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.

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

Rommel inspecting Italian armored units, 1942 Abandoned 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.

Commonwealth Rommel 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