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I was a Tobruk rat, and still am at 94 years of age

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Archive List > Siege of Tobruk 1941

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Reginald William Copper
Location of story: 
The Siege of Tobruk
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Contributed on: 
21 July 2005

My name is Reg Copper, Army Number 5576249, and I served with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps after receivng my call up papers on November 14th 1940.
I am now 94 years old, and remember leaving Liverpool on a convoy of 21 ships, surrounded by destroyers and 3 battleships along with 90,000-100,000 other troops.
Our convoy stayed at Cape Town for five days where we were taken by the townsfolk to Table Mountain.
Setting sail mid April 1941 into the Indian Ocean, past Madagascar, into the Red Sea, and thence to Port Taufig, disembarking on May 8th 1941. I was thirty years old.
Although we had been heading for Greece because of enemy action we were diverted to Egypt.
Our ship was the 23 ton P and O vessel ' Strath Allen', and the 5,000 troops were eight weeks at sea, crossing the Equator in temperatures of 125 degrees Fahrenheit.
At Suez the different units were sorted and I went by train with my RAOC unit to Tele Kabir, near Cairo.
The transport which had been rescued from Greece came to us yo be re equipped and overhauled for the desert.
Five of us, three drivers, a gunner and a dispatch rider were chosen to go, armed with our various sealed orders, to Mersa Matu via Cairo and Alexandria.
From here we reported to a 28 year old Australian destroyer, the 'Stuart', and were informed by fellow sailors that our destination was 'Bomb Alley', otherwise besieged Tobruk!
The journey was no picnic. Every three minutes the helm was pulled hard to port, and then starboard as we zigzagged our way in an attempt to avoid submarines.
An enemy airfield at El Adam was only a few miles away.
We disembarked on June 8th 1941 in Tobruk harbour, and walked over two wrecks to reach the quay, shells and bombs falling all the time.
For a short while there were 2 Hurricanes with us but the odds were so overwhelming they were soon shot down. That left us with 3.7 Ack Ack anti aircraft guns, various 25 pounder guns and our own rifles.
Our unit was 501 Advanced Ammunitions Depot.
We dug ourselves in...literally, keeping back the sand with sand filled ammo boxes used like bricks until we reached firmer ground. Timbers washed ashore used in conjunction with lorry tarpaulins enclosed our dugouts, and once covered with sand were invisible.
One instance when we weren't invisible was when we needed to use the loo...out in the open for all to see, on an old ammo box....empty of course!
We were attached to the 9th Australian Division, commanded by General Morshead, and their troops were very kind to us sharing the food parcels from home.
Food was number five on the list of priorities, and our meagre rations were a cup of tea in the morning and another one in the evening. The water came from a seawater desalination plant, but even the tea couldn't entirely mask the taste of salt.Our rations consisted of soya links, a type of sausage, tins of bully (corned) beef and pilchards and thick, dry biscuits.
I distinctly remember the contents of one of the tins of biscuits were green and mouldy, and the tin labelled, 'Not fit for Human Consumption'!.
On Sundays the bakers gave us a treat, in the form of what we thought were currant such luck. The flour left by the Italians was full of weevils, and once squashed and baked took on the appearance of currants.
Christmas saw no change in our diet, and we were all issued with pills daily, ascorbic acid, to compensate for the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, and thus prevent the sores which would take so long to heal in that climate.
I lost several of my pals here, one going down with TB caused by the sandstorms. Some of the sand was so coarse that when the winds reached 50 mph or thereabouts it would strip the camouflage paint off the vehicles. Sandstorms could last for two hours or two days and the usual course was to sit tight and wait for it to pass.
Rommel's Afrika Corps besieged Tobruk for six months, and communications were irratic and infrequent.. The Aussies got information from both the BBC and the German radio, and they produced a newspaper called the 'Tobruk Truth'.
I was assigned to drive the Commanding Officer, Major Walker, and vehicles were inevitably damaged by the rough terrain and the Aussie workshop would use tempered pig iron for replacements.
The CO was in sole charge of rationing the ammo to the various units, from small arms to 3.7 artillery. The ammo had to come up under cover of darkness. and we were under constant shelling, bombing and straffing.
The German aircraft, the Stukas flew low straffing and bombing, but the Italians flew as high as they could get, 28,000 feet.
My CO had the idea of designing a longer fuse and when we went to an Ack Ack site the gunners loaded the shell whilst he timed the procedure with his stopwatch. By thus working out the distance travelled in feet, it was a success and all aircraft came within range.
I remember standing with my Co on a ridge called Palestrino where we watched a display by German gunnery . There were eight guns, all firing together, raising their sights and thereby increasing their range.
Whilst driving my CO one day we heard the sound of Stukas approaching, we took refuge in a wrecked tank, and witnessed 116 of these aircraft through a slit in the tank.
When we travelled my CO would sit in the front with me acting as watchman because the Germans were in the habit of dropping explosives in the shape of fountain pens, and thermos flasks, which could severely damage vehicles and occupants.
A contingent of Ghurkas arrived and were sent on patrol, armed with their kukris ,in 'No Man's Land'. The claims they made of numbers killed were disputed so from then on they would bring back ears as proof.
Shrapnel used to come down like rain, tinkling on the rocks. One chap wrote a song,

