Map of the Western Desert battle area
The Siege of Tobruk
was a lengthy confrontation
forces in North Africa during
the Western Desert Campaign
of the Second World War
started on 10 April 1941, when Tobruk was attacked
by an Italian-German force under Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel and continued for 240 days, when
it was relieved by the Eighth Army during Operation Crusader.
For much of the siege, Tobruk was defended by the reinforced
Australian 9th Division
under Lieutenant General Leslie
. General Archibald Wavell
Commander-in-Chief of British Middle
, instructed Morshead to hold the fortress for
eight weeks, but the 9th Australian Division held it for over five
months, before being gradually withdrawn during September and
replaced by the British
70th Infantry Division
, the Polish Carpathian
and Czechoslovak 11th Infantry
(East) under the overall command of Major-General
. The fresh defenders
continued to hold Tobruk until they were able to link with the
advancing Eighth Army
at the end of November during Operation Crusader
The Royal Navy
played an important role
in Tobruk's defence, providing gunfire support, supplies, fresh
troops and ferrying out the wounded.
Maintaining control of Tobruk was crucial to the Allied war effort.
Other than Benghazi, Tobruk was home to the only other major port
on the African coast between Tripoli and Alexandria. Had the Allies
lost it, the German and Italian supply lines would have been
drastically shortened. Furthermore, Rommel was in no position to
attack across the Egyptian border towards Cairo and Alexandria while the Tobruk garrison threatened the lines of
supply to his front-line units.
Tobruk marked the first time that the Blitzkrieg
of the German Panzers had been
successfully brought to a halt. Following Operation Crusader the
siege of Tobruk was lifted in December 1941. However in 1942, after
defeating allied forces in the Battle
, Axis forces captured the fortress.
In early 1941 British forces were engaged in Operation Compass
, an attempt to drive the
Italians out of North Africa. On 21 January 1941 the Australian 6th Division
assault to capture the Italian garrison of Tobruk which offered one
of the few good harbours between Alexandria and Tripoli.
The Italian troops generally offered little resistance — large
numbers surrendered without fighting. The Italian commander,
General Petassi Manella
himself after only 12 hours, but he had refused to order the
surrender of his forces, which meant that it took a further day to
clean up any resistance. Australian casualties were 49 dead and 306
wounded, while capturing 27,000 Italian POWs, 208 guns, 28 tanks,
many good quality trucks and a large amount of supplies. They also
found that the Italians had constructed some impressive defences,
including a perimeter of concrete pits.
By the end of the first week in February Operation Compass had
resulted in the Italian forces being driven from Cyrenaica
and in the surrender of the Italian Tenth Army
However, the Allies were unable to take advantage of their victory.
With the Italians close to collapse, Winston Churchill
commanded the British
General Staff to call a halt to the offensive in order to allow
many of the most experienced units from Richard O'Connor
's XIII Corps
to be moved to Greece to
fight in the Battle of
The experienced 6th Australian Division and the fully-trained and
equipped New Zealand Division were withdrawn from Egypt and the
Western Desert to go to Greece while the tanks of 7th Armoured
Division, after eight months fighting, needed a complete overhaul
and the division was withdrawn to Cairo and ceased to be available
as a fighting formation. XIII Corps was wound down to become a
static HQ and O'Connor became commander British Troops Egypt (in
Cairo) while Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson
governor of Cyrenaica
before leaving to
command the expeditionary force in Greece. Cyrenaica was left with
only the inexperienced and under-strength 2nd Armoured Division
(whose tanks were also in a poor mechanical state) and the
newly-arrived (and only partly-trained) 9th Australian Division
was being formed from various battalions in
Egypt but had no artillery and supporting arms while the Polish
Brigade Group was not yet fully equipped.
The Allied position in Cyrenaica was rendered more difficult by
supply difficulties caused by air attacks on Benghazi. Stripped of
anti-aircraft and fighter defenses which had been sent to Greece,
the port had become so dangerous for Allied shipping that by the
third week in February it had had to be closed and forward units
supplied from Tobruk, a further east. As a result, practically all
available vehicles had to be committed to transporting supplies, so
compromising the mobility of the fighting units.
