Operation Capture of Tobruk (ii)

The 'Capture of Tobruk' (ii), also known as the 'Fall of Tobruk' and the '2nd Battle of Tobruk', from South African and British forces by German and Italian forces was part of the 'Campaign for the Western Desert' (17/21 June 1942).

The battle was fought by General Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee 'Afrika', known to the Italians as the Armata Corazzata Africa, which was a German and Italian military formation including General Walter Nehring’s Deutsches Afrika Korps, against Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie’s British 8th Army, which comprised contingents from the UK, India, South Africa and other Allied nations.

Axis forces had besieged Tobruk for eight months in 1941 before its defenders, who had become an emblem of resistance, were relieved in December. General Sir Claude Auchinleck, heading the Middle East Command, had decided not to defend Tobruk for a second time as the first defence had been costly in ships and men delivering supplies by sea. Moreover, Tobruk’s minefields and barbed wire had been stripped for use in the 'Gazala Line' farther to the west. By the middle of 1942 Air Vice Marshal A. Coningham’s Western Desert Air Force had been forced to move to airfields in Egypt, taking most of its aircraft beyond the range of Tobruk. About one-third of all garrison personnel were non-combatant or support troops, and many of the fighting troops were inexperienced. Lieutenant General W. H. E. Gott, commander of the British XIII Corps, was withdrawn from Tobruk, and on 15 June, just days before the Axis attack, the new commander of the South African 2nd Division, Major General H. K. Klopper, was given command of the garrison. An immense stock of supplies had been accumulated around the port for the planned 'Acrobat', but the Axis forces had forestalled this undertaking with their own 'Venezia', and the 'Battle of Gazala' began on 26 May.

The 8th Army was defeated in the 'Battle of Gazala' and driven eastward in the direction of the Egyptian border, leaving Tobruk isolated. Prime Minister Winston Churchill placed great store on the symbolic value of Tobruk, and an exchange of ambiguous signals between Churchill and Auchinleck led to the garrison being surrounded rather than being evacuated as Auchinleck had intended. On 20 June the attack of the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' on Tobruk began with massed air support, penetrated a weak spot on the eastern defensive perimeter and captured the port. Much of the garrison on the western perimeter had not been attacked but was cut off from its supplies and transport, and without the means to escape from Tobruk the majority of the Allied forces had to surrender, some 33,000 men being taken prisoner.

The surrender was the second largest capitulation by the British army in the war, exceeded only by the fall of Singapore in February 1942. The loss of Tobruk came as a severe blow to the British leadership and precipitated a political crisis in the UK. However, the event helped to expedite the US despatch of supplies and equipment to the Middle East. Rommel persuaded the Axis commanders that the supplies captured at Tobruk and the disorganised state of the British forces would enable the Axis easily to occupy Egypt and the Suez Canal, so 'Herkules', the planned Axis airborne and amphibious invasion of the island of Malta, was postponed and the Axis air forces instead supported the pursuit into Egypt, in which the Axis land forces suffered severe supply constraints as the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' receded from its bases, and the Axis advance was halted in the '1st Battle of El Alamein' in July 1942.

A British court of inquiry later in the year exonerated Klopper and ascribed the defeat to failures in the British high command. Only seven copies of the verdict were circulated, one being transmitted to Field Marshal Jan Smuts, the prime minister of South Africa, on 2 October. The findings were kept secret until after the war, and this did little to rehabilitate the reputation of Klopper or his troops.

The small port of Tobruk in Italian Cyrenaica had been fortified by the Italians since 1935. Behind two old outlying forts, the Italians built a novel fortification comprising a double line of concrete-lined trenches 34 miles (54 km) long, connecting 128 weapons pits protected by concealed anti-tank ditches, but it should be noted that the fortifications lacked overhead protection and that there was no defence in depth. Tobruk had been captured by Australian forces in January 1941 during 'Compass', the first major Allied military operation of the 'Campaign for the Western Desert'. Following the arrival of the Deutsches Afrika Korps in 'Sonnenblume' during March, Axis forces retook much of the lost territory in Cyrenaica, and Tobruk was cut off and besieged between April and December 1941. Using the Italian defences, the 30,000-strong Australian garrison (replaced in September by a British and allied force) defeated the poorly organised Axis attacks, allowing time for the fortifications to be improved. The Allied occupation of Tobruk was a threat to the Axis communications, since it denied them the use of the port and pinned four Italian divisions and three German battalions, a force twice the size of the garrison. During 1941, supplied from the sea and surviving successive Axis assaults, the defence of Tobruk became a symbol of the British war effort. The relief of Tobruk was the object of 'Brevity' in May and 'Battleaxe' in June, both of which failed. 'Crusader' in November and December 1941 raised the siege and forced the Axis out of Cyrenaica into Tripolitania.

Supplied with more modern tanks, the second Axis offensive saw the reoccupation of western Cyrenaica, but the Axis forces ran out of supplies in the area to the west of Gazala. There followed a lull as each side prepared a new offensive. The British improved the 'Gazala Line' defences with fortified positions known as 'boxes' each held by a brigade and defended by extensive minefields. The Axis forces forestalled the British with 'Venezia', which became known to the British as the 'Battle of Gazala', beginning on 26 May 1942. The combination of poorly armed and armoured British tanks with inferior co-ordination made it possible for Rommel to defeat the 8th Army’s armoured elements on a piecemeal basis, and by 13 June the British had begun to retreat eastward from Gazala, leaving Tobruk vulnerable to attack.

On 1 May, a meeting of Axis leaders was held at the Berghof in Berchtesgaden, with Adolf Hitler and Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber 'Süd', speaking for the Germans, and Benito Mussolini and Generale d’Armata Ugo Cavallero, the chief of the Italian general staff, for the Italians. The conference decided that Rommel should start the 'Venezia' operation at the end of May and take Tobruk. If successful, Rommel was to advance no farther to the east than the Egyptian border and take up defensive positions while the 'Herkules' airborne and amphibious invasion of Malta was undertaken in the middle of July. The capture of Malta would secure the Axis powers' maritime supply lines to North Africa before Rommel then invaded Egypt, with the Suez Canal as the final objective. Axis planning had been given considerable assistance after the Italian Servizio Informazioni Militare (military information service) had broken the 'Black Code' used by Colonel Bonner Fellers, the US military attaché in Cairo, to send to Washington detailed and often critical reports of the British war effort in the Middle East.

In a meeting held in Cairo on 4 February 1942, the service commanders-in-chief of the Middle East Command considered what their course of action should be in the event of a further successful Axis offensive, the front line at that time being only 30 miles (48 km) to the west of Tobruk. The commanders knew how valuable the port would be to the Axis forces, but decided against seeking to defend it. Auchinleck was reluctant to have a valuable division tied down as a garrison, especially as reinforcements might be urgently needed for Persia and Iraq, and Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham could not risk a repetition of the shipping losses incurred in the supply of the garrison during the first siege. Air Marshal Sir Peter Drummond (deputy to Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder) contended that it might prove impossible to provide fighter cover for the port. Auchinleck drafted orders for Ritchie, commander of the 8th Army, that he was to make every effort to prevent Tobruk from being taken, but was not to allow his forces to be surrounded there. If the fall of Tobruk was imminent, 'the place should be evacuated and the maximum amount of destruction carried out in it', while a firm defence line should be established farther to the east on the Egyptian border. This withdrawal arrangement was formalised as 'Freeborn' (i).

By 14 June, 'Venezia' had forced Ritchie to implement 'Freeborn' (i), the withdrawal of the British 50th Division and the South African 1st Division from the 'Gazala Line' eastward through Tobruk and toward the Egyptian border. On the previous day, Auchinleck had confirmed to Ritchie that, if all else failed, the frontier should be a 'rallying point'. Auchinleck now began to reassess the Tobruk position as neither he nor Ritchie wanted to lose the considerable stocks of fuel, munitions and other stores which had been built up at the port for 'Acrobat'. On the morning of 14 June, Auchinleck had received from Churchill a message that 'retreat would be fatal': despite the misgivings of his senior commanders, Churchill had apparently told President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the USA that the 8th Army would hold Tobruk.

