Colin F. Jones

WESTERN DESERT: WWII

The Battle For Tobruk – 1941

~ 1 ~

It was A Winter Of The Worst Recall,
According to those who were there;
The rain was the heaviest in years to fall,
Filled with sleet in freezing air.
Slit trenches filled with water,
That turned to gluey grit then clay,
Scooped up by bitter winds,
To make vile the winter day.
The yellow fog dispersed the grey,
Letting misery and hardship abound,
But what could an Australian soldier say
Except, “let’s waltz Matilda with these clowns”
Because we are not here to roll in hay,
But to load our guns and meet the fray.

~ 2 ~

The grotesque shapes of stooping men,
In the early pale light
in greatcoats and leather Jerkins
All primed up for the fight.
Pockets filled with ammunition
Bully beef and Arabian fags,
Haversacks of clothing,
Spade’s, and picks in webbing bags.
Rifles and Bren Guns
Loaded ready to be fired,
Bangalore torpedoes,
Yet these brave men never tired.
As they moved through the Camel Brush,
By their own confidence Inspired

~ 3 ~

They followed guides through the blackness,
For the night was dark and cold,
In the ranks there was no slackness
For these men were strong and bold.
Then, they were at the start line,
And the artillery began to fire,
Shells streamed overhead,
Beyond the wide defensive wire,
Then the engineers were rushing forward,
To the anti-tank defensive ditch
Making avenues for the Matilda tanks,
Lest into the steep hole they were pitched.
Seven groups in teams went forward
Three men in each hand picked.

~ 4 ~

They set their Bangalore torpedoes
Beneath the double apron wire,
Cleaned out mines and other obstacles
That could obstruct track and tire.
The infantry were singing,
“South of the Border” as they ran,
Through the opened rows of wire,
Shouting encouragement to every man.
Cursing the enemy with defiant calls;
Firing Bren guns from the hip,
Lobbing grenades like tennis balls,
Into trenches and every dip:
Huge lumbering soldiers,
With loud screams upon their lip.

~ 5 ~

Soon prisoners were taken
They came streaming through the wire,
To be put to work filling trenches,
They were too afraid to tire.
The 2nd/1st Battalion
were fanning to the north,
Towards the Tobruk Road and Bardia,
For all that they were worth.
They left behind them devastation,
Men bayoneted and shot,
Strong posts destroyed and munitions,
Had been scattered on the spot.
In twenty minutes, four hundred prisoners
Were being counted on the lot.

~ 6 ~

Through the six passages of the ditch,
Made by the engineers for their need,
The Matilda Tanks were bubbling,
Then on through the wire at speed.
Turning south in their columns,
With the crack of two pounder guns;
Men of the 2nd/2nd battalion follow,
As the Italian soldier turns and runs;
Then there is advancing and prowling,
Skirmishes and screams,
Bayoneting and shooting,
Sudden silences and dreams.
And the mewl of surrender,
As all hope of freedom flees.

~ 7 ~

As each post was wiped out,
The Australians advanced,
The 2nd/3rd moved forward,
More Gun Sangars were trounced.
Italian tanks fought back,
But were soon enough destroyed,
But the artillery shells kept dropping,
And were hard to avoid.
Yet more prisoners were taken,
They came marching from the dust,
Whole companies of men,
Who had felt the first thrust.
The 16th Brigade by midday,
Were holding a bridgehead as a must.

~ 8 ~

The 17th pored through the yawning gap,
South along the trenches and holes,
But meeting greater resistance were stopped,
From reaching their allocated goals.
The Italians had had time to recover and plan,
They concentrated artillery on the south;
Australian losses were high as they ran,
Into the jaws of the monsters mouth.
Forward ever forward they scraped,
Through the wind the sleet and the rain,
Through the terrible barrage of shell,
Through the excitement of battle and pain.
They charged over open ground and fell,
Only to charge again into the jaws of Hell.

~ 9 ~

The Unending masses of prisoners,
Complicated the situation no end,
It was hard to press forward in attack,
And nigh impossible to defend.
As they advanced there was a lull in the battle,
No sign of life could anyone see,
But when into a pit a shot was fired,
They all smiled a moment in glee.
From the ground rose twenty-five officers,
And seventy others of much lower rank,
They were waving white flags and offers,
As to their knees most of them sank.
It was an artillery group of gunners,
Living in dugouts caves and a tank.

