The Tobruk Breakout from the Other Side of the Hill

The Tobruk Breakout from the Other Side of the Hill


The text below is the translation of the evening report of Div.z.b.V.Afrika for 21 November 41, the day the Tobruk garrison started its breakout.

Operations of Div.z.b.V. Afrika

On 21 November the division was under pressure from two sides. 7th Support Group with 7th Armoured Brigade attacked S.R.155‘s (Rifle Regiment 155) positions on the escarpment from their position at Sidi Rezegh, while the Tobruk garrison attacked the strongpoints at Belhamed, occupied by the reinforced III./S.R.155, III./IR255 and III./IR347 (3rd battalions of infantry regiments 155, 255 and 347, respectively) from inside the perimeter, with considerable support from the infantry tanks of 4 RTR and D Squadron 7 RTR. The experience of a platoon of III./IR255 has been detailed in an older entry at this link. In the present entry, the official German version of the events of the day, as reported up the chain of command, is given. In the future I intend to translate the war diary entry of the division for this day.

The evening report is a masterpiece of not directly telling the unpleasant news from the siege front. It starts by referring to the attack which was repulsed on the right wing, failing to mention that it succeeded on the left wing, and then goes on to list the positions still held. But it does not refer to the positions the division actually lost, so the recipient of the report would need to get a map of the strongpoint system to figure out himself where the Tobruk garrison was now established (which I have done). Even though it never says so, it is clear that the division did not have a particularly good day, also indicated that the intent for the next day was defensive, instead of counter-attacking to retake the lost ground.


Map of Tobruk Fortifications in Breakout Sector – German Map based on Italian/British data. Collection

Day 1 of the Tobruk Breakout – Progress

It is a bit tricky to get the German and British accounts to match, because the British reports are in the context of their objectives, which did not completely overlap with the German strongpoints. With that said, the events of the day as I can make them out (and this is really a work in progress) were roughly as follows:

  • 0630 – D Squadron 7 RTR and 2nd King’s Own take parts of position 19 (objective Butch) on the northern edge of the breakout area, opposite R73.
  • 0630 – An attack against position 13 (Tugun) by 2nd Queens fails.
  • 0715 –2nd Black Watch take part of position 18 (Jill). 2nd Black Watch advances on their objective. A company 2nd Beds and Herts is installed to hold it.
  • 0750 – 2nd Black Watch is reported to be in trouble behind Jill.
  • Time uncertain – B Squadron (reserve) 4 RTR attacks position east of Tugun (could be part of position 14) and hands it over to the infantry. It then moves on to support the 2nd Black Watch which by now is held up before objective Tiger. The Italian artillery battalion referred to in the daily report was probably at this position, since 2nd Black Watch reported taking 12 field guns (one battalion) here.
  • 1015 – A and C Squadron 4 RTR and remnants of 2nd Black Watch take position 16 (Tiger) after heavy losses to the infantry and many tank casualties. This was the battalion HQ .
  • Time uncertain – A troop each of A and C Squadron 4 RTR attack position 11 (Jack) on point 145 and take it. This was the battalion HQ of Major Maythaler, III./IR155 (reported missing in the daily report below).
  • Time uncertain – British tanks push on to Carmuset Beludeah to the southwest, but are repulsed.
  • 1545 – D Squadron 7 RTR tanks with 10 Matildas and B Company 2nd Queens reinforced by A Company of 2nd Beds and Herts, and supported by three regiments of field artillery (72 guns) within an hour from jumping off quickly take the eastern end position 13 (Tugun) on the southwestern edge of the breakout, opposite R65.

Intelligence Failures

It appears that the reconnaissance prior to the attack had failed to understand completely the extent of the fortification system (as it had missed the fact that the Italian troops had been relieved by Germans), and if one looks at the German and the British maps at the same time, it is clear that the British had only a weak understanding of the siege front system, and I wonder how much the British units replacing the Australians did actually patrol and/or how successful they were.

