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 them 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.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

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
Debbie

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 http://www.mikesadlerbooks.com for more information.

Jeremy

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:
Commomorated:

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

Sue

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

Martin

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.

Helen Boughton May 16, 2013 at 5:39 pm

My grandfather, John Turner Boughton, was part of the South African infantry under Klopper, taken POW in Tobruk when the Italian’s sided with the Germans. He served about 5 years in Italy, but fell ill so was shipped to a hospital in England by the Red Cross. That is where he tasted Coca Cola for the first time! My father was 6 years old when he eventually came home. I believe the War affected him profoundly, and he often spoke of it, sharing stores, though I believe I may have been too young to appreciate it. He and my grandmother started a Red Cross in Cradock, Eastern Cape, South Africa. We have a picture frame he made out of a butter tin with a photo of my father in it.

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.

Leave a Comment

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: