Gurkhas and the Fall of Tobruk

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Gurkhas and the Fall of Tobruk

The port city of Tobruk in Libya, North Africa, was of crucial strategic importance to both the Allied and Axis forces in the region during the Second World War, as it offered a deep, safe harbour for the transport and supply of men and equipment to whichever side held it, and a fortified position from which to extend control over much of the surrounding region of Cyrenaica. The city had been captured by British and Commonwealth forces from Italian troops in January 1941, but then found itself subject to a protracted siege by Italian and German troops under General Erwin Rommel from April to December, as a renewed German-led offensive pushed allied troops back towards Egypt, leaving Tobruk isolated. This siege was finally lifted by the Allied ‘Operation Crusader’ at the end of 1941. Undaunted and having gained some interceptions to allied communications, Rommel launched a second offensive in May 1942 which again drove the Allied forces back. Tobruk was again put to siege.

The 11th Brigade of the 4th Indian Division, part of the 8th Army, had taken over in the defence of Tobruk in mid-June, as allied forced fell back east. Amongst the Brigade were included the second battalion of the 7th Gurkha Rifles, under Lieut.-Colonel Orgill, who were placed on the Allied left flank, between the Mediterranean and the road running east to Bardia, some 56 miles away. On June 16th Captain Wilson of 2/7GR was made aware of the deteriorating situation when, travelling to the allied position at El Adem, less than 10 miles south of Tobruk, he found it in German occupation and was captured. Luckily, he managed to affect an escape and alert the commanders of Tobruk that the German troops had performed a sweeping manoeuvre around the city, which was now being advanced upon on all three exposed sides. On June 20th air and artillery attacks on the city commenced, followed up by a tank and infantry assault. The fighting proved fierce and by 9AM German armour had broken through the line to the west of the Gurkha’s positions, and tanks poured through, thrusting north towards the heart of the city, cutting the Indian Brigade in half and doing serious damage to the 2nd Camerons and 2/5 Mahrattas, the latter being almost wiped out. The 11th Brigade headquarters was reached and destroyed by 2PM, after which the German armour turned and swung behind the 2/7th Gurkhas position. Here the Gurkhas pressed their skills in hill-fighting and skirmishing to the fullest, refusing to be ‘mopped up’ and taking advantage of the mess of broken ground and deep Wadis or river-beds, in the in the area to inflict heavy casualties on the advancing Germans.

Communications with the hastily re-established 11th Brigade headquarters and the 2/7th Gurkhas had been broken in the chaos. This proved unfortunate as their morale was later stated as being extremely high despite the grim situation, which might have proven invaluable to other allied troops. A Gurkha officer wrote:

“The men were fairly bursting with confidence. Things were a bit chaotic, but it was war and it was fun. They had knocked everything for a six that had come up against them and had received almost perfect battle inoculation. Their overwhelming sense of superiority did not leave them until the end. They met panic, the most devastating of battle influences, with steadfastness and watched streams of demoralised troops passing through their positions with amused tolerance”

By the morning of June 21st, the position in Tobruk was rapidly becoming untenable, with less than an hour’s worth of ammunition left in the Brigade supplies. The decision was taken to surrender to reduce further bloodshed, as it was too late to organise a night breakout. However, after the official surrender, two battalions of the 11th Indian Brigade, the 2nd Camerons and the 2/7th Gurkhas, fought on, hoping to be able to resist long enough to affect an escape. 2/7GR are reported as having fought until the last round of ammunition, holding out throughout June 21st under intense fire, even though the situation had become, in the words of one Subedar Major, “very one-sided”. At 1pm on June 21st Lieut.-Colonel Orgill ordered resistance to cease. The last of the 2nd Gurkhas to surrender, a platoon under one Subedar Balbir, either did not receive the order or preferred to hold out even longer, and did not cease fighting until early evening.

Some 35,000 allied troops were captured at Tobruk, the worst loss of troops to capture since the fall of Singapore earlier in the year. With these, 2/7th Gurkha Rifles marched off into captivity for the second time in its existence, where many would sadly die (including one Cook, Timbure Rai, who died on the 11th May 1945 in Petrisberg Stalag, Trier, Germany aged 16, having been captured at Tobruk in 1942 aged just 13). Despite this there are stories of several soldiers, in small groups or alone, making it east to British lines through the desert for months afterwards, including two Gurkha Havildars (one, Havildar Bhuwan Chand Tewari, who would be imprisoned in Poland and later freed by Russian troops, re-joining his unit in Italy, rode a hired camel) and three Gurkha Riflemen.

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