Part 2: The Battle intensifies across the moving Frontline
Once the 4000 South African troops aboard the RMS Mauretania disembarked at Port Suad, Egypt via the Suez Canal they were joined by the rest of the South African Defence Force (SADF) troops aboard 2 other ships totalling 10 000 troops in the SA Division.
The Division was transported to Alexandria a coastal port (also located in Egypt) about 50 kilometres away from Port Suad to the East and a couple of hundred kilometres from Tobruk which lay further to the west in Libya.
The troops were handed spades and instructed to each dig a “slit trench” which comprised of digging a trench with a depth of about 3 foot and a width of about 7 foot; just big enough to be able to lie down and fire artillery over the top of the trench.
And so began the South African defensive effort which was to last a further 9 months until that fateful day on 20 June 1942.
According to 20 year old Lance Corporal Vernon Gibson the front line moved constantly over the 9 month period and by hundreds of kilometres due to the vastness of the desert and the mainly flat territory they were fighting on.
Constantly on the move, the South African troops found themselves permanently decamping and digging new trenches through rocks and stones and not just sand dunes.
L.Cpl Gibson said there was often uncertainty about the effectiveness of their campaign as although they were supposedly defending Tobruk most of the resources had steadily been relocated to El-Alamien in the months prior to the Fall of Tobruk. Compounded to this was the appointment of the South African General Klopper as Commander of Tobruk only 30 days before it fell.
“General Klopper was largely but unfairly blamed for the Fall of Tobruk as anyone could see we were fighting a losing battle. The Germans were now steadily advancing from the West, most of the Allied resources were focussed on El-Alamien and nightly aerial attacks by the Axis forces flying in from Italy across the Mediterranean were increasing in intensity. Plus we were only ground troops; we had no air force to support us. By the time General Klopper took over at the end of May 1942, it was almost pointless” recounts L.Cpl Gibson.
“The week before the Fall of Tobruk saw an intensity in the Axis offensive which we had never experienced before and the “strafing’” became relentless. Lying in our trenches, we could the German Stuka bomber planes flying towards us and diving in at 70 degrees with machine guns blazing until just before they reached roof top height, then straightening out, releasing their bombs and screeching off again until the next wave of aerial attack.
Strategically it was almost impossible to defend against them as you had to keep rolling over in the trenches to avoid the gun fire rendering your own return fire inaccurate and ineffective. They were so close I could see the faces of the German pilots inside the Perspex covers of the Stuka bombers as they came screeching down towards us”.
“As a signaller my job was to decipher the incoming Morse code messages in my van, relay to the command centre and return any messages also in Morse code.
The 3 days before the Fall of Tobruk the repetitive incoming morse code messages kept reading: “HOLD TOBRUK!” At this stage we were positioned on the escarpment on the outskirts of Tobruk with the port below us which was to be defended at all costs.
Over 33 000 Allied forces were fighting off a German offensive that was so intense and so relentless we had no idea how much longer we could hold off. We were also unaware that General Rommel had quietly marched a division past Tobruk from the West and had positioned troops on the South Eastern section, in effect completely surrounding Tobruk.
Rommel was held in very high regard by the Allied Forces because of his reputation for always being on the front line. Most war generals conduct their campaign from their Head Quarters but Rommel was different. He was renowned for always being in the thick of things and never afraid to visit the front line. As ground troops who lived in trenches on the front line day and night we held him in high esteem”.
“On the evening before the Fall of Tobruk, a Saturday night, we watched General Klopper pacing up and down the trenches looking exceptionally anxious. Although we knew the Battle was not going well, we had no way of knowing what lay in store in the early hours of Sunday 20 June 1942”.
Part 3: the Fall of Tobruk, Sunday 20 June 1942