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 British-held 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.)

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was in Washing­ton, D.C., at the time, received the news of Tobruk’s cap­ture in a tele­gram Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt handed him. Chur­chill later wrote: “This was one of the heavi­est blows I can recall during the war.” At Singa­pore, Britain’s stra­te­gic out­post in South­east Asia, 85,000 British and Common­wealth service¬men had surren¬dered to a smaller number of invading Japa­nese. Now, almost a year and a half later, 33,000 British and Common­wealth soldiers had laid down their arms to an Axis force of per­haps half their num­ber in a mere week­end. The Prime Minis­ter was over­come. “I did not attempt to hide from the Presi­dent the shock I had received,” Chur­chill recalled. “It was a bitter moment. Defeat is one thing. Disgrace is another.” Roose­velt calmly asked Chur­chill, now close to tears, “What can we do to help?” The imme­di­ate answer was the dis­patch of 300 U.S. Sher­man tanks to the Middle East by fast boat. “Nothing could exceed the sym­pathy and chivalry of my [American] friends,” Churchill remarked. (Quoted in Groom, The Allies, p. 333.)

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, aban­doning Alex­an­dria, its huge naval base, and supply depots. The future of navi­ga­tion and secu­rity of the Medi­ter­ra­nean basin would reside in Axis hands. 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. The southern flank of Germany’s power­ful enemy in the East, the Soviet Union, would be opened up, too. All the efforts British and Amer­i­cans forces had put into fighting Axis armies in North Africa and the Middle East would have been for nothing.

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 under newly appointed Gen. Bernard Law Mont­gomery over Rom­mel’s Panzer­armee Afrika at the Second Battle of El Ala­mein (Octo­ber 23 to Novem­ber 2, 1942) reversed Allied for­tunes in North Africa, and by mid May 1943 the last Axis forces in the region (absent Rommel), over a quarter million strong, surrendered near Tunis, Tunisia.

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

Erwin 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 British strong­point 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. The conquest of Tobruk was Rommel’s greatest triumph.

CommonwealthErwin 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 their Egyptian head­quarters in Cairo, 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 Sea 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 four-star general. After the war he was created a Knight of the Garter and Viscount Mont­gom­ery of Ala­mein. He died in 1976. His adver­sary, Erwin Rom­mel, the most popu­lar general in the Wehr­macht, was impli­cated in the July 20, 1944, bomb plot to kill Hitler and was forced to com­mit sui­cide. The Nazi Propa­ganda Minis­try under Joseph Goeb­bels ginned up a fake story that the Desert Fox had died of a brain hemorrhage on October 14, 1944.

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