Even more prisoners at Tobruk

The oil installations in Tobruk harbour continue to burn following its surrender on the 22nd. In the foreground are captured Italian tanks in use by the Australians and distinctively marked as such.

The capture of Tobruk, as at Bardia, saw a huge numbers of prisoners of war with limited resources to cater for them:

One of the incoming force’s greatest embarrassments was the number of prisoners. More than 20,000 of them were soon herded into a fenced enclosure measuring about 800 yards by 400 yards which the Italians had erected near the junction of the El Adem and Bardia roads to house their own prisoners. Here during more than six weeks never fewer than 7,000 and sometimes over 20,000 prisoners were crowded like sheep in a dusty pen.

Many of the men lacked blankets, and the nights were bitterly cold. To give them adequate medical care was far beyond the resources of their captors. There was no sanitation; and, at first, it took one of the two infantry companies posted at the cage seven hours to distribute the day’s rations–one tin of veal, two biscuits and a bottle of water to each man, though few prisoners had even a bottle to receive their water in.

From the 23rd to the 26th the 2/7th Battalion was on guard and strove unceasingly to feed and water the prisoners. The 2/2nd Battalion which relieved the 2/7th reduced the time spent feeding the prisoners to five hours by installing water tubs and employing Italian N.C.O’s to organise the lines. Eventually the guards from this battalion made sure that every prisoner had at least a greatcoat or blanket and his own water bottle.

To keep the prisoners’ spirits up the Australians kept them singing for hours on end and sometimes would sing back to them. There usually was a thick dust cloud over the cage. That so few of the Italians died does credit to the hard work and the genuine sympathy of the infantrymen of the 16th Brigade who controlled and fed them. Gradually the numbers were reduced by sending them eastwards to Egypt in empty trucks that had come forward carrying supplies, and after the harbour was opened 1,500 to 2,000 were shipped away every second or third day. By the middle of February the number of prisoners had been reduced to about 10,000 and by the end of the month to 7,000.

See Hyperwar for the full account.

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