WWII unit discovered after being lost to history for more than 80 years

16 January 2023
  • History & commemoration
  • Veteran stories

The unsung heroes helped the Rats of Tobruk in 1941

Written by the Descendants of the Rats of Tobruk Australia Association. This organisation has dedicated years of research to ensuring future generations remember the sacrifices made by these Australian servicemen. Images courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Rats of Tobruk Australian War Memorial

14,000 Australian soldiers took part in the siege of Tobruk 

We are excited to announce the discovery of a small contingent of Australian servicemen that had previously never been acknowledged for their role in the Siege of Tobruk in 1941.

The Rats of Tobruk were Australian-led soldiers who were part of the Allies, an international military coalition whose principal members were the United Kingdom, United States, Soviet Union, and China. The Rats of Tobruk held the Libyan port of Tobruk against the Axis and Afrika Corps during the Siege of Tobruk from 10 April to 7 December 1941.

Among these men were more than 14,000 Australian soldiers who endured searing desert heat, bitterly cold nights, and the hellish dust storms of Tobruk.

In early 1941, a group of around 10 men from the 1 Australian Railway Construction Company (1ARCC), Royal Australian Engineers was detached for service to the British Army 1018 Docks Operating Company (RE). The role of the RE was to manage the day-to-day activities of the dock facilities at Alexandria in Egypt and the embattled port at Tobruk in Libya.

A relative of one of the men from 1ARCC requested information about his status as a Rat of Tobruk. Initial research failed to turn up anything placing him in the besieged city. Some obscure references to the activities of 1018 Docks Ops Coy revealed they were in Tobruk, but nothing that confirmed the presence of Australian soldiers among them.

Our association was delighted when a member of our research team discovered two letters buried in the unit war diaries of the 1ARCC. The letters confirmed the soldier’s presence in Tobruk. They were written by the Commanding Officer of the 1018 Dock Ops Coy to his counterpart at the 1ARCC, and they specifically named the men and praised their work. He stated that these men were under his command for a considerable period.

"I wish to place on record my appreciation of the splendid work that they have done for me under the very worst of conditions. I trust that you will be able to grant them a good spell of rest or leave which they have so richly earned, before putting them back on duty,” the Commanding Officer wrote.

Rats of Tobruk Australian War Memorial

 Men of the 24th Infantry Brigade after leaving Tobruk

This discovery is an incredible achievement, and the evidence enables us to include this new unit in the Order of Battle for the Siege of Tobruk, last drawn up by the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in 1958. These few good men – whom we believe volunteered for duty with the British – now proudly join the ranks of the Rats of Tobruk.

Our findings were submitted to the AWM for confirmation, and the AWM congratulated the Descendants of the Rats of Tobruk Australia Association for its amazing work on the revelation.

"What wonderful pieces of detective work you have uncovered,” said Dr Karl James, Head of the Military History Section.

“Confirming this detachment or loan of men from 1ARCC to a British Docks operating company in Alex and then to Tobruk is very impressive. It's not often that old war stories such as this one can be confirmed by archival evidence.”

The Descendants of the Rats of Tobruk Australia Association is a non-profit organisation that has spent years dedicating its time and efforts to documenting and completing research on the Rats of Tobruk and creating photographic tributes for these gallant men.

The association has worked tirelessly building a database of every Rat of Tobruk, which is as historically correct as possible and includes personal photographs and information pre- and post-WWII.

For more information about the association, visit ratsoftobrukdescendants.org.au or email dotrota41@gmail.com.


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