Siege of Tobruk
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|Siege of Tobruk|
|Part of the Western Desert Campaign of World War II|
Australian troops occupy a front line position at Tobruk
United Kingdom Free Polish Forces
Free Czechoslovak Forces
|Commanders and leaders|
| Leslie Morshead (to Sept 1941)
Ronald Scobie (from Sept 1941)
|Casualties and losses|
|At least 3,836 casualties[nb 1]||Unknown
At least 74–150 aircraft destroyed[nb 2]
The Siege of Tobruk was a confrontation between Axis and Allied forces that lasted for 241 days 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 Italo–German force under Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, and continued for 240 days up to 27 November 1941, when it was relieved by the Allied 8th Army during Operation Crusader.
It was vital for the Allies' defence of Egypt and the Suez Canal to hold the town with its harbour, as this forced the enemy to bring most of their supplies overland from the port of Tripoli, across 1,500 kilometres (930 mi) of desert, as well as diverting troops from their advance. Tobruk was subject to repeated ground assaults and almost constant shelling and bombing. The Nazi propaganda called the tenacious defenders "rats", a term that the Australian soldiers embraced as an ironic compliment.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Background
- 3 Easter attacks
- 4 Raid on Bardia
- 5 Aftermath of the Axis attacks in March and April
- 6 Battle of the Salient
- 7 The siege
- 8 All change in the Tobruk defences
- 9 End of the siege
- 10 See also
- 11 Notes
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
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hold the fortress for eight weeks, but the 9th Australian Division held it for over five months before being gradually withdrawn during September and replaced by the British 70th Infantry Division, the Polish Carpathian Brigade and Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion (East) under the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 8th Army at the end of November during Operation Crusader.
The Tobruk Ferry Service, made up of Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy warships, 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 significant port on the North African coast between Tripoli and Alexandria. Had the Allies lost it, the German and Italian supply lines would have been drastically shortened. Rommel, furthermore, 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 advance of the German Panzers had been brought to a halt. Following Operation Crusader, the siege of Tobruk was lifted in December, 1941. Axis forces captured the fortress in 1942 after defeating allied forces in the Battle of Gazala.
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-garrisoned port of Tobruk, which offered one of the few good harbours between Alexandria and Tripoli.
The Italian Army was unable to put up an effective resistance. The Italian commander, General Petassi Manella, was taken prisoner after 12 hours of battle, and 24 hours later the Australian troops had cleaned up the remaining resistance. The Australians lost 49 dead and 306 wounded, while capturing 27,000 Italian POWs, 208 guns and 28 tanks. Many serviceable trucks and a large quantity of supplies were also captured (as the Italian Army was getting ready to advance toward Egypt). The Italians had constructed some impressive defences, including a perimeter of concrete pits.
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. Meanwhile, the tanks of the 7th Armoured Division—after eight months of fighting—needed a complete overhaul, and the division was withdrawn to Cairo and ceased to be available as a fighting formation. XIII Corps was wound down to become a static HQ and O'Connor became the commander of British troops in 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) and the newly arrived (and only partly trained) 9th Australian Division. 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.
The Allied position in Cyrenaica was hampered by supply difficulties caused by air attacks on Benghazi. Stripped of anti-aircraft and fighter defences 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 mi (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.
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 with all available 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.
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 toward 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—the British 3rd Armoured Brigade—moved to Msus and found 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. 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—was 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.
As a result of these events, the routes both to Benghazi and to 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—toward Mechili after the retreating British tanks. On 6 April, the leading Bersaglieri columns of the Italian Ariete Division reached Mechili.
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. On 8 April Major-General John Lavarack, commander of 7th Australian Infantry Division was placed in temporary command of all troops in Cyrenaica with the main task of holding Tobruk to gain time for organisation of the defence of Egypt.
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. Surrounded, they fought in defence of Mechili but on 8 April Gambier-Parry surrendered to General Pietro Zaglio of the Pavia Division. 2,700-3,000 British, Indians and Australians were captured at Mechili after an attempted breakout was broken up by the Ariete's Fabris and Montemurro Bersaglieri Battalion groups. Only small groups managed to get away.
