Men of the 2/13th Australian Infantry Battalion digging in. 020759
Men of the 2/13th Australian Infantry Battalion digging in. 020759

The 2/17th Battalion participated in a general withdrawal of the British troops eastwards towards Tobruk in early 1941 when German forces landed at Tripoli to reinforce their Italians allies. The Axis forces eventually surrounded Tobruk, with the plan being to capture the city at Easter 1941 (1)
The 2/17th were one of six battalions ordered to defend the 45km front-line perimeter around Tobruk. The Battalion was instructed to defend the section along the El Adem Road and start preparation to repel an enemy attack. The Germans attacked the section along the El Adem Road on Good Friday, with the 2/17th fighting one of the most memorable battles of the Tobruk campaign, known as the Easter Battle. (2)

The Battle:
Commencing on 11 April 1941, the men of the 2/17th Battalion were faced with four days of attacks conducted by German forces, attempting to penetrate the perimeter along El Adem Road. The Battalion repelled tank attacks that where launched on the Good Friday, 11 April.

It was reported that large numbers of enemy infantry were approaching the positions held by the 2/17th during Saturday of the Easter Battle.

This culminated in a breach of the defenses by a group of thirty Germans, who were then met with a bayonet charge by five Australians, led by Corporal J. H. Edmondson. Despite dying hours after the attack from wounds sustained, Edmondson was awarded the first Victoria Cross of World War II for his heroics.(3)
On Easter Monday thirty-eight German tanks rolled through the breach in the perimeter, and over the Australian soldiers lying in wait. Once these tanks had passed through, the Australians rose up and attacked the German reinforcements that were approaching from the rear.(4)

The blitzkrieg style of attack favoured by the Germans was ineffective against the Australian defenders. The 2/17th Battalion continued to defend Tobruk after the Easter Battle ended, from April to December 1941. The 70th British Division eventually relieved the 2/17th Battalion at Tobruk. They, and all Australian forces within Tobruk earned the title ‘Rats of Tobruk’; given to them by Lord Haw Haw (German radio broadcaster) who saw similarities between rats and the underground habitations of the Australian troops. (5)

[1] Australian War Memorial, ‘2/17th Battalion’, http://www.awm.gov.au/units/unit_11268.asp [22 March 2012]
[2] Louise Austin, Journey to Tobruk: John Murray – Bushman, Soldier, Survivor, Pier 9, NSW, 2009, (Page not known).
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] John MacKenzie Smith, Tobruk’s Easter Battle 1941: The Forgotten Fifteenth’s Date With Rommel’s Champion at Tobruk, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, Australia, 2011, p.131.

Information researched by DamienEditing, Layout and title images done by Dominique