Hermes' Wings

History, Writing and Personal Musings

Tobruk 1941

Road to Tobruk | PDF | 41 Pages | 16 Megabytes

Tobruk 1941-42 (3e)

When the German General, Erwin Rommel, landed in Libya during the Second World War he found a strange land almost devoid of life. The majority of the population lived in small towns along the coast where the land was green and rich but where just a few miles inland, the burning desert reigned supreme. The vast open space meant that civilians were largely out of the crossfire and that the battle could be fought “cleanly” (a veritable oxymoron) between professional armies, who to their credit avoided the senseless butchery that marked the other campaigns of the war. Rommel would call this period of his military life, krieg ohne hasse, or “War without Hate,” a period in which he as a soldier conducted a proper war, on purely military terms, on lines of mutual respect.

The high point of Rommel’s North African career revolved around the seaside town of Tobruk, the second city of Eastern Libya’s Cyrenaica province. After the failure of the Italians in 1940 to reach their dream of a new Roman Empire in the Mediterranean, Hitler was forced to send German troops to salvage Axis pride. Rommel’s orders were simple – recapture Cyrenaica and rout the British. The campaign soon captured the imagination of the world, as did the dashing Rommel who became a household name in Germany, England and most of the western world. Tobruk itself became a place of myth, as stories of its cavalierly heroic Allied garrison gained momentum. The myth eventually lost some of its sheen. But the methods that finally overcame the city and ousted the British from Libya would go on to inspire Coalition tactics in the invasion of Iraq during Operation “Desert Storm” half a century later.

NOTE – I skimped slightly on map creation, because I had a set amount of time for this monograph. If anyone needs a detailed, third-party map of the area, let me know.

Select Photographs

This collection of photographs does not appear in the monograph above and has been posted as an extra.

A fascinating aerial photograph showing Tobruk town as it appeared in 1941. Note black smoke emanating from the harbor — the result of a recent German bombing raid. (Associated Press)

 

(LEFT) Another aerial photo of Tobruk shows the port with its collection of ships, some sunken. (IWM C5496) (RIGHT) A duo of Australian-manned, captured Italian M11/40-39 tanks are on guard duty while smoke from Tobruk’s port installations hovers in the sky on 24 January 1941 — two days after the city’s capture by the 6th Australian Division. (IWM E1766)

 

(LEFT) Two fresh Australians from the 9th Division guard a duo of Italians and some of the first German prisoners captured in the area, in the wake of Rommel’s first abortive attack on the city. (IWM E2478) (RIGHT) The forward perimeter at Tobruk mostly consisted of positions such these, dugouts and trenches carved out of the hard, burning desert floor. This photograph was taken on 13 August 1941. (IWM E4791)

 

(LEFT) A column of German armor and reconnaissance vehicles moves unmolested on the road to Mersa el Brega on 31 March 1941. (IWM MH5552) (RIGHT) German Me109F fighters wait at their forward airfield while two Luftwaffe mechanics enjoy a bite to eat. Highly-dangerous, the Me109F wrested air superiority away from the British RAF. This photo was likely taken in 1942, and the aircrafts belong to Jagdgeschwader 27 – as indicated by the small shields on the engine cowlings. (IWM MH5854)

 

There’ll be no Dunkirk here. If we should have to get out we shall fight our way out. There is no surrender and no retreat, so said Maj-Gen. Leslie Morsehead, commander of the 9th Australian Division at Tobruk, and his men attempted to do just that.

(LEFT) An Australian gun crew waits for the enemy on top of an exposed bit of high-ground. Their weapon is a captured Austrian/Italian 47mm Böhler anti-tank gun. About 100 of these guns were refurbished at a Captured Weapons Depot in Alexandria and issued to various units suffering from shortages of arms in the theater. Despite having little training in desert combat, the Australians learned quickly and adapted to the sweltering, dry conditions of the Western Desert far easily than did the Germans or even seasoned British units did. (State Library of Victoria) (Thanks to Andreas Biermann for corrections).

