Tobruk Besieged: 4 May 1941 – 25 October 1941 Part II

An aspect of the struggle between the Tobruk garrison and the Luftwaffe that has gone virtually unremarked is the role played by camouflage and deception. The man behind it was Captain Peter Proud RE, who arrived at Tobruk after an eventful journey from Cyrenaica during the Benghazi-Tobruk Handicap. He was appointed ‘G3 (Camouflage) Desert Force Attached to the 9th Australian Division’ at some point shortly before 16 April 1941, and on that date wrote to a Major Barkas at GHQ Middle East explaining the importance of his work and recommending the formation of a dedicated force to help him carry it out; at the time of writing he was co-opting Indian Sikh troops in increments of 200 on a day-to-day basis. The latter were employed gathering and preparing a stock of materials that included approximately 2,000 coloured nets, 20,000 yards of natural Hessian, 250 gallons of assorted paint, a number of stirrup pumps for use as improvised sprayers, and an ex-Italian workshop with tools and an electrically powered band saw among other equipment. The nets were modified with strips of Hessian referred to as ‘garnish’ and part painted to match the terrain, the colour of which was likened to the shade of the foundation cosmetic Max Factor No.9. The nets were then configured for specific applications, such as covering pre-manufactured metal frames artillery gun pits. Sufficient equipment was provided to permit artillery sites to place all gun pits, crew bivouacs, slit trenches, ammunition storage and latrines under camouflage.

The latter idea was adapted for other purposes, with smaller frames being manufactured in the workshop to suit positions and even individual slit trenches out on the perimeter, and not just there. A large net was made to cover the gunboat Gnat when occupying her berth in a narrow cove on the south side of the harbour, the vessel’s mast and searchlight top being removed to ease its deployment, and a similar expedient was employed to protect A Lighters while berthed in the harbour. The Lighters were run into the shore bow first near a small headland projecting into the harbour and covered with garnished nets pegged to the shore. The open end of the net was then draped over cables stretched taut behind the Lighters and allowed to dangle down to the water; from the air the camouflaged vessels looked like an innocuous extension of the headland. A system for camouflaging aircraft was also formulated, using three thirty-five foot square camouflage nets linked in a T-shape, pegged out over specially made support posts mounted in sand-filled petrol cans. Blast walls and slit trenches for ground crew were constructed under the netting.

Many of Proud’s initiatives were equally simple but effective. A drive-through paint-spray booth was set up for vehicles at the building Proud had commandeered as a combined store house and workshop. To stretch the limited supply of paint, vehicles were sprayed with used engine oil scrounged from the garrison’s REME vehicle workshops before being driven outside for a second coat of sand and dust that blended perfectly with the surrounding terrain; instructions, oil and other kit were available for units to camouflage their own vehicles on request. The booth was later augmented with a mobile spray unit, using a captured Italian compressor mounted on a 15 cwt truck, equipped with fifty gallon oil drums as a paint reservoir and a folding ladder for spraying tall buildings and tents. Fuel dumps were concealed by distributing the fuel cans in irregular linked patterns stacked only one or two cans high to avoid casting tell-tale shadows. These were then flanked by berms formed from supply boxes filled with sand and then coated with oil and more sand to protect the fuel cans from shrapnel.

In addition to merely hiding things from enemy view, Proud supervised the construction and execution of a number of novel and in some instances highly sophisticated deception measures. At the lower end of the scale wrecked vehicles were positioned to the south of weapon pits in order to cast them in shadow, and discarded Italian uniforms were stuffed to create dummy personnel to man dummy positions. Decoy tanks were constructed from camouflage nets covering a stone sangar to the front surmounted by a wooden frame and pole to simulate the turret and gun. Proud’s workshops also produced a more sophisticated version of wood and canvas with painted running gear and folding mudguards fashioned from petrol cans along with a 3 ton truck of similar construction, some mounted on wheels to ease movement. There was also a plan to produce dummy fighter aircraft of similar construction, complete with compressors to simulate propeller wash, although it in unclear if they were actually produced. Convoy movements were simulated by single vehicles towing a number of weighted sledge-like devices, while sea water was used to damp down the dust created when moving guns between locations.

