9-13 April 1941 , Siege of Tobruk Begins , First Battle of Tobruk , "Rats of Tobruk" Legend starts

The Longest Siege , Tobruk - Robert Lyman
Tobruk The Great Siege 1941-1942 - William Buckingham
Tobruk - Peter Fitzsimmons
Desert Boys - Peter Rees

When Rommel with his one German division and extra few units opened up his suprise offensive , in a few days German Italian Panzer Group (as titled back then) recaptured almost all of Cyreneica in a few days. Inexperienced and badly deployed equipped 2nd Brtitish Armored Division was mauled up by fast moving strikes of German forces at Merselbraga (31 March) , Agadebhia (2 April) , Msus (4 April) and Mechilli (7 April , this is where most of the command headquarters and rear echalon of entire 2nd Armored Division was captured and Rommel got hold of British booty “Mammoth” command vehicles he would use during entire campaign in desert.) Even worse architecht of previous British victories in North Africa General O’Connor was also captured close to Derna on 7th April along with front commander General Neame. Benghazi was recaptured by German troops on 5th April. It seems like with arrival of one young German general , entire outlook of North African Campaign changed and Egypt again seemed under threat of Axis.



With Mechili seized on 7th April , Rommel ordered General Johannes Streich commander of 5th Light Division (later conversed to 21st Panzer Division) to strike east to the coast without delay. Speed had achieved the capture of Cyrenaica, and Rommel was insistent that the same relentless pace be carried on to complete the capture of Tobruk. While the 5th Light Division was pressing overland through Cyrenaica, the coastal advance had made rapid progress, and Derna had been captured on 8 April by motorcycle battalion of Oberst Ponath supported by combat teams led by Oberst Schwerin and Oberst Olbrich rushed up from Mechili. At the same time Tripoli had seen the arrival of General Heinrich von Prittwitz’s 15th Panzer Division, with troops flying directly into Benghazi. Within the month they would also be flying into Derna.


Rommel recognized early on just how vital Tobruk would be to his advance into Egypt. In British hands it would prove a constant sore in his flank, as well as denying him the use of its port for supplies and reinforcements. Rommel was therefore concerned to overrun it as quickly as possible before its defences could be organized.

Late on the evening of 8 April Rommel reached the sea at Derna only hours after the retreating Australians, the 2nd Division Support Group and the tank-less remnants of the 3rd Armoured Brigade had managed to extricate themselves from the town, although large numbers of other troops and equipment fell into German hands. Oberst Ponath scribbled quickly in his diary that night:

Unit advances on Derna. No enemy. Odd POWs keep arriving. A heavy sandstorm is blowing up. A German aircraft lands and makes contact and takes the mail. Derna is clear of the enemy. Brescia Division approaches from the west. Order to move to Tobruk [arrives] at 2100 hours. Rommel is pleased with our success. Dead tired. Night march. Handing over of prisoners and captured material.

Details of the Tobruk defences were as yet unknown to the Germans. They had no maps and no idea of what they faced. But given the rapid advances his troops had already made, Rommel could not believe that he would meet anything other than mild resistance. He had seen nothing over the last few days to make him believe that Tobruk would be anything other than a walkover. On 9 April he received reports of activity in the town, including (unformirmed lately proved to be false) news that the British were attempting a Dunkirk-type evacuation from the harbour, and that same day the Italian Brescia Division arrived after its advance along the coast road from Benghazi. Like the dash across Cyrenaica,
and entirely in keeping with Rommel’s character, Rommel’s first plan to take Tobruk depended on speed and surprise. He ordered an immediate assault. The Brescia would advance from the west, raising a great cloud of sand to confuse the enemy into overestimating Axis strength and intentions. At the same time Streich’s 5th Light Division would sweep around the southern perimeter to attack it from the south-east, while recently arrived General Heinrich Von Prittwitz (whose 15th Panzer Division was still incoming to Benghazi by sea and air and organising) would assault the town directly from the Derna Road.

Rommel had assumed that Streich would by this time have joined him on the coast, but the 5th Light Division was dismantling and repairing the turrets of its tanks, jammed shut by the sand, at Mechili. Rommel was furious with the delay and ordered Streich to Gazala by the next morning, Thursday 10 April, from which point he was to attack Tobruk. In the afternoon Rommel moved east to Tmimi, and informed General Von Prittwitz of his plan. Given command of the 3rd Reconnaissance, 8th Machine-Gun and 605th Anti-Tank Battalions, Prittwitz was ordered on the evening of 8 April to drive on to Tobruk without delay. Having only just arrived from Benghazi, Prittwitz was staggered. ‘But I’ve only just arrived in Africa,’ he complained to Lieutenant Colonel von Schwerin. ‘I don’t know the first thing about the troops or the terrain.’ Schwerin found him a bed, and the exhausted Prittwitz fell asleep only to be shouted awake by Rommel at dawn next morning on 9th April . ‘The British are escaping!’ A confused, disorientated Prittwitz leapt into Schwerin’s Kubelwagen and sped towards Tobruk.

von prittwitz

General Von Prittwitz , the general Rommel caused his death

On the same morning Major General Heinrich Kirchheim, in temporary command of the Italian Brescia Division, was ordered by Rommel to find a suitable area to prepare his division to attack Tobruk. On the Derna road Kirchheim suddenly saw sand kicked up on the road ahead. ‘Aircraft!’ shouted his driver as three Hurricanes approached at speed just above the desert. Machine-gun fire engulfed the vehicle and Kirchheim was struck in the arm, shoulder and eye. As Kirchheim’s wounds were being dressed, Prittwitz arrived on the scene. After exchanging pleasantries – Prittwitz congratulating Kirchheim on wounds that would send him home – Prittwitz drove on towards Tobruk.

Ponath’s forwardmost troops had been held up eleven miles short of Tobruk on the Derna road by intense artillery fire from the guns of the British 51st Field Regiment and Australian anti-tank guns, some of them siezed Italian weapons. It was into this hail of fire that the unfortunate Prittwitz, with Schwerin’s driver, drove on the morning of 10 April. At Milestone 13 a direct hit from an Australian anti-tank gun killed them both. Streich – whom Rommel had sidelined for the attack that morning in favour of Prittwitz because he believed the former slow and conventional – was furious at what he regarded as Prittwitz’s unnecessary death and laid the blame squarely on Rommel’s shoulders, a result of his arrogant impetuosity.

Thirty-one-year-old Captain Vernon Northwood of A Company, 2/28th Australian Battalion (from recently arrived 9th Australian Division which was deployed to Tobruk literally hours ago , mostly via sea by fast ships from Alexandria) watched the first German troops come unwarily into his sights. The Australians – individual toughness and raw courage making up for what they lacked in battlefield experience – saw no reason why they should be ‘frightened of Jerry’ and were grimly determined to hold the line come what may.

“On the first day, 10 April, ten o’clock in the morning, we saw the German tanks coming over the rise. The Royal Horse Artillery were firing over open sights, but they copped an awful bashing from the tanks. We could hear men screaming. They carried them to a bit of a ditch. I was up a water tower, with a wonderful view, so I was able to report back what I was seeing. I was cold with fury when I saw the Germans machine-gunning an ambulance as it came up to get these fellers. Our men just took it in their stride though. Many of them had worked in the goldfields [of Western Australia]; they were men who knew what rough living was all about.”

Private Peter Salmon, also of the 2/28th Battalion, was surprised by the nonchalance of the advancing Germans. They clearly believed Tobruk would be a walkover:

“I was on the Derna Road when the Germans came. I remember it very vividly – it was a surprise to see them. They were in trucks and they came to the perimeter and I still see them getting off those trucks. I don’t know what they expected to find, but then of course we opened up on them with small arms and artillery – the blokes that were using the bush artillery were quite incredible, because they had no sights (the Italians had stripped the guns of their sights) but they were getting some very accurate firing, and it was amazing what they did.”

The ‘bush artillery’ comprised Australian soldiers manning siezed Italian artillery pieces. The stripped sights proved no impediment to the Diggers, who were assisted in their efforts by the vast quantities of ammunition left behind in Tobruk fortress. John Devine came across guns and men of the bush artillery on the El Adem road only yards short of the Red Line:

“This particular lot of bush artillery was operated by a mixed crew of batmen and cooks . . . they had their OP [observation post] fully twenty yards in front of them at the roadside . . . The OP would take up position, and after the shell had been pushed into place in the spout, and the fuse had been wrenched to the desired time setting with the aid of a spanner from the truck [which had brought up the ammunition], there followed little bags containing Italian cordite. These were pushed in after the shell in no very definite quantities, and finally the breech was rammed home. The gunners then retreated down a very long rope lanyard . . . This lanyard then being pulled, fired the gun. The burst was watched, and the OP signalled the result of the shot. A typical signal following observation of a burst would be ‘Move her two telegraph poles to the right. Knock out a bloody brick.’ Traverse was measured in telegraph poles along the road, and to vary the elevation bricks were pushed under the trailer.”

italian bush artillery

italian bush artillery 2

Italian bush artillery in British and Australian service

The bush artillery did not claim to achieve much more than raise the morale of the troops, although Devine records that the amateur gunners claimed many Italian trucks and a stationary aeroplane that had been forced to land beyond the wire. Private Frank Harrison spoke with real affection about these untrained but determined Australians sighting their guns by squinting along the barrel and shouting ‘Let 'er go, mate!’ at the required moment.

