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Axis capture of Tobruk
Part of the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War
Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-786-0301-32, Tobruk, Straße zum Hafen.jpg
The road from Bardia to Tobruk on 21 June 1941, with British prisoners of war on the left, sunken ships in the harbour and smoke over the port.
Date17–21 June 1942
LocationTobruk, Libya
Template:Coord/display/INLINE
Result Axis victory
Belligerents
Nazi Germany Germany
 Kingdom of Italy

 United Kingdom

  • British Raj India
Union of South Africa South Africa
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of Italy Ettore Bastico
Nazi Germany Erwin Rommel
United Kingdom Neil Ritchie
Union of South Africa Hendrik Klopper
Strength
96,000 troops (40,000 German, 56,000 Italian) 35,000 troops
Casualties and losses
<3,360 killed or wounded 33,000 prisoners

The Axis capture of Tobruk, also known as the Fall of Tobruk and the Second Battle of Tobruk, (17–21 June 1942) was part of the Western Desert Campaign in Libya during the Second World War. The battle was fought by the Axis (Germany and the Italy) with Panzer Army Africa (Panzerarmee Afrika, which included the Afrika Korps, led by Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel) and the Allies (forces from the United Kingdom, Indian Empire, South Africa and other Allied countries) of the Eighth Army (General Neil Ritchie).

The port of Tobruk had withstood an eight-month Siege of Tobruk by Axis forces in 1941 before being relieved in December and had become an emblem of resistance. Because British commanders had decided not to defend Tobruk for a second time, the defences had deteriorated and it was garrisoned of mostly inexperienced troops. An immense stockpile of supplies of every description had been accumulated around the port for a British offensive but the Axis struck first. Operation Venice (Unternehmen Venezia, also the Battle of Gazala) began on 26 May 1942 and drove the Eighth Army east of Tobruk, leaving Tobruk vulnerable to attack from the east. The British prime minister Winston Churchill placed great store on the symbolic value of Tobruk and there was an exchange of ambiguous signals leading to the port becoming surrounded and besieged, rather than evacuated as originally intended.

Panzerarmee Afrika surrounded the port, attacked with heavy air support, penetrated a weak spot on the eastern defensive perimeter and took the port within twenty-four hours. The garrison of 33,000 men was captured, with many of those on the western perimeter not having been involved in the fighting at all. This was the second largest capitulation of British Empire forces in the war, after the Battle of Singapore in February 1942. The sudden loss of Tobruk came as a severe blow to the British leadership and precipitated a political crisis in Britain. Unexpectedly, the defeat evoked additional sympathy from the United States for the British position and the dispatch of supplies and equipment from the US to the Middle East was expedited. Rommel persuaded the Axis commanders that the supplies captured at Tobruk and the disorganised state of the British forces would enable the Axis easily to occupy Egypt and the Suez Canal.

Operation Herkules, the invasion of Malta was postponed for the Axis air forces to support the advance of Panzerarmee Afrika. The Axis pursuit into Egypt was hampered by supply constraints as it advanced further from its supply bases and was halted at the First Battle of Alamein in July 1942. In 1942, a British Court of Inquiry was held in absentia, which found Klopper to be largely blameless for the surrender and ascribed the defeat to failures among the British high command. The findings were kept secret until after the war, so they did little to restore the reputation of Klopper and his troops.

Background

Aerial photograph of the port area of Tobruk during the 1941 siege.

The small port of Tobruk in Italian Cyrenaica had been fortified by the Italians from 1935. Behind two old outlying forts, they constructed an innovative fortification, consisting of a double line of concrete-lined trenches Template:Conv long, connecting 128 weapons pits protected by concealed anti-tank ditches but the fortifictions lacked overhead protection and defence in depth.[1] Tobruk was captured by Australian forces in January 1941 during Operation Compass, the first large Allied military operation of the Western Desert Campaign.[2] Following the arrival of the German Afrika Korps commanded by Erwin Rommel in Operation Sonnenblume in March, Axis forces retook much of the lost territory in Cyrenaica;[3]

Tobruk was cut off and besieged between April and December 1941. Using the Italian defences, ill-organised attacks by Axis forces were defeated by the 30,000-strong Australian garrison (replaced in September by a British and Allied force), allowing time for the fortifications to be improved.

