In early 1941, the Allied forces in North Africa, comprised mostly of British and Commonwealth units (the Australians being the largest of the Commonwealth contingents), were making very good progress in driving the Italian forces out of Libya (which the Italians had conquered in 1911). The port of Tobruk was captured by Australian forces from the 6th Division on January 22 along with 27,000 Italian troops.
But in March, Rommel and his Afrika Korps arrived in North Africa to bolster the Italian forces. On March 24, Operation Sonnenblume commenced, an opportunistic effort to push back the Allies. Rommel’s advance was very successful, as the British had sent many of the forces previously stationed in North Africa to fight in Greece, and much of what remained, especially the armour, had fallen back for maintenance and recovery. On April 4, the Axis forces recaptured Benghazi, and by April 10, had encircled Tobruk. An assault on April 11 proved inconclusive for both sides, and the siege commenced in earnest.
The 14,000 men who remained in Tobruk were primarily Australians, with some British and Polish soldiers among them. Collectively, they became known as ‘the Rats of Tobruk’, when the Australians adopted the name they had been given in German propaganda as a badge of honour. (They even made their own service medal in the likeness of a rat, using metal from a German Bomber that they had shot down.) Nearly 4000 of them would give their lives while the siege lasted. The first attempt to break the siege, Operation Battleaxe, was launched by the Allies on June 15, but failed in its goals. The siege was lifted on November 27, and Tobruk would eventually be relieved on December 7, 1941, the same day that the Pearl Harbor attacks brought the US into the war. The siege had lasted a total of 283 days.
It is one of Australia’s greatest military triumphs: a simple holding action across a narrow dirt trail that spanned the inhospitable mountains of the central spine of New Guinea. A much smaller Australian force aided by allied natives struck, fell back, harassed and repeated these steps against the might of the Japanese Army.
Although at almost every step the Australians gave ground, they slowed down the Japanese advance to a crawl, while nibbling away at their forces until the invaders’ supply lines were hopelessly over-extended – and until the Australians could be reinforced. The tide of battle swiftly reversed, but the retreat of the Japanese was much less a fighting retreat than that of the Australians had been.
The First Battle of Ypres began with the first major assault by German forces in the vicinity. Until then, although there had been fighting in the area, it had mostly been limited to skirmishing, as each side attempted to capture ground in what became known as the Race to the Sea. But on October 19, 1914, the German Chief of General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, ordered an assault. The dying began in earnest the next day.
The battle marks one of the first instances of truly modern warfare – and shows how ill-prepared for it both sides were. Poor communications and a failure to understand just how mobile armies could now be occurred in each command. More than two hundred thousand men were killed, wounded or declared missing in action in the course of this battle, which lasted until November 22, 1914, and ended with both sides entrenching across the front. Indeed, the First Battle of Ypres marksed the last major mobile operations on the Western Front until 1918, and began the stalemate that would last another four years, and encompass four more battles at Ypres, including the bloodiest day of the entire war.
The Battle of Lone Pine – or, if you’re Turkish, the Battle of Kanli Sirt – was a five day long engagement betwen the ANZAC forces and the Turkish defenders during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. Part of a larger Allied Assault called the August Offensive, it was about the only successful one, where Australian forces captured their objectives, reinforced them and held them against the Turkish counter-attack. Unfortunately, after August 10, 1915, conditions returned to the stalemate that had previously obtained on the Dardanelles front, and the assault would be abandoned entirely in December of that year.
But in August, 2200 Australians and 5000-6000 Turks were killed or wounded in action, and all for a few square miles of mud that had little impact on the wider conduct of the war. Seven Australians were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions in the battle, for what it’s worth. Today, Lone Pine military cemetary is the site of commemorative services every ANZAC Day.
By 1917, British and Commonwealth forces under General Allenby were slowly progressing northward through Turkish-occupied Palestine, but stalled when they came to Gaza. In October 1917, the third battle of Gaza – the third attempt to wrest it from the Ottoman Empire – began.
The battle at Beersheba (or Birüssebi, as it was then known) was only one facet of this larger battle, but it was here that the critical breakthrough of the battle took place. The decisive moment came with the charge of the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade, who covered six miles to smash through the Turkish lines and capture the town and its strategically important wells more or less intact (15 of the 17 wells remained usable). This victory also marked the last successful horse cavalry charge in modern warfare.
The first battle of El Alamein lasted for 27 days, and was one of the key battles of World War Two. It took place in Egypt, only 66 miles short of Alexandria, where British and Commonwealth forces (Indians, New Zealanders, Australians and South Africans) had retreated and dug in to strong defensive positions with the intent of stopping the German advance across the North African coast.
The British gamble paid off. The battle (and its sequel, three months later) was one of the war’s turning points. At the first battle of El Alamein, the German advance was eventually halted. At the second battle of El Alamein, the German lines were broken and pushed back – and after this, and the near simultaneous battle of Stalingrad – the Axis forces in Europe and Africa fought a defensive war that ended the only way it could, with their defeat.