If improvised, the defensive block was nevertheless extremely effective, and the death of Prittwitz dealt the overconfident Germans a significant blow. On the same day Rommel’s party (including Schmidt) in its newly acquired Mammoth came under accurate British artillery fire from El Adem, which the British evacuated later in the day, when the 7th Armoured Division Support Group withdrew back into Egypt. Von Wechmar’s 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion then moved through Acroma and across the desert tracks south of Tobruk to El Adem. At one stage Rommel noticed two vehicles following the Mammoth, one of which was clearly British. Ordering his men to stop and train an anti-tank gun on the pursuing cars, he was surprised to be confronted by a red-faced Streich, yelling at him that his actions had cost Prittwitz’s life. Rommel was unmoved. ‘How dare you drive after me in a British car? I was about to have the gun open fire on you.’ Streich retorted, ‘In that case, you would have managed to kill both your panzer division commanders in one day, Herr General !. ’


It was now clear to the British that Tobruk was Rommel’s target. On the 7th an alarmed Churchill telegrammed General Wavell Commander in Chief Mediterranean in Cairo , ‘You should surely be able to hold Tobruk, with its permanent Italian defences, at least until or unless the enemy brings up strong artillery forces. It seems difficult to believe that he can do this for some weeks. He would run great risks in masking Tobruk and advancing on Egypt, observing that we can reinforce from the sea and would menace his communications. Tobruk, therefore, seems to be a place to be held to the death without thought of retirement.’

Wavell was not so sure, observing rather pessimistically to Churchill in reply the following day, ‘Tobruk is not a good defence position. The long line of communication is to all intents and purposes unprotected and lacks the necessary installations.’ In London Major General John Kennedy, director of military operations, agreed. It seemed unlikely that the force caught in Tobruk would be strong enough to break out once surrounded or to launch attacks on the German line of communications. Kennedy believed the best strategy would be to withdraw well into Egypt, to extend Rommel’s supply lines back through Libya. Nevertheless, Wavell changed his mind and decided on 7 April to hold Tobruk. Churchill and Wavell were wise to reject Kennedy’s advice. After all, if Rommel held Tobruk the Royal Navy would become less of a threat to Axis communications in the Mediterranean than it currently was and the port facilities in Tobruk would also dramatically reduce Rommel’s logistical problems and make him a greater, rather than a lesser, threat to Egypt.

The single tarmacked coast road from Tripoli east to Alexandria in Egypt is 1,875 miles long. All fuel and supplies coming into North Africa for the Axis forces had to be moved along this road to the front. The further east Rommel advanced, the greater the drain on fuel and vehicles this tenuous line of communication became. It was essential therefore to scavenge, and Axis forces utilized food, fuel, armour, vehicles, ammunition and weapons captured from their foes whenever they could. Between them the ports of Tripoli and Benghazi provided a capacity of about 60,000 tons per month, and Tobruk 24,000. To sustain the whole of Rommel’s Afrika Korps – which would grow to some seven divisions by the end of 1941 – required a monthly port capacity of 70,000 tons. The mathematics was clear: without Tobruk, Rommel did not have the port capacity he required to sustain his troops in North Africa. Tobruk was a vital element in the German offensive equation.

In any case, in April 1941 Wavell had insufficient transport available to evacuate all the troops remaining in Cyrenaica. Aside from holding Tobruk, the only other option was to allow them to fall into German hands. On the 8th Wavell flew into Tobruk with Major General Lavarack, GOC of the 7th Australian Division, appointed to replace the unfortunate Neame. Scribbling his instructions to Lavarack on a scrap of paper, Wavell told him there was nothing between him and Cairo and that reinforcements might be available in two months.

That night all remaining troops except for the support group at El Adem were ordered within the perimeter, where feverish efforts had been made to organize the defences. Having the opportunity to stand and fight was what the men of Morshead’s 9th Australian Division now craved more than anything else. After more than a week of withdrawals and embarrassing confusion the Diggers wanted to strike back. As one Australian officer remarked, ‘We couldn’t let it be said that the 9th had lost what the 6th (Australian Division , thsat is a rival of 9th Australian Division and that moment in Greece) had won.’ Evacuated into Tobruk during the first week of April, Gunner Leonard Tutt recalled, ‘Once we were apprised of the decision to hold Tobruk, we were pleased to be part of it. We had found running to be very demoralizing.’ Rommel was in for a fight. Churchill recognized that a siege would make heavy demands on Axis forces, and in a directive from London on 14 April insisted that Tobruk be defended so as to provide ‘an invaluable bridgehead . . . on the communications of the enemy. It should be reinforced as may be necessary both with infantry and by armoured fighting vehicles, to enable active and continuous raiding of the enemy’s flanks and rear.’ To Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Harris the prime minister mused, ‘A sally port . . . Yes, a sally port; that is what we want, that is the thing to do with them. The farther he advances the more you threaten, the more he has to fear. That is the answer, a sally port . . .’

Siege of Tobruk 1941 (1)

Forward defences – the Red Line – were hurriedly prepared. Lavarack decided that the long outer perimeter needed to be held despite the fact that he had only seven battalions to do so. A shorter line would allow the Germans to place their guns closer to the port and probably make it unusable. The ex-Italian perimeter positions, while admirably camouflaged, did not allow all the occupants to fire their personal weapons at the same time. The Australians and the Northumberland Fusiliers were forced to extend and improve these defences rapidly, to avoid a repeat of the successful breach in January. Additional minefields were laid, wire prepared, Italian emplacements and defensive positions cleaned up and repopulated with Diggers eager to show what they could do. Defence in depth was organized and mobile counter-attack forces based on the few available tanks prepared. Captured Italian weapons, especially anti-tank guns and artillery pieces, were placed at key points on the perimeter; of the garrison’s 113 anti-tank guns, half were Italian. Infantry battalions were deployed with two or three companies forward and a reserve company half a mile to the rear for counter-attacks. In due course a second line was prepared – the Blue Line – two miles to the rear of the forward defences. At the three main crossroads – King’s Cross, Pilas-trino and Derna/Pilastrino (Fort Airente) – Lavarack placed an infantry battalion in trucks as his reserve.

Once the decision had been made to defend Tobruk and the 9th Australian Division given responsibility for its defence, division commander General Leslie Morshead brought his battalion commanders together and, reflecting their own determination to stand and fight, told them emphatically, ‘There will be no Dunkirk here. If we should have to get out, we shall fight our way out. There is to be no surrender and no retreat.’

siege of tobruk leslie morshead

General Leslie Morshead

General Leslie Morshead was a militia officer of considerable ability who had gained experience during the First World War, commanding the 33rd Battalion at the age of twenty-six. He was widely known and respected in the Australian Imperial Force for being precise, meticulous and straight to the point, his men giving him the sobriquet ‘Ming the Merciless’ because of his strict approach to discipline (and due to his trimmed mustache). Chester Wilmot observed, ‘It is popularly believed that the Australian soldier chafes under strict discipline, but Morshead has always held that without it there is nothing to bind the strong individuality of the Australian soldiers into an organized fighting force.’ From the outset of the siege Morshead insisted on an offensive stance. No-man’s-land was patrolled aggressively and enemy posts raided regularly. ‘I determined we should make no-man’s-land our land,’ he insisted. Reacting to a newspaper report that ‘Tobruk can take it’ he retorted, ‘We’re not here to take it. We’re here to give it!’ Unaware that he was now facing the steadfast opposition of four brigades of Australian troops desperate to ‘have a crack’ at the Germans and determined to show themselves worthy of their forefathers – after all, this was why they had enlisted and travelled halfway round the world –
Rommel refused to allow his advance to be halted by Tobruk. He immediately dispatched Lieutenant Colonel von Wechmar’s 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, together with the 15th Motorized Infantry Battalion (less its two artillery companies) and a company of Lieutenant Colonel Knabe’s 33rd Anti-Tank Battalion equipped with a battery of 88-millimetre anti-aircraft guns deployed in the anti-tank role, to the Egyptian frontier.


Rommel’s attempt to overrun Tobruk by rushing its porous defences had failed, so he now determined to tighten the noose. He ordered the Brescia Division, still under the command of the wounded Major General Kirchheim , who had not been sent home to recuperate after all, to move up to relieve the 5th Light Division, which in its turn was directed to move around the desert flank to close the eastern exit from Tobruk. The Ariete Division with its sixty tanks was ordered up to El Adem. Over the next few days Rommel could be found everywhere in the Axis positions encircling Tobruk – measuring, assessing, planning. All the while British and Australian stragglers tried desperately to break through the cordon that had been thrown up around the town.

obruk was indeed to be held. Men, tanks, aircraft and equipment of all kinds were being salvaged from across Cyrenaica to be brought into the perimeter, including every remnant of armour that had survived the previous fortnight’s fighting. This cobbled-together force would retain the title of the 3rd Armoured Brigade, the once-proud formation that had fought through northern France in 1940 but which had been so poorly prepared in Cyrenaica , and shattered by Rommel’s first offensive from Merselbraga into Cyreneica , losing most of its tanks. The remains of one of its regiments -the 5th RTR – was to form the nucleus of the new formation. Colloquially dubbed the Tobruk Tanks, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Drew – erstwhile CO of the 5th – was given command.

In the early days of April, before the Tobruk perimeter was sealed, soldiers and equipment had poured in from all points of the compass. Infantry units, artillery, tanks – all converged in a tangle of confusion; men and machines racing to avoid being cut off by Rommel’s scything attack through Cyrenaica. The last battalion of Morshead’s division – the 2/48th – had slipped in during the early hours of Thursday 10 April, only hours before Prittwitz’s abortive attack along the Derna road, while into the grateful arms of Drew’s 3rd Armoured Brigade fell the twenty-six cruisers (a mix of battle-worn A9, A10 and A13s) and the fifteen light tanks of B and C Squadrons of 1st RTR. One bit of luck was that four of the majestic Matilda II tanks from 4th RTR had also arrived to Tobruk harbourt a few days ago. These ‘queens of the battlefield’ might have been, as Peter Cochrane described them, ‘antediluvian’ when compared to what was to come and outgunned by the 50- and 75-millimetre main armaments of the panzer Mark IVs, but the heavily armoured beasts were a substantial enhancement to Tobruk’s defences. These forty-five tanks were supported by the armoured car veterans of the King’s Dragoon Guards, together with fragments of other regiments: the 3rd King’s Royal Hussars and the tank-less men of the 6th RTR. These, in concert with twenty-four 2-pounder anti-tank guns mounted on the backs of 30-cwt trucks, comprised the Tobruk commander’s mobile reserve. Against him at this time Rommel could field well over one hundred tanks. At noon on Tuesday 8 April Lieutenant Lea Leakey drove down through Tobruk’s three descending escarpments to the harbour, to meet up with the remainder of 1st RTR disembarking from newly arrived troop transport SS Thurland Castle. The race was on to get the tanks serviceable and up to the front line as quickly as possible. This was far from easy. All vehicles had suffered heavily during Operation Compass. Many had been in pieces in Cairo workshops and then been rushed by barge to Alexandria for transportation to Tobruk. Few had working radios. Worn-out guns had not been replaced and new weapons lay greased up in their factory crates. But, fully operational or not, armour was required on the perimeter defences to help resist the pressure of Rommel’s vanguard. Leslie Morshead’s plan was to group the tanks together at Fort Pilastrino and King’s Cross, from where they could counter-attack as and when required.

