The Siege of Tobruk

VOLUME 169

NUMBER 3

MARCH, 1942

IT MUST have been after the first week in May 1941 that the German High Command began to realize that things were not going too well in Northern Africa. Until then everything had gone beautifully: they had got through to the Egyptian frontier in the time it took to get there and had many thousands of British and Australian troops bottled up behind the flimsy defenses of Tobruk. They had smashed a British Armored Brigade and had nearly cut off the best part of an Australian division in Cyrenaica. The victors in Poland and France, were available — until then no army in this war had stood up to a full panzer attack. Over in Greece the Allied Armies had been smashed and overrun in record time. Yes, things were moving; smash this absurd resistance in Tobruk and then on to the Suez Canal.

But the first few days’ fighting in May must have been a jolt that made every intelligent thinker in the German Afrika Korps pause and take stock.

To get the picture, go back to the fall of Benghazi early in February. That very day the decision was made to send armed support to Greece. Here was an Australian division freshly blooded and in the peak of its form. It was a logical first choice for the job in Greece. With it was a great British Armored Division which had broken all records in the ground it had covered without maintenance. Refit it must. This meant withdrawal to Cairo.

But Cyrenaica must be garrisoned. All right. In Palestine there were thousands of new Australian troops, great material but as yet only a quarter trained and little better equipped. What could be better than to put them up in this pleasant green land as a garrison and there complete their training. From Cairo a new Armored Brigade was sent forward to replace their veteran comrades, many of whom had been out in the desert as far back as 1936. It was all so simple.

For two months the roads for hundreds of miles were choked with troops moving both east and west. This is desert country again, and the road to Tripoli runs through miles of lonely saltpans. Very soon reports began to trickle back of brief encounters with fast-moving armored cars. ‘They’re different from anything we’ve seen and look like Germans’ was the usual story.

Copyright 1942, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

The Australian Brigadier commanding has since told me that he was frankly worried at the frequent clashes on the frontier of Tripolitania. He reported his fears and then had to give all his men back to Egypt. Greece and Crete lay before them, from which barely one third returned.

So the early months of the year passed with the roads gradually clearing as the huge change-over sorted itself out. Away down in Southern Cyrenaica near Agheila, ill-equipped Australian troops awaited events with only a thin armored screen in front of them. Daily it was becoming more obvious that the enemy was massing in strength, and these troops on the frontier waited and watched that lonely road wondering when the German would come. It was obvious that a huge German force was assembling along the Gulf of Sirte.

I traveled with the British artillery back to Mersa Matruh and there met the rear parties of our troops moving to Alexandria and thence on to Greece. They all had the same tale: ‘There’s hell brewing down on the frontier. I hope our new chaps will be O.K.’ As ever, the private soldier knew what was doing.

I was back in Alexandria by the end of March waiting my turn to move to Greece. Late on the night of April 3 a special communiqué appeared on Reuter’s ticker: ‘Benghazi has been reoccupied by German troops.’ It was the biggest shock of the war; already things were bad enough in the Balkans, but since December they had been so rosy in the Middle East.

There was only one thing for me to do: forget Greece and get back up the desert. All our transport had gone on; I would have to hitchhike. I got to Mersa late one afternoon. That night a launch put in — the Naval Officer in Charge at Derna. ‘Yes, they reached Derna the night before last. We blew the mole and the Aussies have blown the passes. When I left, the Arabs were rioting and the town was in flames. There were an Aussie officer and a couple of men waiting for stragglers before they blew the last bridge. Aussies have been pouring through for days. They looked done in, but they’re bloody angry.’

A blinding sandstorm almost hid the dawn. With a plane ride to Tobruk promised, I raced to the drome. Hopeless; all planes grounded. Through the clouds of sand a Bombay touched down and a car raced towards the town. ‘General Wavell — he has just paid a lightning trip to Tobruk and we are going to hold the perimeter,’ the word passed round. Back he came as the storm lifted. ‘Any chance of an interview?’ I asked a member of his staff. The words sounded ridiculous as I spoke them. ‘Sorry, the General must get on. What’s the news from Greece?’ I watched an outwardly calm figure wait for the plane to taxi up and then clamber in. Away the plane roared through the thinning dust clouds. Greece tomorrow, I thought; it seemed a lot for any man.

