The fighting in North Africa during the Second World War evolved in an uncharacteristic way. Arid swatches of empty desert along the coast offered little opportunity for terrain-related defence. Instead they became an ocean for Europe’s mechanised armies to manoeuvre across, in naval-like engagements, while lonely ports became indispensable supply points. One such deep-water harbour was Tobruk, a Libyan anchorage that the Italians had strongly fortified to counter a land-based attack.
Against the hopes of both the Italian and German high commands, Tobruk was quickly overrun by the British after a brief battle in January 1941. Three months later in mid April, a mixed British force withdrew into the fortress in the face of an Axis advance led by the daring German commander General Erwin Rommel. Hitler’s ambitious commander had arrived in Libya to buttress the flagging Italians in the wake of their abortive invasion of Egypt, but soon swung his attention east. The ensuing nine-month siege catapulted Tobruk from obscurity to headlines around the world, a cause célèbre. It was, like the Battle of Britain, a bright note for the Allies in the aftermath of a string of defeats across western Europe by Hitler’s Wehrmacht and evacuations from Norway and Dunkirk. It was also the albatross that thwarted Rommel’s unauthorised and audacious plan to seize Cairo.
In June 1942, Rommel again pressed forward and threatened Tobruk. However, many of the players in this desert drama had changed over the preceding months, as had the stage. Tobruk bore little resemblance to the bastion it was during the height of the siege of 1941. Nevertheless its reputation from that period remained – influencing the fateful decision to hold it again, despite a directive at the beginning of 1942 that forbade another siege. The upshot of this decision led to one of the worst British defeats of the war, when Tobruk and its garrison of some 34,000 men surrendered to Rommel’s combined Italo-German force on the morning of 21 June 1942.
Here are eight things you might not know about Tobruk…
1) An ancient stronghold
Tobruk’s strategic significance dates back millennia. The ancient Greeks named their colony beside the natural harbour Antipyrgos (meaning ‘across from Pyrgos’, a city on Crete), and the Byzantine emperor Justinian (r527–65 AD) constructed the first fortress – named Antipyrgon – above the harbour to guard the frontier. Centuries later, the Saracens (or Muslim Arabs) built a fortress on the northern side of the harbour, then known as Marsa Tobruk – the Bay of Tobruk. This stronghold changed hands when the Ottoman Turks occupied it to guard against an invasion by warring states across the Mediterranean.
Tobruk’s protected harbour was also used as a base by Barbary pirates and in July 1798 a number of French vessels sheltered in the port en route to Egypt and their eventual defeat at the hands of Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson in the battle of the Nile.
Tobruk’s strategic value soared during the late 19th century, when Europe’s great powers began to eye Northern Africa with growing interest. After visiting the harbour in 1883, the influential German botanist Georg Schweinfurth predicted that it would assure no less than the “supremacy of the Mediterranean”. Tobruk’s allure even encouraged Lord Kitchener to annex it for neighbouring Egypt until barred by the British Foreign Office.
2) Atatürk and Tobruk
The first battle of Tobruk arose after the Italian invasion of Ottoman-held Libya in October 1911. Using the latest weaponry, including the first use of aircraft and airships in combat, Rome wrongly anticipated that the 7,000-man Turkish garrison would crumble while the indigenous population would rush to greet the invading army as a liberator, ending centuries of oppressive Ottoman rule. On 4 October, Vice Admiral Augusto Aubry’s fleet entered Tobruk harbour. The Turkish commander surrendered after his flagship opened fire at close range. An Italian landing party then occupied the town before securing the surrounding desert.
While the invading army tightened its grip on the Libyan coast, native volunteers opposed to the ‘liberating’ infidels reinforced the ranks of the withdrawing Turks. Meanwhile, Mustafa Kemal, a Turkish army officer and member of the Young Turk reformist movement, journeyed in disguise to Libya to join the Jihad against the Italians. Joining forces with a local sheikh, Kemal successfully led an attack against an Italian hill position at Tobruk on 22 December, the defenders quickly throwing down their arms. Kemal later commanded a Turkish division at Gallipoli during the 1915 Allied landings. Today he is revered as Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.