By 4 p.m. on Tuesday 8 April the first of the 1st RTR tanks were, in Lieutenant Leakey’s words ‘more or less fit for action’. Their initial task came two days later when Prittwitz attempted to rush the perimeter from the Derna road. Leakey took his tanks forward although dust and smoke made navigation extremely difficult. However, Australian soldiers guided the tanks to the battle area, where the cruisers were able – with the guns of 51st Field Regiment – to assist in halting Prittwitz’s speculative attack. This was Leakey’s first exposure to the Australians of the 2nd AIF. Like Private Frank Harrison from British Army ignals detachment , he was impressed. ‘In the months to come,’ he recorded, ‘I got to know many of the officers and men of this division, and they were second to none.’ *

The death of Prittwitz during his foolhardy assault along the Derna road on the morning of 10 April and the failure of the attack had in no way lessened Erwin Rommel’s determination to find a way into Tobruk. ‘We probably tried too much with too little,’ he remarked nonchalantly to Johannes Streich after the latter’s outburst that afternoon. ‘Anyway,’ Rommel concluded, ‘we are in a better position now.’ At this point the Germans still had no maps of Tobruk and were obliged to attack blind, knowing nothing of the defences facing them and driving against sections of the wire in the hope of finding a weak spot. Nevertheless, all the evidence indicated that the defences around Tobruk were more strongly held than anything recently encountered by the Germans. Reconnaissance completed, Rommel drove back to his HQ, which had been set up on the evening of 9 April in a concrete villa situated along the main road to the west of Tobruk. Known thereafter as the White House, telephone wires connected it to the Italian fort at Acroma. The rest of Rommel’s staff hid themselves and their vehicles in a nearby wadi.

On the morning that Prittwitz was killed Rommel took his open-topped Horch Kfz.15 staff car and, accompanied by Schmidt and an armoured escort, began a tour of Tobruk’s perimeter. Travelling first to Acroma along a dusty desert track, the party turned left towards El Adem. They had not gone far before well-aimed British artillery fire landed among the vehicles. No one was harmed. Despite several scrapes, Rommel was to enjoy a charmed life in the desert. Reaching the high ground to the north of El Adem they came across companies of recently arrived German infantry of Lieutenant Colonel Gustav Ponath’s 8th Machine-Gun Battalion preparing for an imminent attack. But their vehicles remained an inviting target to British artillery observation officers, some of whom remained on the escarpment at El Adem until the following day. Schmidt fell into conversation with a namesake of his he had met before. ‘While the general talked, a salvo of enemy shells fell among us. A young lieutenant was killed, and my friend Schmidt lost an arm.’

Moving on another two miles, they came across Streich’s HQ concealed in a wadi. The Tobruk batteries had followed them, and once again a salvo of shells came down. Rommel’s final instructions to Streich were to waste no time punching a hole in the Tobruk defences. He wanted an attack the following afternoon – Good Friday, 11 April -when more artillery pieces would have arrived to support Streich’s division.


To the exhausted crews of 1st RTR the first few days of their time in Tobruk proved a debilitating round of urgent responses to threatened penetrations of the perimeter. The night following the repulse of Prittwitz’s force British tanks were kept constantly busy rushing – as fast as the lumbering vehicles could manage – to protect endangered sections of the line. On Good Friday morning Leakey’s squadron found itself opposite Acroma in the south-western corner of the perimeter, called to deal with an encroachment by enemy tanks. ‘Off we went to deal with them and we were delighted to find that they were the little Italian two-man tanks which had not been seen for many months. They were now being used as flame-throwing tanks, and we soon disposed of them.’

Rea Leakey thought he had to have been the last to make it into Tobruk, but late in the evening of Wednesday 9 April, twenty-four hours after his arrival, a long convoy of 300 vehicles comprising the whole of the 107th Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (South Nottinghamshire Hussars), a pre-war Territorial Army artillery regiment equipped with 25-pounders, made it through. German patrols had cut the road to Bardia some twenty-four hours before, and the arrival of the regiment was nothing short of miraculous. But Rommel did not have the strength to close the road until the arrival of Knabe’s motorcycle detachment the following day. Four days before, the Hussars had been conducting artillery practice at Kabrit Camp in the Nile Delta.

On 4 April their CO, the fox-hunting Lieutenant Colonel William Seeley, had received orders to make best speed for Tobruk. It would be a far from easy task. Their destination lay in Libya, over 700 miles across the desert via a single rapidly crumbling tarmacked road. On Sunday 6 April, with the lights of Cairo beckoning in the distance, Seeley paraded the whole regiment. Bombardier Ray Ellis of 425 Battery recalled that he told them what they had been tasked to do, warning there was every chance of being dive-bombed en route. It was imperative that they succeeded in getting the precious 25-pounders into Tobruk. If attacked by panzers or Stukas they were under strict instructions to press on with whatever equipment survived.

Escorted by military police with sirens wailing, Sunday night saw the convoy pressing forward through Cairo’s suburbs to their overnight stop atMenaCamp near Alexandria. Tuesdayfoundthe regiment driving on through the now deserted Mersa Matruh. It was clear something had gone badly wrong in Cyrenaica. Ellis recalled:

The deeper we got into the desert, the more alarmed we became. We began to meet columns of lorries laden with troops and equipment, and also many ambulances, all of them travelling at speed and heading eastwards . . . There was more than a hint of panic in the air, and the further west we travelled the more disorderly it all became. It was soon obvious that the British Army of the Nile was in headlong retreat; everybody seemed to be sharing but one thought, and that was to put as much distance between themselves and the enemy as possible.

The convoy drove virtually non-stop, only halting to refuel from dumps of petrol which were blown up after them. As they drove through Buq Buq dispatch riders raced along the length of the convoy carrying stark notices reading: CLOSE UP . DRIVE AS FAST AS POSSIBLE . Nerves were fraught during the last eighty miles between the Egyptian frontier and their destination. In each vehicle men shared the driving, concentrating on the bumpy surface rather than the German tanks and armoured cars that they knew had already reached the road or the Axis planes ranging along the coast. Private Reg McNish recalled, ‘The drivers were changing over without stopping – they used to get out one door, nip over the bonnet and back in the other door. We just kept going.’ As the miles to their destination diminished, night settled over the desert and the sky ahead was lit up with bright flashes like lightning from a tropical storm. To the south flickers denoted German forces on the move across the vast desert floor. Sergeant George Pearson was praying that he wouldn’t come across any German tanks. He did, but they would leave him alone: ‘By the middle of the afternoon a few tanks appeared on the escarpment side. I was watching them, they were German tanks, and they kept pace with us, following along and I was shaking in my shoes thinking, Oh my God, please, please, don’t make me have to drop off! Luckily they didn’t attack but I had a distinct looseness of the bowels when I thought of what might have happened.’ As the wire along Tobruk’s eastern perimeter approached, flashes briefly illuminated the scene accompanied by the delayed reports of explosions. Major Robert Daniell, a regular army officer in the RHA attached to the South Notts Hussars as second-in-command, insisted that the vehicles drove with their headlights blazing, to intimidate the few Germans who had so far reached the Via Balbia. It worked. On Wednesday 9 April with about two hours to midnight the remaining ‘quads’, limbers and guns raced into Tobruk. Australian sentries hastily relaid the wire and mines on the road behind the exhausted, jubilant gunners. They were in, but for how long?

107th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery

The 107th RHA didn’t need the order that came down later in the day that Tobruk was ‘to be held at all costs’; they were the South Notts Hussars. The men were all friends, who had lived, worked and trained together for years before the war as part-time soldiers. They would stand up to the Germans, come what may. During that day – Thursday 10 April – artillery support was called for over the field telephone by the infantry on the perimeter and the armoured reconnaissance cars of the Kings Dragoon Guards (which remained outside until the following day) and continuously provided, the gunners sweating, heaving and firing almost constantly under the burning sun. It was these guns that had followed Rommel’s party on his perambulations round the perimeter that morning.

107th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery 2


Erwin Rommel was impatient to see action and had instructed Major General Streich to attack with his 5th Light Division in the El Adem sector on the afternoon of 11 April. His eagerness to move against Tobruk resulted in a sorry little affair in the Acroma sector of the perimeter early on the morning of that day. Only responsible party of outcome of this incident was Rommel and his over optimism mixed with arrogance. At first light on the 11th the Afrika Korps commander drove from the White House back along the dusty track to Acroma, where he paused to observe Tobruk’s defences far to the east. Several miles off on the horizon stood the ramshackle buildings that denoted the half-complete Fort Pilastrino. Was the artillery fire he had experienced the previous day a desperate bluff by the British to disguise virtually non-existent defences? Could pausing while the extra tanks and troops of the 5th Light and 15th Panzer Divisions were brought up have been in fact a strategic error, allowing the British to organize Tobruk’s defences or even to mount a second Dunkirk from the port? Four panzers waited in the early-morning light under the command of Lieutenant Wahl. Standing there alone with his binoculars, a pensive Rommel suddenly sprang into action. Tobruk’s defences were mere bluff. Initiative and aggression would break them. Turning to Schmidt, Rommel declared, ‘ Herr Leut-nant, we’re off! Tell that officer [Wahl] to follow with his panzers.’

Rommel drove away in the direction of Tobruk, and Schmidt ran back to deliver the orders. Wahl climbed aboard his panzer and grinned to Schmidt. ‘Off to Tobruk!’ It barely seemed sane. The corps commander in an unarmoured open-topped car followed by four tanks was apparently launching an attack to seize Tobruk without artillery, infantry or air cover.

Driving east for some miles, the little convoy drove through occasional bursts of incoming shellfire and passed an Italian artillery battery in a wadi, counter-firing against the British guns at King’s Cross. Just beyond the battery Rommel stopped to examine his map. The Italian bersaglier i battalion that should have been there was nowhere to be seen. The panzers trundled laboriously up behind him, throwing up a cloud of dust that attracted more artillery fire from Tobruk. Halting the tanks in a shallow wadi, Schmidt ran forward to join his general:

"I find Rommel lying on the ground with shells exploding left and right. He is all alone . . . I watch Rommel as he lies on his belly, intently studying the ground ahead through his glasses. His firm mouth is tight-lipped now; his prominent cheekbones stand out white. His cap is perched on the back of his head. Fort ‘Pilastrino!’ he mutters.

I glance quickly at his map before I crouch down behind a heap of stones and also survey the terrain ahead. The ground slopes down ahead of us, and then slopes upward again equally gradually. On the crest is a triangular-shaped ruin of stones surmounted by a close network of barbed wire. Considerably farther back is a higher mound of stones. I surmise that this is Pilastrino and an enemy observation post . . .

The huntsman’s urge seems to take possession of Rommel. ‘ Leutnant! ’ he commands. ‘Orders to the panzers! Attack the stone ruins ahead – two panzers through the northern wadi, two through the southern wadi close to the ruins.’

Schmidt dodged back through the whistling shrapnel of incoming artillery. Given the importance of his task the bursting shells seemed of little consequence. Orders received, Wahl smiled calmly, lowered the cupola on his turret and trundled off towards Tobruk with his three companions. Schmidt considered it almost criminally insane:

“We watch the charge of the panzers. They obey orders and get close to their objective – the ruins. Then an unexpected and murderous fire falls around them. A few moments later the fire of several batteries is directed at our own observation post. We race for shelter along the slope . . . Shells drop among the battery of Italian artillery. One gun and its crew are wiped out by a direct hit. All hell is let loose until sundown, when the shellfire ceases. We drive back to advanced headquarters near the White House. The panzers do not return.” (all four panzers were knocked out by British anti tan k guns and Leutenant Wahl along with other paner crews were killed)

Far from being chastened, the loss of Wahl and his four panzers seemed to spur Rommel to greater efforts. Schmidt recalled that, during April, their commander had only one phrase on his lips: ‘Every man forward to Tobruk!’ The 5th Light Division had by now been brought up to strength, and forward units of Prittwitz’s 15th Panzers were arriving at the front, some infantry units being flown directly into the airfield at Derna.

As they finally took the opportunity to dig their guns in during Good Friday afternoon and construct some semblance of protection for themselves and their guns, the men of B Troop from 107th Royal Horse Artillery were gathered together by Captain Graham Slinn. All the men admired Slinn – recalled by Bombardier Ray Ellis as the ‘perfect gentleman’ – who treated everyone with courtesy. ‘Everybody liked him,’ said Private Ted Whittaker. "He was one of those chaps you’d have followed anywhere. Great tall chap, well over six foot, thin . . .’ Bill Hutton agreed: ‘Slinn was very, very good at his job.’ Slinn warned them that, though morale was high, the next few days would prove a severe test for them all. They would face a massive onslaught by German and Italian forces determined to overwhelm Tobruk in order to secure their advance on the Nile. If Egypt fell, the Middle East and its oil wealth would be lost and the British empire cut in half. ‘He said that the fate of England and the free world was in our hands that day, and we must not fail. Captain Slinn concluded his stirring little talk by quoting the final passage of the speech of Henry V before the battle of Agincourt: “You know your places, go to them, and God be with you.”’

Slinn’s timing, said Ellis, was impeccable as within minutes of this homily ‘all hell was let loose’. Rommel’s first major attack on Tobruk had begun. With calls for artillery support coming from troops in positions to the west of the El Adem road, before long the sky was black with smoke and the guns of the RHA were glowing red. But like Prittwitz’s attack the previous day on the Derna road and Wahl’s suicidal advance opposite Acroma that morning, the attack on the afternoon of 11 April against the sector held by Brigadier John Murray’s 20th Australian Infantry Brigade was entirely speculative, the product of Rommel’s complately mistaken belief that Tobruk possessed nothing more than a perfunctory defences. Rommel later admitted that he knew little of the scale of the defences at this time, assuming his troops would break though somewhere along the extensive perimeter. While the Brescia Division attacked in the west, Colonel Olbrich’s 5th Panzer Regiment and Lieutenant Colonel Gustav Ponath’s 8th Machine-Gun Battalion, reinforced by two companies of the 605th Anti-Tank Battalion, were ordered to assault the perimeter on the left of the El Adem road. Once Ponath’s infantry had made an opening in the wire, suppressed the defences and cleared the area of mines, Olbrich’s tanks would pour through the breach, fanning out left and right along the perimeter to roll up the Australian positions from the flank.

Half a mile from the perimeter, hidden by a localized sandstorm, 800 German troops debussed from their trucks and moved into assault positions. Then, to Ponath’s dismay the wind suddenly dropped and the sand settled, exposing his advancing infantry to the view of the waiting Australians. The Germans were clumped together rather than spread out, as if not expecting serious opposition. Their objective was the area of ground between outposts R33 and R35, which were defended by two companies of the Australian 2/17th Battalion. With clear visibility the British 25-pounders now began dropping shells in their midst while heavy machine-gun fire from the 2/17th pinned the Germans down some 400 yards forward of the Australian positions. ‘We just mowed them down,’ one Australian officer admitted to the British journalist Jan Yindrich. Ponath’s attack had come to a grinding halt. At the same time Olbrich’s tanks were hit by Bristol Blenheims flying out of Egypt, and Hurricanes from El Gubbi launched attacks on vehicles moving along the El Adem road, machine-gunning them from fifty feet. Half an hour later, the RAF strafed around a hundred Italian trucks on the Bardia road and other vehicles around Acroma.

The scale and intensity of the resistance surprised the Germans. Even Rommel admitted the attack ‘seemed to be meeting more difficulties in the open desert than I had anticipated’. Axis forces had advanced so quickly along the coast road and across the Cyrenaican desert that reconnaissance around Tobruk had been negligible. Some units had got hopelessly lost, and had taken several days to round up after Mechili had fallen. The blitzkrieg that Rommel had unleashed had one primary objective: to dislocate the British and Australian forces in Cyrenaica. If he could persuade Wavell and his generals that resistance was futile Rommel was certain he could push the British all the way back to Egypt. But the only way he could do this was to maintain a furious tempo, routinely surprising the British commanders, encircling and cutting off their troops, and sowing despondency wherever he could. The loss of confidence – perhaps even panic – would serve to defeat the British more decisively than conventional battle. But here on the El Adem road the enemy had refused to budge, even when threatened with overwhelming force. Under the hail of Australian machine-gun fire and British artillery it was clear to Ponath that, despite Rommel’s expectations of quick victory, there was going to be no easy way into Tobruk by this route. Ponath and his men were desperately exposed, reduced to digging into the sand and rock with their hands, bayonets and helmets. But the wind now rose again, lifting the dust, reducing visibility and making accurate Australian sniping impossible, although the British artillery continued its barrage. Ponath was rescued from his predicament by the arrival of Olbrich’s Panzers, advancing across the open ground towards the Australian wire.

Gunner David Boe of the South Notts Hussars found himself in an unenviable position, sitting in a recycled 44-gallon drum atop a telegraph pole just to the rear of the Australian defensive positions. Constructed by the Italians, the pole had metal rungs running up it and a ‘funk hole’ dug into the ground at its base should the artillery observer need to seek protection from incoming fire. The pole was the only place elevated enough to spot for the guns that lay hidden from enemy view in dead ground several miles back near King’s Cross. On the afternoon of 11 April Boe’s perch came into its own: ‘Up there I could see German tanks advancing supported by their infantry. I was able to direct gunfire onto them and saw some hits. But as they got closer I was forced to get down and shelter in the dugout.’

The arrival of panzers opposite their positions came as no surprise to the men of the 20th Australian Brigade. Tanks had been expected and the troops thoroughly briefed on what to do. But the sheer number of steel leviathans was enough to dent the confidence of the strongest man. At least ten medium tanks – perhaps more – were advancing in clouds of dust amid the awful, clanging percussion of their tracks and engines, punctuated by the ominous staccato beat of machine guns. The Australians possessed no effective anti-tank weapons, just rifles, Brens, bayonets and grenades, and a smattering of the puny Boys anti-tank rifles, which had little chance of stopping panzer Mark IIIs. Apart from raw courage and their determination ‘not to allow the Hun to pass’ all that the inexperienced young Australians had to call on were the guns behind them of the RHA and the weakened resource of Drew’s Tobruk Tanks.

Suddenly the German tanks halted. To his surprise, Olbrich was confronted by an anti-tank ditch. In some places along the line the ditch was only a feeble eighteen inches deep but, only able to view this obstacle from their periscopes, Olbrich and his tank commanders could not see this nor judge just how serious a threat it was. With the sheer volume of Australian fire now hitting the tanks it would have been suicide even to open a turret for a closer look, let alone reconnoitre on foot. So Olbrich turned his tanks to the right, and drove along the side of the ditch, seeking an entry point, his vehicles peppered by bullets. The Australians thought that the noise of their rounds hitting the hulls of the Panzers might alone be sufficient to demonstrate their determination not to surrender.

