The Siege of Tobruk
Thursday 12 March, 2020
“There were no trees on the joint at all, and [when we arrived] we thought, God. There were a few picks there, and we were told, you’d better get to work and see if you can dig a hole for yourself because you’ll get some guns in the morning. When the morning came, there was this great heap of old Italian guns … but the biggest problem was they were all in the metric system, and we’d been trained in the imperial system, so you had to convert it all. They’re the tools of the trade, and you just had to go with it, and you had to depend on your mates.”
Rat of Tobruk, Bob Semple
In January 1941, Australians fought their first major land battle in World War II when men of the 6th Division AIF, and other Allied troops, engaged Italian forces at the town of Bardia on the coast of Libya. On 3-5 January 1941, the Italian positions were attacked and Bardia was captured. Over 40,000 Italian prisoners were taken.
Advancing west along the Libyan coast, the 6th Australian Division captured Tobruk from the Italians on 21-22 January 1941. The town became a garrison for the Australian and British forces under the command of Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead. (Read more about the capture of Tobruk here.)
Tobruk, strategic Libyan port abandoned by the Nazis, was reoccupied by the British, Nov. 13, 1942. This photo shows Tobruk harbor and the city beyond, with fires burning, when it was previously captured by British forces early in 1941. British tanks wait in foreground. (AP Photo)
Come April, German Field Marshal, Erwin Rommel, had set his sights on Tobruk. Its capture was essential for an advance on Alexandria and Suez. German forced first advanced on Cyrenaica, located in Libya’s eastern coastal region, where British forces were caught off guard, resulting in a retreat of several hundred miles towards Tobruk. Rommel realised that he had an opportunity to capture Tobruk before the Allies had time to organise a defence, and so quickly pushed forward with an attack on the town’s port on the 10th of April.
Under siege, the defenders were under constant artillery and air bombardment. Supplies of food and water decreased, and the troops were plagued by flies, fleas and illness. They lived in dug-outs, caves and crevices for months on end, enduring searing heat during the day and bitter cold at night, as well as hellish dust storms.
During the first phase of the offensive, the Rats were mostly concerned with constructing and reinforcing their defences and observing the enemy. After a few months, however, purely defensive operations gave way to patrols. These forays outside friendly lines were broken into two categories: reconnaissance and fighting.
Apart from providing information on the enemy, sometimes these reconnaissance patrols entailed the capture or field interrogation of an enemy. Later, almost exclusively at night, a fighting patrol would act on viable targets found, operating under the simplest of guidelines: do as much damage as you can without getting caught.
Tobruk, Libya. 1941-10-21. A relieving infantry section of the 9th Australian Division is wished good luck by the departing section as they leave their dugout.
By mid-1941, the Australian forces had become weary. Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey, as commander of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), with the support of the Australian government, requested the withdrawal of the 9th Division from Tobruk. Blamey wrote that the health of the Australian division had deteriorated “to the point where it was no longer capable of resisting attack”. He also wanted to unite Australian forces in the Middle East to strengthen defences. It was agreed that the troops would be withdrawn, however special considerations had to be made to ensure that air attacks on troop ships were avoided. The Australian withdrawal began in the August and continued through to October by fast warships non-moon period. The 70th Infantry Division, the Polish Carpathian Brigade and Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion (East) replaced the withdrawn forces.
General Archibald Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command, ordered Morshead to defend the port for eight weeks; the Australians held on for over five months. For much of the siege, Tobruk was defended by the 9th Australian Division, the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division and RAN ships that provided gunfire support, supplies and fresh troops and by ferrying out the wounded.
Tobruk. “Ship of the desert”. Engineers who find life in a comfortable dugout furnished with bits from wrecked ships.
The year 1941 had been a dark one for the Allies. The Germans conquered all before them but Tobruk held out against Rommel and stood in the way of his advance towards Egypt and the Suez Canal. The defiance of the defenders of Tobruk raised morale in the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Those who served there became known as the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ in response to reports that Nazi radio propagandist ‘Lord Haw Haw’ had described them as being caught ‘like rats in a trap’ in one of his broadcasts.
The success of the campaign came with a cost however. In the Australian Official History of World War Two, recorded casualties for the 9th Australian Division from 8 April – 25 October (including two days before the siege started) numbered 749 killed, 1,996 wounded and 604 prisoners. The total losses in the 9th Division and attached troops from 1st March to 15th December amounted to 832 killed, 2,177 wounded and 941 prisoners.
“These men carried the name ‘Rats of Tobruk’ with honour and with humour, representing those traits with which Australian service personnel have long been associated – dedication, determination and a larrikin wit.”
2016 Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of Anzac, Dan Tehan