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
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successfully held it for over eight months before being withdrawn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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
Blinding them with sand and vibrating to the sound of their
Only it knows.
Of a battle unlike any other, it is the only earthly witness.
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
30th May 1942, age 21.
Ever remembered by Kelfield folks, Mom, Dad, Anne and Gram. 'Till we
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
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
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
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."
* * * * *
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
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”.