Meanwhile the Germans had started to concentrate in Africa the two
divisions of the Afrika Korps
(see Operation Sonnenblume
) in an attempt
to prevent total collapse of the Italian forces. The British High
command ignored this. Circumstantial evidence began to accumulate
of the presence of German units in Libya but, with no ground
intelligence to confirm this and long-range reconnaissance aircraft
committed to Greece, Wavell, "very much in the dark as to the
enemy's real strength or intentions", believed that an enemy attack
was unlikely until the middle of April or possibly May.
Rommel takes the initiative
On 24 March Rommel advanced with the newly arrived Afrika
. The 2nd Armoured Division fell back before
the as yet tentative Axis advance with the intention of flanking an
enemy advance along the coast to Benghazi while
blocking any move towards Mechili.
However, on 3 April the division's commander, Major-General
Gambier-Parry received a report that a large enemy armoured force
was advancing on Msus where the division's principal petrol and
supply dump lay. The division's tank brigade (British 3rd Armoured Brigade
moved to Msus to find that all the petrol had been destroyed to
prevent capture by the enemy. Henceforth the brigade's activities
were almost entirely dictated by their lack of fuel. The tank
brigade, by that time fielding only 12 Cruiser tanks
, 20 light tanks and 20 captured
Italian tanks as a result of losses and more importantly mechanical
breakdown, were ordered to withdraw to Mechili to be joined by
3rd Indian Motor
. However, during a period of confusion caused
by communication breakdowns as Axis air raids successfully attacked
fuel and radio trucks, the divisional HQ arrived at Mechili on 6 April
but the tank brigade, short of fuel, headed to Derna where it was subsequently cut off and
threatened by envelopment, the 2nd Support Group were ordered back
towards Regima and after that to Derna.
As a result of these events, both the route to Benghazi and Mechili
were uncovered and Rommel brought forward, along the coast road,
elements of the 17th "Pavia" and 27th "Brescia" Divisions while
pushing his mechanised and motorised units across country, south of
the Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountains
) towards Mechili after
the retreating British tanks. On 6 April the leading Bersaglieri
columns of the Italian Ariete
On 6 April
Lieutenant-General Philip Neame, by
that time the military governor of Cyrenaica (Wilson had been sent
to command W Force in Greece), withdrew his headquarters to
Tmimi, west of Tobruk.
During the withdrawal his
staff car was stopped by a German patrol near Martuba and both he
and O'Connor (who had been sent forward from Cairo by Archibald Wavell
, C-in-C Middle East Command
to advise) were
The Allied force at Mechili consisted of the Headquarters 2nd Armoured Division
(mainly unarmoured vehicles), 3rd Indian Motor Brigade
elements of other units including some guns from 1st Royal Horse Artillery
they fought bravely in defence of Mechili but on 8 April
Gambier-Parry surrendered to General Zaglio of the "Pavia"
Division. 2,700 British, Indian and Australians were captured at
Mechili after an attempted breakout was broken up by the Ariete's
"Fabris" and "Montemurro" Bersaglieri Battalion groups. Only small
groups managed to get away.
initial attack plan called for his tanks to sweep around Tobruk to
the Eastern side and attack from the Bardia road, so cutting the
town off from Cairo.
Approaching Tobruk, however, wishing to maintain his momentum, he
ordered General Heinrich von Prittwitz und
, commander of the newly-formed 15th Panzer Division
(most of which had
yet to arrive in North Africa), to take the three battalions from
his division then available to him (his reconnaissance, machine gun
and anti-tank battalions) and to attack Tobruk directly from the
West along the Derna Road. Rommel expected that the Allied forces
would crumble under this attack. However, the two Australian
brigades which had been west of Tobruk had succeeded in withdrawing
in good order to Tobruk to join a third which had been performing
garrison duties, as had the 2nd Support Group and the 2nd Armoured
Division's armoured car regiment.
Soldiers from the Australian 2/28th Infantry Battalion spotted
three armoured cars and fired the first shots of the siege using
two captured Italian field guns
they had only had one week's training. The cars quickly retreated.
As the tanks approached a bridge crossing a wadi
on the perimeter of Tobruk the Australians blew it
up. When von Prittwitz urged his staff car driver to drive him
through the wadi and towards the Australians his men called for him
to stop, but he replied that the enemy was getting away. The staff
car drove into the firing line of a captured Italian 47 mm
anti tank gun, whose gunner fired, destroying the car and killing
both von Prittwiz and his driver. A three hour skirmish then ensued
after which the Germans retreated.