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. Rommel expected that the Allied forces would crumble under this attack. However, the two Australian brigades which had been west of Tobruk—the 20th and 26th Brigades—had succeeded in withdrawing in good order to Tobruk and were placed in covering positions outside the perimeter while 24th (which had been performing garrison duties) and the newly arrived 18th Australian Infantry Brigades were holding defensive positions on the perimeter.
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 toward 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 (1.85 in) anti-tank gun, whose gunner fired, destroying the car and killing both von Prittwitz and his driver. A three-hour skirmish then ensued after which the Germans retreated.
In the meantime, the Allies continued to work on their defences, laying barbed wire, mines and other obstacles. The commander of 9th Australian Division—Major-General Leslie Morshead—divided the 50 km (31 mi) perimeter of Tobruk into three rough sectors. It would be the job of his 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. The 18th Australian Brigade remained in reserve. 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.
With his forces regrouped, Rommel reverted to his original plan, sending his tanks around Tobruk to the Bardia road. By 11 April, Tobruk was surrounded with 5th Light Division to the east, the Prittwitz group to the south and the Brescia Division approaching from the west.
Besieging Tobruk on three sides (the harbour was in Allied hands) was 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 Armoured Division. The Allied forces consisted of the Australian 9th Infantry Division's three brigades and Australian 18th Infantry Brigade of the Second 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 3rd Armoured Brigade with around 60 functional tanks and armoured cars as well as 1,500 Indian soldiers including the 18th King Edward's Own Cavalry. In all, there were 36,000 mouths to feed in Tobruk of which 1/3 were non-combatant base units, prisoners and Libyan refugees. As the rest of the Commonwealth forces fell back towards the Egyptian border, Lavarack was withdrawn from Tobruk, leaving Morshead in command of the fortress.
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Just after noon on 11 April 1941, the German and Italian forces 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. Within an hour, five of the German tanks were destroyed and the others pulled back. At 15:00, 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 16:00, 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 defending 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, the 5th Light Division renewed its 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 the 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 the 5th Panzer Regiment pushed through. The intention was to divide into two columns: one to head toward Tobruk town and the other to turn west to roll up the defences. However, the advancing tanks — met by intense fire from the 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 16 of its 38 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 ¾ of its strength while the Tobruk garrison's losses amounted to 90 casualties. After this defeat, Rommel abandoned further attempts on the southern perimeter, and the 5th Light Division dug itself in.
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.
On 15 April 1941, an Australian fighting patrol was returning from patrolling in the area of 2/48th Battalion when, at about 17:30, 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. Tanks of the Italian Ariete Division followed the Italian infantry, but as they reached the perimeter defences, they 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." The Australians sent out Bren-gun carriers specifically to find the Italian battalions' flank. The extra firepower finally stopped the Italians, and all firing ceased. A British communiqué on 17 April 1941 described the actions:
One of our patrols successfully penetrated 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 yesterday's 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
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 Tobruk defences on or about 16 April 1941. There appears to have been no co-ordination between enemy tanks and infantry units. The ITALIANS appear to have been somewhat 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 apparently went badly astray in its timing.
Raid on Bardia
In the meantime, a British battalion was selected for the Bardia raid, 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 HMAS Stuart, Voyager and Waterhen covered the landing of British Commandos. During the raid, a Commando sentry mortally wounded a British officer and one detachment of 67 men were later reported captured in a counter attack 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.
Aftermath of the Axis attacks in March and April
The Tobruk defenders had been fortunate that Rommel's initial attacks had fallen on the stronger 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 attacked in this region when capturing Tobruk from the Italians in January 1941, but the fortress at that time had been defended by less determined defenders. In addition, the Afrika Korps in 1941 lacked the training and the overall strength to overpower well entrenched, determined defenders. When he finally was provided the plans of the defenses, Rommel knew he would be unable to break in with the forces he had available. A year later, Rommel followed his victory at the Battle of Gazala with a daybreak strike at Tobruk from the southeast, using both the 21st and 15th Panzer divisions, coupled with a simultaneous air assault from Stuka dive bombers. The South African defenders were not ready for such a test, and the fortress fell in a day. For Churchill, the loss was one of the darkest days of the war.
