The Desert Fox vs. the Rats of Tobruk - The 241 Day Long Siege of Tobruk; Part 2 The Siege Continues

By John Dudek 01 Apr 2015 0

The tight formation of attacking British tanks charged inexorably onwards towards the far, hilly desert escarpment over a mile distant as its leader observed their progress from all angles through his tank's open turret hatch.  "Keep your interval and formation!" He shouted over his radio phone.  Meanwhile, the dozens of British tanks churned up considerable dust cloud plumes all around and behind them as they proceeded onwards towards their objective. Suddenly, the first cracking salvos of German artillery fire exploded air bursts over the advancing British column of tanks as its leader suddenly bent low and down into its open hatch to avoid being hit by the artillery shrapnel.  "Close up and keep your formation!" he shouted, as the 20th century version of the near suicidal "Charge of the Light Brigade" continued into the face of overwhelming enemy gunfire.  The German gunners on their 88mm long range flak guns located on that far escarpment who were now relegated to the role of anti-tank gunners shook their heads in wonderment at the all too easy and target rich vista now presenting itself before them.  Their first long range German anti tank rounds hit the leading British tanks like a hot knife passing through butter at nearly a mile range, striking a number of their tanks that slewed out of column to "brew-up" and became flaming wrecks.  As the British tanks passed into medium anti tank gunfire range, the lighter German guns opened up from the flanks to blast the remaining tanks too as they passed, knocking out many more,  It was all too easy for the quick firing German defenders.  On another nearby escarpment German General Erwin Rommel viewed the fierce battle below through a telescope before shaking his head in wonder before remarking to a subordinate "We are at a 5 to1 disadvantage in numbers of tanks and troops.  Why do the British attack us with only one brigade at a time?"  This most recent example of the British lacking the most basic understanding of the importance of using a concentration of force in any attack remained a lost lesson for them.  The British would be long in learning this in North Africa, much to their continued heavy losses and oftentimes tragic end results in battle.  These suicidal tactics of charging directly into the teeth of German anti-tank guns would be repeated far too many times over the next year while proving no more successful than the original Light Brigade’s charge at Crimea's Balaclava Heights had been during the 19th century.



While Tobruk continued to languish under siege and roasted in the late spring 1941 equatorial North African heat, both sides planned their next moves. The British in trying to raise the siege and the Germans determined to preserve it while finding a cheap and easy way to take the city.  Rommel was forbidden by Hitler to launch any new assaults on the Tobruk perimeter until he received ample enough reinforcements. However, the British were under no such restrictions and immediately began making plans towards Tobruk's relief.  Operation Brevity was conceived as a limited offensive spoiling attack in early May 1941 and designed in such a manner so that subsequent British offensive operations could build upon what had been accomplished.  The operation would be a three column assault on German-Italian positions along the Egyptian frontier. One column advancing along the coast would destroy any opposition encountered while capturing the lower portion of the strategic Halfaya Pass and capturing the town of Sollum.  The center assault column would clear the top of the Halfaya Pass, secure Bir Wair,  Musaid, and Fort Capuzzo and conduct a company sized probe toward Bardia.  The third column would patrol the British left flank providing security for the operation.  The attack on 15 May 1941 caught the Germans and Italians completely by surprise, but they soon recovered.  Rommel later wrote that "the initial attacks caused me considerable losses."  The Germans thought a major British offensive was underway. Rommel even went so far as to redeploy some of his forces to the eastern side of the Tobruk perimeter to prevent either the advancing British from raising the siege or its garrison from breaking out.  Operation Brevity was a mixed bag with some successes and failures and the operation was closed down after only one day.  In the end it was all for naught because all of the captured positions were recaptured by a German counter attack 11 days later and the British returned to their original starting line positions.  Operation Brevity was followed by Operation Battleaxe one month later.  This was the major British offensive the Germans had been expecting.  With a spearhead consisting of the British 7th Armored Division and two brigades, its intent was the capture of eastern Cyrenaica and lifting the siege of Tobruk.  The three day battle resulted in a major British defeat and the British 7th Armored Division only narrowly missed encirclement by Rommel - the "Desert Fox” as he was now being called.  Rommel later wrote of the near encirclement:

 "It sounded suspiciously as though the British commander no longer felt himself capable of handling the situation. It being now obvious that in their present bewildered state the British would not start anything for the time being, I decided to pull the net tight by going on to Halfaya."

It was only through the hard fighting of the 7th Armored Division that a disaster of epic proportions was prevented. The 7th kept the escape routes open and allowed their remaining men and vehicles to return to Egypt. Nonetheless, once again the faulty British armored attack tactics resulted in the loss of nearly all their tanks. By battles end there were only 21 cruiser tanks and 17 infantry tanks remaining out of the 190 they started the battle with.  In addition the British suffered nearly a thousand men killed, wounded or POW's.  The Germans lost 12 tanks and about 700 of their men.  With the Commonwealth forces now exhausted and defeated, Egypt never again would be so defenceless, ready and ripe for the picking.  However, Rommel's own supply and fuel situation was bordering on destitute and he was unable to press his advantage and launch an offensive of his own to conquer all of Egypt.



This defeat of Battleaxe led to the sacking of British General Archibald Wavell.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill had had enough of the ineffectual and hesitant leadership in the North African campaign.  He appointed General Claude Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East.  Meanwhile, for the remainder of the summer Tobruk and its garrison baked in the oftentimes one hundred twenty degree F. day time heat.  There was never enough water to drink for either the Commonwealth or Axis troops on the siege lines and many of them were issued less than a half litre per day.   Rommel wrote his wife:  "Water is very short in Tobruk the British troops are getting only a half litre.  With our dive bombers I'm hoping to cut their ration still further.  The heat is getting worse every day and it's a relief when night comes.  One's thirst becomes almost unquenchable."

However, Tobruk's garrison commander General Morshead's overall supply situation in Tobruk was far better than Rommel's.  As long as the city's seaport link to the outside world remained open, his men never lacked for food or ammunition. With the arrival of each supply ship, Tobruk's garrison strength slowly increased with the addition of a trickle of ever growing numbers of tanks, guns and manpower.  Tobruk remained a painful thorn in Rommel's side for the remainder of the siege, preventing him to bring the full strength of the Afrika Korps to bear upon the British.  The constant skirmishing, patrols, sniping and use of harassment and interdiction artillery fire by both sides went on during all hours of the day and night.  Combat fatigue (PTSD) from near constant combat exposure began taking its toll on the Australian garrison of Tobruk.  Morale began to suffer as a result.

During the first week of May, it was reported that 30 Australian soldiers shot themselves in order to be evacuated. That month, an underground 'war neurosis clinic' was built in Tobruk and 207 soldiers were admitted for treatment.

According to one Australian soldier "In Tobruk 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."

On the night of 11-12 July, a reinforced Australian platoon conducting a night patrol with the aid of friendly artillery preparation fire staged a trench raid to attack the front lines of the Italian Pavia Division.  After killing about 40 Italians, they brought out two live Italian soldiers for interrogation at the cost of 13 of their own men.  As Australian casualties continued to increase, a number of their soldiers were court-martialed for not properly carrying out their night time patrol penetrations behind enemy lines.  The final Australian attempt to recover the southwestern perimeter fortifications lost during the previous May's battle took place on 2 August.  Although the assault was carefully planned and supported by the full weight of divisional artillery, the attack was turned back with a heavy loss in life.  After five months on the front lines and while under near constant fighting the Australian 9th Division had suffered over 3,000 casualties with nearly a thousand men taken prisoner.  The division had been bled white from all the fighting and its overall health had deteriorated to the point where it was no longer capable of resisting attack.  Commander of the Second Australian Imperial Force Lt. General Thomas Blamey requested the immediate withdrawal of the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk with the full support of the Australian prime minister.  While General Auchinleck agreed to their request, the difficulties in carrying out such an operation would be many.  The evacuation of the Australians and the delivery of fresh replacement troops could only be carried out by fast warships during moonless nights because of the risk of enemy air attacks.  In addition, the diversion of warships away from the planning stages of the future Operation Crusader would cause more hardships, although none insurmountable. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill tried to change the minds of the Australian general staff and their nation's prime minister, but eventually he gave in to their demands. Between August and October the 9th Division was slowly evacuated from Tobruk by sea.  They were replaced by the Free Polish Carpathian Brigade, the Free Czech 11th Infantry Battalion, the British 70th Infantry Division and a tank brigade.  Tobruk's garrison was stronger than ever with the addition of over 60 British tanks.  Its new commander was the 70th Division's commander, Major-General Ronald Scobie who relieved General Morshead.

By this stage of the North African campaign, Rommel had learned a number of important facts about his Italian allies.  The average Italian soldier although poorly trained and armed with obsolescent weapons and out of date equipment could perform nearly as well in battle as their German counterparts if properly and well led.  The trouble was, most Italian soldiers were poorly motivated and did not share their dictator leader Mussolini's burning desire towards the acquisition and conquest of a "New Roman Empire" throughout North Africa.  As a result, these poorly cobbled together Italian divisions had a decided tendency to surrender en-mass whenever the chips were down and they were involved in a tight fight.  Over a hundred thousand Italian troops had already surrendered to the Commonwealth forces in the fighting in North Africa so far. These "static" un-motorized divisions could not be depended on in battle and Rommel knew this all too well from recent experience. The only Italian units worth their salt and who were fully proven in battle were the armored or motorized divisions and there were all too few of them in North Africa.  Even these units were equipped with substandard equipment, tanks and trucks totally unsuitable for use in a desert environment. Even still, Rommel made the most out of their presence and was able to get the best out of them during battle.



