The British retreat in the Desert continues

A Grant tank crew loading up with ammunition from a truck, 18 June 1942.

A Grant tank crew loading up with ammunition from a truck, 18 June 1942.

The British retreat in the Desert, the 'Gazala Gallop', continued with Rommel’s forces hard on their heels. The German forces were now in danger of reaching the perimeter of Tobruk, as they had done in April 1941. Tobruk had proved the stumbling block for his advance then, an obstacle that could not be broken or completely circumvented. For most of the men in the retreating 8th Army it seemed inevitable that once again they would make a stand here. Henry Ritchie was amongst that Army in retreat, with a Royal Artillery Battery:

As the final rays of the sun drew out long shadows after the third bruising day of the retreat, and after sparring all day with loose enemy formations the Battery headed south into the comparative safety of the southem stretches. As we prepared for a watchful night laager the rich dark canopy of the desert night was girdled with myriads of pulsating stars.

The next morning as dawn was breaking Major Coleman held a briefing session for senior N.C.O.s. He stood on a small sand hill as we gathered around him.

‘Our present location,’ he said, ‘is eleven miles south ofthe Tobruk perimeter. It is clear that Tobruk is surrounded and that the forward enemy troops are already on the Egyptian frontier_ The 15th Panzer Division together with two Italian Divisions are lying outside Tobruk. A full scale attack on Tobruk by the Afrika Korps is imminent.’

Old King Cole was hollow cheeked and was beginning to look drudged with weariness. His moustache was droopy and his eyes were red. He had two septic places on his face and, every now and then his right eye twitched uncontrollably. He was unshaven and gaunt. From his dusty boots to his battered hat he was taking on the colour of the desert.

Old King Cole had shepherded his weary battery over miles of endless desert and the long months of strain were beginning to show. He went on,

‘We have been ordered to head north to try and relieve pressure on the Tobruk garrison. We shall lay up today, get some rest and begin to move up towards Tobruk at nightfall. Ensure that all vehicles are filled with petrol and oil and that water levels are checked. Each quad must carry an extra forty gallons of petrol in cans tied on to the roof. See that ammunition limbers are full and that everyone has three days hard rations. The position inside Tobruk is as follows. Defending the perimeter are thirty three thousand men. These include the whole of the 2nd. South African Division, the llth. Indian Brigade, the 201st. Guards Brigade and the 32nd. Tank Brigade’

Then we had the bullshit.

‘There is absolutely no possibility that Tobruk will fall to the enemy. We held Tobruk for eight months and bunkers, gun positions and defences are still there. There is an excellent chance that our troops in Egypt will mount a major counter attack and that we shall be required to support them in a drive to knock the enemy out of Cyrenaica’

See Henry R. Ritchie: The Fusing Of The Ploughshare, the Story of a Yeoman at War.

Two Stuart tanks advancing in the Western Desert, 18 June 1942.

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