Australians at Tobruk?

Hi, in your recent episode WW2 - 105 - August 29, 1941, you mentioned the Australians were replaced at Tobruk by the Polish and Czechoslovakian troops. What happened to the Australians and why were they replaced? Was the relationship between the British & the Australian governments strained?


Don’t quote me here, but I believe they were transferred to Greece for the campaign there… I might think if that’s the case then it wouldn’t create any strains for them to basically rotate out Australian troops OUT of a siege position for some much needed and deserved rest and recuperation if my memory serves me. Thanks


I might be able to help out on this one.

The majority of the Australian 9th Division (excepting the majority of the 2/13th Battalion and parts of the 2/15th) were pulled out of Tobruk because they had been on the line for an extended period and were desperately in need of time off the line. Major General Roy Burston the Director of Medical Services in the 2nd AIF told Thomas Blamey commander of the 2nd AIF that the 9th division was too physically unwell (predominantly underweight) to stand up to a determined push on their positions, he assessed this by medical checks on 9th division men when they arrived from Tobruk to enjoy the entertainment in Cairo.

With the 9th Division being deemed unwell, Blamey put the pressure on Auchinleck to have them put on rear duties and then to re-join the other elements of the AIF who were reforming after the battles in Syria and Greece. He had the backing of the Australian government led by Robert Menzies and latter Arthur Fadden (John Curtin had yet to become PM) who in turn put the pressure on the British government.

British command was not opposed to the relief in theory as the Australian government had the right to have its forces in the AIF fighting alongside one another, much like they did in WWI with the Australian Corps. This matter was enshrined in the formation of the 2nd AIF where it was stated that Australian troops should not be detached away from Australian command. The Australian governments support for the Greek campaign undermined this principle as some troops were sent to Greece and also to Syria and when Blamey was focused on Greece AIF detachments on British orders undertook duties in other parts of the middle east without his knowledge. Since the end of the Greek campaign, Blamey had put his effort in getting the dispersed AIF forces back under Australian command, British Command in the Middle east was understanding of this to an extent as they had taken steps to return Australian troops in Cyprus to Blamey and he was undertaking efforts to get the troops in Syria returned to his command.

The matter of British opposition in part was practicality in moving the division, which could only be done on moonless nights as the Royal Navy wanted to limit casualties by not moving troops openly. The few Australians who remained in Tobruk had to stay, when their assigned ships were attacked and had to abandon the attempt. The other part of British opposition was their own preparations for Operation Crusader the relief of the Tobruk garrison was perceived to use up resources earmarked for Crusader and with the RAF and RN concentrated on other tasks including the regular resupply of Tobruk they did not want to increase their workload. Auchinleck while sympathetic to the Australian argument wanted to keep the 9th in position due to them knowing the terrain. Churchill also wanted them to remain in position due to his urging for a desert offensive seeing a movement of the troops as unnecessary, he tried to get the Australian government to reconsider its stance by reminding them of the great prestige Australia would have for having heroically held Tobruk until its relief, thankfully Fadden and the Australian Government did not fall for such emotive tactics.

Churchill defeated, acquiesced to the movement of the 9th division. In part because he was concerned the issue would create the idea that Britain was too reliant on dominion forces to perform successful combat duties which would look bad in both the Australian and world public opinion. Auchinleck did offer to resign feeling he did not have the backing of the Australian government who in listening to their own officers on the deployment of the AIF undermined his command. This resignation did not transpire.

Because of the usage of diplomatic pressure for the issue I would argue it did cause some strain between the Australian and British Governments but not the extent of the pre-war Bodyline dispute over cricket or the heated dispute between John Curtin and Winston Churchill over the placement of the AIF in the Pacific War. The events were militarily inconvenient for the British who were preparing for Crusader however the Australians were within their right to have their forces together a principle the British accepted when the 2nd AIF entered the theatre of operations. The official histories of Australia during the Second World War (my predominant source for this) argued that the issue of British and Australian officers giving differing recommendations to their own governments could have been mitigated if Australia had representation on the British War cabinet or the Defence Committee in London. The main issue afterwards was restructuring the order of battle and chain of command for the forces still in Tobruk as well as those that were sailed in to replace the Australians. The 9th division forces that left Tobruk were put on garrison duty in the Levant until they were needed for 1st El Alamein.

If I have got anything wrong or overlooked anything can someone please let me know.