The battle-honour ‘Tobruk’ is one of the most cherished of those gained by the Second Australian Imperial Force in the Second World War. Today it is a name familiar across New South Wales. Dozens of towns, suburbs and cities have streets, roads, avenues, parks and reserves named after it. There are Tobruks in Ashmount, Bossley Park and Cremorne, in North Ryde, St Marys, Shortland and Narellan Vale – and of course in Bardia, in Macarthur, the suburb named after Bardia Barracks, itself a reminder of the Australian Army’s first notable action in the Second World War.
What was Tobruk, what does it mean and what does the name represent?
Tobruk is a port on the coast of Libya, 700 kilometres west of the city of Alexandria, in Egypt. In 1941, this stretch of the North African coast became the arena for a struggle between the armies of the British empire (including Australia) and the forces of fascist Italy and later Nazi Germany.
Photo: Tobruk town and harbour. AWM P10988.001.
Mussolini’s Italy had entered the war with its Axis partner, Hitler’s Germany in June 1940. After months of inaction, in December 1940 a small British army, including the 6th Australian Division, defeated a much larger Italian army, advancing from the Egyptian-Libyan border westwards into the Italian-ruled province of Cyrenaica (‘siree-en-ay-ica’). The battle of Bardia, which in January 1941 captured the Italian-held port, was a part of this offensive. Driving the Italians westward, and capturing tens of thousands of demoralised Italian soldiers, British empire troops reached Benghazi in February 1941. Hitler, alarmed that his Italian ally was collapsing, despatched a German blocking force, named the Afrika Korps, under General Erwin Rommel, one of Germany’s most audacious commanders.
Though supposedly subordinate to his Italian superiors, Rommel swiftly seized the initiative in Libya, and in March 1941 led a counter-offensive against British empire forces in Cyrenaica which drove disorganised British, South African, New Zealand and Australian forces back to the Egyptian frontier. Rommel used blitzkrieg tactics, using his mobile and armoured forces brilliantly. By April, British empire forces were in full retreat.
The desert war, which depended upon long supply lines, needed petrol and water if armies were to continue to advance. This made holding the few ports on the North African coast crucial because both sides needed Tobruk’s harbour. The British commander-in-chief in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell, saw that the port of Tobruk needed to be held if Rommel’s advance was to be stopped. He gathered a scratch force to defend the port, consisting of some British artillery, machine-guns and tanks, the newly-formed (and untried) 9th Australian Division, and the 18th Brigade of the 7th Australian Division, all commanded by Major-General Leslie Morshead, a Sydney-based citizen soldier who had commanded a New South Wales battalion (the 33rd) in the Great War.
Photo: NX8 Major General Leslie James Morshead (front row, second from right) with a group of officers at Tobruk. AWM 020341.
For seven months Tobruk’s defenders, later joined by Polish, Czech, Indian and more British troops, held the port. It was surrounded by Rommel’s Italian and German force, though British naval strength allowed it to be supplied by sea from Egypt. Tobruk’s defenders, mainly Australians, held the town’s defences against repeated attacks, working closely with British artillery, machine-gun and tank units. The Australian infantry demonstrated that they could dominate no-man’s-land, earning the sardonic nickname of the ‘Rats of Tobruk’, turning an insult delivered by the renegade British Nazi propagandist, Lord Haw-Haw (William Joyce) into an accolade. Two of the 9th Division’s nine infantry battalions, the 2/13th and 2/17th, were raised in New South Wales. Australia’s first Victoria Cross of the Second World War was gained posthumously by Wagga Wagga-born Corporal John Edmondson, of the 2/17th Battalion.
Photo: Corporal John Hurst Edmonson VC, 2/17th Infantry Battalion, who was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for action in Tobruk. AWM 100642.
Photo: Members of the 2/13th Battalion after the relief of Tobruk. Private (PTE) L. E. Everett, PTE A. O'Conner, PTE G. Richardson, and PTE J.W. Cox. AWM 010979.
Only in September, when the demands of holding the isolated port through a North African summer on short rations led the Australian government to insist on the garrison’s relief, were most Australians withdrawn. Even then, because the ship on which it was to be evacuated was sunk, the NSW-raised 2/13th Battalion remained in the beleaguered port to the end. Not until December 1941 with a British-South African-New Zealand offensive (Operation Crusader) was Rommel convinced that continuing the siege was untenable. Tobruk’s holding out meant that his Italian and German force could not muster enough supplies to advance towards Egypt.
The siege of Tobruk was the 9th Australian Division’s first major action. Its units, cobbled together from spare units shortly before, had a variety of colour patches. Later in the war, they all adopted uniform ‘T’-shaped colour patches to reflect the importance of the ordeal in forging its identity as a division. In some ways, Tobruk became for Australia in the Second World War what Gallipoli had been in the Great War. Both campaigns saw novice troops endure hardship in a harsh summer, defending a small perimeter, in the process creating a reputation for toughness and skill.
That reputation explains why so many streets, roads, parks, reserves and even businesses and swimming pools came to be named Tobruk in the decades after 1945. Today, a soil sample from Tobruk lies in the floor of the Hall of Service at the Anzac Memorial to commemorate one of Australia’s most significant contributions to the Second World War.