Today's Honour Roll

April
21
Today's Honour Roll recognizes 180 Australians who fell on this day in history.
See Full List
Name Date of Death Conflict
PETITH, Trevor Graham 21 Apr 1969 Vietnam War
ROSS, Alexander McLachlan 21 Apr 1928 World War 1
BUCKLEY, Charles 21 Apr 1917 World War 1
BROWN, John Eyre 21 Apr 1944 World War 2
FRIEDRICHS, Karl August Richard 21 Apr 1918 World War 1

The Rats of Tobruk and Lord Haw Haw

The Rats of Tobruk and Lord Haw Haw - By Ned Young

The rat. Dirty, sneaky, sly, and infested with disease; not an animal that one would usually be thrilled to be likened to. For 14,000 Australians (and 12,000 British and Indian troops)[1] fighting in Tobruk, Libya however, the rat comparison was embraced, and is still celebrated years after the completion of the Second World War.

In early 1941, the Middle East was home to an array of intense conflicts, many of which proved to be war-defining. The port at Tobruk in Northern Libya was used by the Allies as a base from which they could attack the already occupied coastline of Europe. Tobruk was an ideal location because of its deep waters and steep embankments that made it easily fortifiable.[2] Control of the port was critical to the Allies in their defence of Egypt and the Suez Canal, as it meant the opposing forces had no option but to lug supplies over a 1,500km stretch of the Sahara Desert from the port of Tripoli in order to engage in hostilities, whilst also diverting troops from their Egyptian advance.[3] Control of Tobruk also meant access to close-by oil fields, which allowed for tanks, planes and other motorised transport to be easily refuelled.[4]

German-Italian troops, lead by General Erwin Rommel, surrounded the fortified Tobruk at the beginning of April, 1941. On the 11th, he attacked with tanks and foot soldiers, but the Allies’ defences proved too strong, and his troops were forced to retreat. Until this point, no one else had been able to deny the German forces in their advance of Africa.[5]

 
 

Left: An Australian patrol lays up in an anti-tank ditch near the perimeter of the Australian defences around Tobruk (AWM 020779).  Right: A dugout in the Tobruk area with ships ventilators or 'punkas' erected by the Australian engineers in occupation (AWM 009515). 

 

It was this relentless resilience that caused Nazi propagandist Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) to label the garrison as the “poor desert rats of Tobruk” during his radio broadcasts. Haw Haw (whose name most likely derived from German radio announcers’ sarcastic laughter when referring to Allied opposition), was born in Brooklyn, New York to Irish parents, and grew up in Galway. Joyce was an active member of the British Union of Fascists, and when war broke out, fled to Germany and became a naturalised German citizen. He had a regular position on the German radio programme Germany Calling, which was broadcast throughout the United Kingdom and United States.[6] His often exaggerated  reports of high Allied casualties were frequently listened to by the public, despite their disheartening content, in the hope that secrets from enemy lines or the whereabouts of loved ones would be revealed.

 

Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) in ambulance post-capture in 1945 (Hardy, Bert, No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit).

 

It was clear that Joyce had made a blunder in his use of the word ‘rats’ when the Australian soldiers began ironically referring to themselves as ‘The Rats of Tobruk’. The newfound camaraderie undoubtably served as a morale booster for the troops, as the ‘Rats’ withstood regular bombardments from Rommel and his men well into August. The determination of the garrison caused German Major Ballerstedt of the 2nd Battalion to write to his superior officers:

“The Australians, who are the men our troops have had opposition them so far, are extraordinarily tough fighters. The German is more active in attack, but the enemy stakes his life in defence and fights to the last with extreme cunning.”[7]

In Ballerstedt’s own words, the fighting style and cunning of the Australians seemingly lived up to their nickname. The determination of the Diggers was unheralded by the Germans, with one captured Officer writing, “I cannot understand you Australians…you are like demons…the tanks break through your infantry and you keep fighting.”[8] In an effort to demoralise the Australians, Germany Calling continued their propaganda campaign, suggesting the “rats” were caught in a “German trap” and assuring that defeat was imminent. Lord Haw Haw also took aim at the fleet of Australian warships, calling them a “pile of scrap iron.” The ‘Rats’, in typical fashion, henceforth referred to their fleet as the “Scrap Iron Flotilla”.[9] Of course the attempted German belittlement backfired, and served only to rally the garrison further. An unofficial medal of honour was even enacted by the Diggers, forged from the scrap metal of a downed German bomber.[10] It, naturally, was sculpted into the shape of a desert rat. Australian war correspondent Chester Wilmot perhaps described the situation best:

“Berlin Radio made a fatal mistake in trying to jibe and scare the Australian soldier into surrender. The longer the odds Lord Haw Haw offered against the Diggers chance of getting out, the more heavily the Digger backed himself.”[11]

  

Left: A clipping from The Argus, 30th December 1941 describing the creation of the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ medals. Right: One of only an estimated 20 ‘Rats of Tobruk’ medals.

