Siege of Tobruk: Wikis


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Siege of Tobruk
Part of Western Desert Campaign
Australian troops occupy a front line position at Tobruk
Date 10 April – 27 November 1941
Location Tobruk, Libya
Result Decisive Allied victory[1]
Czechoslovakia Czechoslovakia
Poland Poland
United Kingdom Britain and India
Nazi Germany Germany
Italy Italy
Australia Leslie Morshead (to Sept '41)
United Kingdom Ronald Scobie (from Sept '41)
Nazi Germany Erwin Rommel
27,000[2] 35,000?
Casualties and losses
3,000+ dead or wounded
941 captured
Map of the Western Desert battle area

The Siege of Tobruk was a lengthy confrontation between Axis and Allied forces in North Africa during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. The siege started on 10 April 1941, when Tobruk was attacked by an Italian-German force under Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel and continued for 240 days, when it was relieved by the Eighth Army during Operation Crusader.



For much of the siege, Tobruk was defended by the reinforced Australian 9th Division under Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead. General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of British Middle East Command, instructed Morshead to hold the fortress for eight weeks, but the 9th Australian Division held it for over five months, before being gradually withdrawn during September and replaced by the British 70th Infantry Division, the Polish Carpathian Brigade and Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion (East) under the overall command of Major-General Ronald Scobie. The fresh defenders continued to hold Tobruk until they were able to link with the advancing Eighth Army at the end of November during Operation Crusader.

The Royal Navy played an important role in Tobruk's defence, providing gunfire support, supplies, fresh troops and ferrying out the wounded.

Maintaining control of Tobruk was crucial to the Allied war effort. Other than Benghazi, Tobruk was home to the only other major port on the African coast between Tripoli and Alexandria. Had the Allies lost it, the German and Italian supply lines would have been drastically shortened. Furthermore, Rommel was in no position to attack across the Egyptian border towards Cairo and Alexandria while the Tobruk garrison threatened the lines of supply to his front-line units.

Tobruk marked the first time that the Blitzkrieg of the German Panzers had been successfully brought to a halt.[3] Following Operation Crusader the siege of Tobruk was lifted in December 1941. However in 1942, after defeating allied forces in the Battle of Gazala, Axis forces captured the fortress.



Operation Compass

In early 1941 British forces were engaged in Operation Compass, an attempt to drive the Italians out of North Africa. On 21 January 1941 the Australian 6th Division made an assault to capture the Italian garrison of Tobruk which offered one of the few good harbours between Alexandria and Tripoli.

The Italian troops generally offered little resistance — large numbers surrendered without fighting. The Italian commander, General Petassi Manella, surrendered himself after only 12 hours, but he had refused to order the surrender of his forces, which meant that it took a further day to clean up any resistance. Australian casualties were 49 dead and 306 wounded, while capturing 27,000 Italian POWs, 208 guns, 28 tanks, many good quality trucks and a large amount of supplies. They also found that the Italians had constructed some impressive defences, including a perimeter of concrete pits.

By the end of the first week in February Operation Compass had resulted in the Italian forces being driven from Cyrenaica and in the surrender of the Italian Tenth Army.

However, the Allies were unable to take advantage of their victory. With the Italians close to collapse, Winston Churchill commanded the British General Staff to call a halt to the offensive in order to allow many of the most experienced units from Richard O'Connor's XIII Corps to be moved to Greece to fight in the Battle of Greece.

The experienced 6th Australian Division and the fully-trained and equipped New Zealand Division were withdrawn from Egypt and the Western Desert to go to Greece while the tanks of 7th Armoured Division, after eight months fighting, needed a complete overhaul and the division was withdrawn to Cairo and ceased to be available as a fighting formation.[4] XIII Corps was wound down to become a static HQ and O'Connor became commander British Troops Egypt (in Cairo) while Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson became military governor of Cyrenaica before leaving to command the expeditionary force in Greece. Cyrenaica was left with only the inexperienced and under-strength 2nd Armoured Division (whose tanks were also in a poor mechanical state)[4] and the newly-arrived (and only partly-trained) 9th Australian Division.[5] The British 6th Infantry Division was being formed from various battalions in Egypt but had no artillery and supporting arms while the Polish Brigade Group was not yet fully equipped.[4]