There is also a bit of apologia going on in at least some Empire publications, where it is claimed that the presence of Germans was a surprise (correct) because they had only moved into the Italian positions 2 days before the breakout. This statement is not correct, as the war diary of Div. z.b.V. makes very clear – the Germans had moved in 10 days beforehand, and were very active patrolling themselves. They had been issued Italian uniforms for deception reasons, but this would of course not helped in case of a man being captured.  From Auchinleck’s despatch it appears that the breakout was primarily planned on the basis of aerial photography, and this probably accounts for the lack of real understanding of the fortification system, and its occupants.


Official Reports

1) Evening Report of Division z.b.V for 21 November, from IWM Captured German Records Archive, Duxford


Divisional Command Post, the 20 November 41

Dept. Ia

Added by hand:

Transmission time 20.15 hours

No. 211/1 Ia

Evening report for 21 November 41

After repulsed enemy tank attack before right wing division holds strongpoints 1, 2, 20 in forward line, 5, 6 in rearward line. Mass of artillery at and north of Bu Amud.

Belhamed occupied by reinforced Pi.900 [Pionier/Engineer Battalion 900, an independent unit consisting of two sapper companies attached to Div.z.b.V.] without 1st company. Divisional reserve S.R.155 holds escarpment south of Sidi Rezegh until west of [Point ]171 (5 km south of it). About 30% losses.

Pz.Jg.Abt.605 [Panzerjägerabteilung/Anti-Tank Battalion 605 – an independent anti-tank unit with 27 self-propelled Czech 4.7cm ATGs in three companies of 9 vehicles, mounted on partially armoured Pz.I chassis – you can see pictures at this link; a total of 202 were built]with one company at Afrika-Rgt. [361 – a regiment formed of former members of the French Foreign Legion and attached to Div.z.b.V.]. Remainder to 80% casualties. Afrika-Rgt. holds position, hardly any losses.

Enemy attacked with one tank battalion, with at least 50 heavy Mk.II/R.T.R, accompanied by one infantry battalion. Breakthrough between defense works 64 and 71 [of the Tobruk defenses originally built by the Italians]. Follow-up push direction south-south-east, later turning in to east-north-east. Enemy tank spearhead in southern direction on Belhamed broke through with 6 tanks, and there destroyed. The division destroyed on Tobruk Front 18, at S.R.155 25, total 43 enemy tanks. 8 prisoners, including one Major, brought in.

Losses and Casualties:


Major Maythaler

3 reinforced companies

1 Italian artillery battalion with weapons

Of I.R.155 [typo, should probably be S.R.155] and

Pz.Jg.Abt.605 numbers not known yet.

Afrika-Rgt. 361 one man dead, 7 wounded (including one officer)

Losses in weapons: 13 4.7cm ATG at Pz.JG.Abt.605

Intent for 22 November:

Defense of currently held position, strongpoints 1, 2, 20, 5 and 6. Mine belt laid before Point 145 (2 km southwest Sidi Scegheilif) via 146 (2 km south of it) – 1 km southeast of it.

One company each north of strongpoint 5 and 6 of Italian battalion I./40 [1st battalion 40th Regiment, one of the infantry regiments of Italian 25th Infantry Division “Bologna”]. Div.Bologna intends to create new strongpoint at Carmuset Beludeah for 2 reinforced companies.

D.A.K. [Deutsches Afrika Korps]has subordinated Afrika-Rgt.361 to 21.Pz.Div. [21st Panzer Division]since 16.00 hours 21 November.

For the divisional command

The First Officer of the General Staff

Signed – unreadable

2) The evening report from TOBFORT states the success of the day, and indicates the range of units that were caught and the damage inflicted.

To: 8th ARMY (R) 30 Corps
T.O.O. 2200/21
T.O.R. 1443/22*


During morning first phases of attack successfully carried out.
BUTCH 422420 TIGER 423417 JACK 424419 Captured.
Some delay in operations due to strong resistance at TUGUN 418418.**
TUGUN captured by 1530 hrs.
Counter attack 1730 hrs. successfully driven off.

Situation tonight.
Strong posts captured having been consolidated and are held by 14 BDE.
32 Tank Bde leaguering inside perimeter through gap minefield.
Out tank casualties on Mine Field fairly heavy.
About 1100 prisoners captured of which half are GERMANS.

GERMAN 3 Bn 2(55?) Inf. Regt.*** 3 Bn 155 Lorried Inf. Regt. This last was called 3 Bn. 268 Inf. Regt. until 6 weeks ago.
ITALIAN. The whole 1 Battery 205 Arty Regt. BOLOGNA killed or captured.**** 2 Bn 16 Inf. Regt. SAVONA. P.W. states only Mortar Pl. of 16 Regt. remained in TOBRUK area.
2 Bn. 44 Inf. Regt. BOLOGNA 1 Bn 40 Inf. Regt. BOLOGNA. H.Q. (including C.O.) of unknown Bn. 40 Inf. Regt. captured at TUGUN.*****


As a consequence of the twin failure to understand the extent of the fortifications, and the thickening of the siege front in this sector, losses were high amongs the attackers. The worst experience was that of the 2nd Battalion The Black Watch, which suffered 79 men killed and 197 wounded out of 612 men who started the attack, and is detailed at this link.

The tank destruction claims made in the German report below are believable. Total infantry tank casualties (of all types, i.e. repairable included) in the Tobruk breakout on 21 November amounted to 11 in D Squadron 7 RTR, and 32 in 4 RTR, out of the about 65 that they had started with. Many tanks were damaged on mines. In the end, many of the tanks were recovered and repaired however, e.g. 4 RTR reported only 12 total write offs for the whole of Operation CRUSADER. In addition to the Matildas, the 26 cruiser tanks of 1 RTR also advanced, and the next day 8 of them were serviceable, bringing total tank losses for the day (excluding light tanks, of which a number were also lost or damaged) to 61.

History’s Verdict?

The Australian Official History (Tobruk, Ch.11, Ed Duda) sums the day up as follows:

It had been a day of great achievement . A wedge three miles deep had been driven through one of the strongest sections of the encircling defences. To secure the corridor against sniping and cross-fire, further operations would be required, but it was already possible for garrison forces to debouch into the open desert, whatever perils might lie beyond . Five hundred and fifty German prisoners (including 20 officers) and 527 Italian (including 18 officers) had been taken, but at great cost in loss of life . In the 2/Black Watch alone, there were 200 dead.

Despite it being over optimistic (there is no way the garrison could have ‘debouched into the desert’ on 22 November, in my view, and the error on the numbers killed for 2nd Black Watch, I believe this assessment to be far closer to the truth than the dismissive view of the events given by the evening report of Division z.b.V. Apart from the considerable number of POWs taken (for which I have what appears as a different set of numbers in a message by Tobruk Fortress HQ to 8th Army of 23 November, namely 449 German and 834 Italian), there were also 10 105mm guns and 12 75mm guns captured. The breakout severely damaged the Bologna division, causing heavy losses to all the infantry battalions in the 40th Infantry Regiment, and destroying the heavy artillery battalion of 205th Artillery Regiment, as well as one of the light battalions.  After this day the division can only have been a shell for the remainder of the battle.


* Note the time it took to be received.

** So much for the idea that the Italians were not fighters…

*** This battalion was destroyed on this day, it was not requested that it be rebuilt in the wash-up after CRUSADER.

**** On 23 November, with no major further action, TOBFORT reported 10 105mm and 12 75mm guns captured. By 1600 of 23 Nov, 449 Germans and 834 Italians had been captured in the breakout. Of these 4/37 Germans and 4/36 Italians had been captured on 22 November, when WOLF 426415 and LION 421415 had been seized without opposition, and TUGUN fully occupied.

***** This seems to have been 1 Bn 40 (42?) Infantry, of which on 22 November 2/3rds, including the C.O. and 3 officers are reported captured.

Many thanks to Stephen Walton of the IWM for his invaluable help.