Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2017

Tobruk 1941, by Chester Wilmot

Doug Allan 1970

I don’t usually read military history, but I couldn’t resist this latest release in the Text Classics series.  Tobruk 1941 interests me because The Offspring had a great-uncle who was a Rat of Tobruk.  Uncle Doug Allan, who died in 1985, was a gentle, kind-hearted soul, generous to a fault and with the typical laconic Aussie sense of humour, but this apparently ordinary Aussie Bloke was also a hero, the like of which we’ll never see again.

Early in 1941, Australian troops captured Tobruk from the Italians: it was an important victory because it was Mussolini’s stronghold on the Libyan Coast.  Bordered by pitiless desert, Tobruk was a strategic fortress because it had a deep-water harbour on the eastern Mediterranean.   Rommel’s Afrika Corps quickly arrived to reclaim it and so began a 241-day siege beginning in April and not lifted until November of that year.  Germany had successfully stormed through Europe using Blitzkrieg tactics, and the Afrika Corps had never been defeated.  Tobruk was the first time they were repulsed and it wasn’t just Rommel who was outraged, the German High Command was livid.  They were especially galled to discover that their crack troops had been stymied by a bunch of volunteers.  As a captured German diary showed:

Our opponents are Englishmen and Australians.  No trained attacking troops, but men with nerves and toughness, tireless, taking punishment with obstinacy, wonderful in defence.  Ah well, the Greeks also spent ten years before Troy. (p 186)

The defenders comprised 14,000 Australian soldiers commanded by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead,  about 5000 men in four regiments of British artillery, and about 500 Indian troops under the command of the British.  For both sides, Tobruk was critical because the Allies wanted to keep Rommel tied up in Libya while they regrouped after their defeat in Greece, and the Axis Powers wanted to get on with having control of the oil fields.

Chester Wilmot was an embedded war correspondent with the AIF, and he wrote this landmark text during 1943 while he was becalmed in Sydney.  (He’d lost his accreditation because he’d offended General Blamey with criticism of the high command supplying the troops in New Guinea).  With the war still raging, Wilmot used this time to write a unique military history of the Siege of Tobruk.

As Peter Cochrane says in the Introduction:

In Tobruk 1941, Wilmot’s roving eye blends coverage of fast-moving events and battle with rich social observation, and melds the local story with its global implications.  His narrative is punctuated with biographical cameos and excerpts from interviews with the men of the garrison, so the vernacular figures prominently in an erudite text.  He is the educated Australian who can lapse into pub-yarn mode, his manner easy, his intellect sharp.  He is both military analyst and social historian, providing eyewitness accounts of combat and conditions in the fortress, covering themes such as food, fleas, health, work, sport, concerts and other entertainment.  He is pioneering a new form of military history, blending a cool dissection of material realities with a record of battle and striking descriptions of everyday life.  (p. xi)

The siege conditions were difficult, to say the least.  It was fiercely hot by day and the nights were cold, but it was the dust storms that were a severe trial:

They were far worse at Tobruk than in the open desert beyond.  Within the perimeter thousands of wheels had churned the baked crust of the earth into a fine powder, and every wind whipped it into a choking cloud.  The men breathed dust, and ate dust.  Every few days the wind raised a storm that blotted out everything.  But regardless of this the troops had to man their posts and guns; drive their vehicles without windscreens; unload ships or lay mines.  (p.206)

The diet was adequate but not nutritious and as the months went by there were cases of ‘desert sores’.  Little scratches took weeks to heal.  The water ration was just eight cups a day – and that was for all uses including washing – prompting a joke that the Diggers couldn’t wave a white handkerchief in surrender because they didn’t have any clean ones.   Wilmot – who knew all this because he was living it too – describes cricket matches to alleviate boredom alongside the casualties from the incessant bombing which could come from anywhere.  He notes that ‘shell shock’ was rare, and malingerers rarer still, and he provides examples of Aussie wit:

There’s militant teetotallers
Who abhor all kinds of drink,
There’s wives who break good bottles
And pour them down the sink;
This place would suit them to the ground,
We’ve searched in every nook,
But booze is rare as hen’s teeth in
This place they call Tobruk. (p.211)