The Allied position in Cyrenaica was rendered more difficult by supply difficulties caused by air attacks on Benghazi. Stripped of anti-aircraft and fighter defenses which had been sent to Greece, the port had become so dangerous for Allied shipping that by the third week in February it had had to be closed and forward units supplied from Tobruk, a further 200 miles (320 km) east. As a result, practically all available vehicles had to be committed to transporting supplies, so compromising the mobility of the fighting units.[6]

Meanwhile the Germans had started to concentrate in Africa the two divisions of the Afrika Korps under Erwin Rommel (see Operation Sonnenblume) in an attempt to prevent total collapse of the Italian forces. The British High command ignored this. Circumstantial evidence began to accumulate of the presence of German units in Libya but, with no ground intelligence to confirm this and long-range reconnaissance aircraft committed to Greece, Wavell, "very much in the dark as to the enemy's real strength or intentions", believed that an enemy attack was unlikely until the middle of April or possibly May.[6]

Rommel takes the initiative

On 24 March Rommel advanced with the newly arrived Afrika Korps. The 2nd Armoured Division fell back before the as yet tentative Axis advance with the intention of flanking an enemy advance along the coast to Benghazi while blocking any move towards Mechili. However, on 3 April the division's commander, Major-General Gambier-Parry received a report that a large enemy armoured force was advancing on Msus where the division's principal petrol and supply dump lay. The division's tank brigade (British 3rd Armoured Brigade) moved to Msus to find that all the petrol had been destroyed to prevent capture by the enemy. Henceforth the brigade's activities were almost entirely dictated by their lack of fuel.[7] The tank brigade, by that time fielding only 12 Cruiser tanks, 20 light tanks and 20 captured Italian tanks as a result of losses and more importantly mechanical breakdown, were ordered to withdraw to Mechili to be joined by 3rd Indian Motor Brigade. However, during a period of confusion caused by communication breakdowns as Axis air raids successfully attacked fuel and radio trucks, the divisional HQ arrived at Mechili on 6 April but the tank brigade, short of fuel, headed to Derna where it was subsequently cut off and captured.[7]

Meanwhile, threatened by envelopment, the 2nd Support Group were ordered back towards Regima and after that to Derna.[8]

Captured Italian M13/40 and M11/39 tanks at Tobruk with Australian markings.

As a result of these events, both the route to Benghazi and Mechili were uncovered and Rommel brought forward, along the coast road, elements of the 17th "Pavia" and 27th "Brescia" Divisions while pushing his mechanised and motorised units across country, south of the Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountains) towards Mechili after the retreating British tanks. On 6 April the leading Bersaglieri columns of the Italian Ariete Division reached Mechili.[9]

On 6 April Lieutenant-General Philip Neame, by that time the military governor of Cyrenaica (Wilson had been sent to command W Force in Greece), withdrew his headquarters to Tmimi, west of Tobruk. During the withdrawal his staff car was stopped by a German patrol near Martuba and both he and O'Connor (who had been sent forward from Cairo by Archibald Wavell, C-in-C Middle East Command to advise) were taken prisoner.[10]

The Allied force at Mechili consisted of the Headquarters 2nd Armoured Division (mainly unarmoured vehicles), 3rd Indian Motor Brigade and elements of other units including some guns from 1st Royal Horse Artillery.[7] Surrounded, they fought in defence of Mechili but on 8 April Gambier-Parry surrendered to General Zaglio of the "Pavia" Division.[11] 2,700[12] British, Indian and Australians were captured at Mechili after an attempted breakout was broken up by the Ariete's "Fabris" and "Montemurro" Bersaglieri Battalion groups.[9] Only small groups managed to get away.[7]

Rommel's initial attack plan called for his tanks to sweep around Tobruk to the Eastern side and attack from the Bardia road, so cutting the town off from Cairo. Approaching Tobruk, however, wishing to maintain his momentum, he ordered General Heinrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron, commander of the newly-formed 15th Panzer Division (most of which had yet to arrive in North Africa), to take the three battalions from his division then available to him (his reconnaissance, machine gun and anti-tank battalions) and to attack Tobruk directly from the West along the Derna Road.[13] Rommel expected that the Allied forces would crumble under this attack.[citation needed] However, the two Australian brigades which had been west of Tobruk had succeeded in withdrawing in good order to Tobruk to join a third which had been performing garrison duties, as had the 2nd Support Group and the 2nd Armoured Division's armoured car regiment.