~ 10 ~

In a wadi they found a coliseum of luxury,
Enamel baths, and garments of silk,
Embossed notepaper pencils and vessels,
Engraved glasses and bottles of milk.
But soon the battle again was all havoc,
There was little support left and no tanks,
But some with romantic ideas,
Charged over the exposed and still bloody banks.
They thought they could outperform their fathers,
Who, at Gallipoli in the First World War,
Displayed to the world Australian courage,
Losing their lives for little reward.
The 2nd/6th were slaughtered this day,
And romance fell flat on her sword.

~ 11 ~

A major drive on the town was underway
For the Bardia/ Tobruk road, had been crossed
Driving in fast all the long way,
For the Italian defence of Tobruk was lost.
The Italian defences were collapsing about them,
Naval ships had bombarded the town,
A mile long line of overdressed prisoners,
Were moving along like a procession of clowns.
They wore pith helmets (or Mussolini Caps)
Knee boots and scent on their skin,
“immaculate and dapper these chaps…
I wonder what fight they thought they were in”
Were the words of the battle worn Aussies,
Pouring champagne into enamel pannikins.

©Copyright June 8, 2007 by Colin F. Jones

Beda Fomm

~ 12 ~

Cyrene and Apollonia were both deserted,
When the Australians marched passed the old ruins,
They had left Giovanni Berta and struggled,
Through minefields over waddies and hills,
Over blown bridges and holed roads they had travelled,
Dealing with ambushes as they advanced,
Now on Barce their keen eyes were levelled,
When it was sighted their hopes were enhanced.
Creagh’s Armour was moving out from Msus,
At dawn the drive on Benghazi would commence
Ammunition was being shipped in and growing,
For what was to be a gunners’ offence.
They had protective screens all around them,
The Royal Horse Artillery were firmly in place.

~ 13 ~

The infantry had just taken their positions,
When along the road the Italian Tenth Army was seen,
Nonchalantly and unconcernedly ambling,
From Cyrenaica where they had recently been.
They seemed unaware that there were hostile forces,
Anywhere near their area of approach,
They seemed unable to match horses with courses;
They were like a team that was lacking a coach.
They were caught by surprise by the Bren guns,
And by the artillery that wiped out their tanks,
They were leaping out of their wrecked lorries,
Without firing a shot from their unwilling ranks.
The prisoner’s were sent off towards Antelat,
And they fled with gestures of thanks.

~ 14 ~

Then a larger column appeared on the road,
And the artillery guns opened fire
Trucks burst into flame and their loads,
Were dispersed into the sand dunes and wire.
Hussar tanks attacked on each flank,
That more Italians surrendered in force,
But the Italians had a M13 tank,
Which was far better than the British tank of course
They were part of the next long column
As the Italian artillery began to reply,
Comberforce had now used up all of its fuel
Petrol was now in very short supply
At Beda Fomm where they now stood to fight,
It was win, or starve as to die.

~ 15 ~

All the night long it had rained and had rained,
But on the morning the Bersaglieri attacked
They moved under cover of artillery fire
But good planning their aggression lacked.
Their artillery was located and destroyed,
And the Bersaglieri were forced to dig in,
From where snipers were carefully deployed,
But they thought from these positions they’d win.
The roads were choked by columns of vehicles
Stretching as far as the eye could see:
So the Matildas and cruisers had problems
Finding where to harass and where to be.

~ 16 ~

There was a low hillock Dubbed the ‘Pimple’,
Not far from the ridge-line known as the mosque,
Where nineteen Cruiser tanks had gathered,
While other tanks were out on a task.
Searching the northern areas for hostiles,
Well mainly the tail of the Italian column,
But though they wandered the wet night for miles,
The results showed on their faces as solemn
Bergonzoli had taken over the Italian forces,
A break through to Tripolitania was his task,
But he had no reconnaissance advise nor air cover,
It was a lot to expect or to ask
He could not use his Babini Armour,
They were blocking the Australians’ Benghazi advance.

~ 17 ~

Bergonzoli called forward some M13 units,
Ten of their tanks moving near the Pimple at dawn,
They intended to see what was beyond the round hillock,
In a diamond formation they gathered to swarm.
Suddenly the crests and cannons of a dozen cruisers,
Poked their noses up over the hill,
Guns flashing without a moment’s hesitation,
That eight M13s they did successfully kill.
As the other two wheeled desperately for cover,
They exposed their flanks to the Cruisers as well;
They were disabled one after another,
The crews fleeing from the fiery Hell.
Not a shot did the Italians fire,
All died on the ground where they fell.