Auchinleck signalled Ritchie that he was to hold a line from Acroma, to the west of Tobruk, extending to the south-east as far as El Adem, which would screen Tobruk. Ritchie did not receive the order until two hours before his carefully organised night withdrawal was scheduled to start, and it was thus too late to alter the manoeuvre. The 50th Division and South African 1st Division were saved from encirclement but were withdrawn beyond the line which Auchinleck intended them to hold. Ritchie informed Auchinleck that he would attempt to hold the Acroma/El Adem line with elements of Lieutenant General C. W. M. Norrie’s XXX Corps, but warned that if this failed Tobruk might either become 'temporarily isolated' or be evacuated, and asked which option was to be taken. Auchinleck replied that 'on no account will any part of the Eighth Army be allowed to be surrounded in Tobruk and invested there', which Ritchie interpreted as meaning that he should evacuate Tobruk if there were an Axis breakthrough. On the morning of 15 June, the situation was confused further by a message from Churchill which included the phrase 'Presume there is no question in any case of giving up Tobruk?' Auchinleck replied to Churchill that Ritchie had sufficient troops to hold Tobruk. Auchinleck then signalled Ritchie that although Tobruk was 'not to be invested', it could be 'isolated for short periods' and that he should organise a garrison accordingly. It was clear to Ritchie that the collapse of the Acroma/El Adem line was imminent.

The area around El Adem was held by Brigadier D. Reid’s Indian 29th Brigade. On 15 June, Generalleutnant Carl-Hans Lungershausen’s 90th leichte Afrikadivision attacked El Adem three times but was repulsed by the defenders. Simultaneously, an attack by Generalmajor Georg von Bismarck’s 21st Panzerdivision on Point B 650, about 5 miles (8 km) to the north of El Adem, was defeated by the Indians and the 7th Motor Brigade; a second attack succeeded later that evening. The attacks on El Adem were stopped after further reverses but the threat of being surrounded caused its evacuation on the night of 16/17 June. This left RAF Gambut on the coast vulnerable, causing the Western Desert Air Force to withdraw to the east, thereby severely limiting the quantity of air support it could provide. The last outpost of the defensive line was Belhamed, a hill adjacent to Sidi Rezegh, which was held by Brigadier L. E. MacGregor’s Indian 20th Brigade, a new unit.

On 17 June, Brigadier G. W. Richards’s British 4th Armoured Brigade was ordered to attack, hoping to take the flank of the German armour, now supplemented by Oberst Eduard Crasemann’s 15th Panzerdivision, as it moved to the north toward the coast. The brigade had been hurriedly re-formed after the Gazala battles and had about 90 tanks in composite units but lacked much of its artillery, which had been detached to form harassing columns. After an engagement lasting most of the afternoon, the British brigade withdrew to refit and then retire toward Egypt after losing 32 tanks. The Indian 20th Brigade was ordered to withdraw during that night but were caught as the German armour reached the coast at Gambut and two of its battalions were captured. Also captured was the abandoned RAF base with 15 aircraft and considerable fuel supplies, and to the west a vast Allied stores dump with thousands of trucks was taken. On the morning of 18 June, Rommel was able to report to Berlin that Tobruk had been surrounded and taken under siege.

At about 33,000 men, the garrison of Tobruk was numerically large, but this total included some 8,000 support troops and around 2,000 non-combatant labourers. One-third of the garrison comprised the South African 2nd Division under the command of Klopper, who was put in charge of the defence of Tobruk on 15 June. The division was a brigade short, and thus comprised the South African 4th Brigade and Brigadier F. W. Cooper’s South African 6th Brigade as well as a number of attached units. The South African 2nd Division was not a veteran formation, but had captured Bardia and Sollum during 'Crusader' in January and had been based in Tobruk since the end of March. Klopper had been a staff officer of the division and had succeeded Major General I. P. de Villiers only on 14 May.

Brigadier A. Willison’s British 32nd Army Tank Brigade had three squadrons of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment with 35 operational Valentine infantry tanks, two squadrons of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment with parts of the 8th Royal Tank Regiment and 42nd Royal Tank Regiment, with 26 serviceable Valentine and Matilda infantry tanks. Brigadier G. F. Johnson’s 201st Guards Motor Brigade had the 3/Coldstream Guards, up to establishment and with 10 6-pdr anti-tank guns, the 1/Sherwood Foresters, nearly at full strength with four 6-pdr and 500 men of the 1/Worcestershire Regiment, which had been mauled at Point 187 on 14 June. Brigadier A. Anderson’s Indian 11th Brigade had the experienced 2/The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, 2/5th Mahratta Light Infantry with many young replacements and the inexperienced 2/7th Gurkha Rifles, an understrength anti-tank company and Lieutenant Colonel John de Beer’s 'Beer' Group, which was a composite infantry battalion from the South African 1st Division.

The garrison included the field artillery of the South African 2nd and 3rd Field Regiments and the 25th Field Regiment Royal Artillery, the 67th and 68th Medium Regiments Royal Artillery each with eight 4.5-in (114.3-mm) guns and eight 155-mm (6.1-in) howitzers. The South African 6th Anti-Tank Battery and A Battery, 95th Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Artillery were both understrength with 15 new 6-pdr anti-tank guns, 32 of the older and less effective 2-pdr guns and eight Bofors 37-mm anti-tank guns. There were 18 3.7-in (94-mm) heavy anti-aircraft guns of the 4th Anti-Aircraft Brigade Royal Artillery (18 such guns had been withdrawn to the frontier on 16 June) and the light guns of the South African 2nd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. Many non-essential troops had been evacuated, but there remained a number of administrative units of the headquarters of Brigadier L. Thompson’s 88th Sub-Area including 10 transport companies and Captain P. N. Walter’s Naval Establishment. The fighter aircraft of the South African Air Force’s No. 40 Squadron had been withdrawn from the airfield within the perimeter but an Air Support Tentacle remained. The squadrons of the Western Desert Air Force had moved back to airfields at Sidi Barrani, which put Tobruk beyond the range of all their fighters except the Curtiss Kittyhawk single-engined fighter-bombers of the RAF’s No. 250 Squadron, which had drop tanks.

The South African brigades held the western and south-western sectors of the perimeter, where most of the fighting in the first siege had taken place. The Indian brigade was deployed to the east and south of the perimeter, which was some 35 miles (56 km) long, to which the coast added another 20 miles (32 km). On average, each anti-tank gun would have had to defend a frontage of 750 yards (685 m) if the guns had been spread evenly around the perimeter. As a result of the earlier decision not to stand another siege, little work had been done to maintain Tobruk’s fortifications. In many places, the trenches and the anti-tank ditch had collapsed or filled with drifting sand, and part of the ditch had been deliberately filled to allow the British armour to cross during the December 1941 breakout. Large quantities of barbed wire and land mines had been removed to bolster the Gazala defences, while some of the old Italian mines which remained were found to be defective. Some work had been done by South African engineers to remedy the situation, but there is conflicting evidence as to the condition of the defences at the start of the siege.

As noted above, Klopper was placed in command of the Tobruk garrison on 15 June, five days before the Axis attack. On 16 June Gott, commander of the XIII Corps, whose headquarters were still in Tobruk, suggested that he should take command but was overruled by Ritchie and left Tobruk, leaving three of his staff officers to assist Klopper. Gott ordered Klopper to prepare three plans: for co-operation with the Allied forces outside Tobruk, for the re-establishment a presence at Belhamed, and for the evacuation of the garrison to the east. This placed a considerable extra burden on Klopper and his staff, who were already very busy.

