Tobruk - bombed by night and day

31st July 1941: The besieged garrison learns to live with regular bombing

In North Africa the stalemate persisted. Both the British and the Germans were looking to build up their forces in order to bring on a decisive engagement. In the middle stood the besieged port of Tobruk, stubbornly holding out against constant attacks from the Luftwaffe. It remained an awkward obstacle for Rommel as he planned a new assault on the main British forces in Egypt.

Geoffrey Nowland was with the 9th Australian Division besieged in Tobruk. His diary paints a broad picture of the privations and daily life within the garrison:

31st July 1941

Last night I witnessed the most spectacular fireworks display I have yet seen. It was Tobruk's elaborate reception to the enemy bombers that visited us and duly departed, rather hurriedly, after depositing their contributions to the show.

Thousand pound bombs and big ack'ack' guns with accompanying loud bangs, did their best to rival an outback Aussie thunderstorm; while long inquisitive fingers of light from the searchlight batteries wove fantastic mathematical designs against the clear sky. Order amongst chaos!

Smaller guns filled the heavens with multi-coloured tracers that must have given the raiders the jitters, but that was to us an impressive, heartening sight. Occasionally a thin silver stream of tracers would strangely flow down against the luminous tide, as some optimistic invisible raider dared to pit his guns against the formidable ground defences.

These displays are naturally best appreciated from a distance, where descending flak and shrapnel are the chief hazard, but in any case where heavy bombs are likely to be dropped there is usually an adequate shelter; which is just as well, because in Tobruk are to be seen reinforced concrete walls two feet thick, caved in as though they were matchwood, under the impact of a heavy bomb.1

In July 1941 David Sutherland, then a junior officer in No. 8 Commando, had volunteered for a small raiding party based in the besieged port of Tobruk. Sutherland had joined Jock Lewes just after he had led the Twin Pimples raid. These two young officers would soon move back to Cairo to become founding members of the SAS.

My own feelings at being besieged in Tobruk were depression and unease. The experienced enemy had the initiative. One did not know what was going to happen next. Our job was to rest by day and patrol in no-man's-land during the night.

The day, often after a spectacularly beautiful dawn, usually began with the first of four or five dive-bomber - Stuka - attacks of the day on Tobruk harbour, 12 kilometres away.

There were several Bofors light anti-aircraft guns in the area firing non-stop to add to the crunch of exploding bombs. Every now and then a Stuka was hit and began to lose height. Everyone cheered.2


He Who Dares - Recollections of Service in the SAS, SBS and MI5

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