The Tobruk Garrison on 18 November 1941

On 18 November the Tobruk garrison mostly consisted of units which had only seen relatively little of the siege. With the exception of 2/13 Battalion (the ‘2’ indicates the war, since the Australian army decided to raise battalions with the same numbering as in the Great War. Kiwi wits have it that Australians require it to be reminded of which war they were fighting.) all the Australian units of 9 and 6 Division had departed, to be replaced by the renamed 6 British infantry division, which had become 70 Division, under Major-General Scobie, with 14, 16, and 23 Brigades (a good overview of the history of the division can be found at this link).

This British force was strengthened by the Polish Brigade, which consisted of late inmates of Stalin’s Gulag who had left the Soviet Union via Persia, and which in turn had a Czech battalion attached to it.

There was also an Indian reconnaissance unit, and three elements of the Royal Tank Regiment under 32 Army Tank Brigade, Nos. 1, 4, and ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR, the first of which with old cruisers, and the other two with Matildas and light tanks. 4 RTR had been brought in during the relief of the Australians, while 1 RTR and ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR had been in the fortress from the start (in case of the cruisers) or very early on (‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR).

There was also a considerable amount of Royal Artillery units in the fortress.

In terms of equipment, the following was reported present to Churchill on 16 November (WO216/15):

  • 10 Coastal Defense guns (could be Italian)
  • 4 medium guns (probably 60-pdr)
  • 88 field guns (25-pdr, maybe some 18-pdr, and captured Italian ‘bush’ artillery)
  • 59 anti-tank guns (2-pdr, excluding those on the tanks themselves)
  • 24 heavy AA guns (3.7″)
  • 64 light AA guns (Bofors 40mm, and maybe some captured Italian)
  • 28 cruiser tanks (old varieties)
  • 67 ‘I’ tanks (Matilda II – 52 in 4 RTR, 15 in ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR)
  • 40 light tanks (Vickers Mk.VI)
  • 30 carriers

It consisted of the following major combat units:

70 Division

  • 14 Brigade
  • 16 Brigade
  • 23 Brigade
  • Polish Brigade
  • Czech Battalion and Australian 2/13 Battalion
  • 32 Army Tank Brigade
  • Royal Artillery units

The strength of the garrison was given as 22,000 men.  While this may sound substantial, it really wasn’t for a perimeter of about 24 miles (38km), which could easily absorb such a force, and meant that (given Axis air superiority) movement during the day was severely restricted, reducing the ability of the garrison to take advantage of the internal lines of communications. It is no wonder that in the September appreciation of the situation in Tobruk, Middle East Command was quite negative on the chances of the garrison withstanding a determined assault on its own.