EGYPT AND WESTERN DESERT – TOBRUK 21-6-1942
Shortly after I had joined up in May 1940, Mussolini, the Italian Dictator, declared War on Britain and France (11th June 1940). Units of the SA 1st Division were immediately despatched to Kenya in order to firstly, prevent Italian Forces from moving Southwards into Kenya, and secondly, to plan and execute the attack on Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia and to defeat the Italian forces there.
As soon as the Italians declared war their forces in Libya moved across the border into Egypt and occupied Sidi Barrani and Sofafi. General Wavell was in command of the Middle East Forces at the time and, after much pressure by the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, attacked in December 1940 with a much smaller force than the Italians. The attack was highly successful and tens of thousands of “Iti” prisoners were captured. The British forces captured Tobruk on 22nd Jan and Benghasi on 6th Feb 1941. We, in East Africa had just begun the main thrust into Somaliland and were heading for Kismayu. (See Chapter 5)
At the same time, General Rommel was given command of the new Deutsche Africa Corps to assist the Italians in Libya. He landed in Tripoli in January 1941 and moved up to Misurata and El Agheila, where he came in contact with the forward elements of Wavell’s forces. The British gradually withdrew to Agedabia and Rommel followed, putting heavy pressure on the extended lines of communication. The retreat continued but Tobruk was kept as a fortress manned by the Australian troops and Wavell established a line from Buq-Buq to Sofafi with back-up at Sidi Barrani and Mersa Matruh. By April Rommel was on the Egyptian border occupying Sollum, Halfaya and Fort Capuzzo.
The South African Navy was already operating in the “Med” and was protecting transports along the coast between Alexandria, Mersa Matruh and Tobruk along what became known as “bomb alley”. The SA Airforce was also very active with bombing raids on the Axis force’s supply lines to Derna and Benghasi. In May 1941 Brigadier Armstrong and the 5th SA Infantry Brigade left Mombasa for the Middle East. It was vital for SA forces to reinforce Wavell’s forces as the Australian troops were being pulled out and sent to Greece and Crete. Throughout June more South Africans arrived and moved forward to Matruh to strengthen the defences. On the 22nd Hitler ordered the Wermacht to attack Russia. When General Auchinleck assumed command of the Middle Forces in July, he began to plan for an offensive against Rommel as soon as possible.
Tobruk, Mersa Matruh and Bagush were well fortified with the 7th Armoured Division south of Matruh while the 2nd SA Division troops were constructing a powerful defence line at Alamein. This defensive position stretched from the coast to the Quattara Depression in the desert. Immediately the Italians capitulated at Amba Alagi in Abyssinia, more SA 1st Division troops moved to Egypt but it was not until August that the 2nd Ack-Ack and the Artillery and support groups finally reached the Western Desert.
Thus it was that, having left Asmara on my birthday, the 28th August, we were anxious to leave Massawa as soon as possible. Massawa, the Eritrean port on the Red Sea, was a most inhospitable port and the only incentive to induce any kind of activity was the thought that, once the loading of all our equipment was completed, we would leave port and find some relief from the heat and humidity. Some of us ventured in to the sea, off the end of the quay, for a short swim but the water was too warm and was not at all refreshing. A shower was necessary to wash off the salt. There were several salvage crews working in the harbour, raising sunken ships and removing underwater debris. Very few of the workers stayed in Massawa overnight and, anyone that could, returned to Asmara every night.
We left Massawa during the morning of the 29th August and prepared for a new experience in the Western Desert. The small, dirty, rusty old tramp had a crew of Lascars and a RN Ack-Ack gun crew. The sea was calm and oily smooth and, even the ships movement gave no hint of a breeze to relieve the intense, humid heat. Massawa faded into the heat haze and, for three days we headed northwards, up the Red Sea. I was reminded of the words of the poem, “The Ancient Mariner” – “All in a hot and copper sky, the bloody sun at noon” – The food on board was ghastly – Bully, Biscuits, onions and stewed dried fruit. There was a practice Ack-Ack shoot on one day and an impromptu concert on deck one evening. The ship was totally blacked-out, of course, and sleep below decks was almost impossible so, the nights were long, boring and uncomfortable. There was little to relieve the monotony except to read and play cards. At least the continuous sunshine soon made us forget those months of cold, rain and mud in the mountains of Abyssinia.
We eventually rendezvoused with a cruiser and three other ships and continued up the narrowing Red Sea to reach Port Tewfik on the 2nd September and docked about sunset. Our vehicles and heavy stores were already being off-loaded from another ship. The whole dock area was piled high with stores and equipment of all types. As we disembarked we were given a meal at a nearby cookhouse and, shortly after, boarded a train for Cairo and Amyria, which was near Alexandria.
We also realised that this was a totally different kind of war when Air-raid sirens wailed and searchlights probed the night sky. The train was blacked-out and had slatted wooden windows. The wooden seats were bare and hard and exceedingly uncomfortable. The train made frequent stops and, at each, we were inundated with “Gyppo” vendors selling fruit and trinkets. Their cries sounded strange – “Eggasabread” (Eggs, hard-boiled and bread) or “Greps”(Grapes). Rings and watches, and the inevitable, “Dirty pictures, George”.
I posted my first letter Home from Egypt on the 7th Sept and I mentioned that we now had to pay for Air-letters at the rate of 2/6 pence per ounce or 10 pence for 1/3 ounce for sea mail. The camp at Amyria was a dusty wasteland with myriads of flies. Strict Health regulations were applied and total cleanliness of food areas and the latrines was vital.
Despite the strict rules, there were soon many dysentery cases and many of us were also infected with another annoying, irritating affliction – “Crabs”. These tiny, minute mites infested all the hairy parts of the body, especially the nether regions. Treatment necessitated the shaving of all the hair and frequent applications of “Blue Butter”. All the drinking water had to be treated too but, despite all precautions, “Gyppo Tummy” was another debilitating illness which most of the chaps got from time to time.
Away, over in the distance, Alexandria was subjected to frequent air raids and, at night, the searchlights probed the skies for the bombers. Our Battery was re-organised and training was stepped up. We were allowed leave from 13h00 to 20h00 to visit “Alex” where the shops and the shopping were very interesting. “Gyppos” were noisy and street vendors and street urchins kept up a continuous cacophony of sales talk. “Shoe-shine George – good shoe-shine”: Gold rings, which often turned to coppery-red by the next day: Trinkets, jewellery, cigarette cases, bags and so on. Much of it was junk and the standard price asked was 50 piastres. Others were selling “Dirty Pictures – George”. Of course, there were also the offers for pornographic shows in the infamous Sister Street, in the red-light district. Strip shows and the friendly suggestion – “Want my Sister, George? The universal Gyppo name for all Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen was “George”.
In letters that I had received from home I had been told that, my cousin, Bryan, was in Alex on one of the ships in the harbour. I was eager to see him and was thrilled to find that he had spoken to one of my friends and given him the name of his ship. The following day I set off, on leave, and made my way to the harbour. There was no cutter at quay, so I hired a felucca and sailed over to the H.M.S. Woolwich. I clambered up the gangway and was taken to Bryan’s mess-deck. It was an historic meeting of two cousins and we spent a memorable afternoon on the foredeck swopping news, stories and experiences. We arranged to meet the following day but I was sent on a driving trip with stores and was unable to keep the appointment. We did not have another opportunity to see each other again until after the war. (See letter dated 15/9/41 and Bryan’s letter dated 28/9/41 sent to Cape Town.)
During our stay at Amyria, our Battery organised several sporting fixtures and rugby, soccer and hockey teams played against other units in the vicinity. (See photo of soccer team at Alex sports stadium). Visits to RAF and SAAF bases were also arranged and we examined the latest fighters and bombers, which were operating in the desert. This was invaluable as we were able to study their features for recognition later on when we needed to know whether the approaching planes were “friend or foe”.
