Soldiers fighting with Australia’s 6th Division dealt a huge blow to the German/Italian strategy for controlling North Africa when they caught the Italian garrison by surprise and captured Tobruk.
After Major John Copland led a successful attack on an Italian post defending Tobruk, helping his men to enter the town where Allied forces took thousands of Italian prisoners, his comrades from the 2/4th Battalion captured the municipal flag of Tobruk, holding it up as a trophy outside the town hall. AWM
Senior officers of the 6th Division. Front row, left to right: Brigadier Arthur Allen, 16th Infantry Brigade; Major General Iven Mackay; Brigadier Horace Robertson, 19th Infantry Brigade. Back row, left to right: Colonel Frank Berryman, GSO1; Brigadier Stanley Savige, 17th Infantry Brigade; Colonel Alan Vasey, AA&QMG. All six had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order in the Great War.
The Italians had been at war with the British and Commonwealth forces in North Africa since June 1940. Italian forces in Libya, an Italian colony since 1912, had started what would become known as the Desert War by attacking British troops stationed in Egypt in the latter half of 1941. Benito Mussolini, also known as Il Duce, the fascist dictator of Italy, wanted to push east from Libya through Egypt, which for years had been home to a small contingent of British troops, and take control of the strategically important Suez Canal.
After a series of skirmishes around the Libyan border, Mussolini ordered a large and concentrated offensive into Egypt on 8 August. Though initially successful, the Italian offensive was opposed by British and Commonwealth forces in Operation Compass, a large-scale counterattack designed to push the Italian army out of Egypt and then Libya itself, on 9 December. The operation was immediately successful: by 10 December more than 20,000 Italians had been taken prisoner.
Advancing west along the North African coast from Egypt to Libya, Australian men of the 6th Division soon found themselves on the outskirts of Tobruk, an important Libyan port town with a natural, deep and protected harbour, perfect for resupply and reinforcement. This was the sole major harbour on that part of the North African coast, and along with it came jetties, great depth close to shore and one of the few reliable sources of fresh water for nearly 1300 kilometres. Controlling the harbour would be of great benefit to any army waging a war in the North African theatre.
Manned by a strong force of Italian soldiers under the command of General Manella, Tobruk had become a fortress for the Italians. Designated as the defensive nerve-centre of their Libyan colony, it provided a good shelter for battleships and submarines and allowed the Italians to be reinforced and resupplied when necessary. It was the perfect base from which to wage war in the desert.
Over the previous three decades the Italians had poured huge amounts of energy and resources into constructing strong defences on the outskirts of the town, including an anti-tank ditch, endless lines of barbed wire, booby traps and fortifications from which men could sweep the desert with their machine guns.
Rolling steadily west through Libya, the Australian 6th Division, led by Major General Iven Mackay, soon found themselves approaching the perimeter of Tobruk. It was January 1941, and the men of the 6th Division were charged with penetrating the perimeter, charging into Tobruk and occupying the town and its harbour.
The first to move in was a small group from the 2/1st Field Company. Just after midnight on 21 January 1941, these men set off to crawl along the desert floor, their faces blackened with paint, to find and ‘de-louse’ the area of the mines and booby traps scattered around the Italian defensive line. In silence, the sappers stealthily got on with their all-important work.
The rest of the 6th Division waited behind the lines for the attack, showing typical Australian calm. After watching the Australians prepare for the attack, Chester Wilmot, the Melbourne-born ABC journalist, later reported to his listeners that the men ‘might have been more worked up before a football grand final’.
At 5.40 a.m. the Allied artillery barrage began. As Wilmot later described it, ‘great clouds of dust like huge waterspouts marked each explosion and in the still morning air these took some time to drift away, so that for a few minutes they looked like silver poplars’. This ‘arty’, as the Australians called it, would provide cover for the sappers still out in the open and smash the Italian barbed wire, clearing a path for the Australian infantry.
The barrage ceased at 6.05 a.m. and, as the smoke cleared, the assembled Australians began to make out the gaps in the defensive wire. Suddenly a voice rang out from behind: ‘Go on, you bastards!’ And they did. Yelling as they charged, the Australians stormed towards Tobruk.
Stunned by the artillery barrage and terrified by these rampaging Australians, Italian soldiers appeared from holes all over the desert waving white handkerchiefs and crying ‘Ci rendiamo! Ci rendiamo!’ Radio announcers in Rome had for days been predicting that Australian ‘barbarians’ were about to be ‘turned loose’ by the British at Tobruk. These barbarians had indeed been turned loose, and the Italians wanted no part of it.
Those posts that did offer any resistance were quickly silenced, though many brave young Australians were cut down by Italian machine-gun fire and tank blasts. One soldier, Sergeant Burgess of the 2/8th Battalion, ran towards an Italian tank holding up the Allied advance and, trying to heave up the lid to drop in a grenade, was hit by a spray of machine-gun fire. As one of his mates wrote in his diary, ‘his last effort before he died was to struggle to put the pin back and throw the grenade clear of his comrades’.
It was during this advance that Copland captured the tearful Manella. Even with Manella’s surrender, however, pockets of resistance remained, and spasmodic fighting continued during the day and night. Although Manella had surrendered himself, he had refused to order the surrender of the rest of the Italian force guarding Tobruk.
It was the capture of yet another Italian commander the next day that saw the Allies finally take control. On 22 January a group of surrendering Italians approached two men of the 2/4th Battalion, Lieutenant Hennessy and Sergeant Mills, who were both in the advance guard of a party heading into the old Libyan town. Asking their captors to follow them, the Italians led Hennessy and Mills to Admiral Massimiliano Vietina, the commander of the naval garrison.
When it was offered first to him in surrender, Hennessy did not accept Vietina’s sword. He thought it more proper that his CO, Brigadier Horace Robertson, take it. The men would wait for Robertson.
The rest of the 6th Division didn’t really care for such formalities. As far as they were concerned, the supplies left in the deserted town by nearly 25,000 Italians were more important. Among the spoils were Italian cheese, red wine and fresh water, not to mention silk shirts, blue cavalry cloaks and elaborate leather toilet sets.
While Hennessy, Mills and Vietina waited for Robertson to arrive and formally accept the Italian surrender, one Australian did, however, take it upon himself to perform a symbolic act to mark the Australian triumph.
Climbing up a flagpole just off the main street of the old Italian fortress, he hoisted and ran his slouch hat from the mast. The Australians were in Tobruk.