The second year of the Second World War began with a series of impressive British and Commonwealth victories in North Africa. In January 1941 the Australian 6th Division led the British advance eastwards into Libya, capturing first the Italian fortress at Bardia and then Tobruk. By the end of the month they had advanced over 500 kilometres and captured tens of thousands of Italian soldiers. By mid-February, the British had destroyed the remaining Italian forces in eastern Libya. The fortunes of war, however, can turn quickly.
In the wake of these huge defeats, Hitler was compelled to send German forces to Tripoli, the Libyan capital, to prevent a complete Italian collapse in North Africa. He selected Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel to command the contingent, designated the Deutsches Afrikakorps.
Rommel was to become one of the war’s most celebrated commanders. He was a brave and inspiring leader whose reputation as a master of desert warfare was well founded. A career officer, he was a risk-taker who often ignored orders. He preferred to be close to the battle and to make decisions based on his own observations. Rommel was frequently at loggerheads with his superiors, and regularly belittled his Italian allies.
The first Germans arrived in Tripoli in mid-February 1941. More troops, tanks and guns quickly followed. Though small, the Afrikakorps was a powerful force that soon threatened the entire British position in the Middle East.
After their initial success, the British Commonwealth forces in Libya were either withdrawn to support the forthcoming Greek campaign or were in need of rest and refit. The Australian 6th Division, for example, was relieved in March, destined for Greece, and replaced by another Australian division, the untested 9th Division.
Rommel realised the British were overstretched and went on the offensive. As the Germans began advancing in late March, British and Australian troops fell back towards Tobruk and the Egyptian border. During the confused withdrawal, which became known as the “Benghazi handicap”, the two most senior British generals in Libya were captured, along with many other troops. On 10 April, shortly after the last Australians entered Tobruk, along the perimeter the first shots were exchanged with the Germans; they and the Italians began encircling the fortress. By the afternoon of the 11th, Good Friday, Tobruk was surrounded. The siege had begun.
Tobruk had been an important strategic centre since antiquity. Lying about 150 kilometres west of the Egyptian border, it had the best natural harbour in North Africa. After their invasion of Libya in 1911, the Italians developed it into a modern fortress. Tobruk’s outer perimeter, more than 45 kilometres long, was known as the Red Line, protected by anti-tank ditches, barbed wire and mines. The garrison included more than 14,000 Australians from the 9th Division, and the 7th Division’s 18th Brigade, who had arrived in Tobruk by road and sea from Egypt on 7 April. The Australians were supported by British artillery, machinegunners, a handful of tanks and armoured cars, and an Indian regiment.
During the night of Easter Sunday, 13–14 April, a group of German machine-gunners infiltrated the Red Line near Post R33. The 2/17th Battalion’s Lieutenant Austin Mackell led Corporal Jack Edmondson, Private Ron Grant and four other men in a bayonet charge against the intruders. “There seemed to be bombs going off everywhere,” Grant wrote to his father afterwards, “& with a blood-curdling shout we tore into them.” Vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued. Although mortally wounded, Edmondson saved Mackell’s life and killed several Germans. He was carried back to R33 but died during the early hours of the 14th. Twenty-six-year-old Edmondson was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the first awarded to an Australian during the war.
The main German attack came before dawn. Coming up from the south, German tanks and troops broke through the perimeter between Posts R33 and R35. The tanks were engaged by artillery and anti-tank guns, and were either destroyed or turned back. Remaining steadfast in their posts, the Australian infantry inflicted heavy casualties on the German troops.
Major John Balfe described the hellish scene to war correspondent Chester Wilmot.
The crossing was badly churned up and the tanks raised clouds of dust as they went. In addition, there was the smoke of two tanks blazing outside the wire. Into this cloud of dust and smoke we fired anti-tank weapons, Brens, rifles, and mortars, and the gunners sent hundreds of shells. We shot up a lot of infantry as they tried to get past, and many who took refuge in the anti-tank ditch were later captured.
