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
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: Signs

When the Australian government, among others, announced this week they’re sending troops off to Iraq to fight (if only in the skies for now), I thought Here we go again.  As I rode past this bin today, the sign “General Waste” reminded me of the futility of war.  It might seem an obscure connection, but when you see the page from my father’s anthology of war poetry compiled in about 1942, you’ll think what I thought.  First, the bin:

General Waste bin

Second, a poem entitled “General Waste”, originally written in World War One by Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, who volunteered as a British chaplain to the army on the western front.  He was also known as Woodbine Willie for the Woodbines he smoked and handed out to the wounded and dying.  But he had a threefold reputation, for he was also a great anti-war poet.

In Dad’s poetry book, I’ve often read “General Waste” and felt the hollowness of war.  Studdert Kennedy wrote it in about 1917, but his poems were recalled by soldiers fighting again in World War Two.  Dad has called it “General Waste”, though searches online suggest it was called simply “Waste”.  There are a few spelling errors in his script, so I’ve transcribed it:

Waste of muscle, waste of brain,
Waste of patience, waste of pain.
Waste of manhood, waste of health,
Waste of beauty, waste of wealth.
Waste of blood, waste of tears,
Waste of youth’s most precious years.
Waste of ways the saints have trod,
Waste of Glory, Waste of God.
War!

"Waste" by Rev. Studdert Kennedy, c1917
“Waste” by Rev. Studdert Kennedy, c1917 (my father’s script)

Thanks WordPress for this week’s photo challenge.

Weekly photo challenge: Home

My father volunteered to go to the Middle East in 1941 as a soldier, and it’s clear from his poetry and photos that it wasn’t quite the adventure he’d expected and that he thought often of home.  And my mother, who was the girlfriend left behind, sent him photos of herself in her front yard (photos were only ever taken outdoors then), to show him what he was missing.

My transcription of the poem follows the image.

Hazel Weeks, 1941
My mother at 19;  photo sent to my father, 1941
"Thoughts of Home", R.E. Bruce, 1941
“Thoughts of Home”, R.E. Bruce, 1941, © Patricia Worth, 2013

Thoughts of Home

I’ve just come off duty,
And feeling kind of blue,
So the best thing I can think of
Is to drop a line to you.
Writing seems to cheer me
Makes a man remember home,
And makes him often wonder
Why he commenced to roam.

*****

If by chance they get me,
Should put me out of gear,
I’ll go out like a Briton,
Like you would have me Dear,
But in the meantime, while I live,
While the guns and cannons roar,
I’ll pray with all my heart, Dear,
That we will meet some more.

R.E. Bruce
© Patricia Worth, 2013

Ailsa's travel photo challenge: Festive

Ailsa’s photo challenge focuses on travel, http://wheresmybackpack.com/2012/12/21/travel-theme-festive/, and most (if not all) my contributions have been of photos taken far from home.  Usually, travel is for the fun of it.  But occasionally, throughout history, people have travelled to far-off lands to help defend them.  For soldiers, travel is small compensation for a life that is dangerous, short on comfort and long on discipline.  Christmas, for those raised in countries where it is celebrated, is a time when they feel particularly separated from their countrymen back home.  For the A.I.F. (Australian Imperial Forces) in the Middle East in WWII, some comfort was offered in the establishment of a newspaper, the A.I.F. News. It was not only the first army newspaper for Australian troops, but the first in any theatre of war.  Initially it was printed in Jerusalem, and later transferred to Cairo.  Here’s the Christmas issue for December 1941.

"The A.I/F. News", Cairo, December 1941
“The A.I.F. News”, Cairo, Saturday, 20 December 1941

Another form of comfort was writing.  So far away from home at Christmas, the soldiers didn’t feel festive or joyous, especially if they’d seen horrors and lost companions in grim battle scenes.  Many wrote poetry about the separation from girlfriends and families; the following poem, Christmas Bells, expresses both kinds of grief, separation that is temporary and the other, which is for ever.  The poem is in my father’s poetry anthology, but it was written by Spr. E. Locke and was published in the A.I.F. News Christmas edition in the photo above.  I’ll add my transcription after the image.

Christmas Bells, p. 1, author unknown
Christmas Bells, p. 1, author unknown

 

"Christmas Bells", p. 2, author unknown
“Christmas Bells”, p. 2, author unknown

Christmas Bells

“Say, cobber, did you hear a sound
above the battle’s din?
A sound as sweet as music
that awakes response within;
I’m sure I heard it clearly,
above the bursting shells,
I’m sure the sound was happiness,
the chime of Christmas Bells.

“It wasn’t on the battlefield,
but came from o’er the foam,
from the land of joy and sunshine,
and the folks we left at home;
It seemed to hold a note of peace,
to tell of joys to come;
of many happy Christmases,
when fighting days are done.