A plan for the rapid capture of Tobruk, comprising an attack in stages from the south and west, had been agreed between Kesselring and Cavallero on 10 June. Rommel ignored the new plan and used his own plan of October 1941, attacking from the south-east, where the ground was flatter than that of the gullied terrain in the south-west. He began to deploy his forces to their jumping-off positions on 18 June.

On the western end of the line was the Italian XXI Corpo d’Armata comprising , southward from the coast, the 7o Reggimento Bersaglieri, the 60a Divisione fanteria 'Sabratha' and the 102a Divisione motorizzata 'Trento'. At the south-western corner of the perimeter was the German 15th Schützenbrigade. To the south was the Italian X Corpo d’Armata with the 27a Divisione fanteria 'Brescia' forward and the 17a Divisione fanteria 'Pavia' in reserve. In the south-eastern corner were the German 90th leichte Afrikadivision and the Axis artillery. On the eastern boundary was the Italian XX Corpo d’Armata motorizzato with the 101a Divisione motorizzata 'Trieste' forward; the 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete' was in the south-west at Bir er Reghem and the newly arrived 133a Divisione corazzata 'Littorio' was moving in behind it. The 15th Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision were in the east, on either side of the village of Kambut.

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

Wishing to exploit the current disorganisation of the 8th Army, Rommel issued his orders for the assault on 18 June, and reconnaissance of deployment areas began early in the following day. Starting in the afternoon of 19 June and through that night, the armoured formations of the Deutsches Afrika Korps changed places with the 90th leichte Afrikadivision so that they were facing the south-eastern corner of the perimeter, occupied by the inexperienced 2/5th Mahratta Light Infantry. The 15th Panzerdivision was on the left of the attack and the 21st Panzerdivision on the right, with the Kampfgruppe 'Menny' (a motorised infantry group detached from the 90th leichte Afrikadivision and commanded by Oberst Erwin Menny) in the centre. The XX Corpo d’Armata was to attack farther to the left, followed by the X Corpo d’Armata, which was to occupy and hold the perimeter defences. In the west, the XXI Corpo d’Armata was to make a feint attack to pin the South African brigades, while in the east, the 90th leichte Afrikadivision was to prevent relief attempts on Tobruk by the 8th Army. When the Axis artillery arrived at their positions near El Adem, they found Axis ammunition, which had been abandoned in November and had not subsequently been cleared.

The Axis assault began at 05.20 on 20 June with an intense air bombardment on the south-eastern perimeter. The Luftwaffe flew 588 sorties, the highest sortie rate achieved in the Mediterranean theatre, while the Regia Aeronautica flew 177 sorties. The total weight of bombs dropped was more than 359 tons). The Kampfgruppe 'Menny' began its attack at 07.00, which coincided with the opening of the artillery barrage that had been delayed by late arrivals at their positions; a breach in the line between two strongpoints had been made by 07.45. The 900th Pionierbataillon was able to make crossings over the anti-tank ditch through the use of prefabricated bridging equipment, and the first German tanks were across the ditch by 08.30. By that time, several strongpoints had been taken by the infantry, creating a bridgehead 2,185 yards (2000 m) wide. The Mahrattas committed their reserve in an abortive counterattack, and although they had been given to understand that a tank battalion would be coming to their assistance, this never materialised. The 132a Divisione corazzata, spearhead of the XX Corpo d’Armata, had failed to penetrate the line held by the 2/Cameron Highlanders, and was redirected into the breach made by the Deutsches Afrika Korps and then despatched westward toward Fort Pilastrino.

After initially believing that the attack in the south-east was a feint, Klopper’s headquarters gave orders for a counterattack by the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, supported by whatever elements of the Guards and Indian brigades they required. The orders were misunderstood at the tank brigade headquarters, which ordered only the 4th Royal Tank Regiment to attack. The offer of support by a battle group of the 3/Coldstream Guards was declined through lack of orders. The counterattack might have succeeded had it been made in greater force and while the Axis armour was still making its way across the anti-tank ditch. By the time it had begun, the Deutsches Afrika Korps had been moving into the perimeter for 90 minutes and the 132a Divisione corazzata was established on its left. On its own initiative, the 7th Royal Tank Regiment moved up in support, but half of it was diverted to assist the Cameron Highlanders. The Deutsches Afrika Korps defeated the British armour in detail with the aid over ever-present aerial close support. The only British air raid that morning was summoned by the forward air control 'tentacle' to bomb Axis vehicles moving through the south-eastern breach and was carried out by nine Douglas Boston twin-engined medium bombers escorted by Kittyhawk long-range fighters.

