1 Libya: Tobruk and Gaza, June 1942

Ch1 Libya Soon after midday on the first of June 1942, Harry Brown and I climbed out of a slit trench with our hands above our heads and surrendered to an approaching German tank. From his open turret the commander gestured for us to go towards a rise in the ground about a couple of hundred yards away, where a small group of figures was beginning to assemble. We were some of the survivors of the 150th Infantry Brigade which had been broken into and destroyed after being cut off and surrounded for five very unpleasant days. Our captors were part of the 15th Panzer Division, one of the three German Divisions which had looped around our position at the southern end of the Gazala line on the night of 26 May, the beginning of Rommel’s great push which was to take him through Egypt to within fifty miles of Alexandria.

I do not remember any strong feelings either of relief at being still alive or of anxiety about the future. What was happening was just another of the unexplained things over which one had no control and which with the experience of nearly two years in the army, was accepted with resignation. I was however aware of being extremely tired after forty-eight hours with very little sleep. Although I was in the artillery, much of this time had been at a forward infantry position where I had been sent with an officer to set up an additional observation post for the field guns. As we were surrounded, this was at a place which would previously have been regarded as a couple of miles behind the gun positions. Observation was not a job for which I had any proper training or experience and the officer was a notoriously useless Lieutenant, known to all other ranks as Gladys, who could barely read a map and was normally kept at Battery HQ where he could do little harm.

By now our guns had little ammunition left, supplies having been cut off since the first day of the battle. Gladys caused two or three rounds to be directed at a German heavy machine-gun post which we had watched being set up beyond the range of the infantry bren guns. Neither Gladys nor !had much idea where our shells landed and we were told that no more were to be wasted. A gunner officer from another battery now arrived but he was not allowed to use any ammunition either. As there now seemed little point in our remaining at this post, we were told to withdraw to our HQ and leave it to the infantry. As Gladys and I left the protection of the trench and ran across an exposed piece of ground we were heavily machine-gunned. The officer from the other battery was killed shortly afterwards.

I got back to the battery HQ area just as it was getting dark, thinking that I might get a little sleep. There most things above ground had been damaged; even the iron rail, which held up the tent over my little dug-in bivouac, was smashed and had fallen in. I had lived in this snug little hole for several weeks and had made it really comfortable with built-in shelves for my kit and a smoky oil lamp made from a corned-beef tin.I had just cleared the debris from the bottom of the hole and was creeping into it in expectation of some sleep when the order came that we were to move the HQ to a new position. Although this was to be a matter of only a half mile or so, it also involved aconsiderable amount of digging to adapt places previously used by someone else. I did eventually get an hour or two of sleep before the usual stand-to at dawn.

This was to be our last morning; the guns had no more ammunition except for some smoke shells and these were now used to lay down a screen to cover some manoeuvring of a squadron of Matilda tanks which had attached themselves to the Brigade a few days earlier. As these tanks had no ammunition and very little petrol, it was not a move likely to deter the enemy for long. By mid-morning the last rounds had been used to blow up our guns, and we learned that infantry positions were being over-run by German armour. Through our Sergeant-major, orders were now given that we were to regard ourselves as being on our own and that we should attempt to make our way eastwards. Without transport or supplies this did not seem to be a very realistic possibility but any thoughts we might have had of lying low until dark were dispelled by the arrival of the German tanks. Harry Brown and I joined a disconsolate group of a hundred or so which had already assembled. There must have been many such groups in the several square miles of what had been the area of a Brigade of over three thousand men with more than half of these surviving to be taken prisoner.

Within a few hours of our capture the lack of drinking water caused thirst, or the fear of thirst, to become the main preoccupation. The German troops were short of water too; their lines of communication had been critically extended, although with the elimination of our Brigade these were now very much reduced. At this time of year it was extremely hot in the desert, there was no shade and a number of prisoners collapsed with heat exhaustion. Harry and I were not in too bad shape; we had been able to fill our water bottles that morning, but some people had been pinned down in slit trenches since the previous day, or perhaps even longer, without being able to do so.

We were marched to an area where there were groups of radio cars and other transport. It seemed to be Divisional Headquarters; an impressive six-wheeled armoured car came by which, we were told with pride, was that of General Rommel himself. I did not quite believe this at the time, thinking that the usual place for the General in Command was many miles behind the battle, as was our General Auchinleck at that moment. I have since learned that Rommel had indeed directed in person the 15th Panzers in their final assault on our positions. The German troops surprisingly gave me the impression that their discipline was more informal and their dress certainly more relaxed than would have been the case at our Divisional Headquarters. They also treated us quite properly and without any show of arrogance. Although there was no general issue of water, some Germans did give drink to prisoners from their own bottles, and indeed one gave a swig to me.

The next day we were taken on lorries to a makeshift enclosure where eventually a water truck arrived. Fears that there might not be enough to go round led to a disorganised scramble, and the Germans had to restore order by pulling out two or three chaps at random and threatening to shoot them. I now find it difficult to give a coherent or consecutive account of the events of the next few days during which previously orderly and disciplined troops were reduced to demoralisation and despair.

INTERPOLATION 1 : January 1942
Five months earlier we had been facing a German force which had been isolated near the coast at Halfaya pass, close to the Egyptian frontier. They had been cut off by the British attack of November 1941 which had by-passed them and moved the main front some two hundred miles westwards to El Agheila. This beleaguered garrison was small and not much of a threat but it was a nuisance in that it occupied a natural defensive position controlling the main coastal road. It was now intended to reduce it by a direct attack and we had been moved in to provide artillery support for the infantry. This was to be static first-world-war stuff and in the command post we worked all night with protractors and log tables to produce a programme for a creeping barrage behind which the infantry were to advance. A separate programme was needed for each of the twelve guns and this was slow work.

However, everything was ready for the attack to begin just after dawn when one of our observation posts phoned in to say that a German truck was approaching, flying a white flag, and that the garrison seemed to be surrendering. In the command post our first feeling was one of indignation that our hours of preparation were to be wasted. I doubt if this feeling was shared by our infantry however. Later that morning the Germans marched past our positions as we watched in silence, on their way to prison camp and comparative safety. I do not remember considering the possibility that it might eventually be my turn.

Link to next chapter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s