Tobruk (1967 film)

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Tobruk - Film Poster.jpg
Directed by Arthur Hiller
Produced by Gene Corman
Written by Leo V. Gordon
Starring Rock Hudson
George Peppard
Nigel Green
Guy Stockwell
Jack Watson
Music by Bronisław Kaper
Cinematography Russell Harlan
Edited by Robert C. Jones
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • February 7, 1967 (1967-02-07)
Running time
107 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $2,000,000 (US/Canada)[1]

Tobruk is a 1967 American war film starring Rock Hudson and George Peppard and directed by Arthur Hiller. The film was written by Leo Gordon (who also starred in the film) and released through Universal Pictures.

Set in North Africa during the North African Campaign of World War II, it is a fictionalized story of members of the British Army's Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and the Special Identification Group (SIG) who endeavour to destroy the fuel bunkers of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel's Panzer Army Africa in Tobruk. The movie is loosely based on the British attacks on German and Italian forces at Tobruk codenamed "Operation Agreement", though unlike the movie, Operation Agreement was in reality a failure.


In September 1942, with Adolf Hitler's "High-stepping Africa Korps" under the command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel only 90 miles (144 km) from the Suez Canal but running dangerously low on fuel, the staff of the British Eighth Army approve a plan to destroy the German fuel bunkers at Tobruk in an attempt to cripple the German plans of attack.

The original author of the plan, Major Donald Craig (Rock Hudson) had been forced to escape capture across 300 miles of enemy held desert (the reason for this was not explained) only to be captured by Vichy French forces and interned at the port of Algiers along with captured Italian prisoners. Craig is a Canadian, having been born and raised in Montreal to his parents John Foster Craig and his mother Elizabeth who had both retired to live in Vancouver. He is an expert on desert topography and exploration, and has extensive practical knowledge of the terrain (the Sahara), so he is considered essential to the success of the planned raid on Tobruk.

Craig is liberated by Captain Kurt Bergman (George Peppard) of the Special Identification Group (SIG) and some of his men, who are German Jews serving with the British. After finding out to his surprise who helped him escape, Craig is told by Bergman "Jews Major, yes we are. German Jews serving with the British. However as Germans we still have our uses". They then join up with Commandos of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Harker (Nigel Green), at Kufra in south-eastern Libya.

Colonel Harker explains to Craig that they have eight days to get to Tobruk and destroy the fuel depot and German field guns protecting the harbour, before a scheduled amphibious landing coinciding from a bombing raid on the city by the RAF. Craig, who is sceptical about the whole operation claiming that "Staff has a genius for sitting on its brains and coming up with perfect hindsight", explaining that "When I submitted the plan we could have blown up the fuel bunkers with a handful of men" before asking the Colonel "How in hell are we supposed to get through their defences now?" Harker explained that the plan called for the LRDG to drive through posing as POWs being guarded by the SIG posing as Captain Bergman's personal Afrika Korps. The plan was still basically Craig's original plan but now would include maximum effort from land, sea and air. Craig's job was to route the convoy through "800 miles of the worst desert the Sahara has to offer right into the back door of Tobruk". After Bergman thanks Craig for 'volunteering' before leaving to get his own men ready, Harker proves to be antisemitic. When Bergman leaves he warns Craig to "Keep your eyes and ears open around the Jews. A little trust's all right, but there's no point in overdoing it. Six years in Palestine taught me that". After Harker also informs him that he is in fact the Staff genius with perfect hindsight and warns him not to let personal differences of opinion interfere with their operation, Craig replies "I understand Colonel. But I'd like you to bear one thing in mind when and if we reach Tobruk. My mother didn't raise any heroes".

Craig is noticeably frustrated at Bergman when the Captain seems to simply accept Harker's bigotry and also his seeming disregard for the lives being risked - when Craig asks Bergman why he does not speak up in his own defence, Bergman's reply ("'Begin thinking of death and you're no longer sure of your life.' It's a Hebrew proverb") is rejected by Craig ("A dead martyr is just another corpse").

On the way to Tobruk, they first encounter a patrol of Italian tanks who stop only a few hundred yards from where the column has stopped in a gully for a rest. Later that night after they are forced to stay put for fear of discovery and Colonel Harker orders every man to be "armed and ready", Sergeant Major Jack Tyne (Jack Watson) spots an approaching tank column coming from the opposite direction, with Harker surmising that "They must be German. The Italians are too fond of comfort to travel this late". He then orders Bergman to what men he needs to make sure the Italian sentries don't see their approaching allies. The LRDG then trick the Italians and Germans into attacking each other by firing Mortars first on the Germans and then the Italians, with each thinking it was the British on the other side doing all the firing. The plan is a success and allows them to finally leave and continue the mission.