On a grander scale, a fake fuel dump was constructed, complete with a convoy of wrecked Italian vehicles towed into position on the supposed approach road. The dummy AA positions with gunfire simulators and other equipment constructed in the vicinity of the harbour have been mentioned above, and a similar site was constructed 1,000 yards from one of the 51st Heavy AA Regiment’s positions facing the Ras El Medauar in mid-May. The dummy incorporated four unserviceable guns and was sufficiently convincing to draw German artillery fire directed by a Henschel 126, while the real site was left unmolested. Perhaps the most spectacular was a scheme to deceive the enemy into thinking that Tobruk’s coal-fired power station had been damaged and put out of action. During a daylight raid smoke bombs were set off near the station and one of its tall chimneys was brought down by a demolition charge, empty crates were scattered in the vicinity along with pieces of corrugated iron and other bits of scrap metal; sheets of hessian painted to represent bomb holes were hung on the building itself later.

Unfortunately camouflage and deception was of limited value to the vessels carrying supplies into the besieged port and evacuating the wounded and prisoners on the return trip. Air attacks thus took an increasing toll on shipping in the approaches to Tobruk and the harbour itself. On 1 May the minesweeper Milford Countess was machine-gunned while picking up the crew of a downed Blenheim, and a high-level bombing attack on two A Lighters being reloaded for the return trip on their designated beach in the north-east corner of the harbour killed one crewman and wounded another; other A Lighters nearby beneath Captain Proud’s camouflage netting remained unnoticed. As a result of the incident it was recommended that A Lighters only be used for embarkation at Tobruk in an emergency. On the afternoon of 2 May a dozen Stukas attacked shipping therein and two days later, in a rerun of the events of 14 April, another dive-bombing attack set the engine-room of the Hospital Ship Karapara ablaze on the vessel’s second trip to the port after being redirected from Aden; she was towed out of danger and reached the safety of Alexandria on one engine and with jury-rigged steering. On 12 May another mass afternoon raid by thirty Stukas and eight Junkers 88s caught the gunboat Ladybird at the western end of the harbour. One bomb hit a 2-Pounder AA gun on the vessel’s stern, killing its crew and wounded two men manning Italian 20mm weapons mounted nearby, and another detonated in her boiler room blowing out the ship’s bottom and setting her fuel oil tanks ablaze. As the Ladybird listed heavily to starboard her captain, Lieutenant-Commander Jack Blackburn, ordered the wounded evacuated while the forward 3-inch and 2-Pounder guns continued to engage the attackers; the latter remained in service after the gunboat had settled upright in ten feet of water.

In all eight ships were lost during May, and not all of them in Tobruk harbour or its environs. The sloop HMS Grimsby and merchantman SS Helka, carrying a cargo of water and petrol into Tobruk, were sunk after being caught by dive-bombers forty miles north-east of the port on 25 May; the anti-submarine trawler Southern Maid which was also accompanying the Helka shot down one of the attackers and damaged another before ferrying the survivors to Mersa Matruh. By the end of May it was virtually impossible to use Tobruk harbour in daylight, and vessels were instructed to avoid approaching the port before dusk and to be well clear before first light. Matters were complicated yet further by Axis aircraft assiduously sowing the harbour and approaches with mines, usually at night, which had to be painstakingly cleared by the minesweepers Arthur Cavanagh, Bagshot, and Milford Countess. Axis torpedo bombers also proved adept at attacking at night, and the movement of petrol and water carriers like the ill-fated Helka was restricted to no-moon periods as a result. A variety of small craft were pressed into service as supply carriers by the Inshore Squadron, and warships visiting Tobruk invariably carried supplies in and wounded out.

