Heroes of Tobruk

In January 1941 the Italian harbour fortress of Tobruk on the Libyan coast was captured in one of the Australians’ earliest actions of the Second World War. It was taken in brief fighting and with not much fuss as the 6th Division continued its successful 500-kilometre advance eastward. Even then it was obvious that the town’s harbour could be an important asset for future operations in the region. In the following weeks the division was ordered to Greece to take part in an ill-fated campaign there, so the 9th Australian Division under Major General Leslie Morshead took over. The fresh unblooded division soon met a tough new adversary when German troops of the Afrika Korps under Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel also entered this desert war theatre. As British Commonwealth forces retreated before Rommel over the recently captured territory, the Australians fell back to Tobruk, joining others already there. The plan was to hold onto the town as the Germans began to surround it. It was the start of a siege that would last from 11 April until 7 December 1941 and become one of the epic stories of the war.

At Tobruk, stretching in an arc of about 15 kilometres’ radius from the port township, the Italians had built a 50-kilometre-long defensive perimeter of ditches and barbed wire, studded with well-sited strong points. The Australians based their defence on this existing perimeter (“red line”) while adding more weapon pits and trenches and developing a further inner line (“blue line”). The hot, dusty, featureless ground within these boundaries became the British territory that was to be held despite constant stress, discomfort, enemy attacks, artillery fire and aerial bombardment.

On the night of 13–14 April a German attack breached the wire perimeter and defences on Tobruk’s southern side. After heavy fighting, a counter-attack drove them back. In this action Corporal Jack Edmondson of the 2/17th Battalion won the first Victoria Cross awarded to an Australian unit since the closing stages of the First World War. At one point he fought with his bayonet to save his officer’s life, despite having been gravely wounded. He died soon afterwards from his injuries. More, even stronger German attacks soon followed.

An Australian patrol lays up in an anti-tank ditch near the perimeter of the Australian defences around Tobruk.

On 30 April Afrika Korps tanks and infantry broke through Tobruk’s south-western perimeter. Although they were contained in further heavy fighting, they took important ground, cutting a wedge, called “the Salient”, into the Allies’ territory. Even strong counter-attacks failed to shift them and only ever succeeded in making small gains. Unless Allied forces advancing from Egypt could relieve Tobruk, the garrison would have to hold out, hoping that they could continue to be supplied by sea. For months the navy became the garrison’s lifeline. In the meantime, while they stayed, the Australian, Indian, Polish and British defenders would be a thorn in Rommel’s side. More importantly, he was denied the best port facilities for his further operations. Proud comparisons with the defence of Anzac on Gallipoli, during a similar stage of the previous war, 26 years earlier, were inevitable. Tobruk quickly became a household name in Australia.

With the enemy surrounding Tobruk, patrolling was vital. The Australians had no intention of being trapped behind their perimeter wire. Whether it was reconnaissance or aggressive action, patrols kept the enemy off balance. Morshead could well remember the success the Australians had in France in 1918 with their fighting patrols and raids. Then their so-called “peaceful penetration” not only upset the enemy’s morale: on some occasions considerable ground was taken. Now, talking about Tobruk, the general said, “From the first day I determined that no-man’s-land would be our land.” It was important to put the Germans on the defensive and to hold them at least beyond their mortar and machine-gun range. Only around the Salient, where the enemy was a constant and dangerous threat, could they remain close.

Australian troops pass through the perimeter on a patrol in the Tobruk area.

Active aggressive patrolling held the enemy at a distance. Patrols went out by day and by night. As daylight patrols were reduced, the Australians began to dominate the night-time. In various sectors there would be dozens of men out and some nights there were hundreds. Often fighting patrols mounted heavy hard-hitting raids. Certain types were conducted in machine-gun-mounted tracked carriers. Some patrols went out in the darkness and would stay out next day observing the enemy. More generally a foot patrol might have ten to 20 men, but it could be more. They were armed with Bren guns, Thompson sub-machine guns, rifles, and bayonets and grenades. The Germans and Italians came to dread sudden contacts. Other patrols laid mines or conducted ambushes. The enemy had its patrols too, but the Australians were more active.

Patrolling required boldness, clear thinking and a good sense of direction, particularly at night. Going out along or beyond the wire and anti-tank ditch and crossing no man’s land, or being sent deep into enemy territory, often meant that one man in the group had a compass and another counted paces. But some men had a natural instinct for the work. The Australians proved to be good at patrolling and some among them excelled at it. The stories of three outstanding soldiers throw light on this side of the battle for Tobruk.

Sergeants Jack Weston, Ron Patrick and Geoff Hunt became renowned for their effectiveness. They had all enlisted in 1940 and quickly became proficient soldiers and natural leaders. In many ways Weston and Hunt were similar. Both were 28-year-old rural workers when they joined up. Hunt was working on the family property near Inverell, New South Wales, while Weston, who was married, had been a tractor driver at Appila, South Australia. Physically, they were very different. Weston was tall, loose-limbed and well-built, while Geoff Hunt was short and wiry. Hunt had been serving in the Militia before the war and was a keen soldier. He had tried to enlist in the AIF but was rejected as too small. He persisted, and was finally accepted. A colleague once said that the height he gave on enlistment, 5’ 5” [1.65 metres], must have been an exaggeration.

Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, the German Commander-in-Chief of the Afrika Korps, in the Western Desert.

Hunt went to the 2/13th Battalion’s pioneer platoon. At Tobruk he often worked by himself or with a small party, going out in front of the manned posts to lay or repair barbed-wire entanglements or to find and remove mines. Working in the dark of night, he became familiar with the ground and all the approaches. Widely known for his lone efforts, he was described as the battalion’s scout. Jack “Tex” Weston also excelled at patrolling. He was in the 2/48th Battalion. It was said that he had an extraordinary ability to navigate by the stars and would travel long distances outside the Australians’ lines to observe the enemy. In fighting actions he was calm, brave and aggressive.

There was a touch of the larrikin in both men. Weston was described as “a real bushman” who enjoyed a drink and a joke. Both were popular leaders, admired by their men and fearless of officers. They were liked and much respected among the latter, from their commanding officers down. One member of Hunt’s platoon said that he had a “wonderful control over men and we would happily do anything for him. He was energetic like a game fox terrier.”

Queenslander Ron Patrick of the 2/15th Battalion was a bit different, and those meeting him were immediately struck by his youth. Chester Wilmot, the Australian war correspondent, saw him in Tobruk and described him as “a slip of a lad, who barely looked his 21 years and who before the war had been a clerk in a country store”.

QX3000 Sergeant Ronald Arthur Patrick, MM, 2/15th Battalion.

During May, Hunt’s battalion attacked across the ground the enemy had recently taken. Hunt went out under machine-gun fire to wire new positions. On other nights he led parties carrying stores to the forward posts. He was “outstanding for his energy and courage and resourcefulness”. When the battalion prepared to make further attacks in June, he took out squads on two nights to clear booby traps and mines. It was perilous work; mortar fire killed or wounded several men. Displaying “exceptional coolness and ability”, he extricated the wounded, then returned to continue his task. For this, and other work, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Weston also received the same decoration, and his work on 23 patrols up to 31 July was specially cited. Much of his effort was done in that most dangerous of areas, the Salient, studded with mines and booby-traps, and always under the enemy’s nose.

A few weeks later, towards the southernmost edge of the perimeter, a kilometre or two from where Edmondson had won his VC, young Patrick made his mark in an attack against an Italian post. He received the Military Medal. Over a series of nights, patrols had gone out probing the enemy’s positions and examining an Italian post that was strongly manned and armed with three machine-guns. It was protected by mines, trip-wires and barbed wire. Patrick led two patrols and from his reports a plan for an attack was prepared. Then, just after midnight on the morning of 31 August, he accompanied a fighting patrol of 11 men under Captain Frederick Bode in an assault on the post. In the darkness the men moved into a forming-up position in a line behind the enemy; for the last few hundred yards they had to crawl. Suddenly they were spotted and a flare went up. Bode yelled, “Come on boys, up and at ‘em,” and they charged.

Sergeant Jack Weston, DCM, 2/48th Battalion, receiving the ribbon of the Military Medal from Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie Morshead in September 1942

Patrick later described an Italian hand grenade bouncing off his helmet before it exploded, knocking him to the ground and momentarily stunning him. In the midst of the wild melee he tried to gather his thoughts.

I rolled over and pitched two grenades into the nearest trench and made a dash for the end machine-gun. I jumped into the pit on top of three Italians, and bayoneted two before my bayonet snapped. I got the third with my revolver as he made for a dug-out where there were at least two other men. I let them have most of my magazine.

Patrick eventually made a scrambling dash back to safety, only narrowly making it. Bode, who received a wound in the hip, got back too, helped by another soldier. There were six casualties from the squad.

In August the Australians fought their last major battles and in that time one of the brigades was withdrawn by sea. In September and October the rest of the 9th Division was got away, handing over to other Commonwealth troops. Only the 2/13th Battalion was left behind, unable to get out because of heavy enemy aerial bombing. The battalion was thrown into a heavy action towards the south-east at Ed Duda on 30 November. During the movement into position, at dawn, the Germans brought down heavy artillery fire on the exposed Australians causing many casualties. Sergeant Geoff Hunt was hit by shrapnel and died the following day. He was buried, like Edmondson, in the Tobruk War Cemetery. Eventually Rommel abandoned efforts to take the fortress. This allowed the last Australian battalion finally to be relieved, by road, on 16 December 1941.

Both Patrick and Weston got safely out of Tobruk. They were destined to take part in more heavy fighting next year around El Alamein. Patrick was commissioned, but tragically was killed in the battalion’s attack near Tel el Eisa, Operation Bulimba, on 1 September 1942. He is buried in the El Alamein War Cemetery. Weston went on to further distinguish himself at Tel el Eisa on 10 July and win the Military Medal. On that occasion, leading a platoon, he attacked a battery of German guns; then seeing more, he attacked them single-handed. He fought on all day, even when his position was attacked by tanks. Weston was in further fighting in October 1942 when he was badly wounded but still managed to carry another wounded man over a kilometre to a dressing station. He was remarkable in being awarded both the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal for his service in the Middle East. He later fought in New Guinea and after the war was chosen to join the Australian contingent for the Victory March through London. He returned to rural work and for a while managed hotels. He died in 1963.

Within a few pages it is possible to give only the smallest glimpse of the work that went on day after day and every night during the siege of Tobruk.

The stories of Geoff Hunt, Jack Weston and Ron Patrick show how coolness, courage and endurance were vital throughout. They and those who fought alongside them defied a brave and clever enemy and added great honour to the reputation of the AIF. A look at the activities of the three men shows how aggressive patrolling became one of the most important factors in the successful defence of this strategically vital ground.

Wartime 49, 2010.

By Peter Burness.

Read about “the Black Rats of Tobruk”, Australia’s Indigenous soldiers of the 2nd AIF, on page 52 of Wartime 86, on sale now.