Siege of Tobruk
The Siege of Tobruk lasted for 241 days in 1941, after Axis forces advanced through Cyrenaica from El Agheila in Operation Sonnenblume against the British Western Desert Force (WDF) in Libya, during the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) of the Second World War. In late 1940, the British had defeated the Italian 10th Army during Operation Compass (9 December 1940 – 9 February 1941) and trapped the remnants at Beda Fomm. German troops and Italian reinforcements reached Libya, while much of the WDF was sent to Greece and replaced by a skeleton force, short of equipment and supplies.
Operation Sonnenblume (6 February – 25 May 1941), forced the British into a retreat to the Egyptian border. A garrison was left behind at Tobruk, to deny the port to the Axis, while the WDF reorganised and prepared a counter-offensive. The Axis siege of Tobruk began on 10 April, when the port was attacked by a force under Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel and continued during three relief attempts, Operation Brevity (15–16 May), Operation Battleaxe (15–17 June) and Operation Crusader (18 November – 30 December). The occupation of Tobruk deprived the Axis of a supply port closer to the Egypt-Libya border than Benghazi, 900 miles (1,400 km) west of the Egyptian frontier, which was within the range of RAF bombers; Tripoli was 1,500 kilometres (930 mi) to the west in Tripolitania.
The siege diverted Axis troops from the frontier and the Tobruk garrison repulsed several attacks. The port was frequently bombarded by artillery, dive-bombers and medium bombers, as the RAF flew defensive sorties from airfields far away in Egypt. British Mediterranean Fleet and Inshore Squadron ships ran the blockade, to carry reinforcements and supplies in and wounded and prisoners out. On 27 November, Tobruk was relieved by the 8th Army (the name of British, Commonwealth, Imperial and Allied forces in the Western Desert since September 1941), during Operation Crusader.
- 1 Background
- 2 Prelude
- 3 Siege
- 4 Relief operations
- 5 Aftermath
- 6 See also
- 7 Citations
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
The Western Desert Campaign was fought primarily in the Western Desert, which was about 240 miles (390 km) wide, from Mersa Matruh in Egypt to Gazala in Cyrenaica on the Libyan coast, along Via Balbia, the only paved road. A Sand Sea 150 miles (240 km) inland marked the southern limit of the desert, which was at its widest at Giarabub and Siwa; in British parlance, Western Desert came to include eastern Cyrenaica in Libya. Extending inland from the coast lies a raised, flat plain of stony desert, about 150 metres (500 ft) above sea level, for 200–300 kilometres (120–190 mi) to the Sand Sea. Scorpions, vipers and flies populated the region, which was inhabited by a small number of nomads. Bedouin tracks linked wells and the easier traversed ground; navigation was by sun, star, compass and "desert sense", good perception of the environment gained by experience. (When Italian troops advanced into Egypt in September 1940, the Maletti Group got lost leaving Sidi Omar, disappeared and had to be found by aircraft.)
In spring and summer, days are miserably hot and nights very cold; the Sirocco (Gibleh or Ghibli), a hot desert wind, blows clouds of fine sand, which reduces visibility to a few metres and coats eyes, lungs, machinery, food and equipment; motor vehicles and aircraft need special oil filters and the barren ground means that supplies for military operations have to be transported from outside. German engines tended to overheat and tank engine life fell from 1,400–1,600 miles (2,300–2,600 km) to 300–900 miles (480–1,450 km), made worse by the lack of standard parts for German and Italian types. At Tobruk, the ground was a hard surface which dropped to sea level in steps, with the coast cut by ravines. The Italian defences were a double semi-circle of concrete posts, placed for good observation, an anti-tank ditch which was behind barbed wire in places and booby traps. Closer to the port, at the Bardia–El Adem road junction and towards Fort Pilastrino, more defended localities had been built.
Capture of Tobruk
On the morning of 5 January 1941, as soon as the attack on Bardia, defended by the 63rd Infantry Division Cirene succeeded, the 7th Armoured Brigade set off for El Adem (now Tobruk Airport), and next day began to cut off the port. (The Western Desert Force was renamed XIII Corps on 1 January.) The 19th Australian Brigade Group reached the eastern defences of Tobruk on 7 January and the 16th Australian Brigade Group took over on the left. The 4th Armoured Brigade moved to the west part of the perimeter, with the Support Group blocking the western exits and the 7th Armoured Brigade screening the force from interference from the west, although little resistance had been met during the moves from Bardia. The Regia Aeronautica had lost many aircraft since Operation Compass began and the main repair depot at El Adem was captured, that caused the Italians great difficulty in maintaining the serviceability of their aircraft.
The attack was to be made against the perimeter east of the El Adem road, where a battalion of the 16th Australian Brigade was to capture the defences in a night attack, through which the rest of the brigade and the 7th RTR would pass and fan out east and west, then advance towards the harbour. The 17th Australian Brigade and the Support Group were to stage diversions either side of the attack and Italian artillery positions were to be located for counter-battery fire. Sandstorms blew up and grounded the RAF for much of the time but raids were carried out on Tobruk and the Italian bomber bases at Benina and Berka. On the night of 20/21 January, several ships and gunboats bombarded the harbour, destroyers waited further out to attack the Italian cruiser San Giorgio, if the crew tried to escape and then Wellington bombers flew over Tobruk, to drown the sound of the assembly for the attack.