Thus by the end of May 1,688 men had been carried into Tobruk and 5,198 lifted out, the latter including wounded, POWs and unnecessary administrative personnel. In addition, 2,593 tons of assorted supplies had also been delivered, a daily average rate of eighty-four tons and fourteen tons above the estimated daily requirement. Even so, at the beginning of June the loss rate had become prohibitive and Eastern Mediterranean Fleet HQ in Alexandria temporarily decreed that only destroyers should be employed on Tobruk supply runs because their speed permitted them to make the round trip in darkness. The wisdom of this decision was highlighted on 24 June, when an attempt to get another cargo of water and petrol into Tobruk aboard the SS Pass of Balmaha, escorted by the sloops HMS Auckland and HMAS Paramatta, again ended in disaster. The little flotilla was attacked by torpedo bombers approximately twenty miles north-east of Tobruk, and then by a total of forty-eight Junkers 87s in three groups. The Auckland was abandoned after being badly hit and sank after almost breaking in two while the Paramatta was picking up survivors. The Pass of Balmaha was also badly damaged and temporarily abandoned, but was eventually towed into Tobruk after dark by the destroyer HMAS Waterhen. Even then, night runs provided insufficient protection for the destroyers as Axis aircraft proved adept at locating them and attacking with the aid of moonlight, and the fast runs had to be further restricted to no-moon periods. Runs were made by up to three destroyers per night and the fast minelaying cruisers Abdiel and Latona once a week; during the no-moon period in August 1941 the minelayers made seven round trips to Tobruk and the destroyers twenty-seven.

The regular Spud Runs by the A Lighters and other small vessels continued throughout. The latter, consisting of a number of small, aged merchantmen and four captured Italian fishing schooners, were responsible for carrying in most of Tobruk’s food. The schooner Maria Giovanni, commanded by Lieutenant Alfred Palmer RNR, was perhaps the most famous, making runs into Tobruk loaded to capacity with assorted victuals, sometimes including live sheep and bristling with jury rigged weaponry. She was lost after a German decoy lured her onto the shore in mistake for the light marking the entrance to Tobruk harbour; Palmer was shot and wounded trying to escape and was repatriated to his native Australia two years later. The A Lighters were based at Mersa Matruh from June 1941, carrying vehicles, ammunition and fuel into Tobruk and, time and enemy activity permitting, returning with cargoes of damaged equipment for repair in Egyptian workshops, wounded and prisoners. Attack could come at any time. One A Lighter was sunk by a magnetic mine as it approached its unloading point inside Tobruk harbour, and on another occasion two more were attacked by dive-bombers off Sidi Barrani. A four hour fight ensued during which the A Lighters fired off over 1,000 rounds, in the course of which one was sunk by multiple bomb hits. Only one crewman survived, after forcing himself through a small scuttle as the vessel went down, breaking all his ribs in the process. The second was taken in tow by a tug from Tobruk, but was so badly damaged she broke up and sank en route.

Neither were mines and aircraft the only threat. In the evening of 9 October a convoy of three A Lighters, A2, A7 and A18, left Mersa Matruh loaded with tanks, intending to rendezvous with an anti-submarine trawler and air cover at around noon the following day. At 04:00 on 10 October they were attacked by a U-Boat on the surface, whose gunfire damaged the A18’s bridge, cut her degaussing cable, carried away her mast and badly wounded her navigator. The A Lighter responded with its own armament and A7, commanded by Sub-Lieutenant Dennis Peters, part lowered her bow ramp with the intention of ramming but the U-Boat disappeared. The convoy then became split, with A18 limping back to Mersa Matruh while the other two A Lighters pushed on to Tobruk. The remainder of the voyage was far from uneventful. The air and sea cover failed to materialise and the A Lighters came under attack from a dozen aircraft at 17:00, from two more at 22:00 and from enemy coastal guns at around midnight; to round things off Tobruk was undergoing a heavy air raid when they finally arrived at 01:30 on 10 October. After unloading A2 and A7 sailed back out of Tobruk harbour at dusk on 11 October. They were ambushed at around midnight by U-75 lurking inshore, again using guns rather than torpedoes. A7 suffered several hits that set her engine room and mess deck on fire, while return fire forced the U-Boat to submerge. The A2 took the A7’s wounded aboard and put the vessel in tow when the latter’s commander, Sub-Lieutenant Bromley, declined to scuttle her. The U-75 then reappeared and sank both vessels with gunfire. Only one crewman of the thirty-seven men aboard the two vessels survived, being picked up by the same U-Boat after twenty-four hours in the water. Eleven days later the gunboat Gnat was torpedoed by the U-79 off Bardia; she was towed back to Alexandria by the destroyer Jaguar where she was beached and written off.

