Up until the beginning of 1942, the North African campaign had been characterised by swift advances by both sides, followed by equally swift withdrawals. In May of that year the Allied forces were based in a static series of ‘Boxes’ on the Gazala line awaiting an anticipated attack. Rommel was determined that this time his forces would capture Tobruk and continue to Cairo, Alexandria and the Suez Canal. His problem was a lack of supplies and the further his troops advanced, the more acute the need to capture fuel, ammunition and food became.
Despite strong resistance at the end of May, Rommel’s Afrika Korps overran the 150 Brigade Box which blocked his supply route and attention was then focused on the Free French forces at Bir Hacheim, the southern-most Box. Forces in the remaining Boxes were ordered to withdraw as the Armoured Corps could no longer offer any hope of protection. Amidst scenes of confusion the troops fell back towards Tobruk, but it was captured 21 June, with Rommel taking over 30,000 prisoners as well as vehicles and valuable supplies. By 22 July the Afrika Korps had reached the limit of its advance and both sides dug in. It would take until October before Allied forces had recovered and re-equipped sufficiently to launch a sustained attack.
For those serving in the Western Desert it was a totally new and strange environment and the difficulties of day-to-day living are well documented in a memoir by James Bostock a Signaller in 9th Bn DLI:
About our most pressing problem was the shortage of water … The trouble was that during the movement of fighting forces up and down the coastline the few water-wells, such as they were, had been well salted several times by the Germans and by our own forces, to deny the water to the enemy… Groups of men living in neighbouring fox-holes would save up what little might be left in their water bottles at the end of the day, pour the dregs into half a petrol tin kept for the purpose, and boil this over a fire made by half-filling another petrol tin with sand, soaking it with petrol and setting light to it. We could get dry tea from the cookhouse but of course there was no milk, not even condensed, nor any sugar. We got over the latter problem in a somewhat unusual way.
About once a fortnight a NAAFI van, greatly daring, would creep up from civilisation, wherever that was, and sell sweets, cigarettes, chocolates and tins of beer. We would buy boiled sweets so that when we made the concoction called tea we could solemnly ask ourselves, “What do we sweeten it with tonight chaps? We had lemon drops last time. How about pineapple tonight?”…Another casualty of the continual heat was the bully beef, which was about all we had to eat with “hard tack”, or biscuits like tiles with no taste at all. When the tin of bully beef was opened in the heat of the day it slopped out into one’s mess tin like lumpy stew, and was immediately coated with a film of sand – there was always a dusty breeze blowing. Not only sand; the stuff was immediately attacked by flies, so persistent it was impossible to wave them off. The flies were a nightmare, bringing sand-fly fever and desert sores; which were ulcers made by the flies’ tiny maggots eating holes in one’s flesh, very painful and only cured by having a white powder called sulphanilamide poured over it by a medical orderly and covered by a dressing. I have the scars on my legs and arms to this day.
The only way we could approximate to an overall bath, shower or rub-down was as follows: Two chaps were involved. One stripped off and had a bar of soap and a flannel within handy reach. The other poured water very sparingly from a water bottle into the open palms of his companion, who smoothed it over his body using an occasional rub of the soap. It is truly surprising how little water is needed, used in this way, to cover oneself completely with lather and wash it off with the flannel…
After some months in these desert conditions one’s shirts got dark with sweat each day. There was no hope of washing them, water was much too precious. The shirts got darker and encrusted with dust and eventually disintegrated. At this point it was usually possible to get a replacement shirt from the quartermaster.
The climate in the desert doesn’t change a lot. One day is much like another. One gets used to the heat, and during the many months I spent in the desert we had no rain at all. The surface is covered with a thick layer of dust which rose in choking clouds when a vehicle went by. Occasionally a strong hot wind blows, and this can be acutely painful, as the blown sand scratches one’s face, arms and knees like sandpaper, leaving these areas red and sore.
Experiences on the Gazala Line.
