the beginning of January, the Allies continued to intensify their
air campaign as much as the weather allowed. Attacks against airfields also
continued, now with relatively new and effective "frag cluster" bombs. Although
costly to the attackers and less effective at strangling supply lines, the
airfield missions provided better returns than the sea sweeps.
On the afternoon of February 23, another six-plane sweep set out. Near Cape Bon, it spotted seven Siebel ferries and six German motor torpedo boats en route from Marsala to Tunis. (The Americans thought all 13 craft were Siebels.) The attackers met terrific flak. The entire lead element of three B-25s was shot down. The lead crew managed to ditch. Lashing their two rafts together, they floated around until an Italian seaplane saved them the next day. The 310th Group claimed five ferries sunk and two damaged; in reality, two Siebels went down.
The USAAF continued to try to find a way for B-17s to successfully attack
convoys at sea, testing a number of tactical schemes, but without achieving
much. "The relative inflexibility of heavy bomber missions, and the lengthy
preparations they needed, however, militated against frequently using B-17s
against ships at sea. Once a convoy was located, it took at least four
hours to get B-17s over it."
On February 26, von Arnim pointed out the newly formed Army Group Afrika was responsible for 350,000 personnel (including 120,000 combat troops). The Army Group's Chief of Supply and Transport had estimated its monthly consumption of supplies at 69,000 tons. To stop the Allies however would require an active defense involving major armored movements, which were costly in supplies, and a stockpile of an entire month's supplies in Tunisia. To wage a successful defense and to counter the expected disruption of the supply system by Allied action, no less than 140,000 tons a month had to be landed in Tunisia. Rommel concurred with this estimate. Kesselring, however, was still more optimistic, while Hitler's response was merely to order that the current rate be doubled or tripled, without disclosing how.... Kesselring promised to deliver 50,000 tons of supplies on the first fortnight in March, in the event only 32,500 tons were even scheduled to be forwarded.
The Axis forces did manage to implement a number of measures to improve
their supply effort during this period. Despite these measures, the Allies
tightened their grip. On 7 March aircraft, with an assist from a minefield,
wiped out an important convoy. On 10 March a submarine sank a tanker. In a
battle from 12-14 March, Malta-based torpedo bombers, assisted in this case
by the submarine Thunderbolt (which was itself sunk in the action),
destroyed another convoy. In separate incidents, on 14 March two Axis
vessels were sunk by subs. On 17 March the British submarine Splendid
destroyed another tanker and on the same day Trooper scored a success. On
22 March, amid fierce air battles, Allied planes scored more successes
including the spectacular explosion of an ammunition ship in Palermo harbor
during a B-17 raid. On 23 March a submarine sank the tanker Zeila. On 24
March two Italian destroyers loaded with German troops hit mines and went
down with over 600 soldiers. B-17s sank more ships in Cagliari harbor in
Sardinia on 31 March. On 1 April, British motor torpedo boats and a mine
knocked out four more vessels. At the same time, Allied medium bombers continued
to attack Tunisian ports and airfields and occasionally "intercept" German
transport aircraft while submarine victories continued to mount. In March,
41.5 percent of tonnage bound for Tunisia was lost and total arrivals fell
to 43,125 tonswell under von Arnim's needs and Kesselring's promises.
The war against the Axis supply line to Tunisia had contributed greatly to ensuring an early and relatively cheap victory there. The efforts of their planes and submarines enabled the Allies to exploit the enemy's fatal decision to fight at the end of a tenuous, vulnerable supply line on the wrong side of the Mediterranean. The Axis suffered enormous, one-sided losses that could not be replaced. In May 1943, the Allies destroyed an entire army group and took approximately 240,000 prisoners (perhaps 130,000 Germans). The German element of Army Group Afrika suffered 155,000 casualties during the entire Tunisian campaign. (All of the Allies together totaled 70,000 casualties.) The Luftwaffe alone had lost 2,422 planes888 single-engine fighters, 117 twin-engine fighters, 128 dive-bombers, 734 bombers, and 371 transportswith heavy losses of pilots.
While The War against Rommel's Supply Lines might not qualify as a spectacular, provocative, or groundbreaking blockbuster, Levine in workmanlike fashion achieves his goal of bringing together and comparing all the evidence on a vast and under-appreciated air-sea struggle. Readers might wish for more maps (of which there is only one), charts, diagrams, and photos (there are none of those latter three items), but overall this is a readable and informative account which should be welcomed by anyone with an interest in air-sea operations in World War II. Recommended.
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Reviewed 21 October 1999
Reviewed 21 October 1999
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