The Surrender Of the Tobruk Garisson June 1942
Allan Sinclair, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History, 30 April 2020
June is an important month in South Africa’s history owing to the 16 June 1976 protests initiated by the students of Soweto against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of education. That event became a turning point in the struggle for democracy and the day has been commemorated officially as Youth Day since the advent of democracy on 27 April 1994.
Another significant event in our nation’s military history also took place in June during the Second World War (1939–1945). This was the unfortunate surrender of the garrison of Tobruk in North Africa to the Axis (German and Italian) Panzergruppe Afrika under the command of General Erwin Rommel on 21 June 1942. A large portion of the garrison was provided by the 2nd South African Division. This event was disastrous for South Africa as 10 500 South Africans went into captivity with many of them spending the remainder of the Second World War in prisoner-of-war (POW) camps in Italy and Germany.
The surrender of the garrison in just three days became an unwarranted embarrassment for the South African soldier. It was regarded as so after a predominantly Australian garrison had successfully endured a similar siege of 241 days in Tobruk the previous year.
Figure 1: Tobruk (Oil on canvas by G Long, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History, Cat No 2019).
Events leading up to the siege
The siege took place during the North African Campaign of 1940 to 1943. The town of Tobruk on the Libyan coast has a natural harbour and is one of the few places along the North African coastline where spring water can be used for human consumption. Martin describes how the town was particularly important as a logistics base during the war. Control of the port shortened the long supply lines experienced by both sides as the campaign swung one way and another over the inhospitable terrain of the Western Desert. Rommel’s forces would not have the capacity to penetrate into Egypt as far as the Nile Delta without control of Tobruk.
Figure 2: Map of the Western Desert in North Africa (Connel, 240).
Following the British 8th Army’s Crusader offensive of November 1941, the Axis forces retreated west across Libya to El Agheila in Cyrenaica. Nonetheless, in January 1942 Rommel was on the offensive again and pushed the 8th Army back as far as the Gazala Line situated approximately 48km west of Tobruk.
On 26 May 1942 Rommel launched a further attack on the 8th Army defences at Gazala. In the weeks that followed the Panzergruppe Afrika decisively overwhelmed the 8th Army’s armoured forces. The fate of the Tobruk garrison was now at stake. Initially the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) in the Middle East, Gen Sir Claude Auchinleck, did not wish Tobruk to be surrounded and isolated from the rest of the army. He was well aware that the defences around the perimeter of the town were no longer capable of withstanding a formal siege as they had been the previous year. He also knew that another siege would be a huge drain on Allied resources in the Mediterranean.
The problem lay not in military strategy but in political attitude. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was determined that Tobruk must be held to maintain the honour of the British Empire and insisted on this in a series of cables between London and Cairo. Auchinleck was forced to accede and issued an order to the C-in-C of the 8th Army, Lt Gen Neil Ritchie, on 14 June to defend Tobruk at all costs and not allow the enemy to encircle the town. Ritchie failed to carry out these instructions and withdrew the remainder of the 8th Army back passed the Egyptian on 16 June. In complete defiance of Auchinleck’s orders the garrison was left isolated. As Connel records, the tragedy of Tobruk lay with the inflexibility of Churchill, the ineffectiveness and indiscipline of Ritchie and the capitulation by Auchinleck to both these influences.
The siege and surrender of the garrison
The garrison inside Tobruk contained the 2nd South African Division less one brigade, the 11th Indian Brigade, the 201st Guards Brigade and the 32nd Army Tank Brigade. South African troops comprised a large portion of the garrison and the overall commander was the General Officer Commanding 2nd Division, Maj Gen H B Klopper. Horn and Katz allude to the relative inexperience of both the 2nd Division and its commander. In stark contrast its sister division, the 1st South African Division, which had seen service in Italian East Africa and in the Crusader offensive, the 2nd Division’s only experience of battle had been in the capture of the Axis garrison at Bardia six months previously. Likewise Klopper had only been appointed as Division Commander the preceding month at the age of 39. Prior to that he held the position of Chief of Staff to the former divisional commander and had never commanded a brigade or a battalion in combat. To make matters worse Klopper also had an extremely untried staff at his disposal..
By 17 June Tobruk was completely surrounded and cut off from the rest of the 8th Army. Initially, there was a general belief that the garrison could hold out for two months. The town had adequate supplies stockpiled and Klopper informed Maj Gen Frank Theron, the General Officer Commanding (GOC): South African Administration, in Cairo, on 16 June that morale amongst the men was excellent and, in his opinion, they were ready to put up a good fight.
