I Was There! - Our Ship Was Shelled by Tanks at Tobruk

The War Illustrated, Volume 6, No. 133, Page 94, July 24, 1942.

How British warships, with naval demolition parties, escaped at the last minute from Tobruk harbour under the guns of German batteries and tanks is told here by a young naval officer who was among the last to leave.

Though there was no organized evacuation of Tobruk, the defenders were determined to reorganize and fight their way out. Tobruk town and harbour had been shelled for some days fairly heavily, but not until Saturday, June 20, did the bombardment become really vicious. The Germans used everything they had from two-inch shells upward, even anti-tank guns.

Bombing was going on on the other side of the escarpment with Junkers Ju88s and Stukas coming over all the time, blasting the gun positions and concentrating on one gun at a time to knock them out in preparation for the tank charge. No bombing was directed at us. In fact, as far as the Navy was concerned, the bombing and shelling were more of a nuisance value than anything else, and we continued with our work as if nothing was happening. But on Saturday afternoon the big stuff started to come over. I had been on coastal patrol the night before, so I had turned in and slept despite the bombardment. When I got back up at 3.30 p.m. it was not very bad, although things were popping off all over the place. I left the building in which I had been sleeping at four o'clock and met some troops who had just come down the escarpment. They told us that they had been cut off by the enemy. This was the first we knew of the break-through.

At about five o'clock all naval personnel having any kind of arms were ordered to fall in. Only a few naval units and one small schooner were in the harbour at this time. From the time the road was cut four days previously most of Tobruk's supplies had been brought by sea - as during the last siege. I was told to bring my craft alongside and did so. We stood by there awaiting orders for about two hours, while the demolition parties carried out their duties.

The next thing I saw was five or six German tanks on the other side of the escarpment. We saw four or five of our soldiers shoot up one of the tanks and then plunge into the water and swim to a small boat in which they pulled over to us.

In the evening we learned officially that there had been a general break-through. I rang up headquarters from a gun position and was told this. About the time the German tanks were coming over the hill from the east down the road into the town, backed by armoured cars. Then the order came - be ready to move.

Then the enemy put over the biggest bombardment I have ever seen. Tanks were firing at the ships while the harbour and town were being shelled and bombed. All kinds of ammunition were used. Shells and bombs were exploding all around, but we suffered no casualties.

The armoured forces were now so close that we were ordered to sail. All ships had been made ready with steam up since the siege began. I could not get my ship - a small craft - away because she had been hit by a shell. We hopped ashore and saw all the ships leaving. I got aboard another vessel just as she was letting go and we all moved out. There were shells falling all around now and we had one hit. At this time we were in a rather isolated corner of the harbour and could not see if any ships took on troops before leaving. The ships were firing pom-poms and other light weapons at the enemy and the din was terrific.

As we moved out the enemy put down a curtain of shells from guns of every kind over the boom entrance, so that all ships would have to pass through it. We went through it at full speed and were not hit.

Then Stukas arrived and bombed the town. Up to the last half-hour no damage had been done to any of the few important or inhabited buildings in the town, and when we left four buildings which were not hit in the previous bombardments were still standing.

Naval demolition squads blew up everything essential before we left. Certain craft had been detailed to stay behind for demolition parties, practically all of whom were taken off. They continued working until the last moment, even when the enemy armoured forces were in the town.

There were only naval personnel in the town - the Army were all around it. Practically everyone in the town or on the shore managed to get away in craft, but the bulk of the army was left behind. By the time the last ship left the enemy armoured forces were all around the harbour. - Reuter

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