Tobruk’s garrison won a brief reprieve. As the dust settled, the 9th Division’s Major General Leslie Morshead became the fortress commander, taking over from another Australian, Major General John Lavarack, who had helped organise Tobruk’s initial defence. Despite looking like a businessman, which he was in civilian life, Morshead was every inch a general. Slight of build and with a strong personality, he believed in leadership, discipline, and hard work. His men referred to him as “Ming the Merciless”.
The most important feature of Morshead’s tactics for defence was the aggressive spirit. “If we should have to get out,” he told his men, “we shall fight our way out. There is to be no surrender and no retreat.” If the enemy’s armour broke through the Red Line, the defenders were not to retreat but stay in their posts and attack the enemy infantry. Patrolling was to be carried out every night. Morshead emphasised that Tobruk would be defended in depth. These defences were to be continually improved. About three kilometres within the outer perimeter, a second defensive line, the Blue Line, was gradually dug and wired. A third line, the Green Line, was also developed closer to the town. Hoping for a quick victory, Rommel had been reckless in his Easter attack. Three weeks later, he tried again. This time, though, it was a deliberate and well coordinated attack. The Germans succeeded in capturing the south-western corner of the Red Line, the high round
around the Ras el Madauuar feature (Hill 209). After four days of fighting, from 30 April to 4 May, the Germans held a pocket about 5.5 kilometres wide and 4 kilometres deep, an area which became known as “the Salient”. Thrust and counterthrust cost the Germans and Italians nearly 1,000 casualties, with almost 800 casualties to Tobruk’s garrison.
Morshead refused to concede ground. In June and August the Australians repeatedly tried to recapture the lost posts. Each attack was beaten back with heavy losses. Some of the worst fighting at Tobruk took place in the bullet-raked Salient. In some places, only a few hundred metres separated the Germans from the Australians. The 2/12th Battalion’s Corporal Geoffrey Lowe put it simply: “You couldn’t move in daytime, you’d be shot.”
The fighting along the Red Line soon became a patrolling war. The Australians dominated no man’s land. Each night groups of Australians went out beyond the wire into no man’s land to carry out reconnaissance, raid the enemy’s lines and capture prisoners. Patrols were frequently supported by the artillery, tanks and tracked carriers. This ceaseless and aggressive patrolling was one of Morshead’s key strategies. “I determined we should make no man’s land our land,” he told
Wilmot. “We’re not here to ‘take it’, we’re here to ‘give it’.” Morshead’s policy of making the “besiegers the besieged” kept the enemy at arm’s length and prevented them from observing the Australian lines.
Battalions rotated through the Red Line every few weeks. They moved from concrete bunkers and sandbag posts to caves, tunnels and camouflaged dug-outs. Even when not fighting, those on duty still had much to do. The daily routine consisted of digging, wiring and laying mines, or fetching and carrying rolls of wire, sandbags and metal pickets, ammunition and water. The water was brackish and was always, always warm. “The longing for something cool, or cold, is maddening,” wrote Lieutenant Tas Gill, 2/48th Battalion, to his parents.
The days were hot and dusty. Anywhere in Tobruk could be hit by enemy artillery or bombs. There was no escape from danger or stress, from the extreme temperatures or from the khamsin (dust storms) and insects.
“We just lived in holes in the ground and it was filthy sand,” recalled Sergeant Max Thow, 2/12th Battalion. “We had sand in our mouths, we had sand in our food, we had sand in our clothes.” Not surprisingly the propagandist for Germany, William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw-Haw, began describing the besieged men as living like rats in underground dug-outs and caves. The men responded by adopting the name “the Rats of Tobruk” with defiant pride.
The battle for the harbour was the second front at Tobruk. Everything had to be brought in and out by sea. Sailing from ports in Egypt, British and Australian warships aided by small ships brought in food, medical supplies, weapons, oil and petrol, mail, cigarettes and reinforcements; the ships also evacuated the wounded and prisoners. The “Tobruk ferry service” was one of the nicknames for the destroyer convoys that began regularly supplying the fortress from May.
