On Sunday 10 April this year we mark the 75th Anniversary of the Siege of Trobruk at the Rats of Tobruk Memorial on Anzac Parade, Canberra.
The eight month-long siege of Tobruk is one of the Second World War’s best known episodes. There an Allied force, two thirds of whom were Australian, held out in the scorching heat of the Libyan desert against the German Afrika Korps, stalling the enemy’s advance on Egypt and denying the Germans the use of Tobruk’s harbour. Today we commemorate the Rats of Tobruk, as they were known, and we honour their courage, resilience and determination.
More than fifteen thousand Australians endured the siege of Tobruk, alongside soldiers from Britain, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Sailors of the Royal Australian Navy, known as the ‘Tobruk Ferry’ also braved the siege, keeping the garrison supplied and evacuating the wounded.
Among the Australian infantrymen manning the port’s outer defences was a 26 year old corporal from Wagga Wagga in New South Wales named Jack Edmondson.On 13 April 1941 he along with an officer and five other soldiers took part in a bayonet assault against a party of Germans who had broken through Tobruk’s defences and established a strongpoint with machine guns and mortars. During the charge Edmondson was wounded in the neck and stomach but remained in the fight, killing one German. He was grappling with another when his officer, Lieutenant Frederick Mackell, wrestling on the ground with a man he had just bayoneted and threatened by another who was coming at him with a pistol, called for help. Edmondson, despite his wounds, bayoneted both Germans, saving Mackell’s life. Edmondson died from his wounds the next day. For his courageous act, he was awarded the first Victoria Cross received by an Australian in the Second World War. His citation described Edmondson's actions as ‘outstanding for resolution, leadership and conspicuous bravery.’
Through the stories of men like Edmondson and his comrades, we can gain a sense of the courage and determination exhibited by the Rats of Tobruk as they defended the port against the legendary German Afrika Korps.
The Diggers’ qualities were recognised by their foes. One German officer, a Major Ballerstedt wrote:
"The Australians, who are the men our troops have had opposite them so far, are extraordinarily tough fighters. The German is more active in the attack, but the enemy stakes his life in the defence and fights to the last with extreme cunning."
The same sentiments were echoed by a captured German officer, astonished that Australian infantry defeated an attack after German tanks had breached the outer line of defences;
"I cannot understand you Australians. In Poland, France and Belgium once the tanks got through the soldiers took it for granted they were beaten. But you are like demons. The tanks break through and your infantry keeps fighting."
For information on the 75th Anniversary of the Siege of Tobruk service and other commemorative events, visit the Anzac Centenary events page.