80TH ANNIVERSARY

Siege of Tobruk

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
Open Information

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

In their Own Words

VETERANS OF TOBRUK

Rats of Tobruk

WAR STORIES

2011 marked the 70th anniversary of the Siege of Tobruk. This film was made to accompany the special anniversary exhibition "Rats of Tobruk 1941"

Wartime magazine

Previous issues of Wartime magazine have included Issue 79 "War in the Mediterranean" and Issue 49 "Victory and Defeat: The Australian Experience 1939-41".

You can purchase these issues from the Memorial shop - in-store or online for just $5.00

Buy Issue 79
Buy Issue 49

Collection Items

PHOTOS, ARTWORK AND OBJECTS FROM THE MEMORIAL'S COLLECTION

Corporal Alexander Robert Hutchison and Private Patrick Joseph McKenna, both of the 2/13th battalion. 

Members of the 2/13th Battalion on patrol along the anti-tank ditch.

Guards at 9th Division rear H.Q at Tobruk. 9 May 1941.

Operations room of the 9th Australian Division Signals during the siege of Tobruk. August 1941.

Eygpt, September 1941: Men of the 24th Infantry Brigade after their voyage from Tobruk.

A burning Italian bomber brought down during an aerial battle over Tobruk. 11 February 1941.

This sign was familiar sight to most of the troops engaged in the defence of the town of Tobruk in 1941. It was collected by Lieutenant Colonel A R Allen, a commissioner of the Australian Comforts Fund.

When asked in 1950 about his acquisition of the sign, Allen responded: 'I souvenired the Tobruk road sign right from under the eyes of an English Lance Corporal Military Policeman. Travelling due West and about a quarter of a mile from the town of Tobruk was a forked road. There were two signs - the one in question pointing right for the road leading into the town, the other pointing left to Benghazi. It was a very well known and often unsalubrious spot to all who spent any time in that area.'

The original location of the sign has been identified as the road junction at Red Flag corner, so called because a red flag was run up on a pole there as a warning of impending air raids.

Italians leaving the town to surrender to the Australian forces attacking Torbuk. 23 January 1941.

Although hit several times by bombs this office was still used by Lange-Sergeant W.H Williams for his publishing and editing room. 

The town and harbour painted from drawings made in Tobruk at the beginning of February 1941, two weeks after the town had been captured by Allied Forces and before the Siege of Tobruk began. Maker: Ivor Hele

A dugout in the desert near Tobruk c. 1941

Vehicles crushed by rubble after bombing in Tobruk.

Tobruk, Maker: Ivor Hele 

Gunner Jeff Coombe behind his tank attack gun. September 1941.

Members of the 2/17 infantry battalion.

Learn more about the desert war and the Mediterranean with suggested articles, podcasts and essays. 
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