(RIGHT) On the night of 13 April 1941, a large party of Germans penetrated the forward wire perimeter at Tobruk in a sector held by the 2/17th Australians. The Germans quickly set up a fire line with machine-guns, mortars and two artillery pieces. The only opposition was a section of Australians; one officer and five soldiers, one of whom was the above pictured Jack Edmondson, a 26-year old Corporal from Wagga Wagga, New South Wales.

Edmondson rushed the Germans and although struck by machine-gun bullets in the neck and stomach, bayoneted the occupants of the closest MG post. Hearing a cry for help, he turned to see the officer, Lt. Austin Mackell, struggling with two other Germans.  Edmondson bayoneted both Germans, saving Mackell but proving unable to save himself. He died of his wounds that night but brought Australia its first land Victoria Cross (VC) of the war. A unit officer, Major John Balfe, wrote to Edmondson’s mother, saying: “All can speak well of the dead, but I have said of him while he was still alive, that he was a really decent, good, clean chap. The first AIF VC. If ever there was a medal earned, Jack earned this.” (Australian War Memorial)

 

(LEFT) A German Sdkfz 251 halftrack advances past Mechili. (RIGHT) German armor is loaded at Naples for transit to North Africa. They face a dangerous passage through waters dominated by Allied ships, aircraft and submarine based at Malta. (Bundesarchiv)

 

(LEFT) Although the Australians quickly settled at Tobruk, the cry of far-away home was ever present. Here, a billboard has been erected to remind them of home — including the distance to a beloved tea shop in Melbourne. (Bundesarchiv)

(RIGHT) Cut off at the port city, the 15,000 men of the 9th Australian Division quickly began to celebrate their besieged status, turning their denigrating German nickname of the “Rats of Tobruk,” into a title of pride. Here, a group shelters in one of the many natural caves within the perimeter during an Axis air raid. By when the division was relieved six months later 823 men had died, 2,214 had been wounded and 700 had been captured, but they had denied Tobruk to the enemy. (IWM 4814)

 

(LEFT) Surprised and captured by German patrols, these senior British officers enjoy a moment of jocularity while waiting to be flown to Germany by the Ju52 airplane in background. In the near center is Lt-General Philip Neame who was captured along with Brigadier John Combe (left) and Lt-General Sir Richard O’Connor (far center, the architect of the early British victory over the Italians), all while driving near Derna on the night of 6 April 1941. At right, wearing the wool-skin jacket, is Major-General Richard Gambier-Parry of the 2nd Armoured Division who fell into the bag after his command was overrun two days later. (IWM MH5554) (RIGHT) The crew of a Matilda tank at Tobruk, 28 November 1941. (IWM E6804)

 

(LEFT) Fort Capuzzo, a desert legend and scene of frequent combat during the campaign. In this photo, British Bren Carriers mill around the fortress’s bullet-scarred walls during Operation “Brevity.” (IWM E1433) (RIGHT) German trucks carrying 20mm anti-aircraft cannons race through the desert, using their guns to deadly affect against light-skinned British tanks and vehicles. (Rommel Museum, George Forty)

 

(LEFT) An officer of the Royal Tank Regiment briefs his subordinates and men at Tobruk on 29 November 1941. (IWM E6852) (RIGHT) The German crew of an 88mm Flak 18 wait by their weapon. A highly-feared weapon, the 88mm guns were crucial in redressing common British numerical superiority in tanks. (Bundesarchiv)

 

(LEFT) An Sdkfz263 Panzerfunkwagen (Radio communications vehicle) of the 3rd Recon Battalion. In the foreground is an Italian motorcycle dispatch rider from the elite Bersaglieri regiment — as indicated by the feathers on his pith helmet. (Bundesarchiv) (RIGHT) Short-barreled PzIV Ausf.E’s of the 15th Panzer Division trundle through Tripoli. Note how the rubber rims of the road wheels have been painted white — to prevent them from deforming in the excessive desert heat. (Bundesarchiv)

 

(LEFT) on 21 June 1941, men of the 4th Indian Division, veterans of the bloody battles for Halfaya Pass decorate the side of their vehicle with the caption, “Khyber Pass to Hellfire Pass,” reflecting their service with the army in another tenuous part of the world, Afghanistan. Heavy Axis fire led to Halfaya’s nickname of “Hellfire” Pass. (IWM E3660)