'A little bit of shrapnel fell from out the sky one day,
And nestled in my shoulder, in a kind of loving way,
And when the MO saw it, said, it looks so fair,
We will send you back to Blighty where they will see to it right there.
So he painted it with iodine to keep the germs at bay....."
I am afraid I forget the rest.
The Italians had left an enormous stock of ammo dumped in a waddi (valley), and the Germans bombed it to prevent us using it. Later as the molten metal cooled it looked like a shining stream.
During the siege it was estimated that 1,000 aircraft were shot down. There were 84 shipwrecks in the harbour, including an Italian warship and a ship named 'Marco Polo'.
It only rained once whilst I was there, in February, and the desert blossomed with flowers from the seeds that had lain dormant. There were prickly pears which we ate, peeling back the cactus like skin, and tasting like a cross between a a banana and an orange.
There were scorpions, and we had to look in our beds each night and in our boots each morning to check for their presence.
There were also the desert rats, like miniature kangaroos with long tails with a brush on the end, and capable of terrific speeds.
German propaganda referred to us as desert rats and it was from this little animal we took our title, 'Tobruk Rats'
It was a miracle the enemy didn't break in. On the two occasions they tried they were repelled by sticky bombs, filled with nitroglycerin.
General Auchinleck, who was in India, was brought in to put a strong force in Egypt, and Tobruk was relieved when the enemy was pushed back to beyond Benghazi.
I drove the CO to Benghazi to assess the German and Italian ammo, the journey taking two days, as badly worn pistons and rattling big end meant we were restricted to travelling at no more than 30mph.
We put up in an abandoned house overnight, and had to mount guard as there were marauding Senusis Libyan Arabs around.
The settlements alonside the main road were all supplied with water from a big pipeline.
Treading warily we found a lump of TNT the size of a football, and going to Alexandria we had to negotiate Hellfire Pass where the drop was hundreds of feet.
I had a shower at the army camp in Alexandria...a real luxury, and the food was out of this world.
On the return journey we passed the 7th Armoured Divisions coming back to regroup. They made a splendid sight in the heat of the day, so hot that one could drop an egg on a tank and it would cook.
I must refer to Rommel. He was a very good General, not a Nazi, and he respected both our officers and the Geneva Convention.
One of the few amusing things I saw in Tobruk was a 2 engined bomber was hit with an Ack Ack shell. The starbosrd wing and fuselage dived to earth, whilst the port wing and engine kept going.
The order came for the 9th Division to be relieved, and we too packed and left Tobruk in early May 1942.
Trains and transport to Alexandria, then to Abu Sultan, halfway along the Suez Canal, the largest ammo depot in the world at that time.
Our days off we spent in Ishmalia, where the French civilians welcomed us with tea and cakes, and classical music....a rare treat.
Each village, from where we got native labour, had a headman called a Riask, and he lived in a house built with homemade bricks of clay, straw and camel dung. It was so cool inside.
We were entertained here to a traditional Arab meal which included sheeps'eyes... a real local delicacy!
I was then asked, not commanded, asked, to become the driver to the CO of 9th Base Ammunitions Depot...what a civil exchange.
The car was a V8 Ford, and one day I had to volunteer to take the chief ammo officer to Ishmalia, 17 miles in all to collect a case of unstable 3.7 Ack Ack rounds....3 feet in length, with cartridge cases attached to shells.
Never was I so relieved to reach base on the return journey, and the rounds were blown up in the dunes.
At BAD we were issued with a pink powder called AL63, Anti Lice powder. We soon found out that when we dusted our underpants with it our privates felt as though they were on fire!
We had a dance band at the depot, and an American aerodrome nearby called Abel Soir, a Michell Bomber base. The band and my CO were invited to the base , and it was there I had my first taste of peanut butter.
Sand was the enemy of machines. It got in everywhere, and things were worn out in no time. Some of the cars had elaborate filters for the air before it went into the carburettor, like concertinas which pumped to clear the dust.
I had been at 9BAD for two weeks only when news came through that Tobruk had fallen, and the 1st South African Armoured Division had all been captured...poor devils.
The trouble with North Africa is once an army has got the opposition on the run there are very few places where the retreating army can make a stand, but it was at El Alamein where the famous stand was made.
The ground in coastal area was operable, but to the South it was no good for machines, forming a bottleneck. Rommel's army stopped here and his lines of communication were stretched to the limits. It took time to get supplies to ports near his troops.
General Montgomery appeared on the scene, and gradually built up the 8th Army.
