“There will be no Dunkirk here”… General Leslie J. Morshead, Commanding Officer Tobruk
The siege of Tobruk represented the first time in World War II that the seemingly invincible Germans, led by Erwin Rommel, came up against a foe they could not overcome. The successful defense of this old Libyan seaport represented not only a stunning blow to the myth of the invincible blitzkrieg, but more importantly it tied up forces that could have been used in the attack on Egypt. In the barren landscape of the desert the success of the Allies meant the Axis were now forced to ship much needed supplies an additional 600 miles to the front lines.
Tobruk is strategically located between Tripoli and Alexandria. The Italians held the port at the beginning of the war. They built extensive fortifications around the port flanked by the sea on both ends. The British began their counter-offensive in December 1940 and took the port from the Italians on 22 January 1941.
Hitler was highly disappointed in the setbacks of the Italian army in North Africa and in January 1941 sent Erwin Rommel and the newly formed Afrika Korps to reverse the string of defeats. Rommel and the Afrika Korps pushed the British to within 70 miles of Alexandria. In Rommel’s drive to the Nile he bypassed the fortified port of Tobruk. It was to prove a costly mistake for the future field marshal.
As the Afrika Korps bypassed Tobruk, the British High Command was faced with the decision of holding the port or abandoning it in order to move the defenders to Egypt to stop Rommel’s drive on the Suez Canal. Winston Churchill argued for the defense of the city and coined the phrase of calling Tobruk a “sally port”. Churchill’s hope was to make Tobruk a thorn in Rommel’s side by tying up a significant number of German-Italian Army, a goal easily achieved by tying up almost ½ of Rommel’s troops.
The siege of Tobruk began 10 April 1941 with an attack by Rommel’s troops, which was beaten off by the garrison defenders. Holed up in the fortified city were the famed “Rats of Tobruk”, the defenders having received this nickname from Lord Haw Haw who used this derisive moniker in his broadcasts. The besieged troops even went so far as to make a medal with the likeness of a rat from the scrap of a shot down German plane. The “Rats” consisted of the Australian troops of the 9th Division and the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division, as well as the British 3rd Armored Brigade, the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment, and four artillery regiments, all under the command of Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead. Since the British controlled the seas, the garrison was reinforced in August with the Polish Independent Carpathian Brigade.
The fortress of Tobruk had two defensive lines. The main line, being the red line, was 50 km long, while the second line of defense was the blue line and was 3-4 km behind the red. These lines came complete with mines, barbed wire, machine-gun nests, anti-guns and concrete shelters. There were four forts between the 2 lines: Pilastrino, Solaro, Arienti, Parrone.
The Axis forces may have had the Allies holed up in Tobruk but once the defenders proved they could hold off their attackers, they started launching patrols of their own. Due to the constant aerial bombardment these patrols were almost exclusively launched at night. These patrols were of 2 types: fighting and information gathering. Information gathering patrols were designed to capture and interrogate the prisoners. The fighting patrols were designed to do as much damage as possible and retreat to the safety behind the lines with minimal loss. There are many cases of these patrols destroying tanks, anti-tank guns, and machine guns while suffering no losses. Many patrols returned successfully without a single bullet being fired.
The courageous and tenacious defenders managed to hang on through the siege with the help of the valiant Royal Navy who were able to keep the defenders supplied with the “Tobruk Ferry”. The Royal Navy not only ferried in supplies and fresh troops, but also provided fire support and evacuated the wounded.
On December 10th the last of the “Rats” left Tobruk, leaving behind a reputation for doggedness and determination. Their casualties were 3,009 killed or wounded and 941 taken prisoner. General Archibald Wavell had ordered General Morshead to hold out for 8 weeks; however, they ultimately held out for 8 months until their relief arrived. Tobruk was the longest siege in the history of the British Army.
When Rommel launched his 2nd offensive in 1942, he was able to capture Tobruk within two days by easily overtaking the South African 2nd Division. The taking of Tobruk and the large amount of supplies captured was a career highlight for Rommel. His victory was short lived, as the battle of El Alamein four months later was the turning point of the war in North Africa.