Part 1: Overview of the Western Desert Campaign, North Africa
71 years ago, the legendary Battle of Tobruk, which had been raging for over 9 months in North Africa was entering into its final hour.
The result would be that over 33 000 Allied forces were taken prisoner by the “Desert Fox”, Lt. General Erwin Rommel. This prompted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to proclaim the Fall of Tobruk on 20 June 1942 as the “one of the darkest days of World War 2”.
The battle had commenced approximately 9 months earlier as part of the Western Desert Campaign when Allied forces had seized control of Tobruk, Libya a pivotal port in North Africa.
Both the Allied and Axis forces had warships and submarines in the Mediterranean as well as up and down the Suez Canal but the seizure of Tobruk by the Allied forces meant the Germans had to land in the far western regions of North Africa and trek their supplies 1500km across the desert.
Plus they had no access to the much needed fuel supplies in the middle east. Strategically this massive detour by the Axis forces resulted in the Western Desert Campaign and finally focussed almost exclusively on capturing Tobruk.
Equally the Allied forces knew only too well the importance of holding on to Tobruk as one of the major ports in North Africa. With the Mediterranean in front of them, the Suez Canal to the right and the Axis forces to their left, the Allied forces had managed to hold onto Tobruk for over nine months largely due to the efforts of the Australian 9th Division under the command of Lt.General Morshead.
The Australian defensive was so resilient and effective the Germans nicknamed the Australians “Desert Rats”which in true Aussie style they regarded as a compliment and claimed their new nickname with pride and gusto.
Parallel to this, South Africa, under General Jan Smuts had entered the war pledging support to the Allied Forces, a decision which was not welcomed by all South Africans especially in German speaking Namibia (then called South West Africa).
However the decision stood and in mid 1941 the troop ship, the RMS Mauretania, left Durban harbour with approximately 4000 South African troops on board.
The RMS Mauretania was no ordinary troop carrier; she was a luxury cruise liner that had been seconded to the war office and was now blacked out as she made her way up East Africa to Port Fuad in Egypt taking over 10 days to reach her final destination as she zigzagged up the coast to evade German submarines and warships rife in the East African waters.
Although rumours abounded it was only after 5 days at sea that the 4000 troops were told where they going; to help the Allied forces in the Western Desert Campaign in North Africa.
One young troop on board was Vernon Gibson; a 20 year old Port Elizabeth intake who had recently completed his training in Pretoria at “Roberts’Heights”now called Voortrekker Hoogte.
In 1939 just after the outbreak of the war, the young intake had tried to sign up at the age of 18 whilst still at school but was turned away by the war office in South Union Street and told to “complete your matric first”.
The young man followed the advice he was given and straight after matriculating at Pearson High School, Port Elizabeth in 1939, he joined up for the war, aged 18 years old. Little did he know what lay ahead for the next 5 years of his life..
Part 2: The Western Desert Campaign intensifies/