The Middle East
At noon on the 18th September a sudden order was received by 2nd Queen’s to move in three hours to an undisclosed destination. Battle order and two blankets per man only were to be taken. The Battalion bivouacked for the night near Baalbek and early next morning reached the docks at Beirut, where an advance party under Major E.S. Bingham, MC embarked in HMAS Hobart, whilst the remainder of the battalion embarked into another cruiser, HMS Neptune. Together with HMS Ajax (of the Battle of the River Plate fame) these ships sailed at noon. They docked at Alexandria early on the 20th September. The advance party transferred to the destroyer, HMS Kimberley. and sailed again immediately. The rest of the Battalion went to Amariya camp. Early next morning the main body embarked again, Battalion Headquarters and the rifle companies into HMS Napier, and HQ Company under Major D. de S. Barrow into HMS Kingston, both destroyers. When at sea it was revealed that the destination was to be Tobruk.
The Siege of Tobruk was then in its fifth month. The garrison commander was Major-General Leslie Morshead, who was also GOC of the 9th Australian Division. A highly intelligent citizen soldier of the type which Australia is renowned for producing, Major-General Morshead was originally a schoolmaster; then a battalion commander in 1918 with the CMG, DSO, and Légion d’honneur; a shipping executive in 1939; and now holding probably the most important allied appointment in the Middle East after General Auchinleck’s. He was known to his troops as “Ming the Merciless”. After having established one of the winning posts for ‘The Benghazi Handicap’ at Gazala he found that he had collected a garrison of some 34,000 assorted troops when the siege started. However, he realised that the old Italian defences, although much improved by his Australians, were essentially static and could be penetrated by enemy pressure if this were allowed to come too close. He was determined to make no-man’s-land his own troops’ land. “We’re not here to take it”, he announced “We’re here to give it”. Those units or individuals which were considered non-combatant or supplementary (for example all RASC drivers were evacuated since “there was nowhere to drive to”) were ruthlessly sent to Egypt courtesy of the Royal Navy, until he was left with a hard core of 23,000, all armed and capable of fighting.
In general the Tobruk perimeter was held by the infantrymen of the 9th Australian Division plus 18 Brigade from the 7th Australian Division. There were about 500 Indians from various units who had come through to Tobruk during ‘The Benghazi Handicap’ and who occasionally manned the line with the Australians, but were usually used extensively for patrolling. The reserve positions and the vital defence of the port and harbour installations were in the hands of British tank crews and gunners. The tanks came from an assortment of units, but were brigaded under the title of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade. All those normally considered non-combatant, such as storemen, cooks and clerks, were told in no uncertain terms that whatever their nominal appointments, their basic duty was to fight and eliminate any enemy who got through the outer defences. Finally, there were the machine-gunners of the 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers who invariably found themselves permanently manning the perimeter in support of the infantry. The perimeter was usually held with three of the brigades in the line, whilst the fourth brigade was held in reserve.
Tobruk relied entirely upon the Royal Navy for their supplies, and the role played by the Inshore Squadron during the siege was critical. Destroyers carried out the greater part of what became known as ‘The Spud Run’, particularly when personnel and casualties were involved, because their speed and fire-power took them quickly in and out of the danger zones. However, an immense diversity of craft, such as tank landingcraft, South African whalers, and captured Italian schooners, all made their vital contributions.