If the Rats were bored and longing for a beer, the crack German troops were seriously disgruntled.  Wilmot had access to the diaries of captured Germans, and they reveal that their pride was hurt by the indignity of their situation:

They had been picked and trained for offensive warfare.  Many of them had been fattened on the quick victories and easy loot of the European campaigns.  They disliked a defensive role: still more distasteful was the task of digging holes in the unfriendly Libyan plateau, working in sandstorm and in heat that often rose to 110 degrees.  (p. 203)

The German rank and file were fed up with having nothing to do and nothing much to eat, because Rommel’s supply lines were dislocated.  They wanted to attack and teach these volunteer Aussies a lesson.  But by contrast morale within the besieged Tobruk was high because the Rats knew how important their role was – because they heard it in signals from the highest levels:

‘Personal Gen. MORSHEAD from C.-in-C.  Your magnificent defence is upsetting enemy’s plans for attack on EGYPT and giving us time to build up force for counter offensive.  You could not repeat not be doing better service.  Well done.’

‘To General MORSHEAD from PRIME MINISTER ENGLAND.  The whole empire is watching your steadfast and spirited defence of this important outpost of EGYPT with gratitude and admiration.’ (p.188)

In the course of writing this review I visited Wikipedia, and – because I would like young Australians to know the story of Uncle Doug and his fellow Rats of Tobruk – I can’t help but comment on how dull and uninspiring the Wikipedia entry is, compared to Wilmot’s vivid writing.  Sometimes history is worth reading because of the subject matter and sometimes it’s worth reading because of the quality of the writing.  But Tobruk 1941 is worth reading because it’s both.  Chapter 2, ‘Break Through’ relates the capture of Tobruk from the Italians, and it begins like this:

Their only weapons were a thin willowy stick, a pair of scissors, a pocket full of nails and a revolver.  Yet they were the advance guard of the 16000 Australian and British troops who assembled on the dark face of the desert on the night of January 20th, 1941, ready to attack Tobruk before dawn.  On the steady nerves and fingers of these men with strange weapons, the waiting infantry relied to clear the maze of booby-traps, which screened the Italian defences.

They were thirty-three members of 2/1st Field Company, led by Lieutenant S.B. Cann.  Several hours before moonrise they moved out into no-man’s land to the accompaniment of jibes from infantry, who little realised how important those thin willowy sticks were.  A stinging wind swept the desert and the sappers were thankful for their army-issue jerkins and long woollen underwear, and for ‘rum-primed’ water bottles, which were some compensation for the greatcoats they had left behind.  To lessen risk of detection  they wore woollen Balaclavas instead of tin hats and their shiny leather jerkins were turned inside out.  (p. 29)

I found it interesting that I developed a different kind of reading skill for this book.  In some ways it was like the experience of learning to read legalese when I was doing a law degree.  It’s not hard, it’s just a matter of getting used to concepts, vocabulary and acronyms that are just not part of an everyday vocabulary.  I did get used to the military acronyms, but it took a bit longer to be able to visualise all the different kinds of weapons, planes and ships.  (There are maps that show events, but I would also have liked one that showed Tobruk’s position in North Africa and the Mediterranean.)

The other thing that happened as I read, was that I became very conscious of the casualties.  Wilmot mentions few heroic deaths by name, but I think most 21st century readers will read between the lines with a keen awareness of the enormous human cost of this one episode in a war that lasted six years.  When Wilmot wrote – not casually, but without lingering over details – about a ship going down during the relief operation, I thought about the people on board, and their families and their descendants.  I don’t think I’ve ever been made quite so aware of the courage of individual men even though Wilmot mostly only names the officers.

I don’t know how this book stacks up against contemporary histories of this heroic story: Tobruk 1941 was written during the war so perhaps we should assume not just that some matters were self-censored, but also that its mildly triumphalist tone was not just asserting a strategic and symbolic enemy defeat but was also intended to sustain domestic morale.  Cochrane notes that Wilmot had little to say about the Indian contribution and local civilian casualties, and my guess is that contemporary military historians would attempt to redress these omissions with research.  Populist historians might be inclined towards being dismissive or critical of the British as they so often are, but Wilmot is at pains to acknowledge the complementary efforts of the Tommies and the Diggers, invoking the Anzac spirit to praise the dashing courage and initiative of the Australians in the vanguard while admiring the Churchillian spirit of the dogged and indefatigable British.  Aware that there was a tendency for some war correspondents to give all the credit to the Australians, Wilmot writes extensively about the British artillery that – without air support – repulsed German aircraft and he acknowledges that nothing could have been achieved without them.

