2006 Ocean Tours - Libyan History Page
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Tobruk ANZAC Program
Ocean Tours has recently developed a special ANZAC tour of Tobruk's WWII sites. You can take the tour at any time of year, but the special times for Australians are around April 10 (anniversary of the Siege of Tobruk) and on ANZAC Day (April 25). You could visit Tobruk on April 10, before flying from Alexandria to Istanbul and onward to anakkale, near Gallipoli, for ANZAC Day there.

We recommend spending at least two days in and around Tobruk, with side-trips available to the town of Bardia and Melfa Lake (near the oasis village of Al Jaghbub).

Who were the ANZACS?
The name ANZAC originally referred to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought valiantly against the Turks in the Battle of Gallipoli in WWI. Since then, it has come to refer to Australian and NZ troops more generally in times of war. In both World Wars, the Australian troops who fought around the Mediterranean distinguished themselves with their courage and tenacity, often overcoming particularly difficult circumstances to win great strategic advantages.

One such case was at Tobruk, near Libya's eastern border with Egypt. During the Western Desert Campaign of World War II, the Siege of Tobruk was a lengthy confrontation between Axis and Allied forces. The siege started on 10 April 1941, when Tobruk was attacked by an Italian-German force under Lieutenant General Rommel – the notorious 'Desert Fox' - and continued for 240 days.

Tobruk was defended by the reinforced Australian 9th Division throughout much of the siege. Their leader had been instructed to try to hold the fort for eight weeks, but the 9th Division successfully held it for over eight months before being withdrawn and replaced by three forces. The new troops held Tobruk until it was possible to connect with the advancing Eighth Army in December during Operation Crusader.

Tobruk was the only port on the North African coast between Tripoli and Alexandria (with the exception of Benghazi), with a good, deep harbour. Such a port is critical to desert warfare because it enabled supplies to be brought in by sea, instead of across the treacherous sands of the Sahara. By preventing the Axis powers from using the port, the Allies ensured that their enemies' struggle was a complicated one: holding Tobruk meant that it was difficult for Rommel to advance his attack into Egypt, because it interrupted supply lines to the Front.

Even the Germans admired the Australians' conduct, with one captured officer remarking,

"I cannot understand you Australians. In Poland, France and Belgium once the tanks got through the soldiers took it for granted they were beaten. But you are like demons. The tanks break through and your infantry keeps fighting."

The siege at Tobruk was the longest siege in British Imperial military history. The efforts of the Australian and Commonwealth soldiers there signified the first time that the German Panzer Divisions' Blitzkreig had been successfully stopped. Some 3,000 Australian soldiers perished and 941 were captured while defending the area.

Ironically, Rommel took control of Tobruk the following year, after a new offensive. The allies eventually won back the port later in 1942 after the Battle of El Alamein, of which Winston Churchill observed, “It may almost be said, 'Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.'"

The 'Rats' of Tobruk
Because the cunning Australians at Tobruk tended to pillage the equipment of retreating enemy soldiers, and because they tunnelled in the desert dirt to protect their trenches and supply lines, the Axis propagandist Lord Haw Haw called the Australians "The rats of Tobruk". In a characteristic display of derisive dry wit, the Aussies enthusiastically adopted the name and started calling themselves the Rats of Tobruk. Their efforts and 'ANZAC spirit' have earned them a legendary reputation in Australian history.

What is there to see today?
Nowadays, Tobruk is a bustling township on the shores of a stark but pretty Mediterranean harbour. There are some nice beaches for swimming in the turquoise waters where you can find starfish in the white sand, and some good seafood restaurants serving local fish and calamari.

The relics of the war are very instructive. In the town itself, you can explore Rommel's capacious underground bunker, where he ran his operations centre when occupying Tobruk. Near the entrance to his bunker is WWII memorabilia including anti aircraft guns, a small tank, and a 40-tonne anti-ship gun. It's also still possible to check out room 319 of the Jebel al-Akhdar hotel, where Rommel stayed when above ground.

In town, you can also see the wreck of a USA B-24D Liberator heavy bomber, which crashed in the Sahara near Soluch. The story of the 'Lady Be Good' and her ill-fated crew is haunting, and we encourage you to read more about it at:
http://www.qmfound.com/lady_be_good_b-24_bomber_recovery.htm

Surrounding the town, there are a number of interesting sites:

Fig Tree Hospital
A field station on a hill in the desert linked to the Knightsbridge battlefield by a stony ridge. Underneath a large, lonely fig tree is the entrance to a network of caves where the Australian forces improvised a front-line hospital and sheltered the wounded. Its isolation and the extraordinary wartime events which occurred there have contributed to one of Tobruk's most memorable legends. A cutting from the fig tree was taken back to Australia and planted in the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Victoria.

German War Memorial
A sinister sandstone fort overlooking the town features a sombre memorial statue and numerous slabs inscribed with the names of 6,026 fallen Germans. There is a great view of Tobruk from the top of the fortress, which can be reached via a staircase in a turret.

Bir Hakim Memorial
80km south east of Tobruk lies the memorial for 300 of the soldiers lost in the Battle of Bir Hakim. Most fought for France (including Tahitians, New Caledonians and Africans), and there is a station of the Paris Metro named 'Bir Hakim' in their memory. There is a small but educational museum display, which features a moving poem by Rev. Pere Charles Alby, 'To the Dead of Bir Hakim'. This is an excerpt:

It is a good tomb for them:
Graves of epic dead that are visited once lie under the sun.
Under the chill wind of this Godforsaken place -
The wind that blew through their battle, carrying the smell of their powder
Blinding them with sand and vibrating to the sound of their explosions -
Only it knows.
Of a battle unlike any other, it is the only earthly witness.


Knightsbridge Cemetery
With typical brio, the Allied forces named areas of trackless desert after well-known locales in their homelands. The "Knightsbridge box" was a stronghold near Acroma, 20km west of Tobruk. Today, Acroma hosts the Knightsbridge Cemetery - the site of 3,649 graves of Australian, British, New Zealand, Canadian, Polish, Czech, Greek, Indian, and South African soldiers. The warden, Mustafa, (a second-generation caretaker), respectfully keeps the memorials in immaculate condition. Some of the graves bear heart-rending inscriptions, as those left behind remembered their lost sons, brothers, fathers, and lovers. Others are for unidentified soldiers, known only "unto God".

Tobruk Commonwealth Cemetery
This cemetery 6km south of the town has 2,479 memorials to Allied soldiers of many different nationalities, including two who were awarded the Victoria Cross for valour (the Commonwealth's highest military honour). Both this and the Knightsbridge Cemetery should be compulsory destinations for those international leaders who would declare wars, because nowhere is it more apparent that young lives are drawn into bitter conflicts that are not their own, and which do not ultimately enhance humanity’s progress.

97345 Gunner L. Lambourne, Royal Artillery
15 June 1942, Age 32.
He sleeps not in England / But beneath foreign skies / Far from those who loved him/ In a hero's grave he lies.

3710122 Private A Gill, The King's Own Royal Regiment
21st November 1941, age 27.
To the memory of Albert, dearly loved fiance of Clara Charlton. "I thanked God for you".

R70988 Flight Sergeant Lewis James Devlin, Pilot, Royal Canadian Air Force
30th May 1942, age 21.
Ever remembered by Kelfield folks, Mom, Dad, Anne and Gram. 'Till we meet again'

NX9768 Private SF Hobman, 2/3 Australian Infantry Battalion
22 December 1940, age 31.
We had no time to say goodbye, Stan, but loving memories never die.

A Soldier's Memories
We are lucky enough to be able to share with you some of the recollections of Mr Peter Willett, who fought in Tobruk during WWII in the Queen's Bays, Second Dragoon Guards. He shared these personal, first-hand memories of the war with us in an email, after visiting the Tobruk cemeteries in April 2006.

"Tobruk town then consisted of a single bomb-and-shell-shattered street, and the civilian inhabitants had long since been evacuated. All of the area contained within the perimeter was barren desert, with sparse camel scrub - no olive and fig groves, and no sheep grazing on rough pasture as there are now.

There was a spring on a hillside overlooking the harbour from which water trickled in two iron pipes protruding from a rockface. The water was horribly brackish: it made your whisky - if you were lucky enough to have any - taste disgusting, and it curdled the condensed milk in your tea as soon as you poured it.

