Monday, May 4, 2009


Port installations burning (above) at Tobruk on January 24, 1941.

The Siege of Tobruk was a lengthy confrontation between Axis and Allied forces in North Africa during the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. The siege started on April 10, 1941, when Tobruk was attacked by an Italian-German force under Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel and continued for 240 days, when it was relieved by the Eighth Army during Operation Crusader.

For much of the siege, Tobruk was defended by the reinforced Australian 9th Division under Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead. General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of British Middle East Command, instructed Morshead to hold the fortress for eight weeks, but the 9th Australian Division held it for over five months, before being gradually withdrawn during September and replaced by the British 70th Infantry Division, the Polish Carpathian Brigade and Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion (East) under the overall command of Major-General Ronald Scobie. The fresh defenders continued to hold Tobruk until they were able to link with the advancing Eighth Army at the end of November during Operation Crusader.

The Royal Navy played an important role in Tobruk's defence, providing gunfire support, supplies, fresh troops and ferrying out the wounded.

Maintaining control of Tobruk was crucial to the Allied war effort. Other than Benghazi, Tobruk was home to the only other major port on the African coast between Tripoli and Alexandria. Had the Allies lost it, the German and Italian supply lines would have been drastically shortened. Furthermore, Rommel was in no position to attack across the Egyptian border towards Cairo and Alexandria while the Tobruk garrison threatened the lines of supply to his front-line units.

Tobruk marked the first time that the Blitzkrieg of the German Panzers had been successfully brought to a halt. Following Operation Crusader the siege of Tobruk was lifted in December 1941. However in 1942, after defeating allied forces in the Battle of Gazala, Axis forces captured the fortress.

A British 5-inch gun, little changed since the First World War, bombarding German positions from besieged Tobruk, May 1941 (below).

No comments: