Cooking for the Rats of Tobruk

Name: Stanley Gordon Waugh
Date: 1941
Unit: 9th Division AIF
Location: Tobruk

Keeping the troops fed is never easy but when you have to dodge falling bombs and machine gun raids by enemy fighter planes, not to mention overcoming the shortage of water and food, then it is doubly difficult.

Corporal Stanley Gordon Waugh was one of the Rats of Tobruk. He was also a cook who had to put up with appalling conditions for much of the time while trying to keep up the supply of food.

Having sailed from Australia on the Mauritania on 29 December 1940, he arrived in the Middle East and finally reached Benghazi after a hectic overland trip by truck from Tobruk.

Life began to settle down to a fairly dull routine. Wake early, endure German air raids, cook meals for the troops.

But apart from his cooking duties, there were other roles for Corporal Waugh to undertake - including "wog chasing" (Arabs).

"We thought we were going to have some fun this afternoon, but it never turned out so funny to me," he wrote in his diary. "Seven of us had to move all the Wogs out (around our camp) as there had been reports that they have been signalling aeroplanes and morse coding of a night. Some Itis (Italians) are dressed up as Wogs (Arabs) which makes it very dangerous as there are 7000 Iti prisoners in the compound and about that many living in the town and round about, and there are only about 1500 Aussie and English soldiers here, so if they decided to make a nuisance we would be extra hard pushed.

"Anyway, about this Wog chasing. We started off on the waterfront. We rounded up 26 men, put them on a lorry and dumped them out of town. Then we ran into a lot of women and kids and did they bawl. It sure was tough having to shift them out of the houses, which were made of mud and about 5 foot high and 10 to 15 foot long.

"They were lousy and talk about the smell, it seems they ate in on corner and made the other corner a lavatory. It's a wonder there wasn't a plague there. Half of them are blind and deformed or have skin complaints, I suppose full of disease. It's no wonder we let them take their livestock such as sheep, goats and donkeys. But after we dumped them out of town we went to their houses and took their fowls and pigeons which we plan to have for dinner and a booze up between ourselves. I suppose I will have to do the cooking.

"It sure is a shame to have to shift these Wogs as I don't think they do any harm. They have been living here for years I suppose, but it was orders and we have to obey them. I don't think we will have a raid tonight as it is pitch black."

Next day, Monday 17 March, he wrote that he'd been woken up at 5am by an explosion that nearly knocked their house over.

"I just laid in bed hoping for the best. They went away in half an hour, no damage done. Wog hunting again this morning but we only got four. Looks like we have them all rounded up now."

The following day they rode into town on bikes they had

"pinched from the Wogs". [We] have a good look around, also go from one beer ship to another. We also have a camera and we have some fun taking snaps. We are learning to speak Iti language pretty good."

Later in the month he wrote:

"Our boys have captured German and Iti prisoners, tons of ammunition and they have drove them back 30 miles, recaptured El Agheila and an aerodrome they had evacuated a week ago. It seems now the enemy were led into a trap. The fighting was hot there as there were hundreds of tanks, machine guns, armoured cars, field guns, trucks and ammo all destroyed. Jerry is causing a lot of trouble by machine gunning and dive bombing the troops and convoys."

On 2 April the troops received orders to leave Benghazi following a German advance.

"After leaving all the main dumps, boats, petrol, power houses, in fact everything burning. We could see the smoke when we were miles out. We went as far as Barce before we camped."

Having been attached to the 9th Division headquarters, they arrived in Derna on 5 April.

"Soon as we arrived I got orders to go and cook for a gun crew back towards where they are fighting. At 8pm we had to pack in a hurry as Jerry was only a few miles away.

"We are expecting reinforcements as we are too weak to hold him [the German Army]. He has got a lot of tanks and armoured cars. We haven't and our infantry hasn't got a hope against tanks. We got attacked by Messerschmitt 110 at 4pm. He came down machine gunning. One of the guns missed the boys but we never missed him. He came down at 6pm. We left under fire, shrapnel and bullets bursting everywhere. We drove all night and it was cold. It was nice and moonlit so that helped our drivers.

"We stopped at Derna airport to refuel. About two hours earlier Jerry had broke through the road here but was driven back. It seems he had us cut off otherwise. We pulled up about eight miles from Tobruk. We certainly never thought we'd be here a again."

Next day they had another raid with about 18 Messerschmitts attacking them.

"Every gun about was in action and was there a noise. I was using my rifle. There were machine guns, AA guns, artillery, in fact everything was being used. The fight lasted quarter of an hour. We brought down six planes, not bad."

Now ensconced in Tobruk, the troops began to earn their nickname. German propagandists referred to the besieged garrison as "rats caught in a trap" and the Australians quickly turned the insult into a plaudit, calling themselves the "Rats of Tobruk".

"Easter Monday and what a day! At 7am we got word to pack and be ready to shift as a lot of Jerry tanks got through but the boys got them and are pushing Jerry back," Corporal Waugh wrote. "At 7.30 a squadron of 40 to 50 enemy bombers and fighters came over and did they give us hell. They bombed the hospital again and machine gunned it for the third time. It was like hell. Planes all over the sky , dropping bombs and shooting us, shrapnel and bomb splinters fell all around us as we lay in our trenches, but he got a few.

"The hospital here is full of wounded. As fast as they clear them out on a ship, it is just as full. The boys captured 200 prisoners and 15 tanks today and the prisoners are only boys and a lot of them were wounded. It isn't a good place to see, the hospital, it certainly sickens you.

"Four Indian soldiers were blown to pieces by a bomb. We've had raids all day. There has been about 14 planes (enemy) brought down today. As the hospital ship pulled out at 5.30 tonight three enemy bombers came over and dropped about eight bombs on it and I think it got hit as I seen some bombs dropped right near it. Anyhow it went out to sea and came back again so it must have.

"By all accounts we are doing all right against the enemy as we seem to have stopped retreating. Still plenty of air raids and occasionally some infantry fighting. Jerry seems to be pretty strong with tanks and armoured cars but they are being beat back."

On Anzac Day, Corporal Waugh found himself dreaming of home.

"I sure wish I was in Australia marching than here in the Libyan Desert. It is starting to get hot now and the flies are pestering us also. The dust, there are plenty of rats, snakes, scorpions, so we have to fight them too. Today has been the quietest for a week, only the roar of the artillery guns and an occasional machine gun fire from the front line as Jerry tries to make a push."

On 1 May things began to hot up again.

"We were supposed to start an attack on Jerry at 3 o'clock this morning but somehow or other he must have heard about it as he started the attack himself at 7pm last night. And what a din. Artillery on both sides slamming away and a pitched battle of tanks and the infantry, there were enemy dead laying everywhere, also a few of ours wounded. He made three attempts to break through. He managed to get 30 tanks and some men inside our wire but the boys fought like hell and put 18 tanks out of the fight and the other 12 went back, also what enemy troops that were alive. But there was a brigade of our men got cut off about 100 men. All during the night the artillery fired and a lot of Jerry shells were landing all around us."

Next day the battle continued.

"The fighting continued till late this morning but the artillery never let up. Those English boys sure know how to handle big guns. We heard that the brigade that got cut off got back again. Good on them. The only trouble here is that we haven't got quarter enough aeroplanes. Jerry seems to be able to do what he likes in the air. There is a rumour going around that there are two squadrons of Hurricanes coming here. That will cheer the boys up."

On 1 June, Corporal Waugh wrote that it was still

"hot as hell". "They say Crete has fallen to the enemy. Well, we can be prepared for some parachute troops and waves of bombers now. This place Tobruk is sure going to be hell soon."

Later in the month Corporal Waugh reported on enemy propaganda leaflets which had been dropped on Tobruk.

"They had in big printed letters: 'Aussies, don't trust the British soldiers, they ran away and left you in Greece and Crete. Now they will leave you in Tobruk and Syria. So if you want to see your families again in Australia, show a white flag and we will not fire on you. If you attempt to evacuate our dive bombers and fighter planes will be waiting to bomb and machine gun you, so surrender'."

On 21 September they received some good news.

"Well at last we have been told today that we are going back to Palestine for along spell. Everyone is glad. We are leaving in four days time."

Four days later Corporal Waugh recorded a sad event.

"An awful thing happened today. All the boys were lined up for their cigarette rations this morning about 9am and from nowhere came a Jerry bomber. We never heard it till it was almost overhead. He dropped five bombs in a heap. One landed direct on the tent the cigs were being given out from. It caught almost everyone unawares. It killed four and wounded six of our boys. It was bad luck for the boys who got hurt because the next day we all went out."

And on 26 September the Australian troops were relieved.

"We all boarded the destroyer HMS Jackal at 1.15am for Alexandria and quarter of an hour after we pulled out of the harbour an enemy bomber dropped nine bombs. We were lucky alright."

They landed at Alexandria about 1pm that day after the 500 km journey.

"Had a bonzer stew, got two bottles of beer each (the first for two months). Did they taste alright. Well, when we drank them we went to an English canteen and bought six dozen bottles between eight of us. Did we get drunk.

"Left Amirya for Palestine about 9pm same night. Everyone is drunk and we had to stagger and struggle with all our heavy kit for a mile to catch a train, boarded train, laid down on floor to sleep."

After several weeks in which they saw a great deal of places like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the troops eventually boarded a ship, still not knowing where they were going. It was not until they had left Colombo that they learned they were going home to Australia.

The material for this article was supplied by Yvonne Williams and Nancy Robins of Victoria

Last updated:

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Cooking for the Rats of Tobruk, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 21 June 2024,
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