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The Swimming Rats of Tobruk

In World War 2, Australian forces were dispatched to secure the Italian-held port of Tobruk in Libya to deny the Axis forces a supply point in their eastern sweep across North Africa. The Australians attacked the city on January 21 1941, overwhelming Italian positions after bitter fighting.

The hitherto undefeated German forces of General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps were then sent to take back Tobruk on 14 April 1941. After a devastating attack by Rommel’s forces, the mostly Australian troops dug in forcing Rommell to lay siege to the city. The Australians were trapped inside but they dug in even more and effectively lived underground to withstand the daily bullets, bombs and shelling by Rommel’s forces. The British and Australian navies provisioned the soldiers from the sea on the perilous ‘Spud Run’ but only on moonless nights to avoid attacks by Axis aircraft.

The British traitor and propagandist Lord Haw-Haw broadcast that Tobruk was now being held by “the sons of sheep herders…and were now surrounded… and caught like rats in a trap”. “These rats of Tobruk,” he infamously sneered, “Living like rats, they’ll die like rats”. The Diggers heard of this and quite liked the reference to Rats of Tobruk and they adopted the name for themselves as well as the motto “No Surrender”.

Despite these daily privations and deadly bombardments, the Rats found time to do what Aussies do anywhere, they went swimming. John Fleming was a dispatch rider with 9th Division Signals and was at Tobruk. He was quoted years later describing his swims during enemy bombardment as follows:

“…just as you go around Tobruk, going west, there was a nice beach. We used to [go] there to
have a swim and clean up. I remember being there when they come down and bombed the
harbour we were there swimming and we lay against the side. I remember the Stukas going
out over past us”.

‘Rats’ swimming at Tobruk. The men had just finished bayonet practice.

The Siege of Tobruk lasted 241 days during which time some 3,000 Australian troops were killed or injured out of a total contingent of approx. 12,000. Tobruk was eventually relieved by the Allied 8th Army on the 27th of November 1941.

HB Patterson (son of Banjo) served as a Private with 20th Brigade HQ during the Siege of Tobruk. His poem called This Place They Call Tobruk includes the following lines about swimming:

Sometimes we go in swimming
And float about at ease
The water clear as crystal
And a nice clean salty breeze
When down comes blasted Hermann
And we have to sling our hook
We dive clean to the bottom in
This place they call TOBRUK.

In tribute to my Great Uncle Pte James Laural TRAUTWEILER (1916 – 1988) 2/11 Field Ambulance. Merchant Seaman and Rat of Tobruk.

By Ria Bleathman, (Reproduced from the Brighton Iceberger Newsletter 9 November 2023). Sources: State Library of Victoria, Anzac Portal (DVA), Rats of Tobruk Association.

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Cairns, Australia has a Tobruk Memorial Pool => AllSwims.Au map and Townsville, Australia has a Tobruk Memorial Baths => Allswims.Au map

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