Siege of Tobruk

On January 21 1941, the Australian 6th division attacked the Italian garrison of Tobruk. The Italians offered little resistance and many surrendered without fighting. It took the Australians less than two days to capture 27,000 Italian POWS, 208 guns, 28 tanks and a large number of supplies. The cost on the Australian side was 49 dead and 306 wounded. 

Tobruk was the most important port in northern Africa, because its deep water allowed large ships to dock. It was also surrounded by steep escarpments, which made it easy to fortify against attack from the land. 

There were approximately 14,000 Australian troops and 12,000 British and Indian troops in Tobruk during the siege. Although the Germans dominated the desert, the British Navy still controlled the waters around the port, so they were able to supply provisions to the men holding Tobruk. Allied forces endured air raids and artillery attacks during the day. At night, they moved out from behind their defences to conduct raids against German positions, often crawling for miles to attack in silence. During the siege, some 3,000 Australian troops were killed or injured. 

On 11 April, Rommel attacked Tobruk with tanks and foot soldiers, but the defenders were able to turn him back. This was the first time anyone had been able to stop the German forces in the north African campaign. 

The fighting style of the Australians made it very difficult for Rommel's co-ordinated attacks to integrate effectively. The Australians just weren't behaving as expected, and they took little time in noting how this was confusing their enemy. 

The Germans decided to use propaganda to wear down the Australian morale. They likened the fighting style of the Australians to that of a rat; a vermin that steals from the shadows. The propaganda expressed supreme confidence that the German victory was assured and the Australian defeat was imminent because the 'rats' were caught in a German trap. This backfired as being referred to as ‘rats’ tickled the Aussie sense of humour and the soldiers quickly adopted the name and proudly called themselves ‘The Rats of Tobruk’ and even made medals in the shape of a rat from shot down enemy aircraft. 

The siege ended in November 1941, when a counter-attack by British troops re-took the territory. Tobruk was a great boost to the morale of the Allied forces: the seemingly invincible Germans had finally been turned back.