But at heart, he says in the Preface, we are all British, which is not something anyone would suggest today:

A few words of explanation may be necessary on the vexed question of the use of the term ‘British’.  Where I have spoken at large of our forces as opposed to the enemy’s, ‘British’ embraces all the Imperial, Dominion and Allied troops. But wherever I have spoken of particular forces I have used it – lacking any suitable alternative – to refer only to those of the United Kingdom.  This obviously does not imply that Australians regard themselves as any less British than the people of the British Isles.  (p. 8)

Quaint, eh? Well just remember – it’s not all that long ago that Australians had British citizenship and British passports!

Author: Chester Wilmot
Title: Tobruk, 1941
Introduction by Peter Cochrane
Publisher: Text Classics, Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781925498455
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Tobruk 1941: Text Classics (Text Classics)
Or direct from Text, where it is also available as an eBook.


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  2. A very perceptive and considered review. Like many people of my age inclined to pacifism, I think that at some stage I would have had to enlist to fight during WWII. The consequences of Hitler or the Japanese winning would have been horrendous. And I think I commented recently elsewhere that war stories written by people ‘who were there’ have an authenticity that often makes them compelling reading.

    • Yes, we chez T&L think so too. Most wars are futile, but WW2 was different.
      Wilmot wrote another one called The Struggle for Europe and I’d like to read that as well.

  3. Hadn’t heard of this one. I’ve read a few titles about WWII from the Aussie perspective and it’s been a bit of an eye opener.

    • Our war literature has tended to focus on WW1 and overshadow WW2 until fairly recently but there is more interest in WW2 now that all the old ANZACs are dead. My generation’s parents who fought in WW2 are now also very old and there’s a sense that their stories should be known.

  4. I’d be very interested to read this. My father was captured at the fall of Tobruk in June 42 and spent two years in Italian POW (Chieti and Sulmona) camps before escaping. The only part of his memoirs that he wrote was about his war experiences and he stayed in touch with the men he escaped with. My sister is now secretary of the Monte San Martino Trust which raises money to pay bursaries for young Italians to come over and learn English. It is a way for the families of those men who were helped by the Italians to express their gratitude for the risks taken on their behalf.

    • Hello Victoria, what an amazing story!
      Wilmot mentions a number of occasions when POWs escaped and got back inside the Tobruk perimeter but he doesn’t tell the story of how they did it. (Perhaps because it was still wartime, and their strategies were best kept secret in case the Nazis got hold of it?)
      You know, it was not until I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin that I realised how ambivalent the Italians were about being allied with Germany. I read a bit of translated fiction but I’ve never come across anything from Italy about that period except for Between Enemies (https://anzlitlovers.com/2015/11/24/between-enemies-by-andrea-molesini-translated-by-antony-shugaar-and-patrick-creagh/), a book which was set *after* Italy had jettisoned Germany and joined the allies.

      • Thanks very much for the link Lisa. One of the things that my father used to rant about was what happened after the armistice when Italy came out of the war. There was a brief moment when the allied POW camps in Italy were left unguarded because the Italian soldiers put down their arms. But an order was issued to the senior officers in the camps that POWs should stay where they were because they didn’t want allied POWs running around all over the place while the allies were trying to fight their way up through Italy. Montgomery thought that the allies would sweep through Italy easily but that certainly didn’t happen and very quickly the Germans took over guarding the camps and began shipping the POWs back to Germany. It was a scandalous decision because many of the POWs then died in Germany. Here’s a link to a post I did on it a while back now. (https://victoriablakewriter.wordpress.com/2014/09/08/the-scandal-of-m19-and-the-stay-put-order/)

        • It was bizarre – and tragic – the way the Germans used up their resources ferrying POWs and the Jews around….

  5. Wonderful review, Lisa! So nice to know that Wilmot’s prose is vivid. Loved reading the comments too, especially your conversation with Victoria Blake.


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