The Rats of Tobruk

[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.


Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

22 thoughts on “The Rats of Tobruk

  1. Delf "Jelly" Bryce

    Folks, let’s not overlook the fact that the Australians and Brits (plus a mix of other allies) had a serious threat during the siege. Constant hammering by the German Luftwaffe and the incessant attacks from the ground surely wore them down. This was a fight to the finish and I’m glad our allies won.

    1. Roger Yellowmule

      Great comment, Jelly. Glad you’re on. Haven’t seen much of you lately. Oh, anytime you want to write an article for this blog by Gen. Satterfield, please do so. I’m a fan.

  2. Max Foster

    The reason I read this blog daily (well, almost every day) is for articles like this. I learned something about WWII that I did not know. The forum here and those in it have surely made my day.

  3. Janna Faulkner

    Thank you Darwin. It’s difficult being a mother during this pandemic crisis but after reading today’s article by Gen. Satterfield, I see that our situation is nowhere as bad as our troops during WW2. They were truly the greatest generation.

  4. Darwin Lippe

    HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY to all those mothers out there. Thanks for what you do for us.

  5. Autistic Techie

    Most people forget that the lifting of the siege of Tobruk was not the end of the fighting in North Africa. In 1943, German General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps launch an offensive against an Allied defensive line in Tunisia, North Africa. The Kasserine Pass was the site of the United States’ first major battle defeat of the war.

    1. Joe Omerrod

      True. And it took a while for US forces to get their act together. More than 1,000 American soldiers were killed by Rommel’s offensive, and hundreds were taken prisoner. The United States had finally tasted defeat in battle.

  6. Tom Bushmaster

    For 241 days, the garrison at Tobruk held firm against constant German assaults.
    Between April and August the garrison was made up primarily of men from the 9th Australian Division. In August they were relieved by the British 70th Division and the extraordinary Polish Carpathian Rifle Brigade, who would earn themselves a fearsome reputation.
    In December 1941, Tobruk was successfully relieved during Operation Crusader. Having overrun his fuel supplies, Rommel fell back.

    1. Len Jakosky

      They were truly heroes. While vacationing in London about 10 years ago, I met a Brit who had been in North Africa. He told me about his capture and escape from some of Rommel’s men. He also told me about the terrible conditions they labored under. Terrible war in the desert. This old man, I admire greatly.

      1. Newbie Yunger

        !wow! you were a lucky man to find this old soldier.

      2. JT Patterson

        Can you tell us more about the man? I’m always interested in personal stories of war. They give such a different picture than you read in the media.

  7. Ronny Fisher

    Australian soldier painted cigarett-smoking rats on their bigger guns and tanks. “Rats to you!” a reference to Tobruk Rats, the derisive term used by Nazi propagandist broadcaster William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) to refer to the forces who withstood German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s seven-month siege of Tobruk.
    See Gen. Satterfield’s article on Lord Haw Haw —

  8. Willie Shrumburger

    Good summary of the major battles in north Africa.
    “North Africa campaigns”
    North Africa campaigns, (1940–43), in World War II, series of battles for control of North Africa. At stake was control of the Suez Canal, a vital lifeline for Britain’s colonial empire, and of the valuable oil reserves of the Middle East.

    1. Yusaf from Texas

      In January 1941, Adolf Hitler established the Afrika Korps for the explicit purpose of helping his Italian Axis partner maintain territorial gains in North Africa. “[F]or strategic, political, and psychological reasons, Germany must assist Italy in Africa,” the Fuhrer declared. The British had been delivering devastating blows to the Italians; in three months they pushed the Italians out of Egypt while wounding or killing 20,000 Italian soldiers and taking another 130,000 prisoner.

      1. Deplorable John

        By April 3, Rommel’s forces had reached Benghazi, Libya.

    2. Harry Donner

      Excellent source material and summary. I will add, ironically, the Arabs celebrated Rommel, called “the Desert Fox,” as a liberator from British imperialism.

    3. Fred Weber

      At the beginning of the war, Libya had been an Italian colony for several decades and British forces had been in neighboring Egypt since 1882.

  9. Army Captain

    Heard about these men who fought off Rommel and won. Greatest story of the WW2 campaign in North Africa.

    1. Ed Berkmeister

      I agree, this was the campaign to the underbelly of Europe. As we all know, Europe first was the strategy. That is why most of the combat resources went there. Then the Allies turned their sites on Japan.

  10. Eric Coda

    Great story about the ‘rats’ of Tobruk. Thanks for an enlightening story and one full of heroes.

Comments are closed.