Robert Lee, a Signaller in the Royal Artillery shortly to be captured on the Gazala Line, described the purpose of the Box system during interviews with his nephew David Heaton:
Boxes were originally to protect the Infantry… When you’re in an established position, they’re like a camp. A huge area. Barbed wire all the way round the outside, then minefields, with a gap, similar to a drawbridge. The tracks that go out from the box and then through the minefield are planted with mines each night. At dawn ‘Stand To’ it’s the Infantry’s job to go out and take up those mines and bring them back inside, all carefully accounted for. Then the OP Officer can ride out to his position. One morning they did a miscount. Left one on the track. Killed a Troop Commander. He drove into it.
The men are arranged inside. The most vulnerable units are in the middle… Our system of boxes was essentially a defensive thing. It was too rigid. The boxes couldn’t help one another. The Afrika Korps methods were more flexible. They could take each of our boxes in turn and have a battle with it… (As the situation deteriorated)… We held them off a long time. Getting on for four days and nights. Our guns were in action on 28th and 29th, plus the Infantry – machine guns and mortar fire. Coming at us we had artillery shells, airburst rapid fire, machine-gun fire. On 30th and 31st, German armour and German vehicles got right up on us. They were in full view – to our south, mind. One vast football field. Vehicles and Valentines burning all around us, palls of that acrid smoke, the smell of human flesh roasting, burning. The first taste of hell. But not the last… I remember listening in to a Bombardier Specialist, and he was talking to a Sergeant out at the OP. This Sergeant was one of my old ‘B’ Troop blokes. I knew the voice. He was obviously getting disturbed. The Germans were right there in front of him. He could see them clearly. Out at the OP they were just in a dug trench. Just telephones with them, wires running back. Nothing else at all. There’s this Sergeant saying, “I’m afraid it’s getting impossible now. There’s nothing much we can do. They’re getting so close”. He says, “I hope you’ll explain to my wife what happened”. He was talking to someone who knew him well. He was in a state. That’s how it was at the end…
All our positions were overrun like a farmer ploughing his fields. Their infantry and their quick-firing guns on portées were advancing on us. It didn’t take much to clean up the table, not by then. We’d no alternative, apart from committing suicide. We laid our weapons down. We spread out. We walked towards individual German soldiers with our hands raised and open. The young German I came to said “Nicht boom-boom”, and I said “Nein”. Pretty well the only German word I knew at that time. When we walked on, in those first few minutes, we were moving past stretcher after stretcher. I don’t even know who they were, whether they were our Gunners or whether they were Infantry blokes. Could have been anybody. In that sort of situation, you lose all track of what’s going on. You just know you’re finished.
The Centre is especially indebted to Robert Lee, a keen supporter, who has donated a substantial collection of art relating to his POW years in Germany, some of which are on permanent display at the Centre.
From the memoir of Ted Stonard who served in the Royal Artillery, in 72nd Field Regt, 286th Battery.E Troop, of 50th Infantry Division, is an extract relating his experience of the climax of the battle.
The final day commenced with the usual ‘stand-to’ at 5.30am an ominous stillness greeted the detachment as they stood or knelt around their guns wondering what the day would bring, food was no longer of any importance as most were suffering from thirst, and many had blistered lips and parched throats…
It was not long before the Troop began to have casualties, E Sub. (Bdr E Stonard) having the first, a shell burst near the gun and Gnr Lavendar (his nose already bandaged from a splinter several days previously), while laying in his shallow slit trench was hit by a large piece of shell, it sliced through the fleshy part of his upper thigh, splintering the bone.
On hearing his scream, the Bdr and Gnr Bristow went to his aid, he was conscious but in a state of shock. Stuffing a cigarette into his mouth the Bdr put a large shell dressing on the gaping wound, the leg was almost severed and the splintered bone showed through…
The Troop position came under continual shell-fire, vehicles and Gun Quads being hit, a 3 ton lorry some hundred yards to the left flank burst into flames from a direct hit, this gave the Germans a visual target, unfortunately an acute shortage of ammunition prevented the Troop from returning the fire, detachments were only too pleased to seek the protection of a slit trench no matter how shallow…
No 1 Gun (Bdr Stonard) was out of action, one man (Gnr Rickett) being killed and two wounded, the Bdr was blown forward into a slit trench, Gnrs Canfield and Odell managed to escape injury and took shelter in their slit trenches.
