In the Libyan desert British troops were besieged in the port of Tobruk. A substantial force had been stranded after German forces had made unexpected advances shortly after they arrived in North Africa. Led by Erwin Rommel the German “Afrika Korps’ were proving to be an entirely different opponent than the Italian Army. Not only had Rommel brought a much more aggressive strategy to this front but the British struggled to match his equipment.
On the 15th June the British launched Operation Battleaxe, an attempt to relieve the besieged garrison at Tobruk. A convoy of tanks had arrived just a month before and it was hoped that the newly equipped forces would have the strength to challenge the Germans.
Rommel had advance warning of the attack through intercepted British radio messages. But the British were to discover that their tanks were no match for the German 88mm gun and outranged and outgunned by many of the Afrika Korps tanks. Cyril Joly, commanding a tank in the 7th Armoured Division, was among those who had a very disheartening experience:
"Driver, halt," I ordered. "Gunner, 2-pounder - traverse left — on - tank - German Mark III - eight five zero yards. Fire." I watched Basset carefully turn the range-drum to the right range, saw him turn to his telescope and aim, noticed out of the corner of my eye that King was ready with the next round, and then the tank jolted slightly with the shock of the gun firing.
Through the smoke and dust and the spurt of flame I watched intently through my binoculars the trace of the shot in flight. It curved upwards slightly and almost slowly, and then seemed to plunge swiftly towards the target. There was the unmistakeable dull glow of a strike of steel on steel. "Hit, Basset! Good shot! Fire again," I called. Another shot and another hit, and I called, "Good shot; but the bastard won't brew."
As I spoke I saw the flame and smoke from the German's gun, which showed that he was at last answering. In the next instant all was chaos. There was a clang of steel on the turret front and a blast of flame and smoke from the same place, which seemed to spread into the turret, where it was followed by another dull explosion. The shock-wave which followed swept past me, still standing in the cupola, singed my hands and face and left me breathless and dazed.
I looked down into the turret. It was a shambles. The shot had penetrated the front of the turret just in front of King, the loader. It had twisted the machine-gun out of its mounting. It, or a jagged piece of the torn turret, had then hit the round that King had been holding ready - had set it on fire. The explosion had wrecked the wireless, torn King's head and shoulders from the rest of his body and started a fire among the machine-gun boxes stowed on the floor.
Smoke and the acrid fumes of cordite filled the turret. On the floor, licking menacingly near the main ammunition stowage bin, there were innumerable small tongues of flame. If these caught on, the charge in the rounds would explode, taking the turret and all in it with it.
From Cyril Joly: Take These Men. A classic memoir of the desert war, I notice that the hardcover is now highly collectable, commanding extraordinary prices. The paperback is available from Pen & Sword.
Cyril Joly’s first-hand narrative of these campaigns, highly praised when it was originally published in 1955, tells the story through the eyes of a young officer in the 7th Armoured Division, the famous Desert Rats. It describes in accurate, graphic detail the experience of tank warfare over seventy years ago, recalling the fortitude of the tank crews and their courage in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds.