Siege of Tobruk
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
In mid-Feb 1941, German forces began to arrive in North Africa. Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, untried before the French campaign but by now a proven effective field commander, took command of this force. He immediate set forth an aggressive plan, starting his offensive on 24 Mar 1941, capturing El Agheila on the first day. This offensive surprised the British, who thought the German build up in North Africa was slow, and the Germans would not be ready for an attack until some time between mid-Apr and mid-May. On 2 Apr, Agedabia and Zuetania in Libya were both taken by his troops, followed by Msus (location of major fuel and supply dump; all fuel sabotaged by the British to prevent Axis capture) on 6 Apr and Derna on 7 Apr. On 6 Apr, the British military governor of Cyrenaica Lieutenant General Philip Neame withdrew his headquarters to Tmimi, which was west of Tobruk; his column was intercepted by a German patrol near Martuba during the night of 7 Apr 1941, and both Neame and Lieutenant General Richard O'Connor were captured. On 8 Apr, commanding officer of the Australian 7th Infantry Division Major General John Lavarack assumed Neame's responsibilities. On 8 Apr, the Allied defense at Mechili fell apart. On 9 Apr, Axis troops had arrived in the vicinity of Tobruk in eastern Libya.
On 10 Apr, Rommel ordered the 15th Panzer Division under General Heinrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron to attack Tobruk directly from the west. Rommel's original plan was to perform a flanking movement to the east of Tobruk to surround the port city before launching a direct assault, but when he arrived he thought the Allied defenses were so weak that such a move was not necessary. Tobruk was garrisoned by troops of the Australian 9th Division under Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead; the 20th, 24th, and 26th Brigades of Australian 9th Division held their ground, killing Prittwitz on the first day of the attack. Overall, Morshead had about 25,000 fighters, British, Australian, and Indian, available for the defense. Lavarack was withdrawn to Egypt, thus would not play a direct role in the eventual Axis siege of Tobruk.
Later on 11 Apr, Rommel reverted back to his original plan, and by the morning of 11 Apr he was successful in surrounding Tobruk with a flanking movement. To the east of Tobruk stood troops of the German 5th Light Division; to the south was the German 15th Panzer Division; finally, the Italian Brescia Division was positioned west of Tobruk. Behind these three groups, Rommel still held three Italian infantry divisions and one Italian armored division (Ariete). Just after noon on 11 Apr, the second attack on Tobruk's defenses began with the 5th Panzer Regiment of the German 5th Light Division attacking troops of the Australian 20th Infantry Brigade just west of the El Adem road; this attack was halted with 5 German tanks destroyed. At 1500 hours, 400 German infantry advanced, but this attack was also stopped. At 1600 hours, about 700 German troops attacked the same location once again, supported by German and Italian tanks; the Axis tanks soon became bogged down in the anti-tank traps, and the attack was driven back with great casualties after the arrival of four British tanks. Soon after sun down on 13 Apr, the German 5th Light Division launched a renewed attack; the Australian 8th Machine Gun Battalion held off the attack, and Corporal John Edmonston would later be awarded the Victoria Cross for his efforts during this defense. In the early hours of 14 Apr, another attack was mounted that saw the German 5th Panzer Regiment securing a small bridgehead on the El Adem road; 16 of the 36 German tanks dispatched for this attack were destroyed by dug-in British Crusader tanks by the time the Germans withdrew.
On 15 Apr, Rommel shifted the weight of the attack on the western side of Tobruk. At 1730 hours, 1,000 Italian troops attacked the defensive line held by the 2nd Battalion of the Australian 24th Brigade, overrunning one position quickly; only the arrival of an additional company plus heavy artillery fire by the 51st Field Artillery Regiment drove back the Italians. On 16 Apr, the 1st Battalion of the Italian 62nd "Trento" Regiment attacked from the direction of Acroma, with tanks from the Italian Ariete Division trailing behind for support; 51st Field Artillery Regiment once again halted the Italian attack, while Australian infantry flanked the offensive, forcing the Italians to withdraw.
During the night of 19 to 20 Apr, the British launched a raid on Bardia behind German lines. Although poor intelligence and poor execution marred the operation, it was successful in that it forced Rommel to garrison troops at Bardia to guard against further raids when they could had been used on the front lines in an offensive role.