By 12.00, Rommel had 113 tanks inside the Tobruk perimeter, and by 13.30 the Deutsches Afrika Korps had reached its objective, the Kings Cross road junction on the crest of the Pilastrino ridge overlooking the town of Tobruk, about 5.6 miles (9 km) to the north. The 21st Panzerdivision headed for the town, scattering the remaining tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment. The last obstacle for the German armour was a motley assortment of artillery units, which made a determined defence, including the use of several 3.7-in (94-mm) anti-aircraft guns against the German tanks; Rommel later praised their 'extraordinary tenacity'. Later in the afternoon, Klopper’s headquarters was bombarded. At 16.00, German tanks were seen to the east and Klopper thought that his headquarters, to the south-west of the town, was in danger of being overrun. He ordered a hurried evacuation, and in this much of the vital communication equipment was destroyed. The German tanks moved off in a different direction but, lacking communications equipment, Klopper moved to the headquarters of the South African 6th Brigade in the north-west of the fortress at 18.30.

The leading German units had not reached the outskirts of the port until 18.00, by which time British engineers and supply troops had started to destroy the immense quantities of fuel, water, ammunition and stores in the town, together with the port facilities. The 15th Panzerdivision had begun to advance to the west along the Pilastrino ridge, where elements of the 201st Guards Brigade had taken up exposed positions at short notice. When their brigade headquarters was overrun at about 18.45, most of the units either stopped fighting or withdrew to Fort Pilastrano at the western end of the ridge. The 15th Panzerdivision ended its advance as it was under orders to cover the approach to the town of the 21st Panzerdivision. It was reported that the town had been taken at 19.00. The final evacuation of small naval vessels had been carried out under fire: 15 craft escaped, but another 25, including one minesweeper, were sunk in the harbour or lost to air attacks on their passage to Alexandria.

At last light, the Axis units halted for the night. The remnants of the British and Indian units in the eastern sector of the fortress prepared themselves for all-round defence; the South African brigades had not been engaged except for some diversionary activity. From Klopper’s new headquarters came a signal that all units should prepare to break out at 22.00 and a message was sent to the headquarters of the 8th Army: 'Am holding out but I do not know for how long.' The 8th Army staff suggested that the break-out should be on the following night of 21/22 June, and that it was essential that all the fuel be destroyed. Although Ritchie had ordered the 7th Armoured Division to move north toward Sidi Rezegh, to the south-east of the Tobruk perimeter, there is no evidence that the division advanced very far or threatened the Axis cordon. Discussions between Klopper, his brigadiers and staff officers followed. The chances of a successful break-out were impeded by the fact that the South African 2nd Division was not a motorised formation and many of the vehicles that it did possess were in the town and had been captured. The option to stand and fight in the western sector was considered but the main ammunition dumps had also been captured. At 02.00 on 21 June, Klopper signalled to the headquarters of the 8th Army that he would attempt a break-out that evening. In the meantime, the garrison would 'fight to the last man and the last round'.

