Rats of Tobruk
Department of Veterans' Affairs 2016
We captured the reflections of six Australian veterans who served in North Africa in World War II and survived the siege of Tobruk in 1941. Bob Semple, Ernie Brough, Hautrie Crick, Jack Caple, Jim Price and John Fleming shared memories of their wartime experiences in Tobruk, Libya.
Siege of Tobruk, 75th Anniversary
In March 2016, six Australian 'Rats of Tobruk' shared their experiences of the campaign with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Around 14,000 Australians served in Tobruk. These are just some of their stories.
Arrival in Tobruk
Bob Semple: We were shipped into the place. I personally went in. We shall ever be grateful to our Navy, the destroyers and those ships that supported and kept us alive, because without the Navy, we would not have seen out the distance.
Hautrie Crick: 10 o'clock at night, we got into Tobruk and all we did was just, the trucks pulled up and we jumped off, and all we did was just sort off dug a little depression in the ground and laid a groundsheet on the ground and laid on that until the morning. And woke up in the morning and we were half-buried in sand; there'd been a storm through the night. The way the sand drifts over there, it just travels, and we were just pushing the sand away, like that, to get up in the morning.
Bob Semple: One bottle of water for all purposes. No trees, and you are just out in the bare sunlight. Scrubby stuff, a bit like sort of saltbush, around the area. Can get cold at night. It can be 45 degrees [Celsius, during the day] you know, or more sometimes. The sandstorms come up and they just shut down the book for 2 or 3 days at a time, or a couple of days anyhow. Just like pulling the blind down from sky to land, and they're vicious sort of things, come up out of the desert.
Hautrie Crick: Well the water used to be bought up in petrol drums that were emptied that day or whatever, and the water used to taste like bloody petrol. And that's all we used to have to drink, and do a bit of a wash and a shave and that. Oh, it was shocking.
Jack Caple: You put about that much water in [holds up tin cup], do your teeth, then shave, and your hands and face and that, for 3 weeks. And then when you came off the red line, you'd get back down to the blue line and nick down to the beach and have a wash up. Of a night time, the truck would come up with the dinner, and these are our dixies. You'd use that for bully beef stew [holds up metal dixie tin] and that one [holds up smaller metal tin] for prunes and rice, that was your sweets. And two buckets of water. One was supposed to be hot, and one's cold. And no teatowel. That's about the size of a tin of bully beef [holds up tinned meat], and we were sharing 3 of those between 3 men for lunch for a long time. The rations were pretty scarce.
Bob Semple: Dealing with disease and fleas. You couldn't imagine. The fleas would gather in the multiples in like a tin hat. And flies. That caused an awful lot of problems. Desert sores and hard rations all the time. I think old Bill Angliss wouldn't have been too proud of his bully beef out of the tins. We turned the key in them, just like the sardine tin or whatever the package that they were in, and the hot fat just run down the outside of it, and you had that for breakfast, dinner and tea, and hard rations a lot of the time. And water, that was precious.
John Fleming: The English ships were from the Indian squadron. They used to come in, and they come up and they would park, there'd be two or three of them, and they'd come in and park out in the stream. I can remember this particular time we went out and they had boxes of oranges, which we'd never seen, you know? And a couple of officers said, "Hello, what are you fellas doing here?" And as it happened, we had our white and blue scarves on, and they said "oh dispatch riders. Okay fellas, keep going". But we had this box of oranges in the car, pinching stuff. But when we got back to the camp, we had this box of oranges. When we lifted (the lid) in the camp, you could smell them for miles. They lasted about two ups, you know. You couldn't keep them and hide them. Everybody smelt them.
Bob Semple: A fig tree was a tree that was over a coral sort of foundation with a big hole underneath it. It was used for all sorts of things, casualty clearing station for the perimeter, of course, we got a lot of injured and casualties. A headquarters, all sorts of things, over its time. The 3 weeks we were supposed to be there lasted really for 242 days, I think, which was 8 months.
Jim Price: I suppose the most scary part was the shelling at night. The mortars and the shells, you know. Some of them flying over and others that just heard, whip-bang and you'd know that was pretty close. And sometimes you would hear a thud and one would hit the ground - didn't go off.
John Fleming: After you've been there a few years, you get to the stage where it doesn't worry you 'cause you reckon if you're gonna get hit, you're gonna get hit. But in the first place, yes, I used to be worried about it, and looking for a place to hide. And that went right on through there, through El Alamein, you know.
