When German radio propaganda broadcaster William ‘Lord Haw Haw’ Joyce labelled the Allied defenders of Tobruk ‘rats’, little did he know that the tenacious troops would take the name and wear it as a badge of honour.
Tuesday 7 December marks the 80th anniversary of the end of the Siege of Tobruk, one of the most well-known battles Australian soldiers fought in during the Second World War.
Between April and December 1941, around 14,000 Australian soldiers endured land and air assaults, and gruelling desert conditions, to hold off the German and Italian forces from capturing the Libyan town and its strategically important harbour.
The Australian 9th Division and attached troops suffered more than 830 casualties. Over 2,170 were wounded and 941 were taken prisoner over the course of the siege.
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel Andrew Gee said the Rats of Tobruk had earned their place in history and had much to be proud of.
“Rommel and his tanks had rampaged through Europe and it was the Rats, led by an Australian, that stopped them in their tracks. It was an extraordinary feat of arms that our country takes great pride in and should never forget,” Minister Gee said.
“The Rats showed the world that Germany was not invincible and that the war could be won.
“For months on end they faced scorching hot days, bitterly cold nights, sand storms and near constant attack from both land and air.
“Despite the repeated assaults, the Rats of Tobruk would not be moved. They dug in, knowing that holding the town and its harbour was critical to stalling the enemy advance into Egypt.
“Led by Major General (Sir) Leslie James Morshead, troops from the 9th Division, the attached 18th Brigade of the 7th Division, along with British and Indian units held off the Axis forces under the command of General Erwin Rommel.
“In addition to the troops on the ground in Tobruk, a Royal Australian Navy destroyer group, dubbed the ‘scrap iron flotilla’ by the Nazis, provided the only link to the outside world and became known as the ‘Tobruk Ferry’ service. The Royal Australian Air Force as well as RAAF personnel serving with Royal Air Force units, provided air support.”
Among the countless stories of bravery from the campaign, is that of Australia’s first Victoria Cross recipient of the Second World War, Corporal John ‘Jack’ Edmondson, from Wagga Wagga in New South Wales.
“When German infantry breached the defences at Tobruk on 13 April 1941, Corporal Edmondson and his section charged the enemy position and despite being mortally wounded he continued to advance under heavy fire,” Minister Gee said.
“Corporal Edmondson’s actions saved the life of his platoon commander. He died from his wounds the following morning.
“He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, with his parents accepting the honour on his behalf.
“On this anniversary, we honour and remember the bravery, selfless sacrifice and service of all those involved in the Siege of Tobruk, those wounded and taken prisoner, and those who gave their lives.”
To learn more about the Siege of Tobruk and the Second World War, go to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Anzac Portal.