But Olbrich’s panzers presented a very serious threat to Tobruk’s defences. When the first of the Mark IIIs emerged out of the dust 400 yards away, Brigadier John Murray immediately called HQ 9th Division on the north side of Fort Solaro for armoured support. He told them that he faced at least ten enemy medium tanks. As part of Morshead’s plan for the defence of the perimeter Drew had two ad hoc tank squadrons available for such emergencies. If the forward defences (Red Line) defended by infantry in the Italian-built posts, the barbed-wire fence, anti-personnel mines, artillery and the anti-tank ditch was penetrated by tanks, the forward infantry were to stay put and deal with the infantry who were expected to follow. The Tobruk Tanks would deal with the enemy armour, assisted by the truck-mounted anti-tank guns of the 3rd RHA. Based along the El Adem road, the RHA were supported by the 2-pounders of the 2/3rd Australian Anti-Tank Regiment. Between them these two units boasted forty 2-pounder guns.

The 1st RTR tanks had been evenly divided between Major George Hynes’s B Squadron and Major Rea Leakey’s C Squadron. Both had a mix of five A9, A10 and A13 cruisers, together with eight light tanks, while Leakey retained the four Matilda IIs. When the call came through from the signals caravan in the 3rd Armoured Brigade (manned by the young Frank Harrison) Hynes’s squadron was closer, in the dead ground south of Pilastrino. After a busy night countering potential threats across the perimeter Leakey was leaguered near King’s Cross alongside the guns of the RHA. When it received Lieutenant Colonel Drew’s call, Hynes’s squadron at once moved off southeast, climbing over the escarpment and away from the protection of dead ground, before following the slope’s gradual decline towards the perimeter in the direction of the El Adem road. From his open turret Hynes could see nothing through the dust and haze as he neared the front line. Then, approaching the rear of R32 and R34, he suddenly saw not the reported ten Panzers but thirty. Fortunately none had yet broken through the wire, though that was clearly their intent. The only tanks that could offer an equal contest to the German Mark IIIs and IVs were his five cruisers. The squadron immediately closed down, hatches clanging shut, turrets swivelling ninety degrees to engage. They had travelled with a round ‘up the spout’ and now began to fire at Olbrich’s tanks. A short exchange took place, in which B Squadron claimed three hits and suffered none themselves. The panzers continued to travel along the ditch towards the El Adem road, probing unsuccessfully for a way through the anti-tank ditch.

While this brief fight was taking place Rea Leakey had brought C Squadron forward alongside the El Adem road. No sooner had they breasted the final escarpment than he saw ten panzers directly ahead. This was the vanguard of Olbrich’s force which, finding no way to cross further to the west, had now almost reached the El Adem road. After closing turret hatches, Leakey’s cruisers and Matildas immediately opened fire. A tank battle then ensued lasting thirty minutes. This encounter was very different from the previous battles with Italian tanks. Although the British cruisers and Matildas could shoot on the move, whilst the German tanks had to halt before firing, the panzer Mark IIIs were far better than the British cruisers. Leakey recalled:

“We opened fire on them when they were within 800 yards of us, and we were disturbed to see our 2-pounder solid shots bouncing off their armour . . . We were one side of the perimeter defences, and the Germans were the other; the Australians were in the middle, and we could hear them cheering us on. We were very relieved to see the Germans start to withdraw as already they had brewed up three of our tanks, and we had only accounted for one of theirs. It was painfully obvious that we were outgunned by those tanks.”

Hynes, whose B Squadron had now moved towards the El Adem road to join the fray with Leakey, now received a succession of hits on his tank. His driver, Trooper Knapton, was killed and the vehicle immobilized. Hynes ran to a second tank, which was also hit and put out of action. He later told an Associated Press journalist in Tobruk that German anti-tank shells seemed to slice through the British cruisers like butter. Hynes’s tank ‘continued firing, although hit four times, but when hit a fifth time, it burst into flames. The first shot hit the track, stopping the tank, but the gunner continued firing. A third shot went through the floor and a fourth through the back, but the fifth hit the ammunition racks, setting the tank alight. One man was killed and another wounded.

Unable to cross the anti-tank ditch, Olbrich reluctantly withdrew his panzers. Leakey had not seen the wrecked panzers and believed the engagement to have been very one-sided. In fact Olbrich’s 15th Panzer Regiment had left behind four casualties: a wrecked Mark III, two Italian M13 tanks and an L3 tankette. Only one had been destroyed by Leakey’s gunfire; the rest by Hynes’s squadron. 1st RTR had lost two tanks. Throughout the battle Second Lieutenant Roy Farran and his fellow Hussars, now reluctant infantrymen following the loss of their Italian M13 at Msus, manned a selection of Bren guns, Boys anti-tank rifles and pistols at Pilastrino, ready to fight off any German breakthrough.

Olbrich leaguered his regiment five miles to the south of the site of the battle, but his tanks were then bombed by a flight of Blenheims from Egypt. The withdrawal of the panzers left Ponath’s men 400 yards forward of the Australians, and they were forced to remain there under constant small arms and artillery fire until darkness gave them some respite. Furious at Olbrich’s failure to penetrate the Australian positions, Rommel turned on Streich. ‘Your panzers did not give of their best and left the infantry in the lurch!’ he bellowed. Streich blamed the anti-tank ditch, but Rommel was having none of it, accusing Olbrich and Streich of ‘irresolution’. (he would almost blamne him cowardism) That evening he confided, ‘Tobruk’s defences stretched much farther in all directions, west, east and south, than we had imagined.’

This second day of action within the Tobruk defences now drawing to a close, Leakey took his squadron back to the crossroads at Fort Pilastrino to collapse into an exhausted sleep. Respite did not last long. Within minutes the fort’s heavy anti-aircraft guns had opened up, dragging the exhausted tank men back to consciousness. Desperate calls were also now being received from the perimeter in the area of the Bardia roadblock:

“I called up the tank commanders, and gave out my orders, and then we were on the move, slowly picking our way across the rough ground in the darkness. There was nothing we could do until dawn, but we had to keep moving about as the noise of our tanks always had an adverse effect on the enemy. Once again the Australian infantry had stood firm, and the enemy withdrew, leaving a number of dead behind him.”


On the El Adem front both attackers and defenders did all they could to dominate the night action. Brigadier Murray sent fighting patrols through the wire from both of his forward battalions while Streich dispatched combat engineers to construct a crossing through the anti-tank ditch. Some of the German troops were dispersed by Australian patrols, and as the night drew on, parties of Australian troops laboured feverishly to sow mines in front of their outposts in expectation of a renewed attack by the panzers in the morning. Likewise, the darkness brought no respite to the RHA at King’s Cross. German artillery observers in light aircraft searched for the British gun positions using the flashes of the guns as they fired, while incoming rounds probed for targets and sprayed the desert with shrapnel. Axis aircraft dropped flares and bombs.

At first light on Saturday 12 April, the third day of battle, four RAF Hurricanes were sent up from El Gubbi to see just how close the Germans had managed to get to the perimeter during the night. These low-level reconnaissance flights and the strafing attacks which followed were dangerous and much disliked by the pilots. Hurricanes of No.73 Squadron had flown thirty-six sorties on Thursday 10 April and twenty-three strafing sorties on Good Friday. The Squadron’s war diary recorded that ground attacks were leading to the loss of ‘too many machines which we can ill afford’.

But for most of Saturday a sandstorm raged, preventing a second attempt to break through the perimeter, though heavy artillery fire was traded between batteries. Early in the morning Bombardier Ray Ellis was ordered into the trenches to act as an observation post assistant, feeding information on fire orders and targets back by telephone to the guns in the dead ground of the escarpment behind. Ellis could not believe that, after playing war as a child in make-believe trenches, here he was in a real trench facing the Germans of his childhood imagination. Stumbling through positions manned by grim-faced Australian infantrymen armed with Lee Enfields, seventeen-inch bayonets fixed, and strung about with grenades, Ellis eventually reached his position. Few men had slept the previous night. Those not on sentry duty had either been on fighting patrols or out sowing mines. The crackle of machine guns echoed without pause, while shells burst further to the right. He took his place on the fire step and surveyed the ground with binoculars. It was crucial that he quickly became familiar with his surroundings to call in rapid and accurate fire from the guns.


Sunday 13 April saw heavy aerial bombardment of Tobruk. Gunner S.C. Hankinson of 152 Anti-Aircraft Battery recalled that when told that they were surrounded and would have to fight to the last man, the soldiers had taken the news sombrely. Realization that the situation was extremely serious was accompanied by the heaviest air raids so far. War reporter Jan Yindrich watched the Stuka raids on the port

: . . . at 8.30 this morning about thirty black Junkers dive-bombers escorted by Messerschmidts staged the biggest raid so far of the siege. For over an hour they flew over the defences and the harbour, bombing the harbour installations and machine-gunning the troops manning the defences. I saw eight in line dive down on the harbour, drop their bombs, then wheel to the right and fly along the outer line of defence, at about fifty feet, their machine guns blazing.

‘We fired 291 rounds,’ recalled Hankinson. ‘Eleven planes were brought down – three by Hurricanes and eight by ack-ack. Our site claimed one plane.’ There were repeated Stuka raids on the vintage British hospital ships SS Vita and SS Devonshire. From his vantage point at Fort Solaro Hankinson saw the Vita ‘making her way towards the harbour – it could have been no more than three or four miles from our site. Suddenly it was dive-bombed by a number of Stukas.’ (Though there were no red crosses on the roofs of hospitals , t during the siege there would be several instances when the Geneva Convention relating to hospitals and hospital ships was deliberately flouted by the Luftwaffe.) Leonard Tutt witnessed the incident from his battery on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean at the north-east corner of the perimeter:

“From our position a curve in the coastline hid the harbour from our sight. We could see all the air activity that went on in the skies above it, but had to guess what success the Stukas were having by the amount of smoke and the volume of noise generated by their attack. . . . a white-painted hospital ship came around the headland at our feet. She was hugging the coast and so close that we could have thrown a stone at her. She was plastered with red crosses from stem to stern and there was no possibility that she could have been mistaken for anything other than what she was. As she twisted and turned the planes harried her unmercifully. We could see the bombs discharged and begin their wobbling flight before straightening out and screaming down at their target. At times the ship was completely hidden from our view by the giant geysers of water thrown up by the near-misses.”

