The Siege of Tobruk began on April 10, 1941 when a joint-force of Italian-German troops under the Command of Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel attacked Tobruk. The Austrialian 9th Division under the Command of Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead maintained its defense of the town, and received instructions from the British C-C General Archibald Wavell to hold its defense for at least eight weeks. They held it for 240 days. By September the Australian unit was gradually replaced by fresh contingents of the British 70th Infantry Division, the Polish Carpathian Brigade, and the Czechoslavk 11th Infantry Battalion under the command of Major-General Ronald Scobie. Their mission was to hold Tobruk until the end of November when they planned to rendez-vous with the advancing Eighth Army for Operation Crusader. The Royal Navy provided essential gunfire support, supplies, and the transport of fresh troops as well as transfer of the wounded.
Tobruk was an important part of Allied strategy. It was the only other major port on the African coastline between Tripoli and Alexandria. If the Allies had lost Tobruk it would have drastically shortened the German and Italian supply lines. With Tobruk under Allied control Rommel was not in the position to attack across the Egyptian border towards Cairo and Alexandria especially since the Allied garrison could threaten Rommel's lines of supply.
Rommel expected the Allied positions to crumble in his initial attack. His plan was to attack Tobruk directly from the west, but the 20th and 26th Australian Brigades took covering positions outside the perimeter while the 24th and 18th took defensive positions. The first shots of the siege were fired by the Australian 2/28th Infantry Battalion on three German armoured cars, killing its driver and General von Prittwitz. As the German tanks crossed the bridge over the wadi (valley), the Australians blew it up. After a three hour skirmish, the Germans retreated.
The 50 km perimeter of Tobruk was laid with barbed wire, mines and other obstacles and under the surveillance of three Australian infantry brigades. The 26th held the western sector, the 20th held the southern sector, the 24th held the eastern sector, with the 18th Brigade in reserve. On April 11th Rommels forces surrounded Tobruk on three sides: (the harbour was in Allied hands)
On April 11, 1941, just past noon, the 5th Panzer Regiment of the 5th Light Division drew fire to test the Allied defenses while advancing towards the front held by the 20th Australian Infantry Brigade (west of El Adem Road). Within one hour five of the German tanks were destroyed and the others were in retreat, carrying their dead and wounded with them. By 4 pm 700 Germans launched another attack. The Australians were greatly outnumbered and outgunned. But with only two Bren guns, a few dozen rifles, and a couple of Boy's anti-tank rifles, the Australians managed to inflict heavy casualties on the Germans but the German tanks kept advancing. Just then four British tanks arrived firing over the head of the infantry. The German tanks retreated. Only one Allied soldier was killed.
During its patrol, the Australian 2/13th Battalion spotted a German raiding party carrying explosives, which was meant to blow up the Allied anti-tank ditch, but they too were forced to retreat. Subsequent skirmishes resulted in the Germans retreating.
Two days later the German 5th Light Division renewed its attack but the 2/17th Battalion were able to defeat them in fierce fighting. But the next morning the German Division was finally able to break through in securing a small bridgehead over the tank ditch. They were met by intense fire from the 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery. As the Germans tried to veer away they ran directly into fire from dug-in British Crusader tanks. Under fire from the front and both flanks, the Panzer Regiment lost 16 of its 38 tanks. At the same time the German 8th Machine-Gun Battalion, supporting German armour, was at a virtual standstill and forced to withdraw under heavy artillery and aircraft fire. The German battalions lost three quarters of its strength, while Allied suffered 90 casualties.
On April 15th, 1941, over 1,000 Italian infantry advanced on Australian positions through a barrage of mortars and machine gun fire. They were able to overrun one post. But early on the 2/24th Battalion was reinforced by the 2/23 Battalion "B" Company and 51st Field Artillery Regiment. With their combined fire power the battle was squarely in favour of the Australians.
On April 30 at 20:00 hours, the combined forces of German and Italian troops converged on an attack overruning Australian posts. Rommels troops captured fifteen posts along a three-and-a-half miles perimeter including the fort. Despite heavy losses the Australians were able to contain the Axis advance.
Between August and October the Royal Navy relieved the 9th Australian Division and brought in replacements. Based on reports from Australian HQ, the health of the troops had been suffering. During their stay in Tobruk, some 3,000 Australians had lost their lives in battle, with 941 taken prisoner.
The Polish Carpathian Brigade was deployed to the front near Mersa Matruh and then to Sidi Baggush, during Rommels offensive. On August 18, 1941, the first convoy of the Polish Brigade was en route to besieged Tobruk. From August 21 to 28, a total of seven more Polish convoys were transported and the Brigade took control over the westernmost perimeter of the Allied defences. They fought in what became known as the Siege of Tobruk.
On the night of December 9th, while the Eighth Army was engaged in Operation Crusader, the Polish Brigade captured strategically vital areas of Madauar Hill, the town of Acroma, and broke through to meet with the British 8th Army. The siege was ended. The Polish soldiers were awarded the prestigious title of "Tobruk Rats" by their Australian comrades in arms.
On 13 December the Carpathian Uhlan Regiment was detached while the remainder of the brigade was attached to the XIII Corps of the Eighth Army and took part in the attack on the Axis Gazala defensive line on 15 December. On January 21, 1942, Rommel made a counterattack around El Agheila and it led to the Polish under XIII Corps of the British Eighth Army to engage him in battle at Gazala in early February. In March 1942, the Polish Brigade was sent to Palestine where it joined the Polish fordes of General Wladyslaw Anders evacuated from the Soviet Union. Thereafter they were part of the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division.
|Australian troops occupy a front line position at Tobruk|
|Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade in Tobruk 1941|