The brave exploits of the Rats of Tobruk earned Australia early kudos in WWII, but the brutal reality of war was soon terrifyingly close to home.
The brave exploits of the Rats of Tobruk earned Australia early kudos in WWII, but the brutal reality of war was soon terrifyingly close to home.

Horrors mount as Japan changes face of Australia’s war

As Australia prepares to mark 75 years since the end of WWII, Warren Brown looks at the war, its importance and its grim legacy.

Dry, trackless desert stretching as far as the eye could see surrounded the remote Mediterranean port of Tobruk on the Libyan coast. In antiquity Tobruk could only be reached by sea - it had once been a Greek colony, the Romans built a fort there to oversee the region, and then for centuries it was simply a waypoint on the overland caravan route before Italy established it as a military garrison in 1911.

Indeed Tobruk is probably the best natural port in North Africa - because of its deep, protected harbour, it drew attention strategically as the ideal place for ships to anchor and supply anyone undertaking a desert warfare campaign.

Whoever had control of the port possessed the gateway to controlling the North African coastline, which is why during WWII Tobruk became the focus - a prize - in some of the most violent fighting of the North African campaign.

AIF soldiers at Tobruk in 1941. Picture: Supplied / Australian War Memorial.
AIF soldiers at Tobruk in 1941. Picture: Supplied / Australian War Memorial.

The recent successful combined Commonwealth counter-attack against 250,000 Italian troops invading British-mandated Egypt saw the Australian 6th Division swiftly defeat the garrison at Tobruk taking some 25,000 prisoners.

Tobruk's capture on 21 January 1941 was indeed owed largely to the 6th Division's efforts as British General Operations Commander in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell, wrote in a telegram to the Australian Prime Minister - 'The success is chiefly due to the excellent plan of attack prepared by the commander of the Australia Division, and executed with great dash by the Australian infantry …'

 

Australian soldier Gordon Last takes cover at Tobruk. File picture
Australian soldier Gordon Last takes cover at Tobruk. File picture

 

Australian soldiers on guard as the enemy lays siege. File picture
Australian soldiers on guard as the enemy lays siege. File picture

 

Diggers play cricket in between raids. Picture: Supplied / Australian War Memorial
Diggers play cricket in between raids. Picture: Supplied / Australian War Memorial

 

Across the Mediterranean, Italy had begun its invasion of Greece through Albania - annexed by Italy in 1939 - but the Italians underestimated the strong Greek resistance. As an Italian ally, Germany stepped in to assist, which in turn invoked a longstanding pledge from Britain to assist Greece if it ever came under attack.

Australian troops are evacuated from Greece to Crete. File picture
Australian troops are evacuated from Greece to Crete. File picture

 

This new front saw the Australian 6th Division withdrawn from North Africa and deployed to join British and New Zealand forces in Greece - and the 7th Division sent to Syria where it was feared the Germans were about to take over the German aligned Vichy French colony.

But the campaign in Greece quickly collapsed to become a disaster - by month's end Commonwealth troops were forced to evacuate and withdraw to Crete, which in turn fell to German paratroops.

With the 6th Division in Greece and the 7th in Syria, the replacement Australian 9th division having just arrived in Tobruk suddenly found themselves under siege. It was with some surprise the Allied defenders realised they were now under attack from the German Luftwaffe - a beleaguered and humiliated Benito Mussolini had requested German help to restore prestige in North Africa and a hastily assembled mechanised force under the command of General Erwin Rommel led a revitalised offensive.

Tobruk was soon encircled by the German army, which began a merciless campaign of dive-bombing, artillery bombardment and tank offensives to destroy the defenders and capture the port.

 

Rats of Tobruk soldiers with captured Italian 75mm artillery. File picture
Rats of Tobruk soldiers with captured Italian 75mm artillery. File picture

 

Most of the Australian soldiers had not experienced action - yet short of weapons they improvised, bringing into action whatever captured Italian arms they could find.

 

Nazi propagandist William Joyce – Lord Haw Haw – had no idea the Diggers would embrace the name he gave them. File picture
Nazi propagandist William Joyce – Lord Haw Haw – had no idea the Diggers would embrace the name he gave them. File picture

 

Further they were able to utilise trenches and below-ground defensive positions built pre-war by the Italians - the infamous radio propagandist for Germany William Joyce, known as 'Lord Haw Haw', described them as rats living underground, derisively calling them 'the rats of Tobruk'.

The men took the name with pride. The bitter siege of Tobruk lasted 241 days before the 9th Division was eventually relieved, handing over British forces.

From the end of January 1941 Prime Minister Robert Menzies spent four months in the United Kingdom discussing war strategy with Winston Churchill and other British Empire leaders, but in his absence he lost support of his own party, culminating in his resignation in August. Labor leader John Curtin was sworn in as Australia's new Prime Minister.

Thousands crowded Sydney's streets to celebrate the triumphant return of the crew of HMAS Sydney, the light cruiser that had famously sunk the Italian warship Bartolomeo Colleoni in the Mediterranean. Resplendent in their dress whites, the sailors marched victoriously through the city, children were given a day off school to watch the spectacle and the entire ship's complement was presented with a medallion by Sydney's Lord Mayor.

 

Newspaper headlines from 1941 announce the loss of HMAS Sydney.
Newspaper headlines from 1941 announce the loss of HMAS Sydney.

 

So it was with shock and disbelief Australians were to learn that on the night of 19 November 1941, HMAS Sydney and her entire crew of 645 had disappeared somewhere off the coast of Carnarvon in Western Australia.