In the meantime the Allies continued to work on their defences,
laying barbed wire, mines and other obstacles. The Australian
commander, Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead divided the perimeter
of Tobruk into three rough sectors. It would be the job of the
three Australian infantry brigades to ensure these were not
breached. The 26th would hold the western sector, the 20th would
hold the south and the 24th would hold the east. Morshead also
ordered all Italian signal cables to be re-laid. He wanted to know
what was happening, and where, so he could adjust his forces
accordingly. He also kept a reserve of runners in case the
telephone lines were disrupted by the German attack.
On 11 April, with his forces regrouped, Rommel reverted to his
original plan, sending his tanks around Tobruk to the Bardia
The city was now besieged on three sides (the harbour was in Allied
hands) by the Afrika Korps
the 5th Light
and elements of 15th Panzer Division, and by three
Italian infantry divisions and the Italian Ariete Armour
. The Allied forces consisted of the Australian 9th
Infantry Division's three brigades and Australian 18th Infantry
Brigade of the Australian
which Wavell had detached from Australian 7th
Infantry Division and ordered forward as reinforcements, as well as
12,000 British, mainly Royal Artillery and Logistics units but also
the HQ 3d Armoured Brigade with around 60 functional tanks and
1,500 Indian soldiers including the 18th King Edward's Own
The Easter Attacks
El Adem, 11–14 April
Just after noon on 11 April 1941, the Germans and Italians
positioned themselves for a concentrated attack on the city. To
exaggerate the size of their force and strike fear in the
defenders, they were ordered to make more dust than normal. The 5th
Panzer Regiment of the 5th Light Division drew fire first to try to
assess the defences, advancing against the front held by 20th
Australian Infantry Brigade just west of the El Adem road. Within
an hour, five of the German tanks were destroyed and the others
pulled back. At 3:00 PM the men of the 2/13th Battalion saw about
400 German soldiers approach. The Australians' defensive fire
forced the Germans to retreat, carrying their dead and wounded with
At 4:00 PM, a platoon
-sized formation from
the 2/17th Battalion saw 700 Germans launching an attack on their
position. The Australians were outnumbered and outgunned with only
guns, a few dozen rifles and a couple
of Boys anti-tank rifles
. The Australian artillery
opened fire and inflicted significant casualties, but the German
soldiers kept advancing. Several groups of Panzers and Italian
advanced on the Australians. As the
Axis armour closed in, four British tanks arrived, firing over the
head of the infantry. The Axis tanks could not hurdle the obstacles
set for them and they fell back to regroup. This attack yielded
only one dead on the Allied side.
Morshead's defence plan was aggressive. He ordered rigorous
patrolling of the anti-tank ditches and more mines laid. The
aggressive patrolling appeared to work. The 2/13th Battalion
encountered a German raiding party with a large amount of
explosives. The party had clearly intended to blow the sides of an
anti-tank ditch, allowing easier passage for tanks to cross — but
they were forced to retreat.
In cases where panzers and Italian tankettes did reach or pass the
Australian lines, the infantry — ensconced in well-built
strongpoints, including many installed by the original Italian
garrison — simply concentrated on the German or Italian infantry,
knowing that the tanks' guns could not be brought to bear on them
and the Axis tanks would face anti-tank guns in the second line of
defences. On the most important of these attacks, on 1 May, a
combined Italo-German infantry and armour force attacking had its
armour driven back and the infantry stood and fought behind
Australian lines for quite some time before they withdrew.
Soon after dark on 13 April 5 Light Division renewed their attack
with an effort to secure a bridgehead over the tank ditch just west
of El Adem. However, 2/17th Battalion defeated this effort made by
8th Machine-Gun Battalion in fierce fighting in which Corporal
won the Victoria Cross
. In the early hours of 14
April a further attempt succeeded in securing a small bridgehead
through which 5th Panzer Regiment pushed through. The intention was
to divide into two columns: one to head towards Tobruk town and the
other to turn west to roll up the defences. However, the advancing
tanks, met by intense fire from 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery,
veered away only to run into fire from dug-in British Crusader
tanks. Now under fire from the front and both flanks, the Panzer
Regiment retired having lost sixteen of its thirty-eight tanks.
