Even more prisoners at Tobruk

More than 20,000 of them were soon herded into a fenced enclosure measuring about 800 yards by 400 yards which the Italians had erected near the junction of the El Adem and Bardia roads to house their own prisoners. Here during more than six weeks never fewer than 7,000 and sometimes over 20,000 prisoners were crowded like sheep in a dusty pen. Many of the men lacked blankets, and the nights were bitterly cold. To give them adequate medical care was far beyond the resources of their captors.

The oil installations in Tobruk harbour continue to burn following its surrender on the 22nd. In the foreground are captured Italian tanks in use by the Australians and distinctively marked as such.

The capture of Tobruk, as at Bardia, saw a huge numbers of prisoners of war with limited resources to cater for them:

One of the incoming force’s greatest embarrassments was the number of prisoners. More than 20,000 of them were soon herded into a fenced enclosure measuring about 800 yards by 400 yards which the Italians had erected near the junction of the El Adem and Bardia roads to house their own prisoners. Here during more than six weeks never fewer than 7,000 and sometimes over 20,000 prisoners were crowded like sheep in a dusty pen.

Many of the men lacked blankets, and the nights were bitterly cold. To give them adequate medical care was far beyond the resources of their captors. There was no sanitation; and, at first, it took one of the two infantry companies posted at the cage seven hours to distribute the day’s rations–one tin of veal, two biscuits and a bottle of water to each man, though few prisoners had even a bottle to receive their water in.

From the 23rd to the 26th the 2/7th Battalion was on guard and strove unceasingly to feed and water the prisoners. The 2/2nd Battalion which relieved the 2/7th reduced the time spent feeding the prisoners to five hours by installing water tubs and employing Italian N.C.O’s to organise the lines. Eventually the guards from this battalion made sure that every prisoner had at least a greatcoat or blanket and his own water bottle.

To keep the prisoners’ spirits up the Australians kept them singing for hours on end and sometimes would sing back to them. There usually was a thick dust cloud over the cage. That so few of the Italians died does credit to the hard work and the genuine sympathy of the infantrymen of the 16th Brigade who controlled and fed them. Gradually the numbers were reduced by sending them eastwards to Egypt in empty trucks that had come forward carrying supplies, and after the harbour was opened 1,500 to 2,000 were shipped away every second or third day. By the middle of February the number of prisoners had been reduced to about 10,000 and by the end of the month to 7,000.

See Hyperwar for the full account.

Tobruk is captured

The dead were still lying out, and the wounded were everywhere. It was no time for mincing words. ‘You have landmines laid in and around the town,’ the Australian said. ‘I will take reprisals for the life of every one of my men lost on those mines.’ Quickly the Italians led Australian sappers to the mines and they were torn up. Booby traps were revealed, storage dumps opened, some two hundred guns handed over.

The old Italian Cruiser San Giorgio had been used as a flak ship in Tobruk harbour. She had been damaged by RAF bombers but her guns continued to defend against the tank attack, before she was finally scuttled on the 22nd.

The small Libyan port of Tobruk was now just another point on the map, marking the advance of the mainly Australian forces that were leading British counter attack into Italian occupied Libya. Nobody yet knew the significance it would later achieve.

The final surrender of Italian forces in Tobruk came on the 22nd, witnessed by the journalist Alan Moorehead:

The surrender was accepted in the town by an Australian Brigadier.

The Italian admiral commanding and his staff, all shaven and immaculate in white, and a group of four haggard generals, received him. It had been a bitter engagement. The dead were still lying out, and the wounded were everywhere. It was no time for mincing words. ‘You have landmines laid in and around the town,’ the Australian said. ‘I will take reprisals for the life of every one of my men lost on those mines.’ Quickly the Italians led Australian sappers to the mines and they were torn up. Booby traps were revealed, storage dumps opened, some two hundred guns handed over.

More than fifteen thousand prisoners were gathered in for the long journey, some by sea, some by land, back to Alexandria. We had now in all some hundred thousand prisoners, but Bergonzoli had got away again. Twenty per cent of the prisoners were found to be suffering from some form of chronic dysentery.

Sickness, death and wounding enveloped Tobruk. Inside the town fires blazed. Shops, homes, offices, were torn up and their furniture and household goods strewn across the roads. Walking through it, I felt suddenly sickened at the destruction and the uselessness and the waste. At this moment of success I found only an unreasoning sense of futility.

