John Lesley SMIRTHWAITE 1906 – 1941

228001 Driver John Leslie Smirthwaite, Royal Army Service Corps died 24 June 1941 aged 35.  He is buried at Tobruk War Cemetery, Libya [1] and commemorated on West Auckland War Memorial.

Family Details

John Leslie Smirthwaite was born 15 July 1906,[2] the son of John and Minnie Smirthwaite and brother to Frederick and Thomas.  In 1911, the family lived at 9 Gaunless Terrace, Bishop Auckland where John [senior] worked as a stoker at a gas works.[3]  In 1930, John Leslie Smirthwaite married Dorothy E. Wade. [4]   In 1939, the family lived at 6 Dale Street, St. Helen’s Auckland with son Jack born 18 July 1934 and 67 years old John Wade, presumably his father-in-law.  John Smirthwaite was recorded as a “Builders Labourer”, Dorothy as “unpaid domestic duties”, Jack was still at school and John Wade was retired [formerly a colliery timberer].[5]

Service Details

The service details of Driver John L. Smirthwaite and the RASC war diary has not been researched.  It is not known in which RAMC unit he served therefore, it is not known if he served at Tobruk with British forces attached to the Australians or the British attacking forces.  The following is a brief summary of the siege of Tobruk.

10 April – 27 November 1941: The Siege of Tobruk [6]

This action was part of the Western Desert Campaign of the Mediterranean and Middle East theatre of the Second World War.  The siege of Tobruk lasted for 241 days after Axis forces advanced through Libya towards the Suez Canal, Egypt forcing the Allies to retreat eastwards to the Egyptian border.  The occupation of Tobruk was significant because it denied the Axis of a supply port closer to Egypt than its existing supply port at Benghazi to the west. A garrison was left at Tobruk consisting mostly of the 9th Australian Division, to deny the port to the Axis while the Western Defence Force reorganised and prepared for a counter offensive.  The siege began on 10 April 1941 when Tobruk was attacked by forces commanded by General Erwin Rommel and continued during 3 relief attempts:

  1. 15 – 16 May: Operation Brevity
  2. 15 – 17 June: Operation Battleaxe
  3. 18 November – 30 December: Operation Crusader

The siege diverted Axis troops from the frontier battle and the garrison was successful in repulsing several Axis attacks.  The town was frequently bombed by dive bombers and medium range aircraft and bombarded by artillery.

In mid-May, Operation Brevity failed, as did the next attempt which took place in mid-June.  Operation Battleaxe was conducted by the 7th Armoured Division and a composite infantry force based on the 4th Indian Division.  Infantry was to attack in the area of Bardia, Sollum, Halfaya and Capuzzo.  By the end of 15 June, only 48 British tanks were operational.  A German counter attack forced the Allies back and the number of tanks was further reduced to 38.  Allied casualties numbered 969 men with 27 cruiser and 64 infantry tanks knocked out, broken down or lost.  As a result of this failure, General Wavell was sacked and replaced by Auchinleck.

It seems likely that Driver John L. Smirthwaite who died 24 June 1941 just after Operation Battleaxe would have taken part in this, possibly dying of wounds or subsequent actions.  Without examining his service records it is doubtful whether this will be known for certain.

19 – 29 August:  The Australians were relieved [5040 men] and replaced by troops from the Polish Carpathian Independent Rifle Brigade and the Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion.

27 November 1941: As part of Operation Crusader, the Eighth Army finally relieved Tobruk.

The Axis forces recovered far more quickly than was expected and by early February 1942, it was the Allies turn to fall back towards a line running southwards from Gazala to Bir Hakeim. Again orders were given to hold Tobruk but it fell to Rommel on 21 June 1942. It was retaken five months later by the Eighth Army in their final sweep along the North African coast into Tunisia.

The North African Campaign

Burial [7]

Driver John Leslie Smirthwaite, Royal Army Service Corps is buried at grave reference 4. E. 1, Tobruk War Cemetery, Libya. The cemetery is laid out on the burial ground used during the siege and many battlefield graves in the desert have been brought into the cemetery for burial. There are now 2,282 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War buried or commemorated in Tobruk War Cemetery. 171 of the burials are unidentified but special memorials commemorate a number of casualties known or believed to be buried among them. The cemetery also contains 171 war graves of other nationalities, most of them Polish.


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] 1939 England & Wales Register and England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a p.248 1906Q3 Auckland

[3] 1911 census

[4] England & Wales Marriage Index 1916-2005 Vol.10a p.375 1930Q4 Auckland

[5] 1939 England & Wales Register


[7] CWGC