The Allied occupation of Tobruk was a threat to the Axis communications, it denied them the use of the port, and it tied down four Italian divisions and three German battalions, a force twice the size of the garrison.[4] During 1941, supplied from the sea and surviving successive Axis assaults, the defence of Tobruk became a symbol of the British Empire's war effort. The relief of Tobruk was the object of Operation Brevity in May and Operation Battleaxe in June, both of which failed. Operation Crusader in November and December 1942 raised the siege and forced the Axis out of Cyrenaica into Tripolitania.[5]

Supplied with more modern tanks, the second Axis offensive saw the reoccupation of western Cyrenaica but the Axis advance ran out of supplies west of Gazala. Then followed a lull, as both sides prepared for a new offensive. The British built up the Gazala Line, a row of fortified positions known as "boxes", defended by extensive minefields.[6] The Axis forces forestalled the British with Unternehmen Venezia (known to the British as the Battle of Gazala), which began on 28 May.[7] Poorly armed and armoured British tanks and poor co-ordination allowed Rommel to defeat the Eighth Army armour piecemeal and by 13 June the British had begun to retreat eastwards from Gazala, leaving Tobruk vulnerable.[8][9]

German plans

On 1 May 1942, a meeting of Axis leaders was held at the Berghof in Berchtesgaden, with Adolf Hitler and Albert Kesselring, the Wehrmacht Commander-in-Chief South, representing Germany, and Benito Mussolini and Ugo Cavallero, the Chief of the Defence Staff representing Italy.[10][11] It was decided that Rommel should start Unternehmen Venezia (Operation Venice) an offensive at the end of May to capture Tobruk. If successful, Rommel was to go no further east than the Egyptian border and take up defensive positions while an invasion of Malta codenamed Operation Herkules was undertaken,[12] scheduled for mid-July.[13] The capture of Malta would secure the Axis supply lines to North Africa, before allowing Rommel to invade Egypt, with the Suez Canal as the final objective.[10] Axis planning had been given considerable assistance after the Servizio Informazioni Militare (Italian Military Information Service) had broken the Black Code used by Colonel Bonner Fellers, the US military attaché in Cairo, to send detailed and often critical reports to Washington of the British war effort in the Middle East.[14]

British plans for Tobruk

Lieutenant-General Ritchie, Commander-in-Chief Eighth Army, with his Corps Commanders, Generals Norrie and Gott on 31 May 1942.

In a meeting held in Cairo on 4 February 1942, the Commanders-in-Chief of the British Middle East Command considered what their course of action should be in the event of a further successful Axis offensive, the front line at that time being only 30 miles west of Tobruk. The commanders knew how valuable the port would be to Axis forces but decided against allowing it to endure another siege. General Sir Claude Auchinleck was reluctant to have a valuable division tied down as a garrison, especially as reinforcements might be urgently needed for Persia and Iraq; Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham could no longer risk the loss of shipping which had been incurred supplying the garrison during the first siege and Air Marshal Sir Peter Drummond (deputy to Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder), contended that it might prove impossible to provide fighter cover for the port. Accordingly, Auchinleck drafted orders for Lieutenant-General Neil Ritchie, the commander of Eighth Army, that in the event of being forced to make a further withdrawal, although he was to make every effort to prevent Tobruk from being taken, he was not to allow his forces to be surrounded there. If the fall of Tobruk was imminent, "the place should be evacuated and the maximum amount of destruction carried out in it", while a firm defence line should be established further east on the Egyptian border.[15] This withdrawal arrangement was formalised as Operation Freeborn.[16]

By 14 June, Rommel's offensive had forced Ritchie to order the withdrawal of the units holding the Gazala positions, the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division and the 1st South African Infantry Division, eastwards through Tobruk and on towards the Egyptian border in accordance with Operation Freeborn. On the previous day, Auchinleck had confirmed to Ritchie that, if all else failed, the frontier should be "a rallying point". However, Auchinleck now began to reassess the Tobruk position. Neither he nor Ritchie wanted to lose the considerable stockpiles of fuel, munitions and other stores which had been built up at the port for the intended British offensive. Furthermore, on the morning of 14 June, he had received a message from Winston Churchill that "retreat would be fatal". Despite the misgivings of his senior commanders, Churchill had apparently committed to Roosevelt that he would hold Tobruk.[17]