The Stuka was a fearsome weapon. Leonard Tutt described coming under attack: “They were stub-winged, almost ungainly in appearance. They looked rather slow-moving in flight until they went into their dive. They came down like a stone, holding their course until it appeared that they were going to dash themselves to pieces on their target, then they would pull out of it with such suddenness that you felt their wings would be torn away. Under attack, one seemed to have been chosen as their sole target. You could see the bombs leave their racks, wobble hesitantly then straighten up as they gained the velocity. We were encouraged to fire at them with our rifles; I think this was solely to help us with our morale. I saw a Stuka that had been brought down by a Bofors team and the area around the pilot was as armoured as a light tank. No rifle bullet could have penetrated it.”


It was on the late afternoon of Easter Sunday – 13 April – that Streich launched his second attempt to break through the defences along the El Adem road. Swirling dust had enveloped the whole area during the morning, a leftover from the storm of the previous day. Though visibility had been poor it was sufficient to enable both the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica to launch attacks against the southern perimeter all morning. But it was the heavy artillery bombardment late in the afternoon which was to give away German intentions. Manning the anti-aircraft guns at Fort Solaro, Gunner Hankinson recorded in his diary, ‘We can now see our own field artillery firing on the horizon. We can also see quite a few air bursts close to the ground about four miles south of our site. We assume these are made by German 88s in action against our ground troops.’

Hankinson was right. Under the cover of direct fire from the 88-millimetre guns of Hetch’s 18th Anti-Aircraft Regiment, one infantry battalion and two panzer battalions of 5th Panzer Regiment, together with the divisional combat engineer battalion, moved forward. To the west the Brescia Division artillery bombarded the defenders, leaving Morshead worried by the threat of a multiple breach. Obscured by sand, Ponath’s infantry led the way, in an attempt to create a passage across the anti-tank ditch for the massed panzers waiting half a mile to the rear. It was a dangerous assignment for the exhausted German infantry, most of whom had now been in continuous action for more than two weeks. Learning a costly lesson from the attacks two days before, the Germans moved forward differently this time, advancing not in extended line but in small groups covered by machine-gun fire from their Spandaus. Crouching with Captain Charlie Bennett of the South Notts Hussars and Major Loder-Symonds of 1st RHA in the trench that also served as artillery OP, Bombardier Ray Ellis knew that a desperate struggle lay ahead:

“I could see the black crosses on the German tanks as they came thundering across the rocky terrain in a headlong assault with all their guns blazing. It was a terrifying sight, and as we put down fire among them we could see that the infantry were following up close behind. I saw men moving, running in little bursts from one piece of cover to another, and I could hardly believe that I was actually standing there, under shellfire, watching the German infantry advancing towards me.”

As the Germans reached the wire, the young Australian soldiers of the 2/17th Battalion, with a calm precision belying the fact that most of them had been civilians only months before, opened fire with machine guns and rifles. If the German tanks did manage to get through the wire and cross the ditch, the Australian infantry were instructed to allow them to pass through. They were not to panic or run but remain where they were and engage the enemy infantry following behind.

Though the perimeter was relatively well protected with mines and newly strung wire, it had not been possible to remove the tons of drifting sand which daily filled up more of the Italian-built anti-tank trench. Following reconnaissance conducted by his divisional engineers on the night of 11/12 April Streich now knew that the ditch presented no significant obstacle to the panzers. Nevertheless Ponath’s infantry was finding it difficult – if not impossible – to penetrate the Australian defences unaided. Unsupported by tanks the first infantry attack had failed. It was during this attack on the afternoon of 13 April that Corporal Jack Edmondson won a posthumous Victoria Cross, the first awarded to the 2nd AIF. A sergeant in R33 recalled that a party of Germans had made it into the anti-tank ditch. The Australians had difficulty engaging the group with fire . . .

“So our patrol commander Lieutenant Mackell led a fighting patrol which drove them back at the bayonet. He took with him Corporal Edmondson and five others. They charged the enemy in the face of heavy machine-gun fire and Edmondson was mortally wounded but he kept on and bayoneted two Germans and then saved Mr Mackell’s life by bayoneting two more who had Mr Mackell at their mercy.”

A bloody hand-to-hand stabbing contest ensued, in which the Australians demonstrated a fighting fury that took the Germans entirely by surprise.

The twenty-three-year-old Lieutenant Austin Mackell later described Edmondson’s gallantry to the journalist Chester Wilmot: “Jack Edmondson had been seriously wounded by a burst from a machine gun that had got him in the stomach, and he’d also been hit in the neck. Still he ran on, and before the Germans could open up again we were into them. They left their guns and scattered. In their panic some actually ran slap into the barbed wire behind them and another party that was coming through the gap turned and fled. We went for them with the bayonet. In spite of his wounds Edmondson was magnificent. By this time I was in difficulties wrestling with one German on the ground while another was coming straight at me with a pistol. I called out – ‘Jack’ – and from fifteen yards away Edmondson ran to help me and bayoneted both Germans. He then went on and bayoneted at least two more.”

Edmondson was carried back to R33, where he died shortly afterwards. Left in command of the outpost when the patrol went forward into the anti-tank ditch, the platoon sergeant was certain that Lieutenant Mackell’s aggression had made a decisive impact on the Germans. Those enemy who escaped were driven back through the wire. But for this they would probably have surrounded our post and with their superior numbers made a wide gap in our defences. As it was they didn’t make another push for several hours.

Mackell, back in his post, telephoned Major John Balfe, his Company Commander, to report ‘We’ve been into them, and they’re running . . .’ At about half past five in the afternoon a new attack was launched, and a party of Ponath’s men managed to establish themselves behind R33 as the German combat engineers struggled to prepare a crossing area for the waiting tanks. Bitter hand-to-hand fighting took place right across the perimeter that night. Lance Corporal Maccles, who only six months before had been a commercial traveller in Sydney, was informed at 10.30 p.m. that about forty Germans remained inside the wire. On his own initiative he decided to remove them. ‘I took six men, in order not to weaken the post too much, and we crawled out ofour post,’ he told war correspondent Jan Yindrich:

"As we were under machine-gun fire all the time, we went at the double, then lay down. The enemy were about a hundred yards away . . . Our people behind were blazing away over our heads, to give us cover. Then we tore into Germans with bayonets. I got the shock of my life, because not one of them wanted to fight . . . I bayoneted four Germans, but my bayonet stuck in the fifth. He was the only bloke that showed any fight, because he grabbed my rifle and pulled me down on top of him. Another Jerry was coming up behind me, but my corporal finished him off. He undoubtedly saved my life. I bashed several other Germans over the head with the butt of my rifle until it broke. Then I picked up a stone. Thinking it was a hand grenade, the remaining Jerries grovelled . . . I must have killed about twelve Germans.

Illuminated by the flash of explosions, isolated struggles continued throughout the night along the perimeter defences, with German troops developing a new-found fear – and respect – for the Australians. But the Australian infantry could not prevent exploitation of the gap by Olbrich’s armour. At 5 a.m. on Easter Monday he ordered his two panzer battalions through the breach in the wire and into the fortress. As the tanks made their way over the half-filled anti-tank ditch Bombardier Ellis laid his guns closer and closer, until fire was falling on his own trench. ‘I was never to witness such a situation ever again,’ he recalled ‘. . . where an OP party brought down fire upon themselves.’

Back on the gun lines at King’s Cross, Gunner David Tickle could hear Captain Bennett’s orders coming over the radio: ‘“Target me!” We thought, crikey, what’s happening? He kept shouting “Target me!” Then it dawned on us what had happened.’ The guns scored several direct hits on the tanks, but on they came, mincing the barbed wire behind them and driving through the forward trenches. The German infantry followed into the maelstrom of rifle, machine-gun and artillery fire.

When the first German tanks burst across the ditch to advance up towards his outpost the Australian sergeant in R33 recalled that his men did precisely what they had been ordered to do. With the darkness illuminated only by the moon and the white flashes of explosions

“. . . we sat tight and watched them go by, as we had been told not to attract attention by firing on them. But it wasn’t a very encouraging sight. We had no communication with our other posts and we didn’t know if we had been overrun. But we’d been told to stick there and we did. About forty tanks went through and then we came up and engaged the German infantry and gunners who were trying to bring their guns through the gap. These were easy meat. We shot up their crews before they could get into action, and every time the infantry tried to get through the gap we drove them back with Bren guns and rifles. After the tanks went through no guns and no infantry got past us.”

Busy directing his guns over the telephone, yelling over the noise, worried that a shell might break the telephone cabling that ran back to the guns at King’s Cross, Ray Ellis had no time to get involved in the fight. He was an island in the midst of a storm – calm and untouched as the desperate battle unfolded. Rifles fired, grenades exploded and bayonets stabbed. Men screamed and shouted, the concussive whumph-whumph-whumph of nearby British and German artillery shells exploding an ever-present sensation. Ellis remembered: ‘Over to our right we could see men fighting desperately, hand-to-hand, with bayonets, and it was altogether a heart-stopping experience.’

Olbrich’s panzers were now well past the perimeter, and Ellis found himself also calling down artillery fire behind him. Gunner David Boe recalled the ‘fearsome moment when we heard the tanks rumbling over the roof’’ of his foxhole as they moved up the gradual incline of the slope. But the darkness proved a serious handicap for the tanks. Once through the wire they could see nothing and there was a considerable risk of losing individual tanks to enemy action in the dark. The two tank battalions of 5th Panzer Regiment therefore adopted a cautious approach, electing to leaguer together and wait out the couple of hours that remained before daybreak in a wadi half a mile behind the perimeter. This was a terrible mistake as at a stroke it negated the German success in breaching the perimeter, and handed back the initiative to the defenders. If Olbrich’s tanks had continued through to the town the shock of finding scores of tanks behind and among them would undoubtedly have seriously – possibly decisively – shaken the defenders, especially if the port had been reached.