As the dawn of 21 June approached, Klopper changed his mind and concluded that any value to be gained from continuing the fight would not be worth the cost in additional casualties. In an exchange of signals at 06.00, Ritchie sent 'I cannot tell tactical situation and therefore leave you to act on your own judgement regarding capitulation.' Shortly after this, German officers were invited to Klopper’s headquarters to finalise the details. Orders to surrender were sent out and received with astonishment by those units who had scarcely been engaged. Some units did not receive the order: the 2/7th Gurkha Rifles, on the eastern perimeter, fought on until that evening, while the Cameron Highlanders continued fighting until the morning of 22 June. Captain Sainthill of the Coldstream Guards and 199 of his officers and men were able to break out of the south-west perimeter in their battalion transport and rejoin the 8th Army. A small group of 188 South Africans, largely of the Kaffrarian Rifles, escaped to the east along the coast and reached El Alamein 38 days later. Rommel entered the town at 05.00 and established his headquarters at the Hotel Tobruk. A meeting was arranged with Klopper, who surrendered to Rommel on the Via Balbia about 3.7 miles (6 km) to the west of Tobruk at 09.40 on 21 June.

Later in 1942, a court of inquiry found Klopper largely blameless for the surrender. The verdict was kept secret, and this did little to enhance Klopper’s or his troops' reputations. After the war, Churchill wrote that the blame belonged to the British high command, not to Klopper or his troops. He accepted that the facts were obscured at the time as the Tobruk leadership were all prisoners of war but that the truth had since emerged. The British official historian wrote in 1960 that 'the reasons for the disaster are plain enough'. It was commonly accepted that there was no intention of withstanding another siege of Tobruk and that the port was not prepared for one. Neither Auchinleck nor Ritchie appreciated the extent of the defeat which the 8th Army had suffered at Gazala or that the 8th Army was no longer able simultaneously to continue to fight in the Tobruk area, defend the frontier and prepare a counterattack. Klopper and his staff lacked the experience to make the best possible use of their resources under such difficult circumstances. Rommel had overwhelming air support at Tobruk, because almost all of the Allied fighter aircraft had been withdrawn out of range of Tobruk, and Luftwaffe bombing played a key role in breaching the defences.

On 21 June, Churchill and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, were attending the 2nd Washington Conference discussing grand strategy with Roosevelt and the US Army chief-of-staff, General George C. Marshall. A US aide arrived with the news of Tobruk’s surrender, which he gave to the president who passed it to Churchill. Churchill’s military aide, Lieutenant General Sir Hastings Ismay, contacted London and confirmed the news. The conference also received a telegram from British minister-resident in the Middle East, Richard Casey, warning that the defeat opened the possibility of an Axis invasion of Egypt. Churchill recalled in his memoirs that 'I did not attempt to hide from the President the shock I had received. It was a bitter moment. Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another. Nothing could exceed the sympathy and chivalry of my two friends. There were no reproaches; not an unkind word was spoken. ''What can we do to help?'' said Roosevelt. I replied at once, ''Give us as many Sherman tanks as you can spare and ship them to the Middle East as quickly as possible.'''

Roosevelt asked Marshall to see what could be done. Marshall ordered the 2nd Armored Division, which was training with its new M4 Sherman medium tanks, to prepare to move to Egypt. When it became apparent that this new formation could not be made operational until the autumn, Marshall decided instead to send 300 of its Sherman tanks, 100 M7 Priest 105-mm (4.13-in) self-propelled guns, spare parts and 150 instructors in a fast convoy beginning on 1 July.

On 25 June the Maldon by-election was won by Tom Driberg, a left-wing journalist, standing as an independent, with 60% of the vote, defeating the Conservative candidate. Churchill and others attributed the defeat to the loss of Tobruk four days before; Driberg denied this was a major factor, suggesting instead that it was part of a wider swing to the left and away from the established political parties. In the parliament, there was a growing feeling that Churchill was responsible for the muddle and lack of direction in the management of the war, despite his popularity with the public. The Labour member of parliament Aneurin Bevan tried to force a parliamentary enquiry into Churchill’s role in the defeats at Gazala and Tobruk, but this was prevented by Clement Attlee, the Labour deputy prime minister of the coalition government. When a right-wing Conservative, Sir John Wardlaw-Milne, tabled a motion of no-confidence in the coalition government, there was speculation that it might go the way of the Norway Debate, which had led to the resignation of the previous prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, in May 1940. The debate opened on 1 July and on the following day Bevan attacked Churchill by saying that he 'fights debates like a war and war like a debate'. Churchill replied with one of his most effective speeches and the government won by 425 votes to 25.