Throughout the day on 30 Apr, Axis artillery shells fell on the defensive positions near Ras el Madauar to the west of Tobruk. At 2000 hours, Axis tanks equipped with grappling hooks destroyed a section of barbed wire, allowing German troops, supported by German tanks, to rush in. Post S1, one of many posts manned by men of A Company of 2nd Battalion of Australian 24th Brigade, fell quickly as its defenders could not contest with the fire from two German tanks. The same two tanks then proceeded to overwhelm post S2, which contained the A Company headquarters, in the same manner. Shortly after, posts R0 and R1 also fell, but the posts' 2-pounder guns were able to knock out a number of German tanks before being silenced. In the early hours of 1 May, posts S5 fell, followed by S4, S6, S7, and R2 through R7 after daybreak. Posts S8, S9, and S10 resisted the initial attacks by Italian infantry, but eventually fell as well despite the presence of 12 British tanks in the sector. After a penetration of about 3 kilometers, it was a minefield that finally stopped the Italian-German advance; by this time, the Axis forces had lost its momentum but now possessed many defensive posts as well as the area's highest fort. By this time, the 2nd Battalion of the Australian 24th Brigade had about half of its strength lost to combat casualties or to captivity. On 3 May, the Australians launched a counterattack with men of the Australian 18th Brigade, thus far held in reserve; the counterattack was only able to capture one post, while the Italian defenders fought of attacks on all other posts. On 4 May, the lack of progress led to Rommel calling off the offensive. This action was later named the Battle of the Salient.
The successive failures by the Italian and German troops to break through caused Rommel to shift strategy. While he gathered strength for the next attack, he placed Tobruk in a state of siege by 5 divisions of Italian troops (Ariete, Trieste, Pavia, Bologna, and Brescia). The Italian troops launched frequent small offensives against the Australians during the siege. One of the more successful attacks took place during the night of 16 May, where two platoons of the Italian 32nd Combat Sappers Battalion breached barbed wires and minefields, allowing troops and tanks to come through and gain several bunkers, although Colonel Emilio Caizzo, commanding officer of the 32nd Combat Sappers Battalion, was killed in that action.
The Australians were not silent. On 2 Aug, two Australian companies attacked Italian positions with the support of over 60 field guns. Italian troops fought back with ferocity, halting the attack after inflicting heavy casualties. This particular attack, however, represented the last Australian attempt to regain positions lost in early May.
Although this lengthy campaign was called a siege, the Axis forces actually were unable to completely surround Tobruk. Because the British Royal Navy controlled the Mediterranean Sea, warships were able to bring in fresh supplies and evacuate the wounded; occasionally, they even provided gunfire support.
During Aug 1941, the Australian and Indian troops were gradually being replaced by the Polish Carpathian Brigade and the Czechoslovakian 11th Infantry Battalion (East). In Sep and Oct, the British 70th Infantry Division and the British 32nd Army Tank Brigade arrived. By this time, only one Australian battalion and two Australian companies remained in Tobruk; all other Australian units were withdrawn. Around the same time, Morshead was replaced by Major General Ronald Scobie.
The siege on Tobruk was lifted in late Nov due to the success of the Allied Operation Crusader offensive which began on 18 Nov 1941. Between Apr and Nov 1941, the Allies suffered over 3,000 casualties and 941 captured, most of whom were Australian. The Axis suffered about 8,000 casualties.
Siege of Tobruk Timeline
|25 Jan 1941||After sundown, British minelaying cruiser HMS Latona and destroyers HMS Hero, HMS Hotspur, and HMS Encounter departed Alexandria, Egypt for Tobruk, Libya. They were discovered and attacked by 10 German Stuka dive bombers and 2 Italian S.79 medium bombers 35 miles away from their destination. HMS Latona was hit by a 500kg bomb and sank at 2230 when the fire detonated the magazine; 27 were killed. HMS Hero was damaged by three near misses.|
|24 Mar 1941||Axis forces opened Rommel's offensive in North Africa at 0600 hours. Australian troops on the front line destroyed a leading German armored car, but they were soon overwhelmed by German tanks. Axis forces would capture El Agheila, Libya, the furthest point of the British advance against the Italians. British 2nd Armoured Division fell back 30 miles to Marsa Brega.|
|31 Mar 1941||German 5th Light Division attacked British 2nd Armoured Division at Mersa Brega, Libya starting at 0745 hours, supported by dive bombers. After holding off the offensive for most of the day, German tanks broke through at 1730 hours, capturing the town by 1900 hours. As the sun slowly set, British commanders decided not to counterattack with their tanks, but instead withdraw 30 miles northeast toward Agedabia. The day's engagement cost the British 60 men killed, 8 armored carriers destroyed, and 1 anti-aircraft gun destroyed.|
|2 Apr 1941||German troops captured Agedabia and Zuetania in North Africa.|
|3 Apr 1941||Axis troops marched toward Benghazi, Libya. British troops evacuated the city per General Philip Neame's orders.|
|4 Apr 1941||Axis troops captured Benghazi, Libya, which was evacuated by British forces on the previous day. They pushed further east to the Green Mountain, where they were held by 3 companies of the Australian 9th Division. In the desert to the south, while German 5th Light Division was held in place waiting for a resupply of fuel, the British did not realize the German offensive through the desert had paused and continued to fall back. From the air, German Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed a convoy of 21 trucks, destroying 1,600 gallons of gasoline.|
|5 Apr 1941||Axis forces advanced toward Msus and Mechili in Libya.|
|6 Apr 1941||British and Australian troops hurriedly evacuated Barce and Derna, Libya, falling back toward Tobruk to avoid being cut off by the advancing German troops. On the same day, Axis troops captured Msus, Libya, a major fuel and supply dump; the fuel was destroyed by the Allies before German capture. German troops besieged Mechili by 1700 hours. After dark, British generals General Neame and O'Connor began evacuating themselves to Tmimi west of Tobruk.|
|7 Apr 1941||Before dawn, a motor column containing British military governor of Cyrenaica, Libya Lieutenant General Philip Neame and British Lieutenant General Richard O'Connor got lost and became captured by a German patrol between Mechili and Derna. During the day, Axis troops captured Derna, Libya. 50 miles to the south, British, Australian, and Indian troops prepared their defenses at Mechili, which had been surrounded by Axis troops since the prior day. The Axis forces had not yet attacked Mechili due to sandstorms; Rommel ordered that an attack must be launched on the next day.|
|8 Apr 1941||Before dawn, some of the British, Australian, and Indian troops fled from Mechili, Libya, which would be captured by Axis troops by the end of the day. Major General John Lavarack assumed the duties of Lieutenant General Philip Neame as the British military governor of Cyrenaica, Libya; Neame was captured by a German patrol on the previous day.|
|9 Apr 1941||Italian 27th Division "Brescia" and German 5th Light Division reached Tobruk, Libya.|
|10 Apr 1941||The German 15th Panzer Division under General Heinrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron attacked Tobruk, Libya from the west. Prittwitz was killed while personally leading a reconnaissance mission by armored cars.|
|11 Apr 1941||Erwin Rommel performed a flanking movement in Libya, cutting the road east of Bardia at 1300 hours; all attacks on the city itself, however, were repulsed. On the same day, German aircraft bombed Tobruk harbor, damaging British ship Draco.|
|12 Apr 1941||German troops captured Bardia, Libya. At Tobruk, the German probing attacks with tanks and armored cars were repulsed. Meanwhile, columns of Axis troops were dispatched to move toward the Libyan-Egyptian border to cut off the Allied forces in Libya.|
