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Siege of Tobruk

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The Siege of Tobruk was a confrontation between the Italo-German army under Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel and British Commonwealth forces that lasted for 253 days in North Africa during the Western Desert Campaign during the Second World War. The siege started on 10 April 1941, when Tobruk was attacked by Italo–German forces, and continued for 253 days up till 10 December 1941, and was only lifted when the Polish Carpathian Brigade under Major-General Stanisław Kopański attacked and captured White Knoll during Operation Crusader.

The BattleEdit

Mechili Edit

On 24 March, Rommel launched his first offensive with the newly arrived Afrika Korps. By early April he had destroyed most of Major-General Michael Gambier-Parry's 2nd Armoured Division's tanks (British 3rd Armoured Brigade) and severely damaged its 2nd Support Group at Mersa Brega, leaving the road south of the Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountains) to Mechili open. He brought forward along the coast road, elements of the 17th Pavia and 27th Brescia Divisions while pushing his mechanized units across country towards Mechili. On 6 April the leading Bersaglieri columns of the Italian Ariete Division reached Mechili.

On 6 April the Australian 9th Division received orders to withdraw along the coast road to Tobruk. Amid the confusion and congestion of the road of the so-called "Benghazi Handicap", Generals Neame and O'Connor were captured.

The positions at Mechili were defended by non-tank elements of 2nd Armoured Division (3rd Indian Motor Brigade and elements of the 2nd Support Group). Surrounded, they fought bravely in defence of Mechili, but Gambier-Parry surrendered to General Pietro Zaglio of the Pavia Division on 8 April.[1]3,000[2][3][4]British, Indian and Australians were captured at Mechili after an attempted breakout was broken up by the Ariete's Fabris and Montemurro Bersaglieri battalions.[5]

The Easter BattleEdit

On 10 April, in preparation for the forthcoming battle, the 15th Panzer Division's commander, Major-General Heinrich von Prittwitz is killed along with his driver by an anti-tank shot, while conducting a reconnaissance outside Tobruk. Upon finding out, the commander of the 5th Light Division, Major-General Johannes Streich, angrily drove up to Rommel's headquarters in a commandeered British vehicle to personally blame him for the loss of von Prittwitz. Rommel points out that Streich could also have been killed in a case of mistaken identity by protecting 20mm guns, to which Streich replies that in that case Rommel would've killed two German generals in just one day.

On 11 April, the 5th Panzer Regiment probes the Australian defences around stongpoints R59 and R63, losing five panzers in the process. Nevertheless, 700 supporting infantry get within 400 yards of the 2/13th Battalion's positions. Axis infantry also attack the 2/17th Battalion's sector near strongpoint R33. Artillery fire stops the attacking infantry, but 70 tanks get through and attempt to overrun Captain Baffe's D Company. The Australian company commander recalls:

About 70 tanks came right up to the antitank ditch and opened fire on our forward posts. They advanced in three waves of about twenty and one of ten. Some of them were big German Mark IVs, mounting a 75-mm gun. Others were Italian M13s and there were a lot of Italian light tanks too. The ditch here wasn't any real obstacle to them, the minefield had only been hastily rearmed and we hadn't one antitank gun foward. We fired on them with antitank rifles, Brens, and rifles and they didn't attempt to come through, but blazed away at us and then sheered off east towards the 2/13th's front.[6]
German infantry persisted and attacked again in battalion strength as Captain Baffe recalls:
When the infantry were about 500 yards out we opened up, but in the posts that could reach them we had only two Brens, two antitank rifles and a couple of dozen ordinary rifles. The Jerries went to ground at first, but gradually moved forward in bounds under cover of their machine guns. It was nearly dusk by this time, and they managed to reach the antitank ditch. From there they mortared near-by posts heavily. We hadn't any mortars with which to reply, and our artillery couldn't shell the ditch without risk of hitting our own posts.[7]

At the El Adem road, Axis tanks engaged with the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, and four Italian tanks and one German panzer were lost. Two British tanks were also lost, but the British forced the Axis armoured column and infantry to withdraw. The 2/13th Battalion's mortar platoon, equipped with two Italian 47mm antitank guns, also knocked out two Italian tanks in the El Adem road action. 

