Cairo, Egypt · June 21, 1942

After a disorderly retreat by the British Eighth Army into Egypt following Erwin Rom­mel’s break­through of the Gazala line in mid-June, the Desert Fox (Rommel’s popular nick­name) stormed the Mediter­ranean for­tress and harbor of Tobruk in Eastern Libya on this date in 1942. The newly minted Ger­man field marshal seized huge quan­ti­ties of ammu­ni­tion, 5,000 tons of rations, 2,000 tons of valu­able fuel, 2,000 vehicles in working order, and 35,000 Brit­ish and Com­mon­wealth pri­soners, among them six gene­rals and briga­diers. (The evening tele­gram from Adolf Hitler that con­veyed Rom­mel’s award of a field marshal’s baton prompted the former gene­ral to remark, “It would be better he [Hitler] had sent me another divi­sion.” Actually, Rom­mel could have used more offi­cers, as the victory had cost him 70 per­cent of his officer corps.)

Rom­mel con­tinued to pur­sue the Eighth Army with an eye to cap­turing the Egyp­tian Nile Delta with­in a week and forcing the British Medi­ter­ra­nean fleet to escape south through the Suez Canal. Next dominoes to fall would be British-held Pales­tine and Syria, which had just been snatched from Vichy France by a mixture of British and Free French forces. At the pace Rom­mel pro­jected after over­powering Tobruk’s defenders, his Panzer­armee Afrika would soon be in the Per­sian Gulf oil­fields, whose out­put would be redirected to sus­tain the Ger­man military and German industry.

Hitler, under Rom­mel’s spell now, en­dorsed his new field marshal’s inten­tions and put Axis part­ner Benito Mus­so­lini’s plan for seizing the British Medi­ter­ra­nean island for­tress of Malta on the back burner. Believing the British Eighth Army was “vir­tually des­troyed,” Hitler told Mus­so­lini that “the god­dess of for­tune in battle passes by her cap­tains but once; he who does not seize her now may never overtake her.”

Mean­while, the Eighth Army made a stand near an ob­scure Egyp­tian rail­way stop called El Ala­mein in the first days of July 1942. By July 27 Rom­mel’s offen­sive had stalled in the First Battle of El Ala­mein. The Eighth Army’s victory over Rom­mel under newly appointed Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Mont­gomery at the Second Battle of El Ala­mein (Octo­ber 23 to Novem­ber 2) reversed Allied for­tunes in North Africa, and by mid‑May 1943 the last Axis forces in the region, over a quarter million strong, surrendered near Tunis, Tunisia.

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The Battle of Gazala, May 26 to June 21, 1942

Rommel inspecting Italian armored units, 1942Abandoned British Valentine tanks being inspected, 1942

Left: The Battle of Gazala was fought by Ger­man and Ital­ian units in an en­larged Panzer­armee Afrika under the com­mand of Erwin Rommel. Opposing Rom­mel was the British Eighth Army, which drew per­son­nel from through­out the Brit­ish Empire and Com­mon­wealth, aided by some Free French units. The bone of con­ten­tion was the port of Tobruk in Eastern Libya. In this photo Rom­mel can be seen inspecting Italian armored units.

Right: By June 13, 1942, Rommel had reduced British tank strength from 300 tanks to nearer 70, and the Panzer­armee Afrika now had armor supe­ri­ority and a domi­nating line of posi­tions on Tobruk’s peri­meter. On June 17 the Eighth Army with­drew from posi­tions around Tobruk, leaving the garrison town to its fate.

CommonwealthRommel overlooking Tobruk Harbor, June 1942

Left: Tobruk had previously withstood a siege of nine months before being relieved by Opera­tion Cru­sader in December 1941. In Cairo, Egypt, British mili­tary chiefs were agreed that Tobruk could not with­stand another siege and its defense was “non-essential.” When Tobruk fell to the Axis on June 21, 1942, 35,000 Allied troops were taken pri­soner. Their loss echoed the sur­ren­der of 80,000 Brit­ish and Common­wealth troops to Japa­nese forces following the fall of Singapore a few months earlier.

Right: Rommel at the port of Tobruk, a port nearer supply ves­sels crossing the Medi­ter­ranean from Ger­man bases in Greece and Crete to the north. The bulk of the Eighth Army was now at El Alamein, 60 miles west of the vital Egyp­tian port of Alexan­dria in the Nile Delta. For the next four months, three battles were fought at El Alamein, with the last, the Second Battle of El Alamein, marking a major mile­stone in defeating the Axis in North Africa. For this victory Mont­gomery was promoted to the rank of general. After the war he was created a Knight of the Garter and Viscount Montgomery of Alamein.

Seesaw Battles for Eastern Libya and Egypt, 1940–1942: Rommel vs. Montgomery