The attack on Tobruk

When we were only yards away we could see the men in their dark green uniforms with their coats open, sweating as they tried to hump their guns round and train them on us. We simply went straight towards them, firing; we would have gone straight over them if we hadn’t knocked their guns out. Then we drove the loaders and odds and ends into the dugout. And the next thing I saw was a white flag emerging.

Infantry from the 6th Australian Division move forward during the assault on Tobruk

In almost a repeat performance of the attack on Bardia the Australian 6th Division made a dawn assault on the Italian garrison at Tobruk on 21st January. The Italians appeared to believe their own propaganda, which was telling the Italian home audience that their soldiers were being overwhelmed by massively superior forces. In fact the reverse was true, if the Italians had moved out from their static defensive positions the British might well have had difficulty containing them. As it was they remained in their bunkers under constant harassing artillery fire whilst the British built up their attacking forces. The final assault was preceded by bombing. Then the attacking infantry went forward behind a creeping barrage supported by naval gunfire. Many of the defenders were surprised in their bunkers, having become so accustomed to shellfire that they did not realise that an attack was accompanying it. The garrison crumbled even more quickly that at Bardia.

The wear and tear of the desert had reduced the small number of tanks that were available, and the attack was delayed for a couple of days while repairs were made. Captain Barker describes how his Matilda tanks went into action:

Approaching a wadi we’d been shelled for about three miles without being able to tell where the fire came from. I spotted a gun flash from behind stones on the wadi edge. I ordered my troop to attack, ignoring machine-guns and anti-tank fire from the flank. It was the guns we were after.

Then I heard a whoof of shells passing at point-blank range. It was a question of which would knock out the other first. I just kept straight on and told the gunner to let go when we were near. Although we were yawing and pitching all over the place he hit the emplacement with his first shot.

Then we went for three other guns. I turned quickly, which threw up a cloud of dust, drove round the cloud and took them by surprise. When we were only yards away we could see the men in their dark green uniforms with their coats open, sweating as they tried to hump their guns round and train them on us. We simply went straight towards them, firing; we would have gone straight over them if we hadn’t knocked their guns out. Then we drove the loaders and odds and ends into the dugout. And the next thing I saw was a white flag emerging.

See The Imperial War Museum Book of the Desert War 1940 – 1942

Himmler visits Dachau

On the 20th January Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS and principal architect of the Holocaust, visited Dachau concentration camp with the Dutch fascist Mussert. Himmler was organising the expansion of his system of camps in preparation for the Nazi move East. Himmler was a frequent visitor the various camps around his empire. One of the reasons for the lack of paper trail evidence of orders for the Holocaust is that he so often passed on his encouragement in person.

Heinrich Himmler visits Dachau concentration camp on the 20th January 1941.
The exact purpose of the visit may not be known but Himmler was in the process of expanding his camp system.

On the 20th January Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS and principal architect of the Holocaust, visited Dachau concentration camp with the Dutch fascist leader Anton Mussert. Himmler was organising the expansion of his system of camps in preparation for the Nazi move East. Himmler was a frequent visitor the various camps around his empire. One of the reasons for the lack of paper trail evidence of orders for the Holocaust is that he so often passed on his encouragement in person.

Dachau had been the first concentration camp established by the Nazi’s in 1933 and was used initially to punish political opponents of the regime. As such it was not an extermination camp, although the Nazi’s had no compunction about murdering people there from the very start. It was equally important that a proportion of individuals were released to spread the word about the brutal regime. It quickly gained a notorious reputation and became synonymous with the whole repressive apparatus of Germany. The simple fear of ‘Dachau’ stifled anyone who might voice opposition or even criticism of the Nazi’s. “Dear God, make me dumb, that I may not to Dachau come”.

Dachau
A Nazi propaganda picture of the Dachau regime in 1938.
Dachau
A Nazi propaganda picture of inmates in Dachau in 1938.

British forces enter Italian Eritrea

On the 19th January the first of the 4.5 Batteries went into action and did some very accurate shooting, so vindicating or justifying our ‘fudging and improvisation’. On the same day Italian Savoyas strafed us and we managed to bring one down with rifle fire and one LMG. A newly arrived Hurricane, probably the only one in East Africa, brought down another. Although all a little bit “gung ho”, the South Africans were all a very good crowd but so different from the Army types I had been used to. Discipline was there one assumed, but it wasn’t too obvious.

Indian troops cross the Atbara river with their motor transport on a pontoon raft, as they move into Italian occupied Eritrea.

The Indian troops that had so successfully opened Operation Compass now found themselves fighting an entirely different war in a remote corner of Africa. The 4th Indian Division now joined up with the 5th Indian Division who had already engaged the Italians at Gallabat.

