The fall of Tobruk

German troops make their way into the burning port of Tobruk.

German infantry moving into Tobruk.

Erwin Rommel accompanied by Fritz Bayerlein, Chief of Staff, passes ‘Englische Kriegsgefangene’ although a substantial proportion of ‘British’ prisoners of war were from South Africa.

Clifford Spencer was amongst the troops defending Tobruk on the 20th June. The day started with a massive bombing attack on the perimeter as nearly 200 planes heralded the start of the German assault. The defences were not as well prepared as the previous year, many guns had been removed to establish the Gazala Line. Perhaps more significantly the resolve to defend the port was missing at the highest levels. Within two hours the Panzers had broken through:

The 20th June

What a day, which I and many others will never forget.

6.30 a.m. gun 88 and M.Es started the battle for Tobruk, we already knew that we were surrounded but never gave it a thought that we would be captured.

We were getting shelled, but the bombers were bombing the heavies [heavy artillery] and infantry etc, on the perimeter. The heavies brought a lot down, they had no help from our air force, not one of ours did we see that day. Jerry had taken the desert first.

I had to go sick that morning with a bad back, didn’t want to, but reported it night before. For all the bombs and shells that were falling, Fanny wanted to know why I had not shaved that morning!

Hundreds of our lorries, so things were beginning to look bad. Tanks started coming over the perimeter, the sky was black with smoke, and the Heavies were firing for all they were worth, then the hovel [?] guns opened up.

Shells were coming more often now, the tanks with their big guns, had now got sight of the harbour. Boats of all kinds were trying to get away. Some were burning from end to end, passing just by our port, some of the men were jumping off and swimming to shore, some jumped off with kit on their backs and sunk.

Later the rocket guns on the Harbour side were blown up, we began to think then.

Later about eight o clock we were told to get our gun put out of action and scram. So I got a few things, what I could in my haversack and off where to we did not know, we had not gone 20 yards when a bren gun came in sight, at first we thought it was one of ours, but as we drew nearer we could see it was Jerry, he had his guns trained on us, I know that I for one thought of my loved ones at home.
Would he fire? We had heard so much about him, and expected anything. But he held fire, made us drop some of our kit, but kept my haversack and topcoat. He then sent us up the road into Tobruk and he carried on to collect some more of the lads.

Four of our lads went a different way to us, so were not caught so soon, although it would have been better for them. They got on a boat, which got set on fire, and one was killed. Bill, Harold, and others had lucky escapes.

Well as we went up the road, shells and bullets were still flying about, and all of a sudden there was such an explosion, the petrol dump had gone for six, and what a blaze.

At last we got into the centre of town and there were Jerry tanks all lined up, looking very unconcerned, so now we knew for sure that we were prisoners. One poor chap was laid in the middle of the road dead. He was an M.P sergeant.

One of the Jerry’s gave me two bars of chocolate, they gave us water. How different they were to what we had been taught. I’ll speak of him as I found, he was a man. Most of them looked very young; we were put into a square where we came across most of our battery. Of course Questions were asked among us all, wanting to know if any one had been wounded. The result was marvellous, out of all our battery, only two were killed, and about two I think wounded.

About two hours later we were marched off up to the hospital and spent the night in the yard. Some got blankets. In the distance, the petrol dump was sending clouds of smoke up, shells and bombs were still dropping in parts that had not yet been taken.

Went to sleep that night thanking God, for bringing us through that terrible day safely and praying for my wife, and Julie at home. We slept on concrete floor but I had a good nights sleep, we were packed like sheep.

Clifford became one of 33,000 men taken prisoner. Read more of this story on BBC People’s War.

Rommel and Bayerlein survey the harbour at Tobruk, still crowded with bombed out ships that had accumulated in over a year’s fighting.

Some of the 33,000 British Prisoners of War are marched away from Tobruk.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Sasha November 27, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Alice Soper
My granddad now 97 and still with us tells me story’s of Pipe major Rob Roy .. I have an article he wrote on the war which I’m going to try an upload.. Mentions your late father Pipe Major Rob Roy
If you’d like a copy of the article you can send me a blank email and I’ll forward it on to you ..

Brian houliston November 9, 2014 at 10:05 pm

My Uncle James Fisher died in this battle. We have just recently found this out, my gran was told he died in Greece somewhere. He was scottish from Ayrshire a small town called Saltcoats it would be great to hear from anyone who knew of him,or could let us know where we could find out more about him and maybe where he is buried.

Dorothy Bernal September 24, 2014 at 4:40 pm

My father, Kenneth Whitwell, was mentioned in despatches after The Siege of Tobruk. I don’t seem to be able to find out anything about it though. He was in the RAF.

Joe McGeer July 29, 2014 at 5:20 pm

I am researching my wife’s father gunner John Turley (943288) who was captured at Tobruk. He was Scottish from Greenock and served with the RA and was in several prison camps including Monturano near Parma in 1943. I am at the early stages and am awaiting some info from the national archive. Does anyone have any information or advice on sources for my search. Ta.

Joe McGeer

Nick Flynn June 22, 2014 at 6:24 pm

Alice; unsure if my email will show on a public forum, but it’s no secret! Can send you segment from Uncle John’s memoirs then.

alice soper June 19, 2014 at 7:25 pm

Nick, I look forward to reading these. You are so lucky to still have him with you. My father died aged 51 yrs in 1960 (cerebral haemmorhage) in Edinburgh Castle, just before the tattoo began that year.

