Soldier recalls Rat of Tobruk days

Soldier recalls Rat of Tobruk days

1963
Camillo resident Robert Halls, 98, was a Rat of Tobruk, a name Australian soldiers wore proudly after the Tobruk siege 75 years ago. Photograph — Matt Devlin.
Camillo resident Robert Halls, 98, was a Rat of Tobruk, a name Australian soldiers wore proudly after the Tobruk siege 75 years ago. Photograph — Matt Devlin.

Camillo resident Robert Halls, 98, is still modest about the role he played in one of the most decisive and successful military campaigns in World War II.

Commemorating the 75th year since the Siege of Tobruk this year Mr Halls, an ex-infantryman, recalled the events that led up to his involvement in the siege.

“The day the war broke out was the day I turned 21,” he said.

“I joined up when I was 22, I joined up from Whittaker’s Mill near North Dandalup, I worked in the timber mill.

“I went to Naval Base, we were there for training and from there we went overseas and we were camped in Palestine.

“After we had been there for a while we were sent into Egypt then into Tobruk.”

Mr Halls could only describe Tobruk in one way.

“Tobruk was really bleak,” he said.

“It was no picnic, we were in bunkers made by Italians.

“They put these concrete bunkers around Tobruk and we lived in them.

“They reckoned the fleas were big enough to carry you out.

“There was a big artillery bombardment that went for about an hour.

“We stayed on top watching it and after it stopped you could have heard a pin drop it was that quiet.”

Mr Halls said it was tough but he managed to get through it.

“You just lived from day to day sort of thing,” he said.

“When you were my age you could just about put up with a lot of things.”

After Tobruk Mr Halls transferred to field ambulance then ended his time in the army as a cook.

He said he didn’t really open up about his time in the army until later in life when he ‘had a little more time to say things’.

The Australian Government was holding a special commemorative service for the Tobruk siege on April 10 at the Australian Hellenic Memorial in Canberra.

This year the Perth Mint was also producing a limited edition one ounce silver coin to commemorate the siege.

Who were the Rats of Tobruk?

The Rats of Tobruk was a name Mr Halls and more than 14,000 Australians received from a German propagandist after they were besieged for more than 241 days in 1941 by Axis forces in Tobruk, Libya.

The Germans and Italians were desperate to take Tobruk for its port, which would have improved their supply routes into Africa and helped their advance into Egypt.

Unfortunately for them the Allies including a major contingent of Australians established themselves there in an effort to protect Egypt and the Suez Canal.

The result was the Siege of Tobruk, which saw constant bombardment from Axis forces on the town.

By the time the siege ended, 749 soldiers had died and 1996 were wounded.

Despite the horrendous conditions the Australian troops remained resolute and did not retreat and became a source of inspiration throughout the rest of the campaign.