February 14, 2009
I have read with interest your interesting web-site about Australian military history and wondered if you wouldn't mind helping me with a project to research ship wrecks from WW11 in the area of Tobruk, Libya.
I am a British ex-pat teaching near Benghazi, Libya and I am trying to conduct research into ships sunk off the Libyan coast during World War 2. I have a student who is from Tobruk and he is keen to help as his father and grand-father remember the war years vividly. There seems to be very little available information on this subject and little surviving records in Libya about the role of British and Commonwealth soldiers, airmen and seamen who fought and died in this country during the 1940's.
I hope to visit the war graves soon and shall try to collect information locally about any ships sunk in or near Tobruk during the war. My student friend tells me an area around Tobruk harbour is called 'St. George' and he thought this also referred to a ship sunk during the war. I can find no records of such a sinking.
Some local information may just surface that could be of interest. For instance, I bought a cheap booklet published locally in very poor English and German that detailed a raid by British commandos during 1941 to capture Rommel from his house near Benghazi. The raid failed and a British officer, who was killed by Rommel's guards, was awarded a posthumous VC. He was buried in the war cemetry near Tobruk.
Hope I haven't taken up too much of your time. Thanks for your marvellous website, I shall enjoy delving into it over the coming weeks.
Thank you for your kind words about AHOY.
During the siege it was estimated that 1,000 aircraft were shot down. There were about 30 shipwrecks in the harbour, including an Italian warship and a ship named 'Marco Polo'.
CAMPAIGN SUMMARIES OF WORLD WAR 2
NORTH AFRICAN CAMPAIGNS, including French North African Landings, Part 1 of 2
North Africa - British armoured forces crossed the Libyan desert to a point south of Benghazi and cut off the retreating Italians. The resulting Battle of Beda Fomm starting on the 5th inflicted heavy losses. Australian troops captured the major port of Benghazi at the same time, and by the 9th El Agheila was reached. There the advance stopped. Large numbers of British and Dominion troops were now withdrawn for transfer to Greece, just as the first units of the Afrika Korps under Gen Rommel arrived in Tripoli. 24th - Destroyer "DAINTY" escorting supplies to Tobruk with the Inshore Squadron, was sunk off the port by German Ju87 Stukas.
North Africa - Germans entered Benghazi on the 4th and by mid-month had surrounded Tobruk and reached the Egyptian border. Attacks on the British and Australian troops defending Tobruk were unsuccessful, and an eight-month siege began. This took place as the Germans invaded Yugoslavia and Greece, and a pro-German coup in Iraq threatened Allied oil supplies.
North Africa - A British offensive started from the Sollum area on the 15th in an attempt to relieve Tobruk (Operation 'Brevity'). Two weeks later both sides were back to their original positions. The first of many supply trips to besieged Tobruk were made by Australian destroyers "Voyager" and "Waterhen" and other ships of the Inshore Squadron. 25th - Sloop "GRIMSBY" and the supply ship she was escorting on the Tobruk run were sunk by bombers northeast of the port.
North Africa - Another unsuccessful British offensive to relieve Tobruk started from Sollum on the 15th (Operation 'Battleaxe'). Within two days the operation was called off. A heavy price had to be paid for the supply of besieged Tobruk by the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy ships involved. All trips took place under continual threat of German and Italian aircraft attack. 24th - Sloop "AUCKLAND" was lost off Tobruk. 30th - Australian destroyer "WATERHEN" was bombed and sunk off Bardia.
18th - Submarine "P-32" was lost on mines off Tripoli as she attempts to attack a convoy entering the port. "P.33" was also lost around the same time in this area, possibly on mines.
27th - Covering the transport of troops into and out of besieged Tobruk, cruiser “Phoebe” was hit by an aircraft torpedo.
25th - Over a period of 10 days, cruiser-minelayers "Abdiel" and "Latona" transported troops and supplies to besieged Tobruk and carried out Australian units. On the last mission "LATONA" was bombed and sunk north of Bardia by Ju87s Stuka divebombers.
North Africa - A major British offensive (Operation 'Crusader') started on the 18th, again from the Sollum area and by January had reached El Agheila. Axis forces around Sollum and Bardia were by-passed in the drive on Tobruk. The first link-up with the besieged garrison was made by New Zealand troops on the 27th. 27th - Australian sloop "PARRAMATTA" escorting an ammunition ship on the Tobruk Run was sunk by "U-559" off the port. Since the siege started destroyers and other warships had been carrying in men and supplies almost nightly. As it came to an end the cost could be counted - 25 warships of all sizes and five merchantmen lost.