Great activity followed a meeting of the top brass at El Alamein. Trains and lorries worked ceaselessly to build up the ammunition supply for the big push to come. It was a success, and the enemy retreated to the West of Libya and, with the Americans on the other front, they had two fronts to protect.
All they could do was escape by sea to Italy.
By driving a full Colonel, Colonel Brown, I became a Lance Corporal, and with my driver's, mechanic's status I could increase my wife's allowance by contributing some of my pay to her.
I had two weeks leave, and we went to what was then Palestine. Seeing all the biblical places was thrilling and gave me much inspiration.
On my second leave a pal and I got the job of delivering a car to Beirut in Lebanon. After crossing the Suez Canal at Cantara, we went into the Sinai desrt, passing Mount Sinai, and arrived at Gaza where we picked grapefruit to quench our thirst.
We delivered the car and spent two weeks in the city, where we picked up with a French soldier who entertained us to a meal in his mess. We then went to a Greek bar where there were three musicians, but the Frenchman disappeared and we belatedly realised we were in the Brothel area when three girls approached area strictly out of bounds to all troops!
The Egyptian pound bought us an enormous amount of Lebanese Peastos. We felt like millionaires.
In late 1943 at 4BAD my CO was posted to Dekelia, a few miles west of Alexandria, so I was assigned to drive a full Colonel from GHQ Cairo, complete with his red hat band and tabs.
He was an interesting man, able to translate Arabic writing into English and swim like a fish. I used to take him to the Lido.
He didn't mix too much with the other officers, and he became Officer Commanding all the troops in the area, so instead of being a CO he was a OC.
On his occasional inspections the camp visited had to parade, with me creeping along behind in the car.
There were two explosions while I was there.
The first a 3 ton lorry driven by 3 South Africans and 3 Natives with a load of unstable ammo.
I was on my back under a car outside the maintenance hut when the explosion occurred. Much shrapnel hit the shed and when I looked around I touched what I thought was a glove on the fence. It was a charred hand, and the largest bit of truck was no larger than a football.
The second was a magazine which went up in the depot. Shells and debris flew everywhere...a wonderful sight.. and all attempts by the fire brigade proved useless.
Sometimes one used to see a large lake in the distance...a mirage of course, and the wind which caused the dust storms was known as Kamseen, which in Arabic means Fifty.
The hot wind seemed to scorch our eyes, and we had no protection from the sun.
I was reunited with my former CO in 1944 in Dekelia.
Days off were spent in Alexandria.
I remember one day in Dekelia we had a whirlwind, the tents were flattened and personal kits were scattered to the wind. That night we spent under the stars.
I saw several of the spiralling dust storms moving over the desert. The wind used to blow from the desert to the sea in the mornings and then reverse in the evenings.
My stay at 4BAD ended in 1945. My CO got his papers and returned home on a boat from Alexandria. That was the last I saw of him.
We, at the camp, were known as the skeleton staff, no one in charge and even the cookhouse had closed down.
We were at Amriya on 8th May VE DAY, and celebrated sitting on an Italian lorry drinking a bottle of beer each.
In late July we were ordered to pack our kits, and board a Dutch passenger ship, on which at one time the engine room caught fire.
When nearing Gibraltar the German made engines failed and we drifted for two hours before repairs were made.
We reached the English Channel, turned into the Solent without incident, and I felt I was on home gorund seeing familiar landmarks I recognised from past holidays on the Isle of Wight.
My heart gave a leap as I peeled onions in the galley!
We docked at Southampton, and were transported to Wellington, near Shrewsbury in Shropshire.
In the morning we had bacon and eggs...sheer delight!
Armed with my rail pass and ration book I travelled home to Kent via Kings Cross, Charing Cross and Maidstone.
It was ist September 1945 when I knocked on the door of my own home.
After the two week's pass I was posted to a camp near to my home near Sevenoaks, only seventeen miles distant.
On 14th January 1946 I was summoned to the Regimental office where I was given my discharge papers, with an exemplary reference, kitted out in my civilian clothes, and I became a free man again.
I give thanks to God that I came out of it in one piece.

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Message 1 - Tobruk Rats

Posted on: 22 July 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Mr Copper - Sir,
an excellent tale of what the "Rats" had to put up with most of the time. This sort of tale should be delivered to every school in the country to make them realise what some of us had to put up with for their freedom and enjoyment
Thank you again Sir,
tom canning

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