The [Australian] 9th Division played a decisive part in the desert by holding Tobruk April-December 1941, taking Tel el Eisa July 1942, and by their sustained attacks threatening to cut the coast road in October 1942 which forced Rommel to concentrate his reserves in the north and enabling Supercharge to go in further south and win the battle. I think that the division has never been given full credit in English war literature.

I was not in either the Great Siege (April-December 1941), or the catastrophic short siege of June 1942. My regiment was in position about 20 miles south of Tobruk from February to May 1942 waiting for the battle of the Gazala Line to start, when the front line ran from Ain el Gazala on the coast 30 miles west of Tobruk to Bir Hakeim.

The Gazala Line battle began on May 27th, and by June 15th my regiment had lost all but three of its 52 tanks and had been forced back to Acroma on the edge of the escarpment between Tobruk and Gazala; one of those tanks had received 19 direct hits from anti-tank missiles, but fortunately it was a Grant, which had very thick armour. That night we were withdrawn inside the Tobruk perimeter, and stayed there for two days before escaping down the Via Balbia into Egypt. The area inside the perimeter was very congested with retreating troops, and we were heavily and frequently bombed by Stuka dive-bombers. Stukas had a terrifying whine as they began their dive, which rose to a crescendo until they pulled out a few hundred feet from the ground and dropped their bombs.

One evening in Tobruk half a dozen of us were having our supper at a trestle table beside a truck when we heard a Stuka beginning its dive. We dived into a slit trench, but one of our number, Michael Pollock, was slightly deaf, heard the Stuka seconds too late and was killed. He should never have been allowed near the front with his disability, but in his determination to get into the war he had managed to bamboozle the doctors. He was charming, and a very devout Christian. I could not find his grave in the cemetery, though I have been told that he is buried there. As for Stukas, they were very slow, and once we achieved air superiority in the summer of 1942 they were blasted out of the skies."

* * * * *

Side trips:

Visit the trenches in the abandoned WWII battlefields, where you can also see tank platforms and gun emplacements.

Al Jaghbub is a remote desert village closer to the Egyptian town of Siwa (across the border to the east) than anywhere else. Jaghbub means 'palm tree' and near the town there is a strange palm growing in a crooked shape. In antiquity, the town was an oasis renowned for its dates and fresh produce, and it had well-known Islamic university. It's a couple of hours' drive from Tobruk, and on the way you can see the desert landscape and Graziani's fence, the 270km-long barbed wire embranglement built on the orders of the Italian government.

Nowadays, Al Jaghbub is not often visited by tourists, but it is on the way to the amazing spectacle of lakes Melfa and Fredga, enormous saltwater pools shimmering in the desert. With clear, cold sparkling water and a shoreline encrusted with glinting salt crystals, the lakes make a pretty backdrop for a picnic, with a swim afterwards. The water is so salty that the experience is similar to floating in the Dead Sea. There is also an escarpment you can climb with a good outlook on the whole landscape. You might even see some of the local fossils, left from prehistoric times when the Sahara was at the bottom of the ocean.

Bardia, a couple of hours towards the Egyptian border, was the site of a major Italian fortification in WWII, commanded by a spiky-bearded general known as Annibale "Electric Whiskers" Bergonzoli. The town was taken by the Australian 6th division in 1941, reoccupied by the Axis powers, and then recaptured by the South African 2nd Infantry Division in 1942. The South African force was mostly comprised of ill-trained and ill-equipped police, and they suffered great losses, but heroically freed 8,000 Allied POWs and took 6,000 Axis prisoners.

Today, Bardia is known as the site of the Bardia Mural. A young Private in the British Army called John Frederick Brill created a mural on the interior wall of a cliff-top building overlooking the bay. His collage of images shows many memories – from skulls to ballet dancers, a dining table and musical instruments, currency, a newspaper and a boxer. Less than three months after signing his mural, Private Brill was killed in the first Battle of El Alamein. He was only 22.

The mural can still be seen in Bardia, and is known to historians as “Pleasures of Avarice - Pleasures of Art”.

 

Near Tobruk


Tobruk Umbrellas



Tobruk View



Wartime Graffitti



Australian War Memorial


Australian War Memorial



Bir Hakim Grounds




Lady Be Good

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