Operation Manual

Fall of Tobruk

'Manual' was the designation of British patrol activities in the area of Tobruk on the coast of North Africa in the period up to its loss in the aftermath of the Battle of Gazala, including 'Venezia' (May/21 June 1942).

As the Battle of Gazala drew toward its end, within the 30-mile (48-km) perimeter of Tobruk the men of the port’s garrison readied themselves for what they knew would be another Axis siege. Despite promises from higher command echelons, there seemed very little real hope that the garrison would receive substantial reinforcement. Command of the defence was vested in Major General H. B. Klopper, who had assumed command of the South African 2nd Division on 14 May. Klopper had been a staff officer during the Axis forces; capture of Bardia on 26 November 1941 in 'Brandung', but had very little in the way of experience in the practicalities of warfare in the Western Desert and, moreover, had only a relatively inexperienced staff to support him. Thus no comprehensive plan had been drawn up for the manner in which the South African 2nd Division could maintain its hold on Tobruk in the face of a renewed Axis siege. However, there was no shortage within the perimeter of men, supplies and most types of equipment. As well as the South African division, the garrison of Tobruk included Brigadier A. C. Willison’s 32nd Army Tank Brigade with as many as 60 infantry tanks, Brigadier J. A. Johnson’s 201st Guards Motor Brigade, and Brigadier supplies, and Brigadier A. Anderson’s Indian 11th Brigade, as well as three regiments of field artillery and two regiments of medium artillery. This represented a force of more than 35,000 men and considerably more than 2,000 vehicles of all types. The quantity of supplies held in and around Tobruk was almost embarrassing in its profusion as, in preparation for the 'big push' into the western part of Cyrenaica which had been proposed for the period after a victory in the Battle of Gazala, there were stockpiles of 1.5 million Imp gal (6.82 million litres) of petrol, 130,000 rounds of 25-pdr artillery ammunition, and several million rations, enough in all for a campaign lasting for at minimum of three months.

However, the defence was rendered more problematical by several factors. Firstly, long sectors of the fixed defences, including the anti-tank ditch, had been allowed to fall into a state of ill-repair, and there were several large gaps in the covering minefields. Secondly, the prospects of air support rapidly faded as Air Vice Marshal A. Coningham’s Air Headquarters Western Desert hastily evacuated its forward bases near Gambut and fell back to the airfields round Sidi Barrani, from which the range was too great for the provision of fighter cover over Tobruk. Thirdly, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet could offer little hope of positive assistance. Fourthly and finally, Klopper was short of one vital type weapon which might have redressed some of these other deficiencies, namely a number of effective anti-tank guns. To face an armoured assault the garrison could deploy only 15 6-pdr and 40 outclassed 2-pdr anti-tank guns.

By 18 June Generaloberst Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee 'Afrika' had completed its investment of Tobruk. Generalleutnant Walther Nehring’s Deutsches Afrika Korps closed on the perimeter with Generale di Divisione Giuseppe di Stefanis’s Italian 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete' in support, while the German sappers cleared additional lanes through the depleted minefields.

At the urgent request of Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie, commander of the 8th Army, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, commander-in-chief Middle East Command, flew to the Egyptian/Libyan frontier region from Cairo, and the two commanders adjusted their plans to suit what had now been revealed as the true capabilities of the 8th Army. Lieutenant General W. H. E. Gott’s XIII Corps was now given the task of holding the frontier, while 'Jock' columns did what they could to probe toward Tobruk. Lieutenant General C. W. M. Norrie’s XXX Corps was clearly no able to make a worthwhile contribution in its current state and was withdrawn into army reserve near Mersa Matruh to refit. There was then little else which could be done other than the release of communiqué on 20 June stating that 'We hope, therefore, that Tobruk should be able to hold out until operations for relief are completed after resumption of our offensive.'

Rommel’s anticipated blow came at first light on June 20. Selecting for his main effort the same south-eastern sector of the perimeter which Lieutenant General R. N. O’Connor’s Western Desert Force had chosen for his capture of Tobruk in January 1941, Rommel unleashed a tremendous dive-bomber attack, using 150 aircraft of all types, and followed at 08.00 with a co-ordinated attack by Oberst Eduard Crasemann’s 15th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Georg von Bismarck’s 21st Panzerdivision supported on their left flank by the 132a Divisione corazzata and Generale di Brigata Arnaldo Azzi’s 101a Divisione motorizzata 'Trieste'.

