I was perplexed by this title – surely Leningrad can lay claim to the longest siege of the Second World War, lasting for 872 days and costing the lives of nearly one million Russian soldiers and civilians? Even in the annals of the British Army, the siege of Tobruk (April to November 1941) was surely eclipsed by the Great Siege of Gibraltar which lasted for three years and seven months in the 18th century?
However, such quibbling is to forget the very real strategic and symbolic importance which was attached to the siege of Tobruk in the tense spring, summer and autumn days of 1941. The dogged defence of the Libyan port prevented any German advance into Egypt at a time when the British were uniquely vulnerable and reeling from multiple defeats across the Mediterranean and Middle East. Just as importantly, the defiant stand by the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ came to represent the British empire’s will to resist as it marked the first time during the war that the German war machine had been halted in its tracks.
It is this story which Robert Lyman tells in his gripping narrative which begins with the outbreak of the war in the desert and goes through to the final relief of the fortress in November 1941. Lyman provides a soldier’s eye view of the bitterly contested siege, using a range of eye witness accounts from both sides, to give a vivid impression of the intense fighting of the siege.
Given the reliance on British soldiers’ accounts, this is a British view of the siege: there are far fewer authentic Australian or Polish voices in the text. However, this provides a useful corrective to the oft-held belief that Tobruk was defended exclusively by the Australians.
Lyman’s account vividly brings to life the courage, determination and endurance of the soldiers who had to live, work and fight in a harsh and unyielding environment. He also reveals the brutality of war: accounts of hospitals being strafed by aircraft and prisoners bayoneted demonstrate just how far from a ‘war without hate’ the desert war really was.
When Tobruk fell to Rommel’s triumphant army in the summer of 1942 the shock was palpable. The symbol of resistance had been smeared with the stain of defeat. It was not until the second battle of El Alamein that the tide was truly turned in the desert war. Although the memory of Tobruk and its importance has faded, echoes of the courage and determination of that first siege remain with us. Lyman has caught those echoes and made them live again in his book.