Hermes' Wings

History, Writing and Personal Musings

The Road to Tobruk (The North African Campaign, 1940-1942)

Book-Mockup

The Road to Tobruk | PDF | 98 Pages | 53 Megabytes

Tobruk 1940-42

Note, December 2017 – This study was updated on Friday, December 8, 2017, resulting in an increase from 41 pages to 98, with updated art, cartography and information.

Tobruk Page Mockup

Tobruk Cover (Alternate)

When the German General, Erwin Rommel, landed in Libya in 1940, 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 as master and deliverer.

The vast open space meant that civilians were largely out of the crossfire and that a war could be fought “cleanly” (a veritable oxymoron) between professional armies, who to their credit avoided the senseless butchery which 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 "krieg ohne hasse" (war without hate) in effect, mid-1942. A wounded British soldier accepts a light from a wounded German soldier of the Afrika Korps

The “krieg ohne hasse” (war without hate) in effect, mid-1942. A wounded British soldier accepts a light from a wounded German soldier of the Afrika Korps.

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 captured the imagination of the world, as did the dashing Rommel who became a household name in Germany, England and the western world. Tobruk itself became a place of myth in 1941, as stories of its cavalierly heroic Allied garrison gained momentum. The myth eventually succumbed to Rommel’s will, who in the conquest of Tobruk saw a way to seize that most glittering of prizes — Egypt, the Suez Canal, and eventually the mystical Far East which Hitler so coveted as the birthplace of the Aryan race.

The methods which finally overcame the city would go on to inspire Coalition tactics in the invasion of Iraq during Operation “Desert Storm” half a century later.

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The attack on Tobruk 1942

Sidi Rezegh (Landscape) MapDivider-9

Addendum: 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.

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31 responses to “The Road to Tobruk (The North African Campaign, 1940-1942)

  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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