As Krige neared the battle scene, it became apparent that the horizon was littered with burned out vehicles and dead bodies. Krige stopped beside a German staff car that had suffered attack by Allied aircraft. The two occupants of the car were slumped dead beside the vehicle. The stench of rotting flesh and hosts of flies provoked such a response in him that his sketchbook provided the only answer.
Figure 3: The Defences at Tobruk (Martin 144)
The magnitude of the attack, however, was not expected. During the early morning on 21 June the Axis launched a full assault on the south-eastern corner of the perimeter and within a short period of time overran the positions held by the 11th Indian Brigade. By the afternoon most of the defence emplacements had been destroyed by air power and the eastern sector lay in Axis hands. Klopper, realising the ominous situation he now faced, considered breaking out and fighting his way through the Axis formations. It was soon made evident that this would not be possible as the bulk of his transport had also been captured. The only option other than surrender was to make a final stand against the might of the Axis army closing in on the town. Klopper feared the casualties which would be the result and after coming to terms with the fact that any further resistance was useless, eventually chose to surrender the garrison. Connel writes that the majority of the South African troops were shocked by this order. As seen on the above map, their positions were located on the western and south-western sectors of the perimeter and they barely witnessed any action during the entire period of the assault.
Events after the surrender
Some 35 000 Allied troops, including 10 500 South Africans were forced to lay down their arms and submit to Rommel’s victorious forces. The 8th Army also suffered the loss of 2 000 vehicles, 2 000 tons of fuel and 5 000 tons of rations in the process. Most of the prisoners-of-war had to endure rigorous route marches and a journey across the Mediterranean to Italy where they were incarcerated in Italian POW camps. A small number which included Klopper managed to escape captivity after the Italian armistice of September 1943 and were able to either make it back to Allied lines or reach the safety of Switzerland.
FIgure 4: Maj Gen H B Klopper and a reproduction of a sketch by Nils Solberg after Klopper returned to Allied lines (DNMMH File 920 Klopper).
While most of the prisoners were transported to POW camps in Italy the Germans kept all the black, coloured and Indian South Africans in Tobruk to be used for various tasks such as unloading ships. There they were badly treated and forced to endure long working hours. The Germans also gave them false information on the progress of the war.
One such soldier, L-Cpl Job Masego, came across a radio set, the workings of which he understood, and set it up in a crater which had been formed by an unexploded bomb. He took the risk of sitting on the unexploded bomb at night to listen to the true news about the war. On hearing about the Allied victory at El Alamein in November 1942, he made plans to escape. Masego first sank a fully laden steamer moored in the harbour by placing a small tin filled with cordite, extracted from rifle cartridges among drums of fuel in the hold, leading a fuse from there to the hatch and lighting it using his last cigarette after closing the hatch. He then escaped with several other prisoners and after ten days in the desert, was rescued and returned to safety. Masego was later awarded the Military Medal for his ingenuity, determination and complete disregard for personal danger.
Consequences of the surrender
Horn and Katz reflect on the consequences of the surrender for South Africa. The disaster, which took place a mere seven months after the destruction of the 5th South African Brigade at Sidi Rezegh the previous November, led to a realisation that 33% of South Africa’s fighting forces had been lost. As a country that had been fervently divided on the issue of taking part in the war, and which could only rely on volunteers to fill the ranks of the Union Defence Forces, South Africa found it difficult to recover from these losses and could barely maintain one division for the remainder of the war.
According to Martin the order to surrender was received with disbelief by the troops. A vast majority accepted that there should at least have been an attempt to make a stand and feelings of dismay and shame descended on everybody as they marched into captivity. Such feelings were not helped by the fact that the South Africans became the target of resentment by their fellow POWs from other Allied nations after they had been placed in POW camps. Cases of fights amongst the POWs were recorded as a result of snide remarks and accusations of cowardice against South Africans.[12
For the South African Prime-Minister, Field Marshal J C Smuts, the fall of Tobruk was a catastrophe that gave both the pro-war and the anti-war factions in South Africa endless grounds for criticism. It is easy to envisage how a large portion of the population who had been opposed to fighting on the side of Britain would have reacted. Much of the right wing press emphasised their belief that South African troops had being sacrificed needlessly by British incompetence. Amongst the pro-war lobby rumours of Klopper’s believed disloyalty and fifth-column elements within the Union Defence Forces became widespread.
Following Klopper’s successful escape from captivity in Italy, he expressed a concern to clear his name and face the court of enquiry that had been formed shortly after the disaster. The enquiry found that Klopper was essentially not to blame for the surrender. Nevertheless, the verdict was kept secret and did little to enhance his reputation or that of his troops. In 1944 Smuts investigated the possibility of providing a Cape Corps Brigade to serve with the 6th South African Armoured Division in Italy. He specifically wanted Klopper to vindicate himself by being placed in command of such a brigade. The South African cabinet, however, turned down the proposal and Klopper had to spend the remainder of the war as Officer-Commanding Northern Command in South Africa. He would later go on to serve in senior positions in the military and eventually retired as Commandant General of the South African Defence Force in 1958.
Connel is fervent in his opinion that the blame for the surrender of Tobruk rested entirely with Churchill. In his words, Churchill was frequently at fault when it came to matters military and failed to recognise that he was one of the chief instigators of the disaster while harshly laying the blame at those such as Auchinleck who had been obliged to follow his orders. In fact when Churchill received the news of the surrender his first words were: “Defeat is one thing, disgrace is another”.
Auchinleck and the 8th Army did manage to halt the Axis advance at El Alamein in Egypt a month later, while at the 2nd Battle of El Alamein launched in October 1942 Rommel’s forces were finally expelled from Egypt. Yet, even though South African troops played a significant role in both these battles, the stigma attached to the surrender at Tobruk remained with the South African soldier for the remainder of the war and for many years after the war. Questions that have to be asked are, firstly, was it necessary for Tobruk to be held at all costs? The answer here is no with the reasons being discussed at length in this article. Secondly, why was Klopper placed in command of the 2nd South African Division and of the garrison at Tobruk? Surely there were better qualified commanders available to undertake this task? The thought process behind a decision to place the fate of Tobruk in the hands of an officer with no battlefield experience would be an interesting study. It is reasonable to conclude that the surrender of the garrison at Tobruk in June 1942 is without a doubt the greatest military disaster suffered by South Africa at any time in its military history.
-  . John Connel, Auchinleck: A Biography of Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck (London, Cassell, 1959), 605.
-  . A. C. Martin, The Durban Light Infantry (Vol II) (Durban, DLI Regt Association, 1969), 150.
-  . Barrie Pitt, The Crucible of War (2): Auchinleck’s Command (London, MacMillan, 1986), 232.
-  . John Connel, 579.
-  . Karen Horn and David Katz. “The Surrender of Tobruk in 1942: Press Reports and Soldiers’Memories” in Scientia Militaria, ed I van der Waag, 190.
-  . J.A.I. Agar-Hamilton & L.C.F. Turner, Crisis in the Desert (London, Oxford University Press, 1952), 129.
-  . John Connel, 590.
-  . Karen Horn and David Katz, 202.
-  . Cat no 1784, Official Second World War Art Collection Catalogue, (Johannesburg, DNMMH, 1987)
-  . Karen Horn and David Katz, 198.
-  . A.C. Martin, 205
-  . Karen Horn and David Katz, 201.
-  . John Connel, 605.
-  . Karen Horn and David Katz, 198.
-  . Karen Horn and David Katz, 202.
-  . H J Martin & N D Orpen , South Africa at War (Cape Town, Purnell, 1979), 298 – 299.
-  . John Connel, 593, 594.
- Agar-Hamilton, J. A. I. & Turner, L. C. F. 1952. Crises in the Desert. London: Oxford University Press.
- Connel, John. 1959. Auchinleck: A Biography of Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck. London: Cassell.
- Martin, A. C. 1969. The Durban Light Infantry Vol II. Durban: DLI Regimental Association.
- Martin, A. C. & Orpen, N. D. South Africa at War. Cape Town: Purnell.
- Pitt, Barrie. 1986. The Cruicible of War 2: Auchinleck’s Command. London: MacMillan.
- Horn, Karen & Katz, David. “The Surrender of Tobruk in 1942: Press Reports and Soldiers’ Memories” in Scientia Militaria Vol 44, No 1 (2016): 190 – 208.
- Official Second World War Art Collection Catalogue. 1988. Johannesburg: DNMMH.
- Library File 920 (Klopper, H B), Johannesburg: DNMMH.