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Regimental History - Second World War

2nd Battalion, King's Own Royal Regiment at Tobruk, 1941.

Following Dunkirk and the fall of France in June 1940 Italy joined the war hoping to gain territory in North Africa.  From Libya they pushed towards Egypt and the Suez Canal but their advance was stopped by the British.  The Italian forces were then supported by the Germans under Rommel and on 11th April 1941 the Afrika Corps surrounded Tobruk.  An all-out assault to take the port failed and so began the 242 day Siege of Tobruk.

Garrisoned at first by the Australian 9th Infantry Division, repeated aerial and artillery bombardments took their toll and in September 1941 the Australians were relieved by the 70th British Division which included the 2nd Battalion King’s Own.  The battalion was landed at Tobruk during the ‘no moon’ period by fast Royal Naval destroyers which were back at sea within forty minutes whilst there was still insufficient light for them to be seen.

The 2nd Battalion, under strength following the Syrian Campaign, found life in Tobruk to be hard.  Tobruk was without women, liquor, cinema or other amusements, there were no fresh vegetables and the men were pestered by the heat, sand and flies.  Subjected to continuous day and night bombing, the men spent their spare time playing football or cricket and swimming.  Each battalion had a wireless set and from this a daily news-sheet was produced to be circulated down to the platoons. 

Tobruk was a maze of broken, tottering buildings surrounded by a dry, dusty plain leading up to the minefields, trenches and barbed wire of the perimeter.  The whole area was under enemy fire, so that reliefs and carrying parties always took place at night.

The whole fortress covered an area of eighteen to twenty miles in width and twelve miles in depth. The 2nd Battalion King’s Own took over a sector of the eastern perimeter next to the sea and every night sent out four wire or trench patrols and at least two reconnaissance or one reconnaissance and one fighting patrol, both of which operated up to three or four thousand yards outside the perimeter.

Throughout October the battalion closed gaps in the enemy’s minefields, raided enemy working parties, demolished new fieldworks, and booby-trapped potential enemy sniper locations.  Meanwhile the enemy closed in on Tobruk and contact was made on 12th October  shortly after which a patrol brought in ten Italian prisoners.  At the end of October the King’s Own was relieved from the line and Major Creedon was appointed Commanding Officer. 

A break-out from Tobruk was planned to coincide with an advance from Egypt by the Eighth Army.  The attack was launched on 18th November after many days of planning, mine clearance and careful preparation.

The fighting was indecisive at first and was in full swing on 20th November when 2nd King’s Own was ordered to attempt to break out.  Each section of the battalion was armed with a Bren gun and thirteen Bren magazines; each rifleman carried a hundred rounds in bandoliers and three grenades; in addition each platoon had two Thompson sub-machine guns and one anti-tank rifle.

On 21st November as tanks moved forward and broke the silence of the night, A and D Companies were in the front line when a tremendous artillery barrage opened up but most shells fell behind the battalion.  As British guns opened fire and the tanks moved forward followed by the carriers so many tanks were disabled by mines that most were knocked out before the infantry were ordered to move.  Despite this, D Company moved forward and took their position, ‘Butch’.  A Company advanced with C Company in support and found themselves held up by a strong point called ‘Jill’.

Whilst D Company was able to hold their position, A and C Companies were forced to withdraw from ‘Jill’ during the afternoon and, with the help of B Company, formed a new defensive position on ‘The Crest'.  As a result of this action the battalion took about 300 German prisoners and were able to hold ‘Butch’ until 24th November when they were relieved by 2nd Battalion Leicester Regiment. 

Back in the line from 27th November, the men of the battalion saw the New Zealanders move forward to expand the perimeter.

On 3rd December a patrol of the King’s Own discovered that enemy positions along the coast had been evacuated, and A Company was sent to occupy them.  Under sustained British attacks Rommel had been forced to withdraw and Tobruk had survived.  The enemy had lost 400 tanks, and  11 000 Germans and 26 000 Italians had been taken prisoner whilst British losses were about 18 000 men.

On 21st December the 2nd Battalion King’s Own withdrew from Tobruk and moved back to Egypt to enjoy a belated Christmas Day on 31st December.

Map of Tobruk

Discover the story of Douglas and Eva Blake, Douglas died of wounds on 22nd November 1941.

 

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