Part 3: The Fall of Tobruk, 20 June 1942
As dawn began to break across the Sahara desert on 20 June 1942, 33 000 Allied ground troops were still valiantly trying to hold off a comprehensive German offensive outside Tobruk that had intensified dramatically over the past 3 days and showed no signs of letting up.
“The screech of the Stuka bombers as they came in wave after wave from across the Mediterranean was never ending” recalls Lance Corporal Vernon Gibson then aged 20 years old.
As a signaller he was responsible for the encoding and decoding of the Morse code messages in and out of Head Quarters. And the incoming messages for the week prior to 20 June had all been the same: “HOLD TOBRUK”.
But early on that fateful morning a new message filtered down from the top command to the ground troops fighting in the trenches defending the garrison of Tobruk: “EACH MAN FOR YOURSELF”.
Simply speaking the unthinkable had happened; Tobruk had fallen to the Axis forces.
L.Cpl Gibson recalls the chaos that followed: “During the past couple of days, General Klopper had relocated his Headquarters from the middle of the garrison further towards the escarpment on the southern side where the ground troops were entrenched.
Rommel in the mean time had marched past us much further south, doubled back and repositioned troops on the south eastern border. In essence he had surrounded us on all sides except for the port itself.
On 20 June he moved his troops into place by cutting off the Allied forces who were concentrated high on the escarpment and HQ from the port itself. We were completely outmanoeuvred.
Once the order came for: “Each man for himself” our primary objective was to destroy all vehicles and equipment before the Germans could lay their hands on them. The first thing I did was to set my signal van alight and ensure all sensitive communication was destroyed. All around me, thousands more were doing the same.
The Allies were running around blowing up vehicles, smashing guns and destroying whatever they could to ensure the Germans benefited as little as possible from our war booty. Following that, I smashed up as many automatic rifles as possible but kept my automatic pistol hidden under my clothes. I only dismantled it once we were being marched out of Tobruk by the Germans late that afternoon.
By the time Rommel arrived the vehicle park was ablaze with thousands of vehicles billowing smoke and fuel kilometres up in to the sky. A huge black cloud of smoke was hanging over Tobruk”.
“We heard later that he was livid the vehicles and fuel had not been spared as he desperately needed them for the rest of the Campaign. Despite this severe defiance, we were treated with respect by the German soldiers on Rommel’s instructions.
There was no unnecessary violence or ill treatment. They simply gathered us in one place, rolled out barbed wire fencing and encircled us with sentries. We were now Prisoners of War and in the late afternoon 33 000 Allied Forces began the 3 day long march to the port of Benghazi a couple of hundred kilometres to the west where we boarded ships to take us to Italy as POW’s. Tobruk had fallen along with hundreds of good men”.
Lt General Erwin Rommel was officially documented as saying he was infuriated at the devastation of the vehicle park by the Allies but no retribution was meted out. Rommel regarded himself as a professional soldier and repeatedly refused Hitler’s insistence to join the Nazi party.
Despite Rommel being a military genius and the foremost general in his army, his refusal to become a Nazi so infuriated Hitler that he finally gave Rommel an ultimatum: either swear allegiance to the Nazi Party or commit suicide. Rommel chose suicide.
On 24 June, 2 weeks before his 21st birthday, Lance Corporal Gibson boarded an Italian war ship along with thousands of other Allies and spent the next 3 years in various Italian POW camps before escaping to join the Partisans up north. He finally escaped over the Alps into Switzerland in 1945 just days before Hitler surrendered.
Vernon Gibson eventually returned to Port Elizabeth where he married his wife and fellow Pearson student, Joan Edith and has 3 daughters Merrilynne, Michele and Cheryl, who lives in Jeffreys Bay. He still lives in Port Elizabeth and turns 93 years old on 10 July.
Cheryl Gibson-Dicks, daughter of Vernon Gibson