By the end of August, attacks from German-Italian forces had become less frequent, and half the garrison had been relieved. The rest were withdrawn during September and October. In their place came British, Polish and Czech soldiers.[12] Only the 2/13 Battalion saw out the entirety of the siege. They were eventually evacuated when the siege was lifted on December 10th, 1941,[13] 9 months after it began.

The success of the siege did not come without its consequences. It is estimated some 3,000 Australian troops were killed or injured in the fighting.[14] Their sacrifices were certainly not made in vain, however. Tobruk, as put by Wilmot, was the “thorn in the side” of the German Army,[15] disrupting their advance of Egypt and significantly boosting Allied morale. The “determination, bravery and humour [of the ‘Rats’]…became a source of inspiration during some of the war’s darkest days.”[16]

Today we honour these men accordingly with memorials, such as the ‘Eternal Flame’ Memorial in Canberra, and anniversary tokens like the 50-year medallion, created by the Royal Australian Mint in 1991. A neuroscience ward in Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital is proudly named the ‘Rats of Tobruk Ward’, and in 1944, Charles Chauvel even directed the film The Rats of Tobruk, starring famous Academy Award winning actor Peter Finch.

Ironically, the legacy of the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ would not exist, at least not in its current form, if it had not been for Lord Haw Haw coining the nickname in his attempt to stifle what has become one of Australia’s most inspirational wartime stories. William Joyce met a gruesome end in January 1946 after being captured and found guilty on three counts of high treason. “May the swastika be raised from the dust,”[17] were the final words uttered before his drop from the gallows.

Scientists believe that in the event of a mass-human extinction, the humble rat will rise to dominate the earth.[18] Lord Haw Haw really ought to have thought twice before comparing the Australian soldiers to the worlds’ most unrelenting rodent.

© Ned Young


[1] Ergo.slv.vic.gov.au. (2019). The rats of Tobruk | Ergo. Available at: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/australia-wwii/abroad-wwii/rats-tobruk.
[2] Ibid.
[3] The Memorial. (2011). Siege of Tobruk | The Australian War Memorial. Awm.gov.au. Available at: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/tobruk.
[4] Ergo.slv.vic.gov.au. (2019). The rats of Tobruk | Ergo. Available at: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/australia-wwii/abroad-wwii/rats-tobruk.
[5] Ibid.
[6] En.wikipedia.org. (2019). Lord Haw-Haw. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Haw-Haw.
[7] Convictcreations.com. (2019). Rats of Tobruk - Thieves in the Night. Available at: http://www.convictcreations.com/history/tobruk.htm.
[8] Convictcreations.com. (2019). Rats of Tobruk - Thieves in the Night. Available at: http://www.convictcreations.com/history/tobruk.htm.
[9] The Memorial. (2011). Siege of Tobruk | The Australian War Memorial. Awm.gov.au. Available at: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/tobruk.
[10] Ergo.slv.vic.gov.au. (2019). The rats of Tobruk | Ergo. Available at: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/australia-wwii/abroad-wwii/rats-tobruk.
[11] Convictcreations.com. (2019). Rats of Tobruk - Thieves in the Night. Available at: http://www.convictcreations.com/history/tobruk.htm.
[12] Ergo.slv.vic.gov.au. (2019). The rats of Tobruk | Ergo. Available at: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/australia-wwii/abroad-wwii/rats-tobruk.
[13] The Memorial. (2011). Siege of Tobruk | The Australian War Memorial. Awm.gov.au. Available at: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/tobruk.
[14] Ergo.slv.vic.gov.au. (2019). The rats of Tobruk | Ergo. Available at: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/australia-wwii/abroad-wwii/rats-tobruk.
[15] Wilmot, C. and Cochrane, P. (2017). Tobruk 1941. 2nd ed. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company.
[16] The Memorial. (2011). Siege of Tobruk | The Australian War Memorial. Awm.gov.au. Available at: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/tobruk.
[17] En.wikipedia.org. (2019). William Joyce. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Joyce.
[18] Poppick, L. (2014). Oversized Rats Could Take Over Earth After Next Mass Extinction. Live Science. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/43142-rats-mass-extinction.html.