During the initial years of the Second World War, Australia’s military strategy was closely aligned with that of the United Kingdom. As a result, most Australian military units deployed overseas in 1940–1941 were sent to North Africa and the Mediterranean where they formed a key part of the Commonwealth forces.
In January 1941, Australians fought their first major land battle in the Second World War when men of the 6th Division and other Allied troops, engaged Italian forces at the town of Bardia on the coast of Libya. On 3–5 January 1941, the Italian positions were attacked and Bardia was captured. Over 40,000 Italians were taken prisoner.
Advancing west along the Libyan coast, the 6th Division captured Tobruk from the Italians on 21–22 January 1941 and the town became a garrison for the Australian and British forces. In early March, one of Hitler’s best generals, Erwin Rommel, with his Afrika Korps came to the aid of their Italian allies in Libya. By April, German forces had begun to cut off and surround Tobruk. For eight months, from April to December 1941, Tobruk was besieged and Australian forces, including the 9th Division and a Brigade of the 7th Division and RAN ships, dubbed the ‘scrap iron flotilla’ by German propagandists, played a prominent role in the town’s defence.
Rats of Tobruk
1941 was a dark year for the Allies. The Germans conquered all before them but Tobruk held out against Rommel and stood in the way of his advance towards Egypt and the Suez Canal. The boldness of the defenders of Tobruk raised morale in the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Those who served there became known as the ‘Rats of Tobruk’, because the German radio propaganda broadcaster ‘Lord Haw Haw’ described them as rats living in the ground. The derisive name was adopted as a badge of honour by the defenders of Tobruk.
Battle of El Alamein
Three major battles took place around El Alamein, Egypt between July and November 1942, with the Australian 9th division playing a key role in two of these battles. Rommel had forced the Allies back into Egypt from Tobruk and the capture of Cairo and the Suez Canal seemed very real. The Allies moved to a defensive position near El Alamein and several months of intense fighting followed. From August until the end of October, the Allied army grew steadily in strength and on 2 November, Rommel was forced to order a general withdrawal. The 9th Division left Egypt for Australia in January 1943, ending
Australia’s involvement in the war in North Africa.
Royal Australian Navy (RAN ) ships served in the eastern Mediterranean and in particular provided support to ground forces during the Siege of Tobruk.