The garrison’s Indian 11th Brigade, most notably the 2/5th Mahratta Regiment, resisted with great tenacity, but the Axis forces had all the advantages. By the middle of the morning the two German divisions had achieved a penetration of 1.5 miles (2.4 km) and in two places penetrated the minefield behind whose western portion the battalions of the 201st Guards Motor Brigade were located, while Generalmajor Ulrich Kleemann’s 90th leichte Division easily beat off a rather half-hearted attempt by the XIII Corps to create a diversion toward Sidi Rezegh. After their two main thrusts had met at 'Knightsbridge', the junction of the routes from El Adem to the south and Bardia to the east, the Germans advanced north toward Tobruk and by 16.00 were in control of the more easterly of the two airfields, and by 19.00 the 21st Panzerdivision headed at full speed though he streets of Tobruk toward the harbour, where desperate attempts at demolition were in progress. As night began to fall, the remnants of Klopper’s command began to gather in the western part of the perimeter, but to all intents and purposes 'Fortress Tobruk', which had once successfully sustained a siege of eight month, had fallen into Rommel’s hands in a single day.

Klopper did what he could to organise a semblance of effective resistance inside the western part of the perimeter, but found himself severely hampered by his decision earlier in the day to order the destruction of all the headquarters' signalling equipment. Eventually radio contact was re-established wit the 8th Army, but there was little comfort to be drawn from that quarter. Ritchie still promised relief, but it was cleat that the army could do nothing. Early on 21 June, Klopper sent a signal which sounded the death-knell of Tobruk: 'Am sending mobile troops out tonight. Not possible to hold tomorrow. Mobile troops nearly nought. Enemy captured vehicles. Will resist to last man. and round.'

It was effectively the end of Tobruk’s existence as a British bastion in the Western Desert. In a last gesture of determination, attempts were made to destroy the stores stockpiled in the western sector: one party spent hours smashing petrol drums and letting the fuel soak into the desert sand but, after their boots rotted off their feet, the men had to pull away because of the fumes. Klopper could do no more. At 08.00 he despatched a truce party to ask for Rommel�s terms, and soon unit after unit began to surrender to the Germans. The last to capitulate were the 2/7th Gurkha Rifles and the 2nd Cameron Highlanders. Eventually even they, threatened with destruction if they persisted with their stand, gave up the struggle late in the evening of 21 June. A few small parties managed to make their way through the Axis forces and reached safety: Major Sainthill of the Coldstream Guards, for example, led out a party of 387 men.

But Klopper and almost 33,000 men surrendered. Included in this total were 19,000 British troops and almost 9,000 South African white troops, and some 5,000 Indian and South African black troops. Rommel also gained 2,000 tons of petrol. 5,000 tons of provisions, large quantities of ammunition (including German and Italian types which the British had captured and stored), and almost 2,000 serviceable vehicles. The Axis forces also gained the use of a port which was still important even though some of its facilities had been destroyed or damaged, and a large water-filtration plant.

According to German records, Rommel had achieved all this for 3,360 German casualties between 26 May and 21 June, about 15% of the Deutsches Afrika Korps' original combat strength. The Italian losses were probably slightly less than those of the Germans. However, the German losses included no fewer than 300 officers killed or wounded, representing about 70% of the Deutsches Afrika Korps' officer strength. In a terse message message, Rommel announced his success with the words 'Fortress Tobruk has capitulated. All units will reassemble and prepare for further advances.' Within one day the Axis forces were on the Libyan/Egyptian border, and the fortunes of the 8th Army were approaching their lowest ebb.

