Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Remembering my grandfather at Tobruk

Yesterday my daughter gave me a coin commemorating Australia's role in withstanding the siege of Tobruk. I have previously written about Richard Geoffrey Champion de Crespigny known as Geoff de Crespigny (1907 - 1966), my grandfather, who served in the Australian Army as a doctor and was at Tobruk, during the North African campaign, from January to October 1941.

His diaries from the time he was in Tobruk have been transcribed by my father. Entries from May 1941 are from a period when my grandfather was supervising evacuation of the wounded by sea.

Australian troops about to embark in Vampire. Retrieved from http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-vampire-i

16 May
Went to the hospital for supplies and to HQ to see Cookie.1 Also had a hair-cut – long overdue. Later wrote to Kathleen, and went in again to arrange for embarkation tonight on a destroyer.
At 7, Jerry dropped bombs from an unprecedented height close to the San Marco water point. It seems to be our water he is trying for these days.2 We drove down just before dark, and quite by accident were made aware of a huge crater in the road made by one of the latest bombs and which would have been a death trap to our first ambulance. The Vampire was delayed3 – but berthed at 1 in the morning and we started. Cramming them in we got 109 stretchers and 98 walkers away. I found to my joy that Pat Reilly was the [p.91] MO. I was delighted to meet him again, and we were able to have a short yarn. She left at 3 – and after the usual signal parley we got to bed. But not undisturbed – for there were a series of lone but noisy raiders who were taken up by a long and loud artillery bombardment.
17 May (really continuing)
I seemed to get mighty little sleep. Stayed put after B in B [breakfast in bed] and got up and had a bathe about 11. After lunch went to the hospital and fixed the evening's arrangements, and I went to HQ later. While there about 30 planes came over and dive-bombed the other side of the harbour – without doing much, and so many people said afterwards that they had shot down a plane that it became [p.92] monotonous. Some were downed, however.
News from Egypt is rather heartening now. We have retaken Salum, and there are all sorts of rumours about Capuzzo.4
Went to the docks with the failing light. The ship turned up at 10, and we had her away by 11.30. Then fixed the signal, had a liqueur[?] with a charitable soul, and returned to bed. A pretty tricky drive in very complete darkness.
18 May
Almost a blank. Didn't go out, and neither side did any fighting.
19 May
A number of bombs dropped early this morning just "over the wall" from us.5 Went over to the beach hospital and had a long yarn with Eric Cooper which ended in my staying to lunch. A jolly good lunch too! Rest of the day quiet.
[p.93]
20 May
Once again bombs "over the wall." We hope they realise the importance of that wall as a boundary and don't encroach on our side!
Went to embark invalids onto Vampire, which came in at 2330. Found poor Pat [Reilly] in a state, as the intelligentsia at Alex had taken off all extra RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps: British] personnel and all equipment. We had 61 stretchers and 98 walking wounded, and it was a great squeeze and a great shame. Also we lost all the stretchers and 200 blankets and have damn few left in Tobruk now. Pat was very well, but a bit harassed. Home about 0330.
Some of the 180 wounded that were evacuated from Tobruk by HMAS Vampire in May 1941. Retrieved from http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-vampire-i


1Colonel T P Cook had been in charge of RGCdeC's unit in Egypt, and now commanded Lines of Communication [general civilian-style administration] in Tobruk.

2On water supply, see Walker, Middle East, p.199.

3HMAS Vampire, an Australian ship, was one of flotilla of destroyers operating in the Mediterranean: Jane's Fighting Ships, p.107. There were five, the Stuart, Vampire, Vendetta, Voyager and Waterhen. Built during the First World War, and transferred to the Royal Australian Navy in 1932, they were derided by German propaganda as the "Scrap Iron Flotilla," a title later borne as proudly as that of the Rats of Tobruk. One of their main tasks at this time was to maintain the "Tobruk ferry," which brought new troops and supplies in from Alexandria and took the sick and wounded out.
Vampire was later among the escort of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales when they were sunk by Japanese aircraft off the coast of Malaya in December 1941. In April 1942 she was escort to the light carrier HMS Hermes when they were caught by Japanese planes in the Indian Ocean near Ceylon; both ships were sunk.

4This was a British attempt to relive Tobruk. Fort Capuzzo was close to Salum; both places were taken, but could not be held.


5Since being bombed out on 19 April, RGCdeC and his colleague Saxby had camped in Snake Gully. The "wall" was presumably a ridge along the top of the gully on one side. Lieutenant-Colonel NHW Saxby, from Sydney, was DADMS in charge of local medical administration in Tobruk town. RGCdeC was initially Deputy Assistant Director of Hygiene [DADH].

A night photograph showing an air raid over the harbour. Bomb bursts and searchlights can be seen.Retrieved from the Australian War Memorial image 020592


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