On the 19th January British forces moved across the border from southern Sudan and took the border town of Kassala. The British comprised a variety of forces, some with very improvised equipment. Ken Potter joined the campaign from Kenya, then a British colony, from where he brought a collection of artillery:

In the middle of January I took the workshop up through Nanuki and Isiolo and then on a 200 mile trek through a desert of larva boulders and rocks to Marsabit. At that time Marsabit was just an oasis in the middle of a desert. You suddenly came from an inferno of heat, dust and impassable rocky terrain into a few miles of tall green trees flowing streams, birds – and a local vicar! It was here that with my workshop I was officially attached to the 1st South African Division in the joint capacity of ‘gun wallah and diplomat’.

The South African equipment was all old first World War stuff, 4.5 howitzers, 18 and 60 pounders. Nearly all of them needing urgent workshop attention for which neither we nor they had spares. Particularly the 4.5 howitzers whose recuperators are all on the borderline of ‘u/s’. No amount of signalling to Nairobi seem to produce any replacement spares, so we had to fiddle, fudge and improvise as best we could.

On the 19th January the first of the 4.5 Batteries went into action and did some very accurate shooting, so vindicating or justifying our ‘fudging and improvisation’. On the same day Italian Savoyas strafed us and we managed to bring one down with rifle fire and one LMG. A newly arrived Hurricane, probably the only one in East Africa, brought down another. Although all a little bit “gung ho”, the South Africans were all a very good crowd but so different from the Army types I had been used to. Discipline was there one assumed, but it wasn’t too obvious.

By now everyone was getting very impatient to get on with it. If we were to take Abyssinia in 1941 we had to get to and take Addis Ababa by March otherwise the rains would make it impossible until a year later. By today’s (1995) standards of equipment, techniques and communications, this may sound a bit exaggerated. However with our then pretty antiquated equipment and no roads in the rainy season, it was a ‘no go’ situation.

Round about this time we were unfortunate to be in an area swarming with ticks. They were anything in size from pin heads to good sized garden peas. They tend to attach themselves to your person everywhere and can only be removed with the red hot end of a cigarette. Three or four consecutive attacks and you usually got tick fever that would last for several days.

Read his full account on BBC People’s War

Indian troops clearing a village in Eritrea.
Indian troops clearing a village in Eritrea.

England expects invasion this spring

It seems we are enjoying a little respite now, so that we may be prepared for the spring. About March, it seems, the Americans think the assault will come. If they think of lending us some of their Navy things must be pretty grim. I don’t like the look of it. We have got to put up with a lot more bombing of our towns, Mr Churchill says. As soon as the weather improves, I suppose, those horrible all-night raids will start again.

Another uncomfortable night in the shelter, which had now become a routine for most people, leaving so many Londoners tired from lack of sleep. An elderly man sleeps on an old wooden chair, whilst a lady covered with a blanket lies on a bed of boxes, under the railway arches somewhere in South East London, probably in November 1940.
Another uncomfortable night in the shelter, which had now become a routine for most people, leaving so many Londoners tired from lack of sleep.
An elderly man sleeps on an old wooden chair, whilst a lady covered with a blanket lies on a bed of boxes, under the railway arches somewhere in South East London, probably in November 1940.

There was a short break in the the nightly blitz, with no bombs falling on the nights of the 18th, 19th and 20th as snow storms bought a halt to German operations.

Vere Hodgson’s diary, which she later published as ‘Few Eggs and No Oranges’ provides one of the most consistent accounts of living in central London during the war.

Her experience of the Blitz is the constant theme for this time, being disturbed night after night with friends and acquaintances falling casualty all the time. But she also includes much incidental detail that gives a picture of what people were thinking about the war generally:

Saturday, 18th

We have snow. Been blowing a blizzard today. The poor people who have no windows must feel the cold terribly.

Mrs Johnson [hostess of our own Night Shelter in Lambeth] was telling me what they felt like last Saturday night when the blast struck the place. They crouched on the floor, and could hear bricks hurtling through the air and bunging up the doorway. However, the wood partition that had been made for the front door black-out saved them from injury. The blast lasted two minutes, but it felt like two hours! They are still digging the poor men out from the flats.

It seems we are enjoying a little respite now, so that we may be prepared for the spring. About March, it seems, the Americans think the assault will come. If they think of lending us some of their Navy things must be pretty grim. I don’t like the look of it. We have got to put up with a lot more bombing of our towns, Mr Churchill says. As soon as the weather improves, I suppose, those horrible all-night raids will start again.

