Siege of Tobruk

The siege of Tobruk from April to December 1941.

Tobruk harbour
Tobruk harbours as another German bombs explodes on the town and its defenses.

Tobruk is a tiny but significant harbor on the coastline of Cyrenaica. Before WW2 its inhabitants figures about 4,000 citizens, residing in several 100 white-colored homes standing out starkly about the sun-baked, rugged terrain sloping right down to a small quay.
The square at the heart of the city featured a couple of messy palm trees; and in days of peace the most busy building in Tobruk was most likely the water distillation plant which, along with a couple of water wells, generated 40 Thousand gallons per day.


The significance of Tobruk lay in the point that its port was the sole protected and acces­sible harbor for more than 1,000 miles (ca. 1,609 km), anywhere between Sfax in Tunisia to Alexandria in Egypt, aside from the actually smaller port at Benghazi.
Similar to Benghazi, Tobruk had been developed by the Italians among the main defenses of Libya from the east and as a naval base.

In peace, it was essential as the major out­let for the goods of a wide region of hinterland. However, in WW2, throughout the fight for North Africa, its significance was tremendously improved due to the fact any move forward further than it, either to the east as well as west, was even more imperiled.

To begin with, the control of Tobruk was crucial as an unloading place for reinforcements and supplies, which in any other case needed to be delivered along troublesome and extended lines of communication, either from Alexandria one way or Benghazi in the other. Next, in the control of a motivated and powerful garrison, it could stand for a critical aggressive risk to the flank of any progress which by-passed it.

Winston Churchill himself defined it as a ‘sally port’ and stated: ‘Nothing but a raid are brave enough move beyond Tobruk.’

The unique Italian mapping of the Tobruk defenses display a pair of lines of strong-points, entirely sunk into the terrain. These protected a boundary of some 35-40 miles (ca. 64 km) having a radius of approximately Twenty miles.

Map of the Siege of Tobruk
Map of the Siege of Tobruk with the defensive perimeter. First O’Conner, then Rommel broke through the western defences at Ras el Madauar.

The outer defenses was made up of a number of highly concreted dugouts – numerous skillfully improvised from natural caves – each hold­ing Thirty to forty soldiers. These dugouts had been interconnected by trenches with spots every several 100 yards (ca. 91 m) for machine-guns, mor­tars, as well as anti-tank guns. The trenches were covered in with tiny boarding and covered smoothly with sand to make sure they were hidden from even a few yards aside.
In front of the outer defenses barbed wire had been placed, differing occasionally from just one coil wide to a belt Thirty yards wide in other places.
Ahead of the barbed wire the Italians had created an anti-tank ditch, commonly smartly adapt­ing a current natural ravine. Straight­ sided, and calculating Seven feet deep and Ten feet wide, the ditch was made to prevent any attempted crossing by any tank.
The interior defense line was some 2,000 to 3,000 yards (ca. 2,743 m) at the rear of the external line and designed to the similar layout, but with no anti­tank ditch.

 'Rats of Tobruk'
The ‘Rats of Tobruk’ spent much of their time underground in shelters. For this one, the ventilators came from the clutter of wrecked ships in Tobruk harbor.

When Rommel deployed the Afrika Korps versus the Western Desert Force in April 1941, and the resistance crumbled before him, certainly one of his primary ideas would be to take Tobruk in order to get rid of it as a threat, and also to decrease his lines of communication for his press straight into and further than Egypt.
He didn’t be expecting any significant problems. Wavell’s troops had taken it from the Italians in just 2 days, and the optimistic Rom­mel believed that it wouldn’t take considerably more time – if as long – to take it back again.
Nevertheless, the quickly improvised defense by the 9th Australian Division – supported by 18th Brigade from 7th Australian Divi­sion as well as the remnants of 3rd Armored Brigade, with field artillery and anti-aircraft regi­ments, all under Major-General Leslie Morshead – was more than a match for the demise impetus of Rommel’s strike.

Supply for Tobruk

Thereafter, Tobruk was in a continuing condition of siege. However, it wasn’t a siege in the identical sense as those of Ladysmith and Mafeking during the Boer War, or of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny, where isolated units were surrounded by a numerically superior adversary and entirely cut-off from friendly armies. Steady connection was maintained between Tobruk and the primary Allied forces by the Royal Navy – even though it really should not believe that this was by any means a ‘easy run’.

German heavy battery salvoes positions at Tobruk
A German heavy battery salvos positions at Tobruk in direct shelling.

However, it was undoubtedly a siege meaning that Tobruk was a fortified location under steady attack by the Axis. Each and every inch of the defended location was inside range of the German and Italian guns, and the harbor working-parties was the target of fire nearly as much as the troops in the outer perimeter.
Apart from any question, the existence of Tobruk counted upon the port being held in condition as well as the continuation of sup­plies along the tenuous sea-lane making it from Egypt. Almost nothing useful to the existence of a garrison was native to Tobruk aside from the shelter provided by the natural caves. All the things needed to be shipped in from Egypt; and Rommel, understanding this, focused practically just as much on neutralizing the port and disturbing the sea life-line as he did on organizing a landward attack.

Since the times of Wavell’s offensive the British military in Cyrenaica had been supported and supplied from the Mediterranean by vessels from the Inshore Squadron, a heterogeneous fleet containing everything from a des­troyer to a monitor, sloop, gunboat, trawler, sponge-fisher, or lighter.

In Tobruk’s most dangerous time, these vessels, some­times reinforced by the Mediterranean Fleet, as much as possible protected by fighter aircraft, on a regular basis braved the hazards of mines, shells, bombs, and torpedoes to transport soldiers, equipments, supplies and water, alongside enemy-held coastline to the besieged Tobruk.

Victims among the Inshore Squadron were massive, especially during the day, and at periods it became allowable to tour simply on the moonless nights.

Daylight strikes for example those directed at the anti-aircraft sloops Auckland and Paramatta on June 24, when they were protecting the important petrol-carrier Pass of Balmaha, offer an illustration of the level of Axis attempts. On this occasion, com­bined raids by torpedo-bombers and Ninety-six dive­-bombers sunk Auckland and stop­ped Pass of Balmaha.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a captured Italian fishing schooner Maria Giovanni, commanded by an Aussie, Lieutenant Alfred Palmer, operated on the tour night following night until fooled into misfortune by the Germans.
In common with other ships, Palmer directed themselves towards Tobruk harbor by a shady green light at the entry, but he wasn’t to be aware of that certain night the Germans had illuminated a decoy towards east of the port. To his surprise Palmer ran the ship painful on land and was taken prisoner by the Germans as he and the crew were industriously digging a channel by which to refloat the vessel.

t_arrow1 here to Part II: Rommel’s attack on Tobruk

References and literature

Der 2. Weltkrieg (C. Bertelsmann Verlag)
Illustrierte Geschichte des Dritte Reiches (Kurt Zentner)
Unser Jahrhundert im Bild (Bertelsmann Lesering)
A World at Arms – A Global History of World War II (Gerhard L. Weinberg)
Der Grosse Atlas zum II. Weltkrieg (Peter Young)
Signal, Years of Triumph 1940-42 + 1943-44 – Hitler’s Wartime Picture Magazine (S.L.Mayer)
Krieg der Panzer (Piekalkiewicz)
Luftkrieg (Piekalkiewicz)
Zweiter Weltkrieg in Bildern (Mathias Färber)
The Desert War (Andrew Kershaw, Ian Close)
Rommels Afrika Korps, Tobruk bis El Alamein (Pier Paolo Battistelli, Dr. Duncan Anderson)

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