3) The capture of Italian-held Tobruk
In the 20th century, the Italians set about fortifying Tobruk’s harbour and constructing an extensive outer defensive perimeter to ward off further landward attacks. In time it became Italy’s primary stronghold guarding the eastern Libyan province of Cyrenaica. Three months after Benito Mussolini’s disastrous invasion of Egypt in September 1940, General Archibald Wavell launched a brilliantly successful British counterattack. Sweeping east into Libya, his mixed Commonwealth force arrived outside the lengthy fortress perimeter on 7 January 1941.
Three weeks later, after considerable nocturnal probing of the perimeter defences, Australian infantry supported by British tanks and artillery assaulted the fortress. By 9am some 21 concrete perimeter posts had fallen; any delusions regarding Tobruk’s invulnerability were shattered. The last remaining pockets of enemy resistance collapsed during the afternoon of 22 January. This was a shock to both the German and Italian high commands, who had assumed that the fortress would hold out for a considerable period. Instead, Tobruk had fallen in just 29 hours.
Celebrating one of the swiftest reductions of a fortress of that size in history, the Times proclaimed: “seldom has a victory over such a large area been more swiftly won.” What the Italian press described as a “national calamity” was a boon for Britain – a major victory “executed with great dash” that netted 25,000 prisoners and 208 artillery pieces. Ironically, the assault was, in many respects, a forerunner to the one General Erwin Rommel planned for November 1941, and ultimately launched in 1942.
Archibald Wavell, c1941. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
4) Rommel’s rash attacks
Three months after the fall of Italian-held Tobruk, a mixed bag of British forces hastily withdrew into the fortress in response to the unexpected advance of Rommel’s combined Italo-German force. Sensing victory, Rommel rushed his troops forward against the bastion in a series of abortive attacks in mid April 1941 and another in early May. The defenders, buoyed by a spirit of “there’ll be no Dunkirk here”, held fast.
To understand the ‘miracle of Tobruk’ is to appreciate the character of Rommel, the so-called ‘Desert Fox’, his often-reckless behaviour and the perilous position into which he frequently thrust his men. Here was a commander choosing to ignore ‘unpalatable’ information, underestimating the enemy and overestimating the capabilities of his own army. While censuring those around him, he failed to ensure proper reconnaissance, with disastrous results. His troops had marched into an unanticipated hail of fire from an unknown enemy ensconced in unknown positions.
Yet, in the aftermath of defeat, Rommel cast aside personal responsibility for the reverses and heavy casualty rate. It was, he explained, down to the difficult conditions faced by his men in having to dig-in around Tobruk “and their lack of training”. Perhaps the Axis’s setback at Tobruk in the Easter Battle was best summarised in a letter home from Rommel’s adjutant, Han Joachim Schraepler: “this outcome was caused by Rommel’s error… One should have realised that such an attack could only have been done after careful preparation and planning.”
5) The ‘Rats of Tobruk’
Having failed to storm Tobruk, Rommel laid siege to the isolated Libyan fortress while German propaganda sought to undermine the morale of the entrapped garrison. American-born British fascist William Joyce – better known as Lord Haw-Haw – took to the airwaves, deriding the defenders as the “poor rats of Tobruk”. It was a taunt, however, that immediately backfired. Haw-Haw’s sneering critique was taken up as a badge of honour, his transmissions a nightly source of welcome entertainment. As one ‘rat’ wrote, the “Lord Haw-Haw broadcast was another bright interlude in each Tobruk day. He never failed to cheer us. Though we were often interrupted by air raids, any wireless receiver tuned in to him was sure of a big audience.” Australian servicemen even struck an unofficial ‘Rats of Tobruk’ medal from the wreckage of a downed German bomber.
