Tobruk Cover

An account of the siege of Tobruk, Libya – the longest siege in British imperial military history.

The Longest Siege: Tobruk and the Battle for Africa, 1941
Pan Macmillan, published 2009

See research photographs

Tribune Magazine review

The Longest Siege: Tobruk, the Battle that Saved North Africa by Robert Lyman Macmillan, £20.

Siege warfare, a staple of medieval times, has been a feature of the British Army’s actions over the past couple of centuries. To infamous sieges at Lucknow in India and Mafeking and Ladysmith in South Africa can be joined Tobruk in the Second World War. At 242 days, from April 1941, Tobruk was the longest in the history of the British Empire. Its lifting through the defeat of the German and Italian armies turned the tide of the war in North Africa.

Defeat for the German armies that had rampaged through Europe not only saved North Africa, it represented a major setback for those hitherto invincible forces. A major study of the siege and its context was long overdue and ex-army officer Robert Lyman has now filled that gap with a highly readable, well-researched and well-informed book.

Too often military histories concentrate on strategies and tactics or have a detailed analysis of weaponry. All too rarely do they tell the story from the frontline. Lyman has achieved the unique feat of combining all three approaches.

The narrative is an excellent overview of North Africa from the early days of the war to the crucial stand-off at Tobruk which presaged the campaign leading to El Alamein and the German defeat. The Italian sphere of influence was challenged by the established British presence in Egypt. Early British successes by the Desert Rats led to the involvement of Rommel’s German forces with their advanced armour and air power. Lyman sets the scene and outlines clearly and succinctly the opposing forces’ strategies.

The beauty of this book is the way the narrative flows seamlessly into eyewitness accounts of British and Australian soldiers who took part, as well as Germans and Italians. It is all very well to assert that German armour and artillery were superior. What Lyman has achieved through his references to diaries and memoirs is the graphic and often bloody way in which that superiority was addressed.

In this way, he humanises the battle, giving the reader a sense of the atmosphere of fear and tension. But, at the same time, the bravery and camaraderie of opposing forces comes through.

It is the accounts of how the frontline troops often showed understanding of each other that stick in the mind. Chivalry may be an outdated term in modern wars, but there is no doubt there was mutual respect.

There are also some marvellous anecdotes and the German bomb which failed to explode because the forced labour which made it replaced the detonator with a piece of cardboard saying “From your friends in Czechoslovakia” struck a particular note.

Ultimately the siege was lifted because the Royal Navy was able to keep Tobruk supplied. This and the determination of the British and Australians, later joined by New Zealanders and Poles, forced Rommel to back off.

Lyman’s book is a marvellous evocation of the fierce nature of modern warfare. It is a huge contribution to military history and a timely reminder that wars are fought by ordinary men who are turned into soldiers by the force of circumstance.

Andrew Dodgshon

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