'The Spud Run - Siege Of Tobruk

 

 

The eight month long siege of Tobruk in 1941, which saw the name 'Rats of Tobruk' (first coined by Radio Berlin as a contemptuous one) take a proud place in Australian history was one of the greatest stories of bravery and endurance against overwhelming odds in the history of modern warfare.

 

It began on 23 May, the same day Crete fell to the Germans, when the enemy, under the command of Erwin Rommel attacked the British forces at Libya. A garrison seriously weakened by the removal of ANZAC and British forces when they were hastily despatched to Greece to counter the Nazi offensive there.

 

As the British withdrew back to Egypt, the Australian troops at that time in Benghazi, were forced to make a hasty retreat. Along the way the Aussie diggers side stepped the withdrawal to Egypt and entered the port city of Tobruk. There it was that they dug in to face Rommel's all conquering Afrika Corps. Rommel detached a small force to deal with the Tobruk defenders and continued to harass the British back to Egypt. At the beginning he thought that the small garrison at Tobruk would not be a problem and would easily be overthrown. However he was soon to realise how wrong he was.

 

The Australians and other allied troops resisted all attempts to dislodge them no matter what he threw at them. The Story of the "Rats of Tobruk" has become part of Australian folklore, but not quite as well known is tale of the unique naval battle of Tobruk............

 

'The courageous seamen in their old, battered ships that kept the 'Rats' fighting!

 

Africa Star Campaign Medal WW2

Africa Star Campaign Medal

The incredible saga of 'The Spud Run' began in January 1941 with the start of the now famous siege of Tobruk by Rommel's Afrika Corps. Allied strength in North Africa had been depleted by some 50,000 men, including the Australian Sixth Division, who were rushed to fight a losing battle against the Nazis in Greece.
 

A motley collection of smaller and older warships that could be spared from the major war effort included the Australian vessels, HMA Ships Stuart, Voyager, Parramatta, Waterhen and Vendetta. (The V&W Class Ships of the famous 'Scrap Iron Flotilla')

 

Their destination, Tobruk, undoubtedly at the time the most dangerous port on earth. The press of the day dubbed them the "Tobruk Ferry Service" but which the crews fondly referred to as "The Junks".

 

The strangest transports in naval history theirs was a hazardous delivery route through enemy aircraft, submarines and minefields. The Australian ships made 139 of these dangerous voyages into Tobruk, on what the sailors called the "Spud Run"

 

The cost to the 'Junks' themselves was high. HMAS Waterhen was to earn her own special place in naval history as the first Australian warship to be lost in action against the enemy. On 29 June 1941, whilst loaded down with supplies Waterhen was attacked from the air by enemy bombers. Firstly its engine room was holed by a near miss. Then repeatedly attacked she was badly holed by more bombs. Waterhen was finished. A British destroyer attempted a tow but the old Australian warship just kept sinking lower until she finally succumbed to the sea.

 

Waterhen Sinking

HMAS WATERHEN Sinking after German Air Attack

 

A typical "Spud Run" was that by an Australian and British destroyer in June 1941. The ships did not encounter the usual Stuka aircraft but soon after sunset the Australian was attacked by something more formidable. Two Junkers 88 bombers glided silently in from astern and dropped their bomb loads around the ship. In the fierce battle that ensued an even more sinister enemy lurked in the form of a German U Boat. Whilst battling with the aircraft the U Boat had slipped in unnoticed. Fortunately a stoker taking a breather on the upper deck noticed the telltale wakes of torpedoes in time for the ship to take violent evasive action. The two ships aggressively attacked the U Boat with depth charges. They then proceeded through the night to deliver their loads to the Tobruk garrison. Not all encounters were so lucky. On 27 November when the siege was entering its final days the sloop Parramatta was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 139 men, including its skipper, Commander J.H. Walker.

 

By the 10 December the 8th Army had succeeded in driving Rommel back from Tobruk and with the siege over the "Spud Run" was ended.

 

The story of Tobruk however was not quite over. A new garrison, mostly South Africans, took over the battle scarred port from the weary Australians. On the 20 June 1942, reinforced with tanks and supplies Rommel counter attacked, and with no stubborn Australians to hold it, split the defences in two and captured the port.

 

Australia was shocked by the ease with which Rommel had at last succeeded in capturing the port its own troops had fought so long and hard to hold. Nowhere was the feeling of loss and resentment more bitterly felt than among the survivors of the little old ships that had etched their place in history serving on the "Spud Run".

 

You can read more detailed accounts of the famous exploits of the  Scrap Iron Flotilla and the Australian Navy at war in the Middle East in the relevent Chapter of J F Moyes' Book 'Scrap Iron Flotilla'  in my book section.