Soldiers from the Australian 2/28th Infantry Battalion spotted three armoured cars and fired the first shots of the siege using two captured Italian field guns for which they had only had one week's training. The cars quickly retreated. As the tanks approached a bridge crossing a wadi on the perimeter of Tobruk the Australians blew it up. When von Prittwitz urged his staff car driver to drive him through the wadi and towards the Australians his men called for him to stop, but he replied that the enemy was getting away. The staff car drove into the firing line of a captured Italian 47 mm anti tank gun, whose gunner fired, destroying the car and killing both von Prittwiz and his driver. A three hour skirmish then ensued after which the Germans retreated.[citation needed]

In the meantime the Allies continued to work on their defences, laying barbed wire, mines and other obstacles. The Australian commander, Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead divided the 50 kilometres (31 mi) perimeter of Tobruk into three rough sectors. It would be the job of the three Australian infantry brigades to ensure these were not breached. The 26th would hold the western sector, the 20th would hold the south and the 24th would hold the east. Morshead also ordered all Italian signal cables to be re-laid. He wanted to know what was happening, and where, so he could adjust his forces accordingly. He also kept a reserve of runners in case the telephone lines were disrupted by the German attack.

On 11 April, with his forces regrouped, Rommel reverted to his original plan, sending his tanks around Tobruk to the Bardia Road.

The city was now besieged on three sides (the harbour was in Allied hands) by the Afrika Korps composed of the 5th Light Division and elements of 15th Panzer Division, and by three Italian infantry divisions and the Italian Ariete Armour Division. The Allied forces consisted of the Australian 9th Infantry Division's three brigades and Australian 18th Infantry Brigade of the Australian Imperial Force which Wavell had detached from Australian 7th Infantry Division and ordered forward as reinforcements, as well as 12,000 British, mainly Royal Artillery and Logistics units but also the HQ 3d Armoured Brigade with around 60 functional tanks and 1,500 Indian soldiers including the 18th King Edward's Own Cavalry.[14]

Easter Attacks

El Adem

Just after noon on 11 April 1941, the Germans and Italians positioned themselves for a concentrated attack on the city. To exaggerate the size of their force and strike fear in the defenders, they were ordered to make more dust than normal. The 5th Panzer Regiment of the 5th Light Division drew fire first to try to assess the defences, advancing against the front held by 20th Australian Infantry Brigade just west of the El Adem road.[15] Within an hour, five of the German tanks were destroyed and the others pulled back. At 3:00 PM the men of the 2/13th Battalion saw about 400 German soldiers approach. The Australians' defensive fire forced the Germans to retreat, carrying their dead and wounded with them.

At 4:00 PM, a platoon-sized formation from the 2/17th Battalion saw 700 Germans launching an attack on their position. The Australians were outnumbered and outgunned with only two Bren guns, a few dozen rifles and a couple of Boys anti-tank rifles. The Australian artillery opened fire and inflicted significant casualties, but the German soldiers kept advancing. Several groups of Panzers and Italian M13s advanced on the Australians. As the Axis armour closed in, four British tanks arrived, firing over the head of the infantry. The Axis tanks could not hurdle the obstacles set for them and they fell back to regroup. This attack yielded only one dead on the Allied side.

Morshead's defence plan was aggressive. He ordered rigorous patrolling of the anti-tank ditches and more mines laid. The aggressive patrolling appeared to work. The 2/13th Battalion encountered a German raiding party with a large amount of explosives. The party had clearly intended to blow the sides of an anti-tank ditch, allowing easier passage for tanks to cross — but they were forced to retreat.

In cases where panzers and Italian tankettes did reach or pass the Australian lines, the infantry — ensconced in well-built strongpoints, including many installed by the original Italian garrison — simply concentrated on the German or Italian infantry, knowing that the tanks' guns could not be brought to bear on them and the Axis tanks would face anti-tank guns in the second line of defences. On the most important of these attacks, on 1 May, a combined Italo-German infantry and armour force attacking had its armour driven back and the infantry stood and fought behind Australian lines for quite some time before they withdrew.