After leaving the Italians and Germans to continue fighting each other, Craig diverts them into a German mine field to avoid the Corancho Flats area where the Germans would most likely be looking for them, despite Colonel Harker's insistence that speed is their best advantage and that they should turn around, to which Craig tells him, "Do that Colonel and you'll reach Tobruk as a real prisoner". Using his knowledge of the Sahara and how the Germans set out their mine fields (an effective technique where they often set mines in tandem where triggering one could set of a dozen), and with the help of Bergman driving a Half-track, he then safely navigates them through the mine field before they are mistakenly attacked by a British fighter (a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk) believing them to be an actual German column, and both of their radios are destroyed. They manage to shoot down the fighter, but the smoke cloud created when the plane crashed, and the time taken to bury their dead sees them spotted by Tuareg tribesman, who also believing them to be Germans whom they had an unofficial alliance with, request guns. Craig, who speaks their language, negotiates a deal with Taureg's leader for the exchange of some guns and ammunition for two prisoners of the tribesman (initially believed to be German).

It is then found that the prisoners are actually British. Anti-Royalists Henry Portman (Liam Redmond) and his daughter Cheryl (Heidy Hunt), who are flying from Benghazi to Cairo on behalf of Germany when their aircraft was shot down. The pilot was killed on impact and the tribesman found the Portman's the next day. They have papers signed by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (Mohammad Amin al-Husayni) and German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, acting on behalf of the Führer (Adolf Hitler), which is an agreement between the Reich and a group of "important" Egyptian army officers, that the Egyptians will rise up against the British in, a "Holy War", a Jihad. The movie implies that the Egyptian revolt, similar to the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, could be enough to mobilize the entire Muslim world to fight for Germany. "The Turks alone could put four million men into the war against Russia" Cheryl Portman pointedly notes to Bergman and his Second in Command, Lieutenant Max Mohnfeld (Guy Stockwell).

That night at a stop over, the Portmans are told at gunpoint by a mysterious member of the SIG that the prisoners are really LRDG Commandos and that their German escorts are really German Jews who are their allies. Under threat of death, the Portmans are told they will find a gun, camouflage capes and a map to an underground telephone cable located 2 km away in the desert in a tunnel in their room. Using the telephone they can then contact Tobruk and have an armoured column arrive within hours. When they reach the phone they are spotted by an Italian patrol. Henry Portman fires at the patrol is killed, while his daughter is seriously wounded.

After discovering the Portman's are missing and finding their escape route, Harker sends Bergman and Sergeant Krug (Leo Gordon) after them. Bergman and Krug catch up with the Portman's just as they are shot. His men retrieve the injured Cheryl and when Krug asks how they got the telephone, Bergman replied "Very simple. One among us is the enemy". Back at camp, Harker orders Bergman to disarm his men, which Bergman refuses to do. Harker then humiliates Bergman by personally disarming him and having his own men do the same to the SIG (a pointed bit of dialogue ensues between the film's comedic relief characters, Alfie (Norman Rossington) and Dolan (Percy Herbert) when Alfie sneers, "I never did trust 'em. Once a Jerry, always a Jerry", and Dolan defends the SIG by pointing to Alfie's past with a, "Once a thief, always a thief, isn't that right Alfie"). Harker then tells Bergman that he has two hours to deliver his traitor. When Cheryl Portman wakes, the traitor comes out of the tunnel and pulls the drip out of her arm, prompting Sg. Major Tyne to leave her alone to fetch the MO (Medical Officer). When she is alone, Cheryl Portman is killed by the traitor so she can't reveal his identity. After Tyne returns with Harker, Craig and Bergman to find Portman dead, it is believed that the traitor is found when Lt. Mohnfeld appears from the system tunnel with a blood stained bayonet. He reveals the traitor is down the shaft but doesn't know who it is as its "very dark down there". Harker, Craig and Bergman then find Corporal Bruckner (Robert Wolders), one of Bergman's closest friends, stabbed to death in the underground sewer. Cheryl Portman had died from a Cyanide pill and Bruckner's suicide tablet found to be missing. Bergman though, who had known Bruckner for 10 years, is not convinced his friend was a traitor.