That night, Axis tanks along with pioneers again probed the Australian defences, but were driven off by the 2/17th Battalion.

On 13 April, German aircraft dropped leaftlets over Tobruk, urging the Australian garrison to surrender: 

The general officer commanding the German forces in Libya hereby requests that the British troops occupying Tobruk surrender their arms. Single soldiers waving white handkerchiefs are not fired on. Strong German forces have already surrounded Tobrk, and it it useless to try and escape. Remember Mekili. Our dive-bombers and Stukas are awaiting your ships which are lying in Tobruk[8]

That night, a strong German night-fighting patrol attempted to captured strongpoint R33, but the attack failed when Lieutenant-Colonel Mackell personally led a counterattackalong with six of his men. The Australians claim 12 Germans were killed and one captured, and Corporal Jack Edmondson was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the action. 

On the night of 19th/20th April 1941, No. 7 Commando (carried in the cargo ship HMS Glengyle) under the cover of the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Coventry and three Australian destroyers (HMAS Stuart, Voyager and Waterhen), raided the port of Bardia. The British commandos inflicted considerable damage to an Axis stores dump and managed to destroy a bridge and four coastal guns, but were not all unable to escape on the single landing craft made available to them and nearly 70 were consequently forced to surrendered[9] to an Axis motorized column. 

Battle of the SalientEdit

At about 20:00, German tanks moved up near the strongpoint S.1 and, using grappling hooks pulled away the barbed wire entanglements. Tanks from the 5th Panzer Company and supporting infantry from the German 2nd Machine-Gun Battalion and a Pioneer Battalion proceeded to clear up the bunkers manned by Captain Fell's A Company, 2nd/24th Battalion. Strongpoint S1 was the first to fall. Two panzers drove to within 100–200 yd (91–183 m) of the strongpoint, and opened fire, and, after a brief fight (in which three men were killed and four wounded), Lieutenant Walker and his men surrendered to the Germans. These tanks then proceeded to attack the defenders of S.2 (under Major Fell), which contained the Company HQ and 7th Platoon. Getting to within 200 yards, the panzers opened fire, shredding sandbags on the parapets and blowing up sangars. On each tank were riding German infantrymen, who under cover of the tank fire, ran forwards with grenades forcing the Australians to surrender.

German infantry now concentrated on the 9th Platoon defenders dug-in along strongpoints R.0 and R.1. After a fight in which three were killed and four wounded, the defenders surrendered. The crews of two Royal Horse Artillery 2-pounders provide effective fire support, knocking out some of the panzers, but when the guns tried to turn to engage tanks moving to their flank, they exposed themselves to German machine-gunners, with the gunners either killed, wounded or captured. The bunkered platoons from the neighbouring C Company from the 2nd/24th Battalion were also attacked. Strongpoint S.5 was captured at first light on 1 May, and strongpoints S.4 (under Corporal Rod Deering) and S.6 (under Captain Lin Canty) held out grimly until late in the morning. Strongpoint S.7 (under Corporal Thomson) stubbornly resisted, inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking Italians, before the attackers were able to throw in grenades. Attacks on strongpoints S.8, S.9 and S.10 were repelled. Nevertheless, C Company suffered 20 men killed and wounded, and another 44 taken prisoner in the fighting in the northern sector.

The attack in the southern sector involved Italian infantry and Lieutenant John Mair's 16th Platoon, D Company, defending strongpoints R.2 and R.3 and R.4 were overrun by the Italians. According to an Australian defender, "That night the slightest move would bring a flare over our position and the area would be lit like day. We passed a night of merry hell as the pounding went on." Italian infantry were then able to close in, and grenades were thrown into the bunkers. Nevertheless, the defenders of R.5 (under Sergeant Gordon Poidevin), R.6 (under Captain Arthur Bird) and R.7 (undre Corporal K. S. Jones) were captured only after stubborn resistance, and fought on until they had run out of ammunition or had grenades thrown in the strongpoints. After they had been made prisoners, General Rommel spoke to them "for you the war is over and I wish you good luck", recalled Corporal Jones

The British 51st Field Regiment had been constantly firing, causing an entire German battalion to scatter and, according to Rommel, creating panic in the Italian infantry. Seven British Cruiser and five Matilda tanks also appeared in the Italian area of penetration, engaging in an inconclusive battle with Italian tanks.