Both sides set to rebuilding and reinforcing: 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.
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 assess the situation and review Rommel's plans. By this time, most of the 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.
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 2 mi (3.2 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. 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.
At about 20:00, tanks moved up to the perimeter wire in front of S.1 and, using grappling hooks, pulled it away. Tanks from the 5th Panzer Company 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 tanks drove to within 100–200 yd (91–183 m) 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 7th Platoon. Getting to within 200 yards, the tanks 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.
Then came the turn of 9th Platoon's 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 tanks, but when the guns tried to turn to engage tanks 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. 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 16th 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.
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, engaging in an inconclusive battle with Italian tanks.
The attack faltered when the tanks leading the assault ran into a minefield placed by Morshead to stop any breaches of the Blue Line. A tank 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!" After several tanks lost their tracks, the remaining Panzers retreated.
Rommel's troops had captured fifteen posts on an arc of 5.6 kilometres 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." 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."
Nevertheless, Australian losses had been considerable. The 2/24th Battalion alone had lost nearly half its strength killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
Rommel placed the blame for the failure to capture Tobruk squarely on the Italians. However, it was Italian forces (19th and 20th Infantry Regiments of the Brescia Division, the 5th and 12th Bersaglieri Battalions of the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment, the 3rd Company of 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. 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 to Ain Gazala to rest and refit. 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."
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. Impressed by the conduct of the Australians, 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 besieging troops were mainly Italian belonging to the following five 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. An Australian historian wrote later that the Italians were the defenders in the Australian attacks on the outposts of R2, R3, R4, R5, R6, R7 and R8. This claim is corroborated by a British historian.[nb 3] On the night of 16/17 May, the Axis forces retaliated and two platoons of the 32nd Combat Sappers Battalion breached the barbed-wire entanglements and minefields guarding the S11, S13 and S15 posts. With the obstacles removed, the Brescia Division assaulted the defences using flame-thrower groups and tanks. The Commanding Officer of the 32nd Combat Sappers—Colonel Emilio Caizzo—was killed in a satchel attack on an Australian machine-gun position, an action which earned him a posthumous Gold Medal. 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.
The Italian attackers then came under intense machine-gun fire — with the loss of officers, the attack faltered, and those who were not killed or taken prisoner were only able to retreat through the gaps in the wire with difficulty. Casualties to the attackers were heavy, and the next day the Australians rounded up 21 Italian prisoners and a number of weapons. A German attack against S8, S9 and S10 immediately to the south captured the three posts, but two of the posts were retaken by immediate Australian counterattacks. On the basis of a false report from a German prisoner, Major-General Leslie Morshead was furious and ordered the Australians to be far more vigilant in the future. A few days later, the third post was retaken in an Australian counter-attack.
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 skilfully planned and supported by more than 60 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. Criticism has been levelled at General Morshead for the failure of the attack.
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 the 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.
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. During the 9th Australian Division's stay in besieged Tobruk, some 3,000 Australians had become casualties and 941 taken prisoner.
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 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 and two companies of 2/15th Australian Battalion together with some men of 9th Division headquarters remained in Tobruk until the siege was lifted. Morshead was succeeded as commander of the Tobruk fortress by 70th Division's commander, Major-General Ronald Scobie.
End of the siege
On 15 June, Wavell had launched Operation Battleaxe, a land offensive intended to relieve Tobruk. This opened with an attack on the Axis frontier positions. After capturing the frontier, the brigades of the 7th Armoured Division were intended to reform and continue on north to relieve Tobruk. Once joined by the Tobruk garrison, the combined forces would then press the offensive westwards, driving the Germans as far back as they could be pushed. However stubborn resistance, and an Axis counter-attack, thwarted these intentions, and the Tobruk garrison had no chance to sortie out.
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 8th Army commanded by Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham.
