Night patrol out of Tobruk

One of the forward defensive positions on the perimeter of Tobruk manned by Australian troops.

In July 1941 David Sutherland, then a junior officer in No. 8 Commando, had volunteered to join a small raiding party based in the besieged port of Tobruk. Their job was to dominate No Man’s Land by patrolling the area at night. One of the first tasks they were given was to attempt to seize a prisoner for the purposes of gathering intelligence:

It was a still, warm night, a quarter moon behind clouds. Wearing khaki drill trousers, khaki shirt, rubber-soled boots and operational belt, we blended into the sand and were difficult to see.

I followed 10 metres behind Jock with covering men just visible on each side. Every 200 metres we stopped, lay down and listened for three or four minutes. If it was quiet we then got up and continued. Visual signals from Jock controlled our movements. After some forty-five minutes Jock whispered to me, ‘We are now deep in the enemy position. I am going down to get a prisoner. Keep an eye out for me.’

We lay on the ground and watched. After a couple of minutes he emerged saying, ‘Hell, there’s no one there.’ At this point I saw, about 30 metres away, an Italian soldier walking around. Jock saw him too, raced across and grabbed him.

This unfortunate man had diarrhoea, was on his way to the lavatory and was literally caught with his trousers down; such are the bizarre fortunes of war!

He was marched rapidly back to our lines where a valuable, smelly prisoner was handed over! I looked at my watch. It was 1.15 am. Not a shot had been fired.

My own feelings at being besieged in Tobruk were depression and unease. The experienced enemy had the initiative. One did not know what was going to happen next. Our job was to rest by day and patrol in no-man’s-land during the night.

The day, often after a spectacularly beautiful dawn, usually began with the first of four or five dive-bomber – Stuka – attacks of the day on Tobruk harbour, 12 kilometres away.

There were several Bofors light anti-aircraft guns in the area firing non-stop to add to the crunch of exploding bombs. Every now and then a Stuka was hit and began to lose height. Everyone cheered.

See David Sutherland: He Who Dares – Recollections of Service in the SAS, SBS and MI5

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