Soon after dark on 13 April 5 Light Division renewed their attack with an effort to secure a bridgehead over the tank ditch just west of El Adem. However, 2/17th Battalion defeated this effort made by 8th Machine-Gun Battalion in fierce fighting in which Corporal John Edmonston won the Victoria Cross. In the early hours of 14 April a further attempt succeeded in securing a small bridgehead through which 5th Panzer Regiment pushed through. The intention was to divide into two columns: one to head towards Tobruk town and the other to turn west to roll up the defences. However, the advancing tanks, met by intense fire from 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, veered away only to run into fire from dug-in British Crusader tanks. Now under fire from the front and both flanks, the Panzer Regiment retired having lost sixteen of its thirty-eight tanks. Meanwhile, the 8th Machine-Gun Battalion, supporting the German armour, had been fought to a standstill by the Australian infantry and were also forced to withdraw under heavy fire from artillery and aircraft. The battalion lost more than three-quarters of its strength whilst the Tobruk garrison's losses amounted to 90 casualties. After this defeat Rommel abandoned further attempts on the southern perimeter and 5th Light Division dug itself in.[16]

Ras el Medauar

After the failure of the attack at El Adem Rommel decided to attack the western sector of the Tobruk perimeter around Ras el Madauar, employing the Ariete Armoured Division which had the 62nd Infantry Regiment from the Trento Division under command.[16]

On 15 April 1941 an Australian fighting patrol was returning from patrolling in the area of 2/48th Battalion when, at about 5.30 p.m, an Italian attack threatened to overwhelm the forward positions of the 2/24th Battalion. Italian infantry numbering about 1,000 advanced on the bunkered platoons against mortars, rifle and machine gun fire and one post was overrun. Early in the battle, the 2/23rd Battalion's 'B' Company also arrived and engaged the Italian force. The combination of aggressive fire from the Australian soldiers plus devastating fire from the 51st Field Artillery Regiment swung the battle in the Australians' favour.

The aggressive Australian patrolling continued and on 16 April, the main body of the 1st Battalion 62nd "Trento" Regiment was encountered approaching from Acroma. The Italian battalion then came under heavy shellfire and were halted by a counterattack from 2/48th Battalion.[16] Tanks of the Italian Ariete Division[16] followed the Italian infantry but, as they reached the perimeter defences, came under intense fire from the 51st Field Artillery Regiment and withdrew. The 2/43rd Battalion War Diary reported that "The Italians attacked our 48 Bn and whilst withdrawing they (the Italians) were fired upon by German [sic] tanks believed to be supporting the attack."[17] The Australians sent out Bren gun carriers specifically to find the Italian battalions' flank. The extra fire-power finally stopped the Italians, and all firing ceased. A British communiqué on 17 April 1941 described the actions:

One of our patrols successfully peneterated an enemy position outside the defences of Tobruk capturing 7 Italian officers and 139 men. A further attack on the defences of Tobruk was repulsed by artillery fire. The enemy again suffered heavy casualties. During yesterdays operations a total of 25 officers and 767 of other ranks were captured. In addition over 200 enemy dead were left on the field.
New York Times[18]

An intelligence assessment by the 2/43rd Battalion concluded that:

Reports from PW indicate that a large scale attack was to have been launched on the Tobruch defences on or about 16 April 41. There appears to have been no co-ordination between enemy tanks and inf units. The ITALIANS appear to have been some what in the dark as to their actual objectives and the method of co-ordination by means of GERMAN liaison offrs working with ITALIAN units has not been successful. PW also state that the spasmodic attacks in different sectors between 14 and 16 Apr, sometimes inf alone, sometimes tks alone sometimes both, were all intended to be a simultaneous assault which apprently went badly astray in its timing.[19]

Raid on Bardia

In the meantime, a British battalion was selected for a raid on Bardia, with the object of harassing Rommel's line of communication and inflicting as much damage as possible. The attack was conducted on the night of 19–20 April by No. 7 Commando—part of Colonel Robert Laycock's Layforce—and a small detachment of the Royal Tank Regiment aboard the supply ship HMS Glengyle, escorted by the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Coventry. The Australian destroyers Stuart, Voyager and Waterhen covered the landing of British Commandos.[20] During the raid, a Commando sentry mortally wounded a British officer and one detachment of 67 men were later reported captured in a counterattack on the beaches. The author Evelyn Waugh, who took part in the raid, related in an article he wrote for Life Magazine in November 1941 that the Germans "sent a strong detachment of tanks and armoured cars to repel the imagined invasion". However, in his personal diary published in 1976, a very different picture emerged of incompetent execution by the commandos against virtually no opposition.[21]