But the situation for Morshead and the defenders of Tobruk was still extremely serious. German tanks were inside the perimeter, and Rommel felt sufficiently encouraged to believe that the end of the siege was in sight. That night he scribbled some quick lines to his wife Lucie:

"Dearest Lu Today may well see the end of the Battle of Tobruk. The British were very stubborn and had a great deal of artillery. However, we’ll bring it off. The bulk of my force is now out of the desert after a fortnight of it. The lads stuck it magnificently and came through the battle, both with the enemy and nature, very well. "

It was at 1.30 a.m. the next morning (Easter Monday, 14 April) that the exhausted Lt. Rea Leakey, leaguered with his tanks near Fort Pilastrino, was woken from a fitful sleep and called to his cruiser. Clasping the radio headset to his ears, he heard Lieutenant Colonel Henry Drew telling him that Germans had breached the Australian perimeter to the west of the El Adem road. He was to take his squadron east immediately and guard the heights of the escarpment where it dropped down into the wide plateau on which stood the gun lines and – further back – El Gubbi airfield.

Things were now critical. If the panzers took the heights there would be nothing to stop them overrunning the gun positions and making their way into Tobruk, splitting the defences and seizing the port. There had been hardly a moment’s respite since the siege had begun four days before and the strain was now affecting officers and soldiers alike. Ordering his men to mount up, Leakey found himself confronted by a commander’s nightmare; a junior officer showing signs of cracking:

“He was very young and had not been long with the regiment. I had noticed that, like quite a number of the tank commanders, he was beginning to feel the strain. All might have been well if we could have given each man a day off, but we had no men to spare, and on this occasion one tank could not go into action as it had no tank commander. I grabbed the young officer and pulled him aside; he was shivering and whimpering like a child. I tried to calm him down, and told him that as an officer he must set an example to the men. But he went on repeating, ‘I can’t go into this action because I know I will be killed.’ Time was slipping by, and I knew only too well the effect on the men if this officer did not go into action; they were just as tired and frightened. I gave him a drink of neat rum, but it had little effect. I tried being kind and gentle to him, but this made him worse. It was a most unpleasant incident, and I knew I had to settle it there and then. I tried the last resort, and it worked. I drew my revolver, cocked it and pointed it at his temple. ‘All right,’ I said in a very stern voice. ‘Either you get into your tank or I shoot you for cowardice in the face of the enemy.’ He turned and went back to his tank, and I heard him giving his orders. Even after all these years I have nightmares connected with this incident.”

It proved an extremely demanding night for Leakey’s squadron, and the young officer, together with his crew, did indeed die when his cruiser received a direct hit and was engulfed in flames. It took several hours for the squadron to reach the road leading up the third escarpment, which then fell away to the perimeter. They did not arrive until dawn, by which time the battles on land and in the air had reached a crescendo.

As Leakey reached King’s Cross a mechanical scream above made him jerk his head skywards to see what he thought would be his last view on earth. A stricken Hurricane – smoke blackening its silver frame – was hurtling down, the pilot clearly dead. It appeared to be falling directly onto his tank but Leakey had no time to order avoiding action. The plane missed the cruiser by a mere six feet, the impact and explosion bouncing his twenty-ton vehicle like a rubber ball. The aircraft had been piloted by Sergeant Pilot H.G. Webster of No.73 Squadron. Webster and Flying Officer George Goodman had been flying two of the eight serviceable Hurricanes at El Gubbi and had already completed an early-morning patrol over the perimeter, shooting down a German Henschel. Shortly after returning to El Gubbi, Webster was ordered to join another patrol of four aircraft and attack a group of Stukas bombing the harbour. Two Germans were promptly shot down, but while attacking a third Stuka from the rear Webster was himself engaged by two Italian Fiat G50s, a fast all-metal Italian fighter. He died in his cockpit.

Leakey’s intense shock was overcome by someone yelling to his right, ‘For goodness’ sake, turn right and come to our help! My battery’s being attacked by enemy tanks and guns are being overrun. Look! They’re only 500 yards away.’ In the half-light of morning Leakey turned to see some forty Panzers advancing towards the gun lines from the escarpment.

As dawn permeated the inky blackness, Olbrich had ordered his tanks forward in the direction of King’s Cross. As they began their advance they came under attack to their left from the truck-mounted 2-pounders of 3rd RHA. Ignoring these bee stings the tanks drove on, the growl and clatter of their approach providing due warning to the gun batteries lined up on the desert floor ahead. Leakey’s tanks had arrived in the middle of what would otherwise have been an unequal battle. The RHA’s 25-pounders had fired first, immediately destroying two panzers, but within minutes the guns themselves were under heavy tank fire. Sergeant Major Reg Batten, commanding one of the 1st RHA guns, recalled that with machine guns and the German tank cannon ‘the air was lit with tracer shells and bullets until it looked like Blackpool illuminations’.

Lance Sergeant Harold Harper and Lieutenant Ivor Birkin of D Troop, 426 Battery saw the tanks come over the escarpment. ‘The firing was almost incessant,’ recalled Harper. ‘It was rather like going to a cup tie – when you knocked a tank out everybody cheered.’ In the absence of armour-piercing ammunition Batten’s crew was forced to fire high-explosive shells at the oncoming tanks. He saw his first shell fall short, and then the sparks on the panzer as the second shell struck home. Then, just as they were about to fire again, ‘a 75-millimetre shell hit us square on the shield. The gun was knocked out and all the crew, except myself, were either killed or wounded.’

By the time Leakey arrived the panzers were almost on the gun lines. There was not a moment to lose:

“We swung right into battle line. I handed Milligan his cigarette and told him to start shooting. There was no need for me to indicate the shot to him. ‘Loaded!’ yelled Adams, and away went another solid shot, tearing at the thick enemy armour. The fumes of burning cordite made us cough, and our eyes water, and soon the turret was so thick with smoke I could only just make out the figure of Adams as he loaded shell after shell into the breach.”

Closed down in their panzers, edging forward through the smoke and dust into the glare of the morning sun, it took some time for the Germans to realize they were being attacked by tanks. One by one panzers erupted into smoke and flame and a number turned tail. Sergeant Major Batten managed to fire the round in his 25-pounder and was relieved to see the enemy tanks withdraw, as there was now almost nothing to hinder the panzers’ continued advance. However, the Germans were now in some disorder, as tanks of the 2nd Panzer Battalion became entangled with those of the 1st, which had been paralleling their advance to the right. As these tanks moved south, they were struck in the flank by the wheeled 2-pounders of the Australian 2/3rd Anti-Tank Battalion, firing from their positions on the east side of the El Adem road. Lieutenant Joachim Schorm recounted the confusion that resulted from the combination of heavy 25-pounder fire and armoured counterattack:

‘Now we come slap into 1 Battalion which is following us. Some of our panzers are already on fire. The crews call for doctors who dismount to help in this witches’ cauldron. Enemy anti-tank units fall on us with their machine guns firing into our midst.’

But the Australian and British success had not come without loss. By the time the battle had turned in Leakey’s favour, only three cruisers remained from the ten that had set out early that morning. Through his cupola periscope he saw one of his tanks explode, and the crew bail out. A seriously injured crewman was dragging himself along the ground, machine-gun bullets kicking up sand around him. Leakey immediately ordered his tank to turn left, to screen the wounded soldier. He would later admit it was a stupid move, as it turned the cruiser flank-side on to the German guns. They had his range, and shells began to find their mark. His tank stalled and began burning:

‘She’s on fire, sir,’ shouted Adams, but he went on loading shells. At the same moment Milligan’s head fell back against my knees, and looking down I saw that a shell had pierced the armour and removed most of his chest. He was dead.

‘Bail out,’ I yelled, and as I pulled myself out of the turret what few shells we had left started exploding, and the flames were already licking at my feet. I saw Adams get out safely, and we dashed round to the front of the tank to check up on the others. As we got round, the driver flopped out of his hatch, and Adams grabbed him and helped him back. I opened up the first sub-turret gunner’s hatch and looked in, but I knew what I should see, as there was a neat hole through the armour where the gunner’s head should be. He was dead, and already his clothing was burning fiercely. The second sub-turret gunner was lying gravely wounded by the side of the tank, his right leg attached only by a small piece of skin. He was a big lad, and how he got out of his small hatch unaided and with only one leg has always remained a mystery to me. We were being machine-gunned. Somehow I got him over my shoulder and carried him back to where I found a shallow trench. The other two were there, and we laid him down, but he straightened up, looked at his leg, and said, ‘Cut it off sir, it’s no use to me.’ I did so, and he then lay back smiling. At that moment up drove an ambulance driven by a large Australian. Within a few minutes this lad was in a Tobruk hospital."

The combination of tank, anti-tank and direct-fire artillery – and Olbrich’s excessive caution, which had led him to wait in the wadi until daylight – had frustrated Rommel’s armoured assault into the heart of the fortress. Some eighteen panzers had been destroyed or immobilized and the remainder, perhaps twenty-one vehicles, forced to retreat. Two of the RHA 25-pounder guns had been knocked out, along with two of its five truck-mounted 2-pounders. While this action was taking place the two Fiat G50s that had accounted for Sergeant Webster (one of which was piloted by the famous pre-war Italian acrobatic pilot Carlo Cugnasca) were themselves shot down by a Canadian member of No.73 Squadron, Flight Lieutenant James ‘Smudger’ Smith. Both Italian aircraft crashed close to Webster, on the El Adem road. Lieutenant Joachim Schorm recorded later in his diary, ‘Above us Italian fighter planes come into the fray. Two of them crash in our midst.’ Smith was also shot down and killed that day.

As Olbrich’s two panzer battalions fought it out with the guns of the Royal Horse Artillery forward of King’s Cross, Morshead had ordered counter-attacks against the German infantry and combat engineers who held the breach forward ofR33 and R35. The Australians of the 2/17th reserve together with a further battalion – the 2/15th -mounted clearance and counter-attack sorties across the entire area of the breach, long sweeps of infantry clearing the ground with bayonet and grenade. They were joined by the cruiser and light tanks of Major Hynes’s B Squadron of Tobruk Tanks. Meanwhile, gun batteries not engaging Olbrich’s panzers over open sights continued to fire in support of the perimeter defences.

