15 April 1941 , Failed Italian attack on Tobruk (or fiasco)

When Rommel had first sought to smash his way into Tobruk via El Adem on 11-13 April , he had also sent the 3rd Reconnaissance Regiment on to Bardia, which was seized by von Wechmar on 13 April. At the end of the month Sollum and the Halfaya Pass, which were largely undefended, also fell. However, British armoured raids from the desert in the days that followed forced the Afrika Korps commander to divert tanks to the Egyptian frontier that he would otherwise have been able to use against Tobruk. He renewed his efforts, therefore, to overwhelm the garrison using the tactics which had served him so well in France and Cyrenaica – punching a strong armoured fist through and beyond the enemy defences, with the panzers closely supported by mobile infantry, aircraft and combat engineers, and supplemented by mobile anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. Unsuccessful at El Adem, Rommel now turned his eyes to the western corner of the perimeter, where the slight rise in the ground at the ruined Ottoman fort of Ras el Medawar (Point 209) provided clear views as far out as Acroma in the west and the escarpment above Tobruk harbour way to the east.

Unwilling to provide the impertinent defenders with any pause for reflection and hopeful that another rapid assault would do the trick, Rommel ordered an attack using twenty medium and light tanks of the Ariete Division and a battalion of infantry and artillery from the Trento Division stiffened by German infantry, for the morning of 15 April. An initial breakthrough by the Italian tanks at the outer minefield and barbed wire north of Point 209 was immediately countered by a ferocious British artillery bombardment when the tanks reached the crossroads at Point 187, forcing the armour and its accompanying infantry to withdraw in disorder. Rommel dispatched one of his aides to find out what was wrong.

When Lieutenant Brendt returned, breathless, it was to say that the Italians were surrendering in droves. He had arrived on the scene to see a Bren gun carrier ushering a company of Italians inside the perimeter. He had immediately opened fire with a machine gun on the enemy vehicle, hoping to give the Italians a chance to escape. ‘They had run,’ Rommel later recorded in disgust, ‘towards the British lines.’ During the day repeated attempts by large groups of Italians to approach the perimeter were broken up by British artillery, and many groups of dispirited Italians surrendered. In the afternoon a further attack was thwarted by the busy guns of the 51st Field Regiment, after which three Bren carriers from the Australian 2/48th Battalion fired a few bursts over the Italians’ heads and corralled a large crowd of them towards the Australian wire. As this mass surrender was under way twelve German tanks approached and fired into the throng, perhaps in the mistaken belief that it would induce the Italians to turn on their captors and escape. It did the opposite, enraging the Italians and hurrying them into the perimeter. At the cost of one man dead and one wounded, that day the Australians captured 26 officers and 777 men, virtually all from the same battalion of the Trento Regiment. According to a story when one Italian officer told fleing troops that they should not afraid of British , a panicked Italian corporal relied “Mamma Mia. They are not British. THEY ARE AUSTRALIANS !”

However, the following morning persistent German and Italian attacks on Ras el Medawar succeeded in penetrating the Australian lines, the Diggers having no anti-tank guns to prevent twelve tanks getting through the wire onto Point 209, held by Lieutenant Bryant’s platoon of the 2/48th Battalion. The only thing capable of stopping them was landmines. Bryant recalled:

The tanks came on through the shelling and forced their way over a broken-down part of the wire. One Italian light blew up on the minefield, and two more were knocked out by our anti-tank rifles before they got very far. The rest continued on and we couldn’t stop them. One party of four or five tanks shot up our sangars on 209 and overran the 51st [Field] Regiment’s OP, wounding its CO (Lieutenant Colonel Douglas).

Charging across trenches and infantry positions, where in one case a Digger had an epaulette torn from his shirt by tank tracks passing over his slit trench, the Italian tanks turned back and scattered, their momentum lost. As they lurched back towards their own lines they found themselves mistaken by German anti-tank guns for British vehicles. Rommel was furious, blaming the failure of the attack on the poorly trained Italian soldiers and their atrocious equipment, although this did not persuade him to desist from further attempts.

The attacks at El Adem on the 11th/12th and Ras el Medawar on the 15th provided many lessons for the British and Australian defenders. Leslie Morshead immediately ordered the construction of a deep anti-tank minefield forward of Bianca and the Australian infantry were provided with tank familiarization training to ensure that they were not overawed by the twenty-ton beasts bearing down on them. Lieutenant Alexander McGinlay of 7th RTR was involved:

"We wanted to prove to the Aussies that it was quite safe to lie low in a ditch or trench and let a tank drive straight over them . . . We had them dig trenches, lie in them and ran over them. This training paid off and when Jerry broke in . . . the infantry just laid low while the Mark IV Jerry tanks rolled over them, then came up, wiping out the German infantry following. This left the Jerry tanks completely cut off from their support. "

Forward with his troops throughout these engagements, Rommel lost one of his fabled nine lives on 19 April after decorating von Wechmar with the Knight’s Cross for his seizure of Bardia. That evening, with Rommel about ten miles west of Bardia returning to Acroma, Schmidt spotted two aircraft approaching rapidly at low level over the sand. ‘Air alarm!’ he shouted at the top of his voice. The vehicles braked just before the Hurricanes were upon them, their guns firing. Schmidt threw himself flat onto the ground. The British fighters circled to attack again and Schmidt desperately wormed himself into the sand.

“When at last the aircraft broke off and flew away north towards the sea, I picked myself up, bleeding from scratches on my face . . .I counted over a dozen bullet holes in my car. The motorcyclist dispatch rider travelling just behind me [Private Kanthak] had evidently not leapt from his machine in time: he lay next to the sprawling motorcycle. He had a bad head wound and was obviously dying.”

Corporal Eggert, Rommel’s driver, had been struck in the chest by a bullet, and was seriously wounded. He was later to die ofhis injuries. The radio truck had been hit so severely that it had to be abandoned. Rommel himself took the wheel of the Mammoth and began the long drive through the night to his headquarters at the White House, which the battered convoy reached in the early hours of the morning.


It was soon after this visit to Bardia that Rommel finally received from the Italians two copies of a map of the Tobruk defences. Only now could he appreciate the extent of the fortifications, this realization chiming with his experience of trying, over the previous fortnight, to batter his way in. He decided that he would focus his attacks on the south-western area at Ras el Medawar. In this area the Italian-built perimeter defences were strangely flawed because they did not extend to a mound 700 yards to the west (Point 201) which the Diggers came to call Carrier Hill. An enemy could use Carrier Hill as a covered approach for attacks on Point 209, and prepare in the dead ground beyond it. To prevent Rommel using it to mount a further attack, the Australians launched a pre-emptive strike against the hill at dawn on 22 April. Accompanied on the ground by three Matildas of 7th RTR and overhead by a Lysander spotter plane, the raid by ninety men of the 2/48th Battalion swept around the flank of the enemy position and tore into the unsuspecting Italians from the rear: 16 officers and 354 men surrendered from Arierte Armored Division after a fierce firefight for the loss of two Diggers killed and seven wounded. Not all raids, however, were so successful. On the same day two heavy raids against Italian positions by the 2/23rd Battalion along the Derna Road faced stiffer opposition, fierce fighting resulting in nearly twenty Australian dead and as many wounded for the capture of 87 Italians with many killed and wounded.

For the rest of April German and Italian troops pressed against the perimeter at various points, testing the defences for a weak point. Determined and aggressive Australian resistance, however, supported by British tanks and artillery, prevented any breakthrough. Australian fighting patrols, accompanied on occasion by British tanks, moved beyond the perimeter to disrupt and forestall Italian and German attack preparations.