1941, Wednesday 20 August;
The signal lamp winked out a jaunty message of mission complete, time to head home, to one to the two light cruisers, HMS Ajax, with Rear Admiral H B Rawlings aboard, the other, HMS Neptune, further seaward, as the ship shuddered, its engines responding to the request for more speed. HMS Latona, a newly built minelayer of the Abdiel Class, just commissioned in May, began her turn eastwards towards Alexandria, the battered port of Tobruk already lost in the black ink night behind her. Racing along with her were the three destroyers, HMS Kingston, HMS Kipling and HMAS Nizam, who had also made the trip in, and were just as heavily laden with troops from the Tobruk Garrison.
For over four months now, troops of the Australian 9th Division, under Lt Gen Leslie Morshead, known to his men as ‘Ming the Merciless’, had held the town against repeated German and Italian assaults, as well as coming under numerous air attacks. But growing concerns for the safety of the division, as well as the welfare of its men, had seen calls from the Australians for its relief. Two attempts on land to relieve it, operations, Brevity and Battleaxe had failed, a third attempt would be several months more in the coming. The Australians wouldn’t wait, and so the British High Command had devised a plan to replace the division with the British 70th Division, which was the British 6th, renamed to confusion German Intelligence about troop deployment, along with supporting units, including a Polish Brigade and a Czechoslovak infantry battalion, all by sea.
It was called Operation Treacle, and required fast warships to make quick passages during moonless periods, a three-day turnaround, to minimalise the expected air attacks on the ships. The first set of runs had begun yesterday with these ships, and would continue for ten days, planning to replace the whole 18th Australian Infantry Brigade, and supporting troops with the Polish Carpathian Brigade. A second set of runs would happen in September, a third in October and the last lot in November.
Losses in men would turn out to be quite light, indeed the operation was an outstanding success, but there was a price to pay and the Royal Navy paid it. Keeping Tobruk supplied, as well as the renewal of its garrison, cost the Royal Navy dearly, in 66 days’ time, Latona would be sunk, bombed by a Stuka, while two destroyers, three sloops and twenty other ships would also be lost, with another seven destroyers and many other ships damaged, totalling, 62 ships lost or damaged. Because of these losses, the redeployment slipped slightly, and the Australian 2/13 battalion, along with two companies of the 2/15 battalion had to remain, serving under the command of recently promoted Maj Gen Ronald Scobie, who took over the Tobruk garrison from Morshead.
But all of that was quite immaterial to Lt Reginald Thompson, or Thommo, as his friends called him. Wounded the night before by rock fragments, when an Italian grenade exploded close by, while he was out leading a platoon patrol, he was one of the first to be evacuated. The Polish 1st Battalion had disembarked off Latona, in less than 30 minutes, and quickly they began to embark a number of sick, and the wounded, who could travel, Thommo, with them, followed by a mis-mash of Australian 18th Brigade support units. After them, the remnants of the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards and the 3rd Kings Own Hussars aboard. These men had been part of the cadre of the British 3rd Armoured Brigade refitting in Tobruk, when the siege started. About 90 minutes after she came alongside the cleverly camouflaged jetty, Latona pulled away, with Thommo laying on a bunk bed, his body unfamiliarly swaying to the motion of a boat at sea, being lulled into sleep.