… and you never know just quite what you might achieve in life. That is exactly what Adolf Hitler had in mind when he sent his most trusted commander General Erwin Rommel to North Africa. The fortunes of his Axis partners Italy had been disastrous, Rommel however would soon become known as “The Desert Fox” a mark of the respect that Allied troops held for his abilities. It looked like Hitler’s plan would succeed!
General Rommel rolled back the British, losing all of the ground they had achieved against the Italians, pushing them back across the desert so far that they poured back into their bases in Egypt from where they had started the campaign against the Italians. At a point in the war where Germany and Italy controlled Europe and were seeking to dominate the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt was the prize, as it controlled the Suez Canal and Britain’s lifeline for resupply. Without the Suez all merchant shipping would be forced to take the long and more dangerous route around the Cape of Good Hope and the British base in Malta would be isolated.
On the cusp of achieving that goal, invading Cairo and siezing the shipping lanes, Rommel was at the limit of his own supply lines and needed to take the port of Tobruk in order to re-supply his army before he could continue any further. Hours before encircling the city and closing it off from any reinforcement by land, vital British artillery arrived to join the Australian 9th Division and British tank units under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Leslie James Morshead.
A schoolteacher, Morshead like many Australians answered the call to arms when their Nation needed them. As a young Lieutenant he landed at Gallipoli on ANZAC day 1915, and fought as a Major at the Battle of Lone Pine before becoming a Lieutenant Colonel on the Western front in Europe. An experienced commander he re-joined the AIF in WWII and found himself in charge of the defense of Tobruk.
Told that he had to delay Rommel for eight weeks so that the defenses of Egypt could be prepared, Tobruk not only held out it was finally relieved 240 days later and Rommel was now on the retreat. “The Rats of Tobruk” as Morshead troops had been named, were now part of Australian folklore and show that careful planning and preparation for success, principles that Leslie Morshead demonstrated, were far more important than wishful thinking and optimism alone.
“Lest We Forget”