One day we were visited by our Colonel and other “Top Brass” and told that our regiment was to be attached to the 2nd SA Division We were proud to have been part of the 1st Division in East Africa and were disappointed to have been transferred to the 2nd Division. Our stay in Amyria was short-lived but, before we left, the Regiment was issued with a number of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. “Harleys” were extremely powerful and heavy bikes and, while the prospective Despatch Riders were receiving instruction, several accidents occurred. The rapid acceleration left chaps hanging on for grim death. One ploughed through the barbed-wire entanglement and broke a wrist and, for several days, others were hobbling around with bruises and sprains.
Our first move forward was to Mersa Matruh where we bivvied at Smugglers Cove on 22nd Sept 1941. We realised that this was a totally different War from the East African Campaign. Here, with the sea on one side and the desert stretching away to the South, the accent was on manouevrability and supplies. Our supply-lines were short and the accent was on building up a large force, with supplies, stores and equipment in preparation for a major offensive along the Libyan border in order to force Rommel to retreat. Long convoys of vehicles moved westward along the coast road while the railway from Alex and Cairo brought up the heavy equipment, such as tanks and artillery, to the railhead at “Charing Cross”. This railway was being pushed westwards, towards the frontier and, by October, had reached Misheifa.
There were numerous air raids on Matruh, the harbour and other strategic points along the road and railway. All our vehicles were widely dispersed over the flat terrain for safety against enemy bomber raids, while our own Airforce was extremely active. Our daily routine consisted of gun-drill, vehicle and equipment maintenance and lectures in the mornings and time off in the afternoons for swimming in the “Med”. Nearby there was a NAAFI canteen, which was dug-in below ground level. We often went there in the evenings for a beer or two. It was totally blacked-out and, soon, the atmosphere became a blue haze of smoke and the “hurricane” lamps spluttered in the airless conditions. Paul Shackleton celebrated his 21st birthday there and THAT was a party to remember. Someone managed to raise a bottle of whisky for the main “Toast” and, to the strains of an old Ukelele, we sang “Happy Birthday” and “For he’s a jolly good fellow”, which helped to boost his morale, though I am sure that he would have given anything to have been at Home. Leaving that stuffy, airless atmosphere and going out into the cold night air hit us for six and, we staggered off in our various directions, hoping that we would find the tents in the darkness. Having found them, we would crawl into the coarse, dusty blankets and sleep like logs.
There were, of course, more serious duties and each of the sections, in turn, had to do air-raid duties around the Matruh harbour at night. When a raid as first reported by the Radar units, whistles were blown and we would dash from the tent, some 50 yards from the gun-pit, and take post. The gun positions were well sand-bagged but it was a nerve-wracking experience as all the guns fired on fixed lines, like a huge cone of fire-works, and the “tracers” and bursting Flak” made a spectacular show. But, what went up had to come down, and shell splinters and fragments hissed down all around us. Tin hats were invaluable and vital.
The bombs also came down, of course, but fortunately, despite some near misses, our gun-crew came through unscathed. One night the bombers arrived before the warning and, as the whistles blew, the bombs came down. We did the 50-yard dash in record time and dived headlong over the sand-bags. It was a near thing as one anti-personnel bomb burst close by and sprayed jagged fragments around. I remember a memorable remark by “Mug” – “Hold your balls boys”, in a similar situation. It broke the tension and we rolled around the gun-pit with laughter.
During a full moon period our section was sent out onto “The Spit”, which was an outer strip of land enclosing the harbour. There were raids every night but the days were quiet and we were able to slip down to the sea for refreshing swims.
MERSA MATRUH 1941 SEPT/OCT
Matruh lies basking ‘neath the desert sun.
Gently laps the “Med” along the shore.
Beneath the palms the flies make murmurous hum.
Beneath the guns the sleeping soldiers snore.
This once fair town – resort for wealthy men,
Is now a fortress ‘gainst the “Desert Fox” –
Now battered lies – and Gerbils make their den
‘neath rubble – and the guns protect the fortress and the docks.
High, high above, the silver-trailed Recce ‘plane flies,
Noting the strategic targets for the bombers raid.
Across the harbour, on the “Spit”, our lonely gun-post lies
And we know well, the ‘planes will not be long delayed.
So sinks the coppery sun to end a tranquil day.
The guns are cleared – the crews “stand-to” their post,
While “little ships” let go – slip silently away –
Tobruk their destination – where stores are needed most.
Night closes in, and in the East, full golden moon appears
And bathes the shore in gentle, lustrous light.
It only serves to gear us up, and to confirm our fears,
‘Tis a “Bomber’s moon” tonight, old Pals. A Bomber’s moon tonight.
Then comes the distant drone of ‘planes, the air-raid whistles
“Three-Sevens” are the first to fire, their thunderous crack is
Then streams of tracers, bursting shells, as all the guns let go.
We hear the scream of falling bombs, midst smoke, the scene is
Bursting, blasting bombs fall near, their fragments scythe around.
The guns grow hot, we fire on as the bombing raid goes on.
Then, suddenly, they’re past and gone. The silence is profound.
The “All Clear” sounds, and we stand down, and pray for the rising
I think that my poem gives a vivid impression of our Air-raid experiences. After the Harbour duties we returned to Smugglers Cove and then began desert manouevres with Infantry and Artillery groups, which were to operate in “Boxes” or mobile columns. We learnt a great deal about desert conditions during these manoeuvres. The drivers had to be able to see the hard and soft spots and so choose the best route. The flat terrain was misleading, as wadis would suddenly appear and detours made.
It was on one of these trips that Capt. Mike Stott earned the nickname “Compass”, having duly lost himself and his troop while using compass directions. A glance at the photographs will give some idea of the prevailing conditions but spirits were high and the cameraderie was fantastic and friendships were forged that were never to fade. At the end of a hard day, after a meal and a sing-song, we would stretch out in our dusty blankets and, lying beneath the dark, crystal star-lit sky, remember our far-off land and dream of our return.
By and large the days at Smugglers Cove were reasonably happy ones. Mail was regular, we were able to have a daily swim and we had developed an evenly divided system of duties. Fires were now made in petrol tins, cut in half and filled with sand. Petrol was poured on the sand which, after the initial blaze, retained the heat for some time and we cooked some fabulous meals thereon.
Throughout October and early November reinforcements continued to move up to the forward areas. Our 6th Battery was training on new 40mm Bofors guns but we still had our Breda and Lewis guns. Winter was approaching in the Northern hemisphere and nights in the desert were getting colder. Dust storms started blowing up and there were several days when rain blew in off the sea. The fine, soft sand around Smugglers Cove turned to mud and many vehicles bogged down. We were issued with the warm British army battle-dress, leather jerkins, thick jerseys and “long-johns”, all of which were vitally necessary in the bitter desert winds and icy nights.
“Crusader” was the code name for the coming offensive and, on the 17th November, the 8th Army advanced into Libya. The 5th SA Infantry Brigade encountered heavy attacks from the Afrika Corps at Sidi Rezegh and were badly mauled and suffered many casualties. Fighting was confused for several days as Rommel advanced along the Trig el Abd to Gasr el Abid on the frontier. A heavy Artillery battle took place near “Beer Bottle Hill” and, on the 4th November, Rommel was forced to withdraw and the 8th Army moved up to Sidi Omar, Fort Capuzzo and Bardia and on towards El Adem and Tobruk. Our Battery was not involved at this stage and were still doing duties in the Harbour where, on the 20th November there was a very heavy air raid. Fortunately we suffered no casualties.
At the beginning of December our troop moved up to Sidi Omar and was then rushed up to the landing-ground at Gambut. This proved to be a terrible journey as the soft desert dust was churned up by the continuous movement of all the heavy vehicles, both German and our own. Visibility was almost nil and the hot desert wind, the “Khamsin” did not improve conditions or our own discomfort. Later, in the Spring, the “Khamsin” became a daily occurence and brought thick, choking dust-storms up from the desert, engulfing everything and making life totally miserable.