“And now the dust of battle
and the torn and broken ground
have changed into a happy scene
and friends are all around;
How strange!  The noise of screaming
shells has changed, and now I hear
The merry laugh of happy friends
That I hold ever dear.

“The scene is fading fast, mate,
But the Christmas bells ring clear,
and they’ll miss us over there, mate,
when they greet the newborn year;
But yet we will be there with them,
to give the year a start;
For though we’re miles across the sea
We’re always in their heart.”

Friendship

FRIENDSHIP

Perhaps you, my blog readers, could help me understand something about this poem that my father wrote:  As you get towards the end you’ll see a line about a ‘flare’;  what do you think was happening?  Read the whole poem and let me know if you can enlighten me.

Sixty-nine refers to Hill 69 near Gaza, Palestine, where my father’s battalion were recovering after having defended Tobruk in Libya;  at Hill 69 they did further training as well as garrison and border protection.

The photo shows the first verse in his handwriting but I’ve transcribed all the verses, which you’ll see below the image.  I was inspired by the ‘Friendship’ theme of this week’s WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge to add this poem, which, you’ll find, is about friendship in war.

The poem is signed with my father’s initials, R.E.B.  I ask that it not be copied without my permission and without credit to him.

Red Kane of 69

“Something’s brewing,” said Red to his mate,
As they gazed along the line,
“It don’t get quiet for nothing,
Not here, at Sixty-nine.”
He thought of a time, two months ago,
He got a similar hunch,
And Jerry came over in Spitfires,
And wiped out most of his bunch.

The “TRICK” was as old as the bloody hills,
The one they pulled that night.
In a couple of patched-up Spitfires,
They made that bloody flight;
All eyes looked in their direction,
The shout went up, “All’s Well”,
In came the bloody Spitfires,
Turning loose All Hell.

“I’ll square that deal, cobbers,” he said,
Damned near fit to howl,
“Even if it cost me me bloody life,”
“By bloody fair means or fowl;”
For he was a Dinkum Aussie,
Big and strong as a lion,
And he was a natural marksman too,
Red Kane, of Sixty-nine.

And now as he gazed across the sand,
Something to him was clear,
There was Jerry movement on tonight,
And to him came a great idea;
And so he spoke in whispers,
As he conversed with his mate,
Tonight they’d square a deal,
Regardless of their fate.

The Jerries moved with caution,
More cautious still, was Kane,
He wondered how his mate was,
If things panned out the same;
Complete in every detail now,
He lay face down, in prayer,
For five in every hundred yards,
He’d set and laid a flare.

That night, his mates were avenged,
Paid back, more than two-fold,
Paid by the help of his very own life,
For he now lay stiff and cold;
He’s gone to the great Beyond now,
A place of Perfect Design,
And greater love hath no man,
Than Red Kane of Sixty-nine.

Ronald E. Bruce, 1941
© Patricia Worth, 2012

Anzac Day

In Australia, 25th April is Anzac Day.  Anzac stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.  On this day, in both those countries, we remember all those who have fought to defend their people and to retain the freedom and peace we love, through all the wars we have been involved in and those we are currently fighting in.

I’ve been submitting photos to this blog from my father’s war album, from his time in North Africa in 1941 and 1942.  He wrote a few poems during that time, including one about the Anzacs.  It’s several verses long but here I’ll give you the first and last pages.  There are some spelling errors and other slips in his handwriting;  my transcription following the images will correct them.

Ron Bruce, “Anzacs Forever”, 1942, first verses, © Patricia Worth, 2012

 

Ron Bruce, “Anzacs Forever”, 1942, last verses, © Patricia Worth, 2012

Anzacs Forever

This camp’s getting stale,
You could hear the boys say,
Wish they’d make up their minds
And bung us away.
They wonder why we won’t stay in,
Why we try to dodge the parades,
You could see them taking the old French leave,
Not one, but bloody brigades.

Then came one bright Sunday,
One chocked full of surprise.
“Move out tomorrow,” the Captain said,
Then did the gleam come to their eyes.
So, as you strolled past all the tents,
You could hear them chat
Of women, the race horses,
This, the other, and that.

*****

For those gallant sons are Aussies
And they’ve ne’er been known to flinch,
It’s just the stuff they’re made of,
They’re soldiers, every inch.
They’ll fight for King and Country,
Protect the friends they know,
They’ll even fight for the weaklings
That are afraid to go.

Let’s hope and pray
It won’t be long
Before they are returned,
To carry on, just like before,
With the freedom they have earned.
They’ll go back to their jobs again,
Some may prefer the track,
But they’ve upheld the name of
The great and glorious A.N.Z.A.C.