After the dust had settled a voice was heard calling out for help, this was Gnr Ginger Lee who had been blown several yards in the rear and was laying stretched out on the sand. …With disregard for his own safety, Gnr Canfield dashed across and dragged Lee into the slit trench alongside Bdr Stonard, the wounded man was in a bad state, his shirt was scorched and burning but the worst injury was to his eyes, one socket was empty and the other eye was hanging out on his cheek, the shell had hit the cartridge case he was holding and the explosion had ignited the cordite. He was quite calm, probably in shock, the Bdr bandaged his eyes and gave him the only comfort he could – a cigarette and laid him in the slit trench…
After about half an hour the firing ceased, tracked vehicles were heard approaching, German Infantry appeared and indicated to them to go back to their rear – the Troop had fired its last shot!
Transcript of pages (right) from diary of Ted Stonard:
Slept in Gun-pit during night. Apps came as well.
Thursday 28th May 1942 Rotunda.
Rev 6 Firing in all directions all day, during late afternoon. Regimental Target upon convoy of enemy vehicles. Destroyed most. Tank battles in rear of Box around Bir El Harment. Heavy shellfire by enemy. Sound ranging in, and around Battery Position, being shelled by all sides.
Went to bed about 10, aroused half an hour later. Order to move, packed Quad with stores, equipment and ammo, also some rations, moved off about 2 next morning.
Friday 29th May 1942
Covered rest of Brigade while they were withdrawing. Moved into 151 Brigade area early during the morning (5am). Very heavy shelling by enemy while moving into new position. Platform dropped from beneath Gun, smashed it. Half hour coming into action, position as No 4 gun on crest of hill under heavy shellfire, dug slit trenches. Quad hit in radiator, repaired later. Firing during day. Scotty came round with rations. Early during evening withdrew back about 700 yds to foot of hill.
Saturday 30th May 1942
Rose early. Tanks (Valentines and Matildas 4RTR) around us. Limited ammo. RAF bombing Germans. Sgt Compton’s Quad blown up. Very heavy shellfire.
Also captured on the Gazala Line was Captain Bill Chambers of the 4th battalion East Yorkshire Regiment. As a POW in Italy and subsequently Germany, he was heavily involved in producing plays in the Camps and his POW Log comprises photographs and programmes of these productions. Stage set materials, musical instruments, records and sports equipment were all supplied by the YMCA and the quantities were carefully noted, so too was the level of food supplied in the Camps. It will come as no surprise that Chambers concluded the calories were insufficient to maintain life. To exist without Red Cross Parcels in the Camps was very difficult.
Transcript of Airletter (below):
Dear Bill, Norfolk told me today they had a Cable from their Boy and it has done your Mother and I quite a lot of good as we impatiently wait for news from you. Send us a Cable as soon as you can or Brenda as she will phone us. We listen to Bir Hacheim Knightsbridge Gazala till we are tired. I do hope you are well under your conditions. You know the real meaning of the word Comrade and your fellow officers and men must mean everything to you. Mother has been to York for the day but is back now. She is tired and worried about you all. They were all at York. Frank and Kate from the Bay, as there was a full House she saw them all and it has done her good. Dick. Field. John Stafford are always in my thoughts and I pray you are all safe and well. An Australian airman told us how and on what you were living and the water[?] and what water[?] you were at in Sunday night’s Broadcast. Well my good thoughts and Prayers are for you all, so with all my love and waiting for news. I am, Pop.
This camp was a Carthusian Monastery built in 1300 but since considerably restored. It was used as a prison camp for Austrians during the last war & in peace time was an orphanage.
Opened in March 1942 as an officers camp.
