Tobruk: The Desert Rats Defy Rommel 1941

Italy’s invasion of Libya in 1911 meant that Mussolini already had one possession in North Africa. By the outbreak of the Second World War, some 150,000 Italian colonists lived there. So when the British rejected Hitler’s peace overtures, Mussolini turned his attention to Egypt, which had been in British hands since 1882. He ordered Marshal Graziani to launch an offensive eastwards against the British troops in Egypt, who were under the command of General Sir Archibald Wavell. On 13 September 1940, the Italian 10th Army took the small border port of Sollum. They then advanced a further fifty miles into Egypt and occupied the British base at Sidi Barrani on 16 September. Six weeks later the British Western Desert Force under Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor started a ‘five day raid’ which pushed the Italians back across the border on 10 December. Reinforced by the Australians, the Western Desert Force continued the advance and took the small port of Tobruk in northeast Libya on 21 January 1941. By the time the Italians had surrendered, on 7 February, they had been driven back for a distance of 500 miles by the British. Over 130,000 Italian prisoners had been taken, along with 400 tanks and 1,290 guns. Meeting no further resistance, the Western Desert Force could have gone on to take Tripoli, but their supply lines were already over-stretched and British prime minister Winston Churchill wanted to divert men and resources to Greece.

Hitler came to Mussolini’s aid. On 6 February, General Erwin Rommel, who had spearheaded the Panzer drive to the Channel, was sent with his Afrika Korps to Tripoli. He attacked El Agheila on 24 March, capturing O’Connor and throwing the British column back in the direction from which it had come. However, Wavell decided to hold Tobruk while the rest of the British force retreated into Egypt to regroup. As Tobruk had fallen so effortlessly on 21 January, its fortifications were largely intact. Its strongpoints, which were set out in alternating rows, were protected by concrete walls that were three feet thick. These offered protection against 15cm guns, the heaviest the Afrika Korps had at the time. It had an anti-tank ditch that was covered in camouflaged planks and sand and the perimeter defences described an arc that ran for twenty-eight miles around the port and reached a further nine miles inland. This was to be defended by the 9th Australian Division, reinforced by a brigade of the 7th, and the Sikhs of the 18th Cavalry Regiment. Major-General Leslie Morshead, commander of the 9th, told his men: ‘There will be no Dunkirk here. If we have to get out, we will fight our way out. No surrender and no retreat.’

Artillery support was supplied by the Australian Royal Artillery and the Royal Horse Artillery. Although their twenty-five-pounder field guns were not designed as anti-tank weapons, they were very effective against Rommel’s Panzers, bearing in mind that the standard anti-tank gun was the two-pounder. Tobruk was also defended by anti-aircraft batteries with seventy-five guns between them. Four Hurricanes were stationed there in the early days of the siege, but these were either shot down or withdrawn.

On 10 April, Rommel reached Tobruk and sent a motorised detachment to storm the town, but it was repulsed by heavy gunfire which killed its commander. On the night of 13 April, an infantry battalion of the Afrika Korps’ 5th Light Division made its way through a minefield and across the anti-tank ditch. A counterattack destroyed the infantry battalion and Jack Edmondson, an Australian defender who went on fighting even though he was mortally wounded, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Meanwhile elements of the Afrika Korps had bypassed Tobruk and had reached the Egyptian border. From now on, the 22,000 men at Tobruk would have to be supplied by sea.

This was a dangerous business because the Luftwaffe had complete air superiority. However, the anti-aircraft gunners managed to keep the harbour open. The heavy batteries were armed with British 3.7-inch guns, which produced shrapnel, while light anti-aircraft batteries used Bofors 40mm guns backed up by captured Italian 20mm and 40mm Breda guns, which fired tracer shells that exploded on impact. Between them, they would throw up a barrage at a predetermined height. The German pilots got wise to this, however, and started hanging back to see what height the barrage had been fixed at before starting their bombing runs. The barrage was then spread more thinly, and over varying heights, to make it more difficult to penetrate. The Luftwaffe’s response was to began dive-bombing the sites of the heavy guns, so the light anti-aircraft batteries with their rapid-fire tracers were moved in closer as protection.

Just before dawn on 14 April the Panzers attacked for the first time. They came on the left of the road that led south to El Adem. Thirty-eight tanks broke through the two lines of the zig-zagged perimeter defences and headed for the town. Three miles on they hit the second line of defence – the Blue Line. There they met point blank fire from British twenty-five-pounders. The Germans’ artillery support and machine-gunners had been held up by the Australian infantry who stayed in position when the tanks broke through. In the face of the twenty-five-pounders, the Panzers had no choice but to retreat. As they did so, British tanks and Australian anti-tank guns pummelled their flanks. The routed Germans left seventeen tanks behind. Twelve aircraft had been shot down, 110 men killed and 254 were captured. It was the first time that Hitler’s Panzers had tasted defeat.