23rd - Submarine "P-38" attacked a heavily defended convoy off Tripoli and was lost to the escorts' counter-attack which again included Italian torpedo boat "Circe"
Seven 'Hunt' class escort destroyers came from Tobruk and as they carried out anti-submarine sweeps ahead of the convoy, "HEYTHROP" was sunk off Sidi Barrani by "U-652".
26th - Destroyer "JAGUAR" and the tanker she was escorting to Tobruk were both sunk by "U-652" off Sidi Barrani.
11th/12th - Destroyers "Jackal", "Jervis", "Kipling" and "Lively" left Alexandria to search for reported Axis shipping bound for Benghazi. There was no fighter cover. On being sighted they turned back, but north of Sidi Barrani (yet again) were attacked by a specially trained anti-ship group of German Ju88s. "KIPLING" and "LIVELY" were sent to the bottom that evening, and "JACKAL" was scuttled on the 12th. Only "Jervis" with 630 survivors reached Alexandria.
North Africa - From Gazala, Gen Rommel started the second phase of his advance towards Egypt on the 26th with a main attack around Bir Hakeim. Shortly afterwards, heavy fighting broke out between there and Gazala around the areas known as the 'Cauldron' and 'Knightsbridge'.
28th - "U-568" attacked Tobruk supply traffic, was hunted down and sunk by destroyer "Hero" and escort destroyers "Eridge" and "Hurworth".
29th - In a series of attacks on convoys bound for North Africa, submarine "Turbulent" (Cdr Linton) sank three transports in May and on the 29th torpedoed and sank escorting Italian destroyer "PESSAGNO" northwest of Benghazi.
14th - 10th Flotilla lost its most famous boat when "UPHOLDER" (Lt-Cdr Wanklyn VC) was lost. She attacked an Axis convoy northeast of Tripoli and was presumed sunk in the counter-attack by destroyer escort "Pegaso".
22nd - Italian torpedo boat "CANTORE" was lost on mines laid by submarine "Porpoise" northeast of Tobruk.
Raid on Tobruk: Operation 'Agreement' - To help relieve the pressure on Eighth Army in the Alamein area, a combined operations raid was planned on Tobruk to destroy installations and shipping. An attack would be launched from the landward side by the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), while simultaneously destroyers "Sikh" and "Zulu" together with coastal forces craft would land Royal Marine and Army units from the sea. AA cruiser "Coventry" and 'Hunts' provided cover. In the night of the 13th/14th, a few troops got ashore but "SIKH" was soon disabled by shore batteries. She went down off Tobruk early in the morning of the 14th. As the other ships withdrew, heavy attacks by German and Italian aircraft sank cruiser "COVENTRY" and destroyer "ZULU" to the northwest of Alexandria. The land attack also failed.
North Africa - With the Second Battle of El Alamein, Gen Montgomery started the last and decisive British campaign against Axis forces in Egypt. On the night of the 23rd a massive bombardment preceded the advance of first infantry and then armour through the German and Italian lines in the centre. Progress was at first slow and the battle became a straight slogging match. Australian troops played an important part with a thrust in the north near the sea. In the build-up to the battle, Royal Navy submarines and RAF aircraft, especially those based in Malta, were sinking more than a third of Axis supplies setting out for North Africa. As the offensive got underway, the Inshore Squadron continued to support and supply Eighth Army along its right, seaward flank.
30th - Destroyers "Pakenham", "Petard" and "Hero", escort destroyers "Dulverton" and "Hurworth" and RAF aircraft of No 47 Squadron sank "U-559" north of Port Said. Egypt.
North Africa - By the 4th the Second Battle of El Alamein had been won by Eighth Army. Rommel's losses in men and material were so great he withdrew, first to Fuka and then Mersa Matruh. The British got there by the 7th. New Zealand troops entered Sidi Barrani on the 9th and two days later reached the Libyan border. As the remaining Axis troops continued to fall back, Eighth Army entered Tobruk on the 12th and Benghazi a week later. Rommel had moved back to the old 'start/finish' line of El Agheila by the end of the month. Montgomery halted Eighth Army after a 600-mile advance in 14 days.
North Africa - On the 11th, Gen Montgomery resumed Eighth Army's advance. Under direct and flanking attack, Rommel abandoned El Agheila and withdrew to defence lines at Buerat on the approaches to Tripoli. By now he had decided to make his main stand on the Mareth line in southern Tunisia. Eighth Army reached Buerat by year's end. 19th - Escorting a convoy to Benghazi, corvette "SNAPDRAGON" was bombed and sunk off the port by German aircraft.
