The Rats of Tobruk
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The Rats of Tobruk was the name given to the soldiers of the garrison who held the Libyan port of Tobruk against the Afrika Corps, during the Siege of Tobruk in World War II. The siege started on 10 April 1941 and was finally relieved at the end of November.
Between April and August 1941, around 14,000 Australian soldiers were besieged in Tobruk by a German–Italian army commanded by General Erwin Rommel. The garrison, commanded by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead, consisted of the 9th Australian Division (20th, 24th, and 26th Brigades), the 18th Brigade of the 7th Australian Division, four regiments of British artillery, and some Indian troops.
Origins of the name
In what proved to be a propaganda mis-step, Lord Haw-Haw derisively referred to the Garrison as "poor desert rats of Tobruk" during radio broadcasts. This was probably mostly due to two factors:
- The Australians tended to counterattack to gather equipment as soon as the enemy was routed.
- The defenders dug extensive tunnel networks and shelters to supplement their trenches — and were not afraid to use them when bombarded.
The Australians gave themselves the nickname 'the Rats of Tobruk' after Radio Berlin described the Australians as 'caught like rats in a trap'.
The old warships that helped the Rats of Tobruk with supplies and evacuation of the wounded were insulted by Radio Berlin, being called a 'pile of scrap iron'. The Australians therefore called them 'The Scrap Iron Flotilla'.
Adoption of the name
With typically Australian dry wit, Australians reclaimed the name as a badge of pride, even going so far as to strike their own unofficial medal bearing the likeness of a rat. The metal used to make the medals came from a German bomber that the Rats had shot down with captured German guns. Throughout the conflict, the Axis attackers had at least twice the manpower and had the advantage of strong air support, while the Tobruk garrison had little air support because of the remoteness from friendly air bases. This made the supply of the garrison, necessarily by sea, very difficult with ships having to arrive, unload and depart under the cover of darkness.
Role of the Rats of Tobruk
At this time, Rommel's Afrika Korps had never been defeated. During the first phase of the offensive, the Rats were mostly concerned with constructing and reinforcing their defenses and observing the enemy. After a few months, however, purely defensive operations gave way to patrols. These forays outside friendly lines were broken into two categories: reconnaissance and fighting.
Apart from providing information on the enemy, sometimes these reconnaissance patrols entailed the capture and/or field interrogation of an enemy. Later, almost exclusively at night, a fighting patrol would act on viable targets found, operating under the simplest of guidelines: do as much damage as you can, without getting caught.
Commonly, an attack would involve crawling several miles, surrounding the enemy position, followed by a concerted rush with bayonets. In most cases, the action was over in a minute or two, more often than not without a shot fired. Probably, the most well-known single offensive action by the Rats was a fighting patrol led by Lieutenant William Horace Noyes, which stalked and destroyed three German light tanks, and killed or wounded the crews of 7 machine-gun and 11 anti-tank gun positions and their protective infantry. In addition, they damaged a German heavy tank, killed and wounded 130 in the process of taking a German garrison, most in the initial bayonet charge. No Rats were lost that night.
On 28 April, the soldiers were told to expect reinforcement and resupply within eight weeks. In the summer of 1941, Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey, commander of the Second Australian Imperial Force, with the support of the Prime Minister of Australia, requested the withdrawal of 9th Australian Division from Tobruk in order to meet the strong desire of the Australians that all their forces in the Middle East should fight under one command. General Claude Auchinleck, who had replaced Wavell as C-in-C Middle East Command in Cairo, agreed in principle, but was not anxious to expedite the operation because a troop movement of this size would have to be made by fast warships during moonless periods of the month (because of the risk of air attacks to shipping) at a time when every resource needed to be concentrated on the planned Operation Crusader.
Based on reports from Australian H.Q. Middle East that the health of the troops had been suffering, the new Australian Prime Minister Arthur Fadden and his successor John Curtin rejected requests from Winston Churchill to change their minds and the replacement of the division was effected by the Royal Navy between August and October. During 9th Australian Division's stay in the besieged Tobruk, some 3,000 Australians had become casualties and 941 taken prisoner.