The first attempt to relieve Tobruk came in mid-June, using recently arrived equipment from the UK. When the presence of 15 Panzer Division in Libya was confirmed in mid-April 1941 Lieutenant-General Wavell had appealed to London for reinforcements, and on 21 April Churchill and the Defence Committee authorised the despatch of a special convoy. Codenamed TIGER, the convoy consisted of five fast merchant vessels, the Clan Chattan, Clan Lamont, Clan Campbell, Empire Song and New Zealand Star, carrying a total of 295 tanks and forty-three Hurricane fighters. By mid-May Wavell’s need had grown even more acute, as the failure of Operation BREVITY reduced the Western Desert Force’s armoured strength to a single Squadron of Cruiser Tanks located at Mersa Matruh and up to forty vehicles undergoing workshop repair. Arriving at Gibraltar on 5 May, TIGER was directed through the Mediterranean rather than taking the longer Cape route in order to cut forty days from the journey time; this was the first convoy to run the gauntlet since January 1941 when Fliegerkorps X had badly mauled Operation EXCESS, sinking the cruiser Southampton and seriously damaging the cruiser Gloucester and aircraft-carrier Illustrious. Virtually the entire strength of H Force and the Mediterranean Fleet operating from Gibraltar and Alexandria respectively was mobilised to protect TIGER, including the battleships Barham, Queen Elizabeth, Valiant and Warspite, and the aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Formidable. The convoy docked in Alexandria on the morning of 12 May, after fighting off numerous day and night air attacks and accompanied by a telegram from Churchill quoting Scripture: ‘For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of Salvation have I succoured thee; behold now is the day of salvation.’ The TIGER convoy did not escape totally unscathed. The New Zealand Star and Empire Song detonated mines at around midnight on 8 May. The former suffered minor damage but the latter caught fire, blew up and sank at 04:00 on 9 May, taking fifty-seven tanks and ten Hurricanes with her.

The Western Desert Force thus received a total of 238 tanks: twenty-one Mark VIC Light Tanks, thirty-two Cruisers, fifty of the latest Mark VI Cruisers dubbed ‘Crusaders’ and 135 Matildas. These were immediately earmarked for Operation BATTLEAXE, for which Wavell issued his orders on 28 May. The attack was to be commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse, and carried out by Major-General Frank Messervy’s 4th Indian Division and the ubiquitous 7th Armoured Division, commanded by Major-General Sir Michael O’Moore Creagh. The first phase was to be a three-pronged attack to recapture the frontier area with the 4th Indian Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade securing the Halfaya Pass, Sollum, Bardia and Fort Capuzzo, while the 7th Armoured Division looped around to the south to deal with the Panzers believed to be concentrated in the vicinity of the Hafid Ridge, just west of Fort Capuzzo. With this done the attack force was to relieve Tobruk and destroy any enemy forces in the region of El Adem before exploiting as far west as possible toward Mechili and Derna. Although the TIGER convoy arrived on 12 May, it took some time to unload the new vehicles, disperse them to workshops and modify them for desert service, and 10 June 1941 was earliest possible date for launching BATTLEAXE. In the event several days were added to allow the crews time to train with their new tanks, and for the 7th Armoured Division to train as a formation, having not operated as such for several months. In parallel with this the RAF stepped up its day and night attacks upon Axis airfields, the port of Benghazi and the columns carrying supplies and munitions up to the border area, right up to the point where the BATTLEAXE force left its concentration areas for its start lines near Buq Buq and Sofafi on the afternoon of 14 June. It was going up against a number of fortified positions strung out between Sidi Azeiz and Halfaya, equipped with mines and anti-tank guns. The line had been ordered by Rommel as a precaution after BREVITY and was backed by newly arrived Generalleutnant Walther Neumann-Sylkow’s 15 Panzer Division, with the Trento Division under command; 5 Leichte Division was held in reserve south-east of Tobruk.

