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15 October 2014
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Waiting for capture in Tobrukicon for Recommended story

by CSV Actiondesk at BBC Oxford

Contributed by 
CSV Actiondesk at BBC Oxford
People in story: 
Bob Borthwick, Reg Gunn, Bill Harvey, Alan Jones
Location of story: 
Tobruk
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A5328326
Contributed on: 
25 August 2005

They watched waves of German Stuka bombers blasting a route through the final minefield and the troops marooned there. They could see the special fuses that stuck out in front of the bombs to explode the bomb above the desert and detonate the mines.

Bob Borthwick decided to pack up the workshop. Almost immediately a shout from the roof warned him that some tanks were driving down the road towards the cemetery. Bob rushed to the roof with his binoculars to confirm that the tanks had black crosses on their flanks. There was no mistake. It was time to move out.

Bob detoured by the Power Station to warn his old friend Reg Gunn. He had decided to stay and keep the power on for the hospital but had placed explosives on the generators. They said a quick farewell and parted.

There was the obligatory ritual of destroying paper work but most prepared for their uncertain future. As dusk fell, everyone was again loaded into 3 ton lorries and they withdrew to the beaches about a mile away. They had already been told that the Navy had withdrawn all their support but they remembered the little ships that had saved them in 1940 and hoped for a similar miracle.

The sounds of war quietened during the night but a pall of smoke rose over the town half a mile away. The smoke reflected a red glow from the burning facilities in the night sky.
“In that quiet we had time to reflect on the futility of war that requires a man to die in those circumstances” Bill noted in his record of the conflict.

The Section officers and Senior NCOs discussed the option. There were no materials available for any rafts or boats. Some soldiers knocked the floor and side panel out of their lories to provide material but from their commando training they knew there was not enough for a single seaworthy craft. The rations had been brought by the cooks. They were able to sort out a brew. Bob was struck by how the British Tommy of all ranks was much happier once they had a brew of tea.

The sounds of battle were audible around the perimeter but they seemed to indicate a mopping up operation. There were no sounds of a fierce battle that might point to a British attack to counter the breakthrough. The town was quiet apart from the occasional tank shell that chased some fleeting target.

Following their conference, Bob expected to be captured and was worried about his ammunition. The 2 rounds that he carried for his revolver were made of lead unlike most bullets where the softer lead is covered in the harder copper. There had been rumours that the Germans had harshly punished anyone carrying 'dum-dum' bullets where the bullet had been modified to increase the injury inflicted. He fired his rounds into the petrol tank of 'Bitsa' and pushed her into the sea. The personal weapons that had been a rather useless but constant companion for the previous two and a half years were now wrecked. Bob's redundant revolver followed his beloved bike into the sea.

Huddled in their greatcoats after some desultory speculation most fell asleep. The night had passed but no rescue came. The morning brought less talk of the possibility of a sea rescue. Some soldiers could still be seen gathering materials for rafts as the first light of dawn illuminated their plight. It was already far too late to contemplate any escape bid.

As Sunday dawned there was a brief and accurate bombardment of one presumed stronghold in the harbour area. It was mercifully short. From where they were on the beach they were overlooked by the high rim of the escarpment, about 150 yards away. By mid-day two tanks were clearly visible on the rim just watching. They were surrounded.

Alan Jones and some others gathered some food and he kept the 2 gallon water carrier that had served him, and many others, as well during their stay in the desert. The tins of bully beef and the large, flat, flavourless biscuits were handed out.

At 7 the Germans took the initiative and advanced with white flags. One officer came walking forward from the direction of the tanks observed by the Company. There were a few wise-cracks about whether they should let the Germans surrender. One of the Sapper officers improvised a white flag, went forward to meet him.

It was an anti-climax. Their active service in the army was over. Now it was just a matter of waiting to see what would happen to them next.

This story was submitted to the people’s War site by a volunteer from CSV Oxford on behalf of Alan Jones, the late Bill Harvey and Bob Borthwick. It is a transcript of his own diary and several interviews. He gave written permission for the material to be edited and published.

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This story has been placed in the following categories.

British Army Category
Siege of Tobruk 1941 Category
North Africa Category
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