‘Stunned amazement’ and confusion in the desert

The Axis Offensive 1941 – 1942: The exposed nature of the terrain made air raids a serious hazard for troops in the desert. The crew of a British truck lie on the ground and cover their heads while their vehicle is bombed.

South African James Ambrose Brown was some distance east of Tobruk. They had learnt with ‘stunned amazement’ that contact with their compatriots within Tobruk had been lost at 2100 the previous evening. Early in the day they were readying to defend their position, later they were warned to be ready to pull back even further. The destruction of supplies began in order to deny them to the enemy:

1500

In Tobruk, ‘every man for himself’ is the order of the hour. We will attempt to hold Sollum to make time for the overrun garrison. Those who escape will do so only by a miracle.

The passes are blown up, the coast roads are cut, the perimeter is encircled in a ring of steel. Tanks might break through but motorised infantry, never. Even men on foot will stand only a slim chance, there is nowhere to hide in the desert.

Evacuation by ship might solve the problem but the harbour is tiny and land-locked and the narrow entrance mined except for a single channel used to supply the garrison. Also, it would be a practical impossibility to raise sufficient shipping in the time available, for Mersa Matruh, the nearest big base, is twelve hours sea journey distant.

Ships that might get in will have to run the gauntlet of close-based Stukas. Today, Tobruk is a death trap, the only escape will be by swimming, in small boats or on foot by night. We believe that at least a third of Eighth Army is in Tobruk and more than half our armour.

….

2100

Now that we can do nothing with it we have more water than we know what to do with. The storage tanks at El Hamra are free to all. What cannot be carried away will be poured away. We fill our water bottles, drink and fill them again but the irony is, no one has containers.

Quarter Simpson, making an issue of five cans of beer per man, tells me that the NAAFI storemen are machine-gunning stocks of beer worth £20,000. I feel an enormous apathy as I watch others rushing about with cases of canned fruit, liquor, jam. There is a mad abundance. I see men hacking tins open with bayonets, drinking the syrup and chucking the cans aside.

A man, bubbling with excitement has just run over. ‘Our composite company in Tobruk has escaped … only one man dead.” This is Ralph Parrott’s work. Just when we are thinking that if one resolute officer can get his company out comes a hideous rumour – the 2nd Division had surrendered unconditionally. Simply laid down their arms. I cannot believe that this is true. A third of our army giving up without firing a shot. No, I think not.

James Ambrose Brown wrote one of the outstanding accounts of the Desert war in his diary, Retreat to Victory: Springboks’ Diary in North Africa – Gazala to El Alamein, 1942 (South Africans at War).

Water was usually a tightly controlled commodity in the desert.
British troops run to meet the daily water cart in the desert.

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