‘No planes will go forward today’ was the next blow. Out on the road again with my thumb up. Luck this time — a car with the back seat empty. Sollum at dusk after a nightmare trip over Graziani’s unfinished road with RAF transport moving against us all day. More uncertainty here. ‘Yes, we’re holding Tobruk, but it’s only a matter of time before they encircle the perimeter and come on here. We’re on an hour’s notice. Go on at your own risk.’ Up the escarpment in the dusk, past engineers working on the demolition charges. The plain below was angry with the smoke and red glare of burning petrol dumps. On through the lines of Bardia. It seemed very lonely that night.

The full moon was high as we drove down the broken road to the Tobruk perimeter. Our headlights were on and a few hundred yards out a patrol signaled us to a halt. Here we got the first scraps of news. ‘Yes, we’ve filled the perimeter posts. Most of the boys got back O.K. They’ve had a hell of a time. Beyond a few armored cars, Jerry hasn’t shown up round here yet. We got one car today.’ Down the slope we drove, crossing the as yet unblown bridge spanning the tank ditch. Another check post, grinning faces in the moonlight — the first signs of confidence we had seen for days.

II

Next morning we heard for the first time the story of the past ten days. When the new Australian division moved into Cyrenaica one brigade was left in Tobruk and the remaining two pushed on to Benghazi. Late one afternoon came the order to withdraw, the Germans were coming.

Past Benina airport the slow convoys toiled, Australian airmen watching in silence. The Germans had advanced swiftly, and with far superior equipment had smashed the British Armored Brigade. The flames rose higher in Benghazi, and retiring sappers told of the German entry, verification coming from the scattered remnants of the Brigade. What was worse, the enemy had not confined himself to the coastal plane but had outflanked us and was making for Mechili across the desert. The greater part of the new Australian division was in danger of being cut off. A quick decision: all must get back to Tobruk and risk the exposed left flank.

The withdrawal went on by night and by day, a terrible journey for all involved. Of this period one officer has written: ‘The darkness was the blackness of a dream. Fifty miles of road were choked with vehicles and men. There was no dispersion; nothing mattered except to get back at all costs.'

‘The men were stunned and ashamed; disappointment and shame made them quiet as they climbed into their trucks,’an officer told me. One hundred and eighty miles lay before them and already German patrols were cutting the roads. Some German motorized patrols got right among our troops. That was how Generals O’Connor and Neame were captured while hundreds of their troops were still to the west.

South at Mechili an Indian motorized brigade met the main German encircling force and managed to stave them off for a few vital hours. Finally surrounded, their survivors broke clear in trucks and managed to get back to Tobruk to do yeoman service. At Gazala the main body of the Australians were sorted out and fell back on Tobruk while one battalion took up an outer line at Acroma to cover the final withdrawal. Here they stayed for three days, continually bombed and machine-gunned. But no attack came; for the moment, the Germans had outrun their strength. On the night of the third day the Australians came into Tobruk, and all the next morning the exhausted men slept protected by a severe sandstorm. Later in the day they took up their positions on the perimeter, and on the night of April 9 the defenses were fully manned.

III

With the town and harbor as its centre, a semicircle barely eight miles out at its greatest depth and stretching inland from coast to coast again marks the perimeter at Tobruk. It is heavily wired and is protected by an anti-tank ditch and deep wadis for all but the central section. Here the ditch peters out for several of the twenty-eight miles of its total front. The coast is scarred about every half mile with deep wadis which run inland for about a mile. Behind the wire is the line of the ‘posts,’ which number over 140 and are from 300 to 700 yards apart. Nothing is to be seen of them above the ground level, but below, in the majority, is a series of heavily concreted rooms and corridors, the whole being encircled by a deep outer concrete passage which is roofed in parts, forming the outer extremities of inner rooms. They were piled with sand and full of vermin and filth.

Tobruk Harbor is formed by a neck of land running out, making a small bay which gives the only protection along this coast to the prevailing northerlies. The town — or what is left of it — is concrete-built and fairly large in size. Deep tunnels and well-concreted rooms run into the bluff from the water’s edge. These were used as hospitals, oil storage, pumping plants, and workshops by the Italians. Huge areas are given over to military stores, water condensation plants, powerhouses, and workshops. Wireless masts lean at an ugly angle, a sharp reminder of a more orderly past. It is a pure garrison town on a fairly good harbor; it was never built and had no reason to exist as anything else.

The area inside the perimeter totals some 180 square miles. Forts and buildings are thinly scattered throughout. The coastal wadis are thickly lined with hundreds of rusting trucks and other vehicles, most of them fired and destroyed by the Italians in the last hours before we took the town in January. Except in a few wadis, there is no vegetation; the whole area is a brown, rocky, wind-swept waste. Where traffic has cut up the surface the dust flies on the slightest puff of wind; barely a day is free of these storms. Inside the perimeter are two inferior dromes flanked by bullet-torn galvanized iron sheds.