The attack began at dawn on 15 June. The 7th RTR had taken Fort Capuzzo by the early afternoon, and after being reinforced by the 22nd Guards Brigade, succeeded in repelling a series of small counter-attacks by elements of Panzer Regiment 8. Other elements subdued a German position atop a height to the south known as Point 206, after a hard fight that saw one Squadron from the 4th RTR reduced to a single Matilda, while a battalion from the 22nd Guards Brigade occupied Musaid to the south-east. However, the attack to secure the Halfaya Pass was stopped by a combination of mines, anti-tank guns and armoured cars despite numerous attempts by tanks and infantry to push forward. The 7th Armoured Brigade reached the Hafid Ridge at around 09:00, but then ran into dug-in German anti-tank guns that the Cruisers lacked the firepower to deal with; at least four of the German guns were 88mm pieces. An attempt to outflank the guns from the west in the late morning was halted when the complexity of the enemy positions became apparent, losing a number of tanks in the process. At around 17:30 the Crusader-equipped 6th RTR launched a hasty attack after receiving reports that the German anti-tank screen was withdrawing; the withdrawal was a ploy and eleven Crusaders were knocked out in a well-executed ambush. The British withdrew under cover of long-range gunnery and the action tapered off with the onset of darkness despite the arrival of a number of Panzers from the north. By nightfall the attack had achieved only one of its initial objectives, and at some cost. The 7th Armoured Brigade had thus been reduced to forty-eight tanks, and the 4th Armoured Brigade had only thirty-seven Matildas left of the hundred or so it had begun the battle with. Many of these were repairable but the withdrawal made retrieval difficult.

The pendulum swung to some extent on 16 June. Panzer Regiment 8 launched a pincer attack on Fort Capuzzo at 06:00, led by Generalleutnant Neumann-Sylkow in person. The attack was fought off by dug-in Matildas and 25-Pounder guns brought up during the night; by 10:00 approximately fifty Panzers had been put out of action, and Neumann-Sylkow broke off the attack at around midday. British attempts to renew the attack on the Halfaya Pass were stymied again, while the 7th Armoured Brigade, 7th Armoured Support Group fought a day-long running battle with 5 Leichte Division that ran south for the fifteen miles from Hafid Ridge to Sidi Omar, and then east toward the Cyrenaica–Egypt border. The Panzers skilfully orchestrated the superior range of their 50mm and short 75mm guns, using the latter to knock out the British 25-Pounders to clear the way for the Panzer IIIs, which then exploited the superior range and penetrating power of the former against the 2-Pounder armed Cruisers Tanks. By evening the 7th Armoured Brigade had been pushed well east of the border, and only darkness saved it from a strong German attack launched at 19:00. Rommel, meanwhile, had decided to concentrate his force to encircle and destroy the 7th Armoured Brigade, and at 16:00 ordered 15 Panzer to leave a screen at Fort Capuzzo and move south-east through the night to join 5 Leichte Division.

The redeployment of 15 Panzer Division threatened to leave the 4th Indian Division and 4th Armoured Brigade high and dry in the vicinity of Fort Capuzzo and Sollum. Fortunately for them Messervy learned of the German move during the night of 16–17 June and ordered a withdrawal on his own initiative, instructing the surviving Matildas to form a protective screen to cover the infantry. The Panzers resumed their advance at 04:30, and by 08:00 5 Leichte Division had reached Sidi Suleiman, twenty miles or so inside Egypt and due south of the Halfaya Pass. Two hours later they made contact with the armoured screen protecting the withdrawal of the 11th Indian Brigade and the 22nd Guards Brigade, sparking a battle that went on for the rest of the day. The British armour held the Panzers back until 16:00, by which time Messervy’s infantry had successfully evaded the developing trap.

