Rats of Tobruk
Thieves in the Night
Adolph Hitler had prepared for war by socially engineering his followers into the 'perfect' fighting machines. Identifying with authority, they obeyed rather than thought. They had been conditioned to die for their nation's glory even if this entailed sacrificing their own life and the lives of their mates. They were aggressive, strong, without empathy and at the outbreak of World War 2, they crushed all who dared stand in their way.
But in northern Africa , the Germans confronted a very different breed of soldier. They confronted soldiers without respect for authority or for domineering powers. These soldiers were volunteers without dreams of glory but who instead believed that some things were worth fighting for. They were empathetic soldiers who were infuriated if their leaders brushed aside their suffering or dared express an attitude that any man was expendable or inferior. These soldiers were from Australia and at Tobruk, they gave Hitler his first taste of defeat.
A great deal can be learnt about the strengths of the Diggers' psychology by studying both the tactics they used to fight the Germans as well as their reaction to German propaganda.
The Capture of Tobruk
On January 21 1941, the Australian 6th division attacked the Italian garrison of Tobruk. For one reason or another, the Italians offered little resistance and many surrendered without fighting. It took the Australians less than two days to capture 27,000 Italian POWS, 208 guns, 28 tanks and a large number of supplies. The cost on the Australian side was 49 dead and 306 wounded.
The city was of extremely important strategic value as it was one of only two ports between Tripoli and Alexandria. Had the Allies lost it, the German and Italian supply lines would have been drastically shortened.
The German counter-attacks
With the Italians on the verge of total collapse in Nth Africa, on the 24th March German General Erwin Rommel launched major offensives aimed at reclaiming the initiative. His blitzkrieg approach proved unstoppable as he swept all before him.
On the 11th of April, Rommel approached Tobruk and expected it to crumble under his assault as so many had crumbled before. He surrounded the port city from three sides and instructed his soldiers to make more dust than usual in order to strike fear into their opponents and exaggerate the size of their force.
The odds were stacked against the Diggers. The Axis force was twice its size and it was masterminded by a military genius who had never been defeated in battle. Despite the long odds, the Diggers never entertained the idea of retreat or surrender.
Despite plenty of courage, the Diggers knew they could not win on courage alone hence they innovated to fight the battle to their strengths rather than their weaknesses. When Rommel charged Tobruk with tanks, the Diggers didn't bother to resist as to do so would result in certain destruction. Instead, they attacked the follow up infantry and once they were eliminated, the tanks lacking in ground support were easier targets. When the Luftwaffe dropped waves upon waves of bombs, the Diggers didn't make much effort to shoot them down. Instead, they hid safely in Tobruk's network of tunnels. This ensured they remained focused on the task of defending the city against the German infantry.
When the Axis forces retreated to regroup, the Australians didn't wait in a siege mentality. Instead they went on the offensive; attacking enemy positions, stealing German artillery and then retreating back into the city like thieves in the night. Subsequently, the stolen artillery (known as 'bush artillery') was used against its creators.
The conviction of the Diggers even won them the respect of the Nazis. Major Ballerstedt, C.O. 2nd Battalion, 115th Motorized Infantry Regiment, wrote to his superiors:
" The Australian, who are the men our troops have had opposite them so far, are extraordinarily tough fighters. The German is more active in the attack, but the enemy stakes his life in the defence and fights to the last with extreme cunning."
The thoughts were echoed by a captured German officer struggling to explain how he found himself a prisoner of war:
" I cannot understand you Australians. In Poland , France and Belgium once the tanks got through the soldiers took it for granted they were beaten. But you are like demons. The tanks break through and your infantry keeps fighting."
The fighting style of the Australians made it very difficult for Rommel's co-ordinated attacks to integrate effectively. The Australians just weren't behaving as expected, and they took little time in noting how this was confusing their enemy. An intelligence assessment by the 2/43rd Battalion concluded that:
"Reports from PW indicate that a large scale attack was to have been launched on the Tobruch defences on or about 16 April 41. There appears to have been no co-ordination between enemy tanks and inf units. The ITALIANS appear to have been some what in the dark as to their actual objectives and the method of co-ordination by means of GERMAN liaison offrs working with ITALIAN units has not been successful. PW also state that the spasmodic attacks in different sectors between 14 and 16 Apr, sometimes inf alone, sometimes tks alone sometimes both, were all intended to be a simultaneous assault which apprently went badly asray in its timing."
Blitzkrieg becomes a Siege
With blitzkrieg failing, Rommel held off from further attacks. He then started training his soldiers in the art of siege warfare. Integral to this warfare was propaganda. The Germans aimed to wear down the Australian moral. The Nazis had discovered that Germans responded to words of optimism, success, freedom, supremacy and excellence. Consequently, they described the Australians as the complete opposite in the belief that it would lower the Australian moral. They likened the fighting style of the Australians to that of a rat; a vermin that steals from the shadows. The propaganda expressed supreme confidence that the German victory was assured and the Australian defeat was imminent because the "rats" were caught in a German trap.
The Australian response to Nazi propaganda
Naively, the Germans failed to appreciate that propaganda that would demoralize a German would motivate an Australian. Are Australians afraid of failure? Whereas German mythology celebrated refinement and class, the Australians identified with the battler whom demonstrated that even in defeat, victory can be achieved.
A battler has been defined as someone who:
"thrust doggedly onwards: starting again, failing again, implacably thrusting towards success. For success, even if it only the success of knowing that one has tried to the utmost and never surrendered, is the target of every battler"
Because they identified with the battler, the Diggers knew that as long as they continued to make trouble, they were achieving success. If they kept saving their mates, they were achieving success. Most importantly, if they tried their utmost against the odds and never surrendered, they had achieved success. Consequently, the German prediction of failure merely gave the Digger more incentive to persevere. In the words of Chester Wilmot: ' Berlin Radio made a fatal mistake in trying to jibe and scare the Australian soldier into surrender. The longer the odds Lord Haw Haw offered against the Diggers chance of getting out, the more heavily the digger backed himself."
Do Australians need to feel superior?
To inspire the German people, the Nazis used art to inspire a sense of achievement and refinment. While that inspired Germans, it had nothing to do with the culture of the Australians. The Diggers had come from a culture where the champions were the underdogs who stood up against those who expressed their 'superiority'. Consequently, the Germans preaching their superiority merely gave the Australians more motivation to cut them down.
Do Australians glorify their 'excellence'?
Countries that are born of revolutions, great heroics or have great artistic traditions are justified in championing their 'excellence'. However Australians are unable to engage in such self-glorification as their culture is built upon the scum of British society. Consequently, instead of glorifying themselves as heroes or champions, Australians