The 2/3rd Australian Battalion attacked at 5:40 a.m. on 21 January, covered by artillery, through an area where engineers had disabled booby traps and then began to lift mines, to make paths through the wire and over the anti-tank ditch. After an hour, the 16th Australian Brigade and 18 infantry tanks broke through 1-mile (1.6 km) deep on a 1-mile (1.6 km) front, against patchy resistance. As the 16th Australian Brigade fanned out at 8:40 a.m., the 19th Australian Brigade advanced north, behind an artillery barrage and counter-battery fire on the Italian artillery. The 2/8th Australian Battalion was held up at the Bardia–El Adem crossroads by a force of dug-in tanks and machine-gun nests but at 2:00 p.m. the Australians attacked again and broke through on the right. On the left the Australians were counter-attacked by seven tanks and infantry behind an artillery barrage, which was driven off by the Australians, two anti-tank guns and two infantry tanks. More resistance was met near Pilastrino, which held out until 9:30 p.m. and the area around Solero was captured, along with the XXII Corps and garrison commander, General Pitassi Manella.
The 2/8th Australian Battalion had marched 20 miles (32 km) since the morning, fighting for 5 miles (8.0 km) and lost 100 casualties. During the day Blenheims of 55 and 113 squadrons flew 56 sorties against Tobruk and the Gladiators and Hurricanes of 3 Squadron RAAF and 73 and 274 squadrons RAF had patrolled to the west. Half of the Tobruk area had been captured by nightfall and the Italians began demolitions at the harbour. San Giorgio, having been ordered to stay and help with the defence till the end, fired on the advancing Australian troops until the naval base fell, then was blown up by her crew to avoid capture. A general advance was ordered for the morning and at dawn, the commander of the Sirte Division, Major-General Della Mura surrendered with several thousand of his troops and the defence collapsed. The 6th Australian Cavalry Regiment reached the port and took the surrender of Admiral Vietina and the naval garrison. By 3:45 p.m. resistance had ceased and 20,000 prisoners, 208 guns and 87 tanks were taken. Another 18 officers and 750 Italian soldiers had been killed in the fighting and 30 officers and 2,250 men had been wounded. XIII Corps lost 400 men, 355 of them Australian. Most of the demolitions had been of stores rather than installations and the Inshore Squadron began mine sweeping, opening the port on 24 January.
In February 1941, the British defeated the 10th Army and 5° Squadra, after which the British government decided to hold the area with minimal forces and send the remainder to Greece. The 9th Australian Division and the 2nd Armoured Division (Major-General Michael Gambier-Parry), minus a brigade group sent to Greece, were left to garrison Cyrenaica under Cyrenaica Command (Cyrcom: Lieutenant-General Henry Maitland Wilson), despite the inadequacy of the force if the Germans sent reinforcements to Libya. Command in Egypt was taken over by Lieutenant-General Richard O'Connor and the XIII Corps HQ was replaced by the HQ of the 1st Australian Corps (Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey). It was believed by Wavell and the GHQ in Egypt that the Germans could not attack until May, when the 9th Australian Division, two more divisions and support troops, particularly artillery would be ready and the tanks of the 2nd Armoured Division would have been overhauled.
The 2nd Armoured Division had a reconnaissance regiment and the 3rd Armoured Brigade (Brigadier R. G. W. Rimington), which had an understrength light tank regiment and one equipped with captured Fiat M13/40 tanks. The cruiser regiment arrived in late March with worn-out tracks, after many break downs en route and brought the division up to an understrength armoured brigade. Most of the British tanks were worn out and the Italian tanks were slow and unreliable. The 2nd Support Group (similar to an infantry brigade) had only a motor battalion, a 25-pounder field gun regiment, an anti-tank battery and a machine-gun company. The division was short of transport and its workshops were understaffed and lacked spare parts. Two brigades of the 9th Australian Division (Major-General Leslie Morshead) were swapped with two from the 7th Australian Division (Major-General John Lavarack), which had insufficient training, equipment and transport.
Lack of transport made it impossible to supply a garrison west of El Agheila, the most favourable position for a defensive line and restricted the 2nd Armoured Division to movement between supply dumps, reducing its limited mobility further. In February, Lieutenant-General Philip Neame took over Cyrcom and predicted that the armoured division would lose lots of tanks through breakdowns, if it had to move far. Neame recommended a proper armoured division, two infantry divisions and adequate air support to hold the area and was told that there was little to send and nothing before April. In early March, the 9th Australian Division began to relieve the 6th Australian Division (Major-General Iven Mackay) at Mersa Brega for shipment to Greece, which demonstrated the difficulty of tactical moves with insufficient transport and it was withdrawn to the area east of Benghazi.