Thus by 17 June Egypt lay virtually undefended once again, and Rommel was once again incapable of exploiting his advantage, having overtaxed his tenuous supply line. Operation BATTLEAXE cost the British 122 dead, 588 wounded and 259 missing, along with sixty-four Matildas and twenty-seven assorted Cruisers and Crusaders; many of the tanks were only damaged or broken down but had to be abandoned on the battlefield during the withdrawal. Overall, Afrikakorps tank losses were substantially lower for although a total of fifty Panzers were put out of action in the course of the battle, only twelve were totally destroyed. The remainder were returned to service by recovery and repair crews, underscoring the importance of retaining control of the battlefield. There was less disparity in the human cost with German units suffering a total of ninety-three killed, 350 wounded and 235 missing, while the Trento Division lost an additional 592 casualties. The failure of BATTLEAXE also prompted a major reshuffle among the British senior commanders. Dissatisfied with Wavell but unable to simply remove him for political reasons, Churchill arranged a sideways exchange with the Commander-in-Chief India, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, with effect from 1 July 1941. Beresford-Peirse was replaced as Commander Western Desert Force by Lieutenant-General Alfred Reade Godwin-Austen, and Creagh was supplanted as commander of the 7th Armoured Division by newly promoted Major-General William Gott.

While the Ras El Medauar salient saw the most intense fighting of the siege, matters were far from quiescent elsewhere on the perimeter due to Morshead’s First World War policy of dominating no-man’s land. On a day-to-day basis this consisted of maintaining outposts forward of the main defence line, manned by two or three men equipped with a field telephone during daylight and carrying out aggressive patrols during the night, with larger raids to pre-empt enemy action or keep him off balance being mounted where necessary. On 13 May, for example a company from the 2/43rd Battalion, supported by eight Matilda tanks and seven Bren Carriers launched a dawn attack on an Italian strongpoint straddling the Bardia Road a mile east of the perimeter, and on 30 May a clash between a patrol of three Light and four Cruiser Tanks and a force of enemy tanks on the southern side of the perimeter sparked a roving skirmish that lasted most of the day. The garrison also disrupted the largely Italian construction of minefields and defences along the southern sector, not least by lifting and stealing newly laid enemy mines. On 1 July Lieutenant-Colonel Colonel Allan Spowers of the 2/24th Battalion led a party of fifty with three trucks that returned with 500 German anti-tank mines, and exactly a month later a patrol from the 2/13th Battalion occupied a partly built position during darkness and ambushed the Italian working party as it came forward to work, killing four, taking one prisoner and scattering the remainder. It was not all ambushes and hostility on the perimeter, and in another echo of the First World War a live-and-let-live system developed between friend and foe. Local truces to allow the dead and wounded from clashes to be evacuated were common, and on the sector straddling the El Adem road both sides observed a daily semi-official cease-fire for the two hours before midnight, the end of which was signalled by a burst of tracer fired vertically into the air.

Such niceties were not unknown on the Ras El Medauar sector, but relations between the Australians and the German units manning the salient had an edge not apparent in the formers’ relatively benign attitude to the Italians. Sniping was a popular pastime, and the commander of 2 Bataillon, Infanterie Regiment 115 referred to the remarkable marksmanship of his opponents, who he credited with killing a number of NCOs doing their rounds in front-line positions. Morshead launched another attempt to reduce the Ras El Medauar salient at 03:30 on 3 August, after intensive reconnaissance patrolling had mapped out the defences. The attack was again a two-pronged affair intended to envelop the feature carried out by the 2/28th Battalion to the north and the 2/43rd Battalion to the south. The latter failed to get beyond the anti-tank ditch protecting Post R6, and while the former managed to secure S7 the small party holding it were again cut off and overwhelmed by a German counter-attack the following night. The attack cost the attackers a total of 188 casualties from the 264 men involved, while the defenders from Infanterie Regiments 104 and 115 lost twenty-two killed and thirty-eight wounded. The 3 August attack proved to be the final Australian attempt to retake the Ras El Medauar.

