Medals of a Rat
News, Personal Stories, Collection, Exhibitions, 1941, Tobruk, Exhibition, Second World War, Rats of Tobruk
Visitors to the Memorial’s exhibition Rats of Tobruk 1941 will have noticed the unofficial Rats of Tobruk medal presented, according to its engraving, by Lord Haw Haw. Around twenty of these medals were made at Tobruk, which illustrates one of the earliest examples of the town’s defenders reclaiming the title ‘Rat’, bestowed on them by the propaganda radio program ‘Germany Calling’. Visitors may also notice the brasso caked around the small copper rat on this medal, the result of many years of cleaning. This perhaps gives an idea of the importance of this object in the life of its owner, John Joseph Murray, who commanded 20 Brigade at Tobruk. The care lavished on this object certainly accords with views expressed during Murray’s own lifetime about the pride he felt in having participated in this pivotal campaign. But this medal, while illustrating a highly significant period in Murray’s service career, does not give a full view of the breadth of his service. For a better appreciation of his distinguished career, we must turn to another set of objects, Murray’s medal group, which have recently gone on display in the Memorial’s Second World War gallery.
The medals of Major General J J Murray are impressive by anyone’s standards, and are the tangible result of a distinguished career which spanned thirty years and two wars. A native of Sydney, Murray had already served in the militia when he left Australia with the 5th Reinforcements to 1 Battalion in 1915. This unit had already participated in the first landings at ANZAC, and would remain at Gallipoli until the evacuation in December. Although his unit served at Gallipoli, his service record indicates that Murray did not. This anomaly may stem from the sectarian prejudices of his day, denying this Catholic officer the opportunity of frontline service.
With the doubling of the AIF in 1916, Murray was transferred to 53 Battalion and promoted to Temporary Captain. The battalion was subsequently sent to France, and its first major action on the Western Front was at the disastrous battle of Fromelles on 19 July. For his courage and leadership during this battle, Murray was awarded the Military Cross. In a similar vein to many award recommendations from that terrible day, Murray’s recommendation concludes, ‘[a]ll the other officers in his company were either killed or wounded.’
Murray’s unit participated in the advance that followed the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917, and defended gains made during the second battle of Bullecourt. Promoted to Major, his unit saw further service when the AIF’s focus shifted to the Ypres sector in Belgium, where he was Mentioned in Despatches toward the end of 1917.
The stalled German offensive in March 1918 prompted an allied counteroffensive, which saw 53 Battalion in action in the capture of Peronne, where Murray was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. His unit was withdrawn from the line at the start of October, and saw no further action in the First World War. After the armistice Murray was again Mentioned in Despatches for his leadership, and returned to Australia in 1919.
Murray resumed his duties in the militia, and after several command appointments and promotions, and the outbreak of a new war, joined the Second AIF in April 1940. He was appointed to command 20 Brigade, which embarked for the Middle East in October. In February 1941 the brigade transferred from 7 Division to 9 Division. Despite being poorly equipped, 9 Division were then sent to relieve 6 Division in Libya. At Er Regima, 20 Brigade were one of the first Australian formations to engage Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps. The brigade successfully staged a fighting withdrawal to Tobruk, where they played an integral part in halting and eventually repelling the German advance on 14 April.
It was at Tobruk that Murray’s experience and leadership became wholly apparent. In his account of the campaign Tobruk 1941, Chester Wilmot described Murray as ‘…a big, genial Irishman who loves a fight. He is personally easy-going but brooks no slackness among his troops and even before Tobruk his brigade was marked out as one of the best-trained in the 2nd AIF. His dogged temperament made him well suited for the defensive tasks that lay ahead. He had shown himself a strong leader in the Great War when he won the DSO and MC and rose to be second-in-command of the 53rd Battalion.’
Overall command of Tobruk lay with Major General Leslie Morshead, whose defensive strategy was one of aggressive patrolling, summed up in his statement to Wilmot ‘I determined we should make no man’s land our land’. Murray’s First World War experience of static warfare in the trenches of the Western Front was readily adapted to Morshead’s philosophy. It was these tactics that prevented the German and Italian forces from observing the allied defences and kept Tobruk’s besiegers in a constant state of tension.
A good example is the ‘V For Victory’ campaign of psychological warfare that was adopted by Murray’s 20 Brigade in the southern sector during July and August. Murray ordered leaflets stencilled with ‘V Per Vittorio’ and ordered that they be attached ‘by the use of clips, string, nails, pins, etc., to enemy bodies, posts wire, sandbags, sangars, etc., by patrols’. With monotonous regularity, the Italian forces in this sector found Murray’s leaflets in their own defences, left by Australian patrols that they had never heard.
For his leadership during this period, Murray was awarded a Bar to his DSO. He left Tobruk in November with most of his brigade, and was Mentioned in Despatches for the performance of his duties. He returned to Australia in January 1942 and was promoted to Major General. This period of Murray’s career saw several commands at Division level, and the command of Northern Territory Force from March 1945 until the expiration of his appointment with the Second AIF in January 1946 when he was placed on the Reserve of Officers.
In peacetime, Murray worked as Australian trade commissioner to New Zealand from 1946 to 1949, and then to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from 1949, where health considerations saw him return to Australia. He died in Sydney in 1951.
The Australian War Memorial is proud to be able to display the medals of a soldier to the public whom he served with such distinction. They can be viewed as part of the Tobruk display in the Memorial’s Second World War gallery.
For a detailed account of the entire Tobruk campaign, see Chester Wilmot’s Tobruk 1941.
For an insight into Murray’s own thoughts on this campaign, see his recently published account I Confess – A Memoir of the Siege of Tobruk.