From Sidi Omar the Trig Capuzzo track climbs onto the escarpment and heads westwards. Towards afternoon the wind abated and we left the track and cut across the escarpment towards the coast road and the Gambut landing ground. RAF Squadron of Blenheim fighter-bombers was already there and were overjoyed to welcome us, as we were to perform Ack-Ack and perimeter guard duties. There were still many pockets of Germans, who had been cut off from the withdrawing German forces, who were hiding in wadis along the coast. They posed a threat to our position, as they obviously wanted to break out and head for their own lines.
One evening, just at dusk, a South African Army truck drove in from the desert and stopped nearby. The passenger in the front seat lent out and asked for the Camp CO. One of our chaps, without thinking, pointed ahead and told him to go further on. There were several fellows in the back of the truck but they were strangely quiet and gave no sign of recognition or a friendly wave. They made no attempt to stop at the CO’s tent and we realised that they were enemy troops trying to break back to their own lines. The alarm was raised and they were chased down the escarpment to the coast road below, where there was a road block where they were captured. Of course, this made us all realise the dangers that we were facing and Major Nick Wessels issued an order to double the guard and to halt all vehicles coming in from the desert.
At night we each did a guard of one hour, moving back two places each night so that we each had a share of the “wee small hours”. This was a lonely and silent time and the cold penetrated our thick clothing and great-coats. Lying down, beneath the clear, bright, starry sky, one could watch the horizon and the silhouettes of the vehicles and bush and the imagination would do all sorts of strange tricks. Things seemed to move and figures appear and, the longer one stared the more movements one saw. The secret was to look slightly to the left or right and the perspective would change causing the “figure” to disappear.Â On one or two occasions members of our troop accompanied armoured cars and infantry patrols to look for and round-up any stray pockets of “Jerries”. In the process, large quantities of stores and equipment were found and we augmented our own rations with a variety of their tinned foods and the dark Rye bread which was wrapped in tinfoil. Italian Chianti was also found and it made a pleasant change from the brak tea and coffee. Water obtained from the desert wells – “Birs”- was often contaminated and was not fit for drinking but we were able to use it for washing clothes and ourselves. It was not always available and so “wash days” were an extravagance and underclothes were a stained muddy red and each of us acquired our own particular “pong”.
Gun crews were often changing as chaps reported sick and, it was about now that Attie Neethling (“Jan Baantjies”) joined our crew as the driver of the stores truck. “Jan Baantjies” was the Afrikaans name, like “Tommy Atkins”, in the front of our Pay Books. Days at Gambut were active and exciting as the RAF flew off on raids early in the morning, returning some hours later depending on the distance to the target.
Frequent dust storms were the cause of much concern to the returning ‘plane crews as they usually started about mid-morning and made landing a hazardous affair. The ground staff had to position themselves at the ends and middle of the runway and fire Very Pistols to indicate it’s position. The dust was not very high and the pilots could see the bursting flares and then had to feel their way down to the ground, which caused many a rough landing. Dangerous too. On one occasion, in fact, a pilot came in too low and flew straight into the side of the escarpment, killing all the crew. They were all a fine bunch of fellows and we enjoyed many happy evenings with them in their mess and canteen. (See the photographs taken at Gambut)Â On 10th December the landing was attacked by JU88’s and we went into action, but the raid was of short duration and no damage was caused.
Throughout this period our forces gradually moved Westwards from Tobruk to Gazala and then on to Derna and Benghazi which they reached on Christmas Eve. On 22nd December our troop was ordered to re-join the 2nd.Division forces whichÂ were about to attack Bardia. Here we dug in on the open, flat, barren, dusty plain. Our two-man “Bivvies” had to be deep, but the ground was very rocky and it was a back-breaking job. The ground we dug out was piled up around the sides for further protection.I had previously “Bivvied” with Denis, but now Reg Oldridge and I decided to share a tent as we were both short and would only need
to dig a much smaller hole which saved both time and energy.
Denis was both the gun aimer and firer and was extremely meticulous about the cleanliness of the moving parts. As soon as the dust storm subsided in the evening Denis would be out on the gun cleaning and oiling the working parts. At sun-up and sun-down we had a stand-to and, throughout the day, a “spotter” was on duty watching for enemy aircraft. One-hour shifts were the maximum each one spent on the gun as the glare was so severe. The rest of us spent the day reading or writing letters and, if there was sufficient water available, doing our laundry.
There were daily air-raids, mostly by high-flying “recce” ‘planes or Italian Caproni bombers. They were more of a nuisance than a danger as they were well out of range but occasionally they dropped scattered anti-personnel bombs. One of our unit’s Officers, Capt. R. Curling, was killed during one of the raids.Â Our gun was situated near a battery of 100lb. Howitzers which fired at intermittent periods – usually at meal-times or periodically throughout the night – to disturb and agitate the defenders of Bardia. Of course, this disturbed us as well but we knew that we were not on the receiving end and were consequently less worried. Once or twice their Artillery did fire and we had to take cover. We could hear the distant thud as their guns fired and then, the whistle of the shells as they approached. There were some near misses and, one day, a shell hit the ridge ahead but did not explode. Instead, it ricocheted over our heads and we actually watched it turning over and over in the air as it whirred by. Reg Edgecombe wrote, “It was Christmas outside Bardia and a Church service was held. The Ities fired Big Bertha and, as the shells passed overhead, the Chaplain said – and the thunder will roll.”
December 24th, Christmas Eve. Still outside Bardia and our spirits were rather low. No mail had arrived for some time due to our rapid movements. The weather was extremely cold, especially at night, and there appeared to be no prospect of any true Christmas “Cheer and Spirit”. Fortunately, however, some mail DID arrive that day, so there was news from Home to brighten our lives, and, by dint of some super scrounging we raised a bottle of whisky.- I think it was “Spot” Stanford’s birthday too – and one small, neat tot all round was enough to warm “The Cockles of our Hearts”.
This short verse illustrates something of all our thoughts and feelings at the time :-(See letter dated 6/11/1941 with a little revision.)
All I can see from where I stand
Is the seering sky and the desert sand
And my heart yearns for another land.
My eyes grow tired of the white hot sun
And heart, and mind, and soul are one
In wishing that the deed were done.
I remember rain on roofs at night
The cool, grey fog, the pale twilight.
But here the Battle Sword is bright.
All I want is to rest and sleep
From Sun and Sky, and sand so deep.
And I long for my Love, for whom I weep.
December 25th 1941 – Christmas Day in a cold, bleak Western Desert. This was our second Christmas away from Home and was so different from the previous one at Nairobi. We now realised how fortunate we had been then, for here there would be no special rations, no Church service and very little to cheer our flagging spirits. In a letter which I wrote on the 11th December I said :-
“We have been on the move for eleven days over dusty, bumpy desert tracks. Water has been scarce and I’ve hardly had my clothes off. Shaved and washed for the first time in five days. Despite the rugged, testing conditions I am very fit. No mail or parcels for some time and we are all hoping that something will arrive before Christmas as the prospect of “Bully and Biscuits” wouldn’t be too exciting.”
On Christmas morning our Regimental HQ came to light with some mail and a few parcels from Home which brightened the day for some but left others more despondent than ever. In another letter on the 23rd December I wrote:- “The weather has turned cold and windy with showers of rain ….I doubt whether any parcels from Home will arrive in time for Christmas”. Then, again on the 26th I wrote :- “On Christmas morning I made some “vetkoekies”, and for lunch we had fried sausage, rice and tinned vegetables, followed by canned fruit, jelly and condensed milk and ended with a “Brew of Tea”. Late in the afternoon we had an issue of beer and, so, after all, the 25th ended on a relatively high note”. A few days later I was very fortunate to receive letters from everyone at home and several parcels. These went into our common larder and we were well stocked up again with special delicacies.Â The whole 5th Battery was now in the Menastir area to the West of Bardia. On the 30th December the final assault on Bardia began when our main Artillery opened fire at 0400hrs and put down an intense barrage while the Infantry and Tanks advanced. Severe fighting continued throughout the day as our troops moved into the Bardia fortress. The following day, New Years Day 1942, the German Commander counter-attacked and forced the Kaffarian Rifles to fall back. The main advance continued, however, and the German garrison surrendered on January 2nd. There was still a strong force of German and Italian troops in the Halfaya and Sollum area where the terrain was ideal for defence. It was only after their main water supply point was captured and held that they finally capitulated on January 17th.
