Saturday, 25 April 2015

T is for Tobruk

My grandfather Richard Geoffrey Champion de Crespigny (1907 - 1966) known as Geoff de Crespigny served in the Second Australian Imperial Force as a doctor.

my grandfather in 1940


For the early part of the war Geoff kept a diary. It covers the period of his training in Victoria, with some visits home to Adelaide and a time in Sydney, followed by his departure for the Middle East in April 1940, various posts in Palestine and Egypt, and his experiences in Tobruk in 1941. Geoff was at Tobruk from January 1941 to October.  His initial role at Tobruk was Deputy Assistant Director of Hygiene [DADH].



From his diary describing his arrival in Tobruk.

29 Jan We arose before dawn and left at 7. Road pretty rough and burnt out lorries and material everywhere, but what we saw previously was nothing to the débris in the marshes between Buq Buq and Salum. Here considerable fighting had taken place, and there were tanks, guns, lorries, tents, clothing and litter in immense quantities. We passed lorry-loads of prisoners on their way to Alex – some driving! Salum loomed up ahead – an attractive spot where the escarpment marched from inland to meet the sea and form a fine western rampart to the little bay. A ship or so was in and the port was busy. We climbed the precipitous road up Halfaya Pass and were shortly in sight of Fort Capuzzo – severely battered. From there the road was very trying, but in 15 miles or so we came to the Bardia perimeter – wire, tank traps and pill-boxes, and one wondered how such defences could be taken. Inside were war materials in stacks – a mound of rifles like a coal dump in one place. Mercifully the road was now bitumen. We saw Bardia a mile or so away, sitting by the sea, while we passed by along the Tobruk road. From here the road was good, after the first 10 miles, except for some hectic patches. We lunched 100 kilos from Tobruk and then went on.1 We reached Tobruk at 3.30. Again we passed through intricate defence lines – guns on every side and big ones too. In a large compound we saw the prisoners – nearly 20,000 of them. It looked awful. We went on over a plain littered with lorries, and then found ourselves overlooking the harbour, with the town on its far side. A pleasant little place on a bare low headland, which surrounded a fine harbour. We could count about a dozen sunken or grounded ships – the San Georgio across the mouth of the harbour. After certain delays we found our quarters – in the late HQ of the Commander, 1 Libyan Division in  Plaza Benito Mussolini! Here I found friends, with Saxby and some of 2/1 Fd Amb [Field Ambulance] and Doug Salter and company,2 and also Ian Wood, Dick Johnstone and Keith Ross – a surgical team.3 I shared a room with Bryan – an odd little cuss, but with quite a nice room! I settled in, got a brief outline of things from Saxby, and after a somewhat inadequate wash tucked up pretty early.  

30 Jan There were various things to do – firstly to take stock of the town. It was in a hell of a mess, many houses blasted by bombs and shells, and all well sacked by the AIF who showed the ability of experts.4 The hygiene situation was horrible. Nothing much was left in the way of loot – all valuables having been removed early, but I found considerable interest in the collection of sundry stamps. I did various necessary jobs [7] with the 2/2 CCS [Casualty Clearing Station] some of whom I had met in Gaza, and also concocted plans with Carruthers of the hygiene section who was right on the ball as usual.5 Things are in a bit of whirl at the billets, but after the ambulance goes which will be soon, we shall move in properly.  

31 Jan I went this morning to the compound where the POW are kept. It was a depressing sight. There were about 15,000 of the poor devils in a state of complete dirt and destitution. As there were for a time 25,000 things must have been far worse. The hygiene situation must have been truly awful, but Carruthers' men were doing their best. I saw some of the Italian medical officers who were quite pleasant. They had no watches – all having been taken off them – it seemed a bit hard. In the afternoon there was little doing, but in the evening three aeroplanes flew over and dropped a couple of bombs and fired a machine gun. I neither saw nor heard them and felt a bit done out of it.
A column of Italian prisoners captured during the assault on Bardia, Libya, march to a British army base on 6 January 1941.
Retrieved from and © IWM (E 1579)
1941-01-23. Tobruk - View from the verandah of a house in Tobruk showing the church - the only undamaged building in the town after the British attack. (Negative by F. Hurley) Australian War Memorial id 005413