All troops were in their posts by Wednesday, April 9. On Good Friday the enemy encircled the perimeter and sent advance units on to Sollum. He has never got more than a few miles farther. The mercurial spirits of our men in these first few days were amazing, considering the ordeal they had undergone. The fact that they were besieged did not worry them. ‘Where are you going for Easter?’ was the prevailing crack. Already contact had been made with German armored cars on the wire, but the main body of troops was only just coming up.

They came down the Derna road packed vehicle to vehicle. The British artillery waited for the target and then let them have it. Observers have told me that the slaughter was terrible in the brief few minutes before the survivors broke clear and left over thirty vehicles smashed and burning. This was the first of many successes won by the British gunners. Their contribution to the defense of Tobruk has been paramount; on many occasions their great work has turned the battle in our favor.

It was Good Friday that the German infantry appeared in strength. The artillery searched them out as they left their transport and moved in toward our wire. Very few of them actually got there. But Easter Sunday night the enemy got his tanks inside, thirty-nine all told. At dawn they moved, making straight for the El Adem corner to cut our defenses in half as we had done in January. Infantry flowed in behind them. The whole area crashed with shell fire that day as the German tanks raced from point to point trying to find a loophole. Our own tanks joined battle and our guns, large and small, claimed many victims. Out in the front-line posts our infantry kept their heads and let the tanks go on. But they were there for the following infantry and inflicted terrible slaughter as the Germans tried to consolidate their tank infiltration.

’I always told my men the Germans were no good,’ an exhausted lieutenant little more than a boy told me that night. ‘About three hundred of them came up to the wire about dusk. We kept them down with our fire and then another wave came. We seemed to hold them for about two hours until moonrise. I was finishing a patrol along the wire when my corporal rushed up and said some had got in behind us. I sent a runner to company headquarters and then decided to attack, myself. I took six men round the flank at the double and told them to make a hell of a noise. With my platoon giving covering fire we tore into them. There were about forty of them, and to my surprise not one of them stood to their machine guns. Most of them scattered, but those who remained groveled on the ground. My men were shouting and giving it to them with grenades and bayonets. Our fierce rush took us right through and we killed about twelve of them. My corporal saved my life. I had broken my bayonet and was swinging my rifle when one German grappled with me. Another was rushing at me, but my corporal fixed them both.’ The corporal was mortally wounded when he came to his officer’s aid, and died early the next morning. He received a posthumous V.C., Australia’s first in this war.

Another officer told me how German tanks attacked his men as they lay in a sangar, a narrow circle of stone and earth banked up to give shelter. ‘One tank singled us out and crashed into the low wall round us. He would reverse and smack in again and again, but luckily the wall held. He was firing his machine guns at us, but luckily could not deflect them low enough. Finally he was driven away by our tanks. Lucky.’

By now Australian patrols were making themselves felt outside the wire, especially against the Italians, who had come up in large numbers. And already the lack of cohesion between the Italians and their German masters was becoming obvious. On April 15 an Italian attack was launched on our positions north of the Derna road. They were to be supported by German tanks, but these were pinned down by our artillery fire, leaving the Italians in the air. An Australian officer and twenty men went out in three Bren carriers and rounded up 847 Italian prisoners who did not offer the slightest resistance. The German tanks fired on them in disgust as they milled towards our wire with their hands up. ‘They are in a bad way and come up to our wire weeping’ ran the report. Night after night our patrols were out. From the very beginning the Australians had undisputed control of No Man’s Land after dark.

IV

The next and main German attack was made at a point several miles west of the enemy’s original entry place. It came from the Meduuar sector, where rising ground he held beyond our wire gave him a commanding view and field of fire over our ground running out to the front-line posts in that area. The troops employed were all veterans of the Polish and French campaigns; they had never suffered a reversal. A large majority of them were specially flown from Sicily to get there in time for the attack. One such unit was a special creation of the German panzer division. Though described as engineers, they were in reality a specially trained and highly specialized infantry group somewhat similar to a modern British Pioneer Battalion. Their rôle was to blast their way through strongly defended enemy positions, prepare tank crossings, and establish themselves as a bridgehead for the subsequent tank and infantry entry. They were armed exclusively with automatic weapons, light and heavy, as well as mortars and an ample supply of grenades. In short, they were the highest development of a blitz army.

