LONDON -- Britain's famed siege port of Tobruk fell today after an overwhelming, 24-hour assault by Col. Gen. Erwin Rommel's forces, a disaster which might upset the United Nations' whole war strategy in the Middle East.
Military commentators believed that virtually the whole Tobruk garrison, estimated in Axis broadcasts at 25,000 men, had been captured, along with at least part of the British convoy which fought its way from Alexandria to Tobruk in last week's big naval battle. Bardia, a minor port seven and a half miles from the Egyptian border, and Dir El Gobi, a former desert stronghold 40 miles south of Tobruk, also were believed to have fallen to Rommel without a fight, which meant that Britain's Eighth Army was completely routed from Libya.
Reinforcements Seen For Axis
Tobruk's collapse in 24 hours, after having held out through a seven months' siege last year, suggested that Rommel was receiving a tremendous flow of reinforcements across the Mediterranean and that he planned to invade Egypt, extending the southern arm of Hitler's pincers offensive against the Middle East. The northern arm could be thrust either across South Russia or Turkey. The Caucasus oil fields would be the goal, and if Hitler reached it, he could prolong the war another three or four years, British commentators said.
The British losses of men and equipment in Libya will take three months to replace unless Gen. Sir Claude Auchinleck, the Middle East commander, chooses to weaken his position in Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Iran by diverting his forces to the defense of Egypt, military experts said.
The latest communique from Cairo said "the enemy attacked the perimeter of Tobruk in great strength Saturday and despite the most determined resistance, the enemy succeeded in penetrating the defenses and occupying a considerable area inside them."
Everything Thrown In
Tonight, however, it was announced officially in London that Tobruk has fallen. A military commentator said Rommel threw practically everything he had into the assault which came simultaneously and in overwhelming force from the East, West and South, and that escape for the Tobruk garrison was virtually impossible. Two strong Axis columns had cut the coastal road leading east from there 80 miles to the Egyptian border, and it was doubted that many imperials, already exhausted from their hasty retreat to Tobruk, could have fought their way out.
(A German communique broadcast from Berlin said a British officer approached with a white flag and surrendered Tobruk to an Italian corps staff Sunday morning after German and Italian troops had stormed most of the forts. It claimed that 25,000 British were captured and that Bardia and Bir El Gobi also fell.)
Good Harbor Lost
The loss of Tobruk not only deprived the British of a stronghold on Rommel's flank, but it gave him one of the best natural harbors on the North African coast from which to unload fresh troops and supplies for his assault on Egypt.
Alexandria, home of the British Eastern Mediterranean fleet, lies 300 miles from the Egyptian border, and Suez is only 150 miles farther east.
The RAF's references to recent heavy raids on Crete indicated that Germans may have massed airborne forces there for an attempted invasion of Egypt. Bengasi, 235 miles west of Tobruk, also has been under air attack and is believed to have been the unloading point for Rommel's reinforcements.
Strong Stand Seen
The Egyptian border defenses, centered on a chain of forts extending from Sollum, on the coast, to Sidi Omar, 23 miles south, remain to be tested in a full scale Axis assault and it is believed that Gen. Neil M. Ritchie's army will be able to make a strong stand there.
Tobruk's loss, however, has changed the whole Middle Eastern picture and is expected to have serious political repercussions in Britain and a major effect on Allied world-wide strategy, especially on preparations for opening a second front in Europe. Prime Minister Winston Churchill has said repeatedly that the decisive battles may be fought in the Middle East, and if Allied strategists accept that theory, they must make a tremendous effort to reinforce Auchinleck even at the cost of diverting valuable shipping and equipment from Britain.