Note:-This extract was included in the 2nd Ack-Ack Regt.50th Anniversary Reunion booklet 17th June 1990.
Old Year’s Eve 1941 – Outside Bardia.
Our Christmas parcels had arrived that morning and mine from my wife contained a bottle of my brother-in-law’s farm-made Muscadel wine, neatly sewn in a towel. At midnight the crew gathered around the gun in a bitterly cold night and we drank that Muscadel, hailing in the New Year, with the chaps voting mine a most resourceful wife.
That was not my contribution but it serves to depict the trying conditions at the time and our need for “Home comforts”.
Our Battery was now withdrawn to Sidi Barrani for a rest and leave to Cairo. Arrangements were made for one third of the Battery to go on leave while the remainder would be on light duty and maintenance with plenty of spare time for swimming in the “Med”.
The Stores vehicles, which drove the first group down to the rail-head, returned with large supplies of beer, chocolates and other vital necessities such as blades, toothpaste, shaving-cream and so on. The beer was mostly Canadian quart bottles and, after the long period of brak tea and coffee, the tang and pureness was sheer delight. Bertie Louw and I were tent-mates at the time as the rest of the gun-crew were on leave. We started the day with a beer for breakfast followed by more for lunch and sun-downers before supper. The empties were stacked around the cooking area forming a wall as a wind-break. How we enjoyed the total break from activity as we soaked up the sun, the sea and the beer.
At last it was our turn for Cairo. Six days from the 6th to the 12th Feb and my companions were Wally Jones, Bertie Louw, Reg Edgecombe, Steve Rademeyer, Harry Rose-Innes and Dupie du Plessis.
What a week! On the go day and night as we savoured Cairo’s crazy atmosphere and hectic night-life.We hired a car and “did the town”. The Zoo and Gardens were world renowned as was the Museum. We visited Mosques, Bazaars and Shows and drove along the Nile to Gezira. We bought souvenirs and exotic perfumes to send home and the Gyppo vendors made a fortune. Driving in Cairo was an hilarious and hair-raising experience as pedestrians and traffic happily intermingled and speeding trams dropped and picked up passengers at will.
An early morning shave and massage at the local barber followed by an eggnog revived our flagging energy after a hectic “night out” and we were ready for another day. We didn’t manage to see the Sphinx or the Pyramids but we certainly enjoyed to the full the spirit of war-time Cairo.Â The days passed all too quickly and we were soon bumping our way back to Sidi Barrani and the dry, dusty desert. Who could have foreseen the tumultuous events of the forthcoming months and the ultimate disaster. Nevertheless, here we were, full of fun and excitement, and revelling in the memories and stories of a most exhilirating and never-to-be-forgotten leave in Cairo.
On our return several of our N.C.O’s were sent back to Helwan to attend an Officer’s training course. Those from our Troop included Ken Taylor, Trevor Moorhead, Ron Jackson and Harry de Stadler. Borgstrom became our gun Sergeant. Our 5th Battery was now involved in taking over 40mm Bofors guns from the 6th Light AA Royal Artillery Regt. While this was progressing our Troop was detached and sent to the railhead at Fort Capuzzo for duty as Ack-Ack protection on the trains bringing up supplies. The desert railway had been extended from “Picadilly” to “Oxford Circus” near Sofafi(approx. 100 miles).Our guns were mounted on flat-bed trucks, one behind the engine and one at the other end of the train. This was a trying and tiring experience for, once the train left on it’s journey we had to be alert for attacking aircraft. We were sitting ducks on this single line. Fortunately I was never involved in a daylight attack but there were some night attacks as pilots were able to pick up a glow from the engine. These night attacks were of short duration and we never fired back as the tracer shells would have given the attacker a better target.
The Desert Railway was under the control of a New Zealand Operations group and we reported to the CO at each end when we arrived. The advantage to us was that we went on to New Zealand rations and we made sure that we collected daily rations at both ends of the line. The NZ rations contained Scotch Oats, Butter, canned Beetroot, Cheese, powdered Milk and super canned meats. So we made the most of that aspect of that tiring and tiresome duty.
It did have some lighter moments and I recall one occasion when the train was shunting at Mersa Matruh.It was early in the morning and Paul Shackleton was preparing our breakfast Oats on the petrol and sand fire alongside the track. Gyppo trains had a very loose coupling system with about a foot of slack between each truck. Consequently, when the engine moved forward and gathered speed there would be a time lag as the slack was taken up and, by the time the last truck moved it would be jerked forward at quite a speed. The shunting continued for some time and we were about to sit down to breakfast when the whistle blew and the engine moved off accompanied by the usual clanking. We suddenly realised that the train was on it’s way and there was a mad scramble to climb aboard. We all made it (with the porridge) except Paul, who was left standing with the fire and dixie of coffee. No use wasting the porridge so we got stuck in. Paul, not to be outdone and with the Kiwi station crew, set off in hot pursuit in their jeep. The scene reminded us of a “Cowboy and Indian” movie with the bad guys trying to catch and hold up the train. We watched the jeep bouncing along the bumpy track alongside the line, with great clouds of dust billowing out behind it. They finally caught up with us at the first halt and Paul eventually had his”Oats”. Albeit cold!
We played a lot of Bridge and Rummy to pass the time and also entertained NAAFI personnel when they travelled on the train. They were not enlisted soldiers and were paid danger money when they travelled to the forward areas with trucks full of luxuries such as chocolates, toiletries, beer and cigarettes etc. Needless to say, while they were thus occupied by one gun-crew, the other crew would raid their truck and acquire a supply of some of the luxuries. Not too many to be noticed but enough to put a little pleasure into the “Railway job”.
We ended the Rail job in early March and returned to the Battery to begin intensive training on the 40mm.Bofors guns at Sollum and Sidi Barrani.
While reading through some of the letters which I wrote home at the time I thought it would be interesting to insert some extracts at this stage. During January, February and March hot winds begin to blow Northwards from the desert and “The Kamsin” dust storms set in. The desert dust is whipped up into a dense wall, sometimes hundreds of feet high and is even blown out over the sea for miles. We soon learnt to have our breakfast early and to cover the guns and equipment well before the storm reached us.
Extract from letter dated 12th Jan 1942:-“The wind has blown unceasingly for 3 days, dropping at night and rising again the following morning – This was the worst dust storm I’ve ever seen- Visibility down to 20 yds and no one moved from their bivvies all day.”
In another letter dated 23rd Jan.:-“The bad weather has continued with more dust storms.- The 6th Battery were sent down to Cairo for leave and training (on the 40mm. Bofors) and we each received a souvenir tin of cigarettes from “Jannie” and “Issie” Smuts”.
On the 1st Feb I wrote:-“The weather is still foul – incessant wind. Had a swim but the sea was cold and dirty. The evenings have been calm though and we have wandered along the beach in the moonlight or visited other gunposts for a chat and some music.”