~ 18 ~

The Cruisers moved rapidly across to the Mosque,
Where from behind the ridge they fired again,
Destroying another seven M13 units,
Who were scouting east to secure more terrain.
They played cat and mouse through the soft marshes,
But the Italians were an uncoordinated and inferior force,
It was like the training grounds in England for the British,
Professionals simply repeating a course.
Finally the Cruisers had found the column tail,
And were destroying it with rapid attacks,
But the Hussar’s Cruisers would suddenly fail,
As a new column casts a giant shadow on their backs.
With it came dozens of M13s; too many…
That the Cruisers withdrew in their tracks.

~ 19 ~

The Pimple fell to the Italians by default;
Supplies had arrived at the mosque for the Brits
But the British tanks were under fire from artillery,
The Italians scoring many disabling hits.
The British were still attacking the tail,
But the sheer weight of it was beginning to tell
The 4th Army’s cordon looked as though it was breaking,
As the battle raged this way and that into Hell.
Then in the north arrived reinforcements,
The Light tanks and Cruisers were supplied,
Artillery blasted the occupied Pimple,
And soldiers cheered as other warriors died.
They wiped out the Italian Artillery,
But with overwhelming numbers they fought on with pride.

~ 20 ~

The Australians had captured the township of Barde,
Hail and rain slashed down turning the ground to mire,
The Italians blew up the road every few difficult miles
And laid mines for infantry boot soles and rubber tyre.
The Australian Engineers slaved at repairing the road,
Defusing the mines and throwing boulders into the holes
Struggling on under the weight of the increasing load,
Ever nearer, ever nearer the unstoppable machine rolls
The column of Australian vehicles was forty miles long,
Delayed by explosives iron rails and traps for tanks,
But yard by yard they laboured and kept moving along,
While still surrendering Italians passed by them on the flanks.
El Abiar was then taken; there was no resistance at all,
But then they were held up by an icy slope in a squall

~ 21 ~

Then there it was Benghazi the glitter of roof tops by the sea,
As they climbed the final hill by the bombed out railway line,
Five hundred miles from Cairo: oh how good it was to see,
Four hundred miles from Sidi Barrani fighting all the time.
The Italians greeted them as allies along with Greeks and Jews,
And crowds of Arabs stood there cheering them as well,
Troops were sent off towards Ghemines with a battery of guns,
For whatever lay before them was hard to tell.
For the retreating Italian 10th Army still engaged with Combeforce,
From Ghemines had been trying hard to break right through.
There was not much activity, except for a few M13 Tanks
That, along the seaward flank, were stopped from getting through.
They were tired those British soldiers there was nowhere to retreat,
And they lacked the fuel to move them off their feet.

~ 22 ~

When the Italian Artillery opened up on the British lines,
The riflemen huddled in their trenches cold and wet,
The shells burst all around them and above them the whines,
Of the shrapnel and the steel helmets when they met
Then came the roaring sound of engines as the M13s attacked,
That were met with their own port’ee’d anti-tank guns
Tanks crashed through the forward positions that were still intact,
The infantry rising from their trenches over the bunds.
Artillery from both sides were firing into the battle fray,
And the tanks and guns fought battles of their own,
It was hand to hand fighting in the dawning of the day
It was chaos and the shattering of blood and bone.
The battle raged for hours and throughout the savage fray
Guns and tanks were dying as both their shells hit home.

~ 23 ~

The tanks had overrun them but a single gun had held them back,
And the last M13 was blasted to a stop,
The infantry from their trenches for no courage did they lack,
Chased the fleeing Italian and Libyan infantry over the top
Then suddenly without warning from the Italian ranks,
Came one white flag then another into view,
The British stared disbelieving there were no more guns and tanks,
The whole Italian 10th army had surrendered to the few.
All about lay the dead and dying the maimed and shattered men,
Shells and debris were scattered all about,
Hopelessness and desperate crying dirt and misery struck them then,
Hungry, thirsty and so tired that they passed out.
It was sour the taste of victory and the horror of the scene,
Would live in their minds forever as an everlasting awful dream.

©Copyright June 8, 2007 by Colin F. Jones

The Asmara Plateau

~ 24 ~

The spectre of a mirage faded then vanished as one neared it,
In the heat shimmer that brought absent grey water to life,
Surrounded by phony trees that cooled it and shaded it,
Drawing staring eyes towards the image of strife.
The ‘real wells’ attracted donkeys and camels and fly swarms,
Where patches of long tubas grass grew from the sand,
Where the camel-thorn bushes had flourished and deformed,
The hot desert, like vile excrescences attacking the land.
The thorns were like fish hooks that tore at their leg parts,
Turning from scratches to sores that festered and bled,
Men wore bandages on their arms and their knee caps,
While the hot sun seemed to burn holes in their head.
The Asmara Plateau challenged them and defied them,
But it was where the ongoing conflict had led.

