At approximately 2135 hours on 5 December 1941, an Italian bomber launched a torpedo sinking the SS Chakdina, a vessel evacuating 380 wounded men, including ninety-seven New Zealanders from Tobruk. Included in the list of New Zealanders lost that fateful evening was Major William Andrew Knox, the Officer Commanding of the New Zealand Divisional Ordnance Field Park.
William Andrew Knox was the second of three sons born to William and Jessie Knox in Auckland on 14 November 1893.
From 20 March 1911, Knox undertook his Compulsory Military service obligation, serving with “A” Battery of the New Zealand Field Artillery (NZFA) until his enlistment into the NZEF on 13 August 1914. Embarking on the Main Body of the NZEF on 15 October 1914, Knox served at Gallipoli, where he was slightly injured. Continuing to serve in the NZFA for the duration of the war, Knox attained the rank of Lieutenant on 16 October 1916 and was Mentioned in Dispatches. Struck off the Strength of the NZEF on22 May 1919, Knox was transferred to the Reserve of officers but did not undertake any further military training until 1939. Knox’s brother Trevor served within the NZ Rifle Brigade during this conflict and passed away due to disease on 9 July 1918.
Working as a commercial traveller during the interbellum, Knox applied and was accepted for the Special Force assembled in 1939. Posted as a troop Subaltern in the 5th Field Regiment and despite being a fit and able 46-year-old, unlike most younger officers who had remained current through Territorial service, Knox struggled to learn and adapt to the more modern weapons and gunnery practices. Unable to cope, Knox applied to be released from the Special Force and be reassigned to an administrative role.
As the Special Force was in the early stage of its training Knox was released on 6 December 1939 and was reassigned to the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment as the Quartermaster departing from New Zealand to the Middle East as part of the Second Echelon. Diverted to Britain to strengthen the invasion defences, Knox and the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment did not reach Egypt until February 1941.
Following the Greek Campaign, the New Zealand Division was concentrated together in Egypt, undertaking rebuilding and expansion. As part of the expansion of the Division was the inclusion of an Ordnance Field Park (OFP), which was formally stood up 28 July 1941. The New Zealand OFP had a strength of 4 Officers and 81 Other Ranks. Organised into a Headquarters and three sections, the NZ OFP was equipped with twenty-seven 3-ton Lorries in different configurations optimised for the carriage of OFP Stores. On 4 August 1941 Knox was transferred into the New Zealand Ordnance Corps (NZOC) as the Officer Commanding of the NZ OFP and granted the rank of Temporary Major whilst holding that appointment.
An OFP was a mobile mini Ordnance Depot with its stock held on vehicles (on wheels) consisting of;
- Assemblies and spare parts of “A” and “B” vehicles and equipment’s required by mobile workshops for repair purposes, and
- Advanced holdings of certain “A” and “B” vehicles for replacement purposes
An OFP’s holdings constituted a forward portion of the stocks of the Base Ordnance Depot.
The NZ OFP war diary for August and September records that those months were spent receiving intakes of scalings from various Base Ordnance Depots and receiving personnel and vehicles.
On 7 October, the NZ OFP deployed from the comfort of Maadi Camp into a new position in the location in the vicinity of Bagush. The NZ OFP undertook routine duties interspaced with rifle and Bren gun training periods for the remainder of October.
During November 1941, the NZ OFP operated in support of the NZ Division during Operation Crusader. Operation Crusade was a significant allied operation to destroy Axis armoured forces in the Cyrenaica region of Libya and lift the siege of Tobruk.
Attached to the NZ Div Workshops as part of the admin group under the NZ Div CRASC, Operation Crusader was a harsh introduction to the realities of mobile logistics in the harsh terrain and climate of the Western Desert.
Throughout November, the NZ OFP was on the move every couple of days, and after a final push of seven days of hard desert travel, entered the outer defences of Tobruk at 0730 on 29 November 1941. Under enemy shell fire for two days, Knox placed the NZ OPF into dispersal locations and confirmed with 70 Div HQ the final placement of the NZ OFP. At about 0930, while conducting a recce of the final dispersal area, Knox’s vehicle ran over a mine. The vehicle was a complete wreck with Knox injured in the leg and immediately evacuated to Casualty Clearing Station and then to 62 General Hospital. At about 1430, the NZ OFP moved to a new location in a derelict vehicle park on the edge of Tobruk township. The NZ OFP remained in Tobruk until 7 December, when it redeployed back to Baghish.
On 5 December 1941, alongside 380 wounded allied soldiers, of whom ninety-seven were New Zealanders, 100 German and Italian Prisoners of War and 120 crew, Knox was evacuated on the SS Chakdina. Unfortunately, several hours after clearing Tobruk, the SS Chakdina was attacked by an Italian S.79 torpedo bomber. A torpedo hit the SS Chakdina, exploding in one of the after holds sinking the vessel in three and a half minutes. Around 400 men were drowned, with only eighteen of the ninety-seven New Zealanders were rescued, with the remainder, including Knox, presumed drowned.
Lost at sea, Knox has no known grave and is commemorated at the Alamein Memorial in Egypt. Listed as a member of the New Zealand Artillery until 2019, he has been recognised as a member of the New Zealand Ordnance Corps by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
For his cumulative WW1 military service, Knox was awarded the following medals.
- 1914-1915 Star
- British War Medal, 1914-20
- Victory Medal, 1914-18 (w.MID)
- 1939-1945 Star
- Africa Star
- Defence Medal
- British War Medal
- New Zeland War Service Medal. 1939-1945
- New Zeland Territorial Service Medal