Tobruk defences tested

A German Panzer III tank on the move in the desert, April - May 1941

Geoffrey Nowland was with the Australian 9th Division, under siege in Tobruk:

1st May 1941

Last night four of us and a corporal spent a night of Hell. Three hundred yards into No-Man’s-Land on a ‘listening post’, we crouched in our shallow rock shelter while Gerry sent tons of high explosive shells from tanks and guns, over our heads at the artillery behind our post. Sometimes a few would land near us. During the night we hastily retreated in the face of machine gun fire but we went out again after a stiff swig of rum.

Every second night I am among the four who go out a few hundred yards to spend the night at a ‘listening post’. Invariably Gerry keeps us both awake all night. Our role is deliberately negative; we are not encouraged to fire back at the enemy because this would give our positions away. We are pelted with all manner of shells and high velocity anti-tank bullets. Concrete dug-outs give us some measure of protection.

Most of the projectiles whistle over our heads and the explosions are ear splitting, echoing off the rocks and wire entanglements. Occasionally a few fall short uncomfortably near us and Gerry is fond of using an anti-aircraft gun to spray the ground with shrapnel, directing the shell not skywards but just above the ground.

Last night in the clear air with a slight breeze, the commands of Gerry’s gun crews were clearly audible. I could hear the officer’s directions and then louder the command to fire, which was almost simultaneously followed by the muzzle flash and later the report, whistling shell and flash and detonation of the striking projectile.

Shells exploding close at hand included the angry buzzing of shrapnel fragments. The mind can hardly grasp the amount of ‘lead’ that has been scattered over the desert by exploding shrapnel; the surface of the ground is positively carpeted with jagged, ugly, twisted fragments; sometimes eight inches long. It says a lot for defensive methods that any troops survive.

See Kenneth Rankin, Editor Lest We Forget : Fifty Years On

Tobruk.

On the night of the 30th April / 1st May the enemy attacked and penetrated our defences on the south-west perimeter, and on the morning of the 1st May 30 tanks attacked towards Pilastrino.

Our forward line of defended localities on a 5,000-yard front was captured, and approximately 60 enemy tanks avoided gun positions and concentrated on our infantry forward posts. Our tanks counter-attacked and a portion of the enemy withdrew after losing 11 tanks. Enemy aircraft made numerous dive-bombing attacks on our troops and artillery positions.

On the evening of the 1st May, owing to the enemy tank action, a counter-attack did not succeed in restoring the whole of our forward line of defended localities. On the morning of the 2nd May 30 enemy medium tanks, followed by two companies of infantry, advanced against our new line, but were stopped by artillery fire.

A further counter-attack by our troops on the night of the 3rd / 4th May was not successful owing to the bold use by the enemy of tanks, machine guns and flame-throwers. Severe casualties are, however, believed to have been inflicted upon the enemy.

From the Military Situation Report for the week see TNA CAB 66/16/18

Leave a Comment

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: