Shipped out of Tobruk as a PoW

A German picture of British prisoners of war captured at Tobruk

The port facilities Tobruk had been bombed relentlessly, alternately by the British and the Germans.

Bob Mallett had been captured, along with 33,000 others, when Tobruk fell to Rommel’s latest attack. The Germans handed them over to the Italians to deal with. It took time for the Italians to organise facilities for them and to find transport to take them back to Italy. When the ship did arrive it was very basic:

A motley crowd was herded onto the quay. We were now on our way to a prison camp, somewhere in Italy. Guards stood around us, dirty and unshaven, leaning on their rifles. We numbered about 400 English, South Africans, Indians, Australians and a collection of nationals from almost every European country. We were all dirty, hungry, lousy and miserable.

A freighter was tied up in front of us, lifting gently in the light swell that was rolling across the harbour. This was our ferry for the trip across the sea to Italy. We were going back to Europe, but not the way that we would have wished.

At last, we got the signal to embark and as each man reached the gangway he was presented with a packet of Italian cigarettes and a tin of corned beef. This was to last us until we reached Taranto and together with a quantity of rusty water all we had until we landed.

We were packed into the holds of the vessel and given to understand that nobody would be allowed on deck in any circumstances. A number of buckets were then passed down and the Italian interpreter indicated that these were our loo for the trip. Some of the men already had dysentery and after two hours below, the atmosphere could almost be leaned upon.

The ship had been carrying barrels of tar, and some had leaked as the whole floor had about an inch of tar over it. We had about two square feet of space each and when the ship got out into the heavier swell, sickness added to our troubles.

One of the guards lounging above the hatch shouted. We looked up and saw an Italian army padre peering down at us. He had a poor command of English and not a lot of tact. “Englishmans,” he called, “You have been conquered,” and got no further. From somewhere in the hold a tightly knotted tarry rag rose and caught him fairly in the face. Exit padre. We never saw him again.

For over two days we sat in that hold. The floor was soft and slimy. I had laid an overcoat on the floor, but the tar oozed through. Most of the men had nothing but shirts and shorts on when they were captured andthe state of them can best be left to the imagination.

Once anything was placed on the ground, it was impossible to remove it. The men’s watches had all been taken off them when captured so we had no idea of time. It just got light and it got dark; that was all we knew.

After what seemed a lifetime in this hell, one of the guards above shouted. We looked up. He waved his rifle, pointed and yelled ‘Taranto’ so we took it that we had not much further to go. The ship stopped rolling and slowed. The activity on deck increased and we guessed that we were through the boom into Taranto harbour. We just sat, sweated and stank while waiting our destiny.

Bob Mallet was to twice escape from Italian prisoner of war camps before finally crossing over to the British lines in Italy in 1943. See War’s Long Shadow: 69 Months of the Second World War

Rommel with italian troops in the desert.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Victoria Jackson January 24, 2015 at 4:11 pm

My Great Uncle Ernest Wilfred Jackson, known as Wilf Jackson, was a driver in the transport section of the RASC in North Africa. He was reported missing, and later presumed dead, on 27 June 1942 and is commemorated on the Alamein memorial. However, my family received information that he had been seen in a POW camp in Germany after this date, although he never returned home. I’m thinking that he may have been taken prisoner at Tobruk or Mersa Matruh and moved to Italy and then Germany. I’m researching this at the moment but any information would be gratefully received.

guy woodward January 15, 2015 at 10:24 pm

My uncle Godfrey Thorpe was in 67 medium regiment, royal artillery. He was captured at Tobruk after an unfair fight where they ended up putting their howitzers into all round defence. He went to Italy then Germany when the Italians surrendered. Like the others he spent over 1000 days as a prisoner of war. Around 6 months into captivity his brother Sidney was killed and he found out via a letter from his dad.
Sidney was in a Royal artillery Stuart Op tank. Only the officer survived and wrote about Sidney death in 1946 to his parents. He died in action on the 15th January 1943.
I have his POW dog tag and both brothers medals plus letters. A very sad story with much suffering.
A stained glass window at St John’s Church Felixstowe is dedicated to Sidney, as he was affectionately known.
There are also some pictures in captivity.

Leo Taboné January 13, 2015 at 12:30 pm

To the last message: Could that be Helen Robertson who served in WWII as a Medic?

Imogen December 22, 2014 at 6:40 pm

My Grandfather (John Ivor Lawrence Edwards) had a first cousin John Turner Boughton (married to Molly) from Cradock, South Africa. Helen, could we communicate via email and share some family information. I do not have much John Turner but would welcome information from you.

Dawn Hemmings December 18, 2014 at 3:40 pm

I have just received my Grandads military records to find out he was one of the prsionors taken from Tobruk. He escaped in 1943 and made his way to the south of Italy where he reached Allied hands on the 28th Oct 1943.

He used to tell me stories about him escaping I was fascinated


Dr Raymond van Diemel December 4, 2014 at 10:54 am

If you have any queries regarding military history you may contact the Department of Defence Archives at as all military records are kept by them. Their physical address is the Schweikert Building, 20 Visagie Street, Pretoria and the telephone number is (012) 339-4600; Fax (012) 339 4631

June Stroebel October 13, 2014 at 3:34 pm

My father Thomas John (Jack)Brown was from East London South Africa and was captured at Tobruk and taken to Italy where he mentioned that they slept on top of graves and stayed in the same clothes for 6 months.

He was a stretcher bearer and presumably he was with the Kaffarian Rifles from East London although we have not been able to verify what division in N Africa he was in.

He mentioned the awful crossing to Italy and having to scoop buckets of faeces from below deck because of the dysentry. He also said how they starved and that Mussolini arrived at the cemetry one day with a load of bread and had photos taken with the POW’s of how they were being looked after then promptly drove off taking the load of bread with him. They survived mostly from soup made with bits of cabbage in water.

My father Jack had 2 nervous breakdowns in the 1960’s being put down to his war experience, and like so many others did not speak of what happened. The name Mersa Metru in the above comments is definitely something he spoke of.

Can anyone perhaps advise how I can find out where he was in Italy. He survived the war and died prematurely of a heart attack in EL at the young age of 63. I have been trying for years to find information and would be so grateful if anyone can help???

carol scholten October 3, 2014 at 9:07 pm

How can I trace info on my grandad who was at pow in tobrook

Bruce Campbell September 28, 2014 at 6:08 pm

Hi my late father William Arthur Ambrose Campbell served with the South African Artillery and was also captured in Tobruk. As far as I am aware he spent some time in a POW camp in Italy and most of the rest in Germany ( Russia) He was also on the famous 900 KM walk towards the end of the war. My father didn`t talk much of his experiences. If anyone can please give me more information on my late i would appreciate it.

Bruce Campbell

Peter Armstrong August 30, 2014 at 12:48 pm

My Father Bob Armstrong was captured at Tobruk too. He was sent to Italy and the to Germany, I guess after the capitulation. He was awarded medals for his leadership and keeping up morale while they were POW’s. He never talked about the war and laughed when my older brother swapped some of the medals for dinkies with his mates at primary school in Lusaka! Let’s hope non of us or our children have to face a war like that!

Dave Coetzee August 9, 2014 at 3:35 pm

I am trying to find out more information about my fathers brother who was taken prisoner at Tobruk, Raymond Coetzee, I know he ended up in a POW camp in Germany. Unfortunately he has passed on.

Julia Simons August 2, 2014 at 5:38 pm

My dad Wilfred Matthew Cliffe was captured at Tobruk and taken to Udine prison camp in Italy where he was badly treated by the commandant. After capitulation he was taken to Stalag 18A at Klagenfurt in Austria where he stayed until the end of the war. I know he was taken to Bari in Italy to be ‘fattened up’ before returning home to Stoke. My mum had been asked to write to him while he was a prisoner by his sister and he came to thank her – they were married a month later! He suffered a breakdown later and was discharged from the army – they said this had nothing to do with what he had gone through. Like many others he hardly spoke about his time during the war except to tell funny stories and make jokes about it. In 1995 the 50 th celebrations seemed to really upset him and I heard about some of his experiences for the first time. He would not have his medals, and Mum only applied for them after his death in 2004

Peter Coombe July 29, 2014 at 1:31 am

My father,Peter Coombe, served in the Royal Engineers from 1938 until de-mob in 1946.He was taken prisoner at Tobruk and spent the remainder of the war in P.O.W. camps in Italy and Germany.He never spoke of the war or what he did in it to us kids . Nor would allow us to see war films( on T.V.).At the time I did not understand the reason why but never questioned him. My mother, his only confident told me sometime later,after his death, of some of his experiences from Dunkirk to Crete, Egypt and ultimately Tobruk .One statement he made to her that refers to the capture of Tobruk has been with me all my life and serves as acatalyst when things are going badly and can get worse,”I thought when all shelling stopped and we surrendered,the nightmare would be over,I did not realise I was about to enter Hell”.
He was shipped to Italy and later force marched to Germany (I think to Stalag 4B,Liepzig? ). His military service ended, always being on the losing side,shortly after liberation and retuned home weighing just 6 stones.
Sapper Peter Coombe, Royal Engineers Passed away on 24th,September 1964 at the age of 48.
I am immensely proud to bear his name and walk in the shaddow of a hero.

Alison Botha Henderson July 1, 2014 at 3:47 pm

I have just read the above account and it brought me to tears to think of those terrible conditions that our fathers/ grandfathers endured. I’ve just had a look at the few papers that I do have of my dad’s and see that he was a Private in the Dispersal Unit from Tempe, Bloemfontein. His name was Jacob Johannesburg Breitenbach Botha. I can’t find reference to the unit he was in but have found a photocopy of a newspaper cutting about “Tobruk’s 40,000 shells in a day” with a date of 29 November 1941. There is also a copy of a letter to my Ouma advising her that my father was ‘killed in action in the North’ around about 23 November 1941 and a letter returning his identity disc and a letter of condolence from the war office. Only many months later did his uncle hear his name read out on a radio broadcast listing the POW’s taken at Mersa Metruh.

My dad died in 2000. If anyone finds out any information that links to my dad I would be very grateful. All I know that he was in POW camps in Italy and Germany and that on his 7th attempt he managed to escape and get back to allied lines.

Shirley Hardman July 1, 2014 at 2:53 pm

My dad, Les Pett was also taken at Tobruk and took part in the ‘death march’. I know they ended up in Czechoslovakia. He would talk of the terrible cold and of people’s toes falling off due to frost bite but that is all he ever said. I thought it was just Dad that wouldn’t talk about it.

Dr Annie Campbell June 10, 2014 at 5:45 am

I have been doing research after my brother found an atlas my father had marked of the journey of his capture and subsequent time in Stalag8b.
This is a helpful forum and I’m just sorry I don’t have more details about my fathers experience. His name was Bob (Robert) Campbell a Scotsman who died in 1989 . He was in royal medical corp and his job was a “stretcher bearer”, a benign title for someone who picked up the dead /dying/injured soldiers. This experience forever marked his life and gave him a strong love of life.
Anyone that might have known him please contact me. I would like to see those photos on line .

Ria Round June 8, 2014 at 1:05 am

Like almost everybody else my father William Higginson would rarely talk about his war experiences. His sister has filled me in with the bits she remembers and I know he was in the Royal artillery and he was captured in Tobruk. He was later in Stalag 8B in Germany.
He died in 1989 and I now so regret not trying to persuade him to share his experiences as my boys have so many questions about their granddad’s war experiences.
If anyone has anything to share I would be most grateful.

Alan McFadden June 7, 2014 at 5:19 pm

My own father Jack McFadden from Belfast. He was taken prisoner at Tobruk. He was a sergeant in the Royal Artillery and was transported to Italy first and then on to Germany. He never did talk much about what happened as with most of those guys. His own father had also been a POW during WW1 and was a veteran of the Somme, having been at Theipval and survived the ordeal there. I wonder if anyone who reads this would have known my father. He would have been 24 years old at that time.

Debbie April 21, 2014 at 12:03 pm

I would like to find out more about my grandfather whom I never met. He was also captured in Tobruk, did the march and ended up as a prisoner of war. He was in the South African Engineering Corpse and his name was Gerald van Onselen. If anyone has any knowledge of him or what happened to them during the war years please can you let me know.
Many thanks

Maureen Burch March 25, 2014 at 11:43 am

My father Ernest Raven was also taken as a pow I think he went to Germany.Sadly he died in dec 1977.

Helen March 24, 2014 at 9:23 pm

My grandfather was South African John Turner Boughton from Cradock, Eastern Cape, South African 2nd Infantry Division captured in Tobruk June 1942, taken as POW to Italy until shipped to England by Red Cross due to illness. He returned to South African in 1944 and ran a printing business in Cradock and started a Red Cross with his wife, my frandmother, Molly. I’d love to know if anyone has any information on where he was kept, conditions, etc.

Jeremy Sadler March 14, 2014 at 2:17 pm

My father, Mike Sadler, was taken prisoner at Tobruk in June 1942. Part of the South African Artillery. He did write his memoirs – see for more information.


Clint Lishman January 27, 2014 at 3:23 pm

Clint Lishman

My grandfather CLIVE LISHMAN was taken prisoner in tobruk. he also was on a Long march, i think to Germany. If anyone has any info, about my grandfather, during These times please help

Cheryl Sickle January 9, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Hi my name is Cheryl Sickle. I am currently researching my family history and discovered that I have an uncle Christian John Sickle-South African who was a POW at Tobruk and was listed as missing presumed dead 1942. Details below: If anyone has info it would be appreciated
Service: British Army
Cape Corps, S.A. Forces
South African Artillery
attd. 7 Field Regiment
South African Regiment 2:
Batlalion 2:

Debbie smith December 30, 2013 at 12:29 am

Hi. My grandad was George Paxton. He was in the royal army service corps. He had an awful time in Italy too. He was a baker. He went onto Germany and was part of the death march too. If anyone remembers him would love you to get in touch please.

John Foster November 19, 2013 at 6:20 pm

My uncle, (John) Gordon Cryer was also captured at Tobruk.

Thanks for the posts.

John Ellis November 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm

My Dad James ( Jim ) Ellis. Was captured at Tobruk, he was a Driver in the R.A.S.C. and like so many of those Captured at Tobruk, was placed in the hands of the Italians. He never spoke to much about any of his expriences. He did however say that the way the prisnors were treated by their Italian Guards, was disgusting, and that was putting extremely mildly.

Unfortunately my Dad passed on in 1978 ( at age 63) much too early in Life. A lot of this due to the war years, and the suffering they went through.

Bartlett October 4, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Is there a record of Ivan Peter taken prisoner at Tobruk. Was my daughters father- in law

ian marson July 10, 2013 at 7:37 pm

my grandfather was caught at tobruk also. william marson. he died in 1983. i have a couple of old photos of his time in the army, one of them is prior to the war of him with some boxing trophies, with a group of 3 other men. he was part of a 1000 mile ‘death march’ as it was known which jan clewley has mentioned, and i do believe he was at the same POW camp as you mentoned as i recall my father mentioning the name, he also said that my grandfather never talked about, and that he also hated the italians.

Editor July 3, 2013 at 11:59 am


Many thanks for adding that. A sad tale and one I was unaware of. I’ll try to find out more about this.


Sue July 3, 2013 at 10:19 am

My uncle Frederick Banyard served in the Royal Artillery and was captured at Tobruk. He was one of over 800 POWs who were killed when the Italian freighter carrying them from Benghazi was sunk by a BRITISH submarine, HMS Sahib in November 1942. The British government did not acknowledge the incident until 1996, and his name was belatedly added to the war memorial in our local church in Suffolk. Sadly there were other ships filled with POWs that suffered a similar fate, eg the Nino Bixio.

Aimee May 15, 2013 at 7:06 am

My Grandfather William Walker was a Gunner in the Royal Artillery and taken POW in Tobruk. He lived in Liverpool before coming to Australia and he died in 1989, he had 11 brothers some we killed during service. I’m finding it very hard to find any information on him, he never talked about it. He only spoke to my German Grandfather about it who fought in the same war and was also a POW captured by the Russians (he passed on in 2007) ironic. They got along well. I will keep researching!

Peter McCulloch April 3, 2013 at 6:30 pm

My father was captured at Tobruk and ended up in a camp in Italy. He was with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders as a Medic.
I would like to know in what Italian town the Camerons were held.

Matt March 9, 2013 at 9:06 pm

My Grandad, Frank Huckvale, was also taken at Tobruk. He was a gunner. My dad says he never talked about it either. He spent time in POW camps in Italy then Germany. One good thing came of it, though; he didn’t have anyone to write to back home so his friend (last name was Butcher) got his sister to write to my granddad. When he got back, they were married. So, that’s how I exist!

Tim Keane December 21, 2012 at 8:14 pm

My Grandad, Eric Ketteringham was a gunner in the Royal Artillery and was also taken POW at Tobruk. I sympathise with Mrs Jan Clewley as Grandad did not talk about it either. He did once correct me on the proper pronunciation of “Junkers” when I was building a model kit of a German bomber of the same name.
My Mum tells me he threw his medals away after the war.
Later we discovered that he had been imprisoned in Italy and escaped and hid with an Italian family for some time.
As the allies advanced in Italy, he crossed the lines and was returned to the UK. While he was on service in North Africa and then captured, his first baby was born whom he’d never seen. On return to the UK he went AWOL to see her (my Aunt) and was docked one day’s pay.

Mrs Jan Clewley November 14, 2012 at 11:23 am

My dad was captured at Tobruk and I didn’t realise how awful it must have been. He never tlaked baout it at all, ever and now I just wish I could ask him questions. When I was younger I wasn’t intersted it didn’t mean anything to me. Now I am older I would like to hear all about it and I can’t ask because he died in 1973 after having ill health for years. I still have one or two posessions of his, including his notes for the rations per month that the prisioners were allowed, it is all written in minute handwriting – every space on the page filled.

Did anyone know my dad? His name was Ernest Partington, his nickname was ‘Tut’. He was born in Hednesford Staffordshire and lived in the are all his life, working down the pits until his early retirement due to his health. After coming home from the war he worked as a postman for 4 years then he went down ithe pit.

After his capture in Tobruk he was marched all through Italy and I know he had to walk with the other prisioners through the Brenner Pass, but that’s basically all I know. He was missing feared dead for over 12 months and I have the telegrams about him being captured.

II was very interested in the article by Bob Mallett and has provoked thoughtss of how the prisioners had to endure the most awful conditions on that ship and no matter where they were, no matter what they had to do they endured it all with bravery that I can’t even begin to imagine, especially now after seeing films of where my dad was captured.

I would like to know what happened to the prisioners on their journey to
(I think) ‘Stalag 8B’ in Italy and if anyone living remembers him during this time I would also be so grateful to hear if anyone has any memeories of their relatives mentioning names that fits my dads description NICKNAME:: ‘TUT’ other names ERN or ERNEST PARTINGTON.

I still want to search through hundreds of photo’s on the net and maybe I will find a photograph of him on the web pages I have visited so far but not had time to go thruough all of the photographs. I have photographs of groups of men also so I will try to put those online when I have time and someone may recognice once of thier relatives from these photographs.

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