Another Thorn in Rommel's Side

When the DAK rolled up the British forces in Cyrenaica in 1941, Rommel had great expectations of rolling right on into Tobruk as well. Little did he know that Tobruk would stand defiant for more than a year before he could finally claim it. The heavy losses that his troops took in April 1941 attempting to "crack" the Tobruk defenses would haunt him for months to come, and the venture soon became known as "The Verdun of the Desert".
For the first assault, Streich sent in Ponath's weary 8th MG.Bn, supported by 20 tanks. The 9th Australian Division was in well prepared positions and cut them to pieces. One lone tank returned. After this even more concerted attacks were lodged, but the anti-tank defenses and minefields were so extensive that failure inevitably resulted. This inability to take Tobruk after a number of costly attacks would continually nag at Rommel, and affect many of his future decisions.
Tobruk was a well prepared fortress, just bristling with defensive weapons and artillery. Supplied by both sea and air, it would constantly pose a threat to Rommel's rear, and his supply routes. In a matter of 3 months the Italians would build a lengthy paved detour road, named the "Achenstrasse", which circumnavigated the Tobruk defenses, and also allowed Axis troops to move quickly to any hot spots that developed. However, the siege would also tie down most of the Italian troops available, just to keep it in check.
The British forces did not sit idley by and wait for the next attack. Nightly patrols from the Tobruk perimeter harassed and killed enemy troops on a regular bases. The Gurka troops, especially, had a bad habit of bringing back the ears of their victims as proof of their night's work.
In June of 1942, after successfully outmaneuvering the British in the Gazala Line battles, Rommel would once again faced the problem of penetrating the Tobruk defenses and taking this port city. This time he would succeed, with his attack going in at the southeast corner, the same spot the British had attacked to seize it from the Italians in early 1941.
A total of 30,000 Allied troops soon marched into captivity. Booty from Tobruk included captured guns and vehicles, plus enough fuel for a 100 mile advance, and untold luxuries for the Axis troops, such as white bread, tobacco, and even beer from Munich, which the British quartermaster had rounded up in Lisbon.


Tobruk. 10 April 1941. Toward evening we reached our advanced positions 171/2 miles in front of Tobruk. We had covered 100 miles and wearily we pitch camp. Vehicles are checked over. I have to force the louvres open with a hammer, the sand has jammed them so badly.
Tobruk 11 April 1941. At 0900 hours we move off into the desert again to the S.E in order to cut off Tobruk from the south. With us are anti-tank, machine gun, and anti-aircraft guns.
Ten miles south of Tobruk and already the enemy's artillery is giving us an H.E. welcome. As soon as they get the range we withdraw 100 - 200 yards. Their fire follows us - their observation must be good. At 1630 hours we attack with two half-squadrons. The artillery puts down a barrage, but can make little impression on us.
We are through! We charge onward for 1,000 yards and then turn carefully through a minefield. As the smoke lifts, I see barbed wire and anti-tank trenches. "Halt!" Gun Flashes. "Gun, 9 o'clock. A.P shell, light-coloured mound, fire!" A hit. Again - 10 yards to the right ... with six shots we have finished off the anti-tank position. We move along the wire looking for a gap and the leading tank finds one, and in doing so runs onto a mine of course. Another goes to its rescue, while I give covering fire.
Tobruk 14 April 1941. At 0010 I am contacted , and ordered to report with the company commander at 0100 hours. Situation: Machinegunners and engineers have worked a gap through the anti-tank defenses; 5th Tank Regiment, 8th Machinegun Battalion, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft artillery will cross the gap under the cover of darkness and overwhelm the position. Stuka attack at 0645 hours. 0715 hours. Storming of Tobruk. With least possible noise 2nd Battalion, Regimental H.Q Company and 1st Battalion move off completey blacked out. Bitterly cold. Of course, the enemy recognizes us by the noise and as ill luck will have it, a defective spot-light on one of the cars in front goes on and off.
Soon artillery fire starts coming in, getting the range. The shells explode like fireworks. We travel six miles, every nerve on edge. From time to time isolated groups of soldiers appear - men of the 6th Machinegun Battalion - and suddenly we are in the gap. Already the tank is nose down in the first ditch. The motor whines; I catch a glimpse of the stars through the shutter, then for the second time the tank goes down, extricating itself backwards with a telltale thud, the engines grinding. We are through and immediately take up file in battle order.