Neame was ordered to conserve the tanks units, retire as far as Benghazi if pressed, to abandon it if necessary and hold the high ground nearby for as long as possible, with no prospect of reinforcement before May. Neame was to fight a delaying action up the Via Balbia towards Benghazi and then the defiles near Er Regima and Barce; the tanks would move to Antelat to operate against the flank and rear of an attacker moving up the road or across the desert to Tobruk, falling back on a flank if necessary. On 20 March, the 2nd Armoured Division took over from the Australians, who moved back to Tocra, near Er Regima. The force was to use depots at Msus, Tecnis, Martuba, Mechili and Tmimi, El Magrun and Bengahzi as a substitute for lorry-borne supply. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade (Brigadier E. W. D. Vaughan) arrived in late March, with lorries but no tanks, artillery, anti-tank guns and only half its wireless sets; the brigade was based at Martuba, ready to use its vehicles to move towards Derna, Barce or Mechili.
On 24 March, Rommel advanced with the new Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK). The 3rd Armoured Brigade was south-east of Mersa Brega, where the 2nd Support Group held an 8-mile (13 km) front; the Australians were 150 miles (240 km) to the north, minus a brigade left at Tobruk, deficient in much equipment and out of contact with the 2nd Armoured Division. British air reconnaissance had observed German troops west of El Agheila on 25 February and by 5 March, it was expected that the German commander would consolidate the defence of Tripolitania before trying to recapture Cyrenaica and then invade Egypt, using bases at Sirte and Nofilia but not before April. Rommel was identified on 8 March but local intelligence was hard to find under the restrictions to preserve the few troops and vehicles near the front and avoid the danger of the faster German eight-wheeler armoured cars, which inhibited British tactical reconnaissance.
On 3 April, Gambier-Parry had received a report that a large enemy armoured force was advancing on Msus, site of the main divisional supply dump. The 3rd Armoured Brigade moved there and found that the petrol had been destroyed to prevent capture. The tank brigade was reduced by losses and breakdowns to 12 Cruiser tanks, 20 light tanks and 20 Italian tanks. Neame received conflicting reports about the positions of the British and Axis forces and news on 5 April, that a large Axis force was advancing on El Abiar led him to order the 9th Australian Division back to Wadi Cuff and the elements of the 2nd Armoured Division to guard the desert flank and retire to Mechili. Other reports led Neame to countermand these orders, which caused the Australians much confusion. On 6 April, British air reconnaissance reported that there were Axis columns in the desert and the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade repulsed an attack at Mechili, which led to O'Connor at the Cyrcom headquarters (Neame had left to visit Gambier-Parry) to order a general withdrawal.
Loss of Mechili
Rommel had intended to attack Mechili on 7 April but the Axis forces were scattered, short of fuel and tired. Group Fabris moved forward during the morning but the 132nd Armoured Division Ariete (Ariete Division) and Group Streich took all day to arrive, having been attacked all day by the RAF. A Squadron of the LRDP had appeared from the south, to harass Axis movements. By nightfall on 7 April, the 9th Australian Division (less the 24th Australian Infantry Brigade) with the 2nd Support Group had blocked the Via Balbia at Acroma, about 15 miles (24 km) west of Tobruk, where the 18th and 24th Australian Infantry brigades were preparing the defences. (The 18th Australian Infantry Brigade had arrived from Egypt by sea after the dispatch of the 7th Australian Division to Greece had been cancelled.) A small force held El Adem, south of Tobruk to observe the approaches from the south and south-west and at Mechili, Gambier-Parry had the 2nd Armoured Division headquarters soft-skinned vehicles and a cruiser tank, most of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, M Battery 1st Royal Horse Artillery, part of the 3rd Australian Anti-tank Regiment and elements of other units.
The Germans tried twice to bluff Gambier-Parry into surrender but he received orders from Cyrcom to break out and retreat to El Adem and decided to attack at dawn, to gain a measure of surprise. On 8 April, A Squadron of the 18th Cavalry broke through and then turned to attack Italian artillery, as some Indian troops of the 11th Prince Albert Victor's Own Cavalry (Frontier Force) got away. Most of the garrison was pinned down and after a second attempt at 8:00 a.m. when small parties of the 2nd Royal Lancers escaped. The garrison had fired most of its small-arms ammunition at the vision slits of the German tanks, which had hung back in fear of mines and when Italian infantry attacked, had little left. Gambier-Parry and 2,700–3,000 British, Indian and Australian troops surrendered to the 17th Infantry Division Pavia (General Pietro Zaglio).
Axis supplies came from Europe and deliveries were moved by road; after Operation Compass (December 1940 – February 1941), only Tripoli remained, which had a maximum capacity of four troopships or five cargo ships at once, about 46,000 tonnes (45,000 long tons) per month. Tripoli to Benghazi was 970 kilometres (600 mi) along the Via Balbia, which was only half-way to Alexandria. The road could flood, was vulnerable to the Desert Air Force (DAF) and alternative desert tracks increased vehicle wear. The Axis advance of 480 kilometres (300 mi) to the Egyptian frontier in early 1941, increased the road transport distance for supplies to 1,800 kilometres (1,100 mi). Benghazi was captured in April but coastal shipping could only carry 15,000 tonnes (15,000 long tons) and the port was within range of the DAF. Tobruk could take about 1,500 tonnes (1,500 long tons) per day but lack of shipping made its capture irrelevant.