I have previously mentioned my leave to Cairo, but, in a letter I wrote on 17th Feb, I said:-“Our journey to Cairo was tedious, uncomfortable and dusty, the first part being by army truck and then by train. The hard seats made sleep impossible. We arrived in the City at 0700hrs.on the 6th Feb and were immediately inundated by ‘Gyppos’ offering bed and breakfast, but we made our way to a fairly good hotel which had been recommended to us. Harry, Wally, Dupie and myself shared a room at the equivalent of six shillings a day for ‘bed and breakfast. We saw two films there, ‘Boom Town’ and ‘Nice Girl’ featuring Deanna Durbin…..Most days we shopped and went sight-seeing and, most nights we had a dinner at a restaurant and went on to a show or a dance……The Citadel, Blue Mosque and Coronation Mosque were wonderful….Marble pillars, carved Cedar, Alabaster and Jade inlaid with Ivory and Ebony, the floors covered with Persian carpets. The ‘Bazaars’ absorbed a lot of our time as we watched various Master craftsmen making brass urns, bowls, rings, bangles, brooches and necklaces. Solomon’s Perfume shop was another experience. One sat on rugs and cushions and drank strong black coffee while sampling dozens of different perfumes. I am sure that every soldier in the Middle East must have sent vials of perfume home and Solomon must have made a fortune.
As in Alexandria, where Sister Street was the sordid section of the city, so too, in Cairo, the Berka was the haunt of pimps and prostitutes. An infamous area frequented by many servicemen seeking an escape from the hard, harshness of the desert. In the game Housey – Housey, No.90 was always referred to as “top of the Berka”.
On our last day in Cairo, Harry awoke with a bad attack of ‘flu and we took him into the hospital. My camera, which I had had since our days in Gimma, in Ethiopia, was stolen. Nevertheless the day ended on a high note as four of us arranged to meet three ‘Mossies’ for supper and dance at Groppies Night Club. Wally and I went ahead to book a table while Steve and ‘Ginger’ Edgecombe fetched Kitty, Jean and ‘Freddie. We all had a great evening and, although our dancing was a little rusty, it was a memorable party. All good things must end and it was soon time to escort the girls back to their camp at Helwan and returned to our hotel at about 0300 hrs. Exhausted, we were up again at dawn to leave Cairo and return to our Unit. We collected Harry, our new Radio and our repaired gramophone and joined a group of our fellows at the station feeling a little downcast.During that leave I weighed myself at 170lbs. My normal weight was between 140 & 145lbs.”
I had written about those events in later letters but,now it was back to the Battery, the desert, the dust, the Desert Railway and training on the Bofors.
The dust storms were less frequent but the memory of them was ‘ingrained’. As they rose in the morning we crept into our Bivvies with a supply of water and light refreshment, laced up the flaps and prepared for an uncomfortable day. Grit and dust infiltrated through any small aperture and, as the temperature rose, we perspired and the sweat trickled down necks and faces into our eyes. Reading and letter writing passed the time but writing was a messy affair as sweat drops smudged the page and grit clogged the pens(no ball-points in those days). Water was brak and gritty and tempers became frayed causing even the best friendships to suffer at times.
Our final training on the Bofors was intense and we became highly efficient in all aspects of ‘going into action’. There was a new enthusiasm as we discarded the old equipment, which was either 1st World War or captured Italian Breda guns. The new 40mm Bofors was of Swedish manufacture. It was a beautiful gun, mounted on a carriage with 4 independantly sprung wheels. It was towed by 6 cylinder Vauxhall troop-carrier which enabled us to move over the desert terrain at up to 50mph.
Our gun crew now consisted of Sgt. Borgstrom, Pierre and Denis de Villiers, Paul Bisset, “Ollie” Olsen, Reg Oldridge, Dick Came, Keith Muggleston, Attie Neethling and myself. I was sorry when Harry Rose-Innes, Paul Shackleton and Brashaw were transferred to another gun.
During the training period we had time in the evenings to relax around the radio that Harry and I had brought back from Cairo. It was a powerful 5 valve Phillips and the BBC news service and Forces Favourites programmes came through loud and clear. We listened avidly to Vera Lynn singing those wartime songs. “We’ll meet Again”, “I’ll pray for you”, “Blue Birds over the white cliffs of Dover”, “Lili Marlene”, “Lights of London” and a host of others.Â Tommy Handley’s Itma show, and Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels. The Crazy Gang, Glen Miller’s Big Band playing those memorable tunes “A String of Pearls” and “In the Mood”. They were great programmes and they served to raise our spirits and relieve the monotony of the desert existence.
We were re-inoculated against Typhoid, Tetanus and Typhus which no doubt helped us during the months ahead. I met Charlie Waylett (6th Battery) and Frank Sampson (2nd Lt. in Charles’ Troop).Both were great friends of my family back home. In my letters written home at the time I made many references to increasing activity, the re-organisation and dispersal of our troops in moves up the desert.
For a while we were stationed at Fort Capuzzo where a strange accident occurred. One morning we heard a plane approaching and were amazed to see a very low-flying Hurricane fighter actually scrape the ground and pancake land almost at our gun position. The pilot climbed out unscathed and, apart from a bent propeller and undercarriage, damage to the ‘plane was light.
Apparently,the pilot flew in over the escarpment and did not notice how low he was flying.As the ends of the ‘prop’ touched the ground they were bent backwards and, like a feathered propeller, lost all pull and the ‘plane simply touched down and slid to a halt. The pilot, needless to say, was rather “red-faced”.
Early in April we moved forward to the El Adem landing ground and experienced, for the first time, the difficulty of “digging in” a gun-pit for the Bofors. A hole 3ft,deep and approx. 14ft square in rocky ground was a hard, back-breaking job. The hard labour toughened up our muscles and the exercise soon got rid of any surplus fat. Moving into Summer, the days were long and
hot, with sunshine from 0600hrs.to 2000hrs.and air-raids were frequent. Sometimes high-flying Caproni’s and, often, German Junkers 88’s or low-flying Italian Fiats on a straffing run.
Our gun crew and troop went into action many times and recorded some close “near misses” and, hopefully, inflicted damage to the attackers. Several planes were shot down by other guns in our Battery. Our stay at El Adem was short and we moved forward to the Acroma area. The 2nd Div. HQ was now based inside the Tobruk fortress and our Unit was scattered over a wide area from Gazala to Tobruk and, southwards, from Acroma to Rigel Ridge and “Knights Bridge”. Both forces were obviously building up for an offensive.
As the air activity hotted up, we witnessed many “dog-fights” between our fighters and German Messerschmitts as they escorted bombers on their raids.
At the time of writing this episode of our desert activities I came across an interesting book in the Fish Hoek library entitled “A Don at War”, written by David Hunt. He was a Fellow of Magdalene College, Oxford, specializing in Greek Archaelogy. His participation in the war started in Greece as an officer in Intelligence. He was involved in Crete and the Western Desert and, later, Italy and other theatres of the war. His observations about various aspects of the North African campaign are of special interest.
“When Italy declared war in September 1940 their forces on the Libyan frontier immediately advanced into Egypt. They moved up 60 miles (100km)to Sidi Barrani and dug themselves in. They established several fortified points with the ultimate intention of advancing through to Cairo. They were superior in numbers and equipment but Gen. Wavell, despite inadequate troops and
equipment, decided to attack first and achieved a staggering defeat of the Italian forces, taking thousands of prisoners and a great quantity of stores. The Italians were forced to retreat to Argheila on the Libyan/Tunisian border. (over 800 miles) The 6th Australian Division was then withdrawn and sent to Greece and the 7th Armoured Division returned to Egypt for a refit.
At this stage the first German troops were sent to Africa with General Rommel in command. They were only a small force but Rommel decided to push forward against the weakened British forces. Wavell employed delaying tactics in order to allow the Tobruk defences to be completed by a newly arrived Australian force and then withdrew to the Egyptian border and Sidi Barrani, leaving Tobruk isolated.”Â In his book, David Hunt breaks down the “Legend of Rommel” – “the Desert Fox”. He points out his strong and weak points and stressed that, in some cases, the British HQ were able to take advantage of his mistakes.
“During his first advance, Rommel stopped and attacked Tobruk at it’s strongest and best defended point on the whole perimeter and was repulsed. He then moved up to the border and the situation returned to that of 1940, except that Tobruk was now in British hands. It was a port that was vital for supplies for either side as it attacked as it shortened the supply lines by hundreds of
“Outside Tobruk there are two ridges, Bel Hamed and Sidi Rezegh which face and overlook the South-Eastern perimeter of Tobruk. This was actually it’s weakest point and Wavell broke in here during his 1940 advance. It was also the point at which the garrison broke out and linked up with our advancing forces in October 1941. Rommel, finally learnt from his previous mistake and broke in at the same point in June 1942.”
