The Rats of Tobruk
Contributed by Michael Hall
James Cecil (Cec) Cotter was forty years of age when he enlisted at Moore Park in Sydney in December 1940, although he claimed to be only thirty seven. The other peculiarity of his enlistment was that twenty years earlier, Cec had been described as being almost blind, yet that did not prevent him from becoming one of the Rats of Tobruk.
At the end of 1940, the Allies began an advance through Italian occupied Libya, reaching the fortress port of Tobruk in January 1941. Tobruk had two essential elements for an army advancing through the desert of North Africa; a deep harbour and reliable water supplies. The area around Tobruk was flat, desert country and the Italians defended the town with a thirty mile perimeter of barbed wire, anti-tank ditches and minefields. Close to the perimeter were 128 strong points which could support each other and cover no man’s land with machine gun fire.
Yet the 6th Division of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) quickly overran the Italian defences and on 21 January 1941 the 19th Brigade entered the town and its commander, former Duntroon cadet Brigadier General Horace Robertson, accepted the Italian surrender. Within two weeks Benghazi had been captured and the Italian resistance in Libya was all but broken.
In March 1941 the 6th Division was sent to Greece and were replaced in Libya by the 9th Division of the AIF and a brigade from the 7th Division. Meanwhile, German alarm at the collapse of the Italians in North Africa resulted in the despatch of the Afrika Corps, under the command of Erwin Rommel, to Libya and in late March they began pressing the Allied forces into a rapid retreat known colloquially as the 'Benghazi Handicap'.
Rommel had at his disposal more men and better armour than his opponents and his Afrika Corps, supported by what remained of the Italian army and superior air cover, quickly forced the Allies to retreat to Tobruk. Some didn’t make it, like Ron Bartley and Robert Marlan, captured during the retreat and made prisoners of war. Though the Germans were held up for a short time at Er Regima, where the 2/13th Battalion became the first Australians to fight the Germans in the war, by 10 April 1941 they had reached the perimeter defences of Tobruk and the siege had begun.
Although most of the garrison were Australian, there were also British artillery units and Indian troops stationed within the perimeter. The Germans soon began probing for weaknesses, however the garrison had been busy improving the perimeter defences and the anti tank ditches, creating minefields and strengthening outposts.
The defences were soon tested. On the night of 13 April, Easter Sunday, an advance party of Germans breached the wire near a post held by the 2/17th Battalion, attempting to establish a bridgehead for their tanks. Later that night German tanks entered the perimeter through the gap but were allowed to do so that the British artillery could deal with them. The German infantry, which was to follow behind the tanks, were handled by the Australian infantry posted in the perimeter strongpoints. The German attack faltered and they retreated.
Amongst the men of the 2/17th Battalion was George Vincent. During the fighting he was shot in the left side of the head causing complete paralysis down the right side of his body. He underwent an operation on his brain in a makeshift underground hospital at Tobruk before being evacuated to Egypt by sea.
If there was a weakness in the perimeter it was at Hill 209. At the end of April the Germans seized the high point, creating a salient about three miles long and three miles wide in the defensive line. The salient was a thorn in the side of the Australians, but through aggressive defence they compelled the Germans to hold the position in strength with some of their best troops. On 6 May the 2/1st Pioneers provided a covering party for infantrymen who were digging in opposite the salient. Paddy Goodfellow served with the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion at Tobruk and was one of the men providing cover when the Germans turned their guns and artillery on to them. Goodfellow was killed during the fight.
It was the last major attempt by the Germans to break through the defences of Tobruk. Rommel’s ambition of reaching Egypt had been halted as he did not have the resources to advance eastward while protecting his rear from the large garrison at Tobruk. The Germans resorted to propaganda including broadcasts from Radio Berlin which described the Australians as being “caught in a trap like rats”. The Nazi propagandist William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw Haw, referred to the men as the “poor desert rats of Tobruk”. Rather than being insulted the garrison adopted the moniker of the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ and would proudly bear the name for the rest of their lives.
