Everyone’s War  – Tobruk

Jonathan Fenny introduces this issues cover theme of Tobruk, a deep-water port in northeastern Libya which was the scene of some of the most tenacious fighting in North Africa.
The Allied defence of Tobruk during the siege of 1941 and its capture in 1942 is told here by eye- witness accounts from the Archive.

Gunner Francis Smith served with F Troop of 144th Field Regiment which arrived in besieged Tobruk in 1941 to relieve a regiment of Australian artillery in the Sidi Daud Sector, southwest of the garrison. Opposing infantry lines were so close together that a pre-agreed truce with the enemy was necessary to ensure no firing took place during deliveries of food and water and visits to the latrines which were in firing range on both sides.
Stationed in Tobruk’s Navy House during this period was First Lieutenant Morgan Morgan-Giles. His memories of Tobruk include his narrow escape from enemy coastal fire during mine-laying missions in a WWI motorboat, and the arrival of an escaped British POW who had crossed the desert surviving on water from the radiators of wrecked German vehicles. Morgans’ abiding memory is the brotherhood amongst those who defended Tobruk: the wonderful fellow-feeling throughout the garrison.

Teenage Stanisaw ‘Stan’ Achoda served during the Siege of Tobruk. He had escaped from enemy- occupied Poland and enlisted in the Polish Army, joining a youth volunteer group for fourteen-to eighteen-year-olds. Serving with the Carpathian Rifle Brigade as a signalman, Stan saw action at Tobruk during the brigades defence of the area around Ras el Medauar and took part in diversionary action during the Allied breakout.

The Fall of Tobruk is recounted through the memoirs of Charles Coles, Iain Tennant, and John Glanville. Charles, commander of motor torpedo boat MTB 262, was in harbour on the day German forces overtook the garrison. He gives a gripping account of the cat and mouse chase between his MTB and enemy tank fire as he sought refuge behind sunken wrecks in the harbour before risking a run for the open sea. John, a naval meteorological liaison officer at the Port War Signal Station that overlooked Tobruk harbour, also made a last-minute escape. He swam the harbour to get aboard a last remaining army lighter that only had one engine working, steering it through the harbour boom while under tank attack from both sides.

Escape was not possible for Intelligence Officer Iain Tennant of 201 Guards Brigade. Having survived the enemy offensive at the Knightsbridge Box and the withdrawal to Tobruk, he was one of many who were captured by the Germans and became a POW for the remainder of the war.

Tanks and partisans

Our other articles include Unforgettable Tilly in which Panzer IV tank driver Manfred Thorn gives his account of the battle for Tilly-la-Campagne during the Allied breakout from Normandy in July/August 1944. A veteran of the Russian Campaign, Manfred describes the bitter fighting at Tilly as the worst he had ever experienced.

From France we move to Poland where British POW Kenneth Ogg was forced into slave labour at Blechammer, a fuel oil factory financed by the Reich. Here he witnessed atrocities against the Jewish prisoners, including the extermination of the last survivors of the Jewish sub-camp.

In September 1944, Medic Michael Parsons of the Long Range Desert Group was dropped at night into Albania. His mission was to rescue Commanding Officer David Lloyd Owen who had fractured his spine when a parachute drop went disastrously wrong. Albanian Adventure recounts this story and the LRDGs work with Albanian partisans.

Russian partisans are mentioned in author James Goulty’s The Russian soldier which gives an introduction to the strengths and weakness of Red Army conscripts in the Second World War.

Felix Roussel relives the voyage of an armed troop carrier which took 157 troops of the 9th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers to Singapore on the eve of the Japanese invasion. For her operational success at Singapore, the ship received a citation in the Order of the Day of the Free French Forces and, along with officers and crew, was awarded a Croix de Guerre.

Another ship, the RMS Laconia, is the subject of New York Times best-selling author Michael Tougias latest book Abandon Ship!, co-authored with Alison OLeary. Michaels article tells the incredible story of teenager Tony Large who survived not only the torpedoing of the Laconia, but a grueling seventeen-day lifeboat voyage.

Amanda Herbert-Davies