Auchinleck launched a major offensive, Operation Crusader, on 18 November 1941. This opened with an outflanking movement that brought Eighth Army to within 48 kilometres of the Tobruk perimeter. It was planned that 70th Division would break out from Tobruk on 21 December and cut the German lines of communication to the troops on the border to the southeast. At the same time 7th Armoured would advance from Sidi Rezegh to link with them and roll up the Axis positions around Tobruk. Meanwhile, XIII Corps' New Zealand Division would take advantage of the receding threat from 21st and 15th Panzer and advance to the Sidi Azeiz area, overlooking the Axis defences at Bardia.
The strength of 70th Division's attack surprised their opponents, Rommel having underestimated the garrison's size and particularly its armoured strength. Fighting was intense as the three pronged attack, consisting of the 2nd King's Own on the right flank, the 2nd Battalion, Black Watch as the central force and the 2nd Queen's Own on the left flank, advanced to capture a series of prepared strongpoints leading to Ed Duda. By mid afternoon they had advanced some 5.6 kilometres (3.5 mi) towards Ed Duda on the main supply road when they paused as it became clear that 7th Armoured would not link up. The central attack by the Black Watch involved a murderous charge under heavy machine gun fire, attacking and taking various strongpoints, until they reached the strongpoint code named Tiger. The Black Watch lost an estimated 200 men and their commanding officer. On 22 November General Scobie ordered the position to be consolidated and the corridor widened in the hope that Eighth Army would link up. The 2nd York and Lancaster Regiment, with tank support, took strongpoint Tiger leaving a 7000 yard gap between the corridor and Ed Duda. On 26 November Scobie ordered a successful attack on the Ed Duda ridge and in the early morning hours of 27 November the Tobruk garrison had linked up with a small force of New Zealanders.
A German account of the action of the 70th Division is given by Generalmajor Alfred Toppe of the German Army:
A strong attack supported by fifty infantry tanks, was made from the southeast section of the fortress of Tobruk. The enemy broke through the encirclement front, penetrated across the main highway and destroyed a good part of the Bologna Division. A counterattack by elements of 21st Panzer Division succeeded in restoring the situation.
In summing up the experience of the 2nd Battalion the Black Watch in the attack, the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War wrote that "The superlative élan of the Black Watch in the attack had been equalled by the remarkable persistence of the defence in the face of formidable tank-and-infantry pressure."
7th Armoured had planned its attack northward to Tobruk to start at 08.30 on 21 November. However, at 07.45 patrols reported the arrival from the southeast of a mass of enemy armour, some 200 tanks in all. 7th Armoured Brigade, together with a battery of field artillery turned to meet this threat, and wthout armoured support the northward attack by the Support Group failed and by the end of the day, 7th Armoured Brigade lost all but 28 of its 160 tanks.
Meanwhile, on 22 November the Italian forces had succeeded in repulsing a strong thrust from Tobruk aimed at penetrating into the area of Sidi Rezegh, as a German narrative recorded:
After a sudden artillery concentration the garrison of Fortress Tobruk, supported by sixty tanks, made an attack on the direction of Bel Hamid at noon, intending at long last unite with the main offence group. The Italian siege front around the fortress tried to offer a defence in the confusion but was forced to relinquish numerous strong points in the encirclement front about Bir Bu Assaten to superior enemy forces. The Italian "Pavia" Division was committed for a counterattack and managed to seal off the enemy breakthrough.
On 23 November Rommel and the Afrika Korps mounted an attack towards the Egyptian border, the so-called "Dash to the Wire". The intent was to scatter and destroy XXX Corps, but this was not achieved, while the action gave Eighth Army a chance to regroup and re-arm. It become increasingly pressing for Afrika Korps to return to the Tobruk front where the 70th and New Zealand Divisions had gained the initiative but Rommel was still determined to resolve the fighting on the border, and by 27 November they had done so.
