[May 10, 2020] In the late 1960s, my friend Wilson and I watched an adventure television episode of The Rat Patrol. This television series loosely based on the actual World War II exploits of the allied Australian, New Zealander, and British defenders of Tobruk, Libya. The Siege of Tobruk by German forces in 1941, commanded by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, was lifted only after months of desperate fighting. Those defenders were the Rats of Tobruk.
The deserts of North Africa were crucial to the war effort. Major oil fields in the Middle East and North Africa operational areas were vital to fueling the planes, tanks, and motorized transport for nearly all of the war efforts in the European theater of operations. Tobruk is also the most important seaport in northern Africa because its deepwater allows large ships to dock.1 Strategically, Tobruk stood as the prize for any military holding it.
In April 1941, Rommel’s army initially made swift blitzkrieg attacks across the flat desert terrain, pushing most of the Allied forces out of Libya into Egypt. Yet, several thousand British and Commonwealth troops remained in Libya in the fortified port of Tobruk. Rommel’s forces surrounded the port, and so began the siege of Tobruk.
The defenders of Tobruk were outnumbered nearly two-to-one and led by a military genius who had never been defeated in battle. Despite the odds, Allied soldiers never entertained the idea of retreat or surrender. When Rommel attacked with tanks, the defenders let them go by and attacked the Infantry. When Rommel’s forces retreated, the defenders didn’t wait in a siege mentality; they attacked.2
The courage and stubborn resistance by the men of the Allied forces, stopped the attacks from Rommel taking the port. This action was the first time anyone had been able to stop the German troops in the North African campaign. Nazi propaganda radio broadcasts spoke contemptuously of the Tobruk defenders as “rats.” In defiance, the soldier proudly adopted this nickname and has been known by it ever since.
Rommel kept up the bombardment until November 1941, when a massive counterattack by the British retook the territory, and the siege ended. The effort to save the port was a significant boost to the morale of the Allied forces and was vital for the war moving forward.
We can learn from the Rats of Tobruk. They were the epitome of tenacity, courage, and discipline. Today, I honor those who so valiantly defended Tobruk at a time during the war where success war rare and defeat was common.