Rommel realised that Tobruk could only be taken with an all-out attack, but he lacked the resources. Even the 15th Panzer Division, which was on its way, had suffered significant losses when the convoy carrying it was attacked on its way to Libya. By that time operations in the Balkans, and afterwards the Soviet Union, had starved Rommel of the tanks and men he needed for the capture of Tobruk. This small port later became the setting for the longest siege in British history.

Rommel bided his time for the next two weeks, bringing up more forces. By the end of the month he had some 400 German and Italian tanks at his disposal, against the defenders’ thirty-one. On the evening of 30 April, he threw his men at Hill 209, known as Ras el Medauur, which was near the water tower on the southwest corner of the perimeter. Twenty-two Stukas began dive-bombing the Australian positions at 19.15 hours and an artillery barrage opened up at 20.00. This cut the telephone lines and neutralized the front-line defences.

Under the cover of the bombardment, the Germans blew gaps in the wire and cleared paths through the minefield. By 21.15 a German machine-gun battalion, positioned a mile inside the perimeter, opened fire on the reserve company. The Australians began a counterattack, but with poor communication, and they could not find the beleaguered perimeter posts in the darkness. By the following morning it was clear that the Germans had punched a hole through the outer defences that was a mile and a half wide. They captured seven perimeter posts and took more than a hundred prisoners. However, the Australians had put up such a determined resistance that they had taken the momentum out of the German attack.

Soon after 08.00 the Germans advanced again with forty tanks, but they were stopped by a mine-field. Heavy shelling forced them to retreat, although a dust storm covered their withdrawal. Rommel tried to draw in the Allied armour by using a diversionary tactic with some twenty tanks, but Morshead was reluctant to commit his own tanks. He preferred to let mines and artillery shells do their work before risking his precious armoured reserve. Repeated air attacks failed to knock out the Allied artillery and by 09.00 the German attack had petered out.

As they could make no further progress in a forwards direction, Rommel’s Panzers and their infantry support attacked the posts at either side of the mouth of the German bridgehead. One of them fell by noon, but the heavy shelling prevented the Panzers from coordinating their efforts with their supporting infantry. Consequently, their attempts to take the other post failed. However, twenty-five light Panzers got beyond the perimeter posts and ran around the southern edge of the minefield. They were shelled all the way but by 09.15 they had reached Post R12, three miles east of Hill 209. There they were halted by fourteen cruiser tanks. Rommel then sent in another nine tanks. A sporadic tank battle broke out, but in spite of their superior numbers the Panzers were forced to withdraw after three of them had been lost.

The Germans tanks refuelled and began a new attack that afternoon. They were once more met by accurate British shelling. The Australians in the perimeter posts, armed only with Bren guns and rifles, put up fierce resistance. Two heavy Panzers tried to bombard one post into surrender from a range of seventy-five yards, but the Germans were repeatedly beaten back. By dusk half the defenders were wounded. The Germans attacked again in the twilight with tanks and flame-throwers and they took the post at 19.30. A second post fell on the following morning.

Having abandoned any attempt to drive forward directly onto the harbour, Rommel continued to push on inside the perimeter in the southeast until the bridgehead cleared the southern minefield. But he was stopped that evening by a counterattack against Hill 209.Impeded by the fading light and the dust kicked up by enemy shelling, the Australians advanced for more than a mile before they met resistance from anti-tank and machine-gun emplacements. By then they had lost the cover of their artillery barrage. Lacking the machine-guns they needed, the men withdrew. They had not retaken Hill 209, but they had had forced the enemy onto the defensive and had prevented the Germans from skirting around a vital minefield.

The German advance was halted by a sandstorm on 2 May, giving the defenders time to lay new minefields, bring up fresh infantry and strengthen their positions. The artillery continued to pummel the German positions and the Germans did not resume their offensive when the storm cleared next day. The garrison had lost just five tanks, while out of the eighty-one German tanks that Rommel had started with there were only thirty-five left in action. Of the forty-six that had been lost, however, only twelve had been completely destroyed. However, the Panzers had suffered their second defeat and their morale was shaken. On the other hand, the Germans had made a breach in the de-fences and had held a large salient.