The German reversal suffered in the fighting in the early days of May may safely be described as one of the most important victories of the war. Had the attack succeeded, Tobruk must have fallen even if the garrison had fought, as they had orders to do, to the last man. Apart from the terrific blow to morale in England, and more so in Australia, the whole German Afrika Korps with its ragtag of Italian support would have been released for an attack on Egypt a fortnight before the battle for Crete and while what was left of the cream of the Army of the Nile was still precariously coming in from Greece, with all equipment that counted, as well as transport, lost. True, we had commenced to build our new army in the Western Desert but it is highly improbable that it could have resisted a full German attack in early May, reinforced as it would have been by immense hauls in guns, transport, and petrol captured in Tobruk. In addition the full German air force in Africa would have been released for the attack, and at this time it was at its highest peak of strength and efficiency. It had yet to blunt its teeth on Tobruk. As our men sweated and slaved to strengthen their posts in the Acroma road area in the last few days of April it would have come as a surprise to them to learn that they held the key to Egypt. Not that such knowledge would have aroused them to greater effort. They were raw troops; this was the test of their Australian manhood. They lay in the stifling posts under the relentless sun, choking in the dust storms that never seemed to settle. Already water was rationed to half a gallon a man a day, and its brackish flavor permeated the strongest tea they could brew.

Towards dusk on the night of April 30 the posts in this area were subjected to heavy fire from artillery and trench mortars. Our artillery replied, and for the next few hours a fierce artillery duel went on. At nine that night, enemy infantry were reported to be through our wire. Our front posts in this area were some considerable distance apart although there were small listening parties put out between at night. There was uncertainty until dawn, and no doubt these picked German troops were doing their job, digging in and consolidating. There were several hand-to-hand encounters with our patrols, who were forced to withdraw owing to heavy machine-gun fire. What scanty reports did get back to headquarters before dawn showed that the position was likely to be serious.

That night one wounded man tried to give me a picture of what went on. ‘About midnight I was out in a listening post with a cobber. We were about one hundred yards from our main post. About fifty Jerries crept up on our flank and the two of us opened fire hoping to warn the boys back in the main post. Then all hell was let loose. All the enemy seemed armed with tommy guns and they swept on past our shallow post, one of them sweeping it with a full burst and wounding me across the back of the legs. My cobber dropped him. Some of the Germans must have got through, past the post, but a few came dodging back, a couple of them taking shelter beside me. I lay doggo and pretended to be dead. What worried me most at the time was the way they stank. I must have passed out after that, but at dawn my cobber came out and brought me in. I was back with the ambulance before seven. Things looked pretty bad as I left, as they had tanks coming in.’

And bad things were. At dawn large parties of the enemy were dug in some hundreds of yards inside our wire, firing on the forward posts from the rear. Out in front nearly a hundred tanks and armored cars were charging towards the wire. The leading tanks had thick lengths of steel cable stretched between them and crashed through dragging thirty or forty yards of the wire defenses with them. Through the gaps so made poured the others, to be followed by truckloads of infantry. They were hotly engaged by our forward anti-tank guns, but these were overwhelmed in a matter of minutes, and with the morning light came a heavy dust storm, blocking any vision our artillery might have had from farther back. They had been firing like men possessed and already had taken a severe toll. The fire never slackened, but isolated targets were gone for the next few vital hours. All they could do was to put a curtain beyond our wire to destroy any oncoming enemy following the initial tanks and infantry.

The German tanks fought to a cunningly thought-out plan. As soon as they penetrated the wire and the token ditch only a foot or so deep, the main body raced on, but three or four made for each post in the area. These they completely surrounded and, halting on each corner, killed any man who dared show his head. Through the loopholes built for machine-gun fire they poured shells from their main guns; and once they had driven the garrisons to earth, they opened the tank doors long enough to hurl stick bombs down the traverses. In this way several posts were overcome and the occupants either killed, wounded, or made prisoner.

All this day the enemy air force was active. Dive-bombing and machine-gun attacks were made repeatedly along our posts. On this occasion flame throwers were used for the first time at Tobruk. Observers from the posts we still held saw German tanks standing off and throwing jets of flame about thirty feet long and nine feet thick into our positions. However, they proved a dangerous weapon to the men using them. Several times the containers caught alight and the subsequent explosion destroyed everything in the immediate vicinity.

