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Hector Tankersley’s unique role in a bloody Middle East battle

Local historian NEIL FRANCES recounts the unusual World War II service of a decorated Carterton veteran.

The YMCA [Young Men’s Christian Association] was a non-military group that served New Zealand forces in both world wars. The WWI army camp canteens expanded in WWII to include navy and air force bases.

Basil Potter’s 1947 history, The New Zealand YMCA with the 2nd NZEF in Middle East and Italy mentioned many of the serving YMCA secretaries. One was Hector Tankersley, who was born in Carterton in 1917 and known to all as ‘Tank’.

‘Secretary’ in YMCA terminology was the all-in-one organiser, executive officer, and operator of a YMCA base.

Hector was involved in the YMCA from his youth and – from 1938-1940 – boarded at the Wellington YMCA which, early in the war, recommended him for military YMCA service. In late April 1940, he began work at Trentham Camp, soon transferring to RNZAF Base Woodbourne and, in September 1940, to RNZAF Base Wigram where a new YMCA club was being built.

In late 1940, the British YMCA approached its New Zealand counterpart, hoping to recruit young secretaries to work with the rapidly expanding British forces in the Middle East.

Hector Tankersley was one of four nominated. They left New Zealand on 1 February 1941, on the Nieuw Amsterdam with part of the 4th Reinforcement. On board the ‘Y’ men provided social services, writing paper, aspirin and soda water for the queasy, organised concerts, and ran a library and a canteen. Half-way through the voyage to Egypt, the ship hove-to while Hector had his appendix removed, afterwards spending time convalescing in India.

He arrived in Egypt on March 24 and spent several days in Cairo being indoctrinated before heading west into ‘the blue’ with Jack Massey, head of British YMCA. They came to Tobruk, recently captured by Australian troops on April 5, 1941. Tankersley joined British YMCA secretary Jim Barker before, a few days later, German and Italian troops arrived to surround the Libyan port, beginning a 241-day siege.

Tankersley kept diaries and photographs of his Middle East experience. He and Barker served the garrison as well as time and supplies allowed, visiting hospitals and distributing chocolate, cigarettes, bibles, writing paper, and whatever other comforts they could lay their hands on.

The diary entry for 22 May gives a hint of siege life:

“22nd Canteen in morning. Out to twelfth [possibly Australian 2/12 Battalion] in afternoon, first experience of shelling. Quiet evening. Jim at Quay Hospital in morning. Commenced using Bronco [British brand of perforated toilet paper] as writing paper issued with envelopes buckshee. One col[onel] greatly taken with idea & very appreciative of what I could leave with him.”

The YMCA had several vehicles. Tankersley’s main transport was a Ford pick-up named ‘Gertie’ that endured endless mechanical trouble and enemy attention. He often had to borrow vehicles to carry out his round of duties.

Tankersley commented often on the degree of thievery going on in Tobruk – NAAFI goods, petrol, and even his bed in the YMCA base! But in true Christian fashion, he did not accuse or condemn, at least not in his diary. Although offered the chance of evacuation, he held on until late August before taking the night ferry.

Hector Tankersley in the desert with a Ford station-wagon and a YMCA mobile canteen.

Tankersley reconnected with Cairo headquarters, then managed a few days away in Asyut on the Nile. But he was keen to return to Tobruk and spent some days buying useful but light goods to take back. Jim Barker was evacuated, leaving Tankersley as the sole YMCA secretary. Among other items sent by Cairo to Tobruk was a small film projector and a few films. Taking a mobile cinema out to army units became a part of Tankersley’s routine that proved very popular with the bombed but bored garrison.

Tankersley was still in place when the Crusader offensive allowed the garrison to link-up with NZ troops in late November 1941. His delight in seeing some New Zealand faces was apparent. Harry Shove, the New Zealand YMCA Commissioner for the Middle East was with the troops:

“29th Mr Shove, Jack Beaven, Snow [Gordon] Watson, Hugh Smythe in this morning, just too good to be true! Out with cigs to New Tommies [newly arrived British soldiers] in morning & round about in afternoon with Mr Shove & Jack. House-house at No1 in evening. Cinema at No 2, Jack & Hugh to No2 & spent night with us there. To bed early.”

With the siege over, Tankersley’s work took on a different flavour. Apart from bases, the YMCA had a small fleet of mobile canteens, built on a truck chassis, that followed active troops to sell tea and comforts. Tankersley set up bases at Bardia, Benghazi, Burg el Arab, and Tripoli – some of which were short-lived and others more permanent.

In February 1942, during confused fighting as the Eighth Army retreated towards Gazala, Tankersley and his mobile canteen received unwanted attention from the Luftwaffe:

“22nd Sunday. Late start in morning, water in distributor. Served unit and as we were closing up were ‘Stuka’ed’ [attacked by Junkers 87 dive-bombers] once more. Four landing very near as a result of one plane directing his efforts towards our waggon which happened to be the largest in vicinity.

Truck received fairly heavy blast & a fair share of shrapnel in body & motor. Three small pieces myself. LAD did what they could to mobile while I attended MDS [main dressing station].”

Hector Tankersley was awarded an MBE in September 1942 for his service to British troops during the siege of Tobruk, an event he found equally embarrassing and gratifying.

By early 1943 he was tired, physically and mentally, and decided to end his current YMCA service. He arrived back in New Zealand on July 9, 1943 and spent some months in hospital recovering. In May 1944 he returned to YMCA work, first at RNZAF Ashburton, then on to Harewood and Wigram.

He married his long-time girlfriend Aimèe Rodgers in April 1944 and, at war’s end, the Tankersleys came to Masterton and he resumed his work in interior decoration.

Tankersley trained as a Presbyterian minister in the mid-1950s and served in parishes at Feilding, Tawa, Levin, and Whanganui before retiring. He died in 2006.

In 2022, Hector’s daughter Lyn contacted Fraser Books about telling the story of her father’s wartime experience, based on his diaries and photographs. Although primarily aimed at the Tankersley family, the result, Tank of Tobruk was published in October 2023 and is available at Hedleys in Masterton, Almos in Carterton, and Messines Bookshop in Featherston.

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