Tobruk. A scene from the fights for Tobruk. The desert warfare was conducted in appalling terrain and climatic conditions.



Simultaneously with the military campaigns unfolded in the Soviet Union, also continued the African campaign. In order to help the Italians, still being severely beaten by the British, the German Supreme Command sent to the Mediterranean theatre the German African Corps (Deutsche Afrikakorps - DAK), an élite German grouping under the command of Gen. Erwin Rommel. The core of the DAK comprised an armoured division and a division of armoured grenadiers. Hence later it was also known as the Panzerarmee Afrika and the 5th Armoured Army. Also the X Air Corps, comprising four regiments thereto deployed in Norway, was transferred to the Mediterranean; with time it was reinforced with squadrons pulled out from the eastern front. Meanwhile Gen. Archibald Wavell, the British commander of the forces in the Middle East, happened to detach in the spring 1941 substantial forces for the expeditionary corps being sent to aid Greece. And then Rommel's fresh troops struck from Libya, and rolled British forces stripped of the best troops in the desert front.

The Australian 9th Division was retreating from Benghazi to Tobruk. It managed to escape pursuit and deploy in the fortress. Rommel, supported by strong air forces, struck straight away against the fortress on 9 May 1941. The attack failed, yet the Germans managed to block the fortress and to seize an important strategic point - the Medawar Hill dominating over the vicinity. Rommel left this problem to its former owners, the Italians, and rushed after the British towards Egypt. Yet beyond the Egyptian frontier the British resistance strengthened and Rommel's impetus weakened. The front had eventually stabilized more or less along the line reached a year before by Gen. Rodolfo Graziani. In its deep rear remained Tobruk, which hampered the German offensive with its very geographic location. The only motorway, along which the Germans and the Italians could supply their troops ventured beyond the Egyptian frontier, was via Tobruk. So they had to build another motorway bypassing the fortress within a distance safe of its artillery. Holding Tobruk was an Allies' lucky advantage: it let them catch the breath and simultaneously menaced enemy's communications in its deep rear.

The siége of Tobruk was conducted by the Italian XXI Corps, which comprised three Italian infantry divisions reinforced by elements of the German 21st Armoured Division. Against them, apart from the Australian 9th Infantry Division, fought an Indian armoured cavalry regiment, elements of the British 33rd Tank Brigade and several artillery squads. Those tiny forces were reinforced by several Czechoslovak battalions, four artillery batteries, and the Polish Karpacka Rifle Brigade. Those were the last reserves the British command could use at that time. The Polish brigade was a particularly valuable acquisition, since it brought a number of light French anti-tank guns so useful in the desert fights. It is remarkable, that this brigade twice avoided complete annihilation. First time in French Syria, where the brigade had been formed since the beginning of 1940; after the fall of France it did not succumb to the demoralization of the French troops, but found its way to the British Palestine. The second time it had to take part in the ill-fated Greek campaign, but the ships with Polish troops were recalled from their way to Greece. Now they were assigned again to what could seem a lost cause.

Troops had been transported to Tobruk via sea routes. The Germans possessed absolute command in the air. The ships used to sail out of Alexandria port at sunset to reach the Tobruk bay at midnight. There the troops had to unload to barges and disembark on beaches. The port itself made a pathetic sight: ruined buildings, fallen cranes, and wreckages of sunken British and Italian ships... It is easy to understand that in those conditions transfer of heavy equipment, like tanks or guns, was practically impossible. Fortunately, the Italians left in Tobruk all their heavy guns. In the mornings the troops would wake up to artillery barrages and air raids. Air raids used to start shortly before the dawn; they aimed at troops being dispatched from the beaches to the sectors of their deployment. The fortress perimeter stretched for miles; it used to take hours before the troops would reach their destinations. The roads were sandy, dusty and damaged by artillery fire. Newcomers had to accommodate themselves in ruins and dugouts, often no more than a dozen of metres from the frontlines. They held those frontlines amidst an ugly, phantasmagoric landscape, littered with rubbish from damaged constructions, destroyed guns, and abandoned vehicle wreckages... Dust, smoke and the odour of decay soared over the battlefield.

The Poles to land on Tobruk beaches had found there the soldiers, with whom they quickly found a common language - the Australians. Their division was comprised almost entirely of volunteers; the British Imperial Forces had never seen another unit with such a high percentage of enlisted men with college education and university degrees. Bohemians, vagabonds and con artists - they had a very peculiar concept of the military drill and discipline. Even to the point that the British command considered isolation of the Australians from other Allied troops to avoid demoralization of the latter. They also were sceptical about the Australians' combat worthiness. Of course, they came from the country of the harsh, hot climate, but that cannot substitute years of garrison service in the desert and bring the experience of the British soldiers, who gave Graziani's great army such a nice whipping. Nevertheless, the Australians proved fine soldiers beyond expectations. Those were the Australians, who during the first Wavell's offensive took Tobruk within two days. And those were the Australians, who frustrated Rommel's armoured assault on the fortress. Relentless in attack and flexible in defence, they had demonstrated extraordinary courage, inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit. Under the pressure of prevailing enemy they would disperse and apply guerrilla tactics, fighting in small groups without substantial casualties. They too miraculously avoided the unfortunate Greek expedition. The division was commanded by Gen. Leslie Morshead, who also assumed the command of the Tobruk fortress. With time, when the British 70th Division reinforced its defence, the command was assumed by Gen. Ronald Scobie.