Unfortunately, the Australian contribution to the war effort in the Middle East, with its heavy casualties, particularly in Greece and Syria, had had an unfavourable effect upon Australian public opinion. There was a feeling that the three divisions sent to this theatre had been fed into the campaigns piecemeal, whereas the original concept had been for the three Australian divisions to be formed into an Australian corps. Whilst The Rt Hon R.G. Menzies, a staunch supporter of Commonwealth solidarity, was the Prime Minister of Australia the employment of Australian forces was not a controversial issue, but on the 28th August Menzies found himself, with only a majority of one in the Australian parliament, forced to resign over a political technicality. His successor, Mr. A.W. Fadden, was much concerned with the position of the Australians in Tobruk. He sent a demand to the War Cabinet that they should be relieved and given the opportunity to rest and re-equip. After an acrimonious exchange of telegrams between the Australian government and the War Cabinet, the relief was reluctantly agreed despite the dangerous demands that would be made upon the Inshore Squadron. The first of the Australian brigades to be relieved was replaced by the 1st Polish Carpathian Brigade. 2nd Queen’s was the first unit of the 16th Infantry Brigade to be sent in as the next relieving formation.
2nd Queen’s arrived in Tobruk just after midnight on the 22nd September during one of the few nights when Tobruk harbour was not subject to an air-raid. They immediately proceeded to take over from the 2/1st Australian Pioneer Battalion, who were in reserve. They also took over this battalion’s equipment, which was in a pretty bad state after months of siege. 16 Brigade was detailed to take over the eastern sector, the Polish brigade having already taken over the western sector. The 2/13th Australian Battalion was holding the forward localities and over the next two days advance parties were sent forward to be attached to this battalion. There was a lot to learn. Many of the defenders’ minefields and booby traps had not been registered properly nor charted, whilst enemy mines were laid sometimes only a few hundred yards from the battalion positions. The Australians taught the incoming troops how to ‘delouse’ or neutralise the enemy mines, an unpleasant task in which the Queen’s soon became very skillful. Advance party representatives accompanied all Australian patrols, and found that although Australian methods were sometimes unorthodox they were always practical. The main difference was the lack of briefing before Australian patrols set out. This could be as terse as “...Right! .... You lot are with me tonight. I want four pairs..Come on then”. However, it was soon understood that every feature in a mainly featureless landscape became so well known, sometimes from bitter experience, that the usual detailed briefings became superfluous. Then apart from the intensive patrol activity, the whole defence system was dotted with what was known as ‘Bush Artillery’. These were an assortment of captured Italian 37mm and 75mm anti-tank and field guns, or even the occasional 105mm could be found, which had been dragged from their original positions, or had been found abandoned amongst the debris of the battlefield, and had been cleaned, serviced and crewed by enthusiastic infantrymen after the briefest instruction from helpful gunners. One awed gunner subaltern later told his colonel “When they want to increase the elevation they say, ‘Cock the bastard up a bit’ and the usual fire order is, ‘Let her go, mate’.” One of these guns, a 105mm with a very long barrel, became a great favourite with its Queen’s detachment, whose main recreation was to bang away with enthusiasm at every enemy aircraft. When the Battalion was later relieved by the 2nd Black Watch they successfully pleaded to stay on with their weapon. Sometimes a set of sights or some other essential piece of equipment would become unserviceable, so a request would go out to friendly patrols to try and bring in the vital part by stealing it from an Italian gun position. All these unorthodox weapons served to greatly thicken up the firepower of the various strong-points within the perimeter defences, as did any captured machine-guns or submachine-guns, usually Italian in origin since they were easier to acquire than German weapons.
Another aspect of the Tobruk defences was the signal systems. All posts, including the most forward, were connected by wire, and the liaison with the gunners was excellent. 16 Brigade’s supporting artillery was still the Essex Yeomanry RHA, whose FOOs lived virtually with the infantry companies. Many observed from high crane’s-nest type OPs, which were appallingly conspicuous but were surprisingly immune from danger. The signal wires were constantly cut by incoming shellfire, but the Queen’s signallers were soon repairing them with admirable promptness. On the night of the 25th September the relief of the 2/13th Australian Battalion took place, and the 2nd Queen’s took over a frontage of some 6,000 yards, which was a long frontage for about 500 men.