I was talking with Mr Murray, the cobbler. He is quite a character in his way and well worth talking to. I was saying that he might invade us from Ireland – and had we guns at Liverpool and Bristol? Mr Murray thought it would be just as difficult on that side, and that if Hitler had failed in the autumn when we were not ready, there was no question of his succeeding when we were more prepared. However, he also thought we were in for another two years of war.

See Vere Hodgson: Few Eggs and No Oranges

Ideas-for-winter-nights

Arrival of the first flotilla of American destroyers for Royal Navy. 28 September 1940, Royal Dockyard, Devonport. The flotilla, handed over by the US government under the agreement, were manned entirely by British crews. The flotilla leader HMS CASTLETON (ex-USS AARON WARD) along with another of the destroyers moored alongside.
Arrival of the first flotilla of American destroyers for Royal Navy. 28 September 1940, Royal Dockyard, Devonport. The flotilla, handed over by the US government under the agreement, were manned entirely by British crews.
The flotilla leader HMS CASTLETON (ex-USS AARON WARD) along with another of the destroyers moored alongside.
"Thumbs Up" by members of the British naval crew who brought the destroyers to this country. Two of the crew brought American Naval caps which they obtained from the destroyer's American crew who were on board prior to the handing over.
“Thumbs Up” by members of the British naval crew who brought the destroyers to this country. Two of the crew brought American Naval caps which they obtained from the destroyer’s American crew who were on board prior to the handing over.

Winston Churchill with Harry Hopkins

In December 1940 Winston Churchill had written to President Roosevelt outlining the dire financial situation that Britain was descending into. It had become apparent that the British Empire could not afford to continue the war alone. Roosevelt’s proposed solution was to become known as the “Lend Lease Act”. First he needed re-assurance that Britain really could continue the war – not all US representatives in Britain believed in this.

Mr Churchill on board the battlecruiser HMS HOOD at Rosyth.
Mr Churchill on board the battlecruiser HMS HOOD at Rosyth.
Mr Churchill on board the battlecruiser HMS HOOD at Rosyth.
Mr Churchill on board the battlecruiser HMS HOOD at Rosyth.

In December 1940 Winston Churchill had written to President Roosevelt outlining the dire financial situation that Britain was descending into. It had become apparent that the British Empire could not afford to continue the war alone. Roosevelt’s proposed solution was to become known as the “Lend Lease Act”. First he needed re-assurance that Britain really could continue the war – not all US representatives in Britain believed in this.

He dispatched his personal aide Harry Hopkins to report on the situation in Britain. Having lost the greater part of his stomach to cancer in 1937 Hopkins was a chronically weak man, unable to absorb nutrition properly. He was considered too ill to take on a formal role as Ambassador. Yet his judgement was so trusted by Roosevelt that he would later become known to Washington insiders as “the deputy President”.

Fortunately Churchill and Hopkins established very warm personal relations, laying the foundations for the great Alliance between the two nations. Hopkins’ visit to Britain was extended from two to six weeks, staying at 10 Downing Street.

The Prime Minister being welcomed by the Captain of the battleship HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, Captain C B Barry, DSO.
The Prime Minister being welcomed by the Captain of the battleship HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, Captain C B Barry, DSO.
The Prime Minister, Mrs Churchill, and Mr Hopkins being welcomed by dockyard workers on board the battleship HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH.
The Prime Minister, Mrs Churchill, and Mr Hopkins being welcomed by dockyard workers on board the battleship HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH.
The Prime Minister addressing ships' company and dockyard workers on board HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH. The Prime Minister and Mr Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt's Personal Representative in London, visit a Northern Port. 17 January 1941, Rosyth.
The Prime Minister addressing ships’ company and dockyard workers on board HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH.
The Prime Minister and Mr Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s Personal Representative in London, visit a Northern Port. 17 January 1941, Rosyth.
The Prime Minister, Mrs Churchill, and Mr Hopkins at Fleet Air Arm Station, Donibristle.
The Prime Minister, Mrs Churchill, and Mr Hopkins at Fleet Air Arm Station, Donibristle.

German cruiser at Brest bombed

Determined efforts have been made during the week to inflict further damage on the ” Hipper ” class cruiser lying in dry dock at Brest. On five nights a total of 85 aircraft were despatched with this target as their principal objective, and, over this period, four direct hits on the cruiser are reported. In addition, considerable damage was done to warehouses and buildings in the dock area and widespread fires were observed.

The German cruiser Admiral Hipper was in dry dock at the French port of Brest for engine repairs. From the 16th January reconnaissance flight to evaluate the earlier raids.