The Axis attack reaches breaking po when the leading tanks ran into a minefield placed by General Morshead to stop any breaches of the Blue Line. A German officer recalled:

Two companies get off their motor lorries and extend in battle order. All sorts of light signals go up — green, white, red. The flares hiss down near our own MGs. It is already too late to take aim. Well, the attack is a failure. The little Fiat-Ansaldos go up in front with flame-throwers in order to clean up the triangle. Long streaks of flame, thick smoke, filthy stink. We provide cover until 2345 hours, then retire through the gap. It is a mad drive through the dust. At 0300 hours have snack beside tank. 24 hours shut up in the tank, with frightful cramp as a result — and thirsty![10]
After several tanks lost their tracks, the remaining Panzers have no option to retreat and the Australians claim a victory.

Nevertheless, the Axis forces had captured fifteen strongpoints on an arc of 5.6 kilometres of the perimeter, including its highest fort. The Australians had fought well and one German POW commented: "I cannot understand you Australians. In Poland, France, and Belgium, once the tanks got through the soldiers took it for granted that they were beaten. But you are like demons. The tanks break through and your infantry still keep fighting." Rommel wrote of seeing "a batch of some fifty or sixty Australian prisoners [probablyy C Company, 2nd/24th Battalion that had surrendered to the Italians]... marched off close behind us — immensely big and powerful men, who without question represented an elite formation of the British Empire, a fact that was also evident in battle."

Nevertheless, the 9th Division losses had been heavy. Australian casualties were 59 killed, 335 wounded and 383 captured.

The SiegeEdit

The besiegers would be principally Italian units belonging to the Ariete and Trieste (20th Motorised Corps), Pavia, Bologna, and Brescia Divisions (21st Infantry Corps). The Australian commanders would remain determined to recapture the ground lost on 1 May.

On 3 May, the Australians launched a counterattack employing the 18th Brigade but are only able to recapture one strongpoint from the Italians. On the night of 16/17 May, the Axis combat engineers and supporting infantry retaliate and although the participating German pioneers (under a Major Betz) fail in their attack, two platoons of the 32nd Combat Sappers Battalion and Brescia infantry (armed with flamethrowers) come to their rescue and secure and successfully defend the captured S.8, S.9 and S.10 strongpoints from the Australians.[11]

Major-General Leslie Morshead is furious that another 3 strongpoints have fallen into enemy hands and issues out orders that the Australians be far more vigilant in the future.[12]Nevertheless, the Australians fought hard, and the Commanding Officer of the 32nd Combat Sappers—Colonel Emilio Caizzo— was killed in the action leading a satchel attack on an Australian machine-gun emplacement, an action which earns him a posthumous Gold Medal for Military Valour. An Italian narrative has recorded:

On the night on 16 May 1941, two platoons of the 3rd Combat Engineer Company in union with assault groups of the "Brescia" Infantry Division, which had been sent as reinforcements on the 11th of that month, initiated the attack. With total disregard to danger and usual stealthiness, the combat sappers opened three paths in the wire fencing in front of each assault group. They used explosive charges in tubes. Fighting side by side with the assaulters, in fierce hand-to-hand combat, they inflicted heavy losses on the enemy, and obtained the objective.[13]
On 2 August, in the belief that the Axis besiegers had largely abandoned the lost strongpoints, an attack was launched by the Australian 24th Brigade. The attack is well planned and supported by more than 60 artillery guns, but the German defenders and supporting Bersaglieri machinegun detachments are ready, and the Australian attack fails with heavy loss of life. This would be the last Australian effort to recover the lost strongpoints. There has been criticism levelled at General Sir Leslie Morshead for underestimating the enemy in the attack. [14]

