Last week, 21 November, was the 71st anniversary of the breakout from Tobruk, known by many as ‘The Day The Black Watch Chose to Die’. To commemorate this event, the kilt worn by Pipe Major Rab Roy at Tobruk is November’s object of the month.
In October 1941 Pipe Major Roy arrived in Tobruk with the 2ndBattalion The Black Watch
to take over from the 9th Australian Division. Earlier in the year Rommel had pushed the Allied soldiers back to the Egyptian border, leaving Tobruk isolated in German territory. Just over a month after the Battalion arrived in Tobruk they were ordered to take part in a major counter-offensive, nicknamed “Crusader”. The Eighth Army would attack the German lines outside Tobruk in a targeted push. The plan was that once the Army had forced the Germans into retreat, the troops at Tobruk would punch out from their perimeter and take the two strategic high points that overlooked the main road, codenamed ‘Jill’ and ‘Tiger’, before eventually linking up with the relieving forces.
The Black Watch were one of the units involved in spearheading the attack. They were meant to follow on after the tank brigade had smashed through the German lines, but in the featureless desert landscape the tanks got lost and The Black Watch advanced alone. They soon made the unwelcome discovery that the Germans had been amassing their firepower in preparation for an assault on Tobruk, but continued on to their objectives despite the ferocious German artillery and machine gun fire.
What happened then was movingly described in The Sunday Despatch on 12 July 1959:
“The attack faltered, stopped, then out over the plains of Tobruk skirled the high harsh wail of the bagpipes, the sound of Pipe-Major Roy – shot three times but still carrying on – and Pipe-Serjeant McNicol playing the “Black Bear” – the tune played only when all seems lost. THE EFFECT WAS MIRACULOUS.
Observers in the Royal Horse Artillery, who so magnificently supported the attackers, were appalled – and enthralled – by the spectacle before them. They had heard of the suicidal courage of Highlanders attacking to the sound of the pipes, but never quite believed it. But they believed it now, because they saw it now. And they never wanted to see it again.”
Pipe Major Roy was wearing the kilt pictured here during the attack, and the bullet hole from one of his wounds is visible. It is not made of Black Watch tartan as the kilts of other soldiers were; The Black Watch had become a Royal Highland Regiment in 1756 and so its pipers wore the Royal Stewart tartan.