In assessing the disastrous loss of Tobruk by the British, most of the credit must go to Rommel who, after a near-fatal initial gamble, he had used his tactical intuition with consummate skill, refusing to be dominated by his opponent and keeping his armour well-concentrated in battle. However, a considerable part of the responsibility must be laid at the door of the 8th Army’s higher command levels. Ritchie was hardly the ideal leader to be pitted against Rommel, for he lacked the skill to outwit the dynamic German and the authority to control his own corps commanders effectively as both his primary subordinates were senior to him, and Ritchie was never fully at ease in seeking to exercise command over them. Auchinleck was, of course, responsible for the appointment and then the retention of Ritchie, and would have been wise to assume personal command immediately after the fiasco of 'Aberdeen' in the Battle of Gazala, and was ultimately responsible for the creation of the defective Gazala Line. Even so, it was the responsibility of Ritchie that the 8th Army’s dispositions were left essentially unchanged when a more offensive posture was ordered in April 1942.

The relationship between Auchinleck and Prime Minister Winston Churchill at this time also left much to be desired, and Churchill could be accused of keeping too tight a rein on the senior command in North Africa, thereby causing confusion and doubt in a situation in which what was required was instant decision at the local level.

Another factor was, of course, was that at time time the Axis forces were a better-honed although somewhat smaller army. With the exception of the 132nd Divisione corazzata, the Italian formations were indifferent, but the Deutsches Afrika Korps was notable for its experience and skill, and handled its armour with admirable panache. With a few exceptions, they kept their armour concentrated, and wisely shielded them behind an effective artillery screen until the advent of the decisive moment. On the other hand, the 8th Army at this time comprised a mix of tired veterans, made perhaps over-wary by earlier experiences at Rommel’s hands, and brash newcomers, who were given scant time to settle in before the blow came. The British still seemed to revel in the tradition of the cavalry charge in their tank tactics, and their armoured brigades tended to train and even fight more or less independently of one another. No lessons had been learnt from 'Crusader', and the immediate future was to show that few had been learnt from the defeat at Gazala. At least 50,000 casualties had thus been sustained to no good purpose. To this extent, therefore, it can be argued that the Axis forces were more professional, and were able and prepared to learn from their mistakes and adjust their ideas more rapidly.

There is evidence that German tank design was in certain of its aspects, superior to that of the British and US design philosophies behind the vehicles which the 8th Army fielded in the middle of 1942. The degree of Axis air superiority also offered great advantages: the Air Headquarters Western Desert and its squadrons performed well, but the fact remains that the UK was not currently prepared to allocate sufficient air strength to the North African theatre, as a result partially of the situation in the Far East situation and partially to Churchill’s insistence on the primacy of the heavy bombing of Germany. The result of all these factors was therefore victory for Rommel and defeat for 8th Army in the Battle of Gazala, and then the almost inevitable loss of Tobruk.

Churchill was visiting Washington when the news of Tobruk’s fall became public and, adding insult to injury, the news reached US intelligence before the War Office could deliver the information to Churchill, and as a result it fell to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to tell Churchill of what had happened. So affected was Roosevelt by Churchill’s evident and very real grief that he immediately undertook to send 250 examples of the new M4 Sherman medium tank to North Africa, and thus the defeat at Gazala and the fall of Tobruk had one indirectly fortunate outcome for the Allied cause in the Western Desert, even though at the time Churchill saw this at best as a very slim consolation prize for, in the British leader’s opinion, only the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942 reflected a greater disgrace on British arms and generalship. It was a shattering blow, and its repercussions were bitterly felt in the UK, South Africa and Australia.

The news of Rommel’s success caused great excitement in Germany and Italy. Almost overnight Rommel’s detractors in high place, and there were many of these in Berlin or Rome, became his staunch champions and there was widespread approval for Hitler’s announcement of Rommel’s promotion to Generalfeldmarschall. To the Axis powers, it seemed that the war in the Western Desert, now a little more than two years old, was one the point of resolution in favour of Germany and Italy.

On the eastern side of the Libyan/Egyptian frontier, the shattered formations of the 8th Army began to regroup physically and rebuild their morale after discovering in the hardest of ways that the 8th Army had been outgeneralled, outmanoeuvred and outfought. This last was a bitter pill which had nonetheless to be swallowed by the men of Major General D. H. Pienaar’s South African 1st Division, the two surviving brigades of Major General W. H. C. Ramsden’s 50th Division, and few armoured units which were all now survived of the XXX Corps even as they embarked on the task of developing an extemporised battle position at Mersa Matruh. Even so, there were few who could see that Rommel’s victory had limitations, and that nothing had yet been ultimately decided in the
North African theatre.