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The Capture of Tobruk

Monday 18 January, 2016

Tobruk, like Gallipoli, holds a special place in the annals of Australian military history. A small town on the Libyan coast, its location made it central to the fighting that took place in the Western Desert during the Second World War.

From April to September 1941, Australian troops from the 9th Division held Tobruk against overwhelming odds, until it was relieved by the British 70th Division. While much is made of this ‘Siege of Tobruk’, less is known of its original capture by the 6th Australian Division in January that same year.

In its first major action of the War, Australia’s 6th Division had captured Bardia on 5 January and now advanced to Tobruk with the aim of also capturing this vital port from the Italians.  The objective was achieved on 22 January, 1941.  For an untested Division this was a stunning success.

Developed as a military post by the Italians in the early part of the 20th century, Tobruk’s sheltered deep-water harbour had led to it becoming a key naval outpost. Fortification undertaken in the 1930s, consisting of coastal defence batteries and a 50 kilometre long perimeter of reinforced concrete platoon posts, made it difficult to penetrate. Other supporting infrastructure also put in place by the Italians, included gun positions, headquarters, bunkers, underground supply dumps, and observation towers, making Tobruk a veritable fortress.

On the morning of 21 January, the 6th Australian Division attacked. It was instructed to make its approach from the eastern perimeter of El Adem road, where a battalion of the 16th Brigade had successfully staged a diversionary night attack.  This allowed the rest of the Division to pass by, fanning out east and west to advance towards the harbour.

The 17th Brigade staged another diversionary attack successfully identifying the location of the Italian artillery positions for counter-battery fire as they did so. Despite significant sandstorms, which grounded much of the RAF, bombing raids went ahead on Tobruk and on the Italian bases close-by at Benina and Berka.

The 2nd/3rd Australian Battalion attacked at 5.40am, covered by artillery fire distributed through an area where engineers had previously disabled booby traps and lifted mines. This made a clear pathway through the anti-tank ditch. After an hour, the 16th Brigade and 18 tanks had broken through a 1.6km front against patchy resistance.

At 8.40am the 16th Brigade fanned out with the 19th Brigade advancing north behind a barrage of artillery and counter-battery fire on the Italian artillery.  After brief resistance from an Italian counter attack of seven tanks and infantry behind an artillery barrage, the town of Tobruk fell on the morning of 22 January.  In what was a well-organised and swift campaign Tobruk had been successfully captured by the allies. The operation resulted in the capture of more than 27,000 Italians and over 200 artillery pieces.

The campaign had cost 49 Australian lives. Following this campaign, the 6th Division advanced beyond Tobruk but were eventually withdrawn from Libya to be deployed to Greece.

Just four months later, Australians of the 9th Division would give their all to defend and hold the important port at what became known as the ‘Siege of Tobruk’. One of the most significant battles of the Second World War it was here that South Australia’s 2nd/10th Battalion followed orders to “fall back upon Tobruk, hold it in order deny its port facilities to the Germans, and delay their advance so as to provide time for defences on the Egyptian frontier to be prepared.”

tobruk

1941-01-23. Tobruk – Australian Infantry Descending upon Tobruk

 

 

For more information on the ‘Siege of Tobruk’ click here


 

References
https://www.awm.gov.au/military-event/E220/
https://www.awm.gov.au/unit/U56044/
https://www.awm.gov.au/unit/U54268/

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