The Desert Fox vs. the "Rats of Tobruk" - The 241 Day Siege of Tobruk April-November 1941

By John Dudek 26 Mar 2015 0

Time:  Easter Sunday 1941 1600 hours  Tobruk North Africa

The dug-in platoon of Australian infantry had been listening to the sound of distant gunfire and fighting for quite some time as their sergeant major looked off into the distance through his binoculars.  Spying a distant cloud of dust from advancing German and Italian tanks, he ordered his men to prepare for an attack and informed his Lieutenant.  He then took quick stock of his platoon's available arms and saw that aside from the rifles his men carried, he had but two Bren light machine gun teams and two Boys 14.3mm anti tank rifles to greet the oncoming Axis forces with.  His "ace in the hole" lay in the deep anti-tank ditch to the front of the platoon's foxholes and the platoon's direct communications link to supporting divisional artillery well to the rear. Taking a final look he now saw the bone chilling sight of several formations of German and Italian tanks along with hundreds of German infantry headed their way with their skirmishers at the front.  German crew served machine guns quickly set up their weapons to deliver "recon. by fire" hoping to make the Australians open fire and give away their positions.  While the lieutenant called in a fire mission from the artillery batteries to the rear on the field telephone, the sergeant major cautioned his men to hold their fire and await the firing command in order to draw the enemy infantry in close and into a much better killing zone. "Wait for it!" he again shouted.  Seeing one of his men raise up to view the oncoming enemy better, the sergeant again shouted "Archie, get your bloody head down!  That goes for the rest of you lot too!" 

 

 

Suddenly, the air was torn by the staccato bursts of enemy automatic weapons fire passing overhead.  The lieutenant allowed the German infantry to advance another 50 meters before calling down salvos of heavy artillery and giving his platoon the command to "Commence Firing!"  The Bren guns fired short measured bursts into the German infantry as the individual Australian "Digger" soldiers poured out a wall of accurate fire from their Lee Enfield rifles.  Meanwhile, Australian artillery fire played merry hell with the attacking German infantry soldiers causing heavy casualties.  The German and Italian tanks pressed onward until they reached the anti-tank ditch where they were forced to halt.  Without sapper engineers, they could proceed no further.  The enemy tanks traversed their gun turrets back and forth firing blindly at the still concealed Australians, trying to take some of the pressure off their own battered infantry behind them.  Just when it seemed that the Australians were running out of luck, four British tanks arrived in the nick of time, just like the fictional cavalry in some Hollywood western movie.  The tanks fired over the heads of their own infantry causing a number of German and Italian tanks to catch fire and "brew-up."  The German tank and infantry attack soon collapsed and they fell back leaving large numbers of dead and wounded men behind them.  With the attack now over, the sergeant major took the roll and found that only one of his man had been killed in the short, sharp action.  Just "another day at the office" for the Australian "Desert Rats" during the long Siege of Tobruk.

 

 

The Siege of Tobruk lasted some 241 days from 10 April 1941 until 27 November of the same year.  During the entire siege Tobruk remained a painful thorn in the side of German Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel who desperately needed that key sea port town to provide vital logistical support for his far flung Afrika Korps in order to continue his military offensive against the British into Egypt.  His closest base of logistical support lay in the port of Tripoli, almost a thousand miles away across North Africa.  Everything necessary to sustain his army in battle had to travel on a long, arduous overland trip oftentimes in the teeth of Allied air support.  Rommel, soon to be called "The Desert Fox" for his wily, unorthodox and unpredictable fighting tactics, and two German armored divisions were sent to North Africa by Adolf Hitler to brace up his Italian dictator ally Mussolini.  Mussolini's North African armies were in danger of complete collapse after successful British Army offensive operations such as "Compass" that drove the Italians out of their North African colony of Cyrenaica and the seaport town of Tobruk with the loss of over 100,000 troops taken prisoner, and the surrender of the entire Italian 10th Army to the British Commonwealth forces. All this was achieved at the cost of only 49 dead and 306 wounded.  In addition, the British and Australians captured 208 Italian guns, 28 tanks, large amounts of trucks and motor cars along with massive quantities of supplies.  These supplies were meant to supply an Italian Army offensive against Egypt.  In Tobruk alone there was enough food, ammunition, fuel and wherewithal to supply an army in the field for a considerable amount of time. Tobruk was quite an impressive prize to fall into Allied hands in and of itself.  Its fully intact, modern seaport facilities and well constructed defenses included a twin defense perimeter of reinforced concrete trenches, rifle pits and numerous machine gun bunkers and an anti-tank ditch.  Its road network insured good interior lines of communication to any defender.   The Australian occupying 9th Division moved into its new home and this fact was not lost to German intelligence sources. After demonstrating their fighting prowess during the recent campaign, the hard fighting Australians were now derisively referred to as "desert rats" by the German propaganda radio news broadcasts.  This less than flattering term immediately became an ironic compliment and one the Australians eagerly relished and embraced as the fighting in North Africa went on.

