How a Gallant Garrison Held a Mighty Foe at Bay



In the weeks leading up to 9 December 1941, lighters and barges laden with Australian troops slid silently from the battered waterfront of Tobruk. Not a man of them spoke as the ghostly flotilla manoeuvred to the sides of waiting warships.

They were Australian troops being evacuated from the Tobruk garrison.

The Australian garrison had been relieved after a siege of more than 240 days during which the name of Tobruk had been written in glowing colours in the annals of Australian courage and determination.

For eight months, with a ring of steel, the gallant AIF had barred the advance of a hitherto all-conquering German Army. In their fortress of dust and death, they had carried the fight to the German flank, defying the most intensive dive-bombing barrages in martial history.

News that the garrison had been relieved was received in Australia with joy, but it was joy tinged with disappointment that the heroic band was not to have the supreme reward of marching out to share the triumph of the Imperial troops in their second drive across Libya.

The soil of Tobruk must be forever Australian. Australians, backed by British artillery and tanks, captured the fortress in the first Allied drive through Cyrenaica (Libya), and Australian troops, again backed by British artillery, held it against as great odds as have been faced by any garrison in history. The very dust of its bomb-pocked perimeter is hallowed with Australian blood, and Australian dead lie in its windswept cemetery.

The story of the Tobruk garrison begins in April 1941 when the Germans, striking with unexpected speed and mechanised strength, thrust the Imperial Forces back from Benghazi and across the Cyrenaican plains to the Egyptian frontier. Cut off from their main forces, the AIF fell back on Tobruk, retired behind its strongly fortified perimeter and established the ring of fire and steel on which successive waves of German shock troops were shattered.

A big white town, with a peacetime population of about 5,000 people, Tobruk lies at the end of a bay about one mile wide and two miles long. It was planned and built as a garrison town, for there can be no other reason for its existence in arid, treeless country supporting only a few camels, goats, and gazelles. Through the town runs the single bitumen road that crosses Cyrenaica.

The ring of strong-posts which the Italians built around Tobruk is about 26 miles (45 kilometres) long. Each flank rests on the sea, and for three or four miles (five to seven kilometres) from the coast the posts defending the flanks are on the inner side of bare, precipitous wadis. Each strong-post is a labyrinth of concrete-sided trenches and there are concrete emplacements for anti-tank guns and machine-guns within the posts.


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On patrol along the anti-tank ditch (AWM 007505)

This, then, was the fortress town to which the AIF was to cling through the heat in blinding sandstorms of a North African summer - a poisonous thorn in the flank of the enemy. The strategy of Major General L J Morshead, of the Tobruk garrison, was simply this: to hold the town at all costs, and, by offensive forays, to force the enemy to divert greatly superior forces to hold a dangerous threat and thus weaken his drive against Egypt.

It was in the heat and dust of Tobruk that Australian tenacity and courage achieved its supreme expression. Air raids which had gone into the thousands before unofficial statisticians lost count had no more effect on members of the garrison than the enemy's artillery, strafing and attacks by tanks.

The siege was only a couple of months old when the renegade Lord Haw Haw, broadcasting from Berlin, coined the description "Rats of Tobruk," and applied it to the garrison because most of its men could find shelter only underground while the bombers were overhead. Our men accepted the title with relish. To one another, they were "the rats." To the Axis they were rats with razor-sharp teeth.


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Line positions, observing the enemy. (AWM 041790)

In the first phases of the siege the Australian garrison, concerned primarily with testing its strength, concentrated on defence. But as the troops proved their ability to repel thrust upon thrust by Germans and Italians, defence gave way to fierce aggression as the world's most daring patrol fighters went into action each night.

Tobruk patrols were of two types - fighting and reconnaissance. The job of the reconnaissance patrol was to gather information and, if possible, to secure prisoners for identification. Its members used all their bushcraft to avoid being discovered. Like stealthy shadows, they saw without being seen. But the fighting patrol went out to fight. Its aim was to do as much damage and to kill as many of the enemy as possible. Its members would creep up on an enemy post, surround it and then, at a given signal, rush in with the bayonet and kill-soundlessly. A few brief minutes of bloody, sinew-straining work and the foray would be over, with not a shot fired.

So persistent and so deadly were the Australian night patrols that the enemy, living in the perpetual shadow of silent, stealthy death, was soon reduced to a state of almost panicky nervousness. On the slightest provocation, and often on no provocation at all, he would put down artillery and mortar barrages.

Two typical examples of AIF offensive patrols are quoted. In the first, the raiders crawled in single file for two miles through a minefield to attack an observation post, the position of which had been revealed by reconnaissance patrols on the previous day.


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A daytime reconnaissance patrol. (AWM 007481)

The patrol started on its journey after midnight and was preparing for the final assault when Very lights lit up the scene, and the enemy post opened fire with rifles and machine guns. Five of our men then charged in with bayonets, Tommy guns, and grenades. Despite a volley of hand grenades from the enemy, the patrol stormed on, killing 15 and wounding many of the estimated 50 enemy before crossfire from supporting posts forced a withdrawal. The patrol regained its own lines, suffering only slight casualties.

The second classic patrol won for its leader, Lieutenant William. Horace Noyes, the Military Cross. With an NCO, Lieutenant Noyes stalked and destroyed three light tanks and led a bayonet attack against the enemy garrison. His unit captured the post and killed or wounded the garrison of 130, as well as the crews of seven machine-guns and 11 anti-tank guns and their protective infantry. It also damaged a heavy tank.

Throughout the siege the AIF garrison operated with a perfect team work that ran from the front-line soldier, back through his immediate headquarters to the artillery, back to the higher formations, to the supply and ordnance workshops, and to the hospitals. In the entire garrison there was not one idle mouth to be fed.


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A Bren gun carrier crew, Tobruk, April 1941. (AWM P02688.001)

And throughout the eight bitter months of heat and dust and blood and flies, the garrison retained those high spirits that are the hallmark of high courage. If Lord Haw Haw thought he could goad the Australians with his bitter tilt at the "Rats of Tobruk" he committed the grossest of his many misjudgements. The men were proud of the title and some of them now treasure an unofficial medal, bearing the stamp of a rodent rampant, which was unofficially struck to commemorate the defence of Tobruk.


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"Rats to you" painted on the side of a Bren gun carrier. (AWM P02522.002)

That medal was fashioned from aluminium taken from the fuselage of a German bomber brought down by the anti-aircraft fire of the sharpest-teethed rats in history.

And so, after months of indomitable fighting, the "Verdun of the Desert" was relieved and the British Navy's perfectly executed evacuation manoeuvre wrote the final chapter of an epic that must always rank among the finest achievements of Imperial arms. But there were some of that heroic band who could not answer the evacuation order. Their release had come earlier. They lie in the little war cemetery near the Bardia Road. A simple concrete memorial, about 25 feet (seven and a half metres) high and of chaste design reminiscent of the Cenotaph, stands at the entrance. Its only ornament is a cross and below is a marble slab bearing the words:

This is hallowed ground, for here lie those who died for their country.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.


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January 1942. The recently completed Tobruk Memorial. (AWM 011216)

(Written January 1942 by the Minister for Information, Senator the Hon. W P Ashley, as a tribute to the men who again honoured the name of ANZAC.)