Tobruk or Tubruq (طبرق; also transliterated as Tóbruch, Tobruch, Ţubruq, Tobruck ) is a town, seaport, municipality, and peninsula in northeastern Libya, near the border with Egypt, in North Africa. The town of Tobruk has a population of 110,000 (2006), and it is the capital of Tubruq Municipality. Tobruk was the site of a colony of ancient Greeks, and, later, Tobruk held a Roman fortress for guarding the frontier of Cyrenaica. Over the centuries, Tobruk also served as a way station along the coastal caravan route. By 1911, Tobruk became an Italian military post, but during World War II, in 1941, Allied forces, mainly the Australian 9th Division, The Rats of Tobruk, took Tobruk and prolonged fighting with Nazi Germany followed. Rebuilt after World War II, Tobruk was later expanded during the 1960s to have a port terminal linked by an oil pipeline to the Sarir oil field.
Tobruk has a strong, naturally-protected deep harbor. It is probably the best natural port in northern Africa, although due to the lack of important nearby land sites it is certainly not the most populous: the city is effectively surrounded by a desert lightly populated with nomadic herdsmen who travel from oasis to oasis. There are many escarpments (cliffs) to the south of Tobruk (and indeed in all of Cyrenaica, the eastern half of Libya). These escarpments generally have their high sides to the south and their low sides to the north. This constitutes a substantial physical barrier between the north and south of Libya in the Tobruk area.
At the beginning of World War II, Libya was an Italian colony and Tobruk became the site of important battles between the Allies and Axis powers. Tobruk was strategically important to the conquest of Eastern Libya, then the province of Cyrenaica, for several reasons.
Tobruk had a deep, natural, and protected harbor, which meant that even if the port was bombed, ships would still be able to anchor there and be safe from squalls, so the port could never be rendered wholly useless regardless of military bombardment. This was of critical importance, as it made Tobruk an excellent place to supply a desert warfare campaign. It was also heavily fortified by the Italians prior to their invasion of Egypt in November 1940. In addition to these prepared fortifications there were a number of escarpments and cliffs to the south of Tobruk providing substantial physical barriers to any advance on the port. Tobruk was also on a peninsula, allowing it to be defended by a minimal number of troops, which the Allies used to their advantage when the port was under siege. An attacker could not simply bypass the defenders for if they did the besieged would sally forth and cut off the nearby supply lines of the attacker, spoiling their advance.
But Tobruk was also strategically significant due to its location with regards to the remainder of Cyrenaica. Attackers from the east who had secured Tobruk could then advance through the desert to Benghazi, cutting off all enemy troops along the coast, such as those at Derna. This advance would be protected from counterattack due to escarpments that were quite difficult for a military force to climb, running generally from Tobruk to Soluch. Due to the importance of maintaining supply in the desert, getting cut off in this area was disastrous, therefore whoever held both Soluch and Tobruk controlled the majority of Cyrenaica.
Finally, fifteen miles south of the port was the largest airfield in eastern Libya. This was significant due to the importance of air power in desert warfare.
Although not as much a reason for its strategic significance, the British built a rail line from El Alamein to Tobruk during the course of the war. This rail line is significant both for purposes of supply but also as a sense of pride to the Allied troops, as the rail line was built through a little-populated, inhospitable desert.
Italian forces (and their native Libyan allies — about two divisions of the latter) invaded Egypt in November 1940 and sat just across the border, along the Mediterranean. British Commonwealth forces — an armoured division and two infantry divisions — launched a counterstrike codenamed Operation Compass in early December. The Italians had previously invaded Greece and France, and had now made a military incursion into a British protectorate. The counterstrike involved the British pocketing two of the Italian camps against the Mediterranean, forcing their surrender. This led to a general Italian withdrawal and a British Commonwealth advance. Tobruk was captured by British, Australian and Indian forces on 22 January 1941.
Italy called on her German ally, which sent an army corps, under the name Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK). Italy also sent several more divisions to Libya. These forces, under Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel, drove the Allies back across Cyrenaica to Tobruk, laying siege. The defenders of the fortress consisted of the Australian 9th Division, the Australian 18th Brigade and some British tanks and artillery. They were later reinforced and replaced by the British 70th Infantry Division, Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade, a Czechoslovak battalion and a British tank brigade. The siege lasted until December, when Operation Crusader pushed the DAK and Italians back out of Cyrenaica.
Rommel's second offensive took place in May and June 1942. Tobruk was taken in a surprise attack on 21 June 1942 along with most of the South African 2nd Division. It remained in Axis hands until 11 November 1942, when the Allies captured it after the victorious Second Battle of El Alamein. It remained in Allied hands thereafter.