The new Commander, Middle East Forces, General Sir Claude Auchinleck had come under some pressure to launch an assault to relieve Tobruk and move on to the attack against the Afrika Korps. Operation Battleaxe had proved a bloody failure in June, when the British had discovered that their tanks were no match for the German 88mm guns. Now the re-equipped and re-inforced British forces tried again.
While the newly designated British 8th Army moved west out of Egypt and sought to locate and confront the Africa Korps, a simultaneous attempt was made to break out from Tobruk itself.
The pre dawn infantry assault was accompanied by a creeping artillery barrage from the guns within Tobruk. A ‘creeping barrage’ meant that the range of the guns was gradually extended with the infantry following behind the line of the exploding shells in front of them – a technique from the First World War intended to neutralise the opposing infantry until the last possible minute. It required consistently accurate shooting by the gunners.
Henry Ritchie was with 104th (Essex Yeomanry) Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery on the 18th November and describes the opening moments of that artillery barrage:
We thrust flimsy cotton wool plugs in our ears, but they are small protection against the hot, crushing blast of the crack of a twenty five pounder. The percussion and roar will drive right into our inner ear. After the barrage our ears and face and jaws will ache for hours.
‘Zero less sixty seconds.’
The Number One picks up his rammer staff and tucks it under his left arm. Every nerve must be strained to stay watchful and alert. Any diversion from the correct switch and range could be fatal to the infantry who will be following behind our barrage.
The Layer’s hand moves towards the firing lever. ‘Five seconds, four, three, two, one, FIRE’ The four troop guns fire as one and, at the same time, other batteries open up all around us. To our right, to our left and behind us, the guns roar and thunder.
The Number Two whips open the breech, and the empty charge case flies out together with a white sheet of flame.
Another shell is rammed into the breech and another charge and the Layer makes the fine adjustment to the angle and sight and reports, ‘ready’. The Number One makes a quick check of the settings on the dial sight and micrometer head.
‘FIRE’ and another shell hurtles into the enemy front line. We have just fifteen seconds to get each shell loaded, the gun correctly aligned and the firing lever pulled. The range is four thousand, five hundred yards. Fifty yards are added to the range, the Gunlayer makes the correction to the elevation and Number One checks ‘FIRE’ and another shell screams away into the darkness. The moving belt of fire is biting into the enemy’s forward defences.
Now and again the tell tale, high pitched shriek of a shell that has lost its driving band or the swish, swish of a badly rammed shell is heard.
‘Zero plus thirty minutes.’
We have been so committed to the programme that we have not noticed the passage of time. The rate of fire will now be scaled down to two rounds per gun per minute. The barrel is as hot as a stove. We spit on it and it hisses like an angry snake.
There are slithers of purple in the empty sky and we see the first streaks of dawn which, for many soldiers in Tobruk, will be their last.
Henry Ritchies account The Yeomen in the Front Line appears in Kenneth Rankin, Editor: Lest We Forget – Fifty Years On.