Olbrich’s panzers now found themselves in headlong retreat, jostling to find the gap in the wire which they had confidently entered three hours before. The opposition inside the perimeter was overwhelming, and Olbrich determined to save what tanks he could. The withdrawing vehicles now headed towards the position along the perimeter where Bombardier Ellis’s small OP was located. It was a terrifying experience:

"It is impossible to describe what it feels like to have a huge tank crunching its way towards you, and to be within feet of these menacing steel tracks, which could so easily grind you into the ground, and that is to say nothing of their machine guns spitting bullets in all directions. It was a great relief when they had lurched over our trenches and were making their way back into their own lines with our shells bursting among them.

Into the traffic jam of enemy tanks and infantry scrambling back through the gap in the wire. ‘We fired everything we had,’ recalled one Australian sergeant, ‘and the Jerries got their worst hiding they’d had to that time.’ For German lieutenant Joachim Schorm, the experience was shocking:

"My driver says, The engines are no longer running properly, brakes not acting, transmission only with difficulty . . .’ but the lane is in sight. Everyone hurries towards it. Enemy anti-tank guns shoot into the mass. Our own anti-tank guns and 88s are almost deserted, the crews lying silent beside them . . . now comes the gap and the ditch . . . the vehicle almost gets stuck but manages to extricate itself with great difficulty. With their last reserves of energy the crew gets out of range and returns to camp.

For Schorm, a veteran of both Poland and France, El Adem was ‘the bitterest battle of the whole war’. He was to be awarded the Iron Cross by Rommel for his actions that day.

Early that same morning Lieutenant Heinz Schmidt had been ordered by Rommel to accompany Streich into battle in a second attempt to breach the perimeter. Streich had been commanded by Rommel to conduct the attack ‘with the utmost resolution under your personal leadership’, but the Desert Fox was not convinced his subordinate possessed the determination to retake the initiative and confided to his diary that ‘the 5th Light Division had lost confidence in itself and was unwarrantedly pessimistic about my plan to open our main attack on the 14th’. Perhaps he believed Schmidt’s presence would encourage Streich to follow his orders. Unembarrassed by his task, Schmidt travelled with Streich up the El Adem road towards Tobruk before dawn on the morning of 14 April. The intention was for Streich to follow Olbrich’s panzer spearhead into Tobruk and take command of the battle that would ensue. Together with the operational staff of the 5th Light Division, Schmidt travelled in Streich’s Mammoth, one of the British Dorchester command vehicles captured at Mechili five days before. Streich wanted to stay on the road until forced to turn left through the gap and into Tobruk, but Schmidt was concerned lest they went too far and became entangled with the perimeter defences. Schmidt recalled what happened next:

“Before we realized what was happening we found ourselves in a real hubbub. Shell bursts, anti-tank missiles whizzing by and the rat-tat-tat of machine guns left us in no doubt that we had made a sudden appearance under the noses of the enemy. With lightning speed we leapt from the car and dived for protection behind the panzer. We clutched at it, hauling our legs up to avoid the burst of machine-gun bullets which were splashing knee-high against the caterpillars of the tank.”

Dodging bullets in the half-light of morning they managed to make their escape back to the safety of a group of panzers. The poor light had saved their lives. Streich’s attempt to follow Olbrich through the gap had failed before it had begun, with the Australian perimeter positions aggressively defending their line. As morning dawned, they learned that Olbrich’s attack had failed and a large number of Ponath’s 8th Machine Gun Infantry Battalion had been lost. Making their way back to Rommel’s position, Streich and Olbrich reported the sorry news at 9 a.m. Rommel was incandescent, ordering Streich to rescue Ponath’s infantry. ‘With what?’ Streich is reported to have replied who was probably fed up Rommel’s over confidence and arrogant reckless way of command. Rommel promised that Italian Ariete Armoured Division would be available to assist in a further attack that afternoon.


Once the final panzers had made good their escape through the perimeter that morning, Bombardier Ray Ellis was replaced in the forward trenches by a relief OP team and returned to the gun line at King’s Cross. But there was to be no rest, as the artillery continued to ensure that the Germans did not regroup for any further attempts on the perimeter. By this stage trucks of the Royal Army Service Corps were delivering ammunition directly to the guns, offloading in the face of the constant counter-battery fire aimed at the gun lines by Axis artillery far out in the desert. After four days of constant action, exhaustion was setting in.

“We were all absolutely worn out, not having slept for several days and nights. Food was snatched when it was possible and towards the end of the battle I remember someone handing round a bottle of whisky from which we all took long stinging gulps of the raw liquid. Our faces were masks of sweat and sand with little red slits which served for eyes. We staggered around the guns like robots, laying, loading and firing without proper conscious thought of what we were doing.”

Mopping-up continued between King’s Cross and the perimeter all morning. Major Robert Daniell recalled the ease with which the few remaining German tanks and infantry inside the perimeter now gave themselves up:

“One of their new Mark IV tanks had meandered across the waste land inside the perimeter early in the afternoon. As it approached our regimental headquarters, one of the driving tracks just broke. The young crew jumped out, dismayed beyond words, for they were all alone; there was no fight left in them. I walked over to them, directing them towards the rear, where no doubt someone would pick them up.”

Forward of the perimeter the remaining German infantry in the anti-tank ditch were being dealt with. Rea Leakey dispatched a light tank under the command of Corporal Hulme to assist the Australians in clearing a long section of the ditch in which a number of men from Ponath’s machine-gun battalion had taken shelter. Hulme positioned his tank so that he could fire down the length of the ditch. One long burst was sufficient to persuade the Germans to surrender. Bayonets fixed, Australian infantry advanced in a line to marshal the prisoners to the rear and Hulme judged it safe to open the turret of his tank. When he did so a German shot him in the chest with a sub-machine gun. Leakey noted that the ‘soldier paid the penalty for his treachery’: ‘He had evidently not noticed the Australians coming up; they saw his action, and they saw red. "The German let out a squeal like a pig as three long Australian bayonets squelched into his stomach.’

The young Australians were in no mood for German recalcitrance. David Boe witnessed the death of a German officer. In the fury, fear and adrenalin of the battlefield a young lieutenant was shouting in perfect English, ‘I am an officer of the great German Reich – you will never win this war.’ This was too much for his captor who, having survived the battle and witnessed the death of Corporal Hulme, required simple acquiescence. He promptly shot the German dead. There were more incidents that day. Robert Daniell went forward with the chaplain to give succour to the German wounded in the anti-tank ditch.

“We found that the anti-tank ditch, which was about nine feet deep, was absolutely crammed with German wounded who had crawled in there from the vehicles that our shells had set on fire. They were lying in the ditch. We started giving them water but while the doctor was attending one of the soldiers who was badly wounded, I saw a German rise up on his feet and have a shot at him with a revolver. I shouted to the doctor and the Reverend Parry to withdraw.” Australians shot the German on the spot.

Rea Leakey 1st RTR

Rea Leakey , 1st Royal Tank Regiment

When Rommel returned to Streich’s HQ at noon on 14 April to examine plans for a further attack, he discovered that nothing had been done due to continuing heavy British artillery fire. With the greatest reluctance he called off the assault. Inside the wire the whole area had been scoured of German stragglers and work begun to restore the perimeter defences. It was a devastating defeat for what in truth had been an over-optimistic and overconfident assault made by severe misjudgement of Rommel. Olbrich complained that faulty information had caused the reverse, recording that he had been told that ‘the enemy was about to withdraw, his artillery was weak and his morale had become low’. In addition to the loss of 45 per cent of Olbrich’s panzers Lieutenant Colonel Ponath had been killed in the infantry melee (his body was never identified or recovered). Of the 1,500 men of the 8th Machine-Gun Battalion who had begun the operation, only 300 remained. At least 150 had been killed. Many of the wounded found themselves in British hands, as did at least 250 other prisoners of war, who were unceremoniously bundled into the POW cage at King’s Cross. One German survivor was surprised to escape the ambush inside the perimeter, considering the battle to have been ‘the most severely fought of the war. The survivors call this day “Hell of Tobruk” . . . Thirty-eight tanks went into action; eighteen were knocked out and many more were put temporarily out of action.’ By nightfall German artillery and aerial attacks had petered out, signalling the end of Rommel’s first serious attempt to break into Tobruk. The defenders lost 26 killed and 74 wounded.

Siege of Tobruk POWs

German POWs captured by Australians

The final action of the evening on the perimeter at the El Adem road cemented the relationship between the Australians and the British. Captain Bob Hingston watched two hopelessly lost German staff cars stop at the perimeter wire: Colin Barber engaged them very correctly in best Larkhill fashion with ranging rounds of gunfire. He did it brilliantly. The two cars were standing together not very far outside our perimeter defences when he landed a round of gunfire right on them and they both burst into flames , all of their occupants killed. It was most spectacular because it was dusk and the sight of these flames shooting up – there were a number of Australians around us and they were cheering wildly at this. One of them rushed up and smote me heavily on the shoulder and said, ‘You’re the best bloody battery in the British army!’ It was very good for morale! The defenders knew they had done well. At least one German prisoner, a doctor, agreed. ‘In Poland, France and Belgium,’ he remarked, ‘once the panzers got through, enemy soldiers took it for granted that they were beaten. But you were like demons. The tanks break through and your infantry still keep fighting.’ As the men of the AIF could rightly riposte, this was not that surprising. The Germans were now fighting Diggers, who when faced by panzers stood and fought. ‘Well done, TOBRUK!’ trumpeted Lavarack’s order of the day. His men had brought to at least a temporary halt the embarrassing success of Rommel’s intervention in Africa. As night fell in the trenches, gun lines and tank parks, men fell into exhausted sleep, the barrels of their guns cooling in the night air.