Disaster in the Desert: How Hitler's Forces Defeated the British Army at Tobruk

Disaster in the Desert: How Hitler's Forces Defeated the British Army at Tobruk

The fall of Tobruk to Rommel’s “Afrika Korps” Siege resulted in disaster for the British Army in North Africa.

Key Point: Tobruk would remain in German hands until it was retaken in late 1942.

Sidi Barrani, Bardia, Sollum, Sidi Rezegh, Mersa Matruh, Bir Hacheim, El Agheila, Beda Fomm, Sidi Omar, Benghazi … The names of many remote North African villages were written into history in 1941-1942 as British and Axis armies battled back and forth across the scrubby desert wastelands of northern Egypt and Libya. Yet another name became legendary in World War II as a symbol of heroic and determined resistance: Tobruk.

After routing dispirited Italian forces in Libya during the campaign to protect the vital Suez Canal and other imperial interests, in the spring of 1941 the British Army found itself up against far tougher opposition: Lt. Gen. Erwin Rommel and his newly formed Deutsches Afrika Korps. The aggressive, headstrong Rommel had arrived in Tripoli that February and was eager to get at the British. n His orders were to recapture Cyrenaica, the eastern region of Libya, and its chief town, Benghazi, which had been seized from the Italians by Lt. Gen. Richard O’Connor on January 22, 1941. The bold, resourceful German leader who would come to be known as the “Desert Fox” had been ordered by Berlin not to start an offensive until his forces were up to strength. Nevertheless, he decided to seize the initiative with a surprise attack on the over extended British and Commonwealth forces.

A Seemingly Unstoppable Advance…

Rommel launched his assault on March 24, 1941, sending three mechanized columns rumbling northward and eastward. The fast-moving Germans chased the retreating British along the coast road, rolled into Benghazi, and swept on to Barce and Derna. One panzer column captured inland fuel dumps and burst out onto the coastal plain at Gazala. Another column executed a wide flanking movement to try to capture British units evacuating from Cyrenaica. The Allies were in full retreat, and it seemed as if nothing could halt Rommel’s advance.

On April 6, Allied fortunes reached another low point when a German motorcycle patrol captured General O’Connor, one of the most capable British field commanders in the Middle Eastern Theater of Operations, and Lt. Gen. Philip Neame. On April 11, Good Friday, the Germans seized Bardia, and four days later, Sollum. They pushed on relentlessly eastward toward Egypt and the Suez Canal.

Bypassed in the enemy advance was the Mediterranean port of Tobruk, 75 miles west of the Egyptian frontier. With one of the best deep-water harbors in the Mediterranean, Tobruk was the only suitable port in Cyrenaica east of Benghazi. As long as it was in British hands, Rommel’s offensive would be limited. On April 8, at a waterfront hotel in the strategic port, General Sir Archibald Wavell, the scholarly Middle Eastern commander-in-chief, told a group of senior officers simply, “Tobruk must be held.” It would not be easy, he warned. Rommel would probably make every effort to drive the defenders into the sea, while British reinforcements and supplies would have to be brought in by ship under the bombs and guns of the Luftwaffe. Wavell pointed out on a map the few remaining British units scattered across 450 miles of desert and told his officers dryly, “There is nothing between you and Cairo.”

Rommel, too, was aware of this. As his forces pushed eastward, the British stronghold at Tobruk posed a serious threat to his flank and rear. Its capture was to become a seven-month obsession. The Desert Fox told one of his divisional commanders, “We must attack Tobruk with everything we have—before Tommy has time to dig in.” Tommy, however, had already dug in.

The 9th Australian Division, which had withdrawn from Derna to escape Rommel’s net, had moved into Tobruk to reinforce British and Indian Army units already there. The 23,000-man garrison dug in behind two old Italian defense perimeters that embraced a 30-foot antitank ditch, 70 strongpoints, and a minefield crisscrossed with barbed wire. The 30-mile outer perimeter, called the Red Line, was studded with concrete-shielded dugouts manned by machine-gun and Bren gun crews. Elsewhere in the 220-square-mile Tobruk enclave, the defenders waited with their 26-ton Matilda infantry tanks, 25-pounder field guns, and heavy antiaircraft batteries.

