Look Back On: THE SIEGE OF TOBRUK

Recently my Mum gave me a box containing my grandfathers memories to wander through. I’ve been thinking about him on and off ever since. This morning the children and I have had another look through his things. I showed them the leather wallet he took to war in 1940 when he was 25. Inside it is the delicate silk map of the Middle East where he was posted and some photographs of him in service.

Pa's war things.

Pa’s war things.

Being a doctor at the Children’s Hospital in Sydney prior to the war, he served as a medic and surgeon with the 2/5 and 2/8 Field Ambulances for 2042 days. His Certificate of Service states that he came home with nil marks or scars. I didn’t talk to my Pa about his war days, I was only 4 when he died, but from what I’ve been told, he did have scars, the ones you can’t see. In his address at Pa’s funeral, the Reverend said that his active service “had a profound influence on his life and thought’.

A (fuzzy) Allied map of Tobruk medical services including my Pa's 2/8 Field Ambulance

A (fuzzy) Allied map of Tobruk medical services including my Pa’s 2/8 Field Ambulance

On ANZAC day every year, I wish again I could talk to him, bring out those thoughts. He could have told me about Tobruk, where he served for a portion of his time in the Australian Imperial Force. He was a Rat of Tobruk, one of the survivors of the seige of Tobruk. Instead I’ve had to find out for myself what happened there and why.

Where is Tobruk?

Tobruk or Tobruq is a Port city on the Eastern Mediterranean coast of Libya on the border of Egypt. Back then, this Libyan province was known as Cyrenaica. it was considered strategically important during war time, being a peninsula requiring minimal troops, protected to some extent by cliffs and escarpments and surrounded by a naturally protected harbour which could allow supply ships to access a desert warfare campaign. 

Holding Tobruk meant that allied supplies could enter the North African Campaign easily while the Axis forces had to bring their supplies in from the port of Tripoli, across 1,500 km of desert.

What Happened There?

Tobruk was an Italian colony and military post from 1911 until British, Indian and Australian (mainly the 6th division) troops took Tobruk on January 22 1941. The Italians called upon their German allies, who sent and army corps. The Germans drove the British back into Egypt but the allies decided that Tobruk had to be held. As the British retreated, Tobruk was left isolated and under siege from the Germans.

Rats on Patrol around Tobruk

Rats on Patrol around Tobruk

Initially the defenders of the allied fortress consisted of the Australian 9th Division, the 18th Brigade of Australia’s 7th Division, some British Artillery and Indian troops. The siege lasted 241 days, from April to November 1941. During this time, the 9th Division and the rest of the garrison repeatedly repelled Axis forces armed and artillary attempts to capture the port. Of the attacks, survivors report that the divebombing ‘Stuka’ attacks from the air were the worst part of the siege. 95 year old Ron Williamson says, “They’d come out of the sun. They’d scream down, and not only the natural scream from the aircraft – they had sirens on them as well,”

It was terribly hot, the dugouts were infested with fleas, they survived on one bottle of water per day and meals were bully beef, rice and prunes (really? prunes? Is that really a good idea?).

British attempts to relieve the fortress in May and June 1941 both failed and the 9th Division battled on, gradually improving their defences by consistently raiding Axis positions and opening the way for a final lift of the raid in November 1941 when the Allied sent in more troops under Operation Crusader.

The Australian troops were evacuated. Later, in 1942, the replacement British and South African garrison were once again attacked by Axis forces, and this time defeated. Tobruk was taken and remained in Axis hands until their final retreat from Libya in November 1942.

Who are the Rats of Tobruk?

These are the troops who defended Tobruk during the siege. From one report I read, from a rat himself, it seems Tobruk was rife with desert rats, described as miniature kangaroos with long, brushed end tails. The German propaganda of the time describes the Tobruk allied forces as desert rats. Like all derogatory Aussie nicknames, it was adopted with good humour and has well and truly stuck.

How many casualities?

There were 14,000 Rats of Tobruk. 832 were killed, 2,177 wounded and 941 prisoners. Countless more no doubt, like my Pa, carried the less visible, less immediate scars of war.

Today, when I stood listening to the bugle and sniffing my sprig of rosemary (and trying to get a wriggly 4 year old to understand remembrance), I thought of you Pa. I miss not knowing you.

Lest we forget.

Pa, back right.

Pa, back right.

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Categories: HistOracles

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