Auchinleck signalled ordering Ritchie to hold a line from Acroma (west of Tobruk) extending southeast to El Adem, which would screen Tobruk. The order was not received by Ritchie until two hours before his carefully organised night withdrawal was due to start; too late to alter the movement. The 50th and 1st South African divisions were saved from encirclement but were withdrawn from the line which Auchinleck intended them to hold. Ritchie informed Auchinleck that he would attempt to hold the Acroma–El Adem line with troops from XXX Corps but warned that if this failed, Tobruk might either become "temporarily isolated" or be evacuated and asked which option was to be taken. Auchinleck replied that "On no account will any part of Eighth Army be allowed to be surrounded in Tobruk and invested there", which Ritchie interpreted as meaning that he should evacuate Tobruk if there were an Axis breakthrough.[18]

On the morning of 15 June, the situation was confused further by a message from Churchill which included the phrase: "Presume there is no question in any case of giving up Tobruk?" Auchinleck replied to Churchill that Ritchie had a sufficient garrison to hold Tobruk should it become isolated. Auchinleck then signalled to Ritchie that although Tobruk was "not to be invested", it could be "isolated for short periods" and that he should organise the garrison accordingly. In the meantime, it was becoming clear to Ritchie that an Axis breakthrough of the Acroma–El Adem line was imminent.[19]

Tobruk isolated

General Erwin Rommel, directing operations to the west of Tubruk, 16 June 1942

The area around El Adem was held by 29th Indian Infantry Brigade under the command of Denys Whitehorn Reid. On 15 June, El Adem itself was attacked three times by the German 90th Light Infantry Division but were repulsed by the defenders. Simultaneously, an attack by 21st Panzer Division on a defended area called Point B 650 some 8 kilometres north of El Adem was defeated by the Indians and the 7th Motor Brigade; however a second attack succeeded later that evening. The attacks on El Adem were discontinued after further reverses but the threat of being surrounded caused its evacuation on the night of 16/17 June. This left the airfields on the coast at RAF Gambut vulnerable, causing the Desert Air Force (DAF) to withdraw eastwards, severely limiting the available air support. The last outpost of the defensive line was Belhamed, a hill adjacent to Sidi Rezegh, which was held by the 20th Indian Infantry Brigade, a new formation.[20]

On 17 June, 4th Armoured Brigade was ordered to attack, hoping to take the flank of the German armour, now supplemented by 15th Panzer Division, as it moved northwards towards the coast. The brigade had been hurriedly reformed after the Gazala battles and had about 90 tanks operated by a number of composite units but lacked much of its artillery which had been detached to form harassing columns. After an engagement lasting most of the afternoon, the British brigade withdrew to refit and then towards Egypt having lost thirty two tanks.[21] With no other support available, 20th Indian Brigade were ordered to withdraw during that night but were caught as the German armour reached the coast at Gambut and two of its battalions were captured. The next morning, 18 June, Rommel was able to report to Berlin that Tobruk had been surrounded and was under siege.[22]

Opposing forces

British Empire

Major General H. B. Klopper, commander of the 2nd South African Infantry Division and the Tobruk garrison.

A third of the Tobruk garrison was the 2nd South African Infantry Division under the command of Major General Hendrik Klopper. The division consisted of only two brigades, 3rd South African Infantry Brigade and 6th South African Infantry Brigade together with a number of other attached units. The 2nd Division was not highly experienced but had captured Bardia and Sollum during Operation Crusader in January. They had been based in Tobruk since the end of March, although Klopper had not taken command of the division until 14 May, having previously been a divisional staff officer. Klopper was given command of all troops within the Tobruk perimeter on 15 June, five days before the Axis attack. On the following day, Lieutenant-General William Gott, commanding XIII Corps whose headquarters were still in the port, suggested that he should take command. He was over-ruled by Ritchie and he withdrew, leaving three of his staff officers to assist Klopper. Before Gott left, he ordered Klopper to prepare three more sets of plans – for co-operating with the Allied forces outside Tobruk, for re-establishing a presence at Belhamed, and for the evacuation of the garrison eastwards. This placed a considerable extra burden on the already-overloaded Klopper and his staff.[23]

The South African brigades held the west and south-west of the perimeter[24] which had borne the brunt of the fighting in the previous siege.[1] Other formations in Tobruk were: 32nd Army Tank Brigade with about sixty serviceable infantry tanks, mostly Valentines with a few Matilda IIs; the 201st Guards Motor Brigade with three infantry battalions, only one of which was actually a Guards unit; and finally, the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade with three battalions, one of which was a Gurkha unit and one was the experienced Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders; also attached to the brigade was a composite infantry battalion made up from various units in the 1st South African Division known as "Beergroup". The Indian brigade was deployed to the east and south of the perimeter.[24]