Determined efforts have been made during the week to inflict further damage on the ” Hipper ” class cruiser lying in dry dock at Brest. On five nights a total of 85 aircraft were despatched with this target as their principal objective, and, over this period, four direct hits on the cruiser are reported. In addition, considerable damage was done to warehouses and buildings in the dock area and widespread fires were observed.

From the Air Situation report for the week see TNA 66/14/33

British forces maintain pressure on Tobruk

The garrison of Tobruk, believed to comprise one Italian division and certain ancillary troops, including 6,000 frontier guards, is still invested by our forces. There is also reason to believe that it has been reinforced by the two Blackshirt generals who retired from Bardia. If Tobruk falls, it is difficult to forecast where the Italians will make their next stand.

The siege of Tobruk continued. A battery of the famous British ’25 pounder’ artillery guns.

The garrison of Tobruk, believed to comprise one Italian division and certain ancillary troops, including 6,000 frontier guards, is still invested by our forces. There is also reason to believe that it has been reinforced by the two Blackshirt generals who retired from Bardia. If Tobruk falls, it is difficult to forecast where the Italians will make their next stand. Two infantry divisions are believed to be located between Derna and Benghazi; these may be used to cover the approaches to Benghazi, where a part of Italian G.H.Q. is now believed to be. There are no indications up to the present time of the arrival of reinforcements in Libya.

From the Military Situation for the week.

Constant and heavy pressure has been maintained on Tobruk, whilst aerodromes likely to assist in the defence of the position have been made untenable by the attacks of our aircraft. Reports of abandoned aircraft and landing grounds indicate that the enemy has withdrawn his air forces to the Benghasi area.

Benghasi was heavily attacked five times. Hits were registered on five large ships in the harbour, on the mole and on Government buildings. The neighbouring aerodromes of Benina and Berka were also successfully attacked, and much damage was caused to aerodrome buildings, hangars and aircraft on the ground. At Benina, at least twelve enemy aircraft were set on fire.

On the 8th January there was a very successful bombing attack on a convoy of motor transport near Jerabub by Blenheims, followed by a machine-gun attack by Hurricanes, as a result of which the convoy was abandoned.

Our fighters were also very active. They maintained offensive patrols in the Tobruk and other areas, and destroyed several enemy aircraft both in the air and on the ground.

Several reconnaissances of the Libyan coast were flown by our Sunderlands.

Enemy aircraft activity was slight. An attack was made on our troops in the Tobruk area, but little damage was caused.

From the Air Situation report for the week, see TNA CAB 66/14/33

Growing death toll in the Lodz ghetto

Before the arrival of the current frosts, when the death rate in the ghetto did not exceed 25 to 30 cases per day (before the war the average death rate among the Jewish population of the city amounted to six per day), there were 12 gravediggers employed at the cemetery. Today there are around 200.

Over a quarter of a million Jews were crammed into the Lodz ghetto, Poland.

Inside the Lodz ghetto, established in Poland’s second largest city in March 1940, the once prosperous Jewish population were being reduced to ever greater destitution. Food supplies were always tightening and, as the cold of the winter took hold, deaths began to rise sharply.

A small group, led by journalist Julian Cukier, maintained a collective diary known as the Chronicle of Lodz. They kept six simultaneous copies, conscious from the very start that their work was ‘for the record’, yet many of their entries are written in a newspaper style. And so the story of the attempted extermination of an entire people slowly unfolded:

14th January

‘You can’t die either these days,’ complained a woman who had come to arrange formalities in the mortuary office in connection with the death of her mother. There is nothing exaggerated about such complaints if one considers that, with the current increase in the death rate, a minimum of three days’ wait to bury the dead, sometimes even ten days, has become an everyday occurrence.

The causes of this abnormal state of affairs are worth noting. There are scarcely three horses left in the ghetto to draw the hearses, a totally inadequate number in view of the current increase in the death rate. Several times, there was such a ‘backlog’ in the transporting of bodies to the cemetery that, out of necessity, a sideless hauling wagon had to be pressed into service and loaded with several dozen bodies at the same time.

Before the arrival of the current frosts, when the death rate in the ghetto did not exceed 25 to 30 cases per day (before the war the average death rate among the Jewish population of the city amounted to six per day), there were 12 gravediggers employed at the cemetery. Today there are around 200. In spite of such a horrendously large number of gravediggers, no more than 50 graves can be dug per day. The reason: a lack of skilled labor, as well as problems connected with the ground being frozen. And this causes the macabre line to grow longer.

See The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-44