In the event, the 9th Australian Division was not to see Tobruk relieved either. Sir Robert Menzies’ Government had despatched the 2nd AIF to the Middle East in 1940 as a complete Corps, and on the understanding that its constituent divisions and sub-formations would continue to serve in that capacity. To this end the commander of the 2nd AIF, Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey, reported directly to the Australian Minister of Defence and was tasked to ensure the integrity of his command. With the exception of the 18th Australian Brigade’s temporary posting to the UK in the wake of Dunkirk, the understanding was respected until circumstances conspired against it in 1941, with Blamey’s Corps HQ and the 6th Australian Division joining the Greek expedition while the 7th Australian Division fought the Vichy French in Lebanon and Syria and the 9th Division went to Cyrenaica before being trapped at Tobruk. Blamey began agitating for the reassembly of his Corps after the Greek evacuation, and officially requested Wavell relieve the 9th Australian after the failure of BATTLEAXE, to join its sister divisions in Palestine. He was supported in this by Menzies and the Australian Government from at least 20 July 1941, when Menzies raised the matter with Churchill, which he did again on 7 August. The Australian Government’s interest was driven at least in part by public opinion, which gained the erroneous impression from news reports and German propaganda that Morshead’s men were fighting the Desert War single-handed, and there was also widespread and exaggerated concern over the privations they were suffering. The resulting furore forced Menzies to resign on 28 August. By that time Auchinleck, loath to lose seasoned units on the front line, had reluctantly agreed to the relief of part of the garrison and the operation had been going on for nine days.

The first lift of the relief was codenamed Operation TREACLE, allegedly because the RN personnel charged with carrying it out thought it would be a ‘sticky business’. The lift was carried out across the no-moon period beginning on 19 August in order to avoid moonlight air or surface attack. The RAF bombed Axis airfields after dark, loitering to prevent the airfields operating their runway lights, while the RN and the garrison’s own guns bombarded enemy artillery positions near Bardia. The latter was also intended to suppress ‘Bardia Bill’, the garrison’s nickname for a heavy gun or guns that had taken to dropping shells into Tobruk harbour. Most sources are vague on the details with the weapon or weapons being described as being of 8-inch calibre of possibly German or Italian provenance. The guns may have belonged to Artillerie Kommand 104, a siege artillery train despatched to Libya on Hitler’s orders to assist with the reduction of Tobruk. Commanded by Generalmajor Karl Böttcher, the unit was deployed around Belhammed, five miles south-east of the perimeter and was equipped with almost 200 assorted guns, including nine 210mm pieces. In Tobruk the harbour defences were strengthened by moving mobile 3.7-inch AA guns back from the perimeter, and two wrecked vessels were pressed into service as improvised jetties; according to one account they were connected to the shore by pontoon bridge. In addition the small vessels and A Lighters from the Inshore Squadron in the harbour on the nights of the lift were held back to assist with unloading. The lift was carried out by the minelaying cruisers Abdiel and Latona and the destroyers Encounter, Havoc, Jarvis, Jaguar, Kimberley, Kipling, Latima and Nizam.

For ten consecutive nights two destroyers, carrying 350 troops apiece and one of the cruisers, carrying an additional 400, entered Tobruk harbour, accompanied by a third destroyer carrying up to 200 tons of supplies. The cruiser was unloaded at anchor out in the harbour by the A Lighters and small vessels, and the supply destroyer moored alongside the permanent quay while the troop-carrying destroyers exchanged their human cargo over the improvised jetties. According to an eyewitness, the destroyers completed their exchange in ten minutes, and all four vessels were underway again with their new passengers within thirty minutes. This was not an arbitrary time period, for if the ships spent any longer in Tobruk harbour they would not be clear of Sollum and thus the clutches of the Luftwaffe by dawn. By 29 August General Stanislaw Kopanski’s 1st Independent Carpathian Brigade had been delivered safely to Tobruk. Formed in 1940 from Polish regular troops who elected to continue the fight with the French, the Brigade had been posted to Syria and defected to the British in preference to serving the Vichy French regime after the fall of France in 1940. In exchange Brigadier George Wootten’s 18th Australian Brigade had been carried to Alexandria, along with the 16th Anti-Tank Company, the 2/4th Field Company, the 2/4th Field Ambulance, the 51st Field Regiment RA and the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment. The lift did not go totally unscathed. The destroyer Nizam was damaged by an air attack, and the cruiser HMS Phoebe, part of the treacle covering force, was so badly damaged by an Italian torpedo bomber on 27 August that she had to be sent to the US for repair.

