Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Tobruk, Third Battle of (20–21 June 1942)

The port of Tobruk in eastern Libya held great military significance but had also become a symbol of Allied defiance after it had withstood an eight-month Axis siege. During the 1941–1942 winter, the British commander in the Middle East, General Claude Auchinleck, had decided not to defend Tobruk in the event of another Axis advance. At the last moment, British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill reversed this decision, and in March 1942, the 2nd South African Division took over the defense of Tobruk. The Tobruk garrison consisted of two brigades of the 2nd South African Division, the 11th Indian Brigade, the 201st Guards Brigade, and the British army's 32nd Tank Brigade with 61 operational Valentine tanks and a few Matildas. South African Major General H. B. Klopper exercised command, but he and his men had little time to prepare for an approaching Axis assault. The defenses had deteriorated over time, and many of the mines had been removed and placed on the Gazala Line. As Major General Ettore Baldassarre's Italian XX Motorized Corps and Major General Walther Nehring's Afrika Korps (Africa Corps) approached, the overall Axis commander, Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, feinted toward the Egyptian border as if in pursuit of Major General Neil N. Ritchie's retreating British Eighth Army; then he wheeled north to the eastern end of the Tobruk defenses, which he reached on 18 June. In 1941, Rommel had attacked the western end and failed in a series of bloody assaults. This time, however, he had both momentum and surprise on his side, and he was determined not to leave an enemy's fortified position to his rear as he advanced eastward.

The Axis attack began at dawn on 20 June 1941, led by assault engineers and supported by air attacks. The Afrika Korps had the most success, and the Italian XX Corps followed through a break in the defenses created by the Afrika Korps. A series of rapid movements within the fortress itself paralyzed the Allied response, and by the evening of 21 June, the last of the garrison had surrendered, destroying as many supplies and as much of the port facilities as possible beforehand.

The Allies had 32,220 troops captured, including virtually all of the 2nd South African Division. Axis forces also secured invaluable supplies, including nearly 2,000 tons of fuel, 5,000 tons of food, 2,000 vehicles, and large amounts of ammunition (including both German and Italian stores). This booty was of immense help to Rommel in resuming his eastward drive, although there was considerable squabbling over its distribution.

The fall of Tobruk provided a supply port for the Axis forces close to the front. Moreover, it was a tremendous psychological blow to the Allies. With this and the Axis victory at Gazala earlier in the campaign, Rommel and the Italian commander in chief in Libya, General Ettore Bastico, were promoted to field marshals. Conversely, the Allied defeat led Britain's Middle Eastern commander, Auchinleck, to remove Ritchie from command of Eighth Army on 25 June and assume that position himself. The fall of Tobruk also led Adolf Hitler to delay an assault against Malta in favor of allowing Rommel to continue his advance eastward toward the Nile, setting the stage for the great First Battle of El Alamein.

Jack Greene


Further Reading
Greene, Jack, and Alessandro Massignani. Rommel's North Africa Campaign. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1994.; Montanari, Mario. Le Operazioni in Africa Settentrionale. Vol. 3, El Alamein. Rome: Ufficio Storico, 1989.
 

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