The basis of the defence was a double line of concrete posts, mutually supporting, which had originally been built by the Italians. Usually each post had a garrison of a strong section or a half platoon (the original Italian design had catered for two officers and 25 men). These were strongly protected by wire festooned with antipersonnel mines and also by more substantial subsidiary minefields. The sappers became very adept at lifting enemy minefields and incorporating the mines thus salvaged into the perimeter defences. These masses of mines were really the chief defences of Tobruk, and consequently it became increasingly tricky for patrols to move forward out of the perimeter, and to re-enter.
The enemy on the Queen’s frontage was originally over three miles away. The ground between was almost featureless, but on most of the Battalion’s front it sloped slightly upwards to a false crest about a mile away. It then sloped gently downhill and rose again to the skyline where the main enemy position was situated. To watch this belt of dead ground not very far from the perimeter the forward companies (initially ‘A’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies) maintained forward observation posts of about six men. The ‘A’ Company post was some ruined houses about two miles out, named ‘Bondi’; that of ‘C’ Company was named ‘Tugun’, and was rather less far out (most of this network of observation posts were named after Australian bathing beaches); whilst ‘D’ Company’s post was unnamed. The 2nd Leicesters were next to the coast on the left whilst on the Battalion’s right were the last two remaining brigades of Australians.
During the next month the Australians were replaced by the 14th and 23rd Infantry Brigades, the last two brigades of the 70th Division, the new number which 6th Division had been allocated for security reasons. Unfortunately on the night of the 25th/26th October the new fast minelayer, HMS Latona, was sunk and the destroyer HMS Hero damaged by air attack when going to fetch the last 1,200 Australians remaining in Tobruk, and it proved impossible to attempt their evacuation again until the next period of dark nights. Thus it was that the 2/13th Battalion gained the unique distinction of being the only infantry battalion to serve in Tobruk throughout the Siege.
At first when the Queen’s took over their front things were fairly quiet, apart for some dive-bombing and strafing from the air, sporadic artillery and mortar fire, and some long range bursts by machine-guns. Water was scarce and brackish, and supplies of all sorts were scanty. The main meal of the day, brought up after dark, was invariably bully-beef stew, which became very monotonous, although 2nd Queen’s were luckier than most because Lt Martin (an ex-CSM in the Battalion and then on the staff in Alexandria) managed to send up parcels of green vegetables on the ‘Spud Run’, the only green vegetables to be seen in Tobruk. During the day the troops subsisted on bread, biscuits, margarine, jam and cheese. Flies were everywhere, covering the food, settling on every bead of sweat, or trying to suck the damp from the corner of the eyes. Only at night did they disappear. So long as the hot meal arrived at night and there was enough to stave off hunger, food became of little interest, and many soldiers could not be bothered to open and prepare it. The result was that many of the posts held stocks of bacon, fruit or vegetables in tins. Ascorbic acid tablets were issued to combat vitamin deficiency, and occasionally lime juice came up. The risk of scurvy was always a possibility, but, surprisingly, on the whole the health of the troops was good. After a time the taste-buds adapted to the tea’s strong flavour of sulphur or chlorine, although coffee always tasted vile.
The chief activity was patrolling. Most of the patrolling took place at night. The forward companies each found at least two patrols; one consisting of a NCO and six men close in to the perimeter as a standing patrol to watch over the minefields and to give warning of any approaching enemy movement; the other a fighting patrol of 15 men or so, usually commanded by an officer. At this time many of the platoons were commanded by sergeants, the officers tending to be centralised for special duties. Specialising in patrol work was one such special duty. The outstanding patrol leader was probably Lt R.M. Merrett, one of whose exploits was fully described in The Daily Telegraph. His patrol encountered a much superior Italian patrol which they had to chase in order to bring on an action. A close-range battle with grenades and tommy-guns threw the enemy into confusion, so Dick Merrett, although his own ammunition was exhausted, ran towards them summoning them in Italian to surrender. The Italian leader realised that he still greatly outnumbered the British, and stuck his rifle against Dick Merrett’s chest, whereupon Merrett hit him with his fist and seized the rifle, and another brisk grenade fight broke out again, with Merrett and three of his men being wounded, so the Queen’s patrol withdrew. CSM Fred Jode was with Lt Merrett on this patrol, and at the debriefing afterwards stated that he reckoned that he would have beaten Sydney Wooderson over the first 100 yards after Dick Merrett’s bluff had been called! Later the enemy were seen to collect a considerable number of their casualties from the scene of this action.