Aftermath of the Axis attacks in March and April

The Tobruk defenders had been fortunate that Rommel had concentrated his attacks on the strongest parts of the Tobruk defences which were around Ras el M'dauar. Although the Italians had spent considerable effort in building permanent defensive works, they were at their weakest in the south-east sector, an area overlooked and dominated from without by the hills of Bel Hamed and Sidi Rezegh. The advancing Allies had exploited this when capturing Tobruk from the Italians in January 1941 but, inexplicably, Rommel had ignored this. He appeared to have learned his lesson, however, by June 1942 after the Battle of Gazala when Tobruk fell relatively easily to Rommel's attack from the south-east.[22]

Both sides set to re-building and re-inforcing: Rommel for a further attack on Tobruk in order to free his threatened lines of communication and resume the advance into Egypt, Wavell to stabilise the front on the Egyptian border and prepare an assault to relieve Tobruk.

In May 1941 Wavell launched Operation Brevity, a minor offensive that attempted to gain a better position to launch a major offensive in the summer; as a secondary objective, if the opportunity presented itself, an attempt to relieve Tobruk was to be made. The operation however achieved little other than the recapture of the Halfaya Pass.

The Battle of the Salient


In late April the German Army High Command sent to Libya their Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Major General Friedrich Paulus, to asses the situation and review Rommel's plans. By this time most of 15th Panzer Division had arrived in North Africa but had had little time to settle in. Rommel once more chose to attack the Ras el Madauar position using 5th Light Division on the right and 15th Panzer Division on the left. Once the break-in was achieved the German units would continue westward while the Italian Ariete Armoured and Brescia Infantry Divisions would roll up the defences on either flank. By 30 April Paulus and General Bastico had approved the plan to be implemented on 30 April.[23]


On the evening of 30 April, after a day's bombing and shelling, the Axis assault fell on 26th Australian Infantry Brigade. The attack penetrated 3 km but co-ordination between Axis units was poor and the battle caused heavy losses to Rommel's forces. A number of Australian strong points held out and disrupted Axis movements as did newly-laid minefields which the Axis had failed to reconnoitre. Paulus suggested there was no prospect of success and Rommel decided to push laterally to widen the front of penetration.[24] However, Morshead committed reserves and tanks and countered this move. Fighting continued with the Australians counterattacking unsuccessfully to regain the lost ground and Axis forces attempting to infiltrate forward once more. By the early hours of 4 May, with neither side making progress, the battle was called off.[25]

Battle details

At about 2000 hours tanks moved up to the perimeter wire in front of S.1 and, using grappling hooks, pulled it away. Tanks from 5 Panzerkompanie and supporting infantry from the 2nd Machine-Gun Battalion and a Pioneer Battalion proceeded to clear up the bunkers manned by Captain Fell's 'A' Company, 2/24th Battalion. Post S1 was the first to succumb. Two panzers drove to 100–200 yards of the post, and opened fire, and, after a brief fight (in which three men were killed and four wounded), Lieutenant Walker and his men surrendered. These tanks then proceeded to attack S.2 (Major Fell), which contained the Company HQ and 7 Platoon. Getting to within 200 yards, the panzers opened fire, shredding sandbags on the parapets and blowing up sangars. On each tank were riding German infantrymen, who under cover of the tanks' fire, ran forwards with grenades. S.2 then surrendered.[26]

Then was the turn of 9 Platoon dug in posts R.0 and R.1 – after a fight in which three were killed and four wounded, the posts surrendered. The crews of two RHA 2-pounders put up a fight, knocking out some of the panzers, but when the guns tried to turn to engage panzers moving to their flank, they exposed themselves to German machine-gunners, with the gunners either killed or wounded. The bunkered platoons from the neighbouring C Company from 2/24th Battalion were also attacked. Post S.5 was taken at first light on 1 May, but Posts S.4 (Corporal Deering) and S.6 (Captain Canty) held out grimly until the morning. Post S.7 (Corporal Thomson) stubbornly resisted, inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking Italians, before the attackers were able to throw in grenades.[27] Attacks by Italian infantry, on posts S.8, S.9 and S.10 were repelled. Nevertheless 'C' Company suffered 20 men killed and wounded, and another 44 taken prisoner in the fighting in the northern sector that largely employed troops from the "Brescia" Infantry Division.