Morshead planned to do something about that. He would send two battalions to attack the shoulders of the salient, retake the lost posts and cut off the enemy spearhead. At the same time, a third battalion would make deep raids into enemy territory. The problem was that the Germans held Hill 209 so they could watch as the Australians assembled. This gave them ample warning of the attack. After dark the Australians advanced under an artillery barrage and the Germans fought back with heavy machine-gun fire. Flares lit up the sky and German mortar and artillery fire brought the Australian advance on the northern flank to a standstill. On the southern flank, they retook one post but attacked another without success. The other attacks pushed the German outposts back by more than half a mile. The Germans had lost 1,700 men, compared to the garrisons’ casualties of 797 – fifty-nine killed, 355 wounded and 383 missing. However, the German High Command grew alarmed at the losses and ordered Rommel not to attack again.

Morshead was jubilant. ‘The actions before Tobruk in April and May are the first in which armoured formations of the German Army have been defied and defeated,’ he said.

Churchill was also impressed. He sent a telegram which read: ‘The whole Empire is watching your steadfast and spirited defence of this important outpost of Egypt with gratitude and admiration.’

Wavell’s message to Morshead struck a more practical note. It read: ‘Your magnificent defence is upsetting enemy’s plans for attack on Egypt and giving us time to build up force for counter offensive. You could NOT repeat NOT be doing better service.’

The German radio propagandist William Joyce – known as in Britain as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ because of his sneering voice – ignored the problems that Rommel was having. He crowed that the garrison were caught ‘like rats in a trap’. A German newspaper then dubbed the British defenders the ‘Rats of Tobruk’, an insult they quickly embraced, calling themselves the ‘Desert Rats’.

Tobruk was psychologically important from the Allied point of view, because it showed, for the first time, that the Germans could be stopped. The Panzers were not invincible. The German Blitzkrieg could defeated by minefields and artillery fire and infantry who stood their ground. Even the terror-bombers could be thwarted by dedicated anti-aircraft gunners. It also added a vital fillip to British prestige in the Arab world. Strategically, Rommel would have rolled on through Egypt if Tobruk had fallen. He would have taken the Suez Canal and the oilfields in the Persian Gulf and cut the British Empire in two. As it was, Britain was given time to recover from the disasters of Greece and Crete. The British forces could regroup in Egypt, while fresh American aid arrived via Britain.

The defence of Tobruk also kept Turkey – a German ally in the First World War – out of the war. Accordingly, Hitler was prevented from using Turkey as a southern springboard for his attack on the Soviet Union, which delayed him by at least a month. Because winter is considered to be Russia’s greatest general, this may have been crucial.

The greatest measure of the defenders of Tobruk’s success was the fact that it took three battalions of Rommel’s best troops and four Italian divisions to hold the salient around Hill 209. Morshead capitalised on this by maintaining a strategy of aggressive night patrolling in order to dominate no man’s land and undermine the enemy’s morale. In the meantime, the British maintained their harassing attacks on Rommel’s forces on the Egyptian frontier, even though they were short of tanks. Their aim was to keep him from regrouping his whole force and turning it on Tobruk.

After the evacuation of Greece, fifty tanks were diverted to Egypt. Wavell quickly organised Operation Brevity in order to relieve Tobruk. On 15 May 1941 the British captured the Halfaya Pass on the way to Sollum. But they were forced to withdraw on 17 May and the Germans retook the pass.

On the night of 15 May, the Germans launched an attack on three perimeter posts at Tobruk. It was thought that all three were lost, but when one was recaptured it was found that the other two had held out although they were desperately short of ammunition. Once they were resupplied, the Australians discovered that they were ‘on a roll’ and so they tried to recapture more of their outposts. Supporting fire came from thirty-nine British guns and a smoke screen was laid in order that machine-gunners from the Northumberland Fusiliers could sweep into the disputed area without being observed from Hill 209. The Germans laid their own smoke screen and barrage, however, and the British tanks lost their way in the dust and smoke. Even so, the Australian infantry carried on alone through intense fire in an attempt to take two posts. Unfortunately, the Germans were too well established and they not only held the concrete posts but also the intermediate positions that were able to provide flanking fire. At that point the Australians withdrew.

By June the two sides were consolidating their defensive positions. In the salient, the Germans had fallen back to a defensive line that was behind the positions they held on 3 May. By 26 June the Australians had been able to advance their line by 1,000 yards, reducing its length from over five miles to under four. This allowed the Australians to take one battalion out of the line and place it on reserve. On the other hand, the German line was more closely packed and the Germans had also mined no man’s land, preventing any further Australian advances.

