Siege of Tobruk: 80 years on
2021 marks the 80th anniversary of the Siege of Tobruk.
In 1941, Australians fought in land and air campaigns in Egypt and Libya in North Africa. Advancing west along the Libyan coast, the 6th Australian Division captured the Italian-controlled city of Tobruk – the only deep water port in Eastern Libya – in January, and it became a garrison for Australian and British forces.
German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps made its capture the main objective of his offensive in North Africa. By April, German forces had begun to cut off and surround the heavily fortified city. For eight months, from April to December 1941, Tobruk was besieged. Australian forces, notably the men of the 9th Division, the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division and Royal Australian Navy ships of the “scrap iron flotilla” played a prominent role in the town's defence. The Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy provided the garrison's link to the outside world, the “Tobruk ferry”.
Early this morning we took a position inside the perimeter defences of Tobruk. It was the dustiest day I ever have seen and believe me it is uncomfortable.Warrant Officer Class II Arthur Francis Bryant
Defenders at Tobruk had to adjust to life in stifling heat, under constant artillery and air bombardment. Supplies of food and water decreased, and the troops were plagued by flies, fleas and illness. But spirits remained high. While the Germans conquered all else before them, Tobruk held out, standing in the way of Rommel’s advance towards Egypt and the Suez Canal. The Australians adopting the ironic nickname “The Rats of Tobruk” in response to German radio propagandist “Lord Haw Haw” describing them as being like rats underground.
Half the Australian garrison was relieved in August, the rest in September and October. However, the 2/13th Battalion could not be evacuated and was still present when the siege was lifted on 10 December, the only unit present for the entire siege.
Timeline of Tobruk
- 1 September 1939
- Germany invades Poland
- 3 September 1939
- Britain, France and Australia declare war on Germany
- 10 June 1940
- Italy declares war on allies
- 13 September
- Italy invades Egypt
- 3-5 January 1941
- Australian 6th Division and British troops attack and capture Bardia from the Italians
- 21-22 January 1941
- Australian 6th Division and British troops attack and capture Tobruk from the Italians
- 8-9 March 1941
- Australian 9th Division under Morshead, take over from the 6th Division on Tobruk
- 31 March 1941
- German and Italian troops attack in North Africa.
- 10-11 April 1941
- 'The Siege of Tobruk’ begins with German troops cutting landward communications with Tobruk, besieging 9th Australian Division and 18th Australian Brigade
- 13-14 April 1941
- Germans launch their attack known as the ‘Easter Battle’ and are defeated
- 30 April - 4 May 1941
- Battle of ‘The Salient’. Germans and Italians attack Australians, capture some posts but are again defeated
- 19 August 1941
- Corporal John ‘Jack’ Edmondson is awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for his gallant actions on 13 April 1941. He is the first Australian to be awarded the VC during the Second World War
- August – October 1941
- The majority of the 9th Australian Division are withdrawn from Tobruk
- 10 December 1941
- The last Australian unit, the 2/13 Battalion are evacuated
- January 1942
- Tobruk is again besieged by German counter attack. The British and South African garrison are forced to surrender