Tobruk was the only deep water port in Eastern Libya and as a consequence it had been heavily fortified by its former Italian garrison. The capture of Tobruk was essential for an advance on Alexandria and Suez.

In April 1941, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel made its capture the main objective of his first offensive in North Africa. British forces in Libya's eastern coastal region of Cyrenaica were caught completely by surprise and retreated several hundred miles across the desert towards Tobruk.

Realising that he had a chance to capture Tobruk before the Allies had time to organise a defence, Rommel pushed forward. The 9th Australian Division, supported by British tanks and artillery, repulsed initial German assaults on 10-14 April 1941, and even when the fresh 15th Panzer Division was committed to the attack on 30 April, the defenders held on.



This photograph taken in August 1941 shows 'The Rats of Tobruk' - some of the 15,000 men of the 9th Australian Division taking shelter in caves during an air raid in the siege of Tobruk. 

Under siege, the defenders had to adjust to life in stifling heat, under constant artillery and air bombardment. Supplies of food and water decreased, and the troops were plagued by flies, fleas and illness. Nevertheless, morale remained high - the Australians adopting the ironic nickname 'The Rats of Tobruk', in response to reports that Nazi radio propagandist 'Lord Haw Haw' had described them as being caught 'like rats in a trap' in one of his broadcasts.

The Australians provided the mainstay of the Tobruk defence force until August, when they were withdrawn and replaced by the British 70th Division, with the attached Polish Carpathian Brigade.

British forces lifted the siege on 10 December 1941 during Operation 'Crusader', when 1st Army Tank Brigade linked up with a 'break out' force from Tobruk - the 32nd Army Tank Brigade - at Ed Duda, to the south-east of the town.

Related Content

Easily identified by their distinctive headgear, South African and Australian soldiers enjoy a game of cards in a gun pit.
Second World War

A Brief History Of The Eighth Army And The Desert War

The Eighth Army, formed in September 1941, was a diverse formation made up of units from all corners of the British Empire, with infantry divisions coming from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.

The Second World War 1939 -1945: Montgomery's chance to command a modern battle army came in 1942 when he was sent to Eygpt to replace Auchinleck as commander of the Eighth Army. He was photographed shortly after his arrival by air in Cairo.
Second World War

A 5-Minute History Of The Battle Of El Alamein

At 9.40pm on Friday 23 October 1942, the Battle of El Alamein began with a four-hour ground and air bombardment launched by Britain and its allies. As it subsided, the troops began their advance.

A heavily-armed patrol of 'L' Detachment SAS in their jeeps, wearing 'Arab-style' headdress, January 1943.
Second World War

The Special Forces That Helped Win The Desert Battles Of The Second World War

When Italy declared war on 10 June 1940, the frontier in the Libyan desert posed a challenge to both sides. The difficult terrain included vast sand seas of giant dunes which made it impossible for large forces to penetrate inland.