ANZAC Day: It’s one of the most important days on the Australian calendar, a day when we remember and honour our servicemen and women who’ve helped protect the wonderful country and way of life we enjoy today. A day to celebrate everyday Australian values – mateship, courage, and sacrifice – values that are still alive today with our “have a go” attitude and tendency to put others before ourselves.
Last year I wrote about the special significance of the 100-year anniversary of the battle of Villers-Bretonneux and the resulting special French friendships forged.
I recently read the fantastic book, ‘Tobruk’, by Peter Fitzsimons. If you haven’t read this outstanding book it’s well worth sourcing a copy. Whilst many will have heard of the “Rats of Tobruk”, very few understand the significance of the story. This force’s defence of Tobruk against the German Afrika Korps’ armoured division is one of the great battles in the history of modern warfare, yet the full details are rarely discussed.
During the middle years of World War II, when Hitler turned his attentions to conquering North Africa, a distracted and far-flung Allied force could not give its all to the defence of the key city of Tobruk in Libya. So the job was left to the roughest, toughest bunch they could muster. ‘Tobruk’ is the story of an incredible battle in excruciating desert heat through nine long months, against the might of Adolf Hitler’s formidable Afrika Korps. The Afrika Korps was headed by the infamous Erwin Rommel and his Panzer division. He had already torn through Poland and France and was largely thought to be unbeatable (he was eventually driven out of Africa by the Allies, including our very own Australian troops). The Australians withstood tank attacks, artillery barrages, and daily bombings. They endured the desert’s searing heat, the bitterly cold nights, and hellish dust storms. They lived in dug-outs, caves, and crevasses.
I learned about John Hurst Edmondson, known as Jack. The only child of Will and Elizabeth Edmondson, Jack went on to become the first AIF recipient of the Victoria Cross, which was awarded posthumously after his heroic actions ultimately ended his life, but saved the lives of his officer and five privates. And the great Leslie Morshead, the ex schoolmaster, who had an instrumental part to play in the defence of Tobruk and is among the most renowned Australian divisional commanders.
Beyond the individual stories at Tobruk, there are many accounts that our troops showed the Australian spirit at its finest. As one Australian wrote to his mother while in Tobruk, ‘I’m proud to be an Aussie… the Aussies tear about like kids at a picnic, swearing and laughing the whole time.’ It was this attitude that confounded the enemy.
Even when Lord Haw-Haw, the radio broadcaster intending to discourage the Australians at Tobruk announced that; ‘living like rats, they’ll die like rats,’ his derogatory comment had the opposite effect to what he intended. The comment provoked laughter among the Diggers and they delightedly adopted the title of ‘Rats of Tobruk.’
Tobruk is just one of many tales in our long and proud defence of the freedoms we hold so dear.
I’ll be at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance at dawn on Thursday, as always, and I encourage all Australians to get out and get involved on Thursday – it’s a public holiday for a reason. Remember the sacrifice made by Jack Edmondson and the Rats of Tobruk, celebrate our key Australian values that we fight so hard to protect, and pay tribute to all our servicemen and women pre and post.
Lest we forget.
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