The garrison commander was the resolute Maj. Gen. Leslie J. Morshead, leader of the Australian division and a disciplinarian who was known to his troops as “Ming the Merciless,” after the villain in the Flash Gordon comic strips and serials. A former teacher in Sydney, he was as tenacious as Rommel. “There’ll be no Dunkirk here,” he told his staff. “If we should have to get out, we shall fight our way out. There is to be no surrender and no retreat.”

The Afrika Korps started its drive on Tobruk on Friday, April 11, 1941, with a series of reconnaissance thrusts against the perimeter by panzer and German and Italian infantry units. These were beaten off by artillery. Next, Rommel decided to launch a major armored assault on the southern Tobruk perimeter in the early hours of April 14, Easter Monday. He expected a swift victory and wrote to his wife, Lucie, early that day: “Dear Lu, today may well see the end of the Battle of Tobruk.”

Moving Toward an Elaborate Trap

At 5:20 am, supported by artillery fire and screaming Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers, German panzers rumbled unmolested through a gap blasted in the southern perimeter wire. The staunch, light-hearted Australian defenders huddled in the perimeter strongpoints made no attempt to engage the enemy tanks. Then, as the German infantrymen passed the strongpoints, a murderous fire hit them from the rear. The panzers ground on until the leading battalion was two miles inside the Tobruk perimeter. They were moving into an elaborate trap.

Suddenly, the German tank crews found themselves caught in a corridor of heavy gunfire. British and Australian field guns blasted them from both flanks at a range of only 600 yards. Clouds of dust and smoke obscured the vision of the German drivers and gunners as the panzers milled about in confusion. Joining in the Allied barrage were 2-pounder antitank guns and captured Italian coastal pieces that the resourceful Aussies had turned around to face inland. One hit sheared the turret of a panzer clean from its mountings, and a staff car was blown to bits. The Allied gunners destroyed 16 out of 38 panzers, forcing the rest to withdraw.

A German machine-gun battalion suffered 75 percent casualties, and a panzer commander later described the action as a “witches’ cauldron.” He said, “We were lucky to escape alive.” Rommel was furious with the outcome and fumed that his officers had “lacked resolution.”

The Desert Fox attempted another assault two days later, on April 16. This time, he took personal command and sent the Italian Ariete Armored Division and an Italian infantry division against the western perimeter. The Italian tanks took refuge in a wadi, and Rommel could not induce their commanders to continue the attack. The Italian infantrymen took the brunt of an Australian counterattack and quickly surrendered. One whole company gave up to a British scout car crew. In all, 800 Italians were taken prisoner.

The Ariete Division lost at least 90 percent of its tanks to breakdowns. The following day, Rommel called off the attack. He still believed that he could take Tobruk, but he was underestimating the fighting spirit of its defenders. Every night, 20-man Allied patrols sneaked out to harass the Germans. An entire battalion of a crack Italian Bersaglieri rifle regiment was captured one evening, while an Indian Army patrol returned another night with two small sacks containing 32 human ears.

For the men guarding the Tobruk perimeter, concealment was vital. They stayed underground during daylight hours to escape the attention of German snipers, and they swept away footprints outside their camouflaged dugouts so that Luftwaffe air crews would not see the tracks. Along with the Germans and Italians, the Allied soldiers battled heat, dust, fleas, lice, flies, dysentery, and boredom.

The “Rats of Torbuk”

“The desert fleas are famous,” reported a Royal Artillery battery sergeant, “and ours were obviously in the pay of the enemy. How we cursed them on nights when the moon was late up and we hoped to catch a couple of hours’ sleep before the inevitable procession of night bombers started. The fleas marched up and down our twitching bodies until we thought we would go crazy.”

After the defenders of the stronghold were dismissed in Nazi propaganda as “rats in a trap,” they soon started calling themselves the “Rats of Tobruk.” The name resounded in headlines throughout the British Empire. The Tobruk defenders endured regular attacks by enemy bombers and Stukas but tried to make the best of it. There was a shortage of fresh food and drinking water, so the troops took vitamin tablets. Some fresh water was produced in ingenious stills made from old gasoline drums, but the taste was always sulfurous. Water was rationed to six pints a day per man. The Rats of Tobruk subsisted chiefly on the old British Army standby of bully (corned) beef. It was cooked in a variety of ways, from rissoles (hamburgers) to hash, and augmented by canned stew, canned fruit, and rock-hard Army biscuits.