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I would venture to say that the two most famous and well known phrases of our military history are “Gallipoli” and “The Rats of Tobruk”. One was a magnificent defeat. The other was a magnificent triumph.

Field Marshall Sir William Slim, 13th Governor General of Australia and at the time, General commanding the 14th Army said after the triumph over the Japanese at Milne Bay that “…..Some of us may forget that, of all the Allies, it was the Australians who first broke the invincibility of the Japanese army and it was the Australians who first broke the invincibility of the German army.”

In speaking of the defeat of the German Army he was speaking about Tobruk.

In June, 1940, Britain was on its knees. The evacuation of Dunkirk had not long been completed, the army had been saved but the bulk of its equipment had been lost. On 10th June, Mussolini, the Italian dictator announced that Italy would join Hitler as one of the Axis powers and declared war on Britain. Italy had a substantial North African empire embracing mostly Cyrenaica, a province straddling the territory west of Egypt into what we now know as Libya. It had conquered Ethiopia in 1936 and added it to its existing colonies in the Horn of Africa known as Italian East Africa.

This put the Suez Canal under serious threat. It was the lifeline between Britain and its Far Eastern colonies and Australasia but Britain did not have the means to defend it against any Italian aggression.

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In 1940 the 6th& 7th Divisions of Australia were training in Palestine. In September the Italian 10th Army invaded Egypt with the aim of capturing the Suez Canal. They were stopped by the small British force in Egypt under the command of General Wavell at Sidi Barrani and forced them back beyond the Egyptian border. In December the 6th Division was moved to Egypt to relieve the British garrison at Bardia just inside the Libyan border. In January, 1941 the 6th Division attacked and overran the Italian Army capturing thousands of Italian prisoners and advancing rapidly to beyond the key town of Benghazi. It destroyed the Italian 10th Army.

In April the 6th Division was sent to Greece and it was replaced by the 9th Division with a few elements of the 7th Div. remaining with them.

In February, 1941 Hitler came to the rescue of the Italians and sent his Afrika Corps commanded by General Irwin Rommel to Tripoli. Rommel was an experienced tank commander and the Afrika Corps was essentially and armoured formation. In March he launched a limited offensive against the Allied forces that succeeded with surprising ease. His main force of panzers was not due to arrive until May.

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German Panzerkampfwagen III medium tanks of the 21st Panzer Division during a parade in Tripoli, 1941

The 9th Division was commanded by Lt. General Leslie Morshead who anticipating further attacks by the Germans ordered his forces to retreat back to Tobruk, 160 miles to the East. Tobruk was a vital point as it was the only deep water harbour between Benghazi and Egypt. Rommel’s land supply route was about 1,000 miles long over a single sealed road. The capture of Tobruk was vital to his supply requirements.

General Morshead was appointed commander of the Tobruk Garrison. Under his command was the 9th Division, 18th Brigade of 7th Division, HQ 3rd British Armoured Brigade, a regiment of Indian infantry and several thousand British Infantry personnel. The total compliment was about 36,000 souls.

 

A moving account from someone who was there. Well worth the watch. 

Tobruk itself was a heavily fortified town having been a key establishment of the Italian army for over 30 years. It was a difficult location for an attacking force. It was on a very large flat plain with few undulations and no vegetation. There was no cover for an attacking force in daylight. The Italians had built a fortified perimeter 30 miles beyond the town putting it beyond the range of artillery.

It sat astride the only sealed road to Egypt and German columns attempting to advance were under threat of attack. The first German attack took place on 14th April, 1941 and failed. Rommel attacked again on30th April and failed again. At that point he was ordered not to undertake any further frontal attacks.

He did however succeed in surrounding Tobruk to prevent escape from either the west or east sides of the town.

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Around 14,000 Australian soldiers were involved in the siege, with 749 killed and nearly 2,000 wounded.

Then followed a period where Tobruk itself, while still under siege, was not under attack by the Afrika Corps but was instead attacked from the air as the Germans and Italians built up their air resources by sending 200 aircraft to Libya from Sicily.The RAF had a tiny presence of 10 Hurricane fighters based at Tobruk. The air defence of Tobruk was mainly operated from airfields in Egypt. Two additional German fighter wings arrived and were stationed near Tobruk. The RAF had no counter and for all intents and purposes Tobruk at that stage had no air cover at all.

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Australian Diggers at Tobruk - they endured 10 bombing raids a day. 

The focus of the Axis air forces was on the ships supplying the Tobruk fort. Many ships were sunk and the harbour was littered to the point where they were a hazard to safe navigation.

During this lull in activity the Australians extended the perimeter built by the Italians, laid minefields and repaired or completed another defensive perimeter line 2 miles inside the exiting 30 mile line.

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Men of the 2/13th Australian Infantry Battalion 'digging in'.

As well as that there had been a steady build-up of reinforcements of men and equipment, including tanks, brought in by sea. During the failed German attack on 30th April they had succeeded in forcing the Australians from a raised feature which they held at a cost of 1,150 casualties. From this point they established observation points and prepared it as a jumping off point for future offensives. Offensive activity from Tobruk was constant in the form of fighting and reconnaissance patrols.

On 12th May a convoy arrived at Alexandria with 238 new tanks and 43 aircraft. On 15th June the British launched Operation Battleaxe to relieve the siege of Tobruk. This ended in a severe defeat for the British forces with heavy losses of tanks, aircraft and men. General Wavell and two other generals were sacked.

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Matilda tank destroyed during Operation Battleaxe

In June, General Blamey, commander of the AIF requested the new commander, General Auchinleck, to replace the 9th Division. He stated that the heath of the troops had deteriorated to a point where they were incapable of resisting attack. Auchinleck agreed but the resources to mount such an evacuation were not available. The fleet was engaged elsewhere.

During the non-moon period of 19-29 August 5,040 Australian and Indian infantry were evacuated on three destroyers which brought in 6,116 men of the Polish Infantry Brigade as replacements.

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The arrival of the Polish forces

In the next non-moon period of 19-27 September a further 5,989 Australians of the 24th Brigade were replaced by 6,308 British infantry and tank personnel without loss. Between 12-25 October all but the 2/13 Battalion and two companies of the 2/15th were evacuated and command of the garrison passed from General Morshead to the British Major General Scobie.

On 18th November Operation Crusader began.

This was to be an outflanking move by the British 8th Army to relieve the siege of Tobruk. The plan involved a break out by the Tobruk garrison on 12th December. By 5th December Rommel was informed that his supply requirements from Sicily could not be improved and he decided to abandon Tobruk and the occupation of Cyrenaica.

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When Morshead withdrew to Tobruk in March his orders were to defend the port for 8 weeks. The Australians held it for over 5 months until their withdrawal commenced.

During that time the Australian casualties numbered 746 killed, 1,996 wounded and 973 taken prisoner. The total allied losses were 855 killed, 2,487 wounded with 494 missing and unaccounted for.

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The siege of Tobruk had prevented the Axis armies from achieving their objective of taking Egypt and the Suez Canal. The lifting of the siege opened the way for the eventual triumph of the 8th Army and its successful destruction of the Afrika Corps in 1943. The battle between the Allies and the Axis powers seesawed several times as the lines of supply extended with each advance.

Finally the 9th Division again covered itself with glory leading the breakthrough at El Alamein in November 1942.

 

 

Lest We Forget

 

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