When our Regiment arrived in Egypt in September 1941 the German/Italian forces occupied Sollum, Halfaya, Sidi Barrani, Sidi Omar and Bardia. The next phase was to be the winter offensive code-named “Crusader”.
This was timed to commence just before the expected enemy attack about the 23rd November. Our unit involvement is described in my own writings and compares closely with David Hunt’s summing up of the situation. Although Rommel had significant successes in the ensuing battles at the time, General Auchinleck never lost the total initiative which forced Rommel’s withdrawal to Agheila and Agedabia once more.
Nevertheless, the tremendous success of the advance over some 600 miles had stretched the Allied lines of communication and supplies to the absolute limit. Our forces were spread out thinly from Benghazi, Southwards to Msus and along the coast to Agedabia and Agheila. General Rommel (later Field Marshal) was able to stabilise his forces and make tentative reconnaisance probes. He found little opposition and moved forward towards Msus. Gradually the fighting intensified and our forces withdrew slowly from Benghazi, Derna and the Jebel el Akbar to the strong defence line at Ain el Gazala. This was towards the end of January 1942.
I have already described my own experiences during this period and our move forward to Acroma in April. In a letter, dated 15th April, I referred to Sgt. Moir and his brother who were moved to our troop. Their father was Charlie Moir, who was a great friend of my father. I also described our evening soccer game – with a tennis ball – as our relaxation at the end of a hectic day. My family had 4 volumes of cartoons called “Fragments from France”. These were 1st World War cartoons of “Old Bill” drawn by Bairnsfather-Cloete and I referred to one of them where a tin-hat feels the size of a thimble. This was during an air-raid when protection seemed minimal.(See extracts obtained from my nephew Malcolm Bates.)
When we arrived at Acroma we had to “dig in” as usual. This time, however, we were assisted by a Company of SA Engineers with compressors. I recall that they were rather new to desert conditions and the frequent air-raids, and were highly impressed by our “apparent” equanimity during our actions against low -flying aircraft.
The days were long, hot and dusty and the ever-present flies a constant pest. Water was also a problem – 3/4 gallon per man per day for our total use – drinking, cooking and washing – and was not always available. Consequently, our priorities changed and washing clothes and, sometimes ourselves, became minimal. One of the most precious and welcome items in parcels from Home was a tin of Lemon crystals which, when added to the brak water, made it a more palatable and thirst-quenching drink. It also helped to combat desert sores as the vitamin C filled a deficiency in our diet.
The main defence line, at this time,ran from the strong defences at Gazala which were occupied by the 1st Division, South to the 150th Brigade box at Trigh el Abd, a 13 mile “mine marsh” and down to Bir Hakiem, which was held by the Free French forces. Behind this line there was a series of strong points and “Boxes” at Commonwealth Keep, Acroma, Acroma Keep, Stopcol, Rigel Ridge and the Guards Brigade at Knightsbridge which wasthe intersection of the Trigh Capuzzo and the Trigh Bir Hakiem.
On the map “The Gazala – Tobruk Frontier Area” a Trigh is indicated by a dotted line and represents the age-old Arab routes across the desert and “Bir” is the Arab for a watering place. Birs were deep excavations in the desert and often supplied very good water but, in many, the water was very brak and undrinkable.
There was,now,a great deal of activity as both sides built up their reserves and supplies.Our Air force was very active as Bombers and Fighter-Bombers flew over on missions to Benghazi and Derna to hit at the harbours, shipping, supply lines and Troop concentrations. Of course, we suffered the same fate from raiding Stukas, JU 88’s,ME 109’s and Italian Fiats and Caproni’s. At night low-flying night fighters circled around, disturbing our sleep with random firing, hoping to draw our fire, which would then give away our position. Just at this time our Troop was relieved and sent into Tobruk for vehicle and gun maintenance for 10 days.
While in Tobruk we were camped on the escarpment, near the coast, and were able to have several swims and a relaxed rest from the constant strain in the desert. We felt rather helpless though as, during air raids, we had to take cover instead of taking part and providing some defence against the raiders. During this period Rommel began his attack (26th May) along the Gazala line and so the air activity increased dramatically. Kittyhawk, Tomahawk, and Hurricane fighters and Boston bombers flew over on many missions. We watched many running dog-fights over Tobruk and were dismayed to see several of our own planes shot down by Messerschmidts. In a letter dated 27th May I wrote home about the brightness of the waxing moon and the air raids.
At last our guns were ready and our new orders were to relieve “H” Troop in “Stopcol” near Rigel Ridge. Harry Rose-Innes had been moved to another troop which had seen a lot of action and Charlie Waylett, a family friend, in the 6th Battery had been heavily engaged. On the 4th June I wrote home and said that our Troop had been relatively quiet but quoted Tennyson’s poem “Morte D’Arthur” – “So all day long the noise of battle rolled!” – That was the last letter I wrote before my capture in Tobruk.
The initial German attack made little impression against the 1st SA Division positions but armoured columns moved south to outflank the forces at Bir Hakiem in order to sweep around and encircle our main defence line. Some of the German armour made significant advances through the minefields and tank battles continued in “The Cauldron” near Knightsbridge. “Stopcol” was at Rigel Ridge and we could see the huge clouds of dust and smoke as the tanks joined the battle. The German advance was held up by the stubborn resistance of the Free French at Bir Hakiem and also by supply problems to their forward columns. Their position was actually, very precarious and, had the Allied forces pressed home a massed armoured counter-attack, Rommel may have been defeated. The chance was lost and Rommel found a gap in the defences and vital supplies got through. On 31st May he was able to attack the 150th Brigade Box in force and overran it on 1st June. Next, he was able to concentrate on Bir Hakiem where the heroic Free French held out for another ten days.
In the meantime the German advance near Knightsbridge turned northwards towards Acroma. There was attack and counter-attack and, from our positions we could see the whole battle. Dust, smoke, bursting shells and burning tanks and we could hear the sharp crack and rumble of our 25 pounders and the German 88’s as they hurled everything into the battle. As soon as Bir Hakiem fell on June 10th, Rommel turned his whole force towards El Adem and against our line of strong points along the escarpment in order to encircle and cut off the SA 1st Div. and the 50th Div. before they could withdraw from Gazala.
The strong points at Williams Post, Best Post, Point 187, Commonwealth Keep,Stopcol and Acroma had to hold fast to enable the 1st and 50th divisions to fall back. The situation was desperate and the withdrawal became a race against time. “The Gazala Gallop” as it became known was on and chaos ensued. June 14th was a ghastly day of confusion as we, in Stopcol, fell back to Acroma. We prepared to dig in again as our Artillery engaged the advancing tanks and the German 88mm guns fired air-bursts over our positions. Finally, in failing daylight, we were ordered to withdraw to the Tobruk perimeter. During the last moments of the dying day a lone Messerschmidt 109 flew overhead and we tried to get our gun into action but there was no need as the plane was obviously on a recce and was soon out of range. We were all very tired now and wearily went through a gap in the perimeter wire and, in the gathering darkness, found a gun position and fell into a devastated, defeated and utterly drugged sleep. Throughout the night the “Gallop” continued eastward to El Adem and the frontier while attempts were made to form a line from Tobruk to El Adem to hold up the German advance. In the morning we awoke to the fact that we were now inside the Tobruk fortress and would, no doubt, soon be facing another onslaught.
I must, at this stage, insert a note by Jimmy Woodin from the 50th AA anniversary brochure entitled “Our last gunpit”.
