Between April and August 1941 around 14,000 Australian soldiers were besieged in Tobruk by a German–Italian army commanded by General Erwin Rommel. The garrison, commanded by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead, consisted of the 9th Division (20th, 24th, and 26th Brigades), the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division, along with four regiments of British artillery and some Indian troops.
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 1500 km 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 propagandist Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) derided the tenacious defenders as 'rats', a term that the Australian soldiers embraced as an ironic compliment.
The Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy provided the garrison's link to the outside world, the so-called 'Tobruk ferry'. These ships included the Australian destroyers Napier, Nizam, Stuart, Vendetta and Voyager. Losses comprised two destroyers, including HMAS Waterhen, three sloops, including HMAS Parramatta, and 21 smaller vessels.
Half the Australian garrison was relieved in August, the rest in September-October. However, 2/13 Battalion could not be evacuated and was still there when the siege was lifted on 10 December, the only unit present for the entire siege.
Australian casualties from the 9th Division from 8th April to 25th October numbered 749 killed, 1,996 wounded and 604 prisoners. The total losses in the 9th Division and attached troops from 1st March to 15th December amounded to 832 killed, 2,177 wounded and 941 prisoners.
Barton Maughan, Tobruk and El Alamein, Australia in the war of 1939–1945, vol 3, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1966 (statistics page 401)
Overview of the siege of Tobruk: this document from the AWM Files of Research No. 581 contains a brief history of the siege, based on Chester Wilmot’s book Tobruk, 1941: Capture, Siege, Relief, Angus & Robertson, Sydney & London,1945.
- Barton Maughan, Tobruk and El Alamein, Australia in the war of 1939–1945, Series 1 - Army, vol. 3, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1966
- Tobruk ferry: G Herman Gill, Royal Australian Navy, 1939–1942, Australia in the war of 1939–1945, Series 2 - Navy, vol. 1, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1957, pp. 390–393
- Units which took part in the siege of Tobruk: this document from the AWM Files of Research No. 577 contains the Order of Battle strength for Tobruk.
- Photograph: First Australian VC Winner of the Second World War
Corporal J. Edmondson was awarded the Victoria Cross, posthumously, for action at Tobruk.
- Biography of Lieutenant General Leslie James Morshead
- Rats of Tobruk Memorial on Anzac Parade