“The whole Empire is watching your steadfast and spirited defense of this important outpost of Egypt with gratitude and admiration.”
—British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
message to the defenders of Tobruk
In the middle of February 1941, the British Army in North Africa was on the threshold of total victory against the Italian Army. But six weeks later, the strategic situation had reversed itself. British and Commonwealth troops had surrendered almost all their territorial gains in the Italian colony of Libya, and had retreated to the Egyptian border. The only Libyan territory still in British hands was the Cyrenaican port of Tobruk. Combined German and Italian troops had sealed off all land approaches to Tobruk on April 11. On April 14, the German commander Lt. Gen. Erwin Rommel, in a letter to his wife, Lucie, wrote, “Today may well see the end of the Battle of Tobruk. The British were very stubborn and had a great deal of artillery. However, we’ll bring it off.”
Rommel would be proved wrong. The British high command hoped that, aided by Royal Navy shipments, the defenders could hold out for eight weeks. The defenders, nicknamed the Rats of Tobruk, would hold out for eight months.
Rommel’s offensive, launched on March 24, had caught the British flat-footed. They didn’t expect a major campaign from him until late May, because, thanks to ULTRA intelligence intercepts, they knew that’s what his orders were: conduct only minor operations until all his troops, presently en route, had arrived. The British generals’ faith in the accuracy of ULTRA caused them to ignore one important possibility: that Rommel would disobey orders, which he did. Even though he was outnumbered, Rommel’s success overcoming the British defenses at El Agheila reaped spectacular results, ultimately pushing the British back 400 miles.
As the British Army retreated east, Gen. Archibald Wavell, the theater commander, ordered that Tobruk be held. Accordingly, about 27,000 troops built around the 9th Australian Division manned the twenty-eight mile perimeter of Italian-built fortifications.
Rommel’s initial attack against Tobruk, launched on Good Friday, April 11, was ill conceived, under strength, directed at the strongest line of defenses, and bloodily repulsed. A larger, more organized attack occurred three days later on April 14. Though it was supported by almost 40 tanks as well as towed artillery and penetrated a mile and a half through the defenses, it too failed.
To continue his offensive Rommel needed Tobruk. In British hands, it was a constant threat to his long supply lines which had to do a fifty-mile detour inland over rugged desert trails in order to avoid enemy patrols. By the end of April enough German troops and tanks had arrived to enable him to launch a third attack.
That engagement, the Battle of the Salient, caused a breach in the Australian defenses three and a half miles wide. But, because the Australians fought so tenaciously, it also ended in failure. A captured German soldier told his captors, “I cannot understand you Australians. In Poland, France, and Belgium, once the tanks got through the soldiers took it for granted that they were beaten. But you are like demons. The tanks break through and your infantry still keep fighting.”
Meanwhile, the Nazi propaganda machine tried to erode the defenders’ morale. The Radio Berlin host Lord Haw Haw, the British turncoat William Joyce, in his program derisively referred to the Australians as the “poor desert rats of Tobruk” who were “caught like rats in a trap.” The derogatory references meant to dispirit the troops backfired. The comments appealed to the Australians’ dry sense of humor and they proudly began referring to themselves as the Rats of Tobruk. They even went so far as to create an unofficial Tobruk siege campaign medal bearing the likeness of a rat and made out of scrap metal taken from a German bomber they had shot down with captured German anti-aircraft artillery.
With the Royal Navy able to supply them by sea, the Desert Rats employed an aggressive defense too strong for Rommel’s forces to overcome. In September and October, the Australians were gradually evacuated for deployment elsewhere and replaced by other units. The siege was finally lifted at the end of November, when elements of the British Eighth Army linked up with the defenders in Operation Crusader.