Between these formations were three regiments of field artillery and two of medium artillery, the latter possessing sixteen 4.5-inch medium guns and sixteen 155 mm M1918 howitzers between them. In the various anti-tank batteries in Tobruk there were fifteen new 6-pounders, thirty two of the older and less effective 2-pounders and eight Bofors 37 mm anti-tank guns. The total number of anti-aircraft guns was eighteen 3.7-inch heavy and a regiment of light guns.[25]

The garrison was large in sheer numbers, but it included around 8,000 support troops and around 2,000 non-combatant labourers.[26] The perimeter was 35 miles long, and the coastline added another 20 miles.[26] Each infantry battalion had to defend a frontage of about 3 miles each on average, and each anti-tank gun would have had to defend on average a frontage of 750 yards each, if they had been spread evenly across the perimeter.[27] Although many non-essential troops had been evacuated, there remained a number of administrative units under the command of a brigadier. Unnecessary shipping had also been evacuated but some small coastal vessels and a shore-based Naval Establishment were retained. The fighter aircraft of 40 Squadron SAAF had been withdrawn from the airfield within the perimeter but a forward air control unit, known as a "tentacle", remained.[28] The combat squadrons of the DAF had been compelled to move to airfields at Sidi Barrani which put Tobruk beyond the range of all their fighters, with the exception of No. 250 Squadron RAF which operated Curtiss P-40D Kittyhawks, able to carry drop tanks.[29]

State of the fortifications

Owing to the earlier decision not to allow Tobruk to endure another siege, little work had been done to maintain or repair its defences since its relief. In many places, the trenches and the anti-tank ditch had collapsed or filled with drifting sand and part of the ditch had been filled in to allow the British armour to deploy during the December 1941 breakout. Large quantities of barbed wire and land mines had been removed to bolster the Gazala defences,[30] while some of the old Italian mines which remained were found to be defective.[31] Some work had been done by South African engineers to remedy the situation but there is conflicting evidence as to the actual condition of the defences at the start of the siege.[30]

Axis

Rommel with Italian Semovente da 75/18 self-propelled guns

A plan for the rapid capture of Tobruk had been agreed between Kesselring and Cavallero on 10 June, consisting of an attack in stages from the south and west. However Rommel ignored this and instead used a plan which he had originally devised in October 1941, attacking from the southeast, where the ground was flatter than the gullied terrain in the southwest. He began to deploy his forces to their initial positions on 18 June.[1]

On the western end of the line, was the Italian XXI Corps comprising the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment, the 60th Infantry Division Sabratha and the 102nd Motorised Division Trento, southwards from the coast. At the southwest corner of the perimeter was the German 15th Rifle Brigade. To the south was the Italian X Corps with the 27th Infantry Division Brescia forward and the 17th Infantry Division Pavia in reserve. In the south-eastern corner, were the German 90th Light Infantry Division and the German and Italian artillery. On the eastern boundary was the Italian XX Motorised Corps with the 101st Motorised Division Trieste forward, while the armoured 132nd Armoured Division Ariete was in the southwest at Bir er Reghem and the newly arrived 133rd Armoured Division Littorio was moving in behind it. The two Afrika Korps armoured formations, 15th Panzer Division and 21st Panzer Division, were in the east, on either side of the village Kambut.[1]

Kesselring had warned that because all Axis aircraft had to be withdrawn by the end of June in preparation for the invasion of Malta; an early result was vital.[1] There were about 150 bombers available of various types, mostly German, including 40 to 50 fighter bombers and 21 Junkers Ju 87Stuka dive bombers. About 50 German and 100 Italian fighters were also within range. The recent capture of airfields close to the Tobruk perimeter allowed for rapid refuelling and rearming.[32]

Battle

Initial dispositions

The Axis attack on Tobruk on 20 June 1942.

Wishing to make swift use of the disorganisation amongst the British forces, Rommel issued his orders for the assault on 18 June and reconnaissance of the allotted deployment areas commenced early the next day.[32] Starting in the afternoon of 19 June and through that night, the Afrika Korps armoured formations changed places with 90th Light Division, so that they were facing the south-eastern corner of the perimeter, occupied by the inexperienced 2nd Battalion, 5th Mahratta Light Infantry. The 15th Panzer Division was on the left of the attack and 21st Panzer on the right, with a motorised infantry group (detached from 90th Division and commanded by Generalleutnant Erwin Menny) in the centre. The XX Corps was to attack further to the left, followed by X Corps, which was to occupy and hold the perimeter defences. In the west, XXI Corps was to make a feint attack to pin down the South African brigades, while in the east, 90th Division was tasked with fending off any attempt to relieve Tobruk by the main body of Eighth Army.[1] When the combined German and Italian artillery arrived at their positions near El Adem, they found a stockpile of their ammunition which had been abandoned in November and had never been cleared away.[33]