Meanwhile, the 8th Machine-Gun Battalion, supporting the German
armour, had been fought to a standstill by the Australian infantry
and were also forced to withdraw under heavy fire from artillery
and aircraft. The battalion lost more than three-quarters of its
strength whilst the Tobruk garrison's losses amounted to 90
casualties. After this defeat Rommel abandoned further attempts on
the southern perimeter and 5th Light Division dug itself in.
Ras el Medauar
After the failure of the attack at El Adem Rommel decided to attack
the western sector of the Tobruk perimeter around Ras el Madauar,
employing the Ariete Armoured Division which had the 62nd Infantry
Regiment from the Trento Division
On 15 April 1941 an Australian fighting patrol was returning from
patrolling in the area of 2/48th Battalion
when, at about
5.30 p.m, an Italian attack threatened to overwhelm the forward
positions of the 2/24th Battalion. Italian infantry numbering about
1,000 advanced on the bunkered platoons against mortars, rifle and
machine gun fire and one post was overrun. Early in the battle, the
2/23rd Battalion's 'B' Company also arrived and engaged the Italian
force. The combination of aggressive fire from the Australian
soldiers plus devastating fire from the 51st Field Artillery
Regiment swung the battle in the Australians' favour.
The aggressive Australian patrolling continued and on 16 April, the
main body of the 1st Battalion 62nd "Trento" Regiment was
encountered approaching from Acroma. The Italian battalion then
came under heavy shellfire and were halted by a counterattack from
2/48th Battalion. Tanks of the Italian Ariete Division followed the
Italian infantry but, as they reached the perimeter defences, came
under intense fire from the 51st Field Artillery Regiment and
withdrew. The 2/43rd Battalion War Diary reported that "The
Italians attacked our 48 Bn and whilst withdrawing they (the
Italians) were fired upon by German [sic] tanks believed to be
supporting the attack." The Australians sent out Bren gun carriers
specifically to find the Italian battalions' flank. The extra
fire-power finally stopped the Italians, and all firing ceased. A
British communiqué on 17 April 1941 described the actions:
An intelligence assessment by the 2/43rd Battalion concluded
Raid on Bardia
In the meantime, a British battalion was selected for a raid on
Bardia, with the object of harassing Rommel's line of communication
and inflicting as much damage as possible. The attack was conducted
on the night of 19–20 April by No.
—part of Colonel Robert Laycock
—and a small detachment of the Royal Tank
Regiment aboard the supply ship HMS
, escorted by the anti-aircraft cruiser
. The Australian
covered the landing of
British Commandos. During the raid, a Commando sentry mortally
wounded a British officer and one detachment of 67 men were later
reported captured in a counterattack on the beaches. The author
, who took part in the
raid, related in an article he wrote for Life Magazine
in November 1941 that the
Germans "sent a strong detachment of tanks and armoured cars to
repel the imagined invasion". However, in his personal diary
published in 1976, a very different picture emerged of incompetent
execution by the commandos against virtually no opposition.
Aftermath of the Axis attacks in March and April
The Tobruk defenders had been fortunate that Rommel had
concentrated his attacks on the strongest parts of the Tobruk
defences which were around Ras el M'dauar. Although the Italians
had spent considerable effort in building permanent defensive
works, they were at their weakest in the south-east sector, an area
overlooked and dominated from without by the hills of Bel Hamed and
Sidi Rezegh. The advancing Allies had exploited this when capturing
Tobruk from the Italians in January 1941 but, inexplicably, Rommel
had ignored this. He appeared to have learned his lesson, however,
by June 1942 after the Battle of
when Tobruk fell relatively easily to Rommel's attack
from the south-east.
Both sides set to re-building and re-inforcing: Rommel for a
further attack on Tobruk in order to free his threatened lines of
communication and resume the advance into Egypt, Wavell to
stabilise the front on the Egyptian border and prepare an assault
to relieve Tobruk.
1941 Wavell launched Operation Brevity, a minor offensive that attempted to gain a better
position to launch a major offensive in the summer; as a secondary
objective, if the opportunity presented itself, an attempt to
relieve Tobruk was to be made. The operation however
achieved little other than the recapture of the Halfaya Pass.