In front of us 8th Company, then 2nd Battalion H.Q Company, then 5th Company. With my troop I travel just left of the (6) company commander. With 2nd Battalion HQ about 60 men of 8th Machinegun Battalion with Oberst Ponath are marching in scattered groups. Tanks and infantry? - against all rules. Behind us follow the Regimental HQ Company and 1st Battalion plus the other arms. Slowly, much too slowly, the column moves forward. We must, of course, regulate our speed by the marching troops, and so the enemy has time to prepare resistance. The more the darkness lifts, the harder the enemy strikes. Destructive fire starts up in front of us now -1-2-3-10-12-16 bursts and more. Five batteries of 25-pounders rain hail on us. 8th Company presses forward to get at them. Our heavy tanks, it is true, fire for all they are worth, so do we all, but the enemy with his superior force and all the tactical advantages of his own territory makes heavy gaps in our tanks.
Wireless; "9 o'clock anti-tank gun, 5 o'clock tank!" We are right in the middle of it now, with no prospects of getting out. From both flanks A.P. shells whizz by. Wireless "Right turn, Left turn retire." Now we come slap into the middle of 1st Battalion, which is following us. Some of our tanks are already on fire. The crews call for doctors, who alight to help in this witch's cauldron. English anti-tank units fall upon us, with their machineguns firing into our midst; but we have no tome. My driver, in the thick of it, says "The engines are no longer running properly, brakes not acting, transmission working only with great difficulty."
We bear off to the right. Anti-tank guns 900 metres distant in the hollow behind, and a tank. Behind that in the next dip 1000 yards away another tank. How many? I see only the effect of the fire on the terrace-like dispositions of the enemy.
Above us Italian fighter planes come into the fray. Two of them crash in our midst. The optical instruments are covered with dust. Nevertheless, I register several unmistakable hits. A few anti-tank guns are silenced, some enemy tanks are burning. Just then we are hit, and the wireless is smashed to bits. Now our communications are cut off. What is more, our ammunition is giving out. I follow the battalion commander. Our attack is fading out. From every side the superior forces of the enemy shoot at us.
"Retire!" There is a crash just behind us. The engine and petrol tank are in the rear. The tank must be on fire. I turn around and look through the slit. It is not burning. Our luck is holding. Poor 8th Machine Gunners! We take a wounded man and two others aboard, and the other tanks do the same. Most of the men have bullet wounds. At its last gasp my tank follows the others, whom we lose from time to time in the clouds of dust. But we have to press on to the south, as that is the only way through. Good God, supposing we don't find it, and the engines won't go anymore!
Close to the right and left flanks the English shoot into our midst. We are hit in the tracks of our tank, and they creak and groan. The minefield lane is in sight. Everyone hurries toward it. English anti-tank guns shoot into the mass. Our own anti-tank guns and 8.8cm guns are almost deserted, the crews lying silent beside them. The Italian artillery, which was to have protected our left flank is equally deserted.
We go on. Now comes the gap and the ditch! The driver can't see a thing for dust, nor I either. We drive on instinct. The tank almost gets stuck in the two ditches blocking the road, but manages to extricate itself, with great difficulty. Examine damage to my tank. My men extract an AP shell from the right hand auxiliary petrol tank. That petrol tank was shot away and the petrol ran out without igniting!
Tobruk. 14 April 1941. At 1200 hours we retire into the wadi south of us. We cover up. Heavy cumulus clouds cover the sky. Every 10-30 minutes 2 or 3 English bombers swoop out of them to bomb the tanks. Every bomber drops 4-8 bombs. Explosions all around. It goes on like this until 1900 hours without a pause. Casualties in 2nd Battalion of 5th Tank Regiment, 10 tanks, apart from frive 7.5 cm guns of 8th Co.! A few dead, several wounded, more missing. The anti-tank units and the light and heavy AA were badly shot up and the 8th Machinegunners were cut to pieces. The regiment has lost all of its doctors - presumably captured. The regiment is practically wiped out!
Tobruk. 15 April 1941. Artillery fire from 700 hours. The bombers repeat yesterday's game. My troop has two heavy tanks again. Tank No. 625 isn't running any longer, however. It only serves as a pillbox. According to orders, I report at the brigade commander's office at 1200 hours. Once more the principal subject discussed is the action in front of Tobruk on 14th April. We simply cannot understand how we ever managed to get out again. It is the general opinion that it was the most severely fought battle of the whole war. But what can the English think of us! A weak battalion, only two squadrons strong, bursts through the complex defense systems until it is just a mile from the town, shoots everything to bits, engages the enemy on a ll sides, an then gets away again.
The war in Africa is quite different from the war in Europe. That is to say, it is absolutely individual. Here there are not the masses of men and material. Nobody and nothing can be concealed. It doesn't matter whether it is a battle between opposing land forces, or between airforces, or both; it is the same sort of fighting, face to face, each side thrusting and counter-thrusting. If the struggle were not so brutal, so entirely without rules, you might compare it with the jousting of knights. And now before Tobruk.