The attack in the southern sector also involved Italian troops and Lieutenant Mair's 16 Platoon from 'D' Company defending Posts R.2 and R.3 and R.4 were overrun. According to an Australian defender, "That night the slightest move would bring a flare over our position and the area would be lit like day. We passed a night of merry hell as the pounding went on." Italian infantry were then able to close in, and stick grenades were thrown into the bunkers. Nevertheless, Posts R.5 (Sergeant Poidevin), R.6 (Captain Bird) and R.7 (Corporal Jones) were taken only after stubborn resistance, and fought on until they had run out of ammunition or had stick grenades tossed into the firing pits. After they had been taken prisoner, General Rommel spoke to them "for you the war is over and I wish you good luck", recalled Corporal Jones.[28]

The 51st Field Regiment had been constantly firing, causing an entire German battalion to go to ground and, according to Rommel, creating panic in the Italian infantry. Seven British Cruiser and five Matilda tanks also appeared in the Italian area of penetration, to engage in an inconclusive tank battle with Italian tankers.

The attack faltered when the Panzers leading the assault ran into a minefield placed by Morshead to stop any breaches of the blue line. A Panzer officer recalled: "Two companies get off their motor lorries and extend in battle order. All sorts of light signals go up — green, white, red. The flares hiss down near our own MGs. It is already too late to take aim. Well, the attack is a failure. The little Fiat-Ansaldos go up in front with flame-throwers in order to clean up the triangle. Long streaks of flame, thick smoke, filthy stink. We provide cover until 2345 hours, then retire through the gap. It is a mad drive through the dust. At 0300 hours have snack beside tank. 24 hours shut up in the tank, with frightful cramp as a result — and thirsty!"[29] After several tanks lost their tracks the remaining Panzers retreated.

Rommel's troops had captured fifteen posts on an arc of three-and-a-half miles of the perimeter, including its highest fort. But the Australians had largely contained this Italo-German thrust. One German POW said: "I cannot understand you Australians. In Poland, France, and Belgium, once the tanks got through the soldiers took it for granted that they were beaten. But you are like demons. The tanks break through and your infantry still keep fighting."[30] Rommel wrote of seeing "a batch of some fifty or sixty Australian prisoners [largely from C Company of the 2/24th Battalion that had been taken prisoner by the Italians]... marched off close behind us—immensely big and powerful men, who without question represented an elite formation of the British Empire, a fact that was also evident in battle."[30]

Nevertheless Australian losses had been considerable. The 2/24th Battalion alone had lost nearly half its strength killed, wounded or taken prisoner.[31]

Aftermath of the battle

Rommel placed the blame for the failure to capture Tobruk squarely on the Italians.[citation needed] However, it was the 19th and 20th Infantry Regiments of the 27 Motorised Division Brescia along with the 5th and 12th Bersaglieri Battalions of the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment, the 3rd Company, 32nd Combat Sappers Battalion and 132 Armoured Division Ariete who after much hard fighting, had possession of most of the positions which the Australians had lost[32] The 7th Bersaglieri Regiment soldiers bunkered along the newly captured concrete bunkers. The Australians fought hard to win back their positions. Much fierce hand-to-hand fighting took place from 1 May till the end of August 1941 when finally the weary soldiers of the 7th Bersaglieri were ordered move to Ain Gazala to rest and refit.[33] According to an Australian soldier, "In Tobruk we became part of the 9th Division with the 28th and 16th Battalions. Each Platoon had to do two or three weeks in the Salient, which was a section of ‘no man’s land’ where the enemy had driven us back from fortifications that skirted Tobruk from sea to sea. Time up there wasn’t exactly pleasurable. We were in dugouts with interconnecting trenches about a foot or so deep (hence becoming known as the ‘rats of Tobruk’). The Germans pummelled us with trench mortar bombs and also had fixed machine guns firing on us."[34]

Rommel was impressed by the conduct of the Australians. The heavy losses incurred by the attackers led the commanders of the Italian divisions and the German 5th Light Division to argue against further attacks until better preparations could be made. Rommel decided to hold off further major attacks until the end of November 1941, awaiting the arrival of more German forces and allowing more training of his forces in the art of siege warfare.