A German motorised division needed 360 tonnes (350 long tons) per day and moving the supplies 480 kilometres (300 mi) took 1,170 2.0-tonne (2-long-ton) lorries. With seven Axis divisions, air and naval units, 71,000 tonnes (70,000 long tons) of supplies per month were needed. (Vichy agreed to the use of Bizerta but no supplies moved through the port until late 1942.) From February–May 1941, a surplus of 46,000 tonnes (45,000 long tons) was delivered; attacks from Malta had some affect but in May, the worst month for ship losses, 91 percent of supplies arrived. Lack of transport in Libya left German supplies in Tripoli and the Italians had only 7,000 lorries for deliveries to 225,000 men. A record amount of supplies arrived in June but at the front, the shortages worsened.
There were fewer Axis attacks on Malta from June and sinkings increased from 19 percent in July, to 25 percent in September, when Benghazi was bombed and ships diverted to Tripoli; air supply in October made little difference. Deliveries averaged 73,000 tonnes (72,000 long tons) per month from July–October but the consumption of 30–50 percent of fuel deliveries by road transport and a truck unserviceability rate of 35 percent reduced deliveries to the front. In November, a five-ship convoy was sunk during Operation Crusader and ground attacks on road convoys stopped journeys in daylight. Lack of deliveries and the Eighth Army offensive, forced a retreat to El Agheila from 4 December, crowding the Via Balbia where British ambushes destroyed about half of the remaining Axis transport.
Work on the fortifications at Tobruk had begun in March, using the Italian defences, two lines of concrete bunkers 8–9 miles (13–14 km) away from the port, making a perimeter about 30 miles (48 km) long, far enough out to keep artillery out of range of the port. Few intermediate defences had been built by the Italians except at the Bardia–El Adem road junction, the barbed wire was in disrepair and an anti-tank ditch was unfinished. The British selected another line about 2 miles (3.2 km) back from the perimeter and worked on this while the original line was refurbished. The 24th Australian Infantry Brigade with two battalions and the new 18th Australian Infantry Brigade took over the perimeter and the 20th and 26th Australian brigades took up a covering position on the outside until 9 April, while more work was done on the defences. Once inside, the three 9th Australian Division brigades took over the defences and the 18th Brigade went into reserve.
A cadre of the 3rd Armoured Brigade was refitting at Tobruk, with personnel and equipment sent from Egypt by sea and had a regiment of armoured cars, two composite regiments with 15 × light and 26 × cruiser tanks and a troop of four infantry tanks. There were four 25-pounder regiments, two anti-tank regiments and a company in each infantry regiment, the 4th Anti-Aircraft Brigade had 16 × Heavy and 59 × light guns, all but two Bofors guns being sited around the harbour. Rear area units had accumulated at Tobruk and 1⁄3 of the 36,000 personnel were in base units or local refugees and prisoners of war. Morshead planned an active defence and stressed that with battalions holding 5 miles (8.0 km) frontages, a break-in should be expected anywhere that the attackers made a serious effort and that it should be eliminated, since there would be no withdrawal.
Investment of Tobruk
By 8 April, the most advanced German units had arrived at Derna but some units which had cut across the chord of the Jebel Akhdar, ran out of water and fuel at Tengeder. Prittwitz, the commander of the 15th Panzer Division was sent ahead with a column of reconnaissance, anti-tank, machine-gun and artillery units, to block the eastern exit from Tobruk, as the 5th Light Division moved from the south-west and the 27th Infantry Division Brescia advanced from the west. On 10 April, Rommel made the Suez Canal the objective of the Afrika Korps and ordered that a break-out from Tobruk be prevented. Next day the port was invested but the rush ended with the 5th Light Division on the east side, the Prittwitz group to the south (Prittwitz having been killed) and the 27th Infantry Division Brescia to the west. Reconnaissance Unit 3 went on to Bardia and a composite force was sent on to Sollum to try to reach Mersa Matruh. The British Mobile Force (Brigadier William Gott) on the frontier from Halfaya Pass to Sidi Barrani, conducted a delaying-action around Sollum and Capuzzo.
El Adem road
From 11–12 April, the 5th Panzer Regiment probed the defences of the 20th Australian Brigade near the El Adem road and was repulsed by artillery-fire; German infantry who reached the anti-tank ditch were forced back by Australian infantry. The Germans were surprised, having assumed that the shipping at Tobruk was to evacuate the garrison and planned a night attack by the 5th Light Division for 13/14 April. Groups of Axis vehicles were attacked by 45 and 55 squadrons RAF, which rearmed at the airfields inside the perimeter. The attack began after dark, with an attempt to get over the anti-tank ditch west of the El Adem road in the 2/17th Australian Battalion sector, which the Australians repulsed. Another attempt was made later and by dawn a small bridgehead had been established, where the 5th Panzer Regiment drove through and turned northwards, ready to divide into one column for the harbour and one to move west to stop the escape of the garrison.