Tobruk. 20 April 1941. In the afternoon tank No. 623 rolls up with a new engine. Now I have the strongest squadron in the regiment: Four PzKpfw II tanks, four PzKpfw III. Gradually, however, the job of squadron commander is becoming difficult. I have absolutely nothing to go by, everything is in the desert. Where are the tanks, where are the HQ cars and squadron office? And I have no command tank and no motorcycle - and then the reports and the paper-war which begins as soon as the last shot has been fired!
Tobuk. 23 April 1941. The journey I planned has been postponed owing to the arrival of Lt. Grim with 6 tanks. The engines of the tanks are partly new. Partly overhauled in the factory. They have new gears, transmission, brakes, etc. The British do not miss the chance of sharing the welcome with some well-aimed fire. The faithful 625, which is the only heavy tank of the squadron remaining with us, will now be sent back to have its six shell wounds cured. Whilst in the workshop it will have its engines changed.
Tobruk. 29 April 1941. 50 dive-bombers circling over Tobruk. Tank 622 turns up. They tell us about the desert - of hunger and thirst, of Benghazi and of Derna. Since tank 625 is still in the workshops, I am getting No. 634 as my fifth tank, with Sergeant Schafer, my driving instructor from Wunsdorf.'
Tobruk. 30 April 1941. Put finishing touches to our preparations for battle. 1745 hours. March to assembly place. Strong Stuka attacks. 2000 hours: our own strong artillery bombards the enemy heavily, 8th Machinegunners in front. 1st Engineer Battalion and 1st Battalion of Assault Engineers break through and demolish the barriers on either side. The light signals show that the attack has begun. At 2200 hour sleep under the tank.
Tobruk. 1 May 1941. We intend to take Tobruk. My fourth attack on the town. Up at 0330 hours, leave at 0430 hours. We lose touch in the darkness and dust, and then join up again. We file through the gap where many of our comrades have already fallen. Then we deploy at once, 6th Sqn. on the left, 5th Sqn. on the right, behind HQ, 8th and 7th Sqns. The regiment is now Hohmann's Mobile Battalion and consists altogether of about 80 tanks. The English artillery fires on us at once.
We attack! No German patrol goes in front to reconnoitre. Tier upon tier of guns boom out from the triangular fortification before us. The two light troops of the company and my left section are detailed off to make a flanking movement. I attack. Wireless message: "Commander of 6th Co. hit on track." Then things happen suddenly. A frightful crash in front and to the right. Direct hit by artillery shell. No! It must be a mine. Immediately send wireless message: "Commander Schorm on a mine, will try to get old directio!n."
Move five metres back - another detonation! Mine underneath to the left. Now it's all up - with driving. Wireless message: "Getting back went on mine again." Now mount tank 623. Back through the artillery fire for 100 meters and got in. Wireless: "Tanks active behind ridge. Men of the mined tank all right."
Back carefully. Then with the last tank in Company HQ and Lt. Roskoll I give cover to the north. 9 heavy and 3 light tanks of the squadron have had to give up owing to the mines. Of my troop, the commander's tank and both of the section leaders' tanks are damaged. Of course the enemy went on shooting at us for some time. A slight change of position: forward - right - backwards - left! With the commander's approval I am to move up in front to salvage tanks. Whilst we are on the way we are fired at by MGs and anti-tank guns from about 500 yards. I silence them with HE and drive in the tracks of 624.
I bring up the rear and then the laborious work of salvaging begins. The anti-tank gunfire starts up again and has to be kept in check by constant fire. At last I move off slowly with 624 in tow, through the gap and on another 800 yards. 250,000 Marks saved. The crew is really delighted to have its tank back. It is now late afternoon. Dive-bombers and twin-engined fighters have been attacking the enemy constantly.
In spite of this, the British repeatedly make counter-thrusts with tanks. As soon as the planes have gone the artillery starts up furiously. It is beginning to grow dark. Which is friend, and which is foe? Shots are being fired all over the place, often on your own troops and tanks in front on their way back. Suddenly a wireless message: "British attacking gap with infantry." It is actually true.
Two companies get off their motor lorries and extend in battle order. All sorts of light signals go up - green, white, red. The flares hiss down near our own MGs. It is already too late to take aim. Well, the attack is a failure. The little Fiat-Ansaldos go up in front with flame-throwers in order to clean up the triangle. Long streaks of flame, thick smoke, filthy stink. We provide cover until 2345 hours, then retire through the gap. It is a mad drive through the dust. At 0300 hours have snack beside tank. 24 hours shut up in the tank, with frightful cramp as a result - and thirsty!
Tobruk. 2 May 1941. Heading out to recover tanks .....
Here the diary ends, as the Panzer Officer was captured by the British.