The Siege

The besieging troops were mainly Italian belonging to the following 5 Divisions: the "Ariete" and "Trieste" (the XX Motorised Corps), the "Pavia", "Bologna", and "Brescia" (the XXI Infantry Corps). The Australian commanders remained determined to recapture the ground lost on 1 May. On 3 May the Australians launched a counterattack employing the 18th Brigade but by 4 May were only able to recapture one bunker.[35] An Australian historian wrote later that the Italians were involved in the action[36] in the Australian attacks on the outposts of R2, R3, R4, R5, R6, R7 and R8. On the night of 16 May the Italians retaliated and two platoons of the 32nd Combat Sappers Battalion breached the barbed wire entanglements and minefields guarding the forward bunkers manned by the 2/9th and 2/10th Battalions.[37] With the obstacles removed, the "Brescia" Division who brought flame-thrower parties and tanks assaulted the defences and overpowered a number of bunkered platoons. The desperate defenders fought back with terrible ferocity and the Commanding Officer of the 32nd Combat Sappers, Colonel Emilio Caizzo was killed in a satchel attack on an Australian machine-gun position which was to earn him a posthumous Gold Medal. Although the Australian Official History describes losing three positions to German attackers[38] an Italian narrative has recorded:

On the night on 16 May 1941, two platoons of the 3rd Combat Engineer Company in union with assault groups of the "Brescia" Infantry Division, which had been sent as reinforcements on the 11th of that month, initiated the attack. With total disregard to danger and usual stealthiness, the combat sappers opened three paths in the wire fencing in front of each assault group. They used explosive charges in tubes. Fighting side by side with the assaulters, in fierce hand-to-hand combat, they inflicted heavy losses on the enemy, and obtained the objective.[39]

Major-General Leslie Morshead was furious and ordered the Australians to be far more vigilant in the future.[40]

On 2 August, in the belief that the enemy battalions had largely abandoned various post along the Salient, an attack was launched by a company of the 2/43rd Battalion and a company of the 2/28th Battalion from the town. The attack was skillfully planned and supported by more than sixty field guns but the enemy infantry swiftly replied, and the attack failed with heavy loss of lives. This was the last Australian effort to recover the lost fortifications.[41] There has been criticism leveled at General Morshead for the failure of the attack.[42]

All change in the Tobruk defences

In the summer of 1941 Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey, commander of the Second Australian Imperial Force, with the support of the Prime Minister of Australia requested the withdrawal of 9th Australian Division from Tobruk in order to meet the strong desire of the Australians that all their forces in the Middle East should fight under one command. General Claude Auchinleck, who had replaced Wavell as C-in-C Middle East Command in Cairo, agreed in principle but was not anxious to expedite the operation because a troop movement of this size would have to be made by fast warships during moonless periods of the month (because of the risk of air attacks to shipping) at a time when every resource needed to be concentrated on the planned Operation Crusader.[43]

Based on reports from Australian H.Q. Middle East that the health of the troops had been suffering the new Australian Prime Minister Arthur Fadden and his successor John Curtin rejected requests from Winston Churchill to change their minds and the replacement of the division was effected by the Royal Navy between August and October.[44][45] During 9th Australian Division's stay in the besieged Tobruk some 3000 Australians had become casualties and 941 taken prisoner.[46]

Tobruk, May 1942.

The Australians were gradually withdrawn. In August, the 18th Australian Infantry Brigade and the Indian Army's 18th King Edward's Own Cavalry were replaced by the Polish Carpathian Brigade with Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion (East) and in September and October the British 70th Infantry Division including the 32nd Army Tank Brigade and replaced the majority of the remaining Australians. Losses sustained by the Royal Navy during the withdrawal led to the curtailment of the operation and as a consequence 2/13th Australian Battalion, two companies of 2/15th Australian Battalion together with some men of 9th Division headquarters remained in Tobruk until the siege was lifted.[44] Morshead was succeeded as commander of the Tobruk fortress by 70th Division's commander, Major-General Ronald Scobie.[44]

End of the siege

On 15 June Wavell had launched Operation Battleaxe, a land offensive intended to relieve Tobruk. The failure of Battleaxe led to the replacement of Wavell as C-in-C Middle East Command by General Claude Auchinleck. The Western Desert Force was reinforced and reorganised to form a two corps army designated Eighth Army commanded by Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham. Auchinleck launched a major offensive, Operation Crusader, on 18 November which led to the relief of Tobruk at the end of the month and the occupation of the whole of Cyrenaica by the end of the year.