At midday on 27 November 15th Panzer reached Bir el Chleta and came into head-on contact with the reorganised 22nd Armoured Brigade (now a composite regiment of under 50 tanks). who were joined later by 4th Armoured Brigade. However as night fell the British tanks disengaged, and once again the New Zealand Division, engaged in heavy fighting on the southeast end of the tenuous corridor into Tobruk, was under direct threat from the Afrika Korps.
On 4 December Rommel launched a renewed attack on Ed Duda which was repulsed by 70th Division's 14th Infantry Brigade. When it was clear that the attack would fail Rommel resolved to withdraw from the eastern perimeter of Tobruk to allow him to concentrate his strength against the growing threat from XXX Corps to the south.
On 7 December 4 Armoured Brigade engaged 15th Panzer disabling 11 more of its dwindling tank supply. Rommel had been told on 5 December by the Italian Comando Supremo that supply could not improve until the end of the month when the airborne supply from Sicily would start. Realising that success was now unlikely at Bir el Gubi he decided to narrow his front and shorten his lines of communication by abandoning the Tobruk front and withdrawing to the positions at Gazala. This led to the complete relief of Tobruk and the occupation of the whole of Cyrenaica by the end of the year.
- North African Campaign timeline
- List of World War II Battles
- John Hurst Edmondson — VC recipient during the siege
- Rats of Tobruk
- Twin Pimples raid
- There is a small difference in Australian casualty figures quoted in the Australian and British official histories. It should be noted while most of the Australian garrison withdrew from Tobruk between August and October, Australians remained in Tobruk until the siege was lifted. The Australian Official history, while including a period of two days before the siege started, states that the 9th Division's casualties from 8 April to 25 October amounted to 746 killed, 1,996 wounded, and 604 taken prisoner. An appendix in the Australian official history states that 507 Australians were captured between 28 March 1941 and the investment of Tobruk and 467 were captured during the actual siege. I.S.O Playfair, the British Official historian of the fighting in the Middle East during the Second World War, states from between the start of the siege to October, Allied losses amounted to 3,836. He breaks this figure down as follows: Australia: 744 killed, 1,974 wounded, and 476 missing; Britain: 88 killed, 406 wounded, and 15 missing; British India: 1 killed, and 25 wounded; Poland: 22 killed, 82 wounded, and 3 missing.
- The Australian Official History states that between 10 April to 9 October, "74 aircraft [were] definitely destroyed, 59 probably destroyed and 145 damaged. No aircraft was reported destroyed unless seen to crash. On two occasions when captured documents enabled the brigade's reports to be compared with enemy records, its claims of damage were found to be substantial understatements. It is probable that some 150 enemy aircraft were destroyed."
- "On 4 May, the positions held by 5 Battalion of 8 Bersaglieri under Major Gaggetti around Redoubts 6, 7 and 8 were counter-attacked by the Australians. The Italians responded with strong defensive fire and launched a counter-attack supported by three L3 light tanks. The latter were quickly destroyed at close quarters, and the Australians captured Redoubt 7. The Bersaglieri counter-attacked almost immediately, supported by one M13 tank and three armoured cars, and forced them back."
- Jentz, p. 128
- Fitzsimons (2007), p. 250.
- Maughan, p.395
- Maughan, p. 401
- Maughan, p. 755
- Playfair, p. 26
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- Wavell (1946), p. 2 (see The London Gazette: . 13 January 1948.)
- Mead (2007), p. 317.
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- Maughan (1966), p. 209.
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- Johnston (2003), p. 37
- Spencer (1999) p. 60
- Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts: Mussolini's Elite Armoured Divisions in North Africa, Ian Walker, p. 102, Crowood Press, 2006
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- Maughan (1966), p.250; Montanari.M, Le Operazioni in Africa Settentrionale, Vol.II Tobruk, p.168
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- Polish Carpathian Brigade in the defence of Tobruk
- The Italian 32nd Combat Sappers Battalion
- The Bersaglieri in North Africa (2003)
- The Italian War Effort in 1941
- The Characteristic of Tobruk defence in 1941
- BBC – WW2 People's War – Siege of Tobruk
- Australian War Memorial – Siege of Tobruk