Breakthrough

The assault opened at 5:20 am on 20 June with an intense air bombardment on the south-eastern perimeter. The Luftwaffe flew 588 sorties on that day, the highest sortie rate achieved in the Mediterranean theatre, while the Regia Aeronautica flew 177.[1] The total weight of bombs dropped was more than Template:Conv. Gruppe Menny began its attack at 7:00 a.m., which coincided with the opening of the artillery barrage, which had been delayed because the various batteries had been late arriving at their locations; a breach in the line between two strong points had been made at 7:45 a.m. The German 900th Engineer Battalion was able to make crossings over the anti-tank ditch using prefabricated bridging equipment; the first German tanks were across the ditch by 8:30 a.m.,[32] by which time several strong points had been taken by the infantry, creating a bridgehead Template:Conv wide.[1] The Mahrattas committed their reserves in an abortive counter-attack and, although they had been given to understand that a tank battalion would be coming to their assistance, this never materialised. The Ariete Division, the spearhead of XX Corps, had failed to penetrate the line held by 2nd Battalion, Cameron Highlanders and so were redirected into the breach made by the Afrika Korps and then deployed westwards towards Fort Pilastrino.[34]

British Valentine tanks similar to those which equipped 32nd Army Tank Brigade, 18 June 1942

Counterattack

At Klopper's headquarters, after initially believing the attack in the south-east to be a feint, it was thought that timely orders had been issued for a counter-attack to be organised by 32nd Army Tank Brigade, supported by whatever elements of the Guards and Indian brigades they required. The intention had not been understood at the tank brigade headquarters and only the 4th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) was ordered to attack. The assistance of a battlegroup from 3rd Coldstream Guards was declined through lack of orders.[35] The counter-attack might have succeeded if it had been made with greater force while the Axis armour was still making its way across the anti-tank ditch but, by the time it had begun, the Afrika Korps had been moving into the perimeter for an hour and a half and the Ariete armoured division was established on their left.[36] The other tank battalion in the British brigade, 7th RTR, moved up in support on their own initiative but half were diverted to assist the Camerons. The Afrika Korps defeated the British armour in detail, aided by constant attack from the air. The only British air raid that morning was called in by the forward air control "tentacle" to bomb Axis vehicles moving through the south-east breach and was carried out by nine Douglas Bostons escorted by long-range Kittyhawk fighters.[37]

Consolidation

By noon, Rommel had 113 tanks inside the perimeter.[27] By 1:30 p.m., the Afrika Korps had reached the target of their attack, the vital road junction known as "King's Cross" which was on the crest of the Pilastrino Ridge and overlooked the town of Tobruk, about Template:Conv to the north. From there, 21st Panzer headed directly for the town, in the process scattering the remaining tanks of 7th RTR. The last obstacle for the panzers was a mixed bag of artillery units which put up a stiff defence, including the use of several 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns as anti-tank guns; Rommel later praised their "extraordinary tenacity".

Later in the afternoon, General Klopper's headquarters were shelled.[27] At 4:00 p.m., German tanks were seen to the east, and Klopper thought that his headquarters to the south-west of the town was in danger of being overrun. He ordered a hurried evacuation, in which much of the communication equipment was destroyed. The German tanks moved off in a different direction, but now without communications equipment, Klopper relocated to the headquarters of 6th South African Brigade in the north-west of the fortress at 6:30 p.m. The leading German units did not reach the outskirts of the town until 6:00 p.m. At about the same time, British engineers and logistic troops began the task of destroying the immense quantities of fuel, water, ammunition and stores in the town along with the port facilities. The 15th Panzer Division had begun to advance westwards along the Pilastrino Ridge, where elements of the 201st Guards Brigade had taken up exposed positions at short notice. When their brigade headquarters was overrun at about 6:45 p.m., most of the units either stopped fighting or withdrew to Fort Pilastrano at the western end of the ridge. The 15th Panzer ended their advance since they were under orders to cover the approach of 21st Panzer to the town, which was reported to have been taken at 7:00 p.m. The final evacuation of small naval vessels had been carried out under fire—fifteen craft escaped but twenty-five, including a minesweeper, were sunk in the harbour or lost to air attacks on the passage to Alexandria.[38]