R.E. Bruce
© Patricia Worth, 2012

 

Slouch Hat

The photo I submitted for this week’s photo challenge, Journey, reminded me of a poem in my father’s poetry book about the hats in the photo:  The Old Slouch Hat. The name of the hat reflects the way it is worn ‘slouching’ on one side while the other side is often pinned against the crown to allow a rifle to be slung over the shoulder.  It was worn by Australian soldiers in the Boer War and World War I, then again in World War II, and every war since.

The handwriting is my father’s but the words are by a ‘soldier in Tobruk’, Libya.  My transcription follows these images.

First verse of “The Old Slouch Hat” by a soldier in Tobruk, Libya, 1941
Fourth verse of “The Old Slouch Hat” by a soldier in Tobruk, Libya, 1941

 

The old slouch hat,
It’s not exactly glamorous,
The old slouch hat,
It’s not exactly chic.
But there’s something more than beauty,
A glorious tradition,
In the old slouch hat
That will ever to it stick.

*****

The old slouch hat,
It’s not exactly elegant,
The old slouch hat,
It might be rather plain.
But it showed the world the stuff
That Aus. sons were made of,
Did the old slouch hat,
And it’s doing it again.

Contrast

Contrast is the theme for this week’s photo challenge, but it made me think also of contrasting experiences.  The poems in my father’s poetry book demonstrate strong contrasts between the life he had led at home in Australia and the life he was struggling to endure in North Africa in 1941/42.  Here are the first verses of two poems he recorded that show the difference.  I have transcribed the poems (below the images) in case his handwriting is unclear.

The first poem was written by Pte. L. Partridge (NX2196) and was published in the A.I.F. News, 20th December 1941.  The Tweed River forms part of the border between the states of Queensland and New South Wales.  The countryside and coastline south of the river are fertile and scenic and would well be missed if one was on the other side of the world in a war zone.  My father spent a lot of time fishing along this coastline.

The second poem was written by a soldier in Tobruk, a town in Libya which was taken from the enemy by the 2/15th battalion of the A.I.F. (Australian Imperial Forces) at Easter 1941.  It was Germany’s first defeat in WWII (Tobruk’s Easter Battle 1941, John Mackenzie Smith).

Springtime on the Tweed, attributed to Pte. L. Partridge
The Shell at Dusk, written by a soldier in Tobruk, Libya, 1941

Springtime on the Tweed

Far away my fancies wander
And in wayward dreams they lead
Out across the blue seas yonder
Where it’s springtime on the Tweed.
There are scrub-clad hills surrounding
The river’s emerald sheen,
Crops of corn and cane abounding,
Wondrous shades of brown and green.

The Shell at Dusk

A flash in the sky, a distant roar
The awful approaching screaming whine,
You drop on your face, in the dust once more
And curse the Hun and his 5 point 9.
She bursts to your left where Fred went to ground,
You’re deaf as a post and covered in dirt,
Hot jagged shrap has whistled around
And that one’s gone, and you’re still unhurt.

Indulge

After reading that Shepheard’s Hotel welcomed British Army Officers but not ordinary troops, I thought of this poem that my father wrote.  These are his thoughts after an attempt to indulge in a few drinks in a cabaret.  The poem is several pages long; here are three of the verses.  My transcriptions appear below the images.

“Seven Days Leave”, written and illustrated by Ron Bruce, 1941, © Patricia Worth, 2012

Seven Days’ Leave

The digger grinned as he heard his name
They were dishing out the pays,
Next thing, he gave a hearty shout,
He’d got leave for seven days.
That night for him was sleepless,
He couldn’t help but think
If he’d see the sights of Egypt,
Get in a game or drink.

*****

About the town of Tel Aviv
He wandered for a while,
Looking for a lair-up pub
Where he could spend his pile.
He came across a cabaret
But ’twas “For Officers Only”,
He felt a little homesick then,
Almost a little lonely.

A man’s got a ton of bloody dough
And can’t get a bloody drink.
“For bloody officers only” thought he,
Wouldn’t it strike you bloody pink.
After hours of solid searching
And of pests all out to sell
He came across a cobber,
“With him”, he’d been thru hell.

Ron Bruce, 1941, © Patricia Worth, 2012

February photo challenge: 8th Feb, Sun

There’s no real sun in my city today.  Just clouds.  So I searched through my father’s poetry book;  here’s the beginning of a poem about the merciless sun that Australians often live under.  The poem is attributed to M.A.N., 1941;  the illustration is by Ron Bruce.

Anthology of Ron Bruce, 'Bloody Sunshine', attributed to M.A.N., 1941, illustration by Ron Bruce