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The Italo-German siege that put Commonwealth troops to the test for 241 days

The Siege of Tobruk

Tobruk in flames with Commonwealth tanks in the foreground

The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s grand plan was to resurrect the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. To achieve this, one of his goals was to take the strategic waterway of the Suez Canal in the British-controlled colony of Egypt. Similarly to today’s situation, the Suez Canal provided the transport of goods from South-Asia without having to sail around Africa. Italy’s two colonies, Libya and Ethiopia faced the British both from the west and the east. The dictator was in a good position to reach his objective.
 
It is important to note that in desert warfare in North-Africa the supply of war materiel and troops was only possible through major ports or airfields along the coastline. If the supply lines got overstretched, the troops would simply run out of fuel, ammunition and food in the middle of the desert. In sandstorms and with engines overheating, every mile travelled in the desert needed a multiple amount of resources and logistical effort compared to movement on normal terrain. This resulted in an almost endless circle of attacks, counterattacks and retreats depending on which side was getting too far away from its main source of supplies.

Italian dictator Mussolini in Tripoli, Libya
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Italy declared war on Great Britain on June 10, 1940. In September 1940, the Italian 10th Army led by General Rodolfo Graziani infiltrated into Egypt from Libya and took the western city of Sidi Barrani. As a quick turn of events, on December 7, 1940, the poorly supplied Italian forces were forced deep back to Libya to Beda Fomm by a counterattack of the greatly outnumbered Commonwealth troops (250,000 Italians against 36,000 British) led by General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command and his subordinate Major General Richard O’Connor in Operation Compass. They also took the deep-water port of Tobruk, the site on an ancient Greek colony, a Roman fortress and an Italian stronghold with a harbor protected against bombardment at the time of WWII. Due to the above-mentioned unique nature of desert warfare, Tobruk was essential in taking Egypt since it was much closer than the other important ports of Benghazi and Tripoli which lay several hundred miles away to the west.

General Sir Archibald Wavell

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Following the victory in Libya, many of the battle-hardened British units of the Western Desert Force (WDF) were sent for refit or to Greece to face the invading Axis forces in the Balkans. In Tobruk, the inexperienced 9th Australian Division replaced the experienced soldiers of the 6th Australian Division. Mussolini asked for the help of his fellow dictator, Adolf Hitler, but the British did not expect the Axis forces to react to the situation in a swift manner.

Erwin Rommel

Thus, the Allies were taken by surprise by the unexpected appearance of Italian reinforcements and the German Afrika Korps led by Hitler’s favorite, General Erwin Rommel, who already got famous for his maneuvers with his 7th Panzer Division (nicknamed “Ghost Division”, since, due to its speed, sometimes both the Allied and the German leadership lost track of it) during the battle of France. Thanks to his unpredictable and daring moves, he became known as the “Desert Fox” in the North African campaign. After France, it was in Africa where the Allied learned again to fear the German’s dreaded 88 mm anti-aircraft gun used also in anti-tank role against their tanks.

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A German 88mm gun in anti-tank role in Africa

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In Unternehmen Sonnenblume (“Operation Sunflower” in English) his troops pushed the Allies back to Egypt with the exception of Tobruk encircled from the land and held only by approximately 25,000 men of the 9th Australian Division and elements of other British and Indian units led by the Australian Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead. Being under constant artillery and aerial bombardment, they could only rely on supplies provided by the Royal Navy and rationing had to be introduced. They had bully beef, rice, tea and 2 liters of water a day. The defenders created a 30-mile / 48-km semi-circle of obstacles, bunkers, trenches and minefields, and could also use the fortifications that the Italians built during their 30-year occupation. Named after the city of Tobruk by the Allies, small, open-top bunkers dug into the ground were used by the Italian forces. Later, these were further improved by the Germans and used in great numbers in the Atlantic Wall, for instance. They were normally equipped with machine guns, mortars or even unused tank turrets.

A German tobruk position with a machine gun

Rommel desperately needed Tobruk to ensure his supply lines won’t get overstretched when attacking Egypt. Almost exactly 81 years ago, on April 10, 1940, he started the first siege of Tobruk which lasted for 241 days until November 27, 1940. In more than eight months, the Allied launched three relief attempts in a series of operations (Brevity, Battleaxe and Crusader). British fascist William Joyce, also known as “Lord Haw-Haw”, called the defenders the “rats of Tobruk” in a radio broadcast. This backfired and formed an even stronger camaraderie between the soldiers, who called themselves the “Rats of Tobruk” with honor and humor from here on.  It gave them encouragement and they stood their ground even in the most desperate times of the siege. Joyce was captured and hanged for treason in 1946.

British fascist “Lord Haw-Haw”

Starting on May 15, 1940, Operation Brevity was meant to prepare and secure positions for a larger operation to liberate Tobruk. It failed to achieve its main objectives an ended up in a general retreat of the British. This was followed by Operation Battleaxe on June 15, 1940, to lift the siege around Tobruk. It resulted in serious losses and ended up in a defeat for the Commonwealth forces and was called off after two days. General Wavell had to take responsibility and was replaced by General Claude Auchinleck who took over as Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Command. The Western Desert Force was renamed to British Eighth Army led by General Alan Cunningham. In August, the exhausted Australian defenders were replaced by the British 70th Infantry Division, the Polish Carpathian Independent Brigade and Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion, which stayed for rest of the siege. Command of the garrison was transferred to the British Lieutenant General Ronald Scobie. Under the new leadership, the British launched Operation Crusader on November 18, 1941, with same objective, namely to free Tobruk. After successful German counterattacks, Cunningham was replaced with Major-General Neil Ritchie. Due to supply shortages, the Germans had to retreat, enabling the relief of Tobruk on December 10.

Commonwealth troops finding shelter in caves around Tobruk

After several German counterattacks in early 1942, the Allied probably hoped that they had to defend Tobruk for the last time in 1941. Rommel proved them wrong again. By mid-1942, the Tobruk garrison was replaced mostly by the new 2nd South African Division led by Major-General Hendrik Klopper. After another successful campaign at the Battle of Gazala in Operation Venice (Unternehmen Venezia in German), on June 21, 1942, Rommel defeated the 8th Army and retook the now-isolated Tobruk after a humiliating one-day siege, capturing around 33,000 defenders, and huge quantities of supplies. This was the second worst capitulation of British Commonwealth troops in WWII so far after the defeat at Singapore. For this achievement, Rommel was promoted to field marshal by Hitler, while General Ritchie was fired by the British. Rommel wanted to use the momentum and capture the Suez Canal, break into the oil-rich Middle-East and eventually link up with the German forces in the Caucasus. Again, this proved to be a short-lived victory for the Germans, since Rommel was defeated at El-Alamein in two battles and had to empty Tobruk. This was the start of a long westward withdrawal along the coast running into the Allied forces landed in French North Africa in Operation Torch, which eventually led to the surrender of the German and Italian forces on May 13, 1942 in Tunisia. 

German prisoners of war

Before the collapse of Axis forces, on March 9, 1942, Rommel returned to Germany to discuss the situation in North Africa with Hitler and ask for the withdrawal of the forces from Africa. He failed to persuade Hitler and was not allowed to return to Africa and was put on health leave until further orders but this was not the last occasion that he clashed with the Allies. Several of the military Allied leaders of the campaign in North-Africa, for instance General Patton, General Eisenhower and General Montgomery, faced Rommel again on D-Day in Normandy.

Polish, British, Indian, Australian and Czechoslovak defenders of Tobruk

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