Moonlight run to Tobruk ends in disaster

HMS Latona, sunk off Tobruk on the 25th October was the same class of minelayer as HMS Welshman, pictured.

Sam Falle was an officer on board the destroyer HMS Encounter, operating out of Alexandria in October 1941. Their principal role was to do the overnight ‘beef and spuds’ run along the coast to the besieged garrison of Tobruk. Apart from resupply, the Australian troops were being withdrawn during these operations, being replaced with Polish and English units:

Three destroyers and a minelayer carried fresh troops, supplies and ammunition under cover of darkness. We made two successful trips and it was a great joy to take 350 gallant Aussies on board each time, fill them with beer and take them back to Alex.

This was fine as long as it was dark, but then some crass idiot decided we should make the trip by moonlight. Crazy, we were spitting distance away from the German North African airbases. We were lucky they had not spotted us in the dark – it is never completely dark – but to try in moonlight… one wonders at the idiocy of man.

As we approached Tobruk the Germans spotted us and launched a fiendish dive-bombing’attack. They quickly scored direct hits on the minelayer Latona, which was carrying ammunition. She was soon a blazing inferno, with ammunition exploding all over her. The ship’s company either jumped overboard or ran to the fo’c’s’le, which was the only part of the ship not blazing.

Rattler Morgan [HMS Encounter], an unsung hero if ever there was one, decided that we were going to rescue Latona’s survivors.

Under furious bombing, he took Encounter alongside Latona’s fo’c’s’le, our starboard to their port side, and we lowered ladders down our port side. We got most of Latona’s crew and returned safely to Alex. Morgan received no recognition at all for this extraordinary achievement, but somebody up there loved us.

See Sam Falle: My Lucky Life – In War, Revolution, Peace and Diplomacy

It had been a busy day in Tobruk:

The garrison of Tobruk have continued their offensive patrolling and have inflicted considerable casualties on the enemy. Enemy shelling was continuous throughout the week and was particularly heavy on the 25th October, when 267 rounds were fired in the western sector, 187 in the southern sector and 181 in the eastern sector. The damage has, however, been slight, and there is evidence that our counter battery-fire has been effective.

From the Military Situation Report for the week, as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/19/25.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Simon Lawson-Tootill February 12, 2018 at 11:12 am

Hi. My father was also on the Latona. The stories are true. He rarely spoke of it, but he was a rating on a pom-pom gun. He stayed to the last and then jumped to another ship that gave him a ‘chance’. He said one of his mates ran below to collect a picture of a close loved one, and never came back up. He carried a scare on his forehead, just above his nose from a deep cut he received on making the jump to the other ship. He said the ship was moving at the time. He said it swished by… this I do not know. Anyway, he survived. A miracle because he could not swim! God bless you all.
Simon Lawson-Tootill
PS: His name on the Latona was Gerald Tootill. Anyone know anything. I would appreciate it. He was a good father.

Trixie Collin June 10, 2016 at 5:25 pm

My father Lt Commander Robert barlow RNVR was one of the lucky survivors though he rarely spoke of it. I treasure his safety light from his lifejacket. Details of HMS Latona’s trip and subsequent sinking are very sketchy. I do have his certificate for crossing the Equator and I have a recollection that they visited Durban. He then was posted to Malta and remained there during the siege. He died in 1974 aged 59.

Stephen Bretherton April 16, 2015 at 4:07 pm

My uncle (Jack) John Bretherton served on HMS Latona he was an electrician and spent most of his time in the engine room, sadly he was killed on that night when Latona was torpedoed.

christine lemon February 1, 2014 at 11:45 pm

I believe my Uncle to have been on the Lantona that night, his Name was James Kevill age 23 years from Richmond, Yorkshire. Unfortunately all of his brothers are dead now, so there is nobody to ask. The only information I have is that he died on the 25th Oct 1941 -at sea. I remember my Father saying that he was killed on a troop ship near Alexandria.
Thank you Mr Les Smith for your very moving and devastating account of that night. I realise that perhaps my uncle Jim was one of the soul you saw fall into the sea. I can now pass his and your story onto my family. He will never be lost again. Thank you

Alan Smith November 7, 2013 at 10:08 pm

My late Father Les Smith also was on the Latona when it was hit. He said that he had attempted to jump on to the Encounter when it pulled along side the Latona, but was unable to do this due to another attack from a German aircraft .
He was rescued by HMS Hero, the Hero was also hit when it came along side.
My Father never ever forgot that night it always remained in his mind right through his life.

Alan Smith

Diana Hughes September 7, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Thank you for this. My father served on Latona – Supply CPO Gilbert Pollard. He was one of the lucky ones. I remember him telling me after he was demobed how he stood on the side, carefully removed his watch and threw it overboard (to save it?); then he jumped. At the time I did not appreciate the full horror of the situation.

Only fairly recently have I come to realise what effect such horrendous war-time experiences must have had upon the survivors. It explains a lot.

Diana Hughes

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