Author Topic: Afrika Korps logistics  (Read 369 times)

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Offline besilarius

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Afrika Korps logistics
« on: August 16, 2019, 04:59:59 AM »
Good article from One Small Step Games magazine.

Axis Logistics in North Africa, by Carl O Schuster

Erwin Rommel is known for his brilliant tactics in North Africa. In that regard he probably achieved more with less than any other commander on either side. Yet his failure to do anything to address his command’s systemic logistical shortcomings was the major reason for his ultimate defeat.

Deliveries of fuel and main battle tanks were the most visible shortfalls, but ammunition, food, maintenance and medical supplies were also generally inadequate. In effect, he actually had to try to overcome three enemies: the British, disease among his troops and supply vehicle attrition.

At times as many as half of of Rommel’s men were incapacitated due to food-related diseases and, on average, about a third of his supply delivery vehicles were sidelined by mechanical problems and tire shortages. He most often attributed all that to the Italian Navy’s inability to deliver sufficient supplies, but his assessment ignored Libya’s inadequate port and transportation infrastructure.

A German general staff study of that infrastructure, done in 1940, estimated Libya’s ports lacked the capacity to supply more than four mobile divisions along with an aircraft contingent sufficient to support them. The report also noted vehicles headed inland from the ports were restricted to a few poor roads, and even along the coast there was only a single road built atop the ancient Roman one.

The Italians had never connected the several short rail lines east of Benghazi and from Libya’s best port, Tripoli. The Benghazi and Tripoli lines stopped 375 and 150 miles short of the Egyptian and Tunisian borders, respectively. In the absence of a functional rail net, the Germans contracted 1,400 Vichy French drivers and trucks to haul supplies forward from the ports to field depots.

Even that solution came with problems. For example, on average, those truck convoys took four to six days, and consumed 15 percent of their cargo weight in fuel, to make the 1,000 mile journey from Tripoli to depots east of Tobruk.

Vichy French factories initially produced tires for those trucks that had an 8,000 mile service life. That compared well with the 5,000 mile average for most European-manufactured truck tires at the time; however, the Vichy factories depended on imported rubber that became unavailable after early 1941. Further, Rommel’s truck park had in it a mixture of French, German, Italian and captured Allied models, which complicated the spare part, maintenance and repair situation.

On average, 35 percent of Rommel’s trucks were sidelined for maintenance or repair on any given day starting in August 1941. That serviceability rate rose and fell in line with tire and spare part deliveries, making tire repair kits and patches critical supply items. As a result, Rommel didn’t receive all his supplies even during those few periods when the Italian Navy successfully delivered the materiel to port.

The German units in the Afrika Korps needed 50,000 tons of supplies monthly. Those supplies had to be received and forwarded from ports with a total maximum monthly capacity of 60,000 tons. That 10,000 ton surplus was, in turn, not enough to support Italy’s mostly foot-mobile force in Libya.

Similarly, local food production wasn’t adequate to support the entire Axis force, and the local health care system was almost totally undeveloped. Thus the bulk of the Axis forces’ food and medical supplies also had to be imported, along with all their ammunition and fuel.

Flies and other insects got into everything. That resulted in compromised food and water quality, which affected troop health, with both Axis nations’ forces suffering high levels of disease during the campaign. For example, over 40 percent of the 15th Panzer Division’s personnel were suffering diet-based diseases – such as dysentery, jaundice and scurvy – when, in mid-November 1941, the British launched their Operation Crusader counteroffensive against them.

Ironically, that 40 percent figure was actually an improvement. Rommel had delayed his intended October assault on Tobruk because disease had reduced three of that crucial division’s assault battalions to skeleton organizations, cutting its overall combat strength to 50 percent. The disease-induced delay gave the British time to regroup, reinforce and counterattack.

The food quality issue even gained the notice of the armed forces high command back in Germany. They ordered priority shipments of multi-vitamins to be sent in order to aid in overcoming that dietary deficiency, but it wasn’t enough. By August 1942, over 17,000 German soldiers had been evacuated to Germany for treatment of dietary and sanitation related illnesses. Another 9,418 were sidelined in-theater by the same kind of problems.

