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  • James Houser

April 14, 1941 - Erwin Rommel's Desert War & the Siege of Tobruk

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

April 14, 1941. Erwin Rommel prepares to launch his Afrika Korps, the German force in Egypt, at the Australian 9th Division holding the town of Tobruk. An already legendary campaign between Britain and Germany in the North African Desert is about to gain a new legend: the Rats of Tobruk, the brave Aussie Diggers who hold on at all cost against the Panzer onslaught.


After Hitler had overrun France in 1940, Benito Mussolini and his Fascist government in Italy decided to hop into the war on the Axis side. Mussolini saw easy pickings in the British Imperial possessions and weak Balkan countries of the Mediterranean. Libya was an Italian colony at this time, and bordered British Egypt to the west. In August 1940, Mussolini ordered his armies to invade Egypt, and two months later invaded Greece. His thought process seems to have been “Hitler’s doing pretty good. I can do good. You don’t know.”


It didn’t work out in either case. Mussolini’s troops were thrown back by the Greeks, and in December 1940 the British 4th Indian, 9th Australian and 7th Armored Divisions launched a counterattack in the Western Desert. They drove back Italian forces across all of eastern Libya, capturing the major port of Benghazi and forcing a significant surrender by February 1941. The Italian army in Africa had been eviscerated, and British troops seemed poised to take the whole country. Mussolini asked Hitler for help.


Hitler was irritated. Mussolini had gotten himself in trouble in Greece and Africa and expected Germany to bail him out. Hitler was busy preparing his forces for the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and this sudden problem forced him to delay his attack plans. He couldn’t leave it alone; the collapse of Italy might expose his southern front to Allied attacks and encourage the French to revolt. The Germans began planning the invasion of Greece, and in January Hitler decided to send a small German force to help Mussolini hold onto Africa.


For this job Hitler selected Erwin Rommel. Rommel was an aggressive, arrogant, and flamboyant officer who had performed extremely well in the invasion of France with his 7th Panzer Division, the “Ghost Division.” Rommel was an excellent combat officer, decisive, innovative, and leading from the front. He was, and is, a legend, but there were certain drawbacks to his skill set. Rommel regarded logistics as an afterthought rather than a rule of war. He was also a glory hound, and his habit of leading his attacks in the front line was a better practice for a company commander than a general officer in a modern war. He also had a certain political naivete (at best) that caused him to overlook or disbelieve the worst parts of Nazi policies.


The British, meanwhile, were suffering a crisis of their own. Archibald Wavell, the excellent general who had defeated the Italians and stabilized the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern situation, lost most of his best troops in March 1941. Churchill wanted to send help to Greece, even though Wavell and the rest of the British Generals knew that as soon as the Germans came knocking Greece would be beyond saving. Orders were orders, though, and the Western Desert Force – the British army in Libya – lost some of its best troops and most of its tanks to the Greek expedition. This left it dangerously understrength in the event of a crisis.


Rommel was going to make a crisis. When he arrived in Africa and took command of the German and Italian forces there, he only had a very small component of his German forces and a handful of battered Italian armored divisions. The German forces he had were good, though – the advance units of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions. Rommel decided to attack immediately. He had heard from intelligence reports that the British had pulled most of their forces out, and saw a major opportunity to strike.


The big dilemma here was that neither the Germans nor Italians had near enough supplies or troops for major offensive operations. Italian tanks were in poor condition and inferior to German panzers, and the Germans had only arrived *literally* six days ago and didn’t even have desert equipment. Furthermore, Rommel’s mission wasn’t to launch a major counterstroke: it was to defend the current position and keep the British from moving forward, albeit aggressively. Hitler had been told that four divisions would be required to capture Egypt, but gave Rommel only two since his objective was defense, not attack. Rommel didn’t care. He saw the enemy, he attacked and tried to destroy them in battle. Simple.


On March 24, just over a month after he had arrived in Africa, Rommel ordered his first major attack. He shocked the ill-prepared and tired British soldiers, who had not expected an attack from their recently defeated foe. In days, they were racing around the vast bulge of eastern Libya in retreat, trying to reach the safety of Egypt before the Germans did. As the British fled along the coast, Rommel cut across the desert, his DAK (Deutsche Afrika Korps, the name for his little army) making quick tracks across the sandy Libyan desert. There was no good defensive position in the North African sands; everywhere the British tried to make a stand, Rommel took to the wide-open desert with his better tanks and outflanked them.