1 Feb 41 I am getting the picture of the town a bit better. It must have been a pleasant little place, with large barracks and many cafés. Some houses and flats are quite pleasant and relatively new – all are full of rubbish and broken furniture and things now. It seems that what the AIF cannot use, it breaks. I went to the POW cage again this morning – routine visit. Work otherwise goes on – mostly a matter of looking round for things and getting Carruthers after it with his merry men.
1. In accordance with the Australian system of that time, RGCdeC usually uses the Imperial system of miles, yards, feet, etc as a measurement of distance. Since the Italians and French used the metric system, however, road distances in the Middle East were commonly given in kilometres; in this case one may assume that the party had lunch by the 100 km marker.
2 Lieutenant-Colonel N H W Saxby from New South Wales, a few months younger than RGCdeC, was DADMS in charge of local medical administration in Tobruk town. RGCdeC was Deputy Assistant Director of Hygiene [DADH]. Douglas Munro Salter was Lieutenant-Colonel commanding 2/2 Field Ambulance
3. Major Keith Ross had organised a surgical group which was attached to the 2/1 Field Ambulance. Ian Jeffreys Wood, a physician of Melbourne, was responsible for resuscitation, and also trained front-line medical staff on techniques of blood transfusion. He ended the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel with an MBE and was later Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.
4. According to Australia in the War of 1939-1945 (1961) edited by Long, the looting had largely been carried out by the defeated Italians, before the Australian's arrived. He would say that, wouldn't he? But the Italian medical officers' loss of their watches argues against such innocence.
5. The 2/2 CCS was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel K J G Wilson; the 2/3 Field Hygiene Section by Captain Bruce Maitland Carruthers. Carruthers was later Deputy Assistant Director of Hygiene at Jerusalem and became a Lieutenant-Colonel.
Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Series 5, Medical, vol 2 - Middle East and Far East. , 1953. page 188 retrieved from the Australian War Memorial

Geoff was at Tobruk for nine months through the siege which commenced in April. He was there for one of the longest periods and apparently earned the nickname of `The old man of Tobruk'. He was later mentioned in dispatches.

Not long before he left he received a souvenir of his time which we still have.

The entry for 13 October 1941 reads:
Woken early by the tent nearly blowing down. Arose and tightened everything and found a really bad Khamsin in action. Activity during the day was impossible, and I even had to postpone my bathe till the evening when it was calmer. Wrote letters most of the day, having received eleven which was one very bright spot.

Went to dinner with the REs [Royal Engineers] and had the usual cheerful evening, also collecting a valued memento – an aluminium matchbox cover tastefully engraved and derived from Luftwaffe. Hell of a drive back in the dark with several stops and one or two near misses but made it all right.




Geoff left Tobruk on 21 October

20 Oct Started shortly after 9, and visited Division, seeing new and old ADsMS [Assistant Directors Medical Services], CRE office and said goodbye to Purser, but unfortunately missed the others.1 Then we viewed No 6 Jetty etc, and called on the NOIC – Captain Smith has returned and it was delightful to see him again – his "Do come to anchor" when proffering a chair was superb as usual.2 Looked at the Docks Hospital and called on 33 Fd Hyg Sect on the way home. Went to AOW and AOD in the afternoon – then to [Fort] Pilastrino on a wild goose chase, across country to [Fort] Solaro, El Gubbi, visiting the War Cemetery, and to Sidi Mahmoud.3 Stuka raid over the perimeter when we were there. Back home for a noggin. Evacuation on Kingston as a sort of demonstration and everything went very well. I officially handed over the Verbi at 2359 hrs [one minute before midnight], and went to bed a free man!
21 Oct Up in good order and had the usual bathe. There were a few more details to settle in the office, some ringing up to do, and the packing to be organized. I visited the Hospital – no-one was in but they are to use my ship. Farewell to the wadi at 6.30. Shortly after reaching HQ a raid occurred for an hour, plus shelling. We crouched a bit – no use getting laid out at this stage! Went down to the docks at 8.30ish after a small party with O'Shaughnessy and others. Called in on the NOIC for a final noggin. Lieutenant-Colonel Martin of the REs came in whom I was glad to see – also Harry Furnell. We boarded the Napier in due course and in good order – self, Little, Fitzpatrick and my luggage.4 Found Allan Campbell on board in lieu of Murphy. Was given beer. We sailed at Midnight – and so Farewell Tobruch!
1. Purser, later identified with the given name David, was evidently an officer of the British Royal Engineers.
2. Captain Smith was surely a member of the Royal Navy; he has not been mentioned by name before.
3. The War cemetery was by the Bardia Road: Cumpston, Rats Remain, 168-171, with photographs. RGCdeC had made a farewell tour in a quarter-circle to the southwest of Tobruk town.
4. Fitzpatrick was RGCdeC's batman, Little the clerk in his office.
Additional sources

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