The Siege of Tobruk commenced 75 years ago.
A small town on the Libyan coast, Tobruk was central to much of the fighting that took place in the Western Desert during World War II. A key naval outpost due to its location on a sheltered, deep water harbour, Tobruk was vital for the Allies’ defence of Egypt and the Suez Canal.
More than 14,000 men from the Australian 9th Division and the 18th Brigade of the Australian 7th Division, commanded by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead, together with 12,000 British and Indian troops, held Tobruk until September 1941. Their objective was to prevent German forces from accessing the port, delaying their advance by forcing them to bring their supplies overland, and therefore buying the Allies more time to prepare a defence on the Egyptian frontier.
Surrounded by German and Italian forces, the men of the Tobruk garrison withstood tank attacks, artillery barrages, and daily bombings for eight long months. At no point did they surrender or retreat. Their determination, bravery, and humour, combined with the aggressive tactics of their commanders, became a source of inspiration during some of the war’s darkest days.
As the siege ground on, Nazi propagandist Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) broadcasting from Berlin, said the Allies were caught like “rats in a trap”. The derisive term was embraced by the Australian troops who took great pride in calling themselves the ‘Rats of Tobruk’.
In September and October, the 9th Australian Division was relieved by the British 70th Division which continued to defend Tobruk until the siege was eventually lifted in December 1941. According to the Australian War Memorial, between 8 April and 25 October 1941, Australian casualties from the 9th Division numbered 749 killed, 1,996 wounded, and 604 prisoners.
The 75th anniversary of the Siege of Tobruk will be commemorated at a national service to be held at 11.00 am on Sunday 10 April 2016, at the Rats of Tobruk Memorial on Anzac Parade in Canberra.