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Australia's War 1939 - 1945
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Overview
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The Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies photographing a burning tanker in Tobruk Harbour in February 1941.
[AWM 005853]
HMAS Parramatta at Port Said, Frank Norton, 1941.
[Oil on artist board with some scratching in, 50.6 x 35.6cm. AWM ART26930]
'I have been watching with pride the magnificent performance of yourself and your men at Tobruk'
[NAA A5954 Item 635/4]

‘Rats to you’ painted by Private R (Rufus) E Webster on the side of a Bren gun carrier.
[AWM P02522.002]
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Private 'Gordon' Hughes
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Private Richard 'Gordon' Hughes


Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941
The Rats of Tobruk Memorial, Anzac Parade, Canberra.
[Carolyn Newman]

I've said it often - the best part of Tobruk was leaving it.

[Laurence McEvoy, 2/48th Battalion AIF]

In 1941, Australians fought in land and air campaigns in Egypt and Libya in North Africa. Three AIF divisions - the 6th, 7th and 9th - fought in those countries. Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships served in the eastern Mediterranean and in particular provided support to ground forces during the 'Siege of Tobruk' (April-December 1941). Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadrons, as well as RAAF personnel serving with Royal Air Force units, provided air support against the Germans and Italians.

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March 1941, Allied troops rushing through the streets of Bardia in Libya in search of any remaining enemy troops.
[AWM 006083]

In January 1941, Australians fought their first major land battle in World War II when men of the 6th Division AIF, and other Allied troops, engaged Italian forces at the town of Bardia on the coast of Libya. On 3-5 January 1941, the Italian positions were attacked and Bardia was captured. Over 40,000 Italian prisoners were taken.

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Advancing west along the Libyan coast, the 6th Australian Division captured Tobruk from the Italians on 21-22 January 1941 and the town became a garrison for the Australian and British forces. In early March, one of Hitler's best generals, Erwin Rommel with his Afrika Korps, came to the aid of their Italian allies in Libya. By April, German forces had begun to cut off and surround Tobruk. For eight months, from April to December 1941,Tobruk was besieged and Australian forces, notably the men of the 9th Division, the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division and RAN ships of the famous 'scrap iron flotilla' played a prominent role in the town's defence.

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Australians saw action in Libya and Egypt, 1940-1942.
[DVA]

The year 1941 was a dark one for the Allies. The Germans conquered all before them but Tobruk held out against Rommel and stood in the way of his advance towards Egypt and the Suez Canal. The defiance of the defenders of Tobruk raised morale in the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Those who served there became known as the 'Rats of Tobruk', so-called because the German radio propaganda broadcaster 'Lord Haw Haw' described them as rats living in the ground.

 

 

Edmondson on the Federal Highway
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The picnic site commemorating
John Edmondson is on the
Federal Highway between
Collector and Canberra.
[DVA]
Corporal John (Jack) Edmondson is one of the Victoria Cross winners who has been commemorated at a picnic site developed by the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority on the Federal Highway, part of the Remembrance Driveway between Canberra and Sydney.
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'Our first VC'.
[AWM 044622]

John Hirst Edmondson, the first Australian to be awarded a Victoria Cross during World War II, was born in Wagga Wagga in New South Wales in 1914. His parents' only son, Edmondson was 26 when he enlisted and was posted to the 2/17th Battalion AIF.

On 13 April 1941, he was involved in a bayonet charge against a party of German troops on the perimeter of the Australian-held area. The Australians were outnumbered and during the hand-to-hand fighting his platoon commander, Lieutenant F Austin Mackell, called for help. Edmondson, despite being mortally wounded himself, managed to shoot or bayonet at least three of the enemy. Mackell survived but John Edmondson 'lay all night on a stretcher at the back of the battle pit' and died the next morning on 14 April 1941.

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On 14 June 1941, Lieutenant-Colonel John Crawford, his Commanding Officer, wrote to Edmondson's father in Liverpool, NSW:

His extreme gallantry was such that I submitted a certain recommendation for an Award of a Decoration by the GOC Middle East. My recommendation has now been returned with a suggestion that the circumstances were such as to warrant a posthumous award of the Victoria Cross. I have now submitted such a recommendation, and have every hope that it will be granted. If so, it will be the first award to a member of the AIF.

[Letter of 14 June 1941 to Mr Edmondson from Lt-Col John Crawford, 2/17th Bn AIF. AWM PR89/56]

His parents received the news of his award on 4 July 1941.

