The First Siege of Tobruk: Nazi Germany’s First Defeat on Land

 
 
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The first victory against the German army in World War Two did not come in Western Europe or amid the ruins of the eastern front. It took place at the small port of Tobruk in North Africa, at the hands of 9th Australian Division.

Taking Tobruk

A British soldier escorting German POWs into Tobruk in 1941
A British soldier escorting German POWs into Tobruk in 1941.

The war in North Africa began in September 1940, when Italian forces advanced into Egypt, over-running British bases. The British counter-attack drove the Italians back 500 miles across the border and forced them to surrender on the 7th of February. Along the way, they took a small port in northeast Libya on the 21st of January, 1941. This town would become the site of decisive action over the year that followed. Its name was Tobruk.

The British Withdrawal

With their supply lines stretched thin and forces being diverted to Greece, the British Western Desert Force stopped its advance before reaching Tripoli. Meanwhile, Hitler saw a need to prop up his Italian allies. And so, on the day before the Italian surrender, Rommel and the Afrika Korps were sent to Tripoli.

On 24 March, Rommel launched his attack at El Agheila. The British were pushed back again, most of them retreating to Egypt. But Tobruk’s defences were largely intact and as a port, it could prove invaluable in retaining power in the region. So the 9th Australian Division, supported by a brigade of the 7th, the Sikh 18th Cavalry Regiment, and both Australian and British artillery, remained behind to hold the town.

Rommel Attacks Tobruk

AustraliansAtTobruk
Australian troops occupy a front line position at Tobruk, 13 August 1941. 

On the 10th of April, the Germans reached Tobruk. Initial attempts to storm the town were driven back, Jack Edmondson earning a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery in the fighting. As much of the Afrika Korps rolled past towards Egypt, Tobruk’s defenders found themselves surrounded.

On the 14th of April, the first Panzer attack came. Penetrating the first line of defences, the tanks were stopped three miles later by point-blank fire from 25-pounder guns.

Rommel knew that the best course of action would be an all-out assault, but he lacked the resources for this. Instead, strategic assaults on the 30th of April and the 1st of May created a bridgehead inside the outer defences. Accurate artillery combined with fierce resistance by the Australian infantry limited the defenders’ losses and took much of the momentum out of the attack.

British officers plan tank operations. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
British officers plan tank operations. 

Stalled Attack

Late on the 1st of May, the Australians launched a counter-attack. Though unable to retake the vital Hill 209 thanks to a lack of machine guns, they were still able to push the Germans onto the defensive and stop them getting around an important minefield.

A sandstorm swept across Tobruk on the 2nd of May, halting the German advance again. While Rommel’s troops battened down the hatches, the Allies laid new minefields, brought up fresh troops, and continued an artillery bombardment against the attackers.

The morale of the previously unstoppable Panzers wavered, even as they sat across a large breach in the enemy’s defences.