The Polish brigade originally assumed the defence of the relatively easy southern sector, where they had to gain experience before a more serious task - the defence of the western sector in front of so-called Wyłom ("The Gap"). In that place, at the foot of the Medawar Hill, the Germans managed to wedge into the Allied positions with two infantry regiments supported by the Italian Division Pavia on the right flank, and Division Brescia on the left flank. The Poles were introduced into the "Gap" in the beginning of October and remained there for the rest of the siége. Their battalions were stretched over 20km having Australian and Czechoslovak troops on flanks, and they were deployed along field fortifications, not permanent ones as elsewhere. An important factor in their operations constituted artillery. The Poles possessed 50 guns and howitzers, partly captured from the Italians. The Australians did not possess regular artillery - they lost all the heavy equipment during the retreat across the desert. The artillery support was provided by three British light artillery regiments, and one heavy artillery squad.

Artillery harassment, mine warfare, patrolling - this was the war like in Tobruk. Allies' small, mobile detachments particularly annoyed large, immobile Italian units. With time their excursions transformed into serious combat actions. Engineers had particularly tough service: mines were laid everywhere, on every scrap of free land. The besieged laid them against the besieging, the besieging laid them against the sorties of the besieged, and every careless step could become fatal. With time the situation with food and ammunition had improved. In this respect the fortress was well equipped yet by the former owners. Yet the fresh water still constituted a no means problem. The fighting troops had established certain rules, which were duly observed: in evenings informal cease-fires were in effect. The besieged and the besieging, often separated by no more than a couple of steps, would emerge from their shelters and trenches to distribute food and water, and to collect their casualties. They would exchange jokes or cigarettes, or play a quick match of football. A flare or a machine-gun series would cease this idyllic picture: the enemies would become enemies again and the war would resume with the previous intensity. The Poles particularly astonished their comrades in arms. They would remain completely idle when the whole Italian battalions were sunbathing in open, but should a couple of Germans emerge from a shelter to dust a blanket, the Poles would open hell of a fire from all kinds of weapons. The defenders of Tobruk also exchanged by radio courtesies with the defenders of Sevastopol.

This state of matters could not last forever though. In autumn 1941 both sides were preparing for the decisive operations. Even earlier Gen. Wavell tried to relieve the besieged fortress, but his attempts failed. Now the poet general was replaced by the new commander - Gen. Claude Auchinleck. He forced preparations for a new offensive, which had to lift the siége of Tobruk. And the fortress itself had to play an important role in that new offensive. It started on 18 November 1941 from the positions beyond the Egyptian frontier. The New Zealand division surrounded Bardia and advanced to Bambut; its head units were moving towards Tobruk. Simultaneously the 7th Armoured Division was advancing to Tobruk via Sidi Rezegh, while the 70th Division engaged part of its troops, and all the tanks at hand in Tobruk, in an attack co-ordinated with the main forces. Meanwhile in the western sector the Australian troops made a deep thrust into the enemy rear, while the Poles engaged in the fights for the Medawar Hill. In those conditions Rommel engaged the bulk of his armoured forces against the 7th Division, as well as the following it South African 1st Division, and managed to hold Sidi Rezegh. Thus the incursion from Tobruk could not meet the main British forces. That was the critical moment of the battle, during which Gen. Auchinleck appointed the new commander of the 8th Army - the ardent and skilful Gen. Neil Ritchie. The Auchinleck's order was firm: the 8th Army had to assume a hard defence and not to fall back a single step, even if it had to get annihilated. A debacle of the British army in the place, which attracted attention of the whole world, could be pregnant with political consequences as much as with military ones. The German propaganda since long had been prophesizing an inevitable fall of Tobruk, and used to call its defenders "the rats of Tobruk". However this otherwise contemptuous nickname did not make up for the Germans' hopes. The Tobruk's defenders with pride assumed it as their honourable name and the soldiers of the 9th Division displayed the image of a rat in their insignia.

Rommel, confident of his brilliant success, was already reaching with his armoured pincers the rears of the 8th Army. Its troops, although bleeding heavily, demonstrated a lot of skill and energy, and did not give way. The New Zealanders had even managed to advance westward, meet elements of the 70th Division, and cut Rommel's forces. The continuous front was no more. The battle between Tobruk and the Egyptian frontier turned into a pandemonium of dogfights, clashes, skirmishes and fights. It mixed Axis and Allied troops in an inferno cauldron, from which emerged the most adventuresome and entrepreneurial units, squads and groups. With the utmost effort the Germans had managed to cut the break-through to Tobruk, but it did not mean their victory: Rommel's troops were exhausted. On 7 and 8 December the Allied offensive resumed. The 70th Division took the el-Adem airfield south to Tobruk and re-established contact with the New Zealanders. Meanwhile the Indian 4th Division outflanked Rommel from the south and menaced to encircle his forces. On 10 December German troops started their withdrawal westward. The same day the Poles took the Medawar Hill, and the Australians chased the enemy down to Acroma. The siége was lifted. Rommel tried to reverse the situation on the line west to Tobruk, but his positions were broken through near Ain el-Gazala. Soon later fell besieged Bardia, and the Free French reached Bir Hakeim.

Thus the winter offensive of 1941 brought stabilization of the front on the line Ain el-Gazala - Sidi Muftah - Bir Hakeim. But as soon as May 1942, after having his forces substantially reinforced, Rommel launched a new offensive and rolled British positions. During the retreat across the desert Gen. Ritchie left in Tobruk the South African 2nd Division; he remembered how important it was to hold the fortress in the Allied hands. But so did Rommel. On 20 June his assault broke the defence within a day. The South Africans lacked the Australians' determination; 25,000 of them marched into captivity. The German offensive was not halted before el-Alamein, which is located within several kilometres from Alexandria. It was the farthest advance of the Axis forces in this year-long desert counter-dance. German radio stations were already announcing prompt seizure of Egypt and the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, was making serious preparations for triumphant entry to Cairo.