Bob Semple turns 98 next month, but he remembers the siege of Tobruk as if it was yesterday.
“I well remember it,” he said quietly. “It was only going to be for a couple of months or so, but it turned out to be 242 days, all told.”
For eight long months in 1941, 14,000 Australian and other Allied troops held the strategic Libyan port of Tobruk in what was to be one of the longest sieges in British military history. They were surrounded by a German and Italian force commanded by General Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox”, and they withstood tank attacks, artillery barrages and daily bombings in one of the most bitterly fought campaigns of the Middle East and Mediterranean fronts.
“We were no better than any other soldier, but … we were lucky,” Semple said. “I suppose you go wherever you’re put, and you wonder why, but you accept the circumstances.
“There were no trees on the joint at all, and [when we arrived] we thought, God. There were a few picks there, and we were told, you’d better get to work and see if you can dig a hole for yourself because you’ll get some guns in the morning. When the morning came, there was this great heap of old Italian guns … but the biggest problem was they were all in the metric system, and we’d been trained in the imperial system, so you had to convert it all. They’re the tools of the trade, and you just had to go with it, and you had to depend on your mates.”
They lived in dug-outs, caves and crevices for months on end, enduring searing heat during the day and bitter cold at night, as well as hellish dust storms.
“It was a bit tough,” he said, simply. “You had one water bottle a day for all purposes, and it would be 48 degrees, so we were euchred physically as much as anything else, and it’s very wearing on the mental factor.”