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.

Living quarters in the town were mainly stone houses, bombproof tunnels that had been dug by the Italians, and shelters constructed of concrete slabs, assorted bits of wood and tin, and sandbags. The defenders kept up their morale by listening to BBC news broadcasts every night from London which were preceded by the famous chimes of Big Ben.

When not manning their guns against enemy raiders, they staged variety shows in an improvised theater, gambled, ironed uniforms, darned socks, and read their own newspaper, Tobruk Truth. Each night, they listened—along with thousands of other Allied and German troops in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations—to broadcasts of Lale Andersen singing “Lili Marlene.” The haunting ballad about a sweetheart waiting “underneath the lamplight by the barrack gate” was the German soldiers’ favorite song, but became the unofficial anthem of all desert soldiers.

The Wounded Defended Themselves to Their Last Breath

After receiving panzer reinforcements, Rommel planned another assault on Tobruk—a do-or-die operation. At 6:30 pm on April 30, 1941, the Afrika Korps mounted its heaviest attack to date on the garrison. Stukas and artillery pieces pounded the Allied positions while panzers and grenadier units rushed the southwestern corner of the defenses. The defenders had been forewarned by their intelligence service, but the Germans managed to gain a toehold on the outer defenses and push two miles inside the perimeter. Again, losses were heavy. The enemy failed to eliminate a number of fortified outposts manned by Australian troops who fought, Rommel reported, “with remarkable tenacity. Even their wounded went on defending themselves and stayed in the fight to their last breath.”

The battle raged on through the night, and the Allied strongpoints were still active the following morning. They harassed the invaders from behind as other British units retaliated with artillery and tank fire. Dust storms made tactical coordination difficult for both sides. The seesaw struggle continued for three days before Rommel called off the offensive on May 4. His troops retained a two-mile-deep salient near Fort Pilastrino for the rest of the siege, but it had been his most costly attack so far; the Afro lost more than a thousand men. Lt. Gen. Friedrich Paulus, who had been sent by the Army High Command to observe operations, was shocked by the casualties and the fact that the German troops were “fighting in conditions that are inhuman and intolerable.” He advised Rommel that there was no chance of capturing Tobruk.

The failure to seize the stronghold, the forward base Rommel badly needed for a proposed thrust into Egypt, was the Wehrmacht’s first major reverse of World War II. The Desert Fox received orders from Berlin forbidding him to attack Tobruk again or from advancing further into Egypt. He was told to hold his position and conserve his forces. The hard-driving general was bitter at being compelled to wage a defensive campaign.

Encouraged by Rommel’s unexpected setback, British troops advanced from their defensive line in western Egypt and drove the Germans and Italians back toward the strategic Halfaya Pass near the port of Sollum. So far, the British forces had destroyed about 300 German tanks and inflicted 38,000 casualties (twice those of the Allies). The British had been reinforced by the arrival of almost 300 tanks, dispatched in a fast convoy, on the orders of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

In fierce fighting, the British forced the Germans off “Hellfire Pass,” and then were themselves driven off by panzers and 88mm flak guns. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, but the Afrika Korps recaptured most of the territory gained by O’Connor the previous year. Tobruk, however, still held out.

823 Men Killed, 2,214 Wounded

While Wavell’s Operations Brevity and Battleaxe kept the Afrika Korps occupied during May and June 1941, the Tobruk garrison enjoyed a welcome lull. General Morshead nevertheless faced problems. His Australian brigades had lost 823 men killed, 2,214 wounded, and about 700 captured in the April fighting. His government demanded that the remaining troops be pulled out and reunited with other Australian units in Egypt.

So, in daring night operations carried out under the noses of the enemy, most of the Tobruk garrison was replaced by fresh British, Indian, South African, and Polish troops. Starting on the moonless nights of mid-August, British ships ferried in troops, a tank battalion, food, and other supplies. The transports, berthed in darkness between the rusting wrecks of Italian ships in Tobruk harbor, were swiftly unloaded and were on their way back to Alexandria or Mersa Matruh within the hour.

After several months of relative calm, the Germans started increasing their attacks on Tobruk. This time, the defenders faced the scourge of 88mm flak guns, one of the deadliest weapons of the war. Originally used as an antiaircraft gun, the 88 became a devastating antitank weapon. “It could go through all our tanks like a knife through butter,” reported one British soldier.

At the start of September 1941, the garrison was hammered by 100 Stukas and repeated tank attacks were beaten off throughout October. That month, the siege of Tobruk entered its sixth month. On November 17, the Western Desert was lashed by heavy rains. The sands became a sea of mud as units of Lt. Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham’s newly formed British Eighth Army churned forward for Operation Crusader. It was an ambitious plan designed to lure Rommel’s armor into battle and relieve Tobruk.

On the following day, British Tank Corps groups clashed in driving rain with panzer elements around Sidi Rezegh, 10 miles southeast of the Tobruk perimeter. Eventually, after bitter fighting with heavy losses on both sides, tough New Zealand infantrymen with fixed bayonets linked up with British Matildas from Tobruk that had battered through the German lines. With bagpipes skirling, relieving troops marched into the town on December 10.

On the following day, Prime Minister Churchill rose in the House of Commons and triumphantly announced, “The enemy, who has fought with the utmost stubbornness and enterprise, has paid the price of his valor, and it may well be that the second phase of the Battle of Libya will gather more easily the fruits of the first than has been our experience … so far.” Throughout the rest of December 1941, Rommel’s Afrika Korps withdrew westward, skillfully thwarting each British outflanking movement.

“Gentlemen, You Have Fought Like Lions and Been Led by Donkeys”

Rommel, however, was far from being finished. After a five-month lull during which he built up his German and Italian forces, he launched another offensive on May 26, 1942. German panzer and infantry formations hit the Gazala Line, swung around Bir Hacheim, gallantly defended by a Free French force, and battled with British Guards and armored units in the Cauldron, an area so named because of its relentless heat and the intensity of the fighting there. The panzers battered their way out of the Cauldron, swept northward, and eventually rolled into Tobruk on June 20. The British, Indian, and South African defenders had fought bravely, but, outgunned and outnumbered three to one, were overwhelmed.

The Germans took 33,000 prisoners, and Rommel told a band of captured British officers, “Gentlemen, you have fought like lions and been led by donkeys.” Churchill called the fall of Tobruk “a shattering and grievous loss” and faced a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons. He survived it by 475 to 25 votes.

Tobruk would remain in German hands until it was retaken during General Bernard L. Montgomery’s advance after the great second Battle of El Alamein in October-November 1942, one of the major turning points of World War II.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Marion Doss / Flickr