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.

20 thoughts on “The Tobruk Breakout from the Other Side of the Hill

  1. The italian account showed that the 21st of november, the Bologna division, which was defending this sector with Div.z.b.v. lost all his artillery : 205° reggimento artiglieria (2 Gruppi of 100/17 and one Gruppo of 75/27) reinforced with the II./ 24° artiglieria di corpo d’armata (heavy guns of 105/21).

    This loss was dramatic as this division was already asked by Italian high command to divert units against the Southern Threat (II./ 39° fanteria and XXV battaglione genio sent the 20th of november to Belhammed sector, and II./ 40° fanteria sent to the line between the via Balbia and landing ground of Bu Amud).

    Hope this will help,



    • I have a copy of the “Relazione sul ciclo operativo della Divisione Bologna dal 19 al 26 novembre 1941”; this reports that on 20th November the Bologna Division was arranged around Tobruk in this way:
      Bu Assaten (strongholds n. 14, 15 and 16): 1st Battalion of 40th Infantry Rgt ., with one Antitank Coy (eight 47/32 guns) and one 65/17 Battery (four guns)
      Rear area of Bu Assaten: 3rd and 4th Groups of 205th Artillery Rgt.
      In front of Si Scegheilif (at the back of stronghold n. 11): 1st Group of 205th Artillery Rgt.
      Carmuset Beludeah (called from Italians Fico): 40th Rgt. HQ, Light Tanks Battalion, 24th Medical Coy and Ammunition Dump
      Magen Belhamed: 25th Engineer Battalion
      Bu Amud area: 2nd Battalion of 40th Infantry Rgt., one 75/27 Battery and one 77/28 Battery (probably from 2nd Group of 205th Artillery Rgt. but not mentioned), two 20/65 sections of Anti-aircraft Group and one 47/32 platoon of 25th A.A.A. (Armi Anticarro e d’Accompagnamento) Battalion
      Km. 10 Axis road: 2nd Battalion of 39th Infantry Rgt.
      Belhamed: 39th Infantry Rgt. HQ, 2nd and 7th Sappers Coy, 66th Surgical Unit, 93rd and 96th Field Hospital
      Km. 15 Axis road: 11th Battery of 205° Artillery Rgt. (from 4th Group)
      Sidi Rezegh: 1st Battalion of 39th Infantry Rgt. and 73rd Antitank Coy (from 3rd Bersaglieri Rgt.)

      On 21st November the IV/205 was destroyed during the first attack (Tiger), like the I/205, at the rear of Jack. The III/205 (strongpoint n. 14), at rear of Bu Assaten, fought until the 2 p.m. and then it withdrawn back to Fico (Carmuset Beludeah).
      An Artillery Composite Group took position near to Magen Bent el-Aareg (south-west of Magen Belhamed and north of El Duda); it consisted of two 105/28 Battery (sent from XXI Corps HQ) and 11th Battery of 205th (75/27). English captured these guns on 26th November, not on 21st. Only Italian Corps Artillery was equipped with 105/28 heavy guns.

      Best regards


  2. Merci beaucoup Cédric. I presume this is from Montanari?

    I’ll post the OOB of Bologna in the near future. The diversion of forces you indicate means effectively that over half its infantry strength had been removed. After losing the artillery the division would have been an empty shell.




    • To Andreas
      From my unpublished searches writing a book in memory of my Father “Lettere nella sabbia” (Letters in the sand)

