- Education and Science
Rats of Tobruk - quiz
Its another Great Part of Australia's War History
The second world war saw Australians called on to serve some extremely tough campaigns and probably there were few if any tougher than the siege of Tobruk. Commencing on April 11th 1941, when the Italian-German force under Rommel attacked the town, the Australians were trapped.
This was the Australian 9th Division under the command of Lieutenant General Alan Moreshead. he was ordered by the British General, Archibald Wavell to hold the fort for 8 weeks. As the Commander in Chief of the British Middle East Command he had the authority over the Australians.
It was a recent report on this campaign (Sunday Night 3rd April, 2011, Channel 7 Sydney) that drew my attention to what these men went through when a couple of old diggers told their stories.
Breath Taking Stories
It was a heart stopping moment when one of the old men told of the time they were facing German tanks coming towards them and they had nothing but rifles to defend themselves. They were also aerial bombed and their bunkers were the only cover.
There were 14,000 Australian men facing slaughter with little more than a prayer to help them. Some were newly recruited to the division and many were barely old enough to have joined the army. So with bated breath I waited for the facts. After all here were three men telling the story who had survived that attack 70 years ago.
With extreme clarity of voice and showing practicaly no emotion they told how the true innovative spirit and determination got them through. It was a stroke of genius to gather the empty bottles of the drinking Libyans who left them scattered all over. They filled them with petrol and tore up their clothes to make wicks and when lit they threw them at the oncoming tanks.
As one man said: "They were in the desert and it was very hot in those tanks but with flames now present on the outside of them they were like ovens and the Germans could not stand it. As they exited their machines they were either shot or captured."
Then the Aussies did another brave thing. They moved in a pincer movement around to the rear of the tanks and allowed those remaining to pass through, as if through a gate. This left the German army in the rear without tank protection and the Aussies got the upper hand. They not only held out for 8 weeks but for 5 months before they were finally relieved.
It was called Operation Compass and in January the Australians had made an attempt to capture the Italian protected Port of Tobruk, one of the few decent harbors between Alexander and Tripoli.
They were successful and captured the Italian General Petassi Manella during a 12 hour battle on January 21st. They were able to lay claim to some impressive defensive barriers including concrete pits around the perimeter. As the Italians were getting ready to launch an attack on Egypt they had several servicable trucks and a large quantity of supplies, which subsequently fell into the hands of the Aussies. Early in February the Italians were also driven out of Cyrenaica and the surrender of the Italian Tenth Army followed.
Winston Churchill, however, ordered his troops, along with the best of the Australians and New Zealand forces, to Greece to fight that battle while the Italians were on the brink of collapse. This may have been one of the biggest mistakes Britain made during that time.
Wikipedia notes: "The experienced 6th Australian Division and the fully-trained and equipped New Zealand Division were withdrawn from Egypt and the western desert to go to Greece. Meanwhile the tanks of the 7th Armoured Division, after eight months' fighting, needed a complete overhaul and the division was withdrawn to Cairo and ceased to be available as a fighting formation."
Airstrikes on Benghazi hampered supplies and the port became extremely dangerous for allied shipping. By the third week in February it had to be closed. All the vehicles were now employed in driving supplies some 200 miles which left the commanding forces greatly depleted.
This was when the German command sent 2 divisions of the Afrika Korps under Rommel to boost the Italian forces.
By the first week of April the scene had changed considerably as the Germans had captured the military governor of Cyrenaica, Lieutenant-General Philip Neame. "Major-General John Lavarack, commander of 7th Australian Infantry Division was placed in temporary command of all troops in Cyrenaica with the main task of holding Tobruk to gain time for organisation of the defence of Egypt."
By 11th April Tobruk was surrounded on 2 sides by Rommel's forces.
Mooreshead was left in charge when Laverick was withdrawn.
The First Battle
It started just after noon on April 11th when German and Italian forces positioned themselves for a major attack on the city. Their orders were to make as much dust as possible in order to frighten the Allies into thinking there were more of them than there actually were.
Five German tanks were destroyed within an hour and the rest pulled back. Then 400 German troops marched towards the Australians who fought a decisive battle and drove them back, carrying their dead with them.
As the enemy advanced again they were once more driven back and on the 14th April they tried again to make a bridge for the tanks to cross and push into the city. This time they succeeded but ran into fire from the British Crusader tanks that were dug in.
Wikipedia records that "Now under fire from the front and both flanks, the Panzer Regiment retired having lost sixteen of its thirty-eight tanks. Meanwhile, the 8th Machine-Gun Battalion, supporting the German armour, had been fought to a standstill by the Australian infantry and were also forced to withdraw under heavy fire from artillery and aircraft. The battalion lost more than three-quarters of its strength while the Tobruk garrison's losses amounted to 90 casualties. After this defeat, Rommel abandoned further attempts on the southern perimeter and the 5th Light Division dug itself in.
But it was not over yet.
Soldiers with and without Dreams
Because Hitler educated his youth into believing that fighting for the Third Richt was glorious and to die doing it was a dream come true his armies were strong, aggressive and nothing much would stand in their way. It is the same principle behind modern terrorism from Islam which teaches that to die for the cause is glorious and will bring great rewards in the after-life.
This ancient psychology was used in places like Mexico by the Maya and Aztecs. Here self sacrifice was taught as a way of turning men into gods and the iconography from there shows kings chopping off their own heads for that purpose. The images are copyright so I can't demonstrate it. What you put into young minds drives them forward. The younger you get children and train into this thinking the stronger their beliefs. It is this that is behind the Medrassa institutions in places like Pakistan.
So Hitler's Afrika Korps were of this ilk but they met an army whose men were not idealistic, as noted here.
". . . the Germans confronted a very different breed of soldier. They confronted soldiers without respect for authority or for domineering powers. These soldiers were volunteers without dreams of glory but who instead believed that some things were worth fighting for. They were empathetic soldiers who were infuriated if their leaders brushed aside their suffering or dared express an attitude that any man was expendable or inferior. These soldiers were from Australia and at Tobruk, they gave Hitler his first taste of defeat." quoted from Rats of Tobuk
Were you alive at that time?
Do you have any knowlegde or recall of the war years?
The Battle for Tobruk
Still images from Dreamstime - click here
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