The defence of Tobruk still relied on support from the sea wherever possible. The ‘river gunboat’ HMS Ladybird, launched in 1916, had been transferred from China. During the later part of April HMS Ladybird was stationed in Tobruk harbour, hiding behind the wreck of one of the several ships that had been sunk in the harbour. During the nights she had crept along the coast and bombarded the Luftwaffe base at Gazala. Although slow and antiquated she was equipped with relatively new 6-inch guns and was able to inflict substantial damage to both planes and fuel dumps.
It was not long before the Luftwaffe sought their revenge. On their first assault they completely missed HMS Ladybird but sunk the minesweeper HMS Stoke. It was readily evident to all on board that it was only a matter of time before HMS Ladybird, lying in her exposed position in the harbour without any support, must become the principal target. After another attack on the airfield on the night of 11th/12th it must have seemed inevitable. The attack came just after three in the afternoon the next day.
Commander John Blackburn later gave this account of the action to the press:
We were anchored at Tobruk on May 12, when 47 Nazi bombers swooped towards us. My chief’ gunner’s mate saw the first plane dropping out of the sun shine, and it laid a stick of bombs so near that their explosion flung the crew on the deck.Then there was a terrific screech, and there came another lot, one of which got us right aft, almost immediately putting the deck under water. Then another bomb got us in the engine-room. The ship shivered from stem to stern and was obviously sinking, but my men urged me to carry on. We ware burning like hell amidships and fire was pouring out of the engine-room. I saw many of my men dash into that inferno and carry out the wounded while the forward six-inch guns, pom-poms and machine-guns sprayed a hail of metal at the Nazi planes.
The planes swarmed around us, dropping more bombs. By this time wounded men were helping to feed the guns as the planes swarmed around us. We got two of them. Rescue boats arrived from shore and took aboard the first of the wounded. We still kept firing our forward guns, but Ladybird was sinking fast with the water sweeping closer to the bridge every moment. Even then the sailors, gunners and officers, with fire all round them, and half the guns under water, said to me : “Carry on, sir, please”
They all stayed until, at the last minute, when the old ship was rolling for her final plunge. I ordered them to abandon ship. She went down with what guns we could man firing to the last.
The Ladybird had four men killed and 14 wounded. Her captain received this signal from Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, C.-in-C. Mediterranean: “Great fighting finish worthy of highest ideals and tradition of the Navy and an inspiration for all who fight on the seas.”
It was no longer possible to maintain ships in the harbour. Support for Tobruk was now dependent on ships making the trip down from Alexandria timing their trip to arrive and depart during the hours of darkness.