The Battle of the Salient
In late April the German Army High Command sent to Libya their
Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Major General Friedrich Paulus
, to asses the situation
and review Rommel's plans. By this time most of 15th Panzer
Division had arrived in North Africa but had had little time to
settle in. Rommel once more chose to attack the Ras el Madauar
position using 5th Light Division on the right and 15th Panzer
Division on the left. Once the break-in was achieved the German
units would continue westward while the Italian Ariete Armoured and
Brescia Infantry Divisions would roll up the defences on either
flank. By 30 April Paulus and General Bastico had approved the plan
to be implemented on 30 April.
On the evening of 30 April, after a day's bombing and shelling, the
Axis assault fell on 26th Australian Infantry Brigade. The attack
penetrated 3 km but co-ordination between Axis units was poor
and the battle caused heavy losses to Rommel's forces. A number of
Australian strong points held out and disrupted Axis movements as
did newly-laid minefields which the Axis had failed to reconnoitre.
Paulus suggested there was no prospect of success and Rommel
decided to push laterally to widen the front of penetration.
However, Morshead committed reserves and tanks and countered this
move. Fighting continued with the Australians counterattacking
unsuccessfully to regain the lost ground and Axis forces attempting
to infiltrate forward once more. By the early hours of 4 May, with
neither side making progress, the battle was called off.
At about 2000 hours tanks moved up to the perimeter wire in front
of S.1 and, using grappling hooks, pulled it away. Tanks from 5
Panzerkompanie and supporting infantry from the 2nd Machine-Gun
Battalion and a Pioneer Battalion proceeded to clear up the bunkers
manned by Captain Fell's 'A' Company, 2/24th Battalion. Post S1 was
the first to succumb. Two panzers drove to 100–200 yards of the
post, and opened fire, and, after a brief fight (in which three men
were killed and four wounded), Lieutenant Walker and his men
surrendered. These tanks then proceeded to attack S.2 (Major Fell),
which contained the Company HQ and 7 Platoon. Getting to within 200
yards, the panzers opened fire, shredding sandbags on the parapets
and blowing up sangars. On each tank were riding German
infantrymen, who under cover of the tanks' fire, ran forwards with
grenades. S.2 then surrendered.
Then was the turn of 9 Platoon dug in posts R.0 and R.1 – after a
fight in which three were killed and four wounded, the posts
surrendered. The crews of two RHA 2-pounders put up a fight,
knocking out some of the panzers, but when the guns tried to turn
to engage panzers moving to their flank, they exposed themselves to
German machine-gunners, with the gunners either killed or wounded.
The bunkered platoons from the neighbouring C Company from 2/24th
Battalion were also attacked. Post S.5 was taken at first light on
1 May, but Posts S.4 (Corporal Deering) and S.6 (Captain Canty)
held out grimly until the morning. Post S.7 (Corporal Thomson)
stubbornly resisted, inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking
Italians, before the attackers were able to throw in grenades.
Attacks by Italian infantry, on posts S.8, S.9 and S.10 were
repelled. Nevertheless 'C' Company suffered 20 men killed and
wounded, and another 44 taken prisoner in the fighting in the
northern sector that largely employed troops from the "Brescia"
The attack in the southern sector also involved Italian troops and
Lieutenant Mair's 16 Platoon from 'D' Company defending Posts R.2
and R.3 and R.4 were overrun. According to an Australian defender,
"That night the slightest move would bring a flare over our
position and the area would be lit like day. We passed a
night of merry hell as the pounding went on."
were then able to close in, and stick grenades were thrown into the
bunkers. Nevertheless, Posts R.5 (Sergeant Poidevin), R.6 (Captain
Bird) and R.7 (Corporal Jones) were taken only after stubborn
resistance, and fought on until they had run out of ammunition or
had stick grenades tossed into the firing pits. After they had been
taken prisoner, General Rommel spoke to them "for you the war
is over and I wish you good luck",
The 51st Field Regiment had been constantly firing, causing an
entire German battalion to go to ground and, according to Rommel,
creating panic in the Italian infantry. Seven British Cruiser and
five Matilda tanks also appeared in the Italian area of
penetration, to engage in an inconclusive tank battle with Italian
The attack faltered when the Panzers leading the assault ran into a
minefield placed by Morshead to stop any breaches of the blue line.
A Panzer officer recalled: "Two companies get off their motor
lorries and extend in battle order. All sorts of light
signals go up — green, white, red. The flares hiss down
near our own MGs. It is already too late to take aim.
Well, the attack is a failure. The little
Fiat-Ansaldos go up in front with flame-throwers in order to clean
up the triangle. Long streaks of flame, thick smoke,
filthy stink. We provide cover until 2345 hours, then
retire through the gap. It is a mad drive through the
dust. At 0300 hours have snack beside tank. 24
hours shut up in the tank, with frightful cramp as a result — and
After several tanks lost their tracks the remaining
Rommel's troops had captured fifteen posts on an arc of
three-and-a-half miles of the perimeter, including its highest
fort. But the Australians had largely contained this Italo-German
thrust. One German POW said: "I cannot understand you Australians.
In Poland, France, and Belgium, once the tanks got through the
soldiers took it for granted that they were beaten. But you are
like demons. The tanks break through and your infantry still keep
fighting." Rommel wrote of seeing "a batch of some fifty or sixty
Australian prisoners [largely from C Company of the 2/24th
Battalion that had been taken prisoner by the Italians]... marched
off close behind us—immensely big and powerful men, who without
question represented an elite formation of the British Empire, a
fact that was also evident in battle."
Nevertheless Australian losses had been considerable. The 2/24th
Battalion alone had lost nearly half its strength killed, wounded
or taken prisoner.
Aftermath of the battle
Rommel placed the blame for the failure to capture Tobruk squarely
on the Italians. However, it was the 19th and 20th Infantry
Regiments of the 27
Motorised Division Brescia
along with the 5th and 12th
Bersaglieri Battalions of the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment, the 3rd
Company, 32nd Combat Sappers Battalion and 132 Armoured Division Ariete
who after much hard fighting, had possession of most of the
positions which the Australians had lost The 7th Bersaglieri
Regiment soldiers bunkered along the newly captured concrete
bunkers. The Australians fought hard to win back their positions.
Much fierce hand-to-hand fighting took place from 1 May till the
end of August 1941 when finally the weary soldiers of the 7th
Bersaglieri were ordered move to Ain Gazala to rest and refit.
According to an Australian soldier, "In Tobruk we became part
of the 9th Division with the 28th and 16th Battalions.
Each Platoon had to do two or three weeks in the Salient, which
was a section of ‘no man’s land’ where the enemy had driven us back
from fortifications that skirted Tobruk from sea to sea.
Time up there wasn’t exactly pleasurable. We were in
dugouts with interconnecting trenches about a foot or so deep
(hence becoming known as the ‘rats of Tobruk’). The
Germans pummelled us with trench mortar bombs and also had fixed
machine guns firing on us."
Rommel was impressed by the conduct of the Australians. The heavy
losses incurred by the attackers led the commanders of the Italian
divisions and the German 5th Light Division to argue against
further attacks until better preparations could be made. Rommel
decided to hold off further major attacks until the end of November
1941, awaiting the arrival of more German forces and allowing more
training of his forces in the art of siege warfare.
The besieging troops were mainly Italian belonging to the following
5 Divisions: the "Ariete"
(the XX Motorised
Corps), the "Pavia"
Infantry Corps). The Australian commanders remained determined to
recapture the ground lost on 1 May. On 3 May the Australians
launched a counterattack employing the 18th Brigade but by 4 May
were only able to recapture one bunker. An Australian historian
wrote later that the Italians were involved in the action in the
Australian attacks on the outposts of R2, R3, R4, R5, R6, R7 and
R8. On the night of 16 May the Italians retaliated and two platoons
of the 32nd Combat Sappers Battalion breached the barbed wire
entanglements and minefields guarding the forward bunkers manned by
the 2/9th and 2/10th Battalions. With the obstacles removed, the
"Brescia" Division who brought flame-thrower parties and tanks
assaulted the defences and overpowered a number of bunkered
platoons. The desperate defenders fought back with terrible
ferocity and the Commanding Officer of the 32nd Combat Sappers,
Colonel Emilio Caizzo was killed in a satchel attack on an
Australian machine-gun position which was to earn him a posthumous
Gold Medal. Although the Australian Official History describes
losing three positions to German attackers an Italian narrative has
Major-General Leslie Morsehead was furious and ordered the
Australians to be far more vigilant in the future.
