The Siege of Tobruk - Libya 1941 (from AWM site)
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.
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 1500 km 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 propagandist Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) derided the tenacious defenders as 'rats', a term that the Australian soldiers embraced as an ironic compliment.
extract from 'Wartime' article by Peter Burness AWM
With the enemy surrounding Tobruk, patrolling was vital. The Australians had no intention of being trapped behind their perimeter wire. Whether it was reconnaissance or aggressive action, patrols kept the enemy off balance. Morshead could well remember the success the Australians had in France in 1918 with their fighting patrols and raids. Then their so-called “peaceful penetration” not only upset the enemy’s morale: on some occasions considerable ground was taken. Now, talking about Tobruk, the general said, “From the first day I determined that no-man’s-land would be our land.” It was important to put the Germans on the defensive and to hold them at least beyond their mortar and machine-gun range. Only around the salient, where the enemy was a constant and dangerous threat, could they remain close.
Active aggressive patrolling held the enemy at a distance. Patrols went out by day and by night. As daylight patrols were reduced, the Australians began to dominate the night-time. In various sectors there would be dozens of men out and some nights there were hundreds. Often fighting patrols mounted heavy hard-hitting raids. Certain types were conducted in machine-gun-mounted tracked carriers. Some patrols went out in the darkness and would stay out next day observing the enemy. More generally a foot patrol might have ten to twenty men, but it could be more. They were armed with Bren guns, Thompson sub-machine guns, rifles and bayonets and grenades. The Germans and Italians came to dread sudden contacts. Other patrols laid mines or conducted ambushes. The enemy had its patrols too, but the Australians were more active.
Patrolling required boldness, clear thinking and a good sense of direction, particularly at night. Going out along or beyond the wire and anti-tank ditch and crossing no man’s land, or being sent deep into enemy territory, often meant that one man in the group had a compass and another counted paces. But some men had a natural instinct for the work. The Australians proved to be good at patrolling and some among them excelled at it.
The Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy provided the garrison's link to the outside world, the so-called 'Tobruk ferry service'. These ships included the Australian destroyers Napier, Nizam, Stuart, Vendetta and Voyager, known as the 'Scrap Iron Flotilla' in the typical self-deprecating manner of the troops at that time. Losses comprised two destroyers, including HMAS Waterhen, three sloops, including HMAS Parramatta, and 21 smaller vessels.
Half the Australian garrison was relieved in August, the rest in September-October. However, the 2nd/13th Battalion could not be evacuated and was still there when the siege was lifted on 10 December, the only unit present for the entire siege.
Australian casualties from the 9th Division from 8th April to 25th October numbered 749 killed, 1,996 wounded and 604 prisoners. The total losses in the 9th Division and attached troops from 1st March to 15th December amounded to 832 killed, 2,177 wounded and 941 prisoners.
Compiled by Steve Larkins 2015