In January 1941 the Italian harbour fortress of Tobruk on the Libyan coast was captured in one of the Australians’ earliest actions of the Second World War. It was taken in brief fighting and with not much fuss as the 6th Division continued its successful 500-kilometre advance eastward. Even then it was obvious that the town’s harbour could be an important asset for future operations in the region. In the following weeks the division was ordered to Greece to take part in an ill-fated campaign there, so the 9th Australian Division under Major General Leslie Morshead took over. The fresh unblooded division soon met a tough new adversary when German troops of the Afrika Korps under Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel also entered this desert war theatre. As British Commonwealth forces retreated before Rommel over the recently captured territory, the Australians fell back to Tobruk, joining others already there. The plan was to hold onto the town as the Germans began to surround it. It was the start of a siege that would last from 11 April until 7 December 1941 and become one of the epic stories of the war.
At Tobruk, stretching in an arc of about 15 kilometres’ radius from the port township, the Italians had built a 50-kilometre-long defensive perimeter of ditches and barbed wire, studded with well-sited strong points. The Australians based their defence on this existing perimeter (“red line”) while adding more weapon pits and trenches and developing a further inner line (“blue line”). The hot, dusty, featureless ground within these boundaries became the British territory that was to be held despite constant stress, discomfort, enemy attacks, artillery fire and aerial bombardment.
On the night of 13–14 April a German attack breached the wire perimeter and defences on Tobruk’s southern side. After heavy fighting, a counter-attack drove them back. In this action Corporal Jack Edmondson of the 2/17th Battalion won the first Victoria Cross awarded to an Australian unit since the closing stages of the First World War. At one point he fought with his bayonet to save his officer’s life, despite having been gravely wounded. He died soon afterwards from his injuries. More, even stronger German attacks soon followed.