Tobruk, Cyrenaica, Eastern Libya November 18, 1941

On this date in 1941 the British Eighth Army, an assort­ment of British, Com­mon­wealth, Indian, and other Allied service­men com­manded by Lt. Gen. Alan Cunning­ham (from Novem­ber 26 by Lt. Gen. Neil Ritchie), launched a sur­prise mili­tary oper­a­tion from Egyp­tian ter­ritory against Axis forces in Eastern Libya (Cyre­naica). Oper­a­tion Cru­sader, part of the wider Western Desert Cam­paign in North Africa (June 1940 to Febru­ary 1943), had as its goal lifting the siege of Tobruk, put in place by the Axis on April 10, 1941. Tobruk was an impor­tant Libyan Medi­ter­ranean supply port for who­ever held it. At the moment it was still in the hands of the British 70th Infan­try Divi­sion, a stub­born con­tin­gent of largely British, Aus­tral­ians, and Poles, after German and Italian forces under German Gen. Erwin Rom­mel, com­mander of Panzer­gruppe Afrika, which included the German Afrika Korps and the Italian XXI Corps, had expelled most of the British Eighth Army from Libya in Operation Sonnenblume (February to May 1941).

The 20-day effort to break the Axis siege of Tobruk cen­tered on the Eighth Army cap­turing the little dirt air­strip at Sidi Rezegh, a for­ward air­base for the Axis that lay only a dozen or so miles south of the sea­port town. By the end of the second day of fighting at the air­strip, burning hulks of air­craft and tanks, mixed with pul­ver­ized dust, limited visi­bility, shrouding hun­dreds of dead and dying that littered the air­strip. But the air­strip was in British hands, though not for long. On Novem­ber 22, 1941, the Germans launched a three-pronged attack on British forces holding the airf­ield. The result was the slaughter of British tanks and men at little cost to the Germans. A meas­ure of revenge was attained the next day by British armor mauling German tanks, 72 in the attack that day. Though the British had lost over 300 tanks around Sidi Rezegh in three days, the Eighth Army was able to replace much of its armor from reserves just over the border in Egypt. The Germans, over a thou­sand miles of roads east of their resupply bases in Western Libya, were un­able to do the same.

Meanwhile, the 2nd New Zealand Division, advancing on Sidi Rezegh from the north with 133 heavy Matilda and Valen­tine tanks, attacked the Germans and Italians holding the air­field late on Novem­ber 25. A part of the divi­sion linked up with the encircled Tobruk garri­son the next day and briefly kept the corri­dor open. With­in a few days 130 replace­ment vehicles from Egypt replen­ished the stocks of the British 7th Armored Divi­sion taking up posi­tions south of Sidi Rezegh. Against heavy odds Axis forces retook the much-contested air­field because Rommel had embraced the com­bined-arms doctrine while British field com­manders failed to coor­di­nate armor with infan­try to increase the effec­tive­ness of their combat for­ma­tions defending Sidi Rezegh. By this time, how­ever, the enemy was a spent force. Rommel could muster just 38 oper­a­tional tanks, while the British brought up their tank strength by several hun­dred. Just as bad, Rommel was down to his last con­tainers of fuel and boxes of ammu­ni­tion. Attri­tion rather than bad general­ship finally forced the Desert Fox on Decem­ber 7, 1941, to with­draw his forces 40 miles east to Gazala and aban­don the siege of Tobruk. Oper­a­tion Crusa­der was the first Allied victory over German land forces in World War II.

Operation Crusader: Lifting the Axis Siege of Tobruk, November 18 to December 7, 1941

Map of Cyrenaica, Eastern Libya, and Egypt and Operation Crusader Battle Area, November–December 1941

Above: The 241-day Siege of Tobruk, the small but key Medi­ter­ranean supply port in Cyre­naica (Eastern Italian Libya), began on April 10, 1941. This was mid­way into the German and Ital­ian advance through Eastern Libya in Unter­nehmen Sonnen­blume (Oper­a­tion Sun­flower, Febru­ary 6 to May 25, 1941), the 12-week pur­suit of Egyptian-based British forces in Libya during the Western Desert Cam­paign (1940–1943). In little more than half a year of the British Eighth Army’s lifting the Axis siege of Tobruk on Decem­ber 7, 1941, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Panzer­armee Afrika retook Tobruk in mid-July 1942. The sea­port remained in Axis hands until Novem­ber 13, 1942, after the British Eighth Army under Gen. Ber­nard Law Mont­gom­ery bested Axis forces in Egypt at the Second Battle of El Alamein (October 23 to November 11, 1942).

Operation Crusader: Manning a Bren light machine gun near Tobruk, November 10, 1941 width=Operation Crusader: Italian infantrymen smile for Rommel in North Africa, 1941

Left: Manning a Bren light machine gun near Tobruk, Novem­ber 10, 1941, are men of the 2nd Bat­tal­ion, Leicester­shire Regi­ment, part of the British 70th Infan­try Divi­sion. By the 25th of the pre­vious month, British replace­ments for the evacu­ated Aus­tral­ian 9th Infan­try Divi­sion garri­son brought in 34,113 service mem­bers and added 126 tanks to the garri­son’s armor strength. All together the British Eighth Army had 738 tanks, the majority of which were A.15 Crusader tanks, followed by the Matilda infantry tank.

Right: Famous German field marshal Erwin Rom­mel took thou­sands of striking war­time photo­graphs prior to his sui­cide in 1944. Rom­mel toted a camera while com­manding front­line troops in France and North Africa, wielding a lens with artis­tic flare and pre­cision. In this photo­graph Itali­an sol­diers smile for Rom­mel’s camera in North Africa some­time in 1941. The men were mem­bers of one of three Ital­ian infan­try divi­sions that, along with Rommel’s Afrika Korps, invested Tobruk for eight months in 1941.

Operation Crusader: British Crusader tanks en route to Tobruk, November 1941Operation Crusader: Afrika Korps soldiers pose atop a tank, 1941

Left: Armor spearheaded the effort to reach the British gar­ri­son besieged at the Libyan port of Tobruk. In this photo a pair of British Cru­sa­der tanks takes up posi­tion at the fore­front of their for­ma­tion as two com­manders confer during Oper­a­tion Cru­sa­der. When Oper­a­tion Cru­sa­der was launched, the Cru­sa­der tank was the front­line tank of British armored units everywhere in North Africa.

Right: Soldiers of the Afrika Korps pose for Rommel atop a tank, circa 1941. Rom­mel photo­graphed many scenes from sol­diers’ every­day lives on the front lines. Unlike photos taken by Wehr­macht photo­graphers, Rommel’s photos of his men were can­did and unpolished. Rom­mel had an eye for drama and was drawn to taking larger-than-life images of machines, tanks, and vehicles. He liked to photo­graph people in the midst of acti­vity; rarely are his human sub­jects idle or com­pletely at lei­sure. Sol­diers are usually working, pausing a moment for rest as in this scene, or traveling. With few excep­tions he took no photos of soldiers lounging, playing cards, or horsing around; it appears Rommel had little interest in leisurely pas­times but was pre­dom­i­nantly concerned with his work or that of his men.

Allied and Axis Operations in North Africa: Silent Color Footage from British and German Archives