2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Sinking of the Chakdina
The Sinking of the Chakdina
Of the many sequels to the Corridor battle which ended the main New Zealand part in the offensive, the unhappiest by far concerned the evacuation of wounded from Tobruk. Hospitals in the fortress area were grossly overcrowded as a consequence of the unexpectedly long and bitter fighting, and it was a matter of the greatest urgency in the first few days of December to get wounded back to less congested hospitals where they could get proper attention. There was no knowing at that stage how long it would be before the land route eastwards page 290 was opened and too few hospital ships were available for the task. The little s.s. Chakdina when it sailed in the afternoon of 5 December on its return voyage to Alexandria therefore carried 600 men (including 120 New Zealanders) of whom 380 were wounded, 97 of them New Zealanders and among these over 30 gunners. Just after 9 p.m. an aerial torpedo struck and exploded in an after hold and in three and a half minutes the crowded little ship sank in a strong swell. Some 400 men were drowned, 80 of them New Zealanders and almost all of these survivors of the fighting at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. Thirty gunners were lost in this disaster, among them Sergeants Buchanan and McLeay, both decorated in Crete, and other veterans of the early fighting.
Second-Lieutenant Butcher82 of the 7th Anti-Tank was one of the stretcher cases below and like the others had been issued with water-wings. When the ship rolled after the explosion and the engine-room crew raced past, he got up, grabbed his waterwings and made for the nearest stairs as the lights went out. Others forced their way past, one trampling on his fingers in so doing, but he managed to reach the opening on to the deck as the ship went down. Behind him he heard a ‘cry, in an agony of terror’ from the trapped men below and then he struggled in a ‘smashing, dinning rush of water, wreckage and rigging’ in which he—a very poor swimmer—lost his waterwings. He bobbed up and down in the whirlpool and then found himself in deep, still water and it seemed ages before he broke the surface. Grabbing all the bits of wood he could lay his hands on, he finally came upon a large piece and clung to it, hearing cries for help all round him. Coming within reach of a Carley float, he clutched this until a sailor, seeing he was wounded, hauled him on to it. Two and a half hours later all those on or around the Carley float were rescued by a corvette. Butcher is believed to be the only New Zealand stretcher case who escaped from the Chakdina.83
From Tobruk the gunners recovered much equipment lost in the course of the fighting, including guns. The anti-tankers of A and C Troops, who had lost their guns at Belhamed page 291 and served as infantry with 18 Battalion near Ed Duda, took part in many patrols. Second-Lieutenant Ward84 on his second patrol discovered that the enemy had disappeared from the western part of Belhamed and at once organised salvage parties which brought in A2, A3 and C3. These were duly emplaced in support of the infantry, but when the battalion was withdrawn inside the fortress area on 10 December the trail of one gun broke. Only the piece85 and the wheels could be taken farther and these were in due course carried back to Baggush, while the other two guns were towed behind the two N Troop portées when these withdrew from Tobruk with part of 19 Battalion. Other salvage parties recovered what they could of the remains of the 6th Field guns at Belhamed.
83 More New Zealand gunners were among 44 New Zealanders lost off Greece on 9 December when the Jantzen, carrying prisoners of war, was torpedoed on its way to Italy. The explosion in this case caused frightful carnage, and ineptitude in handling the survivors in southern Greece resulted in further loss of life. See W. W. Mason, Prisoners of War (War History Branch, Wellington, 1954), pp. 110-12.
85 i.e., the barrel and buffer-recuperator, with the firing mechanism.