Operation Compass: The Aussies Capture Tobruk
In December 1940, the British launched Operation Compass against the Italians in the Western Desert. What started as a spoiling attack transformed into a full fledged offensive once the Italians started surrendering en masse around Sidi Barrani, Egypt. On 5 January, 1941 and to much acclaim, the 6th Australian Division broke through the Italians making a stand at Bardia in Libya and raced towards the big prize in the Western Desert: the city of Tobruk. The Western Desert Campaign was a three year see saw struggle where success was based almost entirely on the supply situations of the respective sides. And there was no more important city logistically in the area than Tobruk.
Tobruk was the mid-way point on the coastal highway between the two gateways to the Western Desert, El Agheila in the west and El Alamein in the east. It also has a deep water harbor that allowed an occupier to receive vast quantities of supplies that would otherwise have to be trucked hundreds of miles overland. Finally it was at the base of the “Cyrenaican Hump” and forces there could be used to cut off anyone at Benghazi or Derna. The advantages of Tobruk were not lost on the Italians and they turned it into a fortress.
On 21 January, the Australians cleared paths through the wire and minefields outside Tobruk for 18 British Matilda tanks and several captured Italian tanks. Once inside the city, the tanks with the supporting Australian infantry were unstoppable. Lacking any effective anti tank weapons, the defenders surrendered in droves. The Australians took 25,000 prisoners, and forced the Italians to abandon all of Cyrenacia. For the rest of January and into February, the race was on: Could the British capture Libya faster than the Italians could abandon it? If they could Tunisia laid defenseless and the campaign in North Africa would be over.
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