The German tanks were engaged head on by the 1st RHA and veered away, only to drive into the path of the British cruiser tanks, waiting hull-down and received anti-tank fire from three sides, losing sixteen of 38 tanks and retreated. The Australian infantry had stood their ground and pinned down the German infantry. As the retreat continued, every gun and aircraft at Tobruk fired into the area and the German 8th Machine-Gun Battalion lost about 75 percent of its men, for a garrison loss of 26 men killed, 64 wounded, two tanks and a field gun knocked out. Attacks from the south were abandoned and the 5th Light Division dug in, with the Schwerin Group (renamed after Prittwitz had been killed) to the east.
Ras el Medauar
On 16 April, Rommel led an attack from the west, with the 132nd Armoured Division Ariete reinforced by the 62nd Infantry Regiment of the 102nd Motorised Division Trento. The 2/48th Australian Battalion counter-attacked and took 803 prisoners. In the morning, the 132nd Armoured Division Ariete attacked again and some tanks reached the most advanced Australian posts, found that their infantry had not followed and retired after five tanks were knocked out. Morshead ordered the garrison to exploit Axis disorganisation and inability quickly to dig in on stony ground, with patrols and small sorties. On 22 April, a company of the 2/48th Australian Battalion, three infantry tanks and a troop of 25-pounders, raided a hillock held by the Fabris Detachment south-west of Ras el Medauar; the raiders destroyed two guns and took 370 prisoners. At the same time a company of the 2/23rd Battalion advanced across the Derna road and in a costly attack, took about 100 prisoners from the 27th Infantry Division Brescia, which led the Germans to hurry on the 15th Panzer Division from Tripoli.
The defeat of the Axis attacks in April greatly improved the situation in Tobruk but Fliegerkorps X had sent 150–200 aircraft to Libya from Sicily in February, which flew frequent dive-bomber sorties by day and medium-bomber raids by day and night on the docks, buildings, anti-aircraft sites, artillery positions and the airfields. Westland Lysander aircraft and all but the most essential ground crew of 6 and 73 squadrons were withdrawn to Egypt. At least ten Hawker Hurricane fighters were based at the port during the day and on 19 April, Hurricanes of 73 and 274 squadrons, intercepted a Stuka raid escorted by fighters. After another two days, 73 Squadron was down to five operational aircraft with very tired pilots. By 23 April, three more Hurricanes had been shot down and two damaged and on 25 April the squadron was withdrawn. The fighters of 274 Squadron stayed at Gerawla and 6 Squadron remained at Tobruk, to fly tactical reconnaissance sorties. Fighter cover could only be maintained at intervals by the last 14 Hurricanes in the desert; Axis airfields at Gazala, Derna and Benina, were bombed at dusk and night to limit Axis air attacks on Tobruk.
In March, destroyers were withdrawn from the Inshore Squadron to escort convoys to Greece and in April, four more ships joined the squadron. As the army retreated to Tobruk and the frontier, coastal operations were conducted on the nights of 10–11 April by gunboats, which bombarded transport on the Via Balbia around Bomba and Gambut airfield and on the night of 12 April, six destroyers and two cruisers made a coastal sweep from Ras Tayones to Ras et Tin. Next day, three ships bombarded Sollum and on 15 April, transport was bombarded at Bardia and Capuzzo, as Gazala airfield was shelled again. For the rest of April, naval bombardments continued along the Libyan coast on the Via Balbia, airfields and ports. A Commando raid was carried out on Bardia and supply runs began to Tobruk. From 11 April – 10 December, 47,280 men were taken from Tobruk, 34,113 were brought in and 33,946 long tons (34,491 t) of stores delivered; 34 ships were sunk and 33 damaged.
The Bardia raid was planned for the night of 19/20 April, by A Battalion, Layforce to disrupt Axis lines of communication and damage installations and equipment. The landing force sailed to the area in HMS Glengyle, escorted by the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Coventry and the destroyers HMAS Stuart, Voyager and Waterhen. A Battalion and a troop of tanks from the Royal Tank Regiment were to land on four beaches from Landing Craft Assault (LCA). On arrival, an LCA could not be lowered and there were difficulties releasing the others. On the run-in, there were no lights to guide them in, because the Folbot section had been delayed, when their submarine HMS Triumph had to dive and take evasive action when it was mistakenly attacked by British aircraft. The main force was late and landed on the wrong beaches, albeit unopposed. The Commandos found that the port was empty of Axis forces and faulty intelligence led to some objectives being missed and others turning out not to exist. The Commandos destroyed an Italian supply dump and a coastal artillery battery before re-embarking. Seventy men got lost, ended up on the wrong evacuation beach and were captured.
Battle of the Salient
After the failure to capture Tobruk off the march, Comando Supremo and OKW agreed that Tobruk should be captured and supplies accumulated, before the advance into Egypt was resumed. Rommel thought that Tobruk could only be taken by a deliberate attack, which could not begin until support units had arrived in the area and the Luftwaffe had been reinforced, particularly with transport aircraft to carry ammunition, fuel and water. On 27 April, Major-General Friedrich Paulus a Deputy Chief of the General Staff, arrived from Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) in Berlin, to question Rommel on his intentions, impress on him that there was little more help available and to forecast the defensive possibilities of the area, if Sollum was lost. Paulus refused to allow an attack planned for 30 April, until he had studied the situation and on 29 April, allowed the attack to go ahead, as did Gariboldi who had arrived on 28 April. Nothing more ambitious than securing the Axis hold on the Egyptian frontier, from Siwa Oasis north to Sollum was envisaged.