“Like many of us who took part in “the Gazala Gallop” back to Tobruk our particular troop was bedded down approx. 10 miles outside Tobruk in an old cemetery which had been taken over as an Ammo dump. Possibly the authorities had an idea that if the chaps there caught it that night, it would be easier to dispose of the bodies. Having been shown our position by our “Loot” we looked around for the softest spot to dig in the gun. Wherever we looked we could find nothing but rock. However, our driver – a truly wonderful, humorous Afrikaans-speaking chap (Benny Nieuwenhuys) – came up to me and said :-“Sarge, man, it doesn’t matter where youse wants to dig in – doesn’t mean a “blerry” thing because THIS WILL BE THE LAST TIME WE DIG”. How true, only a few days later Tobruk was attacked and fell and it was all over for us”.
June 15th. We awoke dusty and haggard from the tensions of the past few weeks and stiff from having slept on the hard, rocky desert ground. There was still much confusion with vehicles, guns and lost groups of chaps everywhere. But somehow, orders were received and we moved off to Pilastrino Ridge as Ack-Ack protection for the 4th Bgde Worcesters and an SA 25 pounder battery.
The events of the previous weeks and the struggle to extricate the 1st.S.A.Division and the 50th.British Division from Gazala indicated very clearly that Rommel had gained the upper hand and it seemed to us that we would, very likely, be cut off and Tobruk isolated for we were quite sure that no counter-attack could be mounted until our forces were able to consolidate a
defence line at the frontier.
In Neil Orpen’s book “War in the Desert” he disclosed that the Commanders-in-Chief M.E.Forces had decided in January 1942 that Tobruk would not be held again as a fortress (see map and extract).Consequently the minefields and defences on the south-eastern perimeter had been weakened by the removal of mines for use at Gazala.The Tobruk “Debacle” occurred because of indecisions and the mis-interpretations of orders between Gen. Ritchie and his Commander, General Auchinleck. The line was intended to run from Tobruk to El Adem and down to Bir-el-Gubi. Before this line could be established Rommel had already occupied El Adem and Bel Hamed by June 17th and had a commanding position from which to launch his attack on the Tobruk fortress.
During the fighting several of our chaps had reported sick with various ailments, the most serious being dysentery, malaria and nervous tension and shock. Our Sgt. Borgstrom was evacuated from Tobruk and Pierre de Villiers took control. Our crew was now Pierre and Denis de Villiers, Paul Bisset, Keith Muggleston, Dick Came, Reg Oldridge, Horace Finnemore, du Plessis, Olsen and myself. Lt. Potts was the troop officer and Cecil Murray the troop sergeant.
Rumours or “Sit Reps” were rife and wildly fanciful about relief and counter-attacks but it was quite obvious from the increasing activity of the German and Italian airforces and the lack of any support from our own that the coming days would be hectic. Intermittent shelling took place and we quickly settled down to a routine in what we thought would be another Tobruk siege. One-hour watches throughout the night, full stand-to at dawn and in the evening and two men “spotting” for aircraft in one-hour shifts throughout the day. The 40mm Bofors of our 4th, 5th and 6th batteries and a British Regiment of 3.7’s were the only air defence left in Tobruk and we were soon to take the brunt of the bombing raids.
The suddenness of the attack in the pale light of the dawn on Saturday 20th June was, to us, totally unexpected. At 0500hrs the first artillery bombardment began against the South-Eastern sector at it’s weakest point, which was defended by the 11th Bgde of Indians and SA Artillery. Guns of our 6th Battery were in that vicinity and took the brunt of the early attacks by Stuka’s and Junkers 88 dive-bombers. The bombing preceded an intense artillery bombardment which was followed by tanks and infantry which soon established a hold on a gap in the defences. Although our position was some 8 to 10 miles West of the attack, the saturation bombing by the Stuka and Junker dive-bombers soon spread along a wider front and we went into action for the first time at about 0630hrs against a large flight of Stukas which came screaming down on us.
Fortunately, we had been on stand-to since the dawn and the first bombardment, and had managed to eat a hurried breakfast. Now, as we experienced this first major raid against our position, there was no time to feel apprehensive or afraid as more bombers appeared and the raids intensified. The Stuka dive-bombers concentrated on their attacks on the Ack-Ack positions which, from the air, were no doubt, quite conspicuous, while the Junkers 88’s came in en-masse in a low dive and dropped their lethal bomb loads on a wider target. We soon discovered that they had a worse feature for, as they passed their target the rear gunner was able to spray the ground targets with a withering burst of 20mm shells as they pulled out of their dives.
Our gun led a charmed life as we escaped with “near misses” several times and were continually engulfed in clouds of desert dust as the sharp crackle of exploding cannon shells and bombs surrounded our gun-pit. Paul Bisset was the loader and was in the most exposed position as he actually stood above the level of the gun-pit while we could crouch down during the action. Many times we had to take cover as bombs and shells burst around us and we were quite relieved to hear the bombs explode after seeing and hearing them screaming down towards us.
Now and again there was a lull and we managed a nerve-soothing cigarette and used the time to clear away the empty shell-cases and bring in more ammunition. During one of the raids we experienced a mis-fire and had to stand down for a short while before opening the breech. Out came a hot, half exploded, smoking shell case. “Ollie” Olsen didn’t hesitate and bravely picked up the case, jumped out of the gun-pit and ran off some 50 yards to dump it. Much relief all round and a great round of “Congrats” to Ollie. Later, during a prolonged raid, another shell jammed halfway up the barrel and, this time, we had to remove the barrel and fit the spare one. Not being able to fire back during a raid was nerve-wracking and I suddenly thought of the Infantry and Arty chaps who could only take shelter in their slit-trenches.
No further problems presented themselves during the day as the raids intensified. We could see our shell bursts as the planes flew through our barrage and we could only estimate the hits and near-misses on the raiders. Great was the cheer when we saw black smoke billow from the belly of a Stuka as it pulled out of it’s dive and we watched it continue to lose height and finally crash outside the perimeter. Such moments were short-lived as we were confronted by yet another group of attacking bombers.
One humorous incident occurred during a raid by Junkers 88s. As they passed overhead Denis traversed the gun around to follow the retreating planes. They were very low at the end of their shallow dive – not much more than a hundred feet or so above ground – and as the barrel was depressed so the blast raised a huge cloud of dust. We little realised just how low we were firing and fortunately stopped. When the dust settled we were aiming exactly at Sgt. Murray’s and Lt. Pott’s tent and they came stumbling out in amazement when they heard our shells screaming overhead. Both were pale and shaken but we had a HELL of a laugh and the tension was soon relieved.
The devastating, shattering battle noises of the intense bombing, rumbling tanks, the crunch of bursting artillery shells and the crackle of machine-gun and small arms fire continued, unabated throughout the day. Huge columns of dense, black smoke rose from the area of the main attack and around the harbour.
During the afternoon we came under fire from the German artillery as they fired air-bursts which sprayed shrapnel over a wide area. Fortunately, they fell harmlessly away from our positions and none of our crew were harmed. But the heavy air raids continued in intensity throughout the day and we had expended almost all of our ammunition by late afternoon (over 500 shells) and had been bombed by more 400 planes in 12 hours of battle.
The heavy pall of smoke from the harbour and battle area had now spread across the whole sky and we knew that this was, indeed, a determined bid by Rommel to capture the Tobruk fortress. The western perimeter had only experienced minor attacks and, in the late afternoon some artillery was moved towards the battle area to take part in an expected counter-attack. In the failing light of the day the huge pall of smoke intensified as fuel dumps were destroyed and hundreds of transport vehicles were set alight. The last of the little ships slipped out of the harbour under heavy fire from tanks on the escarpment above the town. Geoff Hodgson, my friend, was on the mine-sweeper HMSAS Parktown which was hit by shellfire as it left. She and HMSAS Bever slipped away in the gathering dusk and a smoke-screen. HMSAS Bever reached Mersa Matruh the following day but HMSAS Parktown was slowed down to 5 knots when it took a tug in tow. Both were attacked by E-boats which hopelessly outmatched their firepower and, though fighting valiantly, “Parktown” was finally set on fire and, out of ammunition, the survivors abandoned ship. The wounded were placed on rafts and the others clung to them and some swam to the tug which had been left alone in the fight. They were picked up on the evening of the 21st June and taken to Mersa Matruh. Geoff was safe after a terrible ordeal but by that time I was a prisoner.