As the morning wore on, German tanks established a salient four miles inside our line on a 3000-yard front, a bridgehead that constituted a real danger. All day the tank battles went on and the enemy infantry consolidated their gains. Along the perimeter several local counterattacks were made. The confusion was indescribable as communications between the posts and their company and battalion headquarters had long since been severed. Luckily some of the vital posts on the flanks of the captured territory remained in our hands throughout, the garrisons inflicting terrible slaughter on the enemy infantry as they infiltrated through in the dust storm.

Before the dust came down and ruined visibility on the morning of May 2, the big tract of country occupied by the enemy inside our wire presented a desolate scene. Derelict tanks and trucks littered the area, but a rapid count showed over a hundred such vehicles forming up again. Down came our artillery on them, and black smoke rose above the dust from thirty different spots. Similar formations outside got their share of it time and time again, forcing them to disperse. Counterattacks were launched on May 2 and 3, but the enemy repulsed all efforts to dislodge him from the salient. He used his knocked-out tanks as pillboxes, and his terrific strength in machine guns negatived the head-on attempts of our infantry to dislodge him, despite the artillery support our gunners were able to give.

The prodigality of our artillery fire must have amazed the enemy. With the exception of one Australian regiment which was barely in action at this period, the artillery defenses were manned by British gunners, many of them belonging to some of the oldest and proudest regiments in the British Army. They carried out their work under constant bombing and machine-gun attacks and may safely claim to have played more than a major part in saving Tobruk in the vital hours. The Australians who fought the infantry battles will always give them full credit. Nor must the work of a North of England machine-gun regiment be forgotten. This regiment had fought with the victorious army that had destroyed the Italian Army of Cyrenaica barely five months before, and had remained on to give service second to none.

For the next fortnight fierce local fighting went on round the salient. Finally, on the night of May 15-16, we counterattacked and drove the enemy back 1000 yards. After that he never disputed our control of No Man’s Land. His main attack on Tobruk had failed. It lay as a thorn in his line of communications to the frontier and he had to settle down to a siege with all its attendant difficulties instead of making a swift drive into Egypt to coincide with the Battle of Crete.

V

The ferocity of the German air attacks on Tobruk are ample proof of their desperate anxiety to subdue the garrison. The pace the enemy set in the early days could not be kept up by men or machines, and in later months the attacks eased off, but never enough to make the garrison area free from subconscious worry about the skies above. No other area of this size in the world has been so thoroughly blitzed: by the end of October nearly 1200 separate raids had taken place. The harbor was the favorite target in the early days, with the frontline posts and ammunition dumps a close second. All day and night the antiaircraft guns boomed; in those first few weeks it seemed as if there would never be a moment’s peace and quiet. While they were able to maintain planes on the primitive drome inside the perimeter the RAF did an outstanding job. Hopelessly outnumbered, the RAF pilots fought literally from sunrise to sunset, touching down only for fuel and ammunition. But as fast as they shot down German planes fresh ones appeared. They were always lurking in the clouds to trap the unwary, and finally the gallant fight against such odds had to end.

After that the Germans had the air to themselves, but they always have had the magnificent anti-aircraft defenses to contend with. As from fifty to eighty planes appeared over the harbor and one after another peeled off into their screaming dives, it was always a safe bet that one or more would never straighten out. The British heavy gunners stuck to their work with a courage that was almost superhuman. In later months divebombing attacks slackened considerably, the enemy going in more and more for high-level attacks. These were just as nerve-racking, as no one could ever guess the target.

No part of the area was free from attack; water points, food and ammunition supply dumps, petrol stores, and harbor installations all received their share. ‘They took us out for a rest in what we thought would be a peaceful wadi, but we got such hell from the air that we were glad to get back into the perimeter posts,’ one private told me with a grin. Even the beaches were not free. To the Australian in particular, swimming was the only relaxation; to be attacked while naked and in the water was the last straw. On several occasions I have seen hundreds of yards of beach tossed by the racing feet of bronzed and naked men while their comrades worked at the Brens carefully set up to meet such an eventuality. All day and far on into the night the beaches were packed, and it is a miracle that so little damage was done there during the really hot months.

From the beginning the harbor was the main target for the enemy bombers. At first, merchant shipping came in by daylight, but the constant bombing proved too dangerous and the losses too severe. Thereafter all supplies were brought in and sick and wounded evacuated at night. This service has gone on ever since and is perhaps one of the greatest jobs the Navy has done in this war. The enemy have never let up bombing the sea routes, but the Navy has always got through. One Australian destroyer1 old enough to have seen service in the latter part of the last war holds the record with a total of twentyeight trips to Tobruk. I traveled back to Tobruk on her in August and we were relentlessly attacked from the air towards sunset. There were several near misses before our fighters appeared on the scene and drove the Junkers 87’s and the Messerschmitts away in a dogged battle. A big dogfight went on over our heads, and planes seemed to be everywhere. While the battle was raging more enemy bombers came in, but skillful handling of the destroyer enabled us to dodge their bombs. On that occasion the enemy lost nine planes and the RAF five. The sailors took it as normal part of the routine job. ‘We are getting used to it in Bomb Alley,’ one of them told me.

