Smuts’s spirit not dimmed by Tobruk
AN INTENSE artillery barrage in the early hours of Saturday, June 20, 1942, presaged German General Erwin Rommel’s swift assault on the harbour of Tobruk in Libya, and, a day later, the capitulation of the garrison.
After the surrender of Singapore’s 80 000-strong force to the Japanese earlier that year, Tobruk was the Allies’ second worst disaster in the war thus far.
The fall of Tobruk handed to the Axis – German and Italian – forces thousands of vehicles, heaps of fuel, ammunition and rations and no fewer than 33 000 prisoners, among them, the 10 722 men of the 2nd South African Infantry Division.
Tobruk’s commander, South African General Hendrik Klopper – who escaped from captivity in 1943 – was later exonerated for the disaster, though, at the time, his own troops thought he’d caved in.
The following report brought news of the calamity to Cape Town readers. latest reports leave little hope that any substantial numbers of the Second South African Division have succeeded in making good their escape from Tobruk. We know how deeply the people of South Africa will feel this blow, and I hasten on behalf of the government and people of this country to convey our profound sympathy.
“We have all seen with the greatest admiration the heroic deeds of the South African forces in Libya and remember them with lively gratitude.
“We have suffered a bitter reverse, but our determination to achieve final victory is unshaken.”
Field-Marshall Smuts replied: “I very much appreciate your message of sympathy with the Union government and people on our reverse and losses at Tobruk. Our sorrow will but harden our determination. The spirit of South Africa matches that of its men at the front, and no setbacks or losses will affect our unalterable resolve to fight till final victory is won.”
Major General HB Klopper