Unable to take the town by land, Rommel wanted to bomb and starve the defenders into submission. The navy’s approach to Tobruk became known as “Bomb Alley”.
Between April and December 1941, 34 ships were lost and another 33 ships, including two hospital ships, were damaged. German and Italian aircraft made 3,000 sorties against the harbour and its surrounds during some 750 raids. The harbour never closed. Its antiaircraft defences became stronger, the gunners
In mid-June the British launched an offensive to relieve Tobruk. Code-named Operation Battleaxe, it failed. Tobruk’s garrison fought on but the strain and casualties continued to mount.
General Sir Thomas Blamey, the Australian commander in the Middle East, began urging General Sir Claude Auchinleck, the British theatre commander, to relieve the Australians. Blamey argued that the garrison was becoming exhausted and run down; he also wanted to bring together his three Australian divisions, the 6th, 7th and 9th. (At one stage in June, part of the AIF was in Tobruk, part in Palestine and part in Syria; there were even some in Cyprus.) The British disagreed;
Blamey and the Australian government insisted.
The 18th Brigade was relieved first. Brought out by sea at night during August, they were replaced by a Polish brigade (which included a Czechoslovakian battalion). The British 70th Division relieved the 9th Division during September and October. On the final night of the relief, the convoy sailing to Tobruk was attacked and turned back. The 2/13th Battalion had to remain in Tobruk until the siege was lifted.
The siege continued for another two months. In mid-November the British launched a major offensive, Operation Crusader, to destroy Rommel’s forces and lift the siege. Crusader quickly became a confusing series of tank and infantry battles. As the offensive staggered towards Tobruk, the garrison broke out and captured the high ground at Ed Duda ridge, east of the fortress, only to lose part of it later during the battle. The garrison linked up with a British column,
spearheaded by the New Zealand Division.
The 2/13th Battalion became crucially involved in this fight. From 29 November to 1 December, they participated in the recapture of Ed Duda ridge in a night bayonet attack. They then helped hold the ridge, despite heavy enemy artillery fire. The ferocity left even veterans of the earlier Tobruk battles lost for words. “We were shelled continually for two days,” wrote Private Arthur Armstrong. “It was terrible, I can’t describe it.” Fierce fighting took place but the Germans and Italians were gradually worn down. On 7 December Rommel was finally forced to abandon the siege, falling back towards Tripoli.
The siege had lasted for 242 days, from 10 April until 7 December 1941. It was one of the longest sieges in British military history. Holding Tobruk had been an epic of endurance and an impressive feat of arms, but it came at a heavy cost. Between April and October, the garrison suffered nearly 4,000 casualties – mostly Australian. More were killed and wounded during the siege’s final weeks. The total losses for Morshead’s 9th Division and supporting troops, from March
until December, were 832 men killed, with 2,177 wounded and 941 taken prisoner.
Rommel and the Afrikakorps, though, were not yet vanquished. He launched a new offensive in late January 1942. He soon recaptured the territory lost in Libya – including Tobruk, then held by South African and British troops, in June 1942. Hitler promoted Rommel to the rank of field marshal as a reward for Tobruk’s capture. Advancing into Egypt, Rommel was eventually stopped at El Alamein in July 1942. Three months later, British forces finally forced Rommel to retreat. Morshead and his 9th Division played leading roles during both the first and second Alamein battles.
The fighting in North Africa continued until mid-1943, when the Afrikakorps, along with other German and Italian units, was finally destroyed in Tunisia. Rommel by then had been recalled to Europe and had become disillusioned with Hitler and the regime. Implicated in the failed plot to assassinate Hitler, Rommel was forced to commit suicide on 14 October 1944.
For most Tobruk veterans, the desert siege was only their first campaign. Many fought or died in the crucial battles of Alamein, or went on to fight a new enemy, the Japanese, in the Pacific. Yet all of them are best remembered for the determination and tenacity they showed at Tobruk. They showed that the Germans could be beaten. They defeated German tank attacks and dominated no man’s land. In doing so, the “Rats” became immortalised in Australian and British folklore.