British options

File:DAK in Tobruk.jpg

Light vehicles of the Afrika Korps in the main square of Tobruk, 21 June 1941

At last light, the Axis units halted for the night. The remnants of the British units in the eastern sector of the fortress prepared themselves for all-round defence, while the South African brigades had not been engaged except for some diversionary activity. From Klopper's new headquarters came a signal that all units should prepare for a mass break-out at 10:00 p.m. and a message to Eighth Army HQ that "Am holding out but I do not know for how long". The Eighth Army staff suggested that the break-out should be on the following night (21/22 June) and that it was essential that all the fuel be destroyed. Although Ritchie had ordered the 7th Armoured Division to move north towards Sidi Rezegh which is south-east of the Tobruk perimeter, there is no evidence that they advanced very far or ever threatened the Axis cordon. There then followed a series of discussions between Klopper and his available brigadiers and staff officers, during which the various options were discussed in some depth. The chances of a successful break-out were impeded by the fact that the 2nd South African Division was not a motorised formation and many of the vehicles they did possess were in the town and now in Axis hands. The option to stand and fight in the western sector was considered but the main ammunition dumps had also been captured. At 2:00 a.m. on 21 June, Klopper signalled to Eighth Army HQ that he would attempt a break-out that evening. In the meantime, the garrison would "fight to the last man and the last round".[39]

Surrender

Rommel and Fritz Bayerlein, with prisoners of war, probably South African, in Tobruk

As dawn approached Klopper changed his mind and concluded that any value to be gained from continuing the fight would not be worth the cost in additional casualties. In an exchange of signals at 6:00 a.m. between Klopper and Ritchie, Ritchie responded that "I cannot tell tactical situation and therefore leave you to act on your own judgement regarding capitulation". Shortly after this, German officers were invited to Klopper's headquarters to finalise the details. Orders to surrender were sent out and were received with astonishment by those units who had scarcely been engaged. Some units did not receive the order at all; the 2nd Battalion, 7th Gurkha Rifles, on the eastern perimeter, fought on until that evening, while the Cameron Highlanders continued fighting until the morning of 22 June. Captain Sainthill of the Coldstream Guards and 199 of his officers and men were able to break out of the south-west perimeter in their battalion transport and rejoin the Eighth Army. A small group of 188 South Africans, largely of the Kaffrarian Rifles, escaped eastwards along the coast and reached El Alamein 38 days later.[40][41] Rommel entered the town at 5:00 a.m. and established his headquarters at the Hotel Tobruk.[42] A meeting was arranged with Klopper, who surrendered to Rommel on the Via Balbia about Template:Conv west of Tobruk at 9:40 a.m. on 21 June.[1]

Aftermath

Analysis

Indian Army prisoners of war captured at Tobruk await deportation on 1 July 1942

It was the second largest capitulation of British Empire forces in the war after the fall of Singapore,[43] and the biggest defeat in the history of the Union Defence Force.[44] The Germans left the task of housing the prisoners to the Italians, who lacked the infrastructure to treat the prisoners in accordance with the Geneva Convention. The prisoners were crammed into open pens to await deportation and were left seriously short of food and water.[45] Conditions improved after the prisoners had been transported in cargo ships to Italy. Many of them, especially South Africans, were subject to recriminations from other prisoners who felt that Tobruk had surrendered too easily. At the Italian armistice in September 1943, many prisoners escaped, including Klopper who was rescued by Popski's Private Army (under Major Vladimir Peniakoff) which was operating nearby.[46]

Despite efforts to destroy the fuel at Tobruk, the Axis captured some 1,400 tonnes with a further 20 tonnes at Belhamed. Amongst the 2,000 vehicles captured were 30 serviceable tanks and it has been estimated that Rommel was using some 6,000 captured British lorries by the end of that month.[1][47][48] Also taken in Tobruk were 7,000 tonnes of water and 3 million rations of food,[43] amounting to some Template:Conv.[47] Because of the tenuous supply line that Rommel depended on, his troops had been living on very short rations and the British supplies were enthusiastically received, especially chocolate, canned milk and vegetables. Even stores of shirts and socks were enthusiastically looted. The equally deprived Italian troops tended to be excluded from the plundering.[49]

On 21 June, Prime Minister Churchill was in the White House in Washington conferring on the future direction of the war with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a summit meeting known as the Second Washington Conference. An American aide arrived with the news of the Tobruk surrender, which he gave to the President who then passed it to Churchill.[50] Churchill recalled in his memoirs

I did not attempt to hide from the President the shock I had received. It was a bitter moment. Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another. Nothing could exceed the sympathy and chivalry of my two friends. There were no reproaches; not an unkind word was spoken. "What can we do to help?" said Roosevelt. I replied at once, "Give us as many Sherman tanks as you can spare and ship them to the Middle East as quickly as possible.”