Corporal John Edmondson, 2/17th Battalion, AIF, VC citation, The London Gazette, 1 July 1941:

On the night of 13th-14th April, 1941, a party of German infantry broke through the wire defences of Tobruk and established themselves with numerous machine guns, mortars and field pieces. Led by an officer, Corporal Edmondson and five privates carried out a bayonet charge upon them under heavy fire. Although wounded in the neck and stomach Corporal Edmondson not only killed one of the enemy, but went to the assistance of his officer, who was attacked by a German from behind while bayoneting another who had seized him about the legs. Despite his wounds, from which he later died, Corporal Edmondson succeeded in killing these two Germans also, thus undoubtedly saving his officer’s life. Throughout the operation he showed outstanding resolution and leadership, and conspicuous bravery.

 

 

Australia at war 3 September 1939
Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941
Greece and Crete April-May 1941
Syria and Lebanon June 1941
Malaya December 1941 to Moresby May 1942
Australia under attack 1940-1945
Coral Sea, Kokoda, Milne Bay May-September 1942
El Alamein October-November 1942
The Home Front 1939-1945
The Coastwatchers 1941-1945
Australian prisoners of war 1940-1945
Little-known operations 1939-1945
Papua 1942-1943
The Japanese retreat March 1943-January 1944
War at sea 1939-1945
Air war Europe 1939-1945
Bougainville, Borneo, New Britain, New Guinea 1944-1945
8 May 1945/15 August 1945
Australia at war 3 September 1939
Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941
Greece and Crete April-May 1941
Syria and Lebanon June 1941
Malaya December 1941 to Moresby May 1942
Australia under attack 1940-1945
Coral Sea, Kokoda, Milne Bay May-September 1942
El Alamein October-November 1942
The Home Front 1939-1945
The Coastwatchers 1941-1945
Australian prisoners of war 1940-1945
Little-known operations 1939-1945
Papua 1942-1943
The Japanese retreat March 1943-January 1944
War at sea 1939-1945
Air war Europe 1939-1945
Bougainville, Borneo, New Britain, New Guinea 1944-1945
8 May 1945/15 August 1945
HMAS Parramatta at Port Said, Frank Norton, 1941.
[Oil on artist board with some scratching in, 50.6 x 35.6cm. AWM ART26930]

On 3 June 1941, when HMAS Parramatta returned to Alexandria from the East Indies Station, she had spent nearly 40 unbroken weeks in the Red Sea. In the Mediterranean she sailed back and forth with other Allied vessels in the Tobruk Ferry Service, nick-named the ‘scrap iron flotilla’ by German propaganda broadcaster Lord Haw Haw. Men, ammunition and stores were shuttled to the Australian and British troops in the garrison there and Parramatta escorted the slower merchant ships in and out of the port.

HMAS Parramatta was sunk off Tobruk on 27 November 1941 with the loss
of 138 of her crew including her Captain, Commander Jefferson Walker.
'I have been watching with pride the magnificent performance of yourself and your men at Tobruk'
[NAA A5954 Item 635/4]
The Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies photographing
a burning tanker in Tobruk Harbour in February 1941.
[AWM 005853]

And so to Tobruk, where the vast perimeter of the defences, about 20 miles, could be seen, tank-traps and all, as if drawn on paper. Abandoned guns, tanks, lorries. Large stores of provisions in Tobruk itself. In Tobruk Harbour, 36 ships sunk or half sunk here and there the foremast popping out of the water; the crane unused; the wireless masts standing drunkenly; a sad picture of what war means…I inspect and speak to 2 battalions of Allen’s Brigade…They all look splendid but craving for news of home and boyishly pleased when I pointed out the world significance of the campaign they have been winning.
[From Dark Days: Menzies’ 1941 Diary Saturday 8 February 1941, p. 36]
‘Rats to you’ painted by Private R (Rufus) E Webster on the side of a Bren gun carrier. On the left is Corporal Frank Joseph Littlejohn with another member of the 2/32nd Battalion. The painting of a rat holding a cigarette symbolised the ‘Rats of Tobruk’, so named by the German propaganda broadcaster, Lord Haw Haw.
[AWM P02522.002]
During 1940, not only the troops but almost two thirds of the British population listened to Lord Haw Haw’s propaganda broadcasts from Nazi Germany. He was really an Irishman, William Joyce, a former member of Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists. Before the war, Joyce had been seen as a strong supporter of Britain although he was not a British subject. After his defection to Nazi Germany he took charge of the British section of German radio using the principal British daily papers and weeklies as a basis for his broadcasts purporting to come from Britain.

Although Lord Haw Haw’s popularity waned during the later years of the war, his supposedly insulting labels – the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ and the ‘Scrap iron flotilla’ were adopted as badges of honour by Australians who served at Tobruk.

The British government charged Joyce with treason and he was hanged in January, 1946.