Siege of Tobruk

The Siege of Tobruk took place in the Western Desert of North Africa in 1941 at the height of the Second World War.

The German Afrika Corps under the command of General Erwin Rommel had commenced the offensive which drove the British forces eastwards across the desert to the Egyptian frontier. The Commander-in-Chief, Sir Archibald Wavell, instructed that the seaport town of Tobruk was to be held, if possible, for two months in order to give time for the assembly of reinforcements, especially of armoured troops for the defence of Egypt.

On 8th April 1941 the garrison of Tobruk consisting of the 9th Division, the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division with British and Indian Troops, came under siege which was to last for 242 days.

The German forces made two serious attempts to capture Tobruk using “blitzkrieg” tactics of a deep armoured thrust through defences followed up by infantry. Up until this point in the war these “blitzkrieg” tactics had never failed.

It was during the first of these attempts that Corporal John Hurst Edmondson showed the conspicuous bravery that was to earn him a posthumous Victoria Cross. Edmondson’s V.C. was the first awarded to an Australian during the 1939 – 1945 War.

Numerous attempts to relieve Tobruk by land failed and the garrison was supplied by ships of the British and Australian Navies, across seaways dominated by a hostile air force. Because of the almost daily enemy air attacks, arrivals and departures of the ships were conducted under cover of darkness.

Between April and the end of August, the garrison was subjected to 593 enemy air raids.

The relief of the 18th Brigade commenced in August and by October the Australians with the exception of 2/13 Battalion were relieved by the Polish Carpathian Brigade and British Troops. The 2/13th remained to fight its way out in December when the garrison broke out to join up with the British Eighth Army which effected the relief of Tobruk on 10th December 1941.

It cannot be claimed that Tobruk stopped Rommel and his Africa Corps but it cannot be overlooked that the siege had an important effect on the war for another reason. Here the Germans had suffered a serious reverse and the Tobruk garrison had demonstrated that the hitherto successful “blitzkrieg” tactics could be defeated by resolute infantry who held their ground, by defence in depth and by individual courage.

During the siege, German radio propagandists directed a constant stream of derision at the defenders, likening them to rats. Far from weakening morale the term was enthusiastically adopted by the troops who thenceforth called themselves “The Rats of Tobruk”.

In the desert

One third of the Australians killed in action in the Middle East lost their lives in the Tobruk campaign.

Casualties for the Tobruk siege were:

776 – Killed in action or died of wounds
2112 – Wounded in action
65 – Missing
954 – Prisoners
Total = 3907

The Rats who returned to Melbourne formed as Association which has branches in every state as well as in the United Kingdom. The Victorian State Branch decided to form a Pipe Band as a living memorial to the soldiers who died at Tobruk and to keep alive the proud name “The Rats of Tobruk”.