Roosevelt asked the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General George Marshall, to see what could be done. Marshall ordered the 2nd Armored Division, which was training with the new M4 Sherman tanks, to prepare to move to Egypt. When it became apparent that this new formation could not be made operational until the autumn, Marshall decided instead to send three hundred of their Shermans, a hundred 105 mm M7 Self Propelled Guns, spare parts and one hundred and fifty instructors, in a fast convoy beginning on 1 July.[51]

British, South African and New Zealand tank crews receive instruction on the M4 Sherman tank from an American instructor at a training camp near Cairo, in February 1943.

General Alan Brooke, the British Chief of the General Staff, who was also in the room when the news broke, later wrote[52]

I always feel that the Tobruk episode in the President's study did a great deal towards laying the foundations of friendship and understanding built up during the war between the President and Marshall on the one hand and Churchill and myself on the other.

On 25 June the Maldon by-election was won by Tom Driberg, a left-wing journalist standing as an Independent, who gained sixty per cent of the vote, defeating the Conservative Party candidate. Churchill and others directly attributed the defeat to the loss of Tobruk only four days previously;[53] Driberg denied this was a major factor, suggesting instead that it was part of a wider swing to the left and away from the established political parties.[54]

In parliament, there was a growing feeling that Churchill was responsible for the muddle and lack of direction in the management of the war, despite his popularity with the public. Labour Party MP Aneurin Bevan attempted to force a parliamentary enquiry into Churchill's role in the defeats at Gazala and Tobruk but was prevented by Clement Attlee, the Labour Deputy Prime Minister in the wartime coalition. When a right-wing Conservative, Sir John Wardlaw-Milne, tabled a motion of no-confidence in the coalition government, there was speculation that it might go the way of the "Norway Debate" which had led to the resignation of the previous prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, after military failure in the Norwegian Campaign in May 1940. The debate opened on 1 July and on the following day Bevan attacked Churchill by saying that he "fights debates like a war and war like a debate". Churchill replied with (according to Anthony Eden) "one of his most effective speeches" and the government won by 425 votes to 25.[55]

The Nazi hierarchy shared Churchill's view of the symbolic importance of Tobruk and Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, made much of its capture. On 22 June, Hitler promoted Rommel to Generalfeldmarschall,[56] making him the youngest field marshal in the German Army, much to the annoyance of senior Italian officers.[51] Although Rommel undoubtedly considered it a great honour, he later confided to his wife that he would rather have been given another division.[56] Mussolini was also jubilant and is said to have ordered that a suitable white horse be found for his triumphal entry into Cairo.[57]

In 1942, a Court of Inquiry was held in absentia, which found Klopper to be largely blameless for the surrender, although since the result was kept secret, it did little to enhance his or his troops' reputation.[58][59] After the war, Winston Churchill wrote that the blame belonged to the British High Command, not to Klopper or his troops. He accepted that the facts were obscured at the time as the Tobruk leadership were all prisoners of war but that the truth had emerged.[60]

Casualties

The number of British Empire prisoners taken in the battle is not known precisely because all the British records were lost. Axis casualties are not known either but German casualties for the fighting since 26 May (including Gazala) were reported as 3,360 of whom 300 were officers. Their losses for 20–22 June would have been considerably less than that.[61] The estimate in the British official history, the History of the Second World War is,

Prisoners of war being marched out of Tobruk shortly after the surrender

Nationality POW[62]
British 19,000
South African 10,720
Indian 2,500
Total 32,200

Rommel's drive into Egypt

An RAF Westland Lysander flies over a convoy of British lorries during the retreat into Egypt, 26 June 1942.

