(Jan. 8, 2021) This week 80 years ago, after the 6th Australian Division, commanded by Gen. Iven Mackay, completed the capture of Libyan port of Bardia, it continued its westward advance and began the assault on the fortress of Tobruk.
Tobruk is a port city on Libya’s eastern Mediterranean coast near the border of Egypt. It is 75 miles west of Bardia and 290 miles east of Benghazi via the highway that Marshal Italo Balbo built, named Via Balbia.
As a port, it was very important as it was so much closer than Benghazi or worse, Tripoli, which was about a 1,200-mile drive. There has been a city there for more than 2,000 years. Currently, the city has a population of 120,000.
Gen. Mackay’s Aussies were joined by the 7th Armoured Division, commanded by Maj.-Gen. Michael O’Moore Creagh, which had been ordered to bypass Tobruk and threaten it from the west.
By Jan. 6, the 7th Armoured had occupied El Adem, which is 14 miles south of Tobruk, and is currently the site of the Tobruk International Airport.
The Tobruk garrison was commanded by Enrico Pitassi Mannella. It had been reinforced by Sirte Infantry Division, commanded by Vincenzo della Mura. Of the Tenth Army’s nine divisions, it was the only one that remained and was now commanded by Guiseppe Tellera.
Tobruk’s defenses included 25,000 Italian soldiers with 45 light and 20 medium tanks, 200 guns, antitank ditches, Forts Solaro and Pilastrino, and several other strong points, together with the 10-inch guns of the Cruiser San Giorgio.
By the next day, the port was surrounded. Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, overall commander of Italian forces in Libya, wired Il Duce, that, “This morning the investment of the position by enemy armored vehicles has begun. Afterwards, the various episodes of the new drama are easily predictable.”
The marshal explained that the 22,000-man garrison was insufficient to properly man the 34-mile perimeter.
On Jan. 9, the marshal informed Gen. Mannella that there would be no relief. The marshal also ordered Gen. Tellera to withdraw with the Sabratha Division to a line between Derna and Berta.
Gen. Mannella divided the remaining defenders into two sectors. The Eastern sector was commanded by Brig. Gen. Umberto Barberis, while the Western sector was commanded by Brig. Gen. della Mura. Gen. Mannella assigned 123 of his guns to Gen. Barberis and 97 to Gen. della Mura. In addition there were two 4.7-inch shore batteries.
Beginning at midnight, on Jan. 21, the defenders were subjected to a two-hour naval bombardment by the Royal Navy’s HMS Terror and three smaller ships.
After 2 a.m., RAF bombers took over. At 5:40 a.m. British artillery opened up. At dawn, the Australians started forward. They were followed at 7 a.m. by 18 Matilda II tanks. The Italian defense was hampered by lack of communication.
Phone lines had been cut by the bombardments and there weren’t enough radios. It wasn’t until 8:30 a.m. that Gen. Mannella learned of the attack. He informed Graziani at 11:50 a.m. that most of his Eastern sector had been destroyed.
Meanwhile, the RAF sent 56 sorties of Blenheim bombers against the city. At 4 p.m., Fort Pilastrino was assaulted. The Italian headquarters at Fort Solaro had been abandoned. By 6:30 p.m., Gen. Mannella and his staff surrendered.
Adm. Massimiliano Vietina organized the defense of the harbor after Marshal Graziani denied his request for a suicide attack against the British ships outside the harbor.
The crew of San Georgio scuttled it in the harbor at 4:15 a.m. on Jan. 22. At 8:30 a.m., Adm. Vietina surrendered the harbor and its defenses to Gen. Horace Robertson of the 19th Australian Infantry Brigade. Gen. della Mura surrendered Fort Pilastrino and the Sirte Infantry Division shortly thereafter. By 4 p.m. all was quiet.
Once again, Barba Elettrica, having escaped the debacle at Sidi Barrani the previous month, and then the surrender of Bardia after promising Il Duce, “In Bardia we are and here we stay,” was able to make his escape, once again, making his way to Derna, where he assumed command of that garrison.
After the capture of Bardia, in which 36,000 Italians were captured, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, inspired by the Prime Minister’s famous speech about the RAF during the Battle of Britain, quipped that, “Never has so much been surrendered by so many to so few!”
The next day an Australian soldier lowered the green and red flag of the Kingdom of Italy and replaced it with a “digger’s” hat. In the defense of Tobruk, 18 Italian officers and 750 Italian soldiers had been killed and 30 Italian officers and 2,250 men had been wounded. More than 20,000 Italian soldiers and sailors had become prisoners of war.
The Australians captured 208 guns and 87 tanks. The Commonwealth suffered 400 casualties, 355 of which were Australian.
The day after Tobruk’s surrender, Marshal Graziani wired Commando Supremo, claiming that he had faced not one, but 17 divisions, saying that, “I had a vision of the future. I saw that it was not possible to avoid the fatality of the future! I am more or less in the position of a captain in command of his ship which is on the point of sinking because errors are present on all sides.”
After requesting more armor, and — correctly — explaining that, “In this theatre of operations, a single armored division is more important than an entire army,” Marshal Graziani received a telegram from Mussolini, on Jan. 27,, saying that, “I want you to know, dear Marshal, that we are eating out our liver, day and night, to send you the necessaries for this arduous battle.”
Next week: Battle of Koh-Chang
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.