Book Review: The Longest Siege Tobruk

Finished The Longest Siege: Tobruk The Battle that Saved North Africa by Robert Lyman.

First thing that I took umbridge with what the author’s repeated claim that the Siege of Tobruk was the longest of the British Empire. Gibraltar was under siege between 24th June 1779 and 7th February 1783 during the American War of Independence by the forces of Spain and France. That made it substantially longer than the siege of Tobruk! To learn about the Great Siege click here.

Anyhow I really enjoyed this book as it took me back to my early years of reading WW2 history as a 12 year old and my fascination with Rommel and the Afrika Korps. The book is written in a very reader friendly manner and does not have the plodding history book feel the more scholarly works, such as the ones by the excellent Glantz have. Layman relies heavily on accounts of the veterans of both sides that were at Tobruk and these one on one accounts add a personal flavour to the story being told. Though it lacks some depth, some events are covered in great detail others are glossed over, the book flows well from the initial Italian attacks into Egypt and O’Connor’s counter offensive. One cannot fail to notice how easily Italian forces were easily brushed aside, though the author goes to some lengths to explain that not all Italian units wiltered immediately upon being fired on.

Rommel’s introduction is handled briefly, as it should as the thrust of the book is the siege of Tobruk proper and not the arrival of the Desert Fox. I found it very interesting that very similar mistakes were made by the Italian and  British commanders as Rommel basically copied O’Connor’s outflanking tactics in reverse. However one must take into consideration the fact that the Army of the Nile was weakend by Churchill’s insistence to send ANZAC troops, desert veterans to Greece to support an already defeated enemy. Rommel swept the British back to the wire with almost as much speed as the Italians had been swept out of Cyrenaica.

Layman handles the build up to the siege well and I believe that, through the use of first hand accounts from both sides, portrays the initial battles very well, especially upto the first German breakthrough. He also goes to great lengths to praise the ‘Diggers’ and a strong feeling that the other Commonwealth and British troops in the garrison were in somewhat awe of them comes through. Yet he also gives great credit to the ‘Tobruk Tanks’ relying heavily on the accounts of Rea Leaky, a combatant at Tobruk.  The feeling of security and confidence the British had in their Matlidas was offset by the lack of confidence in the Crusader types and the fear of the 88 dual purpose gun. This was most evident in the aftermath of Operation Brevity and the reader can almost tangibly feel the rise and ebb of the hopes of the besieged troops.

The Royal and Allied Navies are given their due as well as we are regaled by accounts of transports and destroyers running the gauntlet of X Flieger Korps in first bringing in supplies then in taking out the 9th Australian Division. The Navy also suffered its far share of losses during the siege as well. The RAF also gets its honourable mention especially early on when Hurricanes were stationed within the perimeter until the airfield at El Gubbi came under direct fire and the RAF flew out.

My favourite chapter of the book is ‘Siege Rats’ that goes into great detail about the day to day in the garrison during the main part of the siege. The long hot (50 degree +) days and the colder nights when patrolling on both sides became the norm. The lack of water for personal hygiene features in all the veteran’s accounts but there is enough evidence to suggest that there was a general shortage, Tobruk itself having being well stocked by the Italians before its capture. Though many a digger reminisced that in hindsight all the initial looting and  wastage was not a good idea! The final chapters of the book deal with the breakthrough at Ed Duda to link up with Operation Crusader. The way Layman deals with these chapters makes me think that had Rommel had more troops the link up could have been avoided. As such I think the whole siege can be described in two words, ‘not enough’. Not enough troops to ring the Egyptian border with steel while subjugating Tobruk and not enough troops to breakout from the city!

All in all a decent read that at times lacks depth but for a 292 book it is informative and entertaining enough!

I am now reading Alamein, War Without Hate by John Bierman and Colin Smith, and already there is a lot of correlation of accounts and evidence in both books. A review will be posted later when I finish it.