On 2 August, in the belief that the enemy battalions had largely
abandoned various post along the Salient, an attack was launched by
a company of the 2/43rd Battalion and a company of the 2/28th
Battalion from the town. The attack was skillfully planned and
supported by more than sixty field guns but the enemy infantry
swiftly replied, and the attack failed with heavy loss of lives.
This was the last Australian effort to recover the lost
fortifications. There has been criticism leveled at General
Morshead for the failure of the attack.
All change in the Tobruk defences
In the summer of 1941 Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey
, commander of the Second Australian Imperial
, with the support of the Prime Minister of Australia
requested the withdrawal of 9th Australian Division from Tobruk in
order to meet the strong desire of the Australians that all their
forces in the Middle East should fight under one command. General
, who had
replaced Wavell as C-in-C Middle
in Cairo, agreed in principle but was not anxious
to expedite the operation because a troop movement of this size
would have to be made by fast warships during moonless periods of
the month (because of the risk of air attacks to shipping) at a
time when every resource needed to be concentrated on the planned
Based on reports from Australian H.Q. Middle East that the health
of the troops had been suffering the new Australian Prime Minister
and his successor
rejected requests from
Winston Churchill to change their minds and the replacement of the
division was effected by the Royal Navy
between August and October. During 9th Australian Division's stay
in the besieged Tobruk some 3000 Australians had become casualties
and 941 taken prisoner.
Tobruk, May 1942.
The Australians were gradually withdrawn. In August, the 18th
Australian Infantry Brigade and the Indian Army's 18th King Edward's Own
were replaced by the Polish Carpathian
with Czechoslovak 11th Infantry
(East) and in September and October the British 70th Infantry
including the 32nd Army Tank Brigade and replaced the
majority of the remaining Australians. Losses sustained by the
Royal Navy during the withdrawal led to the curtailment of the
operation and as a consequence 2/13th Australian Battalion, two
companies of 2/15th Australian Battalion together with some men of
9th Division headquarters remained in Tobruk until the siege was
lifted. Morshead was succeeded as commander of the Tobruk fortress
by 70th Division's commander, Major-General Ronald Scobie
End of the siege
On 15 June Wavell had launched Operation Battleaxe
, a land offensive
intended to relieve Tobruk. The failure of Battleaxe led to the
replacement of Wavell as C-in-C Middle East Command by General
Claude Auchinleck. The Western Desert Force was reinforced and
reorganised to form a two corps army designated Eighth Army
Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham
Auchinleck launched a major offensive, Operation Crusader
, on 18 November which
led to the relief of Tobruk at the end of the month and the
occupation of the whole of Cyrenaica by the end of the year.
- McDonald (2004), p. 204.
- Wavell (1946), p. 2 (see )
- Mead (2007), p. 317.
- Wavell (1946), p. 5 (see )
- Wavell in
- Mead (2007), pp. 318, 333.
- Hunt (1990) p. 59
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- Playfair, Vol !!, p.37
- Playfair, Vol. II, p. 38
- Saunders 1959, p. 53.
- Aitchison & Lewis (2003) pp. 62–3.
- Hunt (1990), pp. 59-60
- Playfair, Vol II, pp. 153–5
- Playfair, Vol. II, p. 155
- Playfair, Vol. II, p. 156
- Maughan (1966), p. 209.
- Maughan (1966), p. 210.
- Maughan (1966), p. 216.
- Miller (1986).
- Johnston (2003), p. 23.
- XXXII Battaglione Guastatori (in
- Johnston (2003), p. 37
- Spencer (1999) p. 60
- XXXII Battaglione Guastatori (in
- Maughan (1966), p.250
- Maughan (1966), p.251
- Johnston, Mark in Review of Combes (2001)
- Playfair, Vol. III. p. 23
- Playfair, Vol. III. p. 25
- Hunt (1990), p. 66
- pp. 77-98 (ref footnote 100)
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