(Author’s note - Sydney C. Wooderson was the most celebrated British middle distance runner at that period, holding the world record at 880 yards, the British records at 880 yards and one mile, and the winner for five years in succession of the mile at the AAA Championships 1935-39.)
Another patrol under Lt G.P. Saffrey so alarmed a party of Italian engineers that they detonated their own minefields over a 200 yards frontage.
On the evening of the 9th October ‘Bondi’ reported tanks and several platoons of infantry debussing to their front. Armoured vehicles twice approached ‘Bondi’ and the NCO in charge of the post called down artillery fire which dispersed them. Then at 9pm communications with the post ceased, and two hours later the NCO and two of his men came into the Battalion position having escaped from ‘Bondi’ by crawling through a minefield after the post had been overwhelmed. An ‘A’ Company patrol confirmed that ‘Bondi’ was occupied by about 100 enemy at midnight, and another patrol under Lt Edward Clowes reached the buildings in the early morning but heard tanks to the south and was fired on by machine-guns. The same night ‘Plonk’, a similar post manned by the Australians on the Battalion’s right front, was also overrun by enemy tanks. Next day a new post called ‘Seaview’ was established north of ‘Bondi’, but there was violent shelling and mortaring on both ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies, and in the evening ‘Tugun’ was attacked and occupied by enemy tanks and infantry.
Next morning ‘Seaview’ was also found in enemy hands. The enemy strenuously dug and wired their new positions, which were now only a mile from the Battalion’s perimeter. At the time there was some doubt as to the purpose of these enemy attacks, but later on intelligence established that they were part of the preparations for a large scale assault on Tobruk which Rommel was planning for late November. There were no further developments of significance until the Battalion was relieved on the 29th October by 2nd Black Watch from 14 Brigade.
At this time there were a number of changes in personnel. Brigadier Lomax temporarily left the Brigade, and Lt-Col Oxley-Boyle commanded it in his stead, whilst Major Bingham took over the Battalion. Capt M.T.N. Jennings, who had been the Adjutant since the previous November before the Battle of Sidi Barrani, was appointed to the staff of the 70th Division, and Capt D. Clarke assumed the appointment of Adjutant.
On the 7th November the 2nd Queen’s returned to the front, taking over from 2nd Black Watch in the same sector. Twelve days later the news came through that the long awaited British offensive had started. The British forces in the Western Desert had reached a size sufficient to justify the title of the Eighth Army by September 1941. Operation Crusader was the Eighth Army’s first major operation. The general plan of this offensive was that XXX Corps, consisting of 7th Armoured Division, the 1st South African Division and 22nd Guards Brigade, should break through at Maddalena in the south and strike north towards Tobruk with the object of destroying the enemy’s armour. Meanwhile XIII Corps with the 4th Indian Division, the 2nd New Zealand Division and 1st Army Tank Brigade were to pin down the enemy forces on the frontier, and then, when the situation permitted, drive along the Bardia-Tobruk road towards Gambut. The Tobruk garrison’s role was to break out towards Ed Duda and link up with XXX Corps,
At first all went well. Rommel was taken by surprise and 7th Armoured penetrated to Sidi Rezegh. Consequently the Tobruk garrison was ordered to begin its break-out attack early in the morning of the 20th November. It was to be carried out by the 32nd Army Tank Brigade with 14 Brigade under command. Since 16 Brigade consisted of three rather weak battalions, it was given the task of securing the flanks of the attack. 2nd Queen’s secured and laid out the start lines whilst ‘B’ Company and the Carrier Platoon made a successful demonstration against ‘Tugun’, but unfortunately the carriers came under heavy fire when covering the withdrawal of ‘B’ Company and three were knocked out. The 2nd King’s Own, with the Matildas of ‘D’ Squadron of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in support, duly captured the enemy post known as ‘Butch’ by 9am, but they were rather surprised to find that the occupants were Germans from the Afrika Regiment 361 and not Italians from the Bologna Division as they had been led to expect.
