Tobruk patrol caught out in the open

Australian troops return from a patrol outside the Tobruk perimeter, August 1941.

Captain Rea Leakey had only just arrived in Tobruk at the last minute before the Germans completed their encirclement. He had then taken part in the early tank battles to defend the besieged garrison.

As the siege progressed there was no fuel for his tank. As “life without petrol or alcohol was dull” he got himself attached to the 2/23 Australian Infantry Battalion as a private soldier. He started participating in patrols into No Mans Land and then volunteered to lead a patrol of three men who would stay out beyond the perimeter during daylight. They found an old trench on top of a small mound overlooking the German positions and settled down for the day:

Not far to the south of our mound, I could see the bypass road which the enemy had built round Tobruk perimeter, and which his vehicles now used on their journeys to and from Bardia and the frontier.

It was a busy road and it was normally free from interference by the Tobruk Garrison, being well out of view. However, on this day, any collection of vehicles that were either travelling close together or happened to halt on the sector of road which I could see, received rough treatment from the Tobruk artillery.

All day long I kept our artillery supplied with targets, and I was enjoying myself at the expense of the enemy. I hardly noticed the heat, the flies or even the slight dust storm that blew for about an hour at midday. I was so busy that I had no time to bother about food or even a drink.

About 3 o’clock in the afternoon one of the Aussies with me called my attention to the three men on the watch tower. It must have been painfully obvious to them that this area, which was normally never shelled, was now under close observation, and they in their turn were looking round for the observers.

They must have examined every bit of scrub and every stone to the north of their tower, and they found nothing. Then they searched east and west, but still with no result.

Now we could see them looking south, and we lay very still. One of them pointed down to where we lay, and the men with the binoculars focused them on us. Then the three of them climbed down from their perch and ran across to the nearest line of trenches.

I phoned the artillery officer, and asked him to be prepared to give us a little support when we were attacked, and he wished us luck.

We saw them the moment they left their trenches, and there must have been about fifty of them. They moved across the desert in extended order, and their bayonets glinted in the afternoon sun.

Our shells fell close to them, but on they came, and soon I had to tell the artillery to stop firing as the shells were beginning to land close to our mound. The two Aussie privates were itching to open fire, and I had a difficult time restraining them.

Then the enemy party split up into four groups and surrounded the mound. We lay very still and waited. Closer and closer they came, and there was no sound except for the occasional sharp word of command given by one of their officers.

The extraordinary story of how Leakey fought off this attack and the subsequent German artillery bombardment and then bluffed his way, with his two companions, back to the Australian lines can be read in Leakey’s Luck: A Tank Commander with Nine Lives.

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