The Australians aggressively patrolled the perimeter and beyond, determined to make no-man’s land their own. Before dawn on 1 August Erwin Pinkney led seven men from the 2/13th Battalion on a patrol and set down in shallow trenches about a mile and half outside the perimeter. Patiently they waited in the baking sun, until eventually a party of Italians approached. According to Pinkney, “when they were only twenty yards away we rose like ghosts out of the desert and told them to surrender. They replied by opening fire, but they hadn’t a chance against our Bren and tommy guns. We killed four and took one prisoner.” Two other parties of Italians were chased away by the Australians’ fire.
Terence ‘Toc’ Hourigan remembered the conditions endured by the men of Tobruk protecting the perimeter, the regular air raids by the Stukas, the night time patrols beyond the wire into enemy territory to gain intelligence on the location of units and the general lay of the ground. What also stuck in his mind was the lack of fresh water, the flies and the poor rations. He was eventually evacuated to hospital in Egypt with enteric.
Owen Cosgriff was a former public servant who received his vocation while living in Canberra and became a Catholic priest. He served at Tobruk as a chaplain and recorded a typical Sunday (20 July 1941) in his diary. “5am blitz as usual. Regular occurrence now even with no moon but helped by shells. Usual three Masses – with raids on the way to the church and during Mass. Poor crowd and Church described as 'death trap' by one lad. Madonna of Tobruk off her pedestal (a statue outside of the church) which was shattered by a bomb. Statue chipped and blackened and troops very indignant.” The church of St. Anthony in Tobruk was so damaged it was eventually deemed unsafe by the Engineers and Cosgriff ceased using it.
Cec Cotter served as a sapper with the 2/4 Field Park during the siege and he may well have been one of Cosgriff’s parishioners. His unit had responsibility for the water supply for the whole garrison (including distilleries, pumping stations and pipe lines), electricity for the hospitals and Divisional HQ and camouflage for the harbour and key locations. A trained mechanic and fitter, he was well skilled for the tasks. The sappers may not have endured the stress faced by the infantry on the perimeter, but they and the facilities they managed were constant targets for air attacks by the Stukas.
Yet Cotter survived and was evacuated to Egypt by sea at the end of September 1941 along with the rest of his unit. After the war the men formed the Rats of Tobruk Association (ROTA) and in 1951 Cec became the president of the New South Wales branch. Each year in April, ROTA would commemorate the siege at the cenotaph in Martin Place and afterwards the president would lead a march. At his first ceremony as president, Cec admitted to the ROTA padre that he could no longer see and asked him to make sure he marched in a straight line. It worked. None of the men realised that they were following a blind man.
The Rats of Tobruk (* killed in action during the siege)
- John Willoughby Beadman (2/13 Battalion)
- Owen Thomas Cosgriff (2/4 Australian General Hospital)
- James Cecil Cotter (2/4 Field Park)
- John Stanley Cumpston (26 Brigade HQ)
- James Edward Twynam Cunningham (2/4 Field Park)
- James Thomas Reid (Paddy) Goodfellow* (2/1 Pioneer Battalion)
- Terence Hourigan (2/13 Battalion)
- Peter Maxwell Kerridge (18 Advanced Supply Depot Company)
- Peter Lynch Love (2/13 Battalion)
- Robert George Lowe (9 Division HQ)
- Jack Mann (9 Division Engineers)
- Erwin Mark Pinkney (2/13 Battalion)
- Leslie Thomas Reid (2/17 Battalion)
- Cedric George Rowan* (2/13 Battalion)
- Rowland Ransom Savage (2/17 Battalion)
- Stanley Alexander Shumack (2/13 Battalion)
- George Douglas Vincent (2/17 Battalion)
- George Frederick Wootten (18 Brigade HQ)
- Henry Essington Zouch (2/17 Battalion)
Chester Wilmot, ‘Tobruk 1941’, 2007
G.S. Osborn, ‘The Pioneers. The Story of 2/1st Australian Pioneer Battalion 2nd AIF 1940-46’, 1988
G.H. Fearnside (ed.), ‘Bayonets Abroad – Benghazi to Borneo with the 2/13th Battalion, AIF’, 1993
AWM Blog, ‘Tobruk Diaries: Missa Tempore Belli (Mass in the Time of War)’, Monday 18 July 2011, www.awm.gov.au/blog/2011/07/18/tobruk-diaries-mass-in-the-time-of-war/
NAA (A196) Holding 156