The Allied invasion of Algeria and Morocco in late 1942 exacerbated Rommel’s logistical challenges, not just strategically by drawing forces and supplies away from his fight with Montgomery, but also by costing him his Vichy drivers and trucks. From that time on, his forces had to rely even more on captured Allied equipment and supplies. For example, at the end of that year captured supplies provided 45 percent of his troops’ food, 55 percent of their medicine and 60 percent of their fuel.

In sum, the overall Axis failure in North Africa was due as much to negligent logistical planning as it was to combat force ratios. The Axis ports lacked the capacity to supply a larger mechanized force, and no effort was made to expand that capacity. Even when supplies were successfully delivered, the ships usually had to spend days anchored offshore waiting to unload, making them vulnerable to further Allied air and naval attack.

Rommel’s fuel supply difficulties have always received the most historical attention, since that was what most directly determined his units’ tactical mobility. More importantly, though, it was his failure to call for the extension of the rail net that was the main causative factor in the delivery shortfalls.

The route had been surveyed as far back as the 1920s, and a single German railroad engineer battalion could build an average of nine miles of track per day. Such an effort would’ve seen Tripoli connected to Rommel’s forward supply depot at Al Aguila in about 40 days, thereby cutting his truck transport distance by 500 miles.

In turn, that would’ve reduced gasoline consumed in delivering supplies as well as the vehicle maintenance problem. Moreover, rail transport burned six tons of coal to deliver 1,000 tons of cargo 100 miles, while truck convoys consumed one ton of fuel to move 100 tons of cargo the same distance. Even though that coal would’ve also had to be shipped to Libya, less volume was required; combat units didn’t use it, and the Axis had much more coal than petroleum.

Connecting Al Aguila to Benghazi would’ve been problematic given the campaign’s ebb and flow, but Rommel never re-activated Benghazi’s east running rail line after he took Tobruk. That move by itself would’ve reduced his logistical system’s fuel consumption by 15 percent.

Of course, completing the rail lines required steel, locomotives and personnel, all of which would have had to be transported to North Africa by sea. That would’ve come with the necessity of initially delivering Rommel’s combat forces fewer combat supplies, and thereby causing a delay in his initial offensive’s launch date. Moreover, rail transport wouldn’t have been a panacea, because it would’ve required security and repair units, since the Allies would’ve targeted it once it became operational. Even so, the resource commitment would’ve consumed less fuel and materiel than the truck transport scheme.

The rail extension decision should’ve been incorporated in the original deployment plan of the Afrika Korps. After April 1941, with Malta’s full stand up as an Allied aero-naval base, any materials intended for rail activation would’ve faced the same gauntlet as other Italo-German shipments to North Africa. That meant Malta’s suppression or conquest was the only real option for solving Rommel’s logistics problems once and for all.

North Africa was a secondary theater and Hitler had originally intended Rommel to conduct an economy of force campaign there. In turn, Rommel recognized his opponents could always reconstitute their forces more rapidly than he, no matter how many tactical triumphs he wracked up.

That realization drove him to seek Alexandria’s seizure before decisive British reinforcements could arrive, but his logistical shortfalls denied him the combat power necessary to achieve that goal. Whenever he lost momentum, the British advantages came to dominate. Without fuel, he could neither keep the initiative nor conduct a mobile defense.

Ultimately tactics, no matter how brilliant, can’t make up for bad strategy or inadequate logistics. Rommel’s tactical successes obscured that reality for a time, and he gave little mention of the disease and transport vehicle challenges in his dispatches and personal papers. It’s too bad Rommel’s later involvement in the July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler got him executed. It would’ve been interesting to read his postwar thoughts on all this had he survived.
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Offline ArizonaTank

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Re: Afrika Korps logistics
« Reply #1 on: October 11, 2019, 10:12:38 AM »
I have read in several places (can't seem to find the references at the moment) that another logistics element that Rommel was good at was vehicle recovery. I think I remember reading that Rommel would typically recover over half of the vehicles lost in battle. Basically any vehicle that didn't explode or burn to a crisp could likely be repaired. So Rommel recognized how important it was to take and hold the battlefield where the hulks were. 

In general, the Germans were pretty good at vehicle recovery, and organizationally they recognized its importance. The Western Allies eventually caught up in this area by the time of the battles in France '44.
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