Bill here is the story of the attack on Rommel's house and the award of a VC.
~ OPERATION FLIPPER - ROMMEL'S HQ - 14/18 NOV 1941 ~
Operation Flipper - the story of the raid on Rommel's HQ in the Libyan desert. The small raiding party achieved total surprise but due to poor intelligence there never was a chance of killing or capturing the General - he was in Rome at the time and, in any event, he'd never stayed in the property. Lt Col Geoffrey Keyes was posthumously awarded the Commandos first VC for his role in the action.
Background Planning & Preparations Action Outcome Further Reading Correspondence
~ Background ~
Rommel had Tobruk under siege and Cyrenaica under occupation. Churchill had placed Auchinleck under increasing pressure to counter attack and by October 1941 a plan of action code named Crusader was in place.
~ Planning & Preparation ~
In advance of the main thrust Middle East Commando was given two tasks. L Detachment was to raid landing grounds in the Gazala-Tmini area while No 11 Commando was to target various HQ buildings in the Cyrene area including Rommel's HQ. In addition telephone and telegraph communications were to be sabotaged. The raids were to take place on the night of 17/18th November - the eve of the launch of Crusader. Click on maps to enlarge.
~ Action ~
A small party left Alexandria on the evening of the 10th of November 1941 in the submarines Torbay and Talisman. On board the former were Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes, two officers and 22 men and on the latter were Laycock, two officers and 24 men. They arrived off the landing beaches on the 14th. Keyes was in command of the raid on Rommel's HQ with Laycock responsible for the supervision of the wider Flipper operation.
Waiting on the beach were Captain Jock Haselden and an Arab soldier from G(R) Branch to guide the folbots and dinghies to the beach and to assist in bringing the vessels ashore. The remainder of Haselden's men, comprising two British officers, a Free Belgian Captain and an Arab soldier, were laid up inland. All had been dropped in the area earlier in the day by the Long Range Desert Group. Haselden and his men had some knowledge of the area and would later play a part in sabotaging communication links.
At 6.30 p.m. Haselden flashed his torch out to sea and by 6.50 p.m. the first of the folbots arrived out of the darkness. However before all the men could disembark from the submarines heavy seas intervened and of Laycock's party only 7 men and Laycock himself made it ashore. There was now an immediate need to review the plans taking into account the reduced resources and the overriding need to co-ordinate the raids with Crusader on the night of the 18th. Amended plans were drawn up as follows; an attack on Rommel's house & HQ by Keyes and 18 other ranks (ORs), the sabotage of telephone and telegraph communications at the cross-road south of Cyrene by Lieutenant Cook and 6 ORs and on the El Fridia to Slonta road by Haselden and his 5 ORs. Under cover of darkness on the 15th they set off on their 15/20 mile trek inland in heavy rain. (Photo; Italian radio station at Appollonia, which was an original target (1 of 3) during the raid on Rommel's HQ. Courtesy of Western Desert Battlefield Tours.)
Laycock decided to remain at the rendezvous (RV) with the reserve ammunition in the hope that the rest of his men would arrive. He was the only person, other than Keyes, who understood the plan in its entirety and he would be needed to lead his men should they succeed in coming ashore.
As Keyes approached his objective at Beda Littoria on the 17th November friendly Arabs indicated that Rommel's HQ was located at Sidi-Rafa. This was a view also held by Haselden and so Sidi-Rafa became the new target. The plan was for Keyes, Captain Campbell and Sergeant Terry to enter the building. Other ranks were to take up positions to prevent enemy interference. These deployments were to; disable the electric light plant (3 men), watch the exits from the guard tent and car park (5), prevent anyone from leaving a nearby hotel (2), guard the road either side of the building (2) and guard whatever entrance Keyes and his men used to gain access to the building (2).
All parties took up position just before midnight. Having found no entry at the rear of the building Keyes, Campbell and Terry walked up to the front door and beat upon it. Campbell demanded entry in German. The door was opened eventually and on realising he had been duped the sentry put up resistance. Unable to overpower him silently Campbell shot him. The cat was out of the bag!