Later decorated by Hitler for his propaganda efforts, Joyce was arrested after the war near the German-Danish border and charged with treason. Found guilty, he was hanged at Wandsworth prison on 3 January 1946. In 1976, Joyce’s remains were exhumed from an unmarked Wandsworth grave and reinterred at the New Cemetery in Bohermore, County Galway, Ireland. Joyce remains the last person to be hanged in Britain for treason.
Britain’s Eighth Army amassed a wealth of intelligence prior to Rommel’s final assault on Tobruk on 20 June 1942. Decrypts of German radio signals and teleprinter traffic confirmed his intention to seize Tobruk, and his abandoned November 1941 plan for storming the fortress was in British hands – dropped by air to the fortress – and well known by many British staff officers. The Intelligence Directorate in Cairo, according to Major-General Sir Francis de Guingand, reasoned that the same plan would be adopted in 1942, though “being forewarned didn’t help us”.
Rommel was also privy to the most remarkable intelligence – what he called the “Good Source” – during the first half of 1942. Unlike the scarcity of intelligence available to him the previous year, he received regular detailed appreciations of British dispositions in the Western Desert in June 1942 via the monitoring of British radio communications and the interception of detailed communiqués transmitted by the American military attaché in Cairo, Colonel Bonner F Fellers. According to Rommel’s former intelligence officer, Hans-Otto Behrendt, Fellers’ diligent and detailed reporting to Washington was “stupefying” in its “openness” and spectacularly useful in the weeks after 26 May when Rommel punched through Britain’s Gazala Line and moved on Tobruk. British spymaster (and supposed inspiration for the James Bond spy character) Sir William Stephenson even went so far as to suggest that “the unadvertised tragedy” of Tobruk lay in the intelligence “innocently” provided by Fellers’ cables.
7) The bravery of Job Maseko
Job Maseko, a volunteer in the Native Military Corps, 2nd South African Division, was taken prisoner when Tobruk fell on the morning of 21 June 1942. Forced to work on the docks unloading provisions for the Axis forces as they pushed ahead towards the Nile Delta, Maseko sunk an enemy steamer on 21 July 1942 harbour using a makeshift bomb. With the help of fellow prisoners, Maseko placed a small condensed milk tin filled with gunpowder in the vessel’s hold between drums of fuel, lit the attached fuse and closed the hatch.
Later awarded the Military Medal, the accompanying citation read: “In carrying out this deliberately planned action, Job Maseko displayed ingenuity, determination and complete disregard of personal safety from punishment by the enemy or from the ensuing explosion which set the vessel alight.” Neville Lewis, South Africa’s first official war artist, later claimed that Maseko was recommended to receive the Victoria Cross but instead received the Military Medal, since he was “only an African”.
Returning home, the relatively unknown native hero died in 1952 after being struck by a train. Maseko is remembered today by a primary school and main road in the township of KwaThema, as well as South African navy strike craft, that bear his name.
8) Reaction in Egypt after the Fall of Tobruk
Scenes in Cairo following the 21 June 1942 surrender of Tobruk ranged from sheer panic in the European quarters to jubilation. A veritable Rommel-mania, particularly among the Arab youth, sprung up in the expectation of Egypt’s liberation by the ‘great general’. Scores of sensitive British documents were incinerated in Cairo on 1 July in a panicky disposal later dubbed ‘Ash Wednesday’. Nazi propaganda used shortwave radio to target the Egyptian populace and provoke an uprising. Stirring up opinion, a broadcast on 24 June questioned, “Who of us Arabs has not been proud of Rommel? Who of us is not sympathising with him?”
Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, both future presidents of Egypt, and their co-conspirators, actively prepared an anti-British rebellion in Cairo. A plane carrying a message to Rommel promising support, however, was mistaken for a RAF aircraft and shot down. Sadat later wrote that: “Egypt had been patient. We had suffered insult and provocation, and now we prepared to fight side by side with the Axis to hasten England’s defeat….” As it eventuated, Sadat and several associates were arrested and imprisoned after Rommel was stopped and beaten at El Alamein.
David Mitchelhill-Green is the author of Tobruk 1942: Rommel and the Defeat of the Allies (The History Press, 2016).