Wavell made a second attempt to relieve Tobruk, starting on 15 June. When this was beaten back by the 15th Panzer Division, General Sir Claude Auchinleck replaced Wavell as commander-in-chief in the Middle East on 1 July.

The Australians had held out in Tobruk for over three months. Factors such as heat, dust, flies, sand and poor food were affecting fighting ability and the Australian government asked that they be withdrawn. The bulk of the troops were evacuated in the late summer and replaced by the British 17th Division under Major-General Scobie. They were supported by the 1st Polish Carpathian Brigade and a Czechoslovakian battalion. However, some Australians stayed on with the original British forces.

While Rommel planned a new attack, General Auchinleck began organising Operation Crusader, a third attempt to relieve Tobruk, forming the 8th Army under General Sir Alan Cunningham. Cunningham’s plan was to send XXX Corps across the Libyan border to the south and deploy it at a place called Gabr Saleh. He hoped that Rommel and his Panzers would seize the opportunity for a tank battle because he believed that the better equipped and more numerous British and South African forces would win. Meanwhile, XIII Corps would overrun the frontier positions on the coast and push up the coast road towards Tobruk while Rommel was being crushed in the desert. The danger was that there would be a large gap between the two columns so the British would be vulnerable. Another column was drawn up between them, therefore, but it drew its strength from XXX Corps, thereby considerably weakening the force that was intended to take on Rommel.

Crusader got underway in torrential rain on 18 November. Unfortunately Rommel had plans of his own. Because he was making ready to take Tobruk, he kept his armour around Gambut on the coast road instead of moving to meet XXX Corps at Gabr Saleh. Worse yet was to befall Cunningham. The Eighth Army’s operational plans fell into enemy hands after being brought to the front by a careless British officer. Because Rommel failed to meet XXX Corps at Gabr Saleh, the British pressed on. On 19 November, however, fifty of their new Crusader tanks were destroyed when they tried to take Bir el Gubi to the south of Tobruk. Another column pushed on towards Tobruk, but it was met by the Afrika Korps at Sidi Rezegh, who mounted a counterattack which destroyed much of their armour. Rommel could have wiped out the whole of XXX Corps if he had followed up on the following day. Instead, he took a gamble. With a hundred tanks he made a dash across the desert to the Egyptian border with the intention of cutting off the entire Eighth Army and attacking it from the rear.

The reverses took a terrible toll on Cunningham, who wanted to withdraw. Auchinleck urged him on in the belief that Rommel’s bold move was an act of desperation. However, the strain was too much for Cunningham and on 26 November Auchinleck had to replace him with his own deputy chief of staff, Major-General Neil Methuen Ritchie. It was now Auchinleck who was really in command.

In a letter home, Rommel described his ‘dash to the wire’ as a great success. In fact, he had made little impression on the 4th Indian Division holding the rear, nor did he deprive Eighth Army of its supplies. Worse, his radio had broken down and he had left his Panzer group without orders for four days.

While XXX Corps had been decimated to the south, XIII Corps had been given an easier time of it while they were running along the coast road. The New Zealand Division broke through and on 25 November Scobie received a telegram telling him that the New Zealanders would make another attack on Sidi Rezegh on the following day. At the same time, the garrison was to attempt to break out. They did this in the midst of fierce fighting. At 13.00 hours they saw tanks on the horizon and then suddenly three red rockets burst in the sky. It was the 8th Army’s recognition signal. Tobruk had been relieved at last. But not for long. In Rommel’s absence, the 21st Panzer Division, which had been on the Egyptian border, was ordered to retreat. Rommel confirmed this order when he reappeared at his headquarters on the 27th. A confused battle followed in which the New Zealand Division was cut in two, with one half being sent back to Tobruk. In the mêlée, the commander of the 21st Panzer Division, General von Ravenstein, was captured.

Meanwhile, Auchinleck reinforced and reorganised XXX Corps and catapulted it back into battle. Rommel now only had a few tanks left so he withdrew his forces when he was told that he was not going to be resupplied until the latter part of December. He then attacked Tobruk from the east on 5 December. On the following day, a final counterattack failed and he ordered a general retreat, leaving behind an Italian division with orders to hold out as long as possible. Short of food and ammunition, it surrendered on 17 January.

The Siege of Tobruk lasted 242 days from 10 April to 7 December 1941, 55 days longer than the siege of Mafeking in the Boer War. It was the first defeat of German land forces in the Second World War.

Although the British managed to push Rommel 300 miles down the coast road he rallied at Gazala, in a counterattack that sent the British into full retreat. In June 1942, he finally captured Tobruk, which fell to the British again on 13 November 1942 after General Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein.

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