      18TH NOVEMBER 1941

      Division HQ
      • Divisional HQ Company
      39th Infantry Regiment
      • Regimental HQ Company
      • 1st Battalion*
      • 2nd Battalion *
      • 3rd Battalion (given to XXI Corps HQ)
      • Covering Battery (four 65/17guns)
      • 73rd Antitank Company (eight 47/32 guns) from 3rd Bersaglieri Regiment
      40th Infantry Regiment
      • Regimental HQ Company
      • 1st Battalion *
      • 2nd Battalion *
      • 3rd Battalion * (northward on the seashore)
      • Covering Battery (four 65/17 guns)
      • 44th Antitank Company (eight 47/32 guns)
      *each Battalion with three companies 12 MG and 6 light mortars), plus one company (4th) Covering Firearms (with 9 8 mm MG and 9 heavy mortars)
      205th Artillery Regiment
      • HQ Unit
      • 1st Group – 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battery (each with four 100/17 howitzers)
      • 2nd Group – 4th, 5th and 6th Battery (each with four 75/27 guns)*
      • 3rd Group – 7th, 8th and 9th Battery (each with four 75/27 guns)*
      • 4th Group – 10th, 11th and 12th Battery (each with four 75/27 guns)*
      • Anti-aircraft Group (4th and 437th A/A Battery, each with eight 20/65 guns)
      • Ammunition and Provender Detachment
      * some batteries had 77/28 guns
      25th Antitank and Covering Firearms (formed in October 1941 for shift of the 25th MG Battalion)
      • 20th Antitank Company (8 47/32 guns)
      • MG Company (12 8 mm MG)
      • Mortars Company. (6 81 mm mortars)
      4th Light Tanks Battalion (L3)
      25th Engineer Battalion
      • 60th Engineer Company
      • 25th Signals Company
      • Photoelectrical Section
      2nd (Lupo) and 7th (Tigre) Company from XXXI Sappers Battalion
      Divisional Services
      • 24th Medical Company
      • 93rd Field Hospital
      • 96th Field Hospital
      • 66th Surgical Unit
      • 308th Field Ambulance Unit
      • 135th Motorized Transport Company
      • 34th Baker Section
      • 7rh Reali Carabinieri Section
      • 58th Post Office

      I beg pardon for my English
      Yours sincerely


  3. Yes from Montanari. But this book must be taken with care, as some datas were not verified.

    And I check this information with the Panzergruppe KTB, which has also a mention to the loss of all Bologna’s artillery during this first attack of Tobruk’s defenders.

    Bologna fought well the 23rd of november against another attack, but Italian command sent as soon as possible Pavia to reinforce the sector.




  4. Salut Cédric

    I agree that Montanari is a “use with caution” book.

    Thus far I have only found the reference to them losing an Abteilung (i.e. a battalion – see my other comment), not the whole of the artillery, but I have not finished going through the data yet.




  5. On 21st November Italian Division Bologna was under pressure from two sides like Afrika Division. 7th Armoured Division attacked I.R.155’s (1st and 2nd Bn.) positions on the northern escarpment at Sidi Rezegh joined up with 1st Bn of 39th Rgt. Fanteria and 73rd ATG Coy (my father company) of the Bologna Division, while the Tobruk garrison attacked the Axis’s strongpoints at East Tobruk (Bu Asaten area), occupied by 1st Bn of 40° Rgt Fanteria (strongpoints n. 14, 15 and 16) with IV/205 and III/205 Artillery Rgt. at the rear, at south-west side, and I/205 Artillery Rgt. at north-east side (at the back of strongpoint number 11, hold by German III/155), There were the reinforced III / IR155 and part of III / IR255 in the strongpoints number 18, 19, 20 and 2, while III / IR347 and part of III / IR255 was at the rear (Si Scegheilif). Then there was 1st Bn of 86th Rgt (Sabratha Division) in strongpoint number 1 at the north of via Balbia. The German troops didn’t got any artillery units in that area. It’s false to claim that the German soldiers had been issued Italian uniforms for deception reasons, just see the pictures, and then they were the first to fold up at the strongpoint Butch and Jack, while the Italian positions (14 e 15) were got after the 2,15 p.m… The IV/205 was destroyed during the first attack, like the I/205, at the rear of Jack. The III/205, at rear of Bu Asaten, fought until the 2 p.m. and then it withdrawn back to Fico (Carmuset Beludeah).
    At dusk new front lines were set up, the first via Balbia- old strongpoint 5- old strongpoint 6” (with 6th e 7th Companies of the 40th Rgt. Fanteria in conjunction with III/347 and parts of III/155 e III/255) – Fico (Carmuset Beludeah) – South area of strongpoint 10 (Bir el Garsa). The second line went from “Strongpoint Bu Amud (with 2° Btg. 40° Rgt. HQ, 5^ Coy 2/40, 1 Battery 77/28 and 1 Battery 75/27) – thru Magen Belhamed strongpoint – to Strongpoint Belhamed.
    An artillery group took position near to Magen Bent el-Aareg (south-west of Magen Belhamed and north of El Duda); it consisted of two 105/28 Battery (sent from XXI Corps HQ) and 11th Battery of 205th (75/27). English captured these guns on 26th November, not on 21st . Only Italian Corps Artillery was equipped with 105/28 guns.


    • Ciao Dario

      Many thanks for the very informative comment, which is very helpful. As I think I indicated in my entry, I think that sometimes reality and the war diary of Div.z.b.V. are difficult to bring into agreement, e.g. when it comes to the question of Italian performance.

      Regarding the uniforms, I am thinking these were only issued for patrols (which the newly arrived Germans did conduct inside the British strongpoint systems), but not for continuous use.

      Regarding the guns, the cruisers of 1 RTR report taking out a position with 6 guns at a position almost due east of objective TIGER (about 2km) and about 1.5km north of WOLF. They were finally shot to pieces outside FREDDY, after undertaking the deepest break-in of the day.

      All the best



  6. Has anyone any information about the Sabratha Division(Sabrata)and its fate
    Especially the 86st infantry regiment

    Kind regards



    • Hi Joseph

      Sabratha was not involved in this battle. I think it was destroyed at El Alamein, maybe during the Australian attack at Tel el Eisa on 9 July 42.

      All the best



  7. Hello Joseph. Despite what is written in the official histories and repeated in most British and American books, the Sabratha lived to fight another day, after its initial defeat at Tel el Eisa. I’ve just come across the following information in the page dealing with the First Battle of Alamein:

    “The following day, the Sabratha in the form of the 85th Regiment retook Tel el Eisa, but suffered heavy losses in the process. Caccia Dominioni writes of the “splendid recapture of Tell el Eisa, carried out by the 1st Battalion 85th Infantry under Colonel Angelozzi on the afternoon of July 14″. On 16th July, the 2/23rd Battalion attempted to retake Tel el Eisa, but stopped its thrusts after incurring heavy losses.”

    I’ve noticed that most British and American authors repeat the nonsense when they deny the important role the Bologna played in wearing down the attackers on 21 November 1941, saying that the fierce resistance encountered by the Black Watch was largely because of the presence of German soldiers who were dressed in Italian uniforms.


  8. Pingback: Not a good day at the office – 1 RTR and the first day of the Tobruk breakout « The Crusader Project

  9. Hello everybody, if I remember well the Bologna Division was reported destroyed several times in the Allied press thanks to British propaganda that always showed the Italians in poor light. However the Italian division (according to The Bologna Division: 19 November – 10 December, 1941) fought stubbornly and in fact covered the retreat of the German Africa Division between 8 and 10 December 1941.


    • I believe you are referring to this blog?

      I am afraid there are a number of issues with the description there, and while I would agree that the Bologna division was short-changed in giving it credit due, this blog post goes too far in the other direction, rather overstating the case for Bologna’s performance. Some counter-points:

      i) The German Division z.b.V. (later 90th Light) had actually relieved Bologna in a number of strongpoints. It is quite likely that Germans wearing Italian uniforms were captured in the initial push on 21 November. The German soldiers in the most advanced strongpoints had to wear Italian uniforms, to keep the relief secret.
      ii) The British did not know ‘everything’ about the plans to take Tobruk. For example, they did not know that the German soldiers had moved into the position. They also did not know the exact date, but they had a good idea of the date plus minus a few days.

      In my view Bologna had its heart ripped out in the first break-out attack. That it resisted, and continued to resist, shows how much the Italian infantry was underrated by everyone, the Germans and the Commonwealth. The heavy losses it suffered in the battle are testament to this.

      I am all for giving the Italian forces credit they are due. But one has to be careful not to go too much in the other direction.

      All the best



  10. Hi,
    Sorry first for posting in an old post
    Sorry again for my bad English. I´m almost new in this blog and not an English native spiker, so I apologize for the mistakes
    Well, I´m working in an open blog about the traces of the ww2 in North Africa using Google Earth (GE).The idea is to draw this kind of traces an offering them in a kml file format for free. Please visit gesww2na.blogsp (not sponsorized) and fell free to discuss whatever you want.
    Nowadays I´m trying to reproduce the fortress of Tobruk with the traces wich remains recognizable on the ground. In order to offer a correct information, I would like to reproduce the alfanumeric nomenclature of the post (boxes) along the Red Line and inner others.
    The main trouble for it is the absence of a complete an accessible (by web) and detailed map of the Tobruk fortress. That´s why I posted a help advertisement on my blog as: “”
    Last afternoon I found this post with a partial view of just the map I need!!!
    Ok. The question, of course, is: How can I get this whole map?
    I would appreciate very much some help with this, which let me follow up with my work (as a hobby – not commercial purpose)
    Thank you very much in advance! And congratulations for your nice blog!


  11. Pingback: Making Sense of the Tobruk Breakout | The Crusader Project

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s