(RIGHT) The one area in which the Germans held indisputable superiority was in the air. The British RAF’s fleet of Hurricanes and American-made P-40 fighters were badly outclassed by German Messerschmidt Me109s piloted by veteran pilots and aces. Only numerical Allied superiority saved the day. Here, Sgt. F.H. Dean examines ammo belts before they go into his Hurricane fighter parked in the background. Dean belongs to 274 Squadron as is illustrated by the flash on the side of the Hurricane — a squadron identifier. Tragically, Dean was shot down and killed on 15 May 1941, during a dogfight with Me109s near Halfaya. (IWM CM868)

 

(LEFT) A British Crusader tank passes a burning German Mk IV tank during Operation “Crusader.” (IWM E6571) (RIGHT) In this contemporary 1942 watercolor of the Halfaya Pass by Jack Chaddock, a British tank is depicted heading towards the pass. (IWM  LD3403)

 

(LEFT) Rommel frequently conducted local air reconnaissance in his personal Fiesler Storch light plane. Here is seen by the Storch, speaking to a pilot. (Bundesarchiv) (RIGHT) Two capable giants of the British army were Claude Auchinleck (left) and Archibald Wavell. Unfortunately, neither commanded much confidence within the anxious British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who during the course of the campaign, transferred or sacked both men. (IWM JAR 783)

 

(LEFT) A British crew of a 4th Royal Tank Regiment Matilda tank mingle with South Africans from the 4th Armored Car Regiment at El Duda, during the relief of Tobruk. But the link-up would prove short. When the battle of Sidi Rezegh erupted nearby on 27 November 1941, the linkup was severed, although temporarily. (IWM E6899)

(RIGHT) krieg ohne hasse in effect. In this magnificent example of human camaraderie, a wounded German trooper offers a light to a wounded British solider in the wake of combat. (IWM NA 1344)

 

(LEFT) A knocked-out Matilda of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, near the Gazala defensive line. (RIGHT) A British tank crew watches a group of German prisoners carry another wounded German deeper into British lines, near Gazala.

 

(LEFT) A heavily-armed Chevy 30cwt 1533 truck of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) trundles through the desert.This vehicle belongs to ‘R’ Patrol, almost unanimously staffed by New Zealanders. It was for men such as these and the LRDG that Rommel reserved the highest praise, often claiming that these “Englishmen” were better than German special forces, although he was possibly unaware that a significant percentage of men in the LRDG were New Zealanders, already respected for their soldiering prowess. (IWM)

(RIGHT) Axis armor parked in Tobruk.

 

(LEFT) Men of the 2nd New Zealand Division link up with Matilda tanks of the Tobruk garrison on 2 December 1941. The relief of Tobruk had taken eight months in the making. (IWM E6918) (RIGHT) Troops of the 1/6th Queen’s Regiment march triumphantly into Tobruk on 18 November 1942, after the victory of the 2nd battle of El Alamein. This was the final time that Tobruk changed hands. (IWM E19690)

—————————————————————————————————————————–

Rommel’s Assessment of Allied troops

Australians: “Rough” men, but unlikely with a “bad heart.” Highly ranked as fighting troops but “inclined to get out of hand.”
Indians: “Well-disciplined and correct” professional soldiers.
New Zealanders: “The finest troops” on the Allied side.
South Africans: “Good material” but simply “too raw,” to be of much use early in the campaign, although their armoured car units were a credit.
British: “Promising amateurs,” although their special forces are “better than Germans.”

(Source: Young, Desmond, Rommel: The Desert Fox, New York: Quill/William Morrow, 1987)

Note – In the interests of historical accuracy it must be noted that Rommel also had vaguely denigrating things to say about eastern troops and especially black soldiers who accompanied the South Africans (apparently for propaganda reasons). Added to this, Desmond Young, the World War II British officer who collected the assessments above, was something of a Rommel admirer, and his book, something of a hagiography, so it possible that some of the judgments were cleaned up.

—————————————————————————————————————————–

One example that Tobruk lives on in Australian memory. Above is the emblem of a Sheep station in New South Wales.