After resuming their mission and having a nervous encounter with a group of German "Head hunters" (Field Police) as they pass check points just outside of the city, the group finally reaches Tobruk and note the German radio transmitter in the middle of the city. After passing through town they then discover to their horror that Rommel has amassed his total reserve strength at Tobruk, consisting of two Panzer tank divisions that had been moved in undetected by British intelligence, prompting Craig remark to Harker that he'd like to put in for a transfer before they commence their attack later that night. The discovery of Rommel's reserves makes the mission even more important, as they are enough to defeat the Allied forces in Egypt. According to Colonel Harker, "They may have the lock, but we have the key. Without fuel Jerry goes nowhere" referring to their objective of destroying Rommel's underground fuel tanks, which they pass on their way to the German harbour guns located just outside Tobruk at Mersa Cove, noting that it was easy to see why RAF bombing raids had little effect on them.

The battle starts with a scheduled bombing raid on Tobruk by the RAF. The LRDG then blow up two of the harbour guns and Harker orders Sgt. Major Tyne to signal the Navy ships just outside the harbour to stop the landing force before the German tanks which are attacking Harker's troops can "cut them to pieces". Harker also orders Lt. Boyden (Anthony Ashdown) to use the air raid as a cover to capture the German transmitter in the city in order to inform Staff to cancel the planned landing by Naval Assault Troops and inform them about the Kesselring document. Boyden is killed driving through the city during the bombing raid, as are Alfie and Dolan who survived the initial blast but are shot trying to steal hundreds of English pound notes left behind by retreating British forces and stashed by the Germans. Lt. Mohnfeld who was with them as he spoke German, was knocked out in the blast that killed Boyden.

After the British troops are pinned down at the bottom of the cliffs, Bergman and one of his men escape on a sidecar motorcycle and manage to get amongst the tanks, destroying one with a charge and using flame throwers to help give Harker time try and evacuate his men. Bergman is eventually shot and then killed when his gas/petrol tanks are hit and he burns to death. Meanwhile Craig, Sgt. Krug, and two other SIG use the distraction to escape and seize a German tank well inland, with which they charge into the distant underground fuel depot.

After Craig and Krug use the tank to destroy the fuel depot, Harker and his men, out-numbered and out-gunned, are captured by the Germans and end up as actual POWs. Colonel Harker is killed shortly after capture when it is revealed that Lieutenant Mohnfeld was the real traitor and not Bruckner. Mohnfeld reveals himself to be a German Intelligence Officer named Von Kruger and asks Harker to hand over the Kesselring document that he had taken from the Portmans. Knowing the importance of the document to the Germans, Harker had earlier burned it when offered the chance to surrender by the German Colonel in an attempt to stop a "futile loss of life" (the German Colonel had actually addressed Harker by name). After getting assurance from his counterpart that his wounded would get prompt medical care, Colonel Harker then kills Von Kruger with his pistol before he is himself shot dead.

Major Craig, Sergeant Krug and the two SIG members who blew up the fuel bunkers, thus ensuring that the mission was a success, are the only members of the 83 man group who manage to escape from Tobruk. After abandoning the Panzer III tank which had been tipped onto its side as the fuel bunkers blew up, they made their way to a pre-arranged emergency rendezvous with a British Royal Navy ship located down the coast at Sollum.


Academy Awards[edit]

Albert Whitlock and Howard A. Anderson were nominated for the Academy Award for Visual Effects.


It was photographed in Technicolor using the Techniscope format, and shot in Almería, Spain and the Glamis Sand Dunes in the Imperial Valley, of southern California in the United States.

Technical advice and assistance was provided by the 40th Armored Division ("Grizzly") of the California Army National Guard.

In the convoy heading to Tobruk the trucks used are actually M135 and M54, while the SdKfz 7's are American M3 halftracks with altered bodies. The tanks in the Italian column are in fact M48 Pattons.

Producer Gene Corman would again use Tobruk's Nazi occupation as the background in his 1990 parody film A Man Called Sarge, although this time set during the Second Battle of El Alamein, in late 1942.

Laurence Harvey was originally slated to play the role of Major Craig.

In one scene, Major Craig asks Bergman if he and his men will be returning to "Palestine", to which the latter sharply retorts by saying "Israel". However Craig is correct since the State of Israel did not exist and its territory was known as the British Mandate for Palestine from 1923 up until 1948.

Use of footage[edit]

The 1971 war movie Raid on Rommel, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Richard Burton, made extensive use of combat footage from Tobruk and also featured a very similar story-line about a British commando force infiltrating enemy lines and raiding the Afrika Korps supply bases.


  1. ^ "Big Rental Films of 1967", Variety, 3 January 1968 p 25. Please note these figures refer to rentals accruing to the distributors

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