The light cruiser had been fired upon at close range and sunk by the German Raider Kormoran, an armed merchant ship masquerading as a Dutch freighter. The German ship was also badly damaged in the firefight, its crew abandoning ship. Kormoran survivors claimed the burning Sydney was last seen sailing over the horizon.

 

The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples into the sea during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. File picture
The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples into the sea during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. File picture

 

On December 7 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched air and submarine attacks on the US Naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii killing some 2403 Americans, damaging 16 moored warships and completely destroying two.

Simultaneously the Japanese struck Thailand and Malaya sending panic through the Western Pacific.

The US announced a state of war with Japan - President Franklin Roosevelt describing the surprise attack as 'a date that will live in infamy'.

Nazi Germany then declared war on the United States.

With the war in Europe and the Middle East so far away, Australia's focus has suddenly shifted to the Pacific.

 

Prime Minister Curtin announced Australia's intentions, signalling the beginning of a growing independence from Great Britain in declaring war on Japan.

'Because our vital interests are imperilled … the Australian Government this afternoon took the necessary steps which will mean that a state of war exists between Australia and Japan.'

Japanese forces on the move in the western Pacific were now rolling south at an alarming pace, crushing nations one after the other - the Philippines, Guam, Borneo, Hong Kong … all the while the menace edging closer to Australia.

 

US General Douglas MacArthur with Prime Minister John Curtin. File picture
US General Douglas MacArthur with Prime Minister John Curtin. File picture

 

Three days after Pearl Harbour, Japanese bombers and torpedo bombers sank two Royal Navy warships off the coast of Malaya - HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. The loss of these two capital ships in effect reduced the Naval base at Singapore into a land base.

In late December, Prime Minister Curtin made an unequivocal announcement that there had been a seismic shift in Australia's external policy, distancing itself even further from its ties with Britain - 'Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom. We shall exert all our energies to shaping a defence plan, with the US as is keystone.'

 

 

As the situation worsened in South East Asia it was decided to withdraw the 6th and 7th divisions from the Mediterranean and bring them home in the readiness for the defence of Australia.

In February 1942, Australia's worst fears materialised with news of the humiliating British surrender at Singapore to a vastly outnumbered Japanese army, sending shockwaves throughout the British Empire - British Prime Minister Winston Churchill describing the defeat as 'the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history'.

 

Japanese aircraft join the attack on Singapore. Picture: Getty
Japanese aircraft join the attack on Singapore. Picture: Getty

 

Smoke from bombs and artillery fire rises over Singapore shortly before the surrender. Picture: Getty
Smoke from bombs and artillery fire rises over Singapore shortly before the surrender. Picture: Getty

 

The 'Singapore Strategy' - the plan devised in the 1920s guaranteeing Australia's safety due to the strategically important Royal Navy fortress based in Singapore was rendered worthless when an 'inferior' Japanese army swiftly pressed through the Malayan jungle laying siege to the fortress, forcing a degrading, well-publicised capitulation by British command.

 

A trestle bridge built by POWs near Kensoyak on the Thai-Burma railway. File picture
A trestle bridge built by POWs near Kensoyak on the Thai-Burma railway. File picture

 

POWs wash after a day's work in an image captured by George Aspinall with a camera he kept secret.
POWs wash after a day's work in an image captured by George Aspinall with a camera he kept secret.

 

Among the 130,000 prisoners-of-war taken by the Japanese in Singapore were over 15,000 Australian servicemen and women - including the entire 8th Division. One third would not survive the war - many would die during the construction of the infamous Thai Burma railway.

 

Starving Diggers pronounced fit by the Japanese for work on the Thai-Burma railway. Picture: Australian POW George Aspinall
Starving Diggers pronounced fit by the Japanese for work on the Thai-Burma railway. Picture: Australian POW George Aspinall

 

Four days after Singapore's surrender, on February 19, the unthinkable happened when 188 Japanese aircraft, launched from four aircraft carriers, attacked the ports of Darwin and Broome in two separate bombing raids - the first Japanese attacks on the Australian mainland - creating tremendous chaos, destroying ships, aircraft, oil tanks and killing an estimated 250 people.

 

Oil storage tanks on fire after one of the Japanese bombing raids on Darwin. File picture
Oil storage tanks on fire after one of the Japanese bombing raids on Darwin. File picture

 

Naval officer Phil Chapman, left, poses with a mate in a bomb crater left by the attack on Darwin. File picture
Naval officer Phil Chapman, left, poses with a mate in a bomb crater left by the attack on Darwin. File picture

 

Convinced Darwin was in the grip of an imminent invasion - hundreds fled south on whatever transport they could find.

 

Japanese attacks on Darwin make front page news on the Courier-Mail.
Japanese attacks on Darwin make front page news on the Courier-Mail.

 

 

 

The following month US General Douglas Macarthur - having just escaped the Japanese-occupied Philippines - arrived in Australia to take up his position as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Pacific.

His new role was to organise an American offensive against Japan - in effect, Australia would become a marshalling yard for US forces and a springboard for launching American bombers.

Macarthur's personal objective however, was to re-take the Philippines - 'I came through, and I shall return', he would famously say.

DON'T MISS: Warren Brown's exclusive series continues this week

 

• 'Stories of Service' video courtesy of the Department of Veterans' Affairs

Originally published as Horrors mount as Japan changes face of Australia's war


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