Churchill and the British senior command appears to have hoped that returning the 18th Australian Brigade to its parent 7th Australian Division in Palestine would placate the Australian Government, but it soon became apparent that only the relief of the 9th Australian Division in its entirety would do. Menzies’ successor Arthur Fadden took up the gauntlet with Churchill within days of taking office, and reiterated the Australian position in no uncertain terms to the Dominions Office ten days later. Auchinleck appears to have been resigned to the fact by 10 September, given that he was discussing options with the War Office on that date. In the event, the 9th Australian Division left Tobruk in two lifts. Operation SUPERCHARGE ran from 19 to 27 September, and saw the 24th Australian Brigade and the 2/4th Field Park Company carried to Alexandria in exchange for the 16th Infantry Brigade and the 32nd Army Tank Brigade Forward HQ. The latter was augmented by four Light Tanks and forty-eight Matildas from the 4th Armoured Brigade, carried into Tobruk by A Lighter. C Squadron 4th RTR came in aboard Lighter A7, part of the convoy with A2 and A18 that ran into the unknown U-Boat on the night of 9−10 October. The tank crews were sleeping on the tarpaulins covering their vehicles, and when the gunfire began they unshipped their Matildas’ co-axial Besa machine-guns and went on deck to join the fray. A Trooper Weech was credited with scoring hits on the U-Boat when it appeared fifty yards off the Lighter’s port side, along with Sub-Lieutenant Peters wielding a Thompson gun on the bridge. According to one account C Squadron’s commander talked Peters out of trying to ram the U-Boat by pointing out the importance of delivering his tanks intact, and the two shared a celebratory whisky on the bridge after the U-Boat finally disappeared.

The third and final lift, codenamed CULTIVATE, ran for thirteen days beginning on 12 October, the extension being necessary because the lift had been expanded to include the remaining two-thirds of Morshead’s Division. Thus the 9th Australian Division HQ, Australian 4th Field Hospital, 20th and 24th Australian Brigades were taken off and replaced with the 14th and 23rd Brigades, the 62nd General Hospital and the 11th Czechoslovak Infantry Battalion, which was attached to General Kopanski’s 1st Independent Carpathian Brigade. Moving the Australian infantry off the front line and getting the newcomers in place without weakening the defences or alerting the enemy was a complex and fraught business, and the timetable and organisation was a triumph of staff work in its own right. The Operation nonetheless proceeded as smoothly as its two predecessors until the final individual lift scheduled to move the 20th Australian Brigade HQ and the 2/13th Battalion on the night of 25−26 October. The convoy, consisting of the cruisers Abdiel and Latona and destroyers Encounter and Hero were spotted on the inbound leg near Bardia, possibly by a U-Boat, and underwent fifteen attacks by aircraft between 19:00 and 23:00. The Latona was hit in the engine room and the resulting fire grew out of control. The Hero closed in to take off the cruiser’s troops and crew and suffered structural damage from three bomb near-misses in the process. The Latona sank two hours later after a magazine explosion, possibly with the assistance of Encounter; thirty seven of Latona’s crew died in the attack. By the time all this was over it was too late to proceed safely to Tobruk and the convoy thus returned to Alexandria leaving the 2/13th Battalion stranded in Tobruk, a victim of its battalion number according to some of its men. The unit therefore returned to its positions within the perimeter where it remained until Tobruk was relieved by ground forces at the end of the following month; through this accident the 2/13th Battalion thus earned the distinction of being the only Australian unit to serve with the Tobruk garrison throughout the siege.

In all Operations TREACLE, SUPERCHARGE and CULTIVATE successfully shuttled in the region of 15,000 men out of Tobruk and carried a similar number into the port over a total of thirty-one nights. The shortest, SUPERCHARGE, took out 5,444 men and in excess of 500 wounded, and brought in 6,308 and 2,100 tons of supplies in just eight nights. Apart from the stranded 2/13th Battalion, the Australian role in the story of Tobruk now came to an end, although a large number of Morshead’s men would not be leaving under any circumstances. Between April and October 1941, the 9th Australian Division lost 744 men killed, along with 1,974 wounded and a further 476 missing. In the process they and their comrades established a legendary reputation based on standing firm in the face of stifling heat, sandstorms, thirst, hunger and everything Rommel could throw at them. It was now up to their replacements to carry out the final act in the siege.