Situated in a beautiful valley 2000 ft above sea level, south of Salerno. The monastery itself lay at the foot of the village of Pedula which rose up steeply on a hillside.
I spent a year here from Aug 1942 to Aug 1943.
The Armoured Corps suffered heavy losses during engagements in the ‘Knightsbridge’ area. Major Gerald Jackson, serving with A Squadron, 6RTR, fought through several punishing encounters with German Armour during this period and describes his arrival south of the Knightsbridge Box:
…when we got there we found that we were now in the area popularly known as the “Devil’s Cauldron”. One could soon see why, the area was covered with derelict British and German tanks, lorries, guns and needless to say, numerous dead bodies, which in the heat of the summer gave off a pungent sweet scented smell and were covered in flies, no doubt the same flies that seemed to appear from nowhere to share your bully and biscuits.
The new ‘General Grant’ tank is also discussed in his memoir:
It was the first time that I had seen Grants brewing up and it was not a pretty sight. The crew were virtually sitting on a petrol tank of a hundred gallons of aviation gasoline and a large quantity of high explosive shells, all of which are highly inflammable. Sometimes when they were hit all this would explode and the turret, weighing several tons, could be seen being blown off into the air. If the crew were lucky and unwounded they got out in time but this was not by any means always the case.
The severe losses led to an order to withdraw, with Jackson in the lead tank:
I was going along gaily as navigator in the dark until I was blown up, the rest of the regiment halted and, eventually after much searching a safe track through the minefield was found. I spent an uncomfortable night trying to get the tank out of the minefield, we mended the track, backed out hopefully the way we had come and were blown up again and yet again, however at last we made it and joined the others just west of Tobruk, it had not been a good time for me. I had been blown up four times in two days and by my own side! I was feeling absolutely shattered after no sleep for several days and Bam Brown, our doctor, made me have a couple of hours sleep in his ambulance, he said it would be in his own interest if I was navigating he wanted to make sure we knew where we were going and that it would be no good to have a zombie directing us.
See also El Alamein and Torch 1942.
Sir Iain Tennant, KT, of 201 Guards Brigade managed to withdraw from the Knightsbridge Box, only to be captured at Tobruk. An extract from his memoir makes clear the dangers involved:
The Box was bombed and strafed for seven days without a let up. There were attacks and counter attacks. Our Armour were magnificent. On 12th June we were ordered to withdraw. A young Officer in the City of London Yeomanry asked if he could take out a patrol to the north of the Box and recce a line of withdrawal. They went out soon after dark but they got caught in enemy cross-fire and were all dead within ten minutes. Then our orders to withdraw were cancelled.
On 13th June, the Scots Guards on Rigel Ridge were attacked in a sandstorm and suffered badly. That night, our remaining tanks managed to keep a corridor open to the north for all that was left of the Desert Force. This they did at great cost. The withdrawal was mainly on foot although I was fortunate as I had to keep in constant radio touch with the world and so rode in the W/T truck. We were through the corridor by daybreak and within a few miles of Tobruk.
From the diary of Capt J E Jenkins, Royal Engineers:
June 26th This, my fourth attempt at writing a diary sees a new setting. I am a POW my fate with that of several thousand others was sealed on the 20th. Although we knew that we were completely cut off from our main forces everyone had complete faith in Tobruk’s capabilities of holding out, so that when the dive bombers appeared early in the morning we were not surprised or perturbed. There were about 30 JU87’s and 15 JU88’s in the first wave, apparently this attack coincided with an infantry attack.
The bombers included smoke amongst their load and also some 1000 kilo bombs. The infantry (all German) penetrated our line at one place during the first stage. The Battalion HQ had received a direct hit and communications were cut …Our first real scare came at about 1400 hrs when machine guns opened up from the ridge beyond our lines. We were in a hopeless position as we had no defence in this direction (our role had been to the seaward and against parachute attack)… The OC ordered vehicles to be burnt and it was pitiful to see all our comparatively new trucks ablaze. We were finally captured at about 1600 hrs. We spent the night at Kings Cross.
