The German Army suffered its first two defeats of World War Two at Tobruk in 1941. Presiding over this debacle was the legendary “Desert Fox”, Erwin Rommel.
Inflicting the first defeat was “Ming the Merciless”, the name from sci-fi cartoon strip “Flash Gordon” given by the Australians to the commander of their 9th Division, Major General Leslie Morshead – who did have a slight oriental look about him.
Ronald Scobie, commander of the (British) 70th Division, which replaced the Australians and took part in “Crusader”, inflicted the second defeat on the mythical German and his Afrika Korps.
Frank Harrison, the author of Tobruk: The Great Siege Reassessed, served as a signaller with both divisions inside the fortress, placing him well to sit in judgement of events far away and long ago.
As the personal signaller of both the commanders of 3rd Armoured Brigade (Tobruk Tanks) and its successor, 32nd Army Tank Brigade, Harrison was privy to decision-making at the highest level and a full participant in the siege and its relief – or as he prefers to view it, the Tobruk Garrison`s relief of the 8th Army, after its torrid time in the desert, which included the destruction of the South African 5th Brigade and a New Zealand brigade at Sidi Rezeg in late November 1941.
Like most authors, Harrison has a bee in his bonnet – it is not for no reason he sat down late in life in the Public Records Office in Kew and the libraries of the Tank Museum, the Liddell Hart Military Archives at King`s College, the Royal Signals Museum and others to research this book.
While convinced that the Australians and Indians deserved their glory for holding the port for the first part of the siege (April to September), he believes the 70th Division, 32ATB and the Polish Carpathian Brigade as well as the Czech battalion were hard done by. “On the whole then, 70th Div`s contribution to the eventual success of ‘Crusader` has been given little, scant, and often mistaken recognition by the men who have written the history of the Western Desert campaigns… it hardly seems fair, hence this History.”
Harrison researched his book well, and a keen sense of humour as well as observations made at the time combine to give us a fine book. He chose to write it in three parts: the Australian phase, which can be captioned with Morshead`s injunction: “We`re not here to take it – we`re here to give it”. The middle part is largely about Crusader and 32nd ATB`s role in seizing a corridor south to link up with (or save?) 8th Army. The last part is an assessment of Rommel as commander in the time the myth around him was first formed.
The siege was the result of Rommel exceeding his mandate and thrashing a poorly trained, supplied and placed British force on the Tripolitanian-Cyrenaican boundary.
As the Commonwealth force, made up of British, Indian and Australian troops, fell back in some disorder, elements fell back on the Libyan-Egyptian border – and the defences there – while others retired into the Italian-built fortress at the port of Tobruk.
Harrison`s unit was being evacuated through the port when it was realised HQ 3rd Arm Bde needed signallers. He and three companions were volunteered, explaining how he ended up in the longest siege in Commonwealth history and became a “Tobruk Rat”.
Morshead was indeed the man for the moment, quickly putting demoralised troops in neglected defences. Logistics was taken in hand and an aggressive spirit restored through an equally aggressive programme of patrolling. Scobie and Willison, the 32nd ATB`s Brigadier, were also equal to their task – whether the rest of the command echelon of 8th Army was is open to question.
The feeling at the time and the judgement of most historians since is to the negative. “Rommel was seen by the Eighth Army soldier as a winner, whereas his own leaders were all proven losers… Not one of them seemed able to put together a battle properly and fight it to a finish. This list of failures was to continue until the arrival of an egoist whose ambition matched that of Rommel, who was every bit as ruthless, and who was able to transpose into ultimate success the numerical superiority in arms which all his predecessors had possessed but of which they had failed to take proper advantage.”
What is the verdict? One of the few recent new publications on the Western Desert campaigns, and properly researched with both Commonwealth and German records, this work should be part of any professional military library.
Tobruk: The Great Siege Reassessed