~ 25 ~

The Indian brigades drove across the long plain,
Scarred by creeks rock shelves and defiles,
The dust enveloped them for every bound of their gain,
Choking noses and throats and their smiles.
They were left struggling in water ways and gullies,
Came up against rocks that blocked further advance,
They sweated and cursed over winch ropes and pulley’s,
While Regia Aeronautica bombed them at every chance.
Messervy’s command had reached a small village,
Thirty miles across the Eritrean border called Keru;
When Askari natives came charging on shaggy ponies,
From a patch of scrubland that kept them from view.
Standing in stirrups at a furious gallop,
Throwing hand grenades as the nearer they drew.

~ 26 ~

Sepoy machine gunners and riflemen took cover,
And opened up with such withering fire,
That the brave charge of the Askari was soon over,
The area resembling a
They had been led by brave young Italian officers
But it seemed such a fruitless and trivial event.
Even the light artillery had time to blast them,
Until every brave warrior’s life was spent.
Gazelle Force (as Messervy’s command was known),
For the rest of the day kept climbing the hill,
The Sikhs soldiers struggling towards the ridge top,
With determination and courage and will.
But by nightfall they had come to a stop,
Pinned down at the final crest of the hill.

~ 27 ~

The trauma was appalling for these soldiers,
Manhandling wounded down precipitous cliffs,
Carrying ammunition over the harsh boulders,
Hiding from shrapnel falling into crevice and rift.
From above the artillery had stopped firing,
And they advanced cautiously over the crest,
The Italian defensive position was deserted,
They had achieved victory by doing their best.
But the Italian Regia Aeronautica had not departed,
They were bombing the Sappers and miners at toil,
Moving the boulders and blasting a trail,
Mid the explosions and the other turmoil.
Some R.A.F. fighters made some aggressive passes,
Making the blood of the sappers boil.

©Copyright October 13, 2007 by Colin F. Jones

The Battle Of Agordat

~ 28 ~

Agordat stood a mile south of the Baraka River bed,
On a plain surrounded by bunkers of high ground,
A long steep ridge of Laquetat barred the south-west side,
With forts at each end that were built strong and sound.
The terrain rose in complex terraces to the guarded north
theucting palm strewn water course and sand,
To the east four hillocks stood guarding the road towards Keren,
To the south Mount Cochen stood towering over all the land.
A steep complex ridge system that rose to 1500 feet and then,
Its rugged barrier extended far to the east and to the road,
A long leg stretching from its north ridge out onto the plain
Which was high ground called “Gibraltar” what a menacing abode.
Between Laquetat and Gibraltar an anti tank ditch and trenches ran,
A formidable place indeed to challenge; a task for dedicated men.

~ 29 ~

The 4th Italian Colonial Division held the town of Agordat,
Three black-shirt units and three brigades, 16 Battalions in all,
They had L3’s in reserve and ten medium tanks for quick combat,
With the tenacity to believe that their stronghold would not fall.
Outside the 4th Indian Division had two brigades to take them on,
Seven Battalions in all with four R.T.R. Matildas still to come,
As they battled along the potholed roads hard for a man to walk upon,
While in the sky the ever-fiery eye was that of the blazing sun.
Soon the probes had started the skirmished and the prods,
The gathering of intelligence revealed no weakness anywhere,
The dominating Mount Cochen stopped attacks from either side,
But was no disappointment there was no real despair.
The 3rd/14th Punjabis began to climb the rocky slopes;
Their hearts filled with fear but with fear the soldier copes.

©Copyright October 13, 2007 by Colin F. Jones

To be continued…

Author’s Note: Australian Soldiers became famous for their courage at Gallipoli, but in the Western Desert in WW2 they fought with the same great tenacity and courage, as indeed did the British.

The Rats of Tobruk are famous in Australian military history, but few seem to know much about the capture and then the defence of that vital little seaport area on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The first attack against the Italian defences in January 1941 was a success, but the major conflict was in preventing the retreating Italian 10th Army from breaking through to Tripolitania.

I have tried to write here of the Battle for Tobruk and the ongoing battle against the retreating column of the Italian 10th Army.

It is a poem I will build on over time, and edit to betterment, since I have not slowed to balance my rhyme nor improve the quality of the text. I thought I would try it out on you anyway.

Colin F. Jones
June 8, 2007