Meet Queensland's last Rat of Tobruk
QUEENSLAND'S last Rat of Tobruk Vernon Hansen was in Canberra yesterday to mark the 75th anniversary of the siege.
Although he travelled with family, it would have been a lonely trip from his Brassall retirement village for the 96-year-old as he made the journey to meet up with the dwindling numbers of the Rats of Tobruk Association.
"It will be interesting for me to meet some of those 9th Division fellas again," Mr Hansen said before he left for Canberra.
"I don't know how many are left down there. I just know I am the only one left in Queensland," he said.
As a member of the 2nd 9th Battalion, which assembled at Redbank Camp in November 1939, he was in the thick of it as the Australians took on the Italians in the Middle East.
They had been on their way to France, but arrived to find out about the Dunkirk evacuation - France had been lost. The battalion headed to the Middle East for action.
With a twinkle in his eye, Vern "Snow" Hansen described their first battle as they attacked the Italian outpost of Giarabub in Libya, in a cheeky fashion only a Rat of Tobruk could get away with.
"We thought, now this was going to be a pretty tough fight, fighting the Italians," he said.
"It was easy.
"We had the place in two days.
"We were walking around and three planes flew over. About a mile out of town a bomb went off.
"I said to a mate of mine, 'what do you think of that?' He said, 'Well Snow, have you ever seen the enemy miss their target by a mile before? The only Italian that wants to fight us is Mussolini."
It was a different story when a German-Italian army commanded by General Erwin Rommel attacked the garrison of 14,000 Australians who held the Libyan port of Tobruk on April 10, 1941.
The 2/9th had moved in with the rest of the 18th Brigade to reinforce Tobruk against the German advance rapidly closing in.
The Axis attackers had double the manpower and strong air support, while the Australians were nowhere near friendly air bases and had poor supplies with ships having to transport supplies under the cover of darkness.
Berlin radio said the Australians were caught like a rat in a trap.
The Australian soldiers took the name as a badge of honour, using it for their unofficial medal and painted Rats of Tobruk logos on the side of their artillery.
With the tenacity of the Diggers that held off Rommel's Afrika Korps, who had never lost a battle at that time, the Siege of Tobruk lasted for 241 days, ending on November 27.
"When we were going off the boat at Tobruk, my mate said to me, 'What do you think of this Snow? I said we're going up against what seems to be the best side in the world. I know for a fact they've got the best equipment in the world.
"It's not going to be easy.
"The 9th Division were sitting around telling us how to fight the Germans.
"They said let the tanks go by, don't shoot at them, lower your defences and when they get out of your road, mend the wire and attack the infantry."
"Our fellas could shoot. Romell was supposed to have said 'give me four divisions of Australians and I'll take on the world. They shoot in the dark and they never miss'."
On November 27, Tobruk was relieved by the British and Allied Forces' 8th Army.