Perhaps one of Rommel's greatest advantage traits as a leader of men in battle was his ability to constantly adapt tactics and weaponry to work well in a desert environment in a manner they were not designed for.  He was definitely a man who thought "outside the box."  Rommel had witnessed the German 88 mm flak gun's ability to be used as a superior long range anti tank weapon during the fighting in France the year before and continued using it in both the attack and defensive role in North Africa.  In addition, he began using his lighter anti tank guns in an offensive mode rather than just in the defense.  With his constant shortage in numbers of tanks, he began deploying his 37mm and 50mm anti-tank guns in camouflaged positions well forward of his own lines with his tanks deployed to the rear.  The attacking British armor had no way of knowing their heavy battle losses came from both German tanks and their anti tank gun artillery.  They knew only that they'd run into a veritable rain of steel shot and shell whenever assaulting a German position.  This tactic helped dispel the huge disparity in numbers where Rommel was nearly always at the disadvantage. In addition, Rommel too was the unparalleled master of the lightning quick, unexpected flanking attack, and his mobile forces had a distressing tendency for all too often finding their way into the British rear areas during battle.  Marked disparities in the numbers of tanks between the British and German forces meant nothing to him.  He knew if he hit a much larger British armor formation in the right area with only a handful of tanks, he could usually compel the British to break and run.  Rommel was a battlefield magician where diversion and sleight of hand were invaluable weapons in his arsenal of tricks and ones he relied upon to the utmost.  He was one of those rare officers who led his men into battle from the front and as a result, was nearly captured on a half dozen occasions over during the North African campaign. In the end one overriding fact remained - until the British learned the true worth of their proper use of superior concentrated numbers of men and material in battle, Rommel would continue giving them nightmares every time the two sides fought.



As the planning for Operation Crusader began to take shape, Prime Minister Winston Churchill urged the delivery of a large re-supply convoy loaded with 238 tanks to Egypt to help reconstitute the British 8th Army's decimated tank forces.  In the coming weeks and months that number would be built up to over 700 tanks giving the British a nearly 4 to 1 advantage in tanks over the German-Italian forces for the upcoming operation.  Operation Crusader's stated goal was to destroy the Afrika Korps and finally raise the siege of Tobruk and relieve its garrison.  The long battle of 18 November - 30 December 1941 became a prolonged, grinding battle of attrition the Germans could never hope to win, given the superiority in numbers the Commonwealth forces enjoyed.  The Germans were eventually overwhelmed by the large numbers of attacking British troops and tanks.  Even then, Rommel managed to decisively beat the British 7th Armored Division at Sidi Rezegh.  At the same time, the British garrison at Tobruk finally managed to break out from their enclave and rejoin friendly forces.  The hellish 241 day long siege was at long last at an end.  At the conclusion of the Operation Crusader, both sides were completely exhausted after suffering huge losses of tanks and manpower.  The British lost nearly 800 tanks destroyed or broken down in the fighting, while Rommel, with only a few dozen remaining tanks, was forced to withdraw the remnants of the Afrika Korps and retreat over 50 miles to the west during a series of fighting rear guard actions to his old defense lines around Gazala and await reinforcements.  The British half heartedly pursued the "Desert Fox."  Their actions should have spelled the end of the Afrika Korps and it all should have been so simple to achieve, but the farther west the Germans retreated, they closer they came to their bases of supply.  Within weeks Rommel managed to build the Afrika Korps back up to a respectable level of strength with the addition of fresh troops and tanks.  Now it was the British who were at the far end of a long and tenuous supply line.



On 21 January Rommel launched from El Agheila a surprise counter-attack. Although the action had originally been a "reconnaissance in force", finding the Eighth Army forward elements to be dispersed and tired, in his typical manner he took advantage of the situation and drove Eighth Army back where they took up defensive positions along Rommel's old line. Here a stalemate set in as both sides regrouped, rebuilt and reorganized.  Rommel now fully resupplied attacked the 8th Army at Gazala in June and quickly broke through their lines, while making another mad dash towards the Egyptian frontier.  Tobruk was quickly overrun and this time, its entire garrison surrendered to Rommel.  In addition, thousands of British prisoners and mountains of supplies were taken by Rommel's troops.  By July 1942 Rommel's Afrika Korps once again stood on the Egyptian frontier only 90 miles from Alexandria near the dusty seaside railroad town of El Alamein where a newly promoted British commanding general named Montgomery and a newly reconstituted British 8th Army were waiting.  Unlike many British generals of the day, Montgomery fully understood the concept of the proper use of overwhelming force in battle and intended to use it.  Following a long and successful British offensive following their initial victory at El Alamein, the Afrika Korps passed into legend after being caught in a pincer between the Anglo-American Allies advancing eastward and Montgomery's 8th Army attacking west.  The Afrika Korps laid down their arms on 13 May1943 and 275,000 German and Italian prisoners went into captivity for the remainder of the war.  The Desert Fox had been sent home long before that and within a year was hard at work designing and building the "Atlantic Wall" to defend the coastline of occupied Europe from an Allied amphibious invasion.  Although he was never a Nazi party member and free from any political intrigue, Rommel was implicated in the July 1944 assassination plot against Adolf Hitler and forced to commit suicide by swallowing cyanide.  And so passed into history a truly gifted and honorable warrior leader forced to defend an indefensibly brutal and cruel regime that eventually cost him his life.




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