31 responses to “Tobruk 1941

  1. Dave August 21, 2011 at 11:09 am

    I would love a detailed, third-party map of the area. I think your map is brilliant. With your permission I’d love to use it it my thesis.

    Dave

  2. Eamon May 1, 2014 at 6:29 am

    Thanks, this was really useful and the pictures are great. Much appreciated

  3. Andreas May 15, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Just came across your site. This is a great piece of work, I am very impressed. I could also do with a detailed 3rd party map. Happy to share my photos of maps from Kew (British National Archives) with you if that helps.

    Correction on one of the pictures, the one from the State Library of Victoria – that’s not a 2-pdr but a captured Italian 47mm Boehler anti-tank gun.

    Keep up the good work!

    All the best

    Andreas

    http://rommelsriposte.com

    • Akhil Kadidal May 15, 2014 at 11:38 pm

      Hello Andreas,

      Thanks much for your kind words and your correction regarding the photo of the anti-tank party of Australians.

      Expect to find the maps in your email account in an hour or two.

      Also, your offer of sharing images from the National Archives is much appreciated. With your permission, I can post them on this page – with full credit to you.

      Thanks.

  4. Paul Miles January 19, 2015 at 9:19 am

    Fantastic work. If you don’t mind I would like to add a couple of the photos to the web page I have created in memory of my late father who was at Tobruk for the duration of the siege and was ultimately wounded and captured at Knightsbridge. Keep up the great work.

  5. Raja Tirumalai May 16, 2015 at 3:51 am

    Dear Akhil, Excellent post – only two errors need to be corrected. A place name – El Agheila and the name of a German Officer, Colonel Fritz Stephan, officer commanding the Fifth Panzer Regiment, who was very seriously injured in the chest on November 25, 1941 during the Crusader battle. He was operated upon by a British medical officer, Major Ian Aird, but died of his wounds later. Please see the link below.

    http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/operation-crusader-the-incomplete-british-counterstroke-in-north-africa/

    Some exhaustive books are :- (a) The Foxes of the Desert (Paul Carell); (b) Tobruk 1941 (Chester Wilmot); (c) Tobruk (Frank Harrison); (d) The Trail of the Fox (David Irving) and (e) El Alamein (John Bierman and Colin Smith). Regards, Raja

    • Akhil Kadidal May 16, 2015 at 3:58 am

      Thanks for the information. I appreciate your feedback. I am familiar with most of the books you mentioned, but am a little leery of using Irving’s works.

      Certainly, I’ve come across new data since I uploaded the monograph. I’ll have sit down and update the PDF when I get a chance in the future.

  6. Jennie Upton October 14, 2015 at 9:29 am

    More information on the South Africans would be wonderful. Appreciate your work very much.

  7. Tony Leversha October 14, 2015 at 2:22 pm

    Hi a book to read as well by HW Schmidt the Author of with Rommel in the Desert ( he was Rommel’s adjucant and also was my boss in South Africa in the 1970’s – early 2000 )and we did chat about his book which he gave me a copy, he also finished another book but not sure if he got it published as he passed away about 5 yrs ago.
    My father was also in Tubrok and was a POW in which escaped but was recaptured and later managed to escape only to come across the Americans who informed him and some others whom escaped that the war is over.He was with the Africian Corps.

  8. Syed Ali Hamid February 9, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Dear Akhil……….. i enjoyed your article ……… i am currently working on a book and want to obtain permission for printing a picture you show of ‘A German Sdkfz 251 halftrack advances past Mechili’ . can you please give me the source.

    • Akhil Kadidal February 9, 2016 at 1:47 pm

      Thanks Syed. I scanned that image from a book on North Africa, of the picture album variety – a book which I sadly no longer have. I’ll try to take a look through my notes, this week, and see if I can get you additional information. I can’t promise anything though. The only conceivable reason why I would have failed to include a photo credit in the first place is likely because the source material itself neglected to carry the appropriate credit.

  9. testuser972 March 26, 2016 at 8:02 am

    Hello Akhil,

    I yesterday found your article searching for a Tobruk Map for a non-profit wargame project. Your entire site is a top class job. I will have to spend some time here and read your other articles. Many of the titles are up my alley as a long time WW2 history buff.