ReferencesEdit

  1. "He made good progress with both columns and on 6th April General Gambier-Parry was summoned to surrender the position at Mechili which had been hastily occupied by the 3d Indian Motor Brigade and part of the 2nd Motor Brigade of the 2nd Armoured Division. The demand was made in the name of General Zaglio, commanding the Pavia Division ..." A Don at War, David Hunt, Sir David, KCMG OBE Hunt, p. 59, Routledge, 2014
  2. "On April 8, the Afrika Korps completed the destruction of the 2nd Armoured Division, Major General Michael D. Gambier-Parry, the commander of the 2nd Armoured, and Brigadier Vaughan, the commander of the Indian 3d Motor Brigade, were captured, along with 3,000 of their men." Rommel's Desert Commanders: The Men who Served the Desert Fox, North Africa, 1941-1942, Samuel W. Mitcham, p. 18, Greenwood Publishing, 2007
  3. "In a brilliant flanking movement on 7 and 8 April, Rommel captured Mechili and with it 3000 prisoners, including more than 100 Australians." Tobruk 1941: The Desert Siege, Timothy Hall, p. 43, Methuen, 1984
  4. "Gambier-Parry and some 3,000 of his soldiers suffered the same ill-fortune as O'Connor and Neame and went into the German 'bag'." Wavell in the Middle East, 1939–1941: A Study in Generalship, Harold E. Raugh, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013
  5. "The victory must have been especially sweet for the men of the Ariete Division, partly as recompense for past humiliations at British hands, and partly because it was an all-Italian triumph; Generalmajor Streich, Oberstleutnan Dr. Olbrich and Panzer Regiment 5 arrived too late to take part in the action and Gambier-Parry actually surrendered to Colonna Montemurro." Tobruk: The Great Siege, 1941–42, William F. Buckingham, p. ?, Random House, 2010
  6. The Australian 9th Division Versus the Afrika Corps, Colonel Ward A. Miller, p. 21, Pickle Partners Publishing, 2014
  7. The Australian 9th Division Versus the Afrika Corps, Colonel Ward A. Miller, p. 21, Pickle Partners Publishing, 2014
  8. The Australian 9th Division Versus the Afrika Corps, Colonel Ward A. Miller, p. 24, Pickle Partners Publishing, 2014
  9. "On the night of 19th/20th April 1941, the commandos mounted an amphibious raid on the Axis port of Bardia. The assault was a partial success as considerable damage was inflicted on German stores and materiel. Nonetheless, not all the commandos could be got off by the single landing craft which pitched up to extract them, and the rest were left on the beach. Inevitably they were forced to surrrender." Ghost Patrol: A History of the Long Range Desert Group, 1940-1945, John Sadler Mitcham, p. 52, Casemate, 19 Nov. 2015
  10. THE EARLY ATTEMPTS and SEIGE
  11. "... il reparto tedesco penetrò profondamente nel campo minato ma fu scoperto e fatto segno di una forte resistenza nemica. Essendo venuto a mancare l'effetto sorpresa i Sturpioneer tedeschi subirono gravissime perdite. Riuscirono a conquistare la posizione ma non riuscivano a tenerla, causa i contrattacchi delgi Australiani. A questo punto il Maggiore Franceschini, di sua iniziativa, mando la 3a ad attacare sul fianco gli Australiani mentre la 4a si oppose frontalmente ai nemici.Cosi le due compagnie conquistarono la quota. I tedeschi, fortemente provati, ebbero oltre 100 caduti, si ritirarono lasciando i soli Guastatori a presidiare la quota. Il Maggiore Betz, informo il comando del comportamiento dei Guastatori, Qualche giorno piu tardi arrivo Rommel, per vistare il reparto, si fece dare 4 nomi e li premio con la Coce di ferro II classe: Ten. Mario Pazzaglia, Ten. Aroldo Anzani, Sten, Rolando De Angelis e Serg. Mario Venturi." (Genio Guastatori, Silvestri Angioni Lombardi , pp. 50-51, Edizioni R.E.I., 2015
  12. "Today we lost posts R8, R9 and R10 (sic), the occupants having been taken prisoners in the circumstances set out in the attached document. This is the second time that portion of our garrison has vanished. As far as can be ascertained the number of casualties was negligible, the posts having been just mopped up – rather a new experience for the AIF." Australia in the War of 1939-1945. 4 volumes, Chapter 7: Midsummer in the Fortress, p. 251, Australian War Memorial, 1952-1968
  13. http://www.guastatori.it/i-guastatori-nel-2%C2%B0-conflitto-mondiale/xxxii-btg-g-gua/ XXXII Btg.Gua.
  14. Journal of the Australian War Memorial

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