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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Siege of Tobruk

31 March to 27 November 1941

Theatre: North Africa
Location: Cyrenaica (a province of Libya)
Players: Allies: 9th Australian Division under Major General Leslie Morshead, partially replaced by British and Polish troops between August and October. Axis: General Erwin Rommel's Deutsches Afrika Korps including 5th Light Division and three Italian divisions (Ariete, Brescia, Trento); under the nominal command of the Italian General Italo Gariboldi.
Outcome: The Australian, British and Polish divisions under siege in Tobruk were twice attacked by Rommel's forces, and both times retained control of the Libyan port. The siege was lifted after nearly eight months.

'The whole Empire is watching your steadfast and spirited defence of this important outpost of Egypt with gratitude and admiration.' - Winston Churchill, in a telegram to the Australian Major General Leslie Morshead

A group of British soliders in Libya before the fall of Tobruk
A group of British soliders in Libya before the fall of Tobruk©
In January 1941, the Allied forces in North Africa swept the Italians all the way from the Western Desert to Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya, during Operation Compass.

Following the recall to Egypt of General Richard O'Connor, commander of the Western Desert Force, Cyrenaica was garrisoned by a small force under Lieutenant General Philip Neame. If attacked, Neame had orders to fight a delaying action back to Benghazi, 110km inside Cyrenaica - but major attacks were not expected from the Italians. Rommel arrived in Tripoli on 12 February with different ideas. He attacked on 31 March.

The planned British withdrawal degenerated into a rout, and Rommel initiated an ambitious encirclement tactic. Advancing along the coast, the Germans took Benghazi on 4 April. On 7 April, a German column crossed the desert to reach the sea at Derna, 95km (60 miles) east. Among those captured were Neame and O'Connor, who had flown in to advise him.

The British retreat was inevitable, but General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East, decided that the Libyan port of Tobruk had to be held. It was potentially a strong fortress, almost completely surrounded by a flat plateau, with the sea on one side.

Tobruk was garrisoned by the 9th Australian Division, and was attacked by German and Italian forces on 13 and 15 April. Rommel followed the tried-and-tested method of sending his tanks in first to create a gap through which the infantry would follow.

The tanks met little resistance, but as soon as the infantry advanced, they came under fierce attack. The Allies had made a strategic decision to let the tanks through easily, and launch a heavy attack only once the tanks were trapped inside the city, cut off from the rest of the Axis forces. It proved a success - beaten back, Rommel laid siege to the port.

Two British offensives (Operations Brevity and Battleaxe) failed to break the siege, and by August the Australian government was insisting that its men should be withdrawn. The Australians were partially replaced by British and Polish troops. On 18 November, General Claude Auchinleck launched Operation Crusader, which succeeded in lifting the siege by the end of that month.

Rommel attacked the port again the following year after his successes at Gazala. Tobruk was captured by the Germans and the 35,000-strong garrison taken prisoner of war.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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