 

 

As the first elements of Rommel's two divisions began arriving in Tripoli Libya, the British High Command ignored their presence for the moment, thinking they would be unable to mount any sort of attack until the middle of April or May 1941 at the earliest.  Instead, Rommel who was known to perform the impossible chose to begin his advance with the still incomplete Afrika Korps on 24 March.  His attack plan was to make a sweep of the eastern side of Tobruk and cut them off from friendly British forces in Cairo.  At the same time, Rommel ordered a diversionary direct attack to be made on Tobruk with three battalions of the still incomplete 15th Panzer Division under General Max von Prittwitz. He believed the Australians would break under this heavy pressure.  Instead, the two Australian Infantry Brigades fell back in good order to join the two other Australian brigades of the 9th Infantry Division already within the defense perimeter and outpost line positions around Tobruk.

Soldiers from the Australian 2/28 battalion spotted three armoured cars and fired the first shots of the siege using two captured Italian field guns for which 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 toward 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 (1.85 in) anti-tank gun, whose gunner fired, destroying the car and killing both von Prittwitz and his driver. A three-hour skirmish then ensued after which the Germans retreated.

In the remaining time the gates to Tobruk remained open to the outside world. The British High Command, knowing full well of Tobruk's strategic importance, rushed in all available combat and support staff into the soon to be besieged city.  Tobruk was defended by the reinforced Australian 9th Division along with the Australian 18th Infantry Brigade recently detached from the Australian 7th Infantry Division.  In addition there were 12,000 British Royal Artillery and logistics troops to service and supply the garrison's artillery. In addition, 1,500 Indian troops and elements of the 18th King Edward's Own Cavalry with over 60 tanks and armored cars comprised its mobile element.  This armor along with the 18th Infantry Brigade would be the "fire brigade" that could be quickly rushed from one threatened sector to another to contain and cut off any German break-through into the besieged perimeter. Tobruk's commander was Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead.  Morshead was a dynamic, intelligent and effective officer who believed in the traditional, long proven modes of fighting, both on the offensive and defensive.  Either way he believed in constantly sending out aggressive infantry patrols to gather intelligence on an enemy's intentions.  Now that he was forced onto the defensive, Morshead bent his will towards greatly improving Tobruk's already strong defenses.  His men worked round the clock, laying numerous anti-personnel and anti-armor mine fields while digging additional anti-tank ditches, obstacles and building or improving bunkers. In addition, his men started stringing hundreds of miles of new barbed wire.  Morshead's earlier orders regarding aggressive infantry 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 in the sides of an anti-tank ditch, allowing easier passage for tanks to cross — but they were forced to retreat.

When General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of British Middle East Command, handed him his orders, Morshead was told to hold Tobruk for eight weeks before he could expect to be relieved by the British Army.  Instead, Morshead and his Commonwealth troops held it for over five months before being withdrawn and replaced with fresh troops.   In the meantime Tobruk's garrison would be supplied by sea via the Tobruk Ferry Service consisting of both Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy warships.  These warships played a crucial role in the city's defense, not only bringing in the garrison's lifeblood of supplies and fresh troops, but also providing key offshore gunfire support to any threatened sectors of the perimeter under attack.  As long as these warships remained on station close offshore and the harbor remained open to Allied shipping, Rommel would have an extremely difficult time of breaking into the fortress.  Even worse, as long as Tobruk remained in British hands and laying across his supply lines at his rear, Rommel would be unable to bring the full strength of his Afrika Korps to bear against the main British Army who were then reforming in Egypt.

Morshead divided the 50 km (31 mi) perimeter of Tobruk into three rough sectors. It would be the job of his 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. The 18th Australian Brigade remained in strategic reserve along with his tanks.   Morshead also ordered all Italian radio line cables to be re-laid. He wanted to know what was happening in real time, and where attacks were taking place, so he could adjust and deploy his forces accordingly. He also kept a reserve of runners in case the telephone lines were disrupted by the German attack.