See also


  1. ^ Jentz, p. 128
  2. ^ Fitzsimons (2007), p. 250.
  3. ^ McDonald (2004), p. 204.
  4. ^ a b c Wavell (1946), p. 2 (see London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 38177, p. 310, 13 January 1948.)
  5. ^ Mead (2007), p. 317.
  6. ^ a b Wavell (1946), p. 5 (see London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 38177, p. 313, 13 January 1948.)
  7. ^ a b c d Wavell in London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37638, p. 3429, 2 July 1946.
  8. ^ Chadwick, Frank (2007). "Rommel's First Offensive 31 March — 11 April 1941: British 2nd Armoured Division" (PDF). Command Decision Test of Battle website. Retrieved 2008-01-24. 
  9. ^ a b Chadwick, Frank (2007). "Rommel's First Offensive 31 March – 11 April 1941: Italian 132nd "Ariete" Armoured Division". Command Decision Test of Battle website. Retrieved 2008-01-24. 
  10. ^ Mead (2007), pp. 318, 333.
  11. ^ Hunt (1990) p. 59
  12. ^ "I Bersaglieri in Africa Settentrionale". Avanti Savoia website. 2003. Retrieved 2008-01-26. 
  13. ^ Rommel (1982), p. 118
  14. ^ Colonel Miller. "Appendix A of 'The 9th Australian Division Versus the Africa Corps'". Combat Studies Institute. 
  15. ^ Playfair, Vol !!, p.37
  16. ^ a b c d Playfair, Vol. II, p. 38
  17. ^ "Appendix No. 30:(Unreadable) Summary No. 2, entry for 16 Apl" (PDF). 2/43 Infantry Battalion War Diary, April 1941 (Australian War Memorial). Retrieved 2008-06-10. 
  18. ^ "The Text of the Day's Communiques on Fighting in Europe and Africa: British". New York Times (18 April 1941). Retrieved 2008-04-12. 
  19. ^ "Appendix No. 31: Bash Intelligence Summary No. 3. General" (PDF). 2/43 Infantry Battalion War Diary, April 1941 (Australian War Memorial). Retrieved 2008-06-10. 
  20. ^ Saunders 1959, p. 53.
  21. ^ Aitchison & Lewis (2003) pp. 62–3.
  22. ^ Hunt (1990), pp. 59-60
  23. ^ Playfair, Vol II, pp. 153–5
  24. ^ Playfair, Vol. II, p. 155
  25. ^ Playfair, Vol. II, p. 156
  26. ^ Maughan (1966), p. 209.
  27. ^ Maughan (1966), p. 210.
  28. ^ Maughan (1966), p. 216.
  29. ^ Bradford, George R.. "Firsthand report from a Panzer Officer of the 5th Light Division, April 1941: Tobruk, 1 May 1941". AFV News. 
  30. ^ a b Miller (1986).
  31. ^ Johnston (2003), p. 23.
  32. ^ XXXII Battaglione Guastatori (in Italian).
  33. ^ "L'Epopea" (in Italian). Associazione Bersaglieri della Regione. I Bersaglieri website. Retrieved 2008-04-15. 
  34. ^ Olsen, Arthur Herbert. "Experiences of WWII" (PDF). Anzac website: Tell Us Your Story Programme. Anzac Day Working Group - Department of the Premier and Cabinet. p. 2. Retrieved 2008-04-16. 
  35. ^ Johnston (2003), p. 37
  36. ^ Spencer (1999) p. 60
  37. ^ XXXII Battaglione Guastatori (in Italian)
  38. ^ Maughan (1966), p.250
  39. ^ XXXII Battaglione Guastatori (in Italian)
  40. ^ Maughan (1966), p.251
  41. ^ "North Africa 1941-1942. The Siege of Tobruk". Veterans Support and Advocacy Service Australia Inc.: Ausvets website. Retrieved 2008-06-10. 
  42. ^ Johnston, Mark in Review of Combes (2001)
  43. ^ Playfair, Vol. III. p. 23
  44. ^ a b c Playfair, Vol. III. p. 25
  45. ^ Hunt (1990), p. 66
  46. ^ Long, Gavin (1973). The Six Years War. Canberra: Australian War Memorial.  pp. 77-98 (ref footnote 100)


Further reading

  • Beaumont, Joan (1996). Australia's War, 1939-45. Melbourne: Allen & Unwin; ISBN 1-864-48039-4.
  • Glassop, Lawson (1944). We Were the Rats. Sydney: Angus & Roberston. Republished by Penguin, 1992; ISBN 0-140-14924-4.
  • Wilmot, Chester (1944). Tobruk 1941. Sydney: Halstead Press. Republished by Penguin, 1993; ISBN 9-780-67007-1203.

External links


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