A Union Flag flown during the eight-month siege of Tobruk, 80 years ago, and a German swastika flag captured during the relief operation will be exhibited together for the first time in WW2: War Stories.
The Tobruk flag is one of the stories Curator David Willey explored during the WW2 Livestream event – 13th May – to officially open the new exhibition. View the recording on our YouTube channel to see a tour of the new exhibition and hear from veterans who served during WW2.
WW2: War Stories, the Museum’s new WW2 exhibition, has been completed over the latest lockdown and will be seen by visitors for the first time when The Tank Museum re-opens on 17 May.
The siege of Tobruk began on 10 April 1941, when advancing German and Italian troops cut off a skeleton Allied force in the Libyan city in North Africa. The main Allied force retreated to the Egyptian border, leaving mainly Australian troops of the 9th Division to deny the strategically important port to the Germans.
Although low on supplies and equipment, they defiantly flew the Union Flag over Tobruk despite the German commander Erwin Rommel’s best efforts to take the port and shorten his own stretched supply lines.
Relief operations were launched, the Royal Air Force flew defensive sorties from Egyptian bases and at night the Royal Navy carried in reinforcements and extracted the injured. Later, new units were rotated into the garrison to replace worn-out and exhausted troops. But it wasn’t until Operation Crusader, carried out by the 8th Army in November 1941, that the siege was finally ended and the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ were freed.
As part of the plan the 70th Infantry Division broke out from Tobruk and disrupted German supply lines. Rommel was surprised by this aggressive attack in his rear and was forced to retreat westwards to Gazala and try to rebuild his forces.
It was during the relief operations that the swastika flag was captured from an 88mm flak gun locker by the advancing 8th Royal Tank Regiment.
David Willey, Curator of the Tank Museum, said: “Flags are so important in conflict as symbols and rallying points – it is of course for many an expression of what you are fighting for, or trying to defend.
“This swastika flag was probably used to help identify the German gun position to their own Luftwaffe pilots. The soldiers who captured it speculated that it would have been used to decorate Alexandria in Egypt for the Fuhrer’s arrival and victory parade – if the Germans had succeeded.
“Of course that never happened and the flag instead ended up with the 8th Royal Tank Regiment’s mess.
“Like so many soldiers through history they wanted to leave their mark – their names recorded for posterity. So Jean Robinson, wife of Capt Robbie Robinson MC of B Squadron 8th Royal Tank Regiment, took on the task of embroidering all their names on the flag.
“How Jean ended up in North Africa is uncertain but she not only embroidered the names of the regiment’s officers, but also the places where the battalion had seen action, adding further place names in Italy as the war progressed.
“The flag was displayed at a battalion dinner to celebrate the Allied victory at El-Alamein and even after being donated to the museum it used to be lent back to the regimental association for re-union dinners.
‘’For the first time we are showing the captured Nazi flag alongside the Union Flag that flew above Tobruk during the long siege, with the Union Flag displayed above the Swastika as a symbol of the Allied victory over Nazism.
“Countless soldiers must have seen this flag flying; Australian, British, Indian, New Zealand, Polish and Czech soldiers who held out for 242 days despite the efforts of the Afrika Korps to dislodge them.
“Imagine the sense of defiance felt by those troops holding on, despite the deprivations, the bombing and the hardships. Here is an item that has such emotive symbolism – an item that did its job and was actually there.
“The flag was held by the Rats of Tobruk Association until they presented it to the Museum in 1983.
“Both flags are big, powerful objects that really do make a dramatic statement and we are pleased to be able to display them together for the first time in our new WW2: War Stories exhibition.”