 

 

Rommel fully enveloped Tobruk on Good Friday 11 April 1941. The Afrika Korps 5th Light Division, along with elements of the 15th Panzer Division deployed to the town's east, the von Prittwitz group in the south and the Italian Brescia Division in the west.  In addition, three "static" Italian infantry divisions and the elite Ariete Armored division completed the besieging Axis forces.  The German and Italian forces opened the fighting around noon of the same day by staging a series of probing thrusts along the Australian lines, with the added diversionary tactic of having their tanks deliberately churn up more dust than usual to greatly inflate their numbers and convince the Allies of their overwhelming strength. The attack's primary purpose was one of allowing Rommel to judge where the Australian strong points and main strength lay as he had no idea of their numbers or location of their defense positions.  After running into a veritable wall of Australian defensive fire, the Germans withdrew, leaving a number of their dead and five destroyed tanks behind them.  The main German attack went in early the following Monday morning along the southern portion of the 30 mile long perimeter.  The tanks easily pierced the outpost line advancing over two miles north before being stopped in their tracks by both an unknown mine field and heavy concentrations of Australian artillery fire that destroyed half of their tanks or put them temporarily out of action.  The Germans were again forced to withdraw.  On 16 April, the Italians mounted a major infantry assault on the perimeter that too was driven off.  A follow up Australian counterattack with fixed bayonets and Bren gun carriers in support quickly forced over 1,000 Italian troops to surrender.

A British communiqué on 17 April 1941 described the actions:

One of our patrols successfully penetrated an enemy position outside the defences of Tobruk, capturing 7 Italian officers and 139 men. A further attack on the defences of Tobruk was repulsed by artillery fire. The enemy again suffered heavy casualties. During yesterday's operations a total of 25 officers and 767 of other ranks were captured. In addition over 200 enemy dead were left on the field.

Realizing now he was facing a highly motivated professional enemy who possessed far greater numbers and abilities than he originally thought, Rommel was forced to re-evaluate the situation.  Rommel had been greatly impressed by the fighting mettle of the Australian defenders. During armored attacks they waited calmly within their prepared fighting positions and bunkers, ignoring the German tanks and allowing them to advance unhindered behind them, knowing full well they'd soon be facing anti-tank guns in their second line of defenses.  Instead, the Australians shot the attacking German and Italian infantry to pieces at point blank range.

 

 

Rommel launched a well coordinated night time attack on the southwestern portion of the perimeter on 30 April-1 May.  By daylight, his armor and infantry poured through a mile wide gap in the Australian lines while advancing north towards Tobruk.  After advancing one mile, the German armor once again ran afoul of a recently laid mine field that cost them a large number of their tanks.  Meanwhile, a second German armored thrust threatened to roll-up the Australian defenders in that sector.  After advancing laterally for over three miles, this attack too was halted by a combination of minefields, tank and artillery fire, plus stubborn Australian infantry counterattacks.  Once again the Germans suffered heavy casualties and their plans were frustrated.  Morshead then launched a night time counterattack on 3 May, to regain the lost ground, but this too was turned back by the German defenders.  The southwestern sector of the Tobruk perimeter of some 5.6 kilometers of defensive positions and bunkers would remain in German hands for now. During their attack, German and Italian infantry had been able to close assault the Australian bunkers to throw grenades into the firing slits.  At least three of the 15 recently captured bunkers were successfully taken this way.  As two Australian Diggers were being marched away into captivity, General Rommel kindly spoke to them as they passed. "For you the war is over and I wish you good luck."  He later paid tribute to a larger group of his adversaries as they passed into captivity: “Shortly afterward a batch of some fifty or sixty Australian prisoners was marched off close beside 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 enemy resistance was as stubborn as ever and violent actions were being fought at many points."

 

 

Through it all, the Australians had fought like enraged, trapped animals, savagely dealing out death and destruction to the enemy while willingly suffering heavy battle losses and casualties in return. One battalion lost nearly half its entire strength in killed, wounded and POW's.

One German POW later observed: "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 was now forced to face the fact that he did not possess the strength of men and material to take Tobruk by any sort of attack at the moment.  He ordered his men to dig in for a long siege and await reinforcements in men and material. Both sides set to rebuilding and reinforcing: 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.  It would be a long, hot and terrible summer.

Part 2 follows next week …

 

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