Tobruk – 75th anniversary

The siege of Tobruk began 75 years ago on 10th April, 1941, and yesterday in Canberra the anniversary was marked at the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ memorial on Anzac Avenue.

Tobruk is a small town on the Libyan coast with a deep water harbour, which Australian, British and Indian troops were charged with protecting in 1941 to prevent Rommel and his German forces from accessing the port and advancing into Egypt. The men of the Tobruk garrison withstood attacks for eight months, never retreating or surrendering. The Nazi propagandist ‘Lord Haw Haw’ said they were like ‘rats in a trap’, and from then the Australian troops proudly called themselves the ‘Rats of Tobruk’.

My father arrived in North Africa in September and worked in the hospital where he saw numbers of wounded men from Tobruk. Other soldiers gave him some photos of the harbour and town of Tobruk in various states of ruin, which he brought back in an album when he returned to Australia. A couple of photos are enough to give an idea of the bay in 1941.

The monument on Anzac Avenue is modelled after another one which you can see in the black and white photo, constructed in the cemetery at Tobruk but destroyed a few months after. Beside it is the present monument in Canberra in a photo I took today. On the front of the new one is a bronze eternal flame that faces the avenue, below which were laid wreaths for the 75th anniversary of the siege:

The Tobruk siege is significant for two firsts. It was the first defeat of Hitler’s troops on land. And Corporal John Hurst Edmondson, who died from wounds and is buried in Tobruk cemetery (and whose grave photo is also in my father’s album) was the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the war (awarded posthumously).

Finally, a poem. Here are the first two stanzas of Wounded from Tobruk, recorded by my father in his poetry book, but written by James Andrew “Tip” Kelaher and published in The Bulletin on 29 October 1941. Sadly, Tip Kelaher was killed the following year at El Alamein in Libya. Here’s the page in my father’s writing, followed by my transcription with corrections:

Wounded from Tobruk by James Andrew “Tip” Kelaher, 1941

You come limping down the gangplank
Or you’re carried down instead,
Covered by a dusty blanket
With a boot beneath your head,
And you all look lean and hungry
Underneath that Aussie grin,
Sick of bully beef and biscuits,
But the sort that won’t give in.

Perhaps you’re smiled at by a bearer,
Who is muscular and big,
Fishing fags out of his pocket
With a “Better have one, Dig”.
And you take it as he lights it,
And return the wry old grin,
Making little of your troubles,
But there’s no one taken in.

Poets, photographers, artists, sculptors, and a corporal who saved a man but sacrificed his own life. We must write about them lest we forget.



Weekly photo challenge: Connected

Here’s a direction sign from World War II Libya.  The photo taken in about 1941 is in my father’s war album, and is marked as “Signpost Libyan Desert”.  The camps are named after Australia’s state capitals, and might have helped the Australian forces to feel (slightly) connected with home, several months’ sail away.

All the capital cities are there except for Hobart.  But this board is a palimpsest, a surface where earlier writing has been removed, scraped off, to make way for later writing.  Here, the former text has been rubbed or washed away but if you look closely you’ll see the ghosts of smaller words, including the name of Hobart.  Whatever happened to Camp Hobart?

There’s also a bit of graffiti on the bottom where a few blokes have scratched their names.

Searching for the locations of the other place names, I learnt that Ikingi Maryût was in the Western Desert outside Alexandria, Egypt, to Libya’s east.  But I’m not sure about Abd-el-Kader, though it had been the name of a popular nineteenth-century leader of Algeria, to Libya’s west.

Signpost, Libyan desert, c1941
Signpost, Libyan desert, c1941

Thanks to WordPress for the photo challenge.  See what the word ‘connected’ triggered in others.



Derna Harbour, Libya.  Also Darna, Darnah.  A very small harbour, anchorage depth 15.5 – 16m.

In 1941, when Libya was controlled by the Italians, and the Italians were allied with Germany, the British bombarded the harbour.  My father brought home this photo.

Wreck in Derna Harbour, Libya, 1941
Wreck in Derna Harbour, Libya, 1941

Thanks Daily Post photo challenge:  Depth.

54 great opening lines: 43

Henry Holden decided to get an Italian prisoner-of-war after he had seen several at work on Esmond’s farm.

The Enthusiastic Prisoner, E. O. Schlunke


Another short story by Schlunke, the author of The Irling which I wrote about a couple of days ago.  This line, beginning with a very Australian name, Henry Holden, caught my attention particularly when I saw it was about an Italian P.O.W.  It triggered thoughts of some photos from my father’s war album of Italians taken prisoner by Australian soldiers.  Many of the P.O.W.s were shipped to Australia and placed in camps, and their services were offered to local farmers who greatly benefited from the Italians’ excellent knowledge of food production.  There is a photo (above) of a stream of Italians heading towards their captor’s camp.  There’s also this image of a suave bunch posing for the camera:

Italian soldiers, North Africa, c1941
Italian soldiers, North Africa, c1941

Ailsa's travel photo challenge: Mystical & Mysterious

Ailsa has posted some photos of misty, mysterious and mystical forests that stopped her in her tracks:  She succumbed to the temptation to capture a scene that can’t quite be explained, as did the man behind the camera in Fort Capuzzo, below.

In 1940, when Libya was still an Italian colony,  this frontier fort on the Libyan-Egyptian border was bombarded into the pitiful state you see in the photo below. In 1940 and 1941, Fort Capuzzo changed hands seven times back and forth between the allied and axis forces, finally falling to New Zealand troops who captured it for the last time in November 1941.

In the little grotto, a statue of Mary survived the beatings.  Whether the photographer was Catholic or not, he evidently found her survival mysterious, hard to explain.  So do I.

Fort Capuzzo, Italian Libya, 1941

Weekly photo challenge: Merge

In 1912 and through the early part of the 20th century, Libya was colonised  by Italians.  In 1940 when Italy entered the war and sided with Germany, the Italians in Libya had to face the British forces (which included Australians) who were moving in from their bases in Egypt.  In 1940 and 1941, after the two sides had battled, lost and won and again lost and won, tens of thousands of Italians were taken prisoner and were marched into camps in Egypt, later to be put on ships and sent to camps in Commonwealth countries including Australia. The photo below shows some of the thousands of captured Italians who were so battle-weary that they willingly followed their captors as prisoners of war.

The theme of ‘Merge’ brought this photo to mind.  The Italians seem to be leaving the battlefield and merging into a stream of men, flowing towards an oasis in the desert.  They wear great-coats because temperatures were low through the winter months, especially after dusk.

Italian prisoners of war, Libya, 1941