The Tobruk garrison continued work on the defences and sowed minefields, the first being planted in the south-west, between the outer and inner perimeters. Twelve infantry tanks had been delivered among 5,000 long tons (5,100 t) of supplies landed during the month, despite Axis bombing of the harbour and the sinking of two supply ships. The Axis attack was to be made in the south-west, either side of the hillock of Ras el Medauar, about two weeks after the previous attempt, using the 5th Light Division on the right and the 15th Panzer Division on the left, even though it had only recently arrived in Africa. At 8:00 p.m. on 30 April, the divisions were to break into the Tobruk defences, followed by assault groups from the Ariete Division and 27th Infantry Division Brescia to roll up the flanks. German infantry would press forward to reconnoitre the vicinity of Fort Pilastrino, to see if the attack could continue to the harbour. If not, the Italian infantry would dig in on the flanks and artillery would be moved forward for an attack the next day.
The attack came in the area held by the 26th Australian Brigade, which had the 2/23rd and 2/24th battalions in the line and the 2/48th Battalion in reserve at Wadi Giaida. The Australians expected an attack, after withstanding bombing and artillery-fire on the perimeter defences on 29 April; Axis troops seen massing in the evening of 30 April had been dispersed by artillery-fire. The posts either side of Ras el Medauar were shelled and bombed and German troops began to dribble forward, under cover of dust and the gathering darkness. By 9:30 p.m., the Germans made a small bridgehead as planned but several Australian posts held out, the reconnaissance party vanished and the Italian troops were not able to reach their objectives. The night passed in confused fighting as the Germans tried to reorganise and mop up at Ras el Medauar and attack south-westwards along the perimeter. The new attack failed and by morning, some of the Australian posts were still holding out.
A thick mist rose and German tanks moved eastwards instead of south-east and then ran into the new minefield, where they were engaged by anti-tank guns and repulsed. Tanks of the 15th Panzer Division tried to move north but were stopped. No German reserves were left and the most advanced troops were south of Wadi Giaida, tired and isolated in a sandstorm. Paulus judged that the attack had failed and Rommel decided to attack on the right to widen the breach. In the afternoon, German tanks attacked south-east towards Bir el Medauar and Morshead sent 15 cruiser and five infantry tanks to counter-attack. The German attack was stopped for a loss of five British tanks and in the evening, the 2/48th Battalion counter-attacked Ras el Medauar but met determined resistance and was repulsed. During the day, 73 and 274 squadrons had maintained standing patrols over the area and on the morning of 2 May, the fighting around Wadi Giaida continued in a dust storm, as German troops tried to trickle forward. On the night of 3 May, the 18th Australian Brigade made a converging counter-attack with two battalions, which lost co-ordination, failed and was ended, to avoid being caught in the open at daybreak.
The Axis attack had overrun the perimeter defences on a 3-mile (4.8 km) front, to a maximum depth of 2 miles (3.2 km) and captured higher ground useful as a jumping-off position and from which observation points could be established, for a loss of 650 German and 500 Italian casualties. The 8th Bersaglieri Regiment of the 132nd Armoured Division Ariete had captured most of the Australian positions. Paulus ordered that no more attacks be made, unless the British were evacuating the port. The DAK was to hold Cyrenaica regardless of who held Sollum, Bardia or Tobruk and a new line was to be built further back at Gazala. In a report on 12 May, Paulus wrote that sea communications between Italy and Libya should be reinforced, that any air and anti-aircraft units sent to Libya should be German and that the army in Libya needed ammunition, fuel and food first, then more vehicles before the dispatch of more men, of whom medium artillery and anti-tank gun crews should have priority. The Tobruk garrison settled into a routine of patrols, air raids and minor attacks, some to regain positions in the Medauar salient and some in connexion with WDF operations.
Twin Pimples raid
The Twin Pimples was a defensive strong point outside Tobruk, on two hills close together which overlooked the Tobruk perimeter. It was held by the Italian Army and the 18th King Edward's Own Cavalry, normally part of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, held the perimeter opposite. No. 8 Commando was selected to carry out an attack on the Twin Pimples, which conducted patrols for several days with the Indians, to reconnoitre the ground. The 18th Cavalry Regiment was to mount a diversion, while 43 members of No. 8 Commando and some Australian Engineers crossed the Italian forward positions and a supply road, to attack the Twin Pimples from behind.
The Commandos advanced at 11:00 p.m. on the night of 17/18 July and crossed the Italian lines undetected. At the supply road they took cover, waited until 1:00 a.m. and edged forward just before the diversion by the 18th Cavalry. The diversion attracted Italian machine-gun fire and very lights, as the Commandos got within 30 yards (27 m) of the Twin Pimples before challenge, at which the commandos attacked. The password Jock was used when a position had been taken and the Italians were swiftly overcome. The Australian engineers planted explosives on several mortars and an ammunition dump. The plan assumed that it would take 15 minutes for Italian artillery to open fire and the raiders were only about 100 yards (91 m) away, when the Italian shelling began.
