The 80th anniversary on the breakout and the subsequent fighting of the Second World War’s longest siege will be marked at Balhousie Castle in Perth tomorrow (Sunday).

The 2nd Battalion The Black Watch played a key role in the latter stages of the siege of Tobruk, which ended on November 27, 1941 after 241 days. Balhousie Castle is the regimental headquarters (and museum) of the historic Perthshire battalion that dates to 1739.

During the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943), Axis forces under the command of General Erwin Rommel advanced against Allied forces in Libya who were occupying the port city of Tobruk as part of the defence of Egypt further east. The occupation deprived the Axis of a handy supply port.

On October 24, 1941, the 2nd Battalion The Black Watch took over from the 2/15th Battalion Australian Imperial Forces and about 1,500 Indian soldiers. The taking over process continued amid air raids a distance away. Colonel George Rusk, the Commanding Officer, recorded the hand over for Australian radio network.

In the broadcast, Colonel Rusk, can be heard speaking along with Captain Stirling as George Ogilvie, a Black Watch piper, plays on his practice chanter.

The 2nd Battalion piper’s casualty list on breakout and withdrawal was:

  • Pipe Major Robert Roy* – wounded three times, November 21, 1941 (awarded DCM and, later, the MBE)
  • Sgt James Jenkinson – wounded November 21, 1941
  • L/Cpl Timothy Ainslie – wounded November 21, 1941 (later of Duns Pipe Band
  • Cpl George Scott – wounded November 21, 1941
  • Cpl Gordon Masson – wounded November 21, 1941 (Morrison was killed on December 5 during the withdrawal).
  • Piper John Collins – wounded November 21, 1941
  • Piper Robert Middleton – wounded November 21, 1941
  • Piper William Morrison – wounded November 21, 1941, killed at sea December 5, 1941
  • Cpl Colin Stewart – killed in action, November 23, 1941.

The photograph, above, was taken in India in March 1942 and shows all the wounded men together again with the exception of Tim Ainslie and those who were killed. There is now only one member of the 2nd Battalion The Black Watch who took part in the siege of Tobruk who is alive today. Sadly, he is 102 and too infirm to attend tomorrow’s service of commemoration at which Pipe Major (retired) Alistair Duthie and Queen’s Trumpeter, Stewart Malcolm will play.

Tobruk is considered to be the hardest fought battle which had come the way of The Black Watch since Loos in 1915. At Loos the pipers also played it in; at Loos Colonel Rusk had also been present.

N.B. The ‘Rats of Tobruk’ were soldiers of the Australian-led Allied garrison that held the Libyan port. 

* Robert Roy [pictured] became known as ‘The Piper of Tobruk’. During the handover, Roy was annoyed that he was not allowed to play his pipes as the officers did not want the Germans to realise that a handover was in place. When it came time to break out from the siege, The Black Watch were piped forward by Roy and Pipe Sergeant McNicol.

One officer hwo was badly wounded in the arm and leg at Jill wrote afterwards: “I would say that the Pipe Major’s playing was insturmental in kindling the spirits with which the whole attack was carried out. I heard Highland Laddie as I lay in Jill, and it was the tune that go tme on my feet and advancing again.

Roy was quickly wounded, once, then again and finally in the ankle forcing him to stop … but not stop piping. He was taken to a first aid post and, to the astonishment of those wounded who came in after him – and a German medical officer who had been captured and who was dressing British wounds – carried on piping. For these actions he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM).

Roy’s kilt from Tobruk, punctured with bullet holes, and his chanter are displayed at Balhousie Castle.

As reported last November, a Winifred Nicholson painting called The Piper of Tobruk sold for £13,000 in 2020.