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WWII & Australia: Siege of Tobruk (1941)

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What You Need To Know About The Siege Of Tobruk | Imperial War Museums

Source: Imperial War Museums

The Siege of Tobruk was a confrontation that lasted for 241 days between Axis and Allied forces in North Africa during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. The siege started on 11 February 1941, when Tobruk was attacked by an Italo–German force under Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, and continued for 240 days up to 27 November 1941, when it was relieved by the Allied 8th Army during Operation Crusader.

It was vital for the Allies' defence of Egypt and the Suez Canal to hold the town with its harbour, as this forced the enemy to bring most of their supplies overland from the port of Tripoli, across 1,500 kilometres (930 mi) of desert, as well as diverting troops from their advance. Tobruk was subject to repeated ground assaults and almost constant shelling and bombing. The Nazi propaganda called the tenacious defenders "rats", a term that the Australian soldiers embraced as an ironic compliment. Read through the resources below to learn more.

Siege of Tobruk (Australian War Memorial, n.d.)

Between April and August 1941 around 14,000 Australian soldiers were besieged in Tobruk by a German–Italian army commanded by General Erwin Rommel. The garrison, commanded by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead, consisted of the 9th Division (20th, 24th, and 26th Brigades), the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division, along with four regiments of British artillery and some Indian troops. This article looks at the significance of the siege and the number of casualties.

What you need to know about the Siege of Tobruk (Imperial War Memorials, n.d.)

A very brief overview of the Siege of Tobruk, including photos from the siege. The website also contains links to other useful resources.

The Siege of Tobruk (ANZAC Portal, n.d.)

This article gives a brief overview of the Siege of Tobruk, but also goes into detail about the history of two soldiers from the Siege, including primary sources such as letters.

The Rats of Tobruk (Australian Screen, 1944)

This website has archival footage of propaganda about the Siege of Tobruk created by Charles Chauvel about the Allied efforts to defend Tobruk.

The Rats of Tobruk Association

Around 14,000 Australians were in Tobruk during the siege. After they returned to Australia, the veterans looked for continued comradeship. They wanted to perpetuate the ties created amongst those who were in Tobruk during the siege and to ensure any in need were supported. In 1944, the Rats of Tobruk Association, NSW was established. This was followed by the establishment of the Victorian Branch on 2nd October 1945. From there, other branches and sub-branches were established across Australia. This website serves that Association and has a number of useful resources, including honour rolls and first hand accounts.

Rats of Tobruk (Convict Creations, n.d.)

 This website includes lots of quotes from German soldiers about the tenacity of Australian soldiers and is a good place for some primary sources.

The Rats of Tobruk (Australian War Memorial London, n.d.)

The siege of Tobruk lasted 240 days but from August the Australian were gradually relieved being evacuated by ship to Alexandria. However, one battalion, the 2/13th Battalion remained in Tobruk until the British offensive, Operation Crusader relived the town in December. Like the fighting on the Kokoda Track, and the First World War battles at Gallipoli, Tobruk holds a special meaning to many Australians. Read through this website to learn more.

The Rats of Tobruk (State Library of Victoria, n.d.)

Tobruk is the most important port in northern Africa, because its deep water allows large ships to dock there.  It is also surrounded by steep escarpments, which make it easy to fortify against attack from the land.

There were some 14,000 Australian troops and 12,000 British and Indian troops in Tobruk during the siege. Although the Germans dominated the desert, the British Navy still controlled the waters around the port, so they were able to supply provisions to the men holding Tobruk. Allied forces endured air raids and artillery attacks during the day. At night, they moved out from behind their defences to conduct raids against German positions, often crawling for miles to attack in silence. During the siege, some 3,000 Australian troops were killed or injured. Read through this website to learn more.

Tobruk: 8 key facts about the WW2 siege and battle (History Extra, 2021, June 30)

The Siege of Tobruk was one of the greatest Allied victories, followed by one of the worst Allied defeats, of the Second World War. Here, David Mitchelhill-Green explains its significance and shares eight lesser-known facts.

Siege of Tobruk (BBC, n.d.)

The Australian, British and Polish divisions under siege in Tobruk were twice attacked by Rommel's forces, and both times retained control of the Libyan port. The siege was lifted after nearly eight months. Read through this fact file to learn more.

This photograph taken in August 1941 shows 'The Rats of Tobruk' - some of the 15,000 men of the 9th Australian Division taking shelter in caves during an air raid in the siege of Tobruk. 

The Rommel Papers

When Erwin Rommel died-by forced suicide at Hitler's command-he left behind in various ingenious hiding places the papers that recorded the story of his dramatic career and the exact details of his masterly campaigns. It was his custom to dictate each evening a running narrative of the day's events and, after each battle, to summarize its course and the lessons to be learned from it. He wrote, almost daily, intimate and outspoken letters to his wife in which his private feelings and-after the tide had turned-forebodings found expression. To this is added by Rommel's son Manfred the story of the field marshall's last weeks and the final day when he was given the choice of an honorable suicide or an ignominious trial for treason. An engrossing human document and a rare look at the mind of the "Desert Fox," The Rommel Papers throws an interesting light on the Axis alliance and on the inner workings of Hitler's high command.

2/23rd Infantry battalion outside dugout

These dugouts, constructed of sandbags, camouflage material and local stone, would provide some shelter from the desert sun.

Photographer unknown, 1941

Document: issue of 'Tobruk Truth', 14 Apr 1941

Despite being besieged and shelled by the Germans, the troops in Tobruk managed to produce their own newsletter.  This issue celebrates their successful repulse of a major German attack days earlier on 11 April.  Even here, the censors were at work, and it can be seen that a word indicating the identity of a brigade has been cut out, a third of the way down the page.  Information about troop movements was always heavily censored.


'Tobruk Truth', roneoed newsletter, 1941

Soldier bandaging Italian POW’s foot

Once the battle was won in the desert, German and Italian troops surrendered readily without further resistance.  This is one of many photographs taken of Allied troops aiding the captured soldiers who, perhaps only a day before, had been trying to kill them.

Photographer unknown, 1941

News item: Tobruk rats award own medals

Sometimes a word meant to condemn can become a badge of pride.  When German propaganda called the soldiers in Tobruk 'rats', they adopted the name and even made their own 'rat' medals.  'Lord Haw Haw' was William Joyce, an Irish-American  who sided with the Nazis and broadcast English-language propaganda.  After the war he was tried for treason and hanged.

The Argus 30 Dec 1941, p.3