Operation Brevity (15–16 May) was a limited offensive, to inflict attrition on the Axis forces and to secure positions for a general offensive towards Tobruk. The British attacked with a small tank-infantry force in three columns and seized the top of the Halfaya Pass, Bir Wair and Musaid, then pressed on and took Fort Capuzzo. The coast group failed to capture the bottom of the Halfaya Pass. The garrison on the east side of the Tobruk defences was strengthened in case of a sortie and a German counter-attack recovered Musaid. The coast group eventually overran the foot of the pass but next day, British retirements against German counter-attacks to a line from Sidi Omar to Sidi Suleiman and Sollum, left all but Halfaya Pass in German hands. On 26 May, Operation Skorpion, a German attack on the pass succeeded and the British were ejected. Brevity failed to achieve most of its objectives, only briefly holding the Halfaya Pass. The British lost 206 casualties, five tanks destroyed and 13 damaged. German casualties were 258 men, three tanks destroyed and several damaged. The Italians had 395 casualties, of whom 347 were captured. On 12 May, the Tiger convoy lost one ship and arrived in Alexandria with 238 tanks, to re-equip the 7th Armoured Division and 43 aircraft; on 28 May, planning began for Operation Battleaxe.
Operation Battleaxe, 15–17 June 1941 was intended to lift the siege of Tobruk and capture eastern Cyrenaica. The attack was to be conducted by the 7th Armoured Division and a composite infantry force based on the 4th Indian Division headquarter, with two brigades. The infantry were to attack in the area of Bardia, Sollum, Halfaya and Capuzzo, with the tanks guarding the southern flank. The Tobruk garrison was to stand by but not to sortie until XIII Corps drew close. The Halfaya Pass attack failed, Point 206 was captured and only one of three attacks on Hafid Ridge succeeded. At the end of 15 June only 48 British tanks remained operational and next day, a German counter-attack forced back the British on the western flank but was repulsed in the centre; the British were reduced to 21 Cruiser tanks and 17 I tanks. On 17 June, the British evaded encirclement by two Panzer regiments and ended the operation. The British had 969 casualties, 27 cruiser and 64 I tanks were knocked out or broke down and lost; the RAF lost 36 aircraft. German losses were 678 men (Italian losses are unknown), twelve tanks and ten aircraft. General Wavell, the XIII Corps commander, Lieutenant-General Noel Beresford-Peirse and Major-General Michael O'Moore Creagh the 7th Armoured Division commander were sacked and Auchinleck took over as Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East.
In the summer of 1941, Blamey, the commander of the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF), with the support of the prime minister of Australia, requested the withdrawal of the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk, because the health of the Australian division had deteriorated "to the point where it was not longer capable of resisting attack" and to unite Australian forces in the Middle East. Auchinleck agreed but noted that a troop movement this big could only be made by fast warships, during moonless periods of the month to evade air attacks. The Mediterranean Fleet was busy elsewhere, the Inshore Squadron was carrying supplies into Tobruk and Operation Crusader was being prepared. The Australian withdrawal began in the August non-moon period and from 19–29 August, 6,116 men of the Polish 1st Carpathian Brigade and the 11th Czechoslovak Infantry Battalion and 1,297 long tons (1,318 t) of stores were landed.
The navy took out 5,040 men of the 18th Australian Infantry Brigade and the Indian 18th King Edward's Own Cavalry, on three destroyers, a minelayer and one destroyer carrying supplies, with cruiser escorts as anti-aircraft ships, a cruiser and a destroyer being damaged. From 19–27 September, the 16th Infantry Brigade, 70th Infantry Division, the HQ of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade and the 4th Royal Tank Regiment with 6,308 men and over 2,000 long tons (2,000 t) of supplies arrived and 5,989 men of the 24th Australian Infantry Brigade left, with no loss of ships. From 12–25 October, the rest of the 70th Infantry Division was delivered and most of the Australians removed. Ship losses on normal delivery runs, led to the 2/13th Australian Battalion and two companies of the 2/15th Battalion remaining in Tobruk, command of which passed to Major-General Ronald Scobie, the 70th Division commander.
Operation Crusader began on 18 November 1941, with an outflanking movement that brought the Eighth Army to within 48 kilometres (30 mi) of the Tobruk perimeter. It was planned that the 70th Division would break out from Tobruk on 21 December, to cut the German line of communication to the troops on the border to the south-east. The 7th Armoured Division would advance from Sidi Rezegh, to rendezvous and roll up the Axis positions around Tobruk. The 2nd New Zealand Division in XIII Corps would take advantage of the distraction of the 21st Panzer and 15th Panzer divisions and advance to the Sidi Azeiz area, overlooking the Axis defences at Bardia. The 70th Division attack surprised Rommel, who had underestimated the size of the garrison and number of tanks in Tobruk. A three pronged attack by the 2nd King's Own on the right flank, the 2nd Battalion, Black Watch in the centre and the 2nd Queen's Own on the left flank, advanced to capture a series of strong points leading to Ed Duda.