Half an hour later things began to go wrong when ‘C’ Squadron of the 4th Royal Tanks, which was
mounting the main attack with the 2nd Black Watch, ran on to a minefield and became separated from the infantry. The Black Watch, helped by bad visibility, found themselves storming ‘Jill’ with a bayonet charge unsupported. Although successful, yielding another crop of Afrika Regiment prisoners, The Black Watch suffered severe casualties. However, 4th Royal Tanks eventually extracted themselves from their difficulties, and the remnants of The Black Watch rallied behind them and they moved towards the main objective of the first phase of the break-out, ‘Tiger’. Again the 2nd Black Watch went in with the bayonet to the skirl of the pipes and captured the post, but only 8 officers and 196 men survived, and the attack could go no further.
‘Jack’ was captured by 10.30am, but the other assaults to take secondary objectives beyond ‘Tiger’ failed. By 2.30pm 32nd Army Tank Brigade were fighting to retain the ground already won against robust German counter-attacks. Rommel had brought across from Gambut four 88mm guns and was personally directing the battle in this area.
7th Armoured Division’s attempts to push north from Sidi Rezegh had also stalled, so it was decided to widen the salient. ‘B’ Company, 2nd Queen’s (Capt N.A.H. Marsden) with a company of the 1st Bedfords and two troops of tanks under command,were ordered to capture ‘Tugun’. The attack went in from the east at 1.30pm and was fiercely opposed. ‘B’ Company eventually stormed and captured an enemy post with the bayonet, but it turned out not to be ‘Tugun’ itself, but another previously unidentified post to the south-east. However, the position was between the enemy and the corridor of the salient, so it served its purpose. By now it was dark and impossible to exploit further, so the attacking forces dug in. ‘B’ Company losses were twelve killed and a number wounded, but 140 prisoners, mostly Germans, had been taken. Next day the ‘B’ Company position came under fire from both ‘Tugun’ proper and from another post to the south called ‘Dalby Square’. Unsuccessful efforts were made to clear these, but during the next four days the constant shelling reduced the company’s strength to thirty-three all ranks. ‘C’ Company, commanded by Capt Peter Kealy, relieved ‘B’ Company on the night of the 24th/25th November, to find the main part of ‘Tugun’ clear of the enemy next day, and occupied it unopposed.
On the 26th November Major-General R.M. Scobie, the recently appointed GOC Tobruk Garrison, decided that the Tobruk Corridor, as the break-out salient came to be known, could not remain static any longer, even though 7th Armoured had failed to advance beyond Sidi Rezegh, but that an attempt must be made to reach Ed Duda in the hope of linking up with the New Zealand Division from XIII Corps. A counter-attack was beaten off during the morning, and by midday 71 assorted tanks of 32nd Army Tank Brigade supported by 1st Royal Horse Artillery and the 1st Essex moved off across the four miles of desert to Ed Duda. In the event, it was a much easier operation than expected, taking under an hour and a half, despite sporadic shelling from the Germans who were counter-attacking the New Zealanders on Belhammed. For the first time the RAF provided fighter cover for ‘The Rats of Tobruk’. Just before midnight that night the 19th Battalion of the 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, accompanied by tanks of 44th Royal Tanks, linked up with the Tobruk garrison. On the 27th November two companies of 2nd Queen’s, ‘A’ Company, now commanded by Capt Edward Clowes, and ‘D’ Company (Capt H.O. Jones), under the overall command of Major J.A.R. Freeland, were put under the orders of the tank brigade to attack ‘Freddie’, a strong-point which was menacing the northeast flank of the corridor. They moved in MT to a start line east of ‘Tiger’ and whilst still in their lorries were severely shelled from the south, directly to their rear. ‘D’ Company was left on the start line as a reserve while ‘A’ Company advanced with the tanks. On the way their right flank was attacked by Italian light tanks but they were driven off by some Matildas, although not without casualties. A mile further on they reached a minefield, which effectively stopped the tanks. The main enemy position was well sited on a reverse slope, down which the forward platoons pushed on, only to be pinned down so close to the enemy that it was not possible to give artillery support. Eventually artillery smoke was put down and the rear platoon extricated. The forward platoons held their ground until dark, when they too withdrew. Major John Freeland carried back five wounded on his carrier, but when he returned for others it was bright moonlight and enemy patrols were active, so he was unable to find any other survivors. ‘A’ Company lost 35 out of their original strength of 67. The attack was called off without committing ‘D’ Company.
