Australia

Aussie troops commemorate WWII camaraderie with Poland

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The decades may have passed for the Rats of Tobruk but the World War II memories of what became the longest siege in British military history remain strong.

For eight months, Australian troops in the Middle East doggedly held out enemy forces to earn themselves the famous nickname, the Rats of Tobruk.

But, perhaps, what is not so well-known about the 1941 siege is that the 'rats' were finally relieved by a Polish brigade.

Poland's President has commemorated this enduring military link at a moving ceremony at Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance. 

'The most horrifying feeling'

Polish President Andrzej Duda, who is visiting the country, has joined Australian veterans in laying wreaths at the Shrine of Remembrance to mark the seventy-seventh anniversary of the Tobruk defence.

Tobruk, a small town on the Libyan coast, was central to much of the fighting that took place in the Western Desert during World War II. 

Polish President Andrzej Duda said the 1941 siege of Tobruk was a horrific battle.
Polish President Andrzej Duda said the 1941 siege of Tobruk was a horrific battle.

In a speech to crowd that gathered in the pouring rain, President Duda said the 1941 siege was a horrific battle, with enemy forces only metres from defence positions.

For Bob Semple, one of the last surviving Rats of Tobruk, it was "the most horrifying feeling". 

"My unit went into the place with no guns at all in the middle of the night after the perimeter had been closed," he told SBS.

With little to defend themselves, he and thousands of fellow soldiers withstood tank attacks and daily bombings by German-led forces. 

A chance to say thank you

At last there was word relief was to come from an unlikely source - a Polish brigade.

"I remember it must of been about August of 1941 when there was a rumour. And the rumour was, we were going to be relieved," said Alf Jackson, who served in the 7th Division at Tobruk.

"No one believed it but we did."

The exploits of the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade proved crucial to ending the marathon siege.

"Orders came through that the Polish troops were going to take over from us and so after a couple of days we moved out," said Mr Jackson. 

He and the other 'rats' present said the ceremony has finally given them the opportunity to express their gratitude. 

"I'm pleased to be here today. It's taken 79 years to say thank you to them," he said. 

Enduring camaraderie

Such was the camaraderie built up between troops from the two countries that those in the Polish brigade also earned lasting fame as the Rats of Tobruk.

President Duda told the crowd the term 'rat', though intended to ridicule the Australian troops, came to represent their courage and determination. 

The ceremony at Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance marked the seventy-seventh anniversary of the Tobruk defence.
The ceremony at Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance marked the seventy-seventh anniversary of the Tobruk defence.
SBS

"Then, the Nazis, this contemptible name to the defenders of Tobruk, calling them the Rats of Tobruk, so they mocked these heroic defenders," he said.

"However that term Rats of Tobruk later evolved to become a heroic symbol of the defence."

And it is a term the so-called rats are more than happy to share with their Polish counterparts. 

"They did us a big favour," said Mr Jackson.

"I felt that Tobruk, of all the places that we’ve been then and later, was the key to our success. That's where we grew up as a team of blokes batting for each other," added Mr Temple. 

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