|13 Apr 1941||Axis artillery bombarded Allied defensive positions at Tobruk, Libya at 1700 hours, and 30 minutes later German 5th Light Division, Italian Ariete Division, and Italian Trento Division commenced an attack. Australian troops repulsed the repeated attacks. Further east, German troops captured Fort Capuzzo near the Libyan-Egyptian border.|
|14 Apr 1941||At Tobruk, Libya, German infantry filled anti-tank ditches and cutting wires at the El Adem road starting at 0230 hours, with the work interrupted periodically by Allied fire. At 0520 hours, 36 tanks of German 5th Panzer Regiment moved through the gap created by the infantry, but were halted by British guns and dug-in Crusader tanks 2 miles beyond the line. In the air, British, German, and Italian fighters engaged in combat in the air while 40 German Stuka dive bombers attacked the Tobruk harbor. At 0730 hours, the Axis offensive was called back after losing 16 tanks and 400 men (150 killed, 250 captured).|
|15 Apr 1941||1,000 Italian troops attacked Tobruk, Libya at 1730 hours, overrunning Australian defensive lines, but they were driven back at 1815 hours the arrival of an Australian reserve company and heavy artillery. 250 Italians were killed and 113 were captured in this failed attack.|
|16 Apr 1941||Troops of the Italian 62nd "Trento" Regiment attacked Tobruk, Libya in the late afternoon; the attack was personally observed by Erwin Rommel. The attack was driven back by heavy artillery fire, and the entire 1st Battalion of the Italian 62nd Regiment, 775 men and 25 officers, was captured.|
|17 Apr 1941||Italian infantry and tanks attacked Tobruk, Libya in the early afternoon, but it was repulsed. After dark, 12 Axis tanks engaged Allied counterparts along the line; 3 Axis tanks were destroyed.|
|18 Apr 1941||Australian General Leslie Morshead reorganized the defenses at Tobruk, Libya, creating additional reserve brigades and building secondary defensive lines, all in order to create additional depth to the city's defenses.|
|20 Apr 1941||British Commander-in-Chief Middle East General Wavell requested for more tanks to reinforce Tobruk, Libya. Prime Minister Churchill agreed and ordered a convoy to sail directly into the Mediterranean Sea to deliver 295 tanks to Tobruk.|
|21 Apr 1941||24 German bombers escorted by 21 fighters attacked Tobruk, Libya, sinking 2 ships and damaging another 2. RAF Hurricane fighters of No. 73 and No. 273 Squadrons shot down 4 German aircraft.|
|22 Apr 1941||Australian troops raided Axis positions surrounding Tobruk, Libya, capturing 455 Italian prisoners of war and destroying a number of field guns and anti-aircraft guns. 27 Australians were killed and 28 were wounded in this action. From above, German aircraft bombed Tobruk harbor, hitting British hospital ship Vita, forcing the 437 patients, 6 doctors, and 6 nurses to be evacuated.|
|23 Apr 1941||German Luftwaffe bombers attacked Tobruk habor in Libya, sinking several ships at the cost of 6 German aircraft.|
|24 Apr 1941||Italian infantry attacked two points of the Tobruk, Libya defenses at 0700 hours; the attacks were halted within an hour with heavy casualties and 107 captured.|
|25 Apr 1941||The Axis offensive on the Libyan-Egyptian border resumed despite the lack of progress at Tobruk, Libya; German troops engaged British patrols near Fort Capuzzo. The 2 remaining Hurricane fighters in Tobruk were withdrawn to Egypt to join the mere 13 Hurricane fighters there, leaving Tobruk with only Lysander aircraft to perform artillery spotting duties and no aircraft capable of air defense. Out at sea, British submarine HMS Upholder sank Italian ship Antonietta Lauro off the Tunisian island of Kerkenah.|
|26 Apr 1941||German troops attack British and Australian positions at Halfaya Pass on the Libyan-Egyptian border. Allied troops held the pass all day, but after dark they withdrew to Buq Buq, Egypt.|
|27 Apr 1941||German medium and dive bombers attacked Tobruk, Libya, destroying 4 anti-aircraft guns (killing 8); 1 German aircraft was lost. After these losses, the British moved the anti-aircraft guns to conceal positions while dummy guns were constructed in the old anti-aircraft gun positions.|
|28 Apr 1941||At 0600 hours, German bombers attacked Tobruk, Libya. During the day, German Deputy Chief of Staff Friedrich Paulus ordered Erwin Rommel to delay the planned ground assault on Tobruk.|