    May I please get a version of your fantastic Tobruk map based on the earlier April 1941 status? You are a busy man and I use photoshop as an amateur skill level so I could do try to all the layer work myself to transform it.

    Oh, I am proud to spot one photo caption error for you to correct! “German armor is unloaded at Tripoli” should be “German armor is loaded at Napoli for the journey to Tripoli” as that is definitely Mount Vesuvius and the bay of Naples. (I lived in Naples for many years.)

    Best wishes,
    Phil (Texas, USA)

    • Akhil Kadidal March 27, 2016 at 1:05 am

      Hi Phil,

      Thanks for your kind words.

      I’m not entirely comfortable with sending my psd work to people, but tell you what: I’ll send you a totally blank version of the map retaining only the perimeter, roads and places of human habitation, in jpeg format – this way you are free to add labeling, units…etc to it at your own discretion. If you can message me your email address, I’ll get it sent today.

      Sadly, when I created the map, I didn’t have much time and only made it 1500 pixels, which is not very big. I will have go back to create a brand-new, higher-clarity map at 6000px one of these days.

      As for the erroneous photo caption. You are absolutely right. That is Mt Vesuvius, isn’t it? Thanks for the heads-up.

  10. Jennifer Smith June 14, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    Hi Akhil,

    Just found your incredible site. What a wealth of information and amazing photos. I’m writing a book (just for family) about my father. He was the Sick Berth Attendant aboard HMS Gurka when she was torpedoed just north of Bardia on January 17, 1942. Survivors were picked up by the Dutch destroyer Isaac Sweers and taken to a survivor camp in Tobruk. Dad didn’t talk much about the war (our loss), but did mention that he and a few others were invited “for drinks!” by the remains of an Italian Troop who were living in caves on the outskirts of Tobruk. Your photo of the Australian 9th Div. sheltering in the natural caves, made me wonder if these might be the same caves.

    Thank you for the detailed history of Tobruk and the invaluable photos – I have a real sense of what it would have been like at that point in the war. The timing of Dad’s arrival is perhaps fortunate, in that there was a lull in the fighting. He was shipped off to another survivor camp at Dekilla near Marsa Matruh and then on to Alexandria where he was stationed aboard the hospital ship HMHS Maine.

    I hope I may be able to include the ‘cave’ photo in my book, with appropriate reference, of course?

    Best wishes,

    Jennifer
    (In Canada)

    • Akhil Kadidal June 15, 2016 at 1:39 am

      Thanks for sharing this interesting story. The story of the Italians POWs is interesting. However, the Tobruk area had several caves, all of which, were used to good effect by the defenders -and sometimes the Germans and Italians. January 17th, was about a month after Operation “Crusader” broke the siege of Tobruk, so he did arrive at an opportune moment when things were quiet.

      The photo you seek is from the Imperial War Museum’s archive (item# 4814). If you would like to obtain a print quality version of that photo, I’m afraid you may have to contact them for printing rights.

      • Jennifer Smith June 19, 2016 at 2:34 pm

        Thanks Akhil, I rather suspected there were numerous caves in the area, so no way of telling for sure. Still, it’s a brilliant photo, and I can imagine.

    • Andreas June 15, 2016 at 3:18 am

      Hi Jennifer, here is some more on the operation where HMS Ghurka went down: http://rommelsriposte.com/2012/02/26/luftwaffe-report-air-attacks-on-convoy-operation-mf-3-16-to-19-jan-42
      All the best
      Andreas

      • Jennifer Smith June 19, 2016 at 2:40 pm

        Thank you Andreas. I’ve slowly been accumulating snippets of info over the last 15 years or so, and it’s only in recent years that more details have become available. I found the article relating to Thermopylae particularly interesting, and also reference to the weather at that time. Much appreciated.

      • Andreas June 19, 2016 at 2:42 pm

        Always a pleasure to help Jennifer.

  11. Otto Heinrich Wehmann December 7, 2016 at 9:13 pm

    Do you have more detailed information about tank losses in operation crusader?

  12. Pingback: A note on tank losses in CRUSADER – The Crusader Project

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