A burst of fire from Terry's Tommy gun persuaded two Germans, who deemed to investigate the commotion, to return upstairs. Outside sentries gunned down two others who were seen running towards the building. Lights were switched on in many rooms. Keyes and Campbell started a systematic search of the ground floor. The occupants of the second room decided to resist and a burst of fire hit Keyes as he opened the door... see photo opposite provided courtesy of Western Desert Battlefield Tours. He fell back into the corridor mortally wounded. Terry emptied two magazines into the room and Campbell finished the job by lobbing in a grenade and closing the door. They took Keyes outside where he died almost immediately. While attending to him Campbell's lower leg was broken by a stray bullet. He ordered Terry to regroup the men and to have them dispose of their remaining grenades through any available windows. He then ordered himself to be abandoned as the men made their way to their operational RV. He realised that to be carried some 18 miles to the beach over precipitous terrain and 2000 feet of decent would be an intolerable burden on his men and might jeopardise their safe return. Campbell would later have his leg amputated in an Italian prison camp.
Jack Terry and his seventeen men met up with Laycock and his base party of three at the RV but nothing more was heard of Cook and his group of six. On the night of the 18th Torbay made contact with Laycock by Aldis lamp. Once more the seas were too rough to launch the dinghies but the submarine managed to get food and water ashore. The next day it became clear that the enemy was aware of Laycock's position on the beach. First Arab Carabinieri, then small groups of Germans and then Italians were seen in the area. Fire was opened on Laycock and his men and he was forced to abandon his position and move inland. He ordered his men to form small units of no more than three men and to make their escape from the area. Optional destinations included an alternative beach where Talisman would be waiting, the Slonta area where it was known that the Long Range Desert Group was operating or wadis to the north of Cyrene where they could lay up until definite news of the progress of Crusader was received. Later friendly Arabs told Haselden that a map of the landing beach had been found on one of the British prisoners. This accounted for the early discovery of the well concealed beach party.
~ Outcome ~
Of the entire force only Laycock and Terry made it back to British lines after 37 days in the desert. The remainder of the force were either taken prisoner or killed by hostile Arabs. It later transpired that Rommel had never used the building raided by Keyes although at one point he had used the original building but only as a logistics HQ. In any event he had been in Rome and did not return to North Africa until the 18th. Jock Haselden and his men completed their demolition task and successfully returned to Allied lines courtesy of the Long Range Desert Group. The raid was largely unsuccessful since few of its objectives were achieved and virtually all the men involved from Middle East Commando were lost in action or taken prisoner.
When Laycock and Terry arrived at 8th Army HQ on December 25 a signal was sent to Oliver Lyttleton the Minister in Cairo stating "Feel it would interest C-in-C and Minister to know that Laycock arrived today at 9.20 p.m. for his Christmas dinner." The reply was "Please state why Laycock was one hour 20 minutes late for his Christmas Dinner."
For his part in the raid Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes was posthumously awarded the first Commando Victoria Cross.
BENGHAZI WAR CEMETERY (Libya) KEYES, Lieutenant Colonel, Geoffrey Charles Tasker, VC, MC, 71081. Royal Scots Greys (2nd Dragoons), R.A.C. 18th November 1941. Age 24. Awarded Croix de Guerre. FRASER, Private T C, The Queens Own Cameron Highlanders, No 11 Commando. 20 - 24 June 1941, age 23. MACQUARRIE Lance Corporal D MacL, 3319006 Gordon Highlanders, No 11 Commando, 31/12/41 aged 24.
ENFIDAVILLE WAR CEMETERY (Tunisia) BROWN, Corporal. Leslie Jock, 5437777. Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. 15th-18th January 1943. Age 26. NIXON, Private, Malvern, 3056939. Royal Scots. 15th-18th January 1943. Age 23.
KNIGHTSBRIDGE WAR CEMETERY, Acroma (Lybia). WOOD A J, Sgt 3054128, Royal Scots. 04/12/1941. Age 28. (Photos courtesy of Western Desert Battlefield Tours).
~ Further Reading ~
Black Hackle (on this website) by Graham Lappin - an historical account of No.11 (Scottish) Commando which includes a section on Operation Flipper.
Get Rommel: The Secret British Mission to Kill Hitler's Greatest General by Michael Asher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2004, 303pp 029784685X
Rommel in North Africa - more information on the 'desert fox'.
Geoffrey Keyes, VC of the Rommel Raid by Elizabeth Keyes. Pub 1956 by George Newnes Ltd, London, WC2.
Commandos and Rangers of World War 2 by James D. Ladd. Pub1978 by MacDonald & Jane's. 0 356 08432 9
Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Pub by William Kimber, London 1985. 0 7183 0553 1
The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson published 1961 by Collins.
I trust this helps a little.
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