Friday, September 12, 2008

Tuesday 21st and Wednesday 22nd January 1941

(Writing commences 12:30a.m. (midnight 30) on January 23rd)

Tobruk is taken. They defended it more stubbornly than Bardia but the defence works were not, of course, so great. Once again – (wonderful organisation) forces had moved to quiet flanking areas, from where the guns had put down a barrage in the morning. Infantry had moved in then as the barrage lifted and taken the wire. Engineers got busy at once filling in tank traps, destroying land mines.

Finally the I-tanks had roared in through the gaps, marshalled and led-in,calmly as though it were field day exercises. (I saw none of all this, but Stan Ling did, in Toc.) The regiment has had casualties but there are no dead – so far as I know. Pop Parker, the 414 exchange NCO is wounded, fairly badly.

As I write, I am filthy and tired. We had little sleep and supplies of water were not good. Although we had iron rations, there seemed little time for eating; we occupied three positions on Tuesday and two on Wednesday. Must have been very tired when the barrage began. I was huddled in the dugout with Sid Pond, asleep, whilst he worked the exchange. As in a dream, I heard the roar of gunfire commence – our barrage. The answer soon came, but I didn't hear any until Sid awoke me, - “Steve, quick, re-light the lantern will you? A shell landed just outside and blew the bugger out! I've got a call on...”

We sat there smoking, laughing fatalistically, whilst shells seemed to fall around us. (It's surprising what a sense of security one gets from a 2 foot hole when there's a roof – even if it's only a thin board.) Eventually the shelling died away, but our own guns carried on. The infantry were going in. We crawled out of our various holes, had a rum ration and ate some biscuits in the sunshine. Someone lit a fire and mashed tea with our remaining water.

Pip Toc Ach! We reeled-in and went forward, through the wire. Prisoners, bodies, land mines, abandoned guns. All the usual. A new experience when they began to shell the track we were following. First one side, then both. Bloody great eruptions of smoke and steel would suddenly arise, followed by whistle! Crash! One never knew for certain, where the next one would land! Everyone was shaken, I reckon. Sitting on the top of multitudinous kit in M1, I puffed at my pipe and probably looked a deal more stolid than I felt!

These HE shell bursts are marvellous sights (but one's aesthetic appreciation has more scope if one is far enough away to feel detached about the matter!) Suddenly a great column of shit arises; sometimes they expand sideways instead of upwards. It goes to a decent height, then seems to falter and and the top opens out like the petals of a flower. Then stones, dust and spare bits of iron which weren't thrown off in a horizontal direction after the explosion, shower down. The smoke remains awhile though, a stately memorial.

Eventually we reached a quiet spot and deployed. Laid lines again, dug-in and set up the exchange. It was early afternoon and we had our first meal of the day – biscuits and fish. Shells began to arrive at our left rear, landing mostly about ¼ mile away. We were gaillard, not realising that 414 Battery was getting a packet, until the ominous telephone call came from TORO, - “Is the medical officer there? He is wanted at Wash immediately”. We then, safe ourselves, watched the shelling gloomily.

The shells arrived in batches of six – three great crashes of HE and then three sinister little cracks high up, of shrapnel. Then you'd see the great clouds of HE on the ground, puffs of shrapnel in the air and flicks of the dust in dozens of places as the pieces of shrapnel struck. (I now believe that this firing came from three double-pieced guns of the Iti artillery which I later saw. About 4inches. Pretty good but not for long range, I suppose.)

Pip Toc Ack! We soon reeled-in, loaded and came out of action. As soon as the convoy got into sight on the ridge, the shrapnel/HE merchants altered their switch and elevation and shelled a certain point on our track at intervals of about 15 seconds. Doubtless 414 took a mean and selfish pleasure in this! Passing the danger point was quite a thrill. We cowered low. The truck increased speed. Y1 was next ahead. I saw Kerry wave his arm as much as to say “Yoicks!”. I flourished mine in return. Crash! Y1 disappeared in a cloud of dust. The dust cleared. Y1 was still there, plunging forward. Now for it! We huddled as low as possible. Crash! Everything missed us by yards. Safe. Crash! Right on the track behind us, arose one of those colomns of shit.

We came to a proper road, and dashed along it. Blazing buildings, squads of prisoners waving white cloths, grinning Aussie infantry, bodies, wrecked vehicles.
Just before dusk we reached a pleasant wadi, about 50 yards wide and established the exchange. The soil was fertile and digging marvellously easy; no rock at all. Fortunate, for we were pretty tired, now.

After dark, all was quiet. We kipped down at 10p.m. - Sid and I were too weary to dig a bed hole. The rations arrived at 11:40p.m. “Steve” called Sid, “The grub wagon's here. Do you want any...? There's no tea...” “Bugger it!” I replied and slept again. We were all dead-beat and very few people did turn up. The rations had to be thrown away. I went on exchange for my shift at midnight. Soon afterwards Stan Ling came along. He was one of the few who wanted grub – but he was too late. He'd only had a packet of biscuits since the day before. Eventually he came and squatted beside me and we had bully beef and biscuits (always have a good reserve in M1) and half of his chocolate emergency ration.

So much for Tuesday. Although I've dwelt on the shelling, it did not scare me like the bombing that time near Bardia. Being shelled on the move is a pure thrill but that day the bombers came, one felt like a dumb beast waiting for the slaughter.
The Tobruk garrison is thorough in sabotage. all night the fires were blazing and all today (Wednesday).

Next morning we fired a good deal (one target was a ship, which eventually succeeded in escaping from Tobruk harbour) but no enemy shells landed anywhere near our pleasant wadi. B9 came up with breakfast but no tea. During the forenoon however, the water cart arrived. I'd been glad that I possessed an Iti water bottle instead of an issue one. They're larger!

About midday came the order, “Cease fire” We were surprised but later heard that a captured Iti commander had been sent into Tobruk in a T vehicle. He had persuaded the garrison to surrender “in order to avoid carnage”. Pip Toc Monkey! We reeled-in, loaded-up and waited. Eventually came here, on a plateau some 1000 yards from our wadi, unloaded, laid lines etc.

Digging easy, thank heavens. I've only had 2 1/2 hours sleep so far but I come off duty in 10 minutes time and then get five more hours of slumber – sleep, drifting deep. Apparently we shall be here, in a bivouac position, for three days or so.
Where next? Who knows!

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