Back in Tobruk we ended the 20th.by cleaning the gun as the raids subsided and we moved more ammunition into the gunpit in preparation for further action the next day. Orders were given to be alert throughout the night but the overall picture looked bleak as the orders from HQ were confused and we did not know what the actual situation was. We had a scrappy meal and then had a troop gathering to discuss the day’s events and downed a much appreciated, refreshing beer or two. Large fires could be seen in the distance but the night was strangely quiet after the violent noise that we had endured all day. In the eerie silence each one lay with his own thoughts and, in a prayerful moment, I thought of those at home and pondered on the outcome of another onslaught tomorrow.(Sunday 21st June).
Each one of us had done a one-hour watch during the night and were up at dawn for “stand-to”. Sgt. Murray came tearing around and gave us orders to pack up and move to take up a new position to protect the artillery who had moved to assist in an attack on the German positions. We managed to squeeze in a snack of coffee and bread and watched a lone ME109 fly low overhead.
We made no attempt to go into action as we were busy packing up and also expected a continuation of the previous day’s air raids. I think we were all suffering from tension and strain of the attacks and the almost sleepless night. Anyway, we pulled the Bofors out of the gunpit and prepared to move off. The heavy blue-black pall of smoke hung over the whole landscape like a cloak, blotting out the sun and darkening the dawn in an ominous gloom. Apart from the distant rumble of exploding fuel tanks and dumps there was an eerie silence – no aircraft and no artillery or small arms fire giving one an awful feeling of futility. We drove off to find our new position and were suddenly amazed to see our artillery friends returning without their guns! They had been ordered to spike their guns after being informed that General Kloppers had capitulated. Consternation!! We were quite dazed as we turned tail and Lt. Potts led us back to the old gun positions and ordered us to destroy all of the equipment, to spike the Bofors and set fire to the trucks.Â We first of all gathered together a few belongings and packed as much as we could into haversacks and side pack. Food, spare clothing, toiletries, great-coat and blankets and cigarettes. Also some books, pencils and little precious items like family photographs and so on. Then we removed the breech block from the Bofors and buried it away from the gun, spiked the barrel and set fire to the gun and the tractor and stores truck. It was a devastating and sad feeling to see our beautiful Bofors being destroyed along with all our personal belongings. Nothing was left that could be of advantage to the enemy. Occasional shells still burst overhead to discourage any further action from us which sent us diving for cover. The acrid, pungent smoke spread over the landscape and drifted down the wadi’s like a fog, joining the blue -black pall from horizon to horizon.Â We sat around in this eerie atmosphere for a while and contemplated, dejectedly, the ghastly situation in which we found ourselves, still not fully comprehending the awful truth of the situation. Eventually we decided to move off, down through the wadi towards the town. As we went down off the escarpment we met a German mark IV tank and Afrika Korps troops combing the area for prisoners. This was our first encounter with our German captors. Many of them shouted, gloatingly, in guttural, broken English and German, “Englander Kaput! Ja? – For you the war is over. Ja?” Now we really realised that we were, indeed, Prisoners – of – War and, with heavy hearts, we were marched down to the aerodrome and the large POW assembly area.Â On the way, threatening guards looted watches, pens and anything valuable from many of the chaps. Fortunately, their Officers did not take kindly to this activity and harshly ordered them to stop. (If they saw them). It was a long way and we marched, rested and marched and rested but soon became tired, thirsty and hungry. Dejectedly, wearily we trudged on over the rough terrain until, at last, we arrived at the concentration area where thousands of other chaps had already gathered. Here we found the rest of our Regiment and met many friends whom we had not seen for ages.
It had been a harrowing and traumatic day and we were mentally and physically exhausted. We were hungry and thirsty but realised that we must conserve our meagre supply of food and water which each of us had saved and brought along. There was no knowing when there would be an issue of water or food by the Italians who were now the guards. Our gun crew stuck close together and, as night closed in, we huddled down on our dusty blankets feeling dejected, dispirited and shocked as the day’s disaster crowded in on our thoughts. No stars in the smoke-filled sky and it was as though each one of us withdrew into our own dark thoughts of despair. Denis and I were next to each other and vowed, with the others, to remain together for as long as possible.
In the silence of the night I lay and pondered and re-lived the events of the past few weeks, days and hours. Sharp details suddenly came to mind and memory made crystal clear the diving Stukas, the crashing bombs and the horrific noise of the lost battle. Sleep did not come easily and, as I tossed and turned I sought solace in a Prayer that somehow, sometime, somewhere this nightmare would end.
Prisoner of War. – The one situation that the others and I had never contemplated was now a reality and I would take a long time to become reconciled to the fact. Now another campaign had ended for us all. Abyssinia and the Western Desert were behind us and each one of us had to face up to an unknown future – to adapt and adjust and to hold on in Faith to survive.
- Neil Orpen’s book “War in the Desert”, Chapter 20, gives an accurate and detailed account of the attack on Tobruk; the Battle; and the capitulation.
- Page 322;-Reference is made to the Bofors of the 2nd.Ack-Ack Regiment re digging-in to face the Afrika Korps attack on 21stÂ June. Our C.O. Lt-Col Howie met Gen. Klopper at 0500hrs.and asked the Fortress Commander for instructions and was told to prepare to fight on as Anti-tank defence.
- Page 323:-Nearly 400 tons of bombs had been dropped the previous day (20th).Our remainingÂ bofors were to be used as anti-tank defence. Neil Orpen points out that these guns were totally unsuited for this role as the loader and gun-layers were unprotected from machine-gun fire from advancing tanks.
- We had certainly had a fortunate escape from this kind of action, as I am sure that we would have suffered many casualties.
- Major Nick Wessels wrote in our 50th anniversary brochure:- “I will always remember the record of two of our Batteries at Gazala and their superb actions on the retreat to Tobruk. The guns were always in action at the right places and their shooting was superb. The Regiment gave most wonderful action in Tobruk.
- Another incident I will always remember on the way from Gazala is Gunner “Nick” with his Breda mounted on a bakkie. An Italian fighter came shooting down the road, only two shells from the Breda caught him spot-on and he crashed next to the road.Â Anyway, I say again,2 AA was a wonderful Regiment and, if it was not for the Tobruk tactical error, we would have gone a long way.”
TOBRUK – 20TH JUNE 1942
Faint shafts of light diffuse the Eastern Sky.
Tobruk lies restless in the uncertain dawn,
And weary soldiers in shallow trenches lie.
Awake! To steel themselves against the coming storm.
They hear the distant rumble of the tanks.
They feel the thud and thunder of the guns barrage.
Stand to! Against attack on front and flanks
And open fire to stem the German charge.
Our Bofors skyward points as Stukas poise
To dive, like gulls, upon the shoal below.
Load! Fire! midst pandemonic noise.
Bombs! Shells! are hurtling, blow for blow.
Wave upon wave they drone – Junkers in a shallow dive.
Skyward we gaze as screaming bombs descend,
And, midst the turmoil, dust and smoke – we are alive.
On target! Shoot! Our answering shells ascend.
“So all day long the noise of battle rolled.”
Down Pilastrino Ridge and wadis to the sea.
Exploding dumps did all in billowing shrouds enfold
And we, with apprehensive doubts, can wonder – are we free?
Black now the night, ominous with portent of impending doom.
We could but hope to hold the foe at bay.
But, with the dawn,-surrender! and all hope is gone
And, midst despair and gloom, we’re marched away.
Prisoners of war. – a soul destroying scene.
Tobruk lies shattered ‘neath smoke-blackened sky.
And we are left to ponder on what might have been.
To search despondent heart and only question – WHY?