On the 21st we were marched to the landing ground. It was blazing hot and prisoners were beginning to come in all directions. The men were parched for water and didn’t get any. The 22nd saw us in the same place, prisoners were still trailing in, the latest arrivals being the Ghurkas. I met three old friends from Ripon here and one chap from Dover.
On the 23rd the Cameron’s came in with pipes playing apparently the last to hold out, most of the officers moved off at midday. It was hell saying goodbye to the men. They had been such a grand lot and it was hard to picture what sort of time they would have until the end of the show. We went via Tmimi to Derna and had a most horrible night in the rain during which a chap was shot. I have never felt so disillusioned in my life before.
Of course, it was not just the Army who was caught up in the North African campaign as The Fall of Tobruk – a Naval Account from Lieutenant Commander Charles Coles OBE VRD reminds us:
At midnight on June 19th we were one of four boats patrolling the low desert coastline… The last two nights we had been quite pleased to miss our sleep and put to sea for operations, as the Germans had been intermittently lobbing shells into the harbour… Tobruk had never been easy to find in the dark – particularly when approaching from westwards, and now our withdrawal from the Gazala line had made accurate navigation most necessary, in order to be off the swept channel at dawn and not straining to identify a particular wadi or sand dune in the half light – wondering whether we were east or west of the harbour entrance. However, on this occasion we picked up the faint green glow of the mark-buoy, and in due course were steaming up the harbour… .The charts and instruments had just been cleared off the table, and the telegraphist was laying breakfast, when I heard a distant metallic ‘whang’. It was followed by the scream of a shell and an explosion on shore not far away… A moment later about half a dozen erratically aimed shells exploded nearby, and I was signalled to leave the jetty and proceed to the shelter of one of the many wrecks, that littered Tobruk. We got under way at once and secured alongside a rat-infested hulk not far away. It had never been one of our favourite berths, particularly since Labour Corps natives had used it as a latrine, but I observed most of the better wrecks were already sheltering a couple of MTBs and other small craft, and orders about dispersal of boats were strictly adhered to…
Then one of my crew pointed on shore to a group of South African troops who had just tumbled out of a lorry. They seemed very shaken – almost as though they were drunk… The numbers gathering by the shore increased by the minute. Over the ridge I could hear Bren and Bofors fire, alarmingly close. I would soon be in the front line, it seemed… .I soon realised how close the enemy were when I saw one of our retreating Bofors guns top the ridge: it fired a few rounds and then received a direct hit. It disintegrated – along with its crew – in a cloud of dust and smoke… Soon we were to observe – with mixed horror and interest – German field guns getting into position at the far end of the harbour – just where we had been fuelling earlier that day. Almost at once they opened fire on our gun positions at the harbour entrance. This battery trained round and returned the fire. Our jetty was in the middle of the duel and was very exposed to splinters and stray bullets… We had just been remarking how the desert camouflage paint on our hull was seeming to protect us when the situation changed… The SO was beside us, giving me some last minute instructions. Our jetty received two direct hits on the waterline, and a splinter cut down our aerial. As the SO’s engines were still running, he lost no time in casting off – telling me to do the same. After a further near-miss, which spun me round and completely deafened me, I sent to the cave for the rest of my crew – and started engines forthwith. It seemed touch and go as to whether we would make it in time. The next round tore up chunks of concrete beside us. The last man jumped aboard as we were sliding out full speed astern.
Sheltering beside another wreck, of the Chantala, Coles discovered the crew of a salvage schooner and a platoon of Rajputs also taking shelter, the Indian troops having been left there earlier in the day, and who were waiting calmly. Coles took them on board his MTB as he joined the race to leave Tobruk, putting down a smoke screen as he hunted for the gap in the boom to make his escape. It was Coles’ birthday and he celebrated with a bowl of hot stew, handed to him with the words “Not much for a birthday, Sir, but the routine’s been a bit upset!”
Two paintings from pages of Coles’ POW Log Book: