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The 81st Anniversary of the Siege of Tobruk on the 10th April

Updated: May 10, 2022

POST 6th April 2022

From author Jeremy Stoke

81st Anniversary of the Siege of Tobruk

The Siege of Tobruk lasted 242 days and was the longest in British military history, starting on the 10th April 1941 and ending on the 7th December 1941 when the Allied forces broke out and the Germans retreated. Those who served during this period are known now as 'The Rats of Tobruk', following a comment from the German propaganda chief, Lord Haw-Haw, who claimed they were caught like rats in a trap and would soon be overcome by Rommel and his Afrika Korps. Little did he realise the strength of will in all those Allied personnel.

Tobruk Harbour - 1941

Tobruk is located on Libya’s eastern Mediterranean coast, near the border with Egypt. Tobruk had the best and only deep, natural, large and protected harbour between Alexandria and Tripoli (about 800 miles west). The Italians had recognised its strategic importance and had heavily fortified it over a number of years. However, on the 22nd January 1941, the British forces under General O’Connor overran the much larger Italian garrison and took Tobruk within 24 hours. Over 37,000 Italians were shipped back to Alexandria as POWs. The allied forces pushed rapidly west chasing the retreating Italians, taking Derna and Benghazi, but by March our supply lines had become very stretched.

By the end of March, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had taken over from the demoralised Italians and his extremely well organised and armoured Afrika Korps swept through Libya, forcing the poorly supplied and stretched Allied troops to fall back on Tobruk. The defence of Tobruk was led by a brilliant Australian, Lieutenant-General Leslie Morshead, a veteran of Gallipoli.

Mick Stoke, a young midshipman and only nineteen, had recently been seconded in January from Alexandria into the Western Desert as Secretary and Staff Officer to the Senior Naval Officer Inshore Squadron (SNOIS). From March he was based with his boss, Captain A.L. Poland, in Admiralty House based on the edge of Tobruk harbour to organise the naval ships that supported the army with supplies and personnel.

Tobruk harbour: Admiralty House on the left

Rommel gave orders for the Afrika Corps to attack and take Tobruk, expecting it to fall in 24 hours. However, the Allied forces under Morshead managed to stop Rommel in his tracks – the first time this had happened – and forced him to commit his troops to taking Tobruk rather than rolling swiftly on through Egypt and to the Suez Canal.

The full weight of the Axis airforces – the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica Italiana – was brought to bear on Tobruk harbour and environs day and night for the next three months, whilst Rommel’s troops bombarded the defending troops from outside Tobruk’s perimeter.

Admiralty House, Tobruk after a direct hit April 25th 1941

Admiralty House was hit by three bombs on the night of the 24/25th April. Captain Poland’s jacket was blown 70 yards down the road. Fortunately, he was not wearing it at the time! Mick Stoke was blown out of bed and lost all his belongings. But both survived.

Mick Stoke had already survived two bombs landing within 10 yards when he was in Benghazi as they were delayed action bombs and he managed to move far enough away as they exploded. As big a danger as the bombs, was shrapnel falling indiscriminately. This piece of shrapnel hit Mick Stoke’s helmet (now carefully preserved in the Stoke family archives!!)

Ships were sitting targets in Tobruk harbour and the Royal Navy personnel, based in Admiralty House, on the edge of the harbour, were the first on the water in small boats to rescue survivors.

SS Adinda, a Dutch tanker on fire in Tobruk harbour

Many ships were hit and sunk: Adinda, Southern Floe, Ouse, Tynefield, Chakla, Dainty, Rodi, hospital ships Vita and Dorsetshire, and on 12 May HMS Ladybird, still firing it’s guns as it sunk and settled on the bottom of Tobruk harbour. During this time, the young Paymaster Midshipman Stoke was ‘Mentioned in Despatches’, published in the London Gazette and recognised by King George VI.

Stoke wrote letters to his parents every week during this incredibly stressful time, surviving on only 3 to 4 hours sleep each night. During one of the many air raids each day, a small ammunition dump caught fire, threatening a wider conflagration. Stoke leapt into the middle of the ammunition dump, whilst the air raid continued, to remove the burning boxes until the fire was brought under control. For this he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) becoming the Most Highly Decorated Midshipman in the Royal Navy in the Second World War.

The Distinguished Service Cross

Jeremy Stoke

6th April 2022

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