The surrender of Tobruk was, as noted above, the second largest capitulation by the British army in World War II after the fall of Singapore, and the biggest defeat in the history of South Africa’s Union Defence Force. German propaganda initially reported the capture of 25,000 Allied soldiers, but this turned out to be an underestimate as the true total was 33,000. The Germans left the task of accommodating the prisoners to the Italians, who lacked the infrastructure to treat the prisoners in accordance with the terms of the Geneva Convention. The prisoners were crammed into open pens to await deportation and were left seriously short of food and water. Conditions improved after the prisoners had been transported by sea to Italy. Many of the prisoners, especially South Africans, were subjected to recriminations from other prisoners who felt that Tobruk had surrendered too easily. At the Italian armistice in September 1943, many prisoners escaped, these including Klopper, who was recovered by 'Popski’s Private Army', which was operating nearby. The number of 8th Army prisoners taken in the battle is not known precisely because the 8th Army’s records were lost. The Axis casualties are not known, but German casualties in combat since 26 May (including Gazala) were reported as 3,360, of whom 300 were officers; German losses for the period 20/22 June would have been considerably less than that.

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

Despite the demolitions at Tobruk, the Axis forces seized about 1,400 tons, and another 20 tons at Belhamed. The vehicle tally was some 2,000 machines, including 30 serviceable tanks. It has been estimated that Rommel was using some 6,000 captured British trucks by the end of the month. Also taken in Tobruk were 6,900 tons of water and three million rations of food. Because of the tenuous nature of the Axis supply line, the troops had been living on very short rations and the British supplies were received with enthusiasm, especially chocolate, tinned milk and vegetables; stores of shirts and socks were looted avidly. The equally deprived Italian troops tended to be excluded from the plundering.

During the afternoon of 21 June, the day of the surrender, Kesselring visited Rommel’s headquarters and reminded him of the agreement that the 'Herkules' invasion of Malta would follow the capture of Tobruk and that his aircraft were already returning to Italy. On the following day, a senior Italian staff officer arrived with orders from Generale d’Armata Ettore Bastico, the Italian commander-in-chief in North Africa, to halt. In his new elevated rank, Rommel was able to decline this 'advice'. He had the latest pessimistic report from the US military attaché Fellers in Cairo to Washington on the British dispositions, which concluded with the phrase 'If Rommel intends to take the [Nile] Delta, now is the time', and the supplies captured at Tobruk made that possible.

On 22 June, Rommel bypassed the chain of command by writing directly to Mussolini via the German attaché in Rome, General Enno von Rintelen, requesting permission to continue the offensive and that the Malta invasion be postponed to preserve his air support. Mussolini forwarded the letter to Hitler, who had been harbouring doubts about the Malta operation, and the German leader replied on the next day with an effusive letter which agreed with Rommel’s suggestion and urged Mussolini not to let the opportunity slip away, stating that 'the goddess of success passes generals only once'. The British retreat soon became a rout. Ritchie decided not to regroup at the Egyptian border as planned but farther to the east at the fortified port and army base at Mersa Matruh. Auchinleck sacked Ritchie on 25 June, taking personal command of the 8th Army, and began a further withdrawal to a better defensive position at El Alamein. On the following day, Rommel arrived at Mersa Matruh and broke through in the centre. The 'Battle of Mersa Matruh' was another fiasco for the 8th Army, which suffered 8,000 casualties and lost much equipment and supplies, but the bulk of the 8th Army was able to break out and fall back to El Alamein. Rommel hoped that a swift central attack on the new British positions might succeed in the same manner as had achieved success at Mersa Matruh, but he was moving ever farther away from his air support and supply bases. The Axis forces came correspondingly within the range of the Western Desert Air Force, and their advance was eventually halted at the '1st Battle of El Alamein'. El Alamein was to be the most easterly point reached by the Panzerarmee 'Afrika'.