By mid afternoon, the British had advanced about 5.6 kilometres (3.5 mi) towards Ed Duda on the main supply road, where they paused as it became clear that 7th Armoured Division would not arrive. The central attack by the Black Watch, involved a charge under massed machine-gun fire to strongpoint Tiger, which incurred 201 casualties. On 22 November, Scobie ordered the position to be consolidated and the corridor widened, ready for the Eighth Army. The 2nd York and Lancaster Regiment with tank support, took strong point Lion leaving a 6,400 metres (7,000 yd) gap between the corridor and Ed Duda. On 26 November, Scobie ordered an attack on the Ed Duda ridge and in the early hours of 27 November, the Tobruk garrison captured the ridge and later met a small force of New Zealanders advancing from the south. The 7th Armoured Division had planned its attack northwards to Tobruk for 8:30 a.m. on 21 November. At 7:45 a.m. patrols reported the arrival from the south-east of about 200 tanks. The 7th Armoured Brigade and a battery of field artillery turned to meet this threat and without the tanks, the northward attack by the Support Group failed; by the end of the day, the 7th Armoured Brigade had only 40 of 160 tanks operational.
On 22 November, Italian troops repulsed an attack from Tobruk towards Sidi Rezegh and next day, Rommel sent the Afrika Korps towards the Egyptian border (the Dash to the Wire) to exploit the victory and destroy XXX Corps. The blow mostly fell on empty desert and gave the Eighth Army time to regroup and re-arm. The Afrika Korps was ordered back to Tobruk, where the 70th Division and the New Zealand Division had gained the initiative. At noon on 27 November, the 15th Panzer Division reached Bir el Chleta and met the 22nd Armoured Brigade (reduced to a composite regiment of fewer than fifty tanks), which was joined later by the 4th Armoured Brigade. As night fell the British tanks disengaged and the New Zealand Division, fighting at the south-east end of the corridor into Tobruk, was endangered by the Afrika Korps. On 4 December, Rommel attacked Ed Duda and was repulsed by the 14th Infantry Brigade of the 70th Division. Rommel ordered a retirement from the eastern perimeter of Tobruk, to concentrate against XXX Corps to the south. On 7 December, the 4th Armoured Brigade engaged 15th Panzer Division and knocked out eleven tanks. Rommel was told on 5 December, by Comando Supremo, that supply could not improve until the end of the month, when airborne deliveries from Sicily began. Rommel decided to abandon Tobruk and withdraw to Gazala, which led to the relief of Tobruk and the occupation of Cyrenaica.
For much of the siege, Tobruk was defended by the 9th Australian Division and other troops. General Archibald Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command ordered Morshead to hold the fortress for eight weeks but the Australians held on for over five months, before being gradually withdrawn during September and replaced by the 70th Infantry Division, the Polish Carpathian Brigade and Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion (East). The fresh defenders held Tobruk until they broke out on 21 November and held open an 8-mile (13 km) corridor, unsupported for several days, then captured Ed Duda on 26 November, to link with the advancing Eighth Army, during Operation Crusader.
The Tobruk Ferry Service, made up of Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy warships, played an important role in the defence of Tobruk providing gunfire support, supplies, fresh troops and by ferrying out the wounded. Control of Tobruk was useful to the British because it was the only significant port east of Benghazi before Alexandria. The supply of Axis troops on the Egyptian frontier, could have been eased by sea transport to Tobruk. The siege of Tobruk was the first occasion in the war that German Panzer units had been stopped. The siege of Tobruk was lifted in December 1941 in the course of Operation Crusader and Axis forces re-captured the port in 1942, after defeating the Eighth Army in the Battle of Gazala. Two destroyers, three sloops, seven anti-submarine vessels and minesweepers, seven store carriers and schooners, six A lighters and one fast minelayer were sunk, a total of 26 ships. Seven destroyers, a sloop, eleven anti-submarine and minesweeping vessels, three gunboats and a schooner were damaged, a total of 23 vessels. Six Merchant Navy ships and a schooner were sunk and six merchant ships were damaged; a total of 62 ships were sunk or damaged.
The Rats of Tobruk suffered at least 3,836 casualties, there being a small difference in Australian casualty figures quoted in the Australian and British official histories. Most of the Australian garrison withdrew from Tobruk between August and October but others remained in Tobruk for the duration. In Australia in the War of 1939–1945 (1967) the Australian Official History, Maughan recorded 9th Australian Division casualties from 8 April – 25 October, including two days before the siege started, as 746 killed, 1,996 wounded, 604 prisoners, that 507 Australians were captured between 28 March 1941 and the investment of Tobruk and 467 more were taken during the siege.
In the British Official History (1956), Playfair calculated the losses in the table created by Harrison in 1999. When Harrison calculated other losses there was no RAF casualty list but he recorded ten aircrew and six ground crew burials at the cemetery and six aircrew shot down in the harbour. Italian casualties from 15 February to 18 November were 1,130 killed, 4,255 wounded and 3,851 missing. Libyan losses were 184 killed and German casualties for the same period were about 538 killed, 1,657 wounded, about 681 missing and from 74–150 Axis aircraft shot down.
- North African Campaign timeline
- List of World War II Battles
- John Hurst Edmondson: Victoria Cross recipient during the siege
- Rats of Tobruk
- Twin Pimples raid
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