On April 8, the racing Panzers captured the two commanders of British forces in Libya, Generals O’Connor and Neame. The British failed to respond quickly enough to Rommel’s lightning strikes; his troops were everywhere and nowhere on their tanks, trucks and motorcycles, zipping through the desert like ghosts. The confusion caused morale to plummet and Rommel’s troops took thousands of British and Indian prisoners. They seemed to be well on their way to Egypt.


The 9th Australian Division had escaped the German net. Laying their hands on every truck, car and mule that could move, they had raced eastward just ahead of Rommel’s panzers. By April 7, they had arrived at the city of Tobruk, the final stop on the Libyan side of the Egypt-Libya border. Realizing that German troops had reached the sea on both their western and eastern flanks, they were trapped, pinned between Rommel’s forces around them and the Mediterranean to the north.


Rommel had come far and achieved much, but his victory was not complete. He had to capture Tobruk. British reinforcements were coming from Egypt to the east, and Rommel’s Afrika Korps had travelled almost 400 miles in a month. Its nearest supply base, Tripoli, was over 1100 miles away. His supplies of fuel, ammo, men and replacement tanks had slowed to a trickle, and most of the men and tanks he still had were worn out. German and Italian supply systems were never good, and Rommel’s famous inattention to logistics had left him stranded far away from home with a tiny supply tail.


Tobruk was a port that Rommel needed; if he took it, he would have a new supply base to continue his march to Alexandria, Cairo and even the oil fields of the Middle East. If he didn’t take it, he couldn’t hold what he already had taken. Supply suddenly became everything.


Around 25,000 Australian and British troops clung to Tobruk by their fingernails. They had rushed in with few supplies and provisions, and the Royal Navy immediately began supplying everything they could. But Rommel was coming. The Aussies and Brits dug in and prepared for the worst.


On April 9 and 10, 1941, German Panzers probed the defenses at Tobruk and were surprised to meet fierce resistance. Rommel believed the supply ships his planes had seen were there to evacuate the Aussies, not resupply them. He decided that the major effort would be April 14. He could not afford to wait and let his enemies prepare. He had to take Tobruk as fast as possible. The Australians were led by General Leslie Morshead, a strict and cold officer known to his troops as “Ming the Merciless” for his resemblance to a popular comic book villain. Morshead was hard as nails, and determined to hold Tobruk at all costs.


The attack started on the night of the 13th. The worn-out panzers of the 21st Panzer Division, low on fuel and ammo, prepared to hit the Australian perimeter with everything they had. They launched their night attack against 2nd Battalion, 17th Australian, which threw it back with prejudice, but by dawn on April 14 the German tanks had found a gap on the northern perimeter and spilled through, trying to overawe and overwhelm the garrison.

With their backs to the sea, the British gunners of the Royal Horse Artillery laid their cannon on the oncoming tanks and fired point-blank. The German panzers veered away straight into the fire of the few British tanks left after the long retreat. Their hull-down ambush eviscerated the Germans, who retreated from their lodgment. All along the rest of the line, the Aussies, “Diggers” as they were known, pinned the German infantry down, every rifle and cannon blazing away with fury.


The Axis came again on April 16, this time the Italians from the east. Again, the brave Australians knocked out Italian tanks with cannon and grenades, launching night raids and aggressive patrols. Tobruk was safe – for now.


With the failure to take Tobruk, Rommel was stuck. He would spend the next seven months launching occasional attacks when he saw a chance, but the Australians were only growing stronger, strengthening their perimeter and receiving reinforcements from the sea. To the east, more British troops were arriving, threatening to break in Rommel’s lines and link hands with the cut-off troops at Tobruk. Time was not in Rommel’s favor.


The resistance at Tobruk might have cost Rommel his campaign, and Germany the war. If German tanks had reached the Suez Canal and the critical oil fields of the Middle East…well, history might be very different. Rommel would fight brilliant campaigns for the next several years in North Africa, and in 1942 would even capture Tobruk, but in 1941 the Germans were on the upswing everywhere and everything seemed possible. The Aussie defense became a morale boost across the Allied world, with the famous “Rats of Tobruk” a stubborn island in the sea of German blitzkrieg.


The Tobruk campaign showed the limitations of both the German war effort and of Rommel himself. The German war method had always emphasized victories in battle without thinking of the broader implications. How did the battles win the war? Rommel attacked when his only mission was defense; why was he surprised that he ran out of men and supplies? What did Rommel gain by advancing a thousand miles from his supply base, capturing a vast stretch of desert, only to fail in his attacks on a craggy, stubborn outpost on the sea? It was the same story in Russia, a few months later: huge victories on paper with nothing to show for them.


Germany’s military is widely admired by so-called history buffs to this day for its ability to win battles, even though it always failed to win its wars. Perhaps we should reevaluate that.


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