|29 Apr 1941||German bombers attacked Allied defenses at Tobruk, Libya as well as its harbor, sinking HMS Chakla.|
|30 Apr 1941||Friedrich Paulus gave Erwin Rommel the authorization to begin a ground assault on Tobruk, Libya, which was launched at 2000 hours after an entire day of artillery shelling at Ras el Madauar near Tobruk. German tanks broke through the defensive perimeter, and infantry overran several Australian positions, penetrating as far as 3 kilometers.|
|1 May 1941||German tanks attacked Tobruk, Libya at 0715 hours; slowed by a minefield, they were attacked by 2-pounder anti-tank guns and then by British tanks; the Germans lost 12 tanks in this engagement while the British lost 4. In the evening, Australian 2/48th Battalion conducted a counterattack but it was repulsed with heavy casualties. 300 kilometers to the west, RAF aircraft attacked Benghazi and sank an Italian freighter.|
|2 May 1941||Sandstorms at Tobruk, Libya limited the offensive capabilities of German tanks on this date. 100 kilometers to the west, British gunboat HMS Ladybird bombarded Axis positions at Derna.|
|3 May 1941||Australian troops launched a counterattack at Tobruk, Libya. Italian troops repulsed the counterattack, losing only one bunker.|
|4 May 1941||As the Axis offensive on Tobruk, Libya began to stall, Paulus ordered Rommel to besiege rather than eliminate Tobruk.|
|5 May 1941||Australian destroyers HMAS Voyager and HMAS Waterhen entered Tobruk, Libya, becoming the first ships to bring in supplies since the city became besieged.|
|9 May 1941||After nightfall, Australian destroyer HMAS Vendetta departed Alexandria, Egypt and arrived in Tobruk, Libya to embark wounded troops.|
|10 May 1941||British destroyers HMS Kelly, HMS Kipling, HMS Jackal, HMS Kashmir, and HMS Kelvin from Malta bombarded Benghazi, Libya at 1700 hours; German dive bombers fought back but caused no damage. After nightfall, also in Libya, British gunboat HMS Ladybird shelled Gazala 30 miles west of Tobruk.|
|12 May 1941||47 German dive bombers sank British gunboat HMS Ladybird in Tobruk harbor, Libya with two bomb hits, killing 4 and wounding 14; Ladybird's gunners damaged two German dive bombers in return. Although she settled in 10 feet of water, her 6-inch gun was still above water, and thus she would remain useful as a stationary anti-aircraft gun platform while repairs were being done. Admiral Andrew Cunningham sent the message to her commanding officer "Great fighting finish worthy of highest ideals and tradition of the Navy and an inspiration for all who fight on the seas."|
|13 May 1941||British gunboat HMS Gnat shelled the German airfield at Gazala, Libya 30 miles west of Tobruk after sundown in an attempt to disrupt the German aerial campaign against the besieged Tobruk.|
|16 May 1941||Italian sappers cleared barbed wires and mines. The subsequent attack on Tobruk, Libya saw Italian troops capturing several bunkers.|
|17 May 1941||Australian destroyer HMAS Vampire delivered fresh Australian troops to Tobruk, Libya at 0100 hours; the artillery pieces that arrived with the destroyer were deployed on the front lines as early as 0530 hours.|
|2 Aug 1941||Two Australian companies attacked Italian positions near Tobruk, Libya with the support of over 60 field guns. The attacks were repulsed after suffering heavy casualties. This particular attack represented the last Australian attempt to regain positions lost in early May 1941.|
|13 Aug 1941||Journalist Richard Capell paid tribute in a radio broadcast the defenders of Tobruk, Libya, with specific mention of anti-aircraft gunners but also generally of Australians, Indians, and British "[b]oys", who "within weeks, turn[ed] into hardened men."|
|15 Sep 1941||After sundown, British destroyers HMS Napier, HMS Nizam, and HMS Havock set sail from Alexandria, Egypt to the besieged city of Tobruk, Libya with supplies; they would all return to Alexandria in the morning of the next day.|
|17 Sep 1941||Australian 9th Division continued to be withdrawn from Tobruk, Libya. Relieving them was the British 70th Infantry Division, currently in Beirut in the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon awaiting transportation by British cruisers HMS Ajax, HMS Neptune, and HMS Hobart which had just departed from Alexandria, Egypt. After sundown, British minelaying cruiser HMS Abdiel and destroyers HMS Jervis, HMS Jaguar, and HMS Hasty made a roundtrip from Alexandria to Tobruk with supplies for the besieged city.|
