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.