Tobruk - The Lifting of the Siege

Commander Peter Poland OAM RN (Ret'd)

9 December 2016 is the 75th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Tobruk, the port on the north coast of Libya, that proved such a thorn in Rommel’s side during the eight months that the siege lasted. The Australian War Memorial describes it as one of the longest sieges in British military history.

Whenever the siege of Tobruk is remembered the Australian soldiers, who formed the greater part of the garrison for most of the time, are quite rightly afforded pride of place.

Left: Tobruk veterans Corporal Alexander McHutchison and Private Patrick McKenna of the 2/13th Battalion. Right: Australian soldiers patrolling the Tobruk perimeter defences.

However, the maintenance of the siege would not have been possible if it had not been for the Inshore Squadron, that curious fleet of ships and craft that kept the besieged garrison supplied with everything they needed to hold out for all that time. A fleet of ships ranging from former British India small liners, ex-China Station gunboats, South African Navy armed whalers, Canadian minesweepers, tank landing craft, water and petrol carriers, bulk traders and even some sailing vessels like the ketch Zingarella and the captured schooner Maria Giovanni, supplemented quite often with fast minelayers, destroyers and frigates when these could be spared from other operations.

HMAS Vampire's decks crowded with Allied troops.
HMAS Vampire’s decks crowded with Allied troops.

Supplies were usually loaded in the Egyptian ports of Alexandria and Mersah Matruh and, because of lack of air cover, many passages in and out of Tobruk had to be done at night which meant that unloading and back‐loading had to be done very quickly and this in a port which daily became more cluttered with vessels that had been sunk by enemy air attacks.

Prominent among the warships supplementing the Inshore Squadron was the ‘Scrap Iron Flotilla’, the Royal Australian Navy’s World War I destroyers commanded by Captain H Waller in HMAS Stuart, with HMAS Vampire (Lieutenant Commander J Walsh); HMAS Vendetta (Lieutenant Commander R Rhoades); HMAS Voyager (Lieutenant Commander J Morrow); and HMAS Waterhen (Lieutenant Commander J Swain). They were also joined by the N Class Destroyers HMAS Napier (Captain S Arliss, RN); and HMAS Nizam (Lieutenant Commander M Clark); and the Grimsby Class sloops HMAS Parramatta (Lieutenant Commander J Walker); and HMAS Yarra (Lieutenant Commander W Harrington - a future Chief of Naval Staff). The name ‘Scrap Iron Flotilla’ was given to them by the Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels because they were so old. The Nazis also described the troops as being “caught like rats in a trap”, hence they proudly became The Rats of Tobruk.

Of these ships HMAS Waterhen was sunk on 30 June following being hit by dive bombers and HMAS Parramatta was torpedoed by a U‐boat off Tobruk on 27 November. The Australian ships were credited with doing 139 runs into Tobruk. HMAS Vendetta was the last of the Scrap Iron Flotilla to leave in October having done 39 trips, more than any other ship.

The ships usually worked in pairs and a typical run would be as follows:

Day 1
Berth at night alongside at Alexandria, load 40 tons of 3.7-inch ammunition, land mines, 25 pounder ammunition, sacks of potatoes and onions,
cases of dry provisions, mail, etc all stowed on deck.
  07:00 Embark 100 personnel
  08:00 Sail for Tobruk moderate speed
  15:00 increase to 25 knots
  20:00 (dusk) increase to 28 knots
  23:00 Arrive Tobruk, slow in through channel and boom. Anchor or berth on wreck or oiling jetty. Discharge stores and men into lighters, tugs etc.
Embark wounded and men relieved (if any)
Day 2 01:00 Sail - slow out then as fast as slowest ship allowed
  05:00 Daylight - rendezvous with fighters
  09:00 Arrive Mersah Matruh - disembark wounded etc. PM Embark stores
Day 3 13:30 Sail for Tobruk - as for Day 1
Day 4 Return to Alexandria arriving about 14:00

Oil fuel could be supplied from ex‐Italian shore tanks, gravity fed at 30‐50 tons per hour.

