Tobruk - the siege drags on

23rd October 1941: There are rumours of relief from Egypt or a German attack but the besieged troops are battle weary

Polish, British, Indian, Australian and Czech soldiers (from left to right) standing side by side in Tobruk, where all nationalities take part in the battle against German forces, 22 October 1941. The Polish soldier belongs to the Independent Carpathian Rifles Brigade. The Czech soldier is a serviceman of the Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion.

Henry R. Ritchie1 was serving with the Royal Artillery in Tobruk. No words of encouragement from on high could change his mood. Whatever the propaganda pictures sought to portray, the thousands of men within the perimeter felt that their ordeal was endless.

By the middle of October, after thirteen months in the desert without relief and after six months in Tobruk, our senses were dulled by what seemed to be the endlessness of the task. With a confident, strident enemy all round us and ringed by their artillery we were captives, unwillingly installed on the lid of this barren landscape.

‘For our part, I suppose that we were just drained and battle weary. Most of us were well past the fear threshold. The future seemed blunted and bleak. There was little real apprehension. Indeed, there was little feeling at all.’

The crust of the Fortress was pitted with craters. The skin of the place was like the hide of the moon, gouged and perforated and engraved and ravished with the violence of it all. The Fortress had suffered like a great whale, wounded by thousands of harpoons. One felt that the whole of the stockaded bastion should be covered by a deep blanket of Fullers Earth and overlaid by a soft bandage to ease the pain.

For our part, I suppose that we were just drained and battle weary. Most of us were well past the fear threshold. The future seemed blunted and bleak. There was little real apprehension. Indeed, there was little feeling at all. The long painful haul had deadened our senses as we slopped into a deep layer of lethargy and idleness. We had had a bellyful and no mistake.

The General Officer Commanding Tobruk Fortress received many messages for distribution to his men. The one from Winston Churchill read:

‘THE WHOLE EMPIRE IS WATCHING YOUR STEADFAST AND SPIRITED DEFENCE OF THIS IMPORTANT OUTPOST OF EGYPT WITH GRATITUDE AND ADMIRATION.’

Another message from General Wavell said: ‘YOUR MAGNIFICENT DEFENCE IS UPSETTING THE ENEMY’S PLANS FOR THE ATTACK ON EGYPT AND GIVING US TIME TO BUILD UP FOR A COUNTER OFFENSIVE. YOU COULD NOT, REPEAT, N0T, BE DOING A BETTER SERVICE. WELL DONE.’

Later...

Philip, keeping a wary eye on a string of Stukas turning in from the coast [said] ‘They keep talking about this so called Eighth Army steaming up from Egypt to relieve us. I’ll believe that when I see it. If you ask me Rommel will get in his attack on Tobruk first. The Krauts have shot off thousands of rounds of ammo during the last two days. They are definitely trying to soften us up.’

‘We’ll soon know, one way of the uvver,’ said Charlie.

‘For a split second the plane seemed to shudder and hesitate before plunging on full power with the engine screaming and white flames streaming from its belly, into the yellow earth six hundred yards away. It exploded in a wild ball of flame.’

‘Captain Kershaw says that Rommel has got five divisions outside the wire and he intends to get Tobruk out of the way before makin’ ’is attack on Egypt.’

While they were talking a Stuka, taking part in a raid on the infantry was in the middle of its dive when a Bofors shell caught it right on the nose. For a split second the plane seemed to shudder and hesitate before plunging on full power with the engine screaming and white flames streaming from its belly, into the yellow earth six hundred yards away. It exploded in a wild ball of flame.

It was a spectacular termination to an absolute commitment by the Stuka pilot and a dramatic final act for the Fuehrer and the Fatherland.

Cannon shells and bullets were exploding in the burning wreckage and while flames were licking round the black tail, probing skywards like a blazing monument.

‘Poor sod,’ said Charlie, ‘it’s enough to turn yer guts.’

‘Well I can’t feel sorry for the bastard,’ said Philip, ‘I agree with the R.S.M. He’s right when he says that the only good Kraut is a dead one. That pilot will be put to bed with a shovel.’