In the afternoon of 21 June, Kesselring visited Rommel's headquarters and reminded him of the agreement that the invasion of Malta would follow the capture of Tobruk and that his air assets were already being returned to Italy for that purpose. The next day, a senior Italian staff officer arrived with orders from General Bastico to halt. Rommel, now a field marshal, was able to decline this "advice".[63] He had in his possession the latest pessimistic report from Fellers in Cairo to Washington on the British dispositions, which concluded with the phrase; "If Rommel intends to take the Delta, now is the time". Furthermore, the supplies captured at Tobruk now made that possible.[64]

On 22 June, Rommel by-passed the chain of command by writing directly to Mussolini via the German attaché in Rome, Enno von Rintelen, requesting that the offensive be allowed to continue and that the Malta invasion be postponed to preserve his air support.[65] Mussolini forwarded the letter to Hitler, who had been harbouring doubts about the Malta operation. Hitler replied the next day with an effusive letter which agreed with Rommel's suggestion and urged Mussolini not to let the opportunity slip away, stating that "the goddess of success passes generals only once".[51]

The British retreat soon became a rout. Ritchie decided not to regroup at the Egyptian border as planned but further east at the fortified port of Mersa Matruh. Auchinleck relieved Ritchie of his command on 25 June, taking charge of the Eighth Army in person, and began a further withdrawal to a better defensive position at El Alamein. On the next day, Rommel arrived at the British positions at Matruh and broke through in the centre. The Battle of Mersa Matruh was another muddled disaster for the Eighth Army, who suffered 8,000 casualties and lost a lot of equipment and supplies, but the bulk of the Eighth Army was still able to break out and fall back to El Alamein.[66] Rommel hoped that a swift central attack on the new British positions might succeed in the same way as at Mersa Matruh. However he was moving further away from his air support and supply bases, he was increasingly within range of the Allied Desert Air Force, and his advance was eventually halted at the First Battle of El Alamein. El Alamein was to be the furthest advance eastwards of the Panzer Army Africa.[67]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Boog et al 2001, Part V, Chapter II, Section 2 (a)
  2. Harper 2017, p. 9
  3. Harper 2017, pp. 10–11
  4. Grehan and Mace 2017, p. 98
  5. Perrett 2000, p. 255
  6. Butler 2015, p. 315
  7. Beckett 2013, p. 84
  8. Harper 2017, p. 18
  9. Beckett 2013, pp. 85–87
  10. 10.0 10.1 Beckett 2013, p. 83
  11. Stewart 2002, p. 93
  12. Playfair 1960, p. 219
  13. Playfair 1960, p. 195
  14. Butler 2015, p. 310
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  16. Stewart 2002, p. 83
  17. Nash 2013, p 182
  18. Stewart 2002, pp. 84–86
  19. Stewart 2002, pp. 86–87
  20. Ford 2008, p. 74
  21. Playfair 1960, p. 257
  22. Ford 2008, p. 75
  23. Playfair 1960, p. 263
  24. 24.0 24.1 Playfair 1960, p. 264
  25. Playfair 1960, p. 262
  26. 26.0 26.1 Nash 2013, p 184
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 Nash 2013, p 186
  28. Playfair 1960, pp. 262–263
  29. Playfair 1960, p. 259
  30. 30.0 30.1 Playfair 1960, p. 261
  31. Horn & Katz 2016, p. 195
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 Playfair 1960, p. 266
  33. Mitchem 2007, p. 83
  34. Playfair 1960, pp. 266–267
  35. Playfair 1960, p. 267
  36. Mitcham 2007, p. 84
  37. Playfair 1960, p. 268
  38. Playfair 1960, pp. 268–270
  39. Playfair 1960, pp. 271–272
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  42. Mitcham 2007, p. 86
  43. 43.0 43.1 Harper 2017, p. 23
  44. Horn & Katz 2016, p. 190
  45. Lett 2014, pp. 5–7
  46. Horn & Katz 2016, pp. 201–202
  47. 47.0 47.1 Stewart 2001, p. 92
  48. Beckett 2013, p. 91
  49. Beevor 2014, p. 317
  50. Beevor 2014, p. 318
  51. 51.0 51.1 51.2 Boog et al 2001, Part V, Chapter II, Section 2 (b)
  52. Fraser 1997, pp. 232–233
  53. McKinstry 2019, p. 240
  54. Cook & Ramsden 1997, pp. 138–139
  55. McKinstry 2019, pp. 240–242
  56. 56.0 56.1 Butler 2015, p. 337
  57. Smith 2008, p. 7
  58. Brock Katz 2017, p 256
  59. Horn & Katz 2016, p. 194
  60. Churchill 1948, p 378
  61. Playfair 1960, p. 274
  62. Playfair 1960, p. 265
  63. Barr 2015, p. 18
  64. Barr 2005, pp. 20–21
  65. Barr 2005, pp. 19–20
  66. Beckett, pp. 89–90
  67. Beckett 2013, pp. 92–93

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