In the back areas the huge and complex organization necessary to maintain the modern army was running at full swing. Workshops were always working at full pressure; refitting tanks, guns, vehicles, water carriers, right through down to small armory jobs, these men wrought miracles of improvisation. Ammunition companies were never idle; to allow any gun position to be short even for a few hours would have been the cardinal sin. In addition there were the ackack posts to be serviced — those hungry guns that must often have gone for days at a time without cooling off. No wonder that the roads and tracks in Tobruk were never idle. Now and then during a severe raid all traffic would come to a stop, but as the last planes zoomed away the whole area would spring to life again and engines would roar as the drivers raced to overtake the lost minutes.

The medical services did outstanding work. As soon as a wounded man was fit to travel he was taken to a clearing station near the harbor. Here he would wait the ghostlike arrival of the destroyers. Stretcher cases were loaded on barges and ferried out. Gently they were embarked and, all going well, were many miles away by dawn. But time and time again the planes would come over while the wounded were in the open. Wherever possible these helpless men would be rushed to cover, but more often they would be caught in the open. The devoted bearers would never leave them; all they could do was to cower down beside their stricken comrades and alternate prayer with curses.

With the record of the terrible toll dysentery took on Gallipoli ever in their minds, the older officers strove from the beginning to impress the necessary precautions on the minds of all. They did their job well; dysentery has never been a major problem. Sandfly fever, a swift malaria-like illness, caused a lot of trouble during the summer months. Diet deficiency was perhaps the main medical worry. Vitamins in tablets can never properly replace the missing foodstuffs. The men lived out of tins although, as time went on, frozen meat was available in small quantities. Outwardly fit, they weakened imperceptibly; all right for the immediate job, how much sudden and concentrated effort they could stand up to became a worrying thought. Desert sores spread; the slightest scratch and a fester followed. With the Australian’s self-assumed air of callousness, the mental breakdowns were dismissed as the ‘bomb happies’ with more sympathy than resentment.

Every night patrols would be out, some penetrating as far as three and four miles into enemy territory. Tank hunting and destruction, location of enemy mine fields, destruction of forward observation posts, and straight-out fighting— these and other activities of the men made life a misery to the enemy. By mid-July in the vital salient sector, we had reduced the German front by several thousands of yards and its depth by over a thousand.

But the Germans still held the vital posts on the Meduuar rise. Early in August we came nearest to success, but the fates were against us. A small attacking force succeeded in reaching its objective and dislodging the enemy. One officer carried a Very pistol and cartridges in a bag on his back. With the pistol he was to give the ‘success’ signal. In the post he reached for the bag; it had been torn off farther back by the barbed wire. Back in our lines no one knew what was going on, and it was not until night that a runner got through with the news that we had held the objective all day with a handful mostly of wounded men. It was too late; the gallant little force was overwhelmed.

It was after this fight that one of those queer truces unarranged by higher commands occurred. All night the bearers, both German and Australian, had searched for their wounded. Dawn found them with their task far from finished. They worked on amid desultory fire that died away. For some hours all was silence while the hunt went on. Stern faced men would signal ‘Here is one of yours,’ and ultimately every wounded man was cleared away. Gradually the firing began again and the truce was over.

So the months went by. For two thirds of a year we held the German at bay. Tobruk was like a running wound in his side that paralyzed any movement on to Egypt. The battered town, the ugly wind-swept slopes and rugged wadis all pockmarked and torn, with the gray stains of tens of thousands of explosions, the lonely cemetery up there on the eastern rises, the harbor waters with the rusting spars and hulls of many ships, the masts and cranes along the front lying awry as the blast from thousands of bombs had left them — it will be many years before this vast ugly area will lapse back into its desert state. Rust and destruction will be the only record of one of the great jobs in this war. ‘Disapappointment and shame’ were the emotions that silenced our men as they fell back from Barce in those anxious April days. They were not to know then that within a month they were to save Egypt and perhaps the world.

  1. This was probably the H.M.A.S. Waterhen,later sunk under tow without loss of life.