Rats of Tobruk Article 2001

The following article was contained in an email that was received by Steve Rowan, then the Secretary of the 2/15th Battalion AIF Remembrance Club.  It is from Owen Carlton of the Rats Of Tobruk Association in Victoria.  

It appears to have been written in 2001.




"There are times when I wish to God that these kangaroos would stop 
hopping over to my side of the war to kick my teeth out repeatedly." 

-Erwin Rommel on the 9th Australian Division



What was intended to be derision became a badge of honour for the Australians.

Berlin propaganda broadcaster Lord Haw Haw told them they were trapped like rats unless they surrendered. If they burrowed any further into the African desert their trenches would reach Australia. The Nazis never understood the formidable Australians.

Teenager Murray Burles could always tell if his mates were listening to the scathing rhetoric of Radio Berlin traitor William Joyce because they would be falling about laughing. He’d call us rats and then he’d tell us they had shot down ten aircraft – we didn’t even have ten planes, recalls Murray who was 17.

Lord Haw Haw was a source of hilarity in the heat of the Libyan desert and the rubble of the port of Tobruk, unwittingly playing a part in forming our own wartime legend. Within days Murray and other underage Diggers such as Harry Wright, a 2/23rd Battalion private, who was aged just 16. Like Murray, he lied about his age to join up.

The Australians dug in and were ordered to stay put, looking out on a sea of sand and desolation – flat, stony desert, rolls of barbed wire, minefields and the burnt out trucks through which the big German tanks would advance. The Diggers enlarged a few hundred gunnery posts our 6th division had taken when it captured the town from the Italians in January 1941, forming a 45km-long “red line” perimeter, then dug a secondary “blue line” a few kilometres back.

The Rats shared their trenches with scorpions, fleas, blowflies and biting ants which also sought shelter from the daytime heat which soared above 45C (113F) in the northern summer. Nights were bitterly cold. Murray Burles remembers freezing temperatures when mates would tie their overcoats together to gather dew, which would drip into a dixie (metal cooking pot) so they had water to wash with.

Harry “washed” with the dregs of his nightly cup of tea. He only had one canteen of water each day, with meals of tinned or salted beef except on the nights when both sides had an unofficial truce so trucks could get hot meals through to the lines. Dysentery was a common complaint. To listen for enemy troops at night, they would put a tea chest in a trench and half bury it so it became a sound box. 

In late April then again in early May at a fire zone called The Salient the Australians beat back fierce daytime attacks from the Afrika Corps of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. 

Sixty years ago today the Germans had launched their first major offensive. New Australian commander Major General Leslie Morshead allowed 38 Panzers three kilometres inside the red line before they were pounded close-up with anti-tank guns and captured Italian artillery. “They (Germans) were bewildered and shocked because they thought they’d roll in and we would surrender, but once those tanks were gone we got up with Bren guns and the infantry behind the tanks were picked off,” Murray Berles said. One hundred men died, 250 were captured, 17 tanks left wrecked.

After losing 46 of his 81 tanks on May 1st, one German officer noted: “Our opponents are not trained attacking troops but men with toughness, tireless, taking punishment with obstinacy, wonderful in defence”.

At night the Rats left their burrows to gnaw at the enemy. “We were told to let them do what they want outside the perimeter at daytime but the night belongs to us,” Murray said. “We would go on reccy (reconnaissance) patrols, fighting patrols, sneak out behind their lines” Raiding parties of defenders would look for stray German soldiers going to the toilet alone, having a smoke or walking between camps. Men were shot, prisoners take on both sides. “If you saw groups you often wouldn’t engage but if you met head-on, and some times that happened, it was an all in brawl,” he said.

Harry described a “madhouse” of shooting and close fighting. “You and a few mates are going one way, then you’re in a weapon pit, there’s individual battles going on. “You kill them. If they look like yielding you yell surrender, then they put down the gun. But they were probably told the same as us, no surrender, so you had to kill or be killed.”

The town itself had its shops, schools, wine bars and most homes destroyed by constant shelling and air bombing, with the wharf also in ruins. There was no cinema, no beer, no women – nothing for anyone off duty. Surgical hospital orderlies such as Trevor Macfarlane quickly learned to be theatre nurses for major operations.

Trevor said 25 hours was the longest period without an air raid in his eight months at Tobruk. “Our theatre dress was shorts and sandals, it was too hot for gowns, but we did have an excellent team of Melbourne’s best surgeons – Littlejohn, Renau, Acland, Ley,” he said. And “beautiful equipment” left by the Italians. One night we did 108 operations in eight hours, the wounded placed on trestle tables, X-rayed, operated on then taken out for evacuation by ship.

The “Tobruk ferry service” was the crucial lifeline which sustained the siege, nine Royal Australian Navy ships repeating the perilous journey from Egyptian ports into Tobruk’s “Bomb Alley”.

HMAS Parramatta and destroyer HMAS Waterhen were lost. Ships were tied up on sunken hulks in the harbour at night, offloading tons of supplies and 29,000 fresh troops. They included British, Poles and South Africans who began to replace Australians from August. The Diggers had been ordered to hold the town for two months – but it was December before the last troops left.

Australia’s casualties topped 3,000 – 832 men killed, 2177 wounded with 900 captured. But the Rats finally left their holes with their tails up.

“We were told the Germans had been defeated, the Poles and other forces would relieve us and there was elation upon leaving the place,” Murray Burles said. The elation turned to disgust three months later when they learned the Germans had finally taken Tobruk. But their resistance had held up Rommel’s advance and given the British crucial time to regroup and save Egypt. It was to prove decisive in 1942 when they helped kick the Germans out of North Africa.

Last year the Rats of Tobruk Association received a letter from Rommel’s son, Manfred, a kinder message than Lord Haw Haw’s:

“My father said the Australian infantry belonged to the best troops
on both sides he had seen during his military career. 

It was due to their professional soldiership that the Germans
and Italians could not take Tobruk during the summer of 1941.

God bless you.”