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.
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.