On Days 2 and 4 other pairs of destroyers would make the trip and so rotation would go on.

The slower tank landing craft and other small ships were usually sailed to arrive just after dawn. During the day attempts were made to hide them using camouflage nets berthed alongside rocks or wrecks in the harbour. They usually remained two nights and, if possible, were back‐loaded with damaged tanks or other valuable vehicles for repair. A difficulty with night off‐loading was ensuring the right stores got to the right destination. When, after a request from Lieutenant General Morshead, the Tobruk Fortress Commander, some luxuries began to arrive a careful watch was essential. A bottle of whisky or a case of beer could disappear very quickly!

In early August it was decided to pull the Australian troops out of Tobruk and replace them with Polish and British elements. Again most of this was done by warships and at night. All went well until 25 October when the fast minelayer HMS Latona was bombed and sunk on passage to Tobruk. This meant that the evacuation had to be abandoned and the 2/13th Battalion and some other Australian troops had to remain in Tobruk until the siege was lifted.

Top left: The crew of HMS Ladybird performed valiant service during the seige of Tobruk. She was sunk by German aircraft on 12 May 1941. Top right: An LST unloading stores at the end of a resupply run to Tobruk. Bottom left: A crippled merchant ship damaged by a German 1000 lb bomb. Bottom right: Australian soldiers of the 9th Division following their evacuation by the Royal Navy from Tobruk in October 1941.

The movements in and out of Tobruk during the siege were as follows:

The ships delivered 72 tanks, 92 guns, 33,946 tons of stores, ammunition, food and fresh water and 108 live sheep (food for the Indian troops). 32,667 troops were evacuated and were replaced by 34,113 fresh troops. 7516 wounded men were transported to base hospitals and 7097 captured prisoners were taken to the rear.

Twenty seven Naval ships were sunk and 27 damaged. Seven Merchant ships were sunk and six damaged. The casualties were Naval personnel killed or missing 469, wounded 186 and Merchant Service killed or missing 70, wounded 55.

(Source: C‐in‐C Meds signal to Admiralty 760 dated 12/12/41)

HMAS Parramatta, just one of the many Allied ships lost while supporting the beseiged Tobruk.

A few days after the siege was lifted, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Commander‐in‐Chief, Mediterranean issued this Special Message:

Eight months ago the enemy isolated the fortress of Tobruk and laid siege to it. Today Tobruk is no longer besieged and her garrison is pursuing the retreating enemy to the westward. During those fateful eight months the task of maintaining the garrison with all its bodily needs and war supplies has fallen on the Navy and units of the Merchant Navy. Most of the work devolved on destroyers and small ships. Units from the Royal Navy, the Royal Australian Navy, and Indian Navies and the naval forces of the Union of South Africa all took their part while amongst the crews of the merchant ships were officers and men of the Allied Nations. When the tale of the siege of Tobruk comes to be written, the part played by these craft will provide a story worthy of the highest traditions of our naval history. I have watched with admiration the work of the ‘little ships’. They have borne the burden of the day but neither fatigue nor the assaults of the enemy have deterred them. Their achievement is one of which they may all be proud.

During the siege of Tobruk between 12 April and 10 December 1941 the following were moved by sea:

Personnel In
Personnel Out 34,113
Wounded Out 7516
POW Out 7097
Stores In 33,946 tons
Tanks In 72
Guns In 92
Sheep In 108

The following casualties were sustained:

HM Ships sunk

Sloops 3
A/S & M/S Vessels 7
'A' Lighters 6
HM Store - Carriers & Schooners 7
Gunboats 1
Fast Minelayers 1
Total 27

HM Ships damaged

Sloops 1
A/S & M/S Vessels 11
'A' Lighters 6
Gunboats 3
Schooner & HMAS Glenroy 1
Total 27

Merchant Ships sunk

6 & 1 Schooner

Merchant Ships damaged


Naval casualties

Killed or Missing
Wounded 186

Merchant Service casualties

Killed or Missing
Wounded 55