Hautrie Crick: What the Germans did, they had Alsatian dogs on top of this big tunnel where the gun was. And these dogs would give you a signal that there was people around. And that's how we couldn't get it (the gun). The Navy couldn't get it because it used to run out on rails, out from the side of the cliff. And it was a bloody nuisance, this gun, anyway, but they couldn't get it. It might be still there today, I wouldn't know, but anyway.
Ernie Brough: I could smell the bullets going over my head, that's what, you could smell them. I was right up against this dug-out, and they poured it out. When they stopped firing, I had one grenade and I had a Tommy gun (Thompson submachine gun) with 50 rounds in one magazine, and 20 in another, you see. So, when they stopped firing, I poured 50 rounds into the dug-out where they were, and threw a grenade in on top of them, and they went real quiet. And I said, "Come on, let's go while they're thinking about it". And so I turned up, and then the next thing me mate turned up, Bert Cox from Nathalia, he come up and he said, "Hello, hello, hello." He said, "They've got you, at last, have they?" And I had a bullet in the bum, you see.
Bob Semple: The hurley-burley of action, of course, and the artillery. Apart from what they call counter-battery fire; your enemy is on you all the time. With the sound ranging and flash spotting equipment they can pin-point you pretty smartly, you know. But you didn't have the chance of shifting to another position, sometimes, to give you a bit of a temporary break, as you can in other territory. That was a bit hard to take. And our duty, which I always consider the infantry, the backbone of the army in my book. Our job was to give them every support we possibly could, and you stand-to no matter what.
Bob Semple: And the Stukas (German dive bomber and ground-attack aircraft) gave us a fair sort of attention. Because they used this Stuka, a pretty accurate sort of a thing. It comes down, if you imagine, and they scream and they open every door or whatever apparatus they have got, and they're screaming all the time. They come, you watch the bomb come out under the plane and so forth, aiming straight at you like that, and then they pull away.
Jack Caple: I was on guard on a waterhole, which was not used. And there was an ack-ack (anti-aircraft) post not far away. And the Stukas used to come out of the sun, and they're at an angle. And they pounded this ack-ack regiment. There were sandbags and guns and bodies everywhere, my word they. But there was an odd plane that didn't make it, but that pilot wouldn't know, and they used to go around and back to base. They were very well trained.
John Fleming: Anyhow, we were sitting there and these five Stukas came over. And the first thing we knew, they were coming screaming down at this tent that we were sitting in. And outside we had holes dug, and that side, up in the hill area, there it was that hard that, if you had a shovel it was alright, but if you didn't, you couldn't dig because it was too hard. And they dug little slit trenches about this deep, you know, thinking, oh that's alright. We built it along like that and then across like this see. One could lie there and one could lie across here, sort of thing. Anyhow, when I ran outside, there was blokes beat me out and there was blokes filled up the trenches all around, see, so I dived in on top of one of the other blokes and I was still a bit above the floor. And as these bombs were coming down, you could here they had these sirens on them, you know they used to put these sirens on them, and when they let the bomb go, they'd just take 5 seconds, you know, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, bang, you'd got it, you know.
Jim Price: Another day we were there, Jack and I decided we'd go for a walk and we come to this big wadi, you know a wadi is a dry riverbed. And we were walking along this, and we heard a plane behind us and looked around. Here's a Stuka dive bomber. He was flying very low under the radar, and the next thing you know, there's bullets all around us, and Jack and I, we headed for the bank. There was no trees or anything, no rocks you could shelter behind, but we broke the Stawell Gift (running race) getting to the bank, I tell you. I thought he might come back, but he didn't. We jumped out and, bang-bang after him, but...
Bob Semple: I reflect on these things, as, in your more sombre moments. You have your time, you reflect, and as you grow older, of course, you never really forget.
Jim Price: It's something to be proud of, I suppose.
Ernie Brough: But I was never frightened, it's a funny thing. Never, ever frightened. No matter how tough it was, there was always a way out somehow or another.
Hautrie Crick: The siege of Tobruk was the longest siege that any British company or any British army had ever experienced, and I feel real privileged to be a rat of Tobruk. And I've always said that, and always feel that way, and, until my dying days actually.
For more veterans' stories visit anzacportal.dva.gov.au
Produced by the Department of Veterans' Affairs
Archival images and footage courtesy of the Australian War Memorial