Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941

I've said it often - the best part of Tobruk was leaving it.

[Laurence McEvoy, 2/48th Battalion AIF]

In 1941, Australians fought in land and air campaigns in Egypt and Libya in North Africa. Three AIF divisions - the 6th, 7th and 9th - fought in those countries. Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships served in the eastern Mediterranean and in particular provided support to ground forces during the 'Siege of Tobruk' (April-December 1941). Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadrons, as well as RAAF personnel serving with Royal Air Force units, provided air support against the Germans and Italians.

In January 1941, Australians fought their first major land battle in World War II when men of the 6th Division AIF, and other Allied troops, engaged Italian forces at the town of Bardia on the coast of Libya. On 3-5 January 1941, the Italian positions were attacked and Bardia was captured. Over 40,000 Italian prisoners were taken.

Troops rushing through the streets of ruined bardia in search of any stray enemy

March 1941, Allied troops rushing through the streets of Bardia in Libya in search of any remaining enemy troops. [AWM 006083]

Advancing west along the Libyan coast, the 6th Australian Division captured Tobruk from the Italians on 21-22 January 1941 and the town became a garrison for the Australian and British forces. In early March, one of Hitler's best generals, Erwin Rommel with his Afrika Korps, came to the aid of their Italian allies in Libya. By April, German forces had begun to cut off and surround Tobruk. For eight months, from April to December 1941,Tobruk was besieged and Australian forces, notably the men of the 9th Division, the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division and RAN ships of the famous 'scrap iron flotilla' played a prominent role in the town's defence.

The year 1941 was a dark one for the Allies. The Germans conquered all before them but Tobruk held out against Rommel and stood in the way of his advance towards Egypt and the Suez Canal. The defiance of the defenders of Tobruk raised morale in the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Those who served there became known as the 'Rats of Tobruk', so-called because the German radio propaganda broadcaster 'Lord Haw Haw' described them as rats living in the ground.

Edmondson on the Federal Highway

Corporal John (Jack) Edmondson is one of the Victoria Cross winners who has been commemorated at a picnic site developed by the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority on the Federal Highway, part of the Remembrance Driveway between Canberra and Sydney.

John Hirst Edmondson, the first Australian to be awarded a Victoria Cross during World War II, was born in Wagga Wagga in New South Wales in 1914. His parents' only son, Edmondson was 26 when he enlisted and was posted to the 2/17th Battalion AIF.

On 13 April 1941, he was involved in a bayonet charge against a party of German troops on the perimeter of the Australian-held area. The Australians were outnumbered and during the hand-to-hand fighting his platoon commander, Lieutenant F Austin Mackell, called for help. Edmondson, despite being mortally wounded himself, managed to shoot or bayonet at least three of the enemy. Mackell survived but John Edmondson 'lay all night on a stretcher at the back of the battle pit' and died the next morning on 14 April 1941.

On 14 June 1941, Lieutenant-Colonel John Crawford, his Commanding Officer, wrote to Edmondson's father in Liverpool, NSW:

His extreme gallantry was such that I submitted a certain recommendation for an Award of a Decoration by the GOC Middle East. My recommendation has now been returned with a suggestion that the circumstances were such as to warrant a posthumous award of the Victoria Cross. I have now submitted such a recommendation, and have every hope that it will be granted. If so, it will be the first award to a member of the AIF.

[Letter of 14 June 1941 to Mr Edmondson from Lt-Col John Crawford, 2/17th Bn AIF. AWM PR89/56]

His parents received the news of his award on 4 July 1941.

Corporal John Edmondson, 2/17th Battalion, AIF, VC citation, The London Gazette, 1 July 1941:

On the night of 13th-14th April, 1941, a party of German infantry broke through the wire defences of Tobruk and established themselves with numerous machine guns, mortars and field pieces. Led by an officer, Corporal Edmondson and five privates carried out a bayonet charge upon them under heavy fire. Although wounded in the neck and stomach Corporal Edmondson not only killed one of the enemy, but went to the assistance of his officer, who was attacked by a German from behind while bayoneting another who had seized him about the legs. Despite his wounds, from which he later died, Corporal Edmondson succeeded in killing these two Germans also, thus undoubtedly saving his officer's life. Throughout the operation he showed outstanding resolution and leadership, and conspicuous bravery.

Sergeant Frank Robert Collins

On 18 June 1942, Mrs J Collins from Hurstville in New South Wales wrote to the Director of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra requesting a copy of this portrait of her son.

Dear Sir,

I have been shown a book which has been published on 'Active Service with Australia in the Middle East'.

On reading through the book I came across a picture of my own son in one of the coloured plates named 'Soldier' after the capture of Tobruk. Would it be possible for you to give me a coloured plate so as I could frame it, you do not know what this would mean to me as he is our only child. We received a letter written in February 1941, when he mentioned he was asked to sit for a painting by the War Officer Painter.

Since then my son was captured after the Crete campaign and is now a prisoner of war at Stalag XX1A Germany.

My son's address when he left Australia was NX2630 Cpl. F R Collins 2/1 Battalion. I am giving you these particulars so as you will see it is genuine, if you need further proof I can forward the letter written to me after the Tobruk campaign

I remain

Yours faithfully,

(sgd). (Mrs.) J Collins.

AWM 315 Item 782/044/011]

Although Ivor Hele usually only classified his portraits by 'type' such as 'airman', or 'soldier', this portrait has been identified as Mrs Collins' son, Sergeant Frank Collins. Mrs Collins' letter is in the Hele collection at the Australian War Memorial. Frank Collins survived his imprisonment and returned to Australia.


Last updated: 27 February 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 2 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/world-war-ii-1939-1945/events/libya-and-siege-tobruk-1941
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