Ken Gillings June 19, 2014 at 7:41 am

I have just completed the Official History of the Natal Field Artillery (1862 – 2000). The entire Regiment (then known as 2nd Field Regiment SAA) – HQ, 4th Battery, 5th Battery and 6th Battery – was captured at Tobruk. I pay tribute to those Gunners who made the supreme sacrifice on and before the 20th June 1942, an those who endured Hell as POWs. I visited Tobruk, the site of 4th and 5th Battery’s deployment near Fig Tree and 6th Battery’s final stand at Rigel Ridge in 2009 and the members of our party placed poppies on the Springok soldiers’ headstones in Tobruk, Knightsbridge and Sollum military cemeteries.
There are some amazing and moving accounts in this history. The Regiment is still in existence and the motto is still “Armis Arte Audacia” (with arms, skill and bravery). We hope that it will be published by the end of this year.

Jeannie May 16, 2014 at 6:55 pm

Amazing, my father was also captured at Tobruck He was a Scottish piper in the Cameron Highlanders, escaped in Italy, but gave themselves up as they were frightened for the farmers protecting them. He had red hair so knew he stood out. They had thrown away their dog tags, so were tortured as spies. Ended up in Poland, Silesia. Escaped a couple of times – once by boat? Eventually they were released by the Russians and had to walk right across Poland, Germany to get home. Like the other Jean – we only heard about the war when he was drunk. Then he went on about someone called Chester! Too many nasty memories I suppose. He lost his brother in North Africa just before they were captured.

Nick April 27, 2014 at 6:19 pm

Hi Alice- he’s celebrating his 94th birthday in a few days! He wrote his memoirs which are fascinating; I will get a copy of relevant bits to you.. some website forums don’t accept email addresses but I think I see you on Facebook so can message you there!

alice soper April 22, 2014 at 6:01 pm

Nick, so good to read your message. Please tell me more about your uncle.

Nick April 20, 2014 at 7:29 pm

Alice Soper- my Uncle John tended your father’s wounds at Tobruk; he was very angry at being hit in the backside- undignified for a Scotsman!

Jeremy Sadler March 14, 2014 at 3:06 am

My father too was captured in Tobruk on the 20th June 1942 – He was in the South African Artillery. He was an author and so wrote his memoirs of his War Story – “The War Story of Soldier 124280″ -by Mike Sadler . Its on Kindle now, and about to be republished by if anyone is interested.

Covers joining up, training, the battle (and he moved around as Runner for his Major during the battle), capture and POW years in Africa, Italy and hen Austria.

It can give a fairly good view of what these guys went through from the eyes of an ordinary soldier.


memory mustard October 24, 2013 at 3:54 pm

I’m trying to put together my dads route and capture. He was lance corpral William Arthur Holder. Taken pow at Tobruk. He was in the 1st or 2nd armoured SA division. His number was 237. He received the MID medal for bravery by helping the pow’s escape by cutting the wires of the camp they were in. Please if there is anyone that can help me with information or internet sites I can visit I will be eternally grateful. Thank you. Memory.

David Storr September 30, 2013 at 4:55 pm

I’m intrigued by Roger Stannel’s comment (10 June 2013).

My father -Harry Storr – a Sgt with Desert Unit 81 CRE – was also captured when Rommel took Tobruk on 20 June 1942. His unit was escaping Tobruk in 6 lorries when tanks shelled them and they were subsequently rounded up as POWs.

But Roger’s comment is interesting because my father also escaped from a POW camp in Italy, joined briefly with partisans, and was subsequently recaptured whilst trying to go south to meet up with the advancing allies. The camp they escaped from was Sulmona, and they were picked up somewhere near Caramanico. It must have been early September 1943 because they knew of the American landings.

I have a quite detailed account from my father, and would be happy to share or discuss.

I cant find any reference to his unit in any other account. Any information would be most welcome. What was Desert Unit 81 doing in Tobruk? It consisted of a Colonel, a Captain, 4 Warrant Officers, 6 Sergeants and Corporals, and 6 Sappers.Batmen/Cooks).

alice soper September 17, 2013 at 6:46 pm

My late father was the Piper of Tobruk – Pipe Major Robert Roy, The Black Watch. He fortunately was not captured but went on to serve in Burma and then the allied invasion of Germany. A book is nearing completion!

Roger Stannell June 10, 2013 at 3:54 pm

This information has been very interesting and most useful.

My father was taken prisoner at Tobruk 20 June 1942.

I received details of when and where he was captured and where he was held for the duration of the war – from International Red Cross ( ICRC ) who have a lot of useful information.

He escaped and joined with the partisans in N Italy in 1943-4 but seems was recaptured by Germans.

He never mentioned anything of his experiences – I guess they were too traumatic.

These sites provide us with some idea of the hell he must have gone through

Adrienne March 7, 2013 at 7:01 pm

This was so great to find! I found my grandfather’s old newspaper clipping he has as we was a mechanic with the Royal Airforce and escaped only 2 hours before the fall of Tobruk. It’s so unreal to see what he was dealing with.

Jean Waltham January 31, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Thank-you for this. My father was captured at Tobruk on 20th June 1942 as well. Reading Clifford’s story has helped me to realise the horrors he must have seen. Dad only ever mentioned the war when drunk towards the end of his life, at only 57 years old. He too had great respect for the German soldiers.

Dominic December 13, 2012 at 4:50 pm

I actually found a newspaper while doing renovations with the same date and the headline reads “TOBRUK AGAIN UNDER NAZI SIEGE”

Chuck June 21, 2012 at 8:57 pm

I had no idea that the BBC had a site like this….My god what a gold mine! Thanks for the information!

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