|18 Sep 1941||After dark, British minelaying cruiser HMS Latona and destroyers HMS Napier, HMS Havock, and HMS Nizam sailed from Alexandria, Egypt and delivered supplies to the besieged garrison at Tobruk, Libya. They would return to Alexandria in the morning of the next day. HMS Nizam was damaged on the return trip when she hit the wreck of Italian ship Serenitas at Tobruk.|
|20 Sep 1941||British minelaying cruiser HMS Abdiel and destroyers HMS Jervis, HMS Kimberley, and HMS Hasty delivered 1,000 troops and 120 tons of supplies to Tobruk, Libya after sundown. They departed for Alexandria, Egypt 30 minutes after arrival.|
|22 Sep 1941||British minelaying cruiser HMS Abdiel and destroyers HMS Kandahar, HMS Jaguar, and HMS Griffin departed Alexandria, Egypt with supplies for Tobruk, Libya. They would arrive overnight and return on the following day.|
|24 Sep 1941||British minelaying cruiser HMS Abdiel and destroyers HMS Napir, HMS Kingston, and HMS Hotspur departed Alexandria, Egypt with troops and supplies for the besieged Tobruk, Libya; they would set sail to return to Alexandria overnight, arriving in the following day.|
|26 Sep 1941||British minelaying cruiser HMS Latona and destroyers HMS Jackal, HMS Kimberley, and HMS Hasty departed Alexandria, Egypt with troops and supplies for the besieged Tobruk, Libya; they would set sail to return to Alexandria overnight, arriving in the following day.|
|27 Sep 1941||British minelaying cruiser HMS Abdiel and destroyers HMS Kandahar, HMS Jaguar, and HMS Griffin departed Alexandria, Egypt after sundown with supplies for Tobruk, Libya. This would be the final Operation Supercharge supply run for the besieged city.|
|12 Oct 1941||In Operation Cultivate, British cruiser HMS Abdiel and destroyers HMS Hero, HMS Kipling, and HMS Nizam departed Alexandria, Egyupt for Tobruk, Libya. German submarine U-75 discovered them and attacked 35 miles west of Tobruk, sinking two landing craft which resulted in the killing of 34 Allied personnel and 2 Italian prisoners of war. U-75 picked up one survivor, whom would be delivered to Germany for interrogations.|
|17 Oct 1941||British cruiser HMS Latona and destroyers HMS Jackal, HMS Havock, and HMS Nizam departed Alexandria, Egypt for Tobruk, Libya.|
|18 Oct 1941||British cruiser HMS Latona and destroyers HMS Jackal, HMS Havock, and HMS Nizam arrived in Alexandria, Egypt from Tobruk, Libya.|
|19 Oct 1941||British gunboat HMS Gnat bombarded a German artillery battery near Tobruk, Libya after sundown.|
|20 Oct 1941||After sundown, British cruiser HMS Latona and destroyers HMS Kingston, HMS Encounters, and HMS Nizam departed Alexandria, Egypt for Tobruk, Libya, returning in the early hours of the next day. To protect them, British cruisers HMS Ajax and HMS Galatea and Australian cruiser HMAS Hobart, escorted by destroyers HMS Griffin and HMS Jaguar, bombarded German coastal guns near Tobruk.|
|21 Oct 1941||British cruiser HMS Abdiel and destroyers HMS Napier, HMS Hasty, and HMS Decoy departed Alexandria, Egypt with supplies for Tobruk, Libya, returning with men of the Australian 9th Division in the early hours of the following day.|
|24 Oct 1941||After sundown, British minelaying cruiser HMS Abdiel and destroyers HMS Kandahar, HMS Kingston, and HMS Griffin departed Alexandria, Egypt with troops and supplies for Tobruk, Libya, returning with troops of Australian 9th Division early in the next day.|
|28 Oct 1941||Axis forces rehearsed for the planned assault on the besieged city of Tobruk, Libya.|
|26 Nov 1941||In Libya, Lieutenant Colonel H. C. J. Yeo took the British 44th Royal Tank Regiment on a spectacular night attack which broke through the besiegers' lines and effected a link up with the Tobruk garrison. Many had suggested that the attack was impossible, but Colonel Yeo and his men had proven them wrong, and reinforced the matter with a similar operation against Barcia on 1 Jan 1942.|
|27 Nov 1941||New Zealand 2nd Division supported by 90 tanks penetrated the German encirclement of Tobruk, Libya and broke into the besieged city. Tanks of German 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions moved in to counterattack, but Australian and British troops halted it during the day; German tanks would attempt to close in on the city after sundown.|
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