On the 28th November the 2nd Queen’s relieved 1st Bedfords and became responsible, together with the 2/13th Australian Infantry, for almost the whole of the western side of the break-out corridor. ‘C’ Company remained in ‘Tugun’ with ‘B’ Company south-east of ‘Tugun’ and ‘D’ Company north of ‘Dalby Square’. The depleted ‘A’ Company acted as a reserve. After a fairly quiet two days the Australian battalion on the 2nd Queen’s right was pulled out in order to be used for a counter-attack at El Duda. To fill this gap a composite company was formed from all the employed men who could be spared from HQ Company and ‘B’ Echelon, and placed under the command of the wounded Lt Dick Merrett. This company carried out all the functions of a rifle company, including patrolling, with great success, rather to the surprise of many of its members!
15 Panzer Division renewed their attacks on the New Zealand Division on the 1st December and cut the Tobruk Corridor. Elements of the New Zealand 18th Battalion retreated into the Tobruk garrison area. The situation looked bleak indeed, since the New Zealand Division was forced to withdraw back into Egypt, and Rommel’s counter-attacks had destroyed one South African brigade and two of the three British armoured brigades. At one stage General Scobie considered withdrawing to the garrison’s original perimeter if contact with the Eighth Army was not re-established, and 2nd Queen’s was detailed to be the rear-guard.
But the Axis forces had also suffered serious casualties and losses, with fewer than 40 German panzers left from an original force of 250 panzers. They were also suffering from an acute fuel shortage. There began to be signs of a general drift westwards of the enemy forces. In the light of this development 16 Brigade was ordered to clear the west flank of the corridor. The 2/13th Australian Infantry was placed under command of 16 Brigade, and with tank support was detailed to retake their old observation post of ‘Plonk’, now a strongly defended position, whilst on their left 2nd Queen’s, without tanks, was to capture their old post of ‘Bondi’. The attack was to take place after dark on the 4th December. Unfortunately, inspite of the moonlight, the tanks did not find the start line, so as they did not arrive the Australians cancelled their attack. In ignorance of this the Queen’s attacked at zero hour with ‘C’ Company leading. They were caught in the bright moonlight by mortars and machine-guns firing on fixed lines, and ‘C’ Company had many casualties including Capt S.G. Armstrong, who was killed almost immediately after joining the company, when walking across to liaise with ‘A’ Company. When news arrived of the situation on the right the attack was broken off. However at dawn it was found that the enemy had withdrawn, and both ‘Bondi’ and ‘Plonk’ were occupied unopposed.
Four days later saw the genuine ending of the Siege, when Lieut-General A.R. Godwin-Austen,
GOC XIII Corps,sent his famous signal: “Tobruk is relieved and so am I”, which drew the retort from an old sweat of 2nd Queen’s: “Tobruk wasn’t relieved; it ——ing well relieved itself.”