In January 1941, Australians fought their first major land battle in the Second World War when men of the 6th Division and other Allied troops, engaged Italian forces at the town of Bardia on the coast of Libya. On 3–5 January 1941, the Italian positions were attacked and Bardia was captured. Over 40,000 Italians were taken prisoner.
Siege of Tobruk
Advancing west along the Libyan coast, the 6th Division captured Tobruk from the Italians on 21–22 January 1941 and the town became a garrison for the Australian and British forces. In early March, one of Hitler’s best generals, Erwin Rommel, with his Afrika Korps came to the aid of their Italian allies in Libya. By April, German forces had begun to cut off and surround Tobruk. For eight months, from April to December 1941, Tobruk was besieged and Australian forces, including the 9th Division and a Brigade of the 7th Division and RAN ships, dubbed the ‘scrap iron flotilla’ by German propagandists, played a prominent role in the town’s defence.
Rats of Tobruk
1941 was a dark year for the Allies. The Germans conquered all before them but Tobruk held out against Rommel and stood in the way of his advance towards Egypt and the Suez Canal. The boldness of the defenders of Tobruk raised morale in the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Those who served there became known as the ‘Rats of Tobruk’, because the German radio propaganda broadcaster ‘Lord Haw Haw’ described them as rats living in the ground. The derisive name was adopted as a badge of honour by the defenders of Tobruk.
Battle of El Alamein
Three major battles took place around El Alamein, Egypt between July and November 1942, with the Australian 9th division playing a key role in two of these battles. Rommel had forced the Allies back into Egypt from Tobruk and the capture of Cairo and the Suez Canal seemed very real. The Allies moved to a defensive position near El Alamein and several months of intense fighting followed. From August until the end of October, the Allied army grew steadily in strength and on 2 November, Rommel was forced to order a general withdrawal. The 9th Division left Egypt for Australia in January 1943, ending
Australia’s involvement in the war in North Africa.
Royal Australian Navy (RAN ) ships served in the eastern Mediterranean and in particular provided support to ground forces during the Siege of Tobruk.
Air Force involvement
Royal Australian Air Force (RAA F) squadrons, as well as RAAF personnel serving with Royal Air Force units, provided air support against the Germans and Italians.
Australians who served
- Over 555,000 Australians served overseas in the Second World War
- About 14,000 Australians served at Tobruk
- Three Australian Divisions, the 6th, 7th and 9th served in North Africa
- More than 39,000 Australians died during the Second World War
- Over 3,000 Australians died in North Africa
- About 800 Australians died at Tobruk and almost 2,000 were wounded
- Four Australians received the Victoria Cross for their part in the
- campaign in North Africa. Of these, one medal was awarded for service in Tobruk and three Victoria Crosses were awarded for actions at El Alamein
Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries are located in:
• Egypt—2312 Australians
• Libya—856 Australians