Lost Rats of Tobruk finally acknowledged

More than 80 years after playing their part in one of the most defiant campaigns of World War II, an unheralded contingent of Diggers are finally receiving deserved recognition.

The servicemen, members of the 1 Australian Railway Construction Company, were placed under British command in early 1941 and spent the ensuing months helping forge the legend of the Rats of Tobruk.

Virtually nothing was known of their whereabouts during the city's famed siege, however, until a recent query by a relative of one of the nine or possibly 10 men concerning his status as a participant.

He and the other Aussies in the group were assigned to the British Royal Engineers who were tasked with managing dock facilities in both Egypt and Libya.

Yet initial inquiries failed to turn up anything which placed them in the besieged port.

While some obscure references to the activities of the relevant British troops revealed they were in Tobruk, nothing confirmed the Australian unit was there with them.

The breakthrough came when a member of the Descendants of the Rats of Tobruk Australia Association located two letters buried in the Diggers' diaries.

The missives were from their British commanding officer to his Australian counterpart which specifically named and praised the men.

He said they'd been under his authority for some time and that he wished 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 discovery places the previously unheralded unit into the Order of Battle for the Tobruk siege last drawn up by the Australian War Memorial in 1958.

"What wonderful pieces of detective work you have uncovered," military section head Dr Karl James wrote to the association concerning the authenticity of the find.

"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 old war stories such as this one can be confirmed by archival evidence..."

The Rats of Tobruk helped hold the Libyan port against the axis and Afrika Corps commanded by German general Erwin Rommel from April until December 1941.

Over 14,000 Australian soldiers in total endured the searing desert heat, bitterly cold nights and hellish dust storms during countless enemy raids. Barely more than a dozen still survive.

Tobruk was considered the best deepwater harbour in northern Africa and its defence pivotal during some of the darkest days of WWII.

Germany's propaganda machine declared the Allied garrison caught like "rats in a trap" but prevail they did.