The Australians were gradually withdrawn during the three moonless periods between August and October. In August, 18 Australian Infantry Brigade and the Indian Army's 18th King Edward's Own Cavalry were replaced by the Polish Carpathian Brigade - which had the Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion (East) under command - and, in September and October, the British 70th Infantry Division, including the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, replaced the rest of the Australians. Morshead was succeeded as commander of the Tobruk fortress by 70th Division's commander, Major-General Ronald Scobie.
The Rats of Tobruk hold an identifiable place within the ranks of returned servicemen, particularly in Australia, where there is the Rats of Tobruk Memorial, Canberra.
On 22 March 1944, the original members of the Rats of Tobruk formed the North Bondi Sub-Branch of the Returned and Services League of Australia and it is still known in modern times as Tobruk House or The Rathouse. In 2003, the New York Times ran an article on The Rathouse calling it "an ideal beachside hang out."
Their overarching international association, The Rats of Tobruk Association, is partly responsible for the erection of numerous monuments in Australia and the UK and involvement with official memorial services. The association also organised with the Royal Mint of Australia the striking of a 50 year anniversary medallion in 1991.
The association's insignia shows the elements of a large uppercase letter 'T', for Tobruk, a long-tailed desert rat, and a crown. The crown depicted is variously the Tudor Crown or St Edward's Crown (since 1953), representing allegiance to the Australian Sovereign, or a crown mimicking Tobruk's official pre-war city flag which was liberated from the city's hall during the siege.
In April 2007, the Victorian contingent of the Rats of Tobruk Association concluded that it could no longer afford the upkeep of Tobruk House, the inner-city Melbourne meeting hall that had been purchased by the Association in the 1950s. Back then, the Victorian Association had 1,800 members. By 2007, there were just 80 left, all aged in their 80s and 90s, who decided to sell the hall. From the sale, they hoped to raise up to A$1.5 million to be used for research at Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, where a neuroscience ward, the Rats of Tobruk Ward, had already been named after them. Bill Gibbons, who made his wealth out of trucking, went well beyond the expected price to outbid a Sydney developer for A$1.73 million. As reported by The Age, "in an act that stunned the old diggers, Mr Gibbons... then told the veterans they could keep the hall as long as they wanted."
In popular culture
- Charles Chauvel directed a 1944 movie titled The Rats of Tobruk, starring Peter Finch and Chips Rafferty, see IMDB.
- Playfair, Vol. II, p. 157.
- Playfair, Vol. III. p. 23
- Playfair, Vol. III. p. 25
- Hunt (1990), p. 66
- Long, Gavin (1973). The Six Years War. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. pp. 77-98 (ref footnote 100)
- The Rathouse History as found on Tobrukhouse.com (retrieved 6 September 2009)
- Borden, Margaret, Bondi, Beyond The Beach, New York Times, November 16, 2003, section 5, page 10
- "Diggers to auction 'rat hole' for charity" The 7.30 Report, 18 April 2007
- "Generosity keeps Rats of Tobruk in their Albert Park nest", The Age, 20 April 2007.
- FitzSimons, Peter, Tobruk HarperCollins Publishers (Australia), 2006
- Harrison, Frank, Tobruk: The Great Siege Reassessed, London: Arms and Armour, 1996
- Hunt, Sir David (1990) . A Don at War (Revised ed.). London: F. Cass. ISBN 0-7146-3383-6.
- Latimer, Jon, Tobruk 1941: Rommel's Opening Move, Oxford: Osprey, 2001
- Maughan, Barton (1966). Official History of Australia in the Second World War Volume III – Tobruk and El Alamein. Chapters 4 - 9. Series 1 - Army. Canberra: Australian War Memorial.
- Playfair, Major-General I.S.O.; with Flynn R.N., Captain F.C.; Molony, Brigadier C.J.C. & Toomer, Air Vice-Marshal S.E. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO 1956]. Butler, J.R.M, ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume II The Germans come to the help of their Ally (1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-066-1.
- Playfair, Major-General I.S.O.; with Flynn, Captain F.C. (R.N.); Molony, Brigadier C.J.C. & Gleave, Group Captain T.P. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO:1960]. Butler, Sir James, ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume III: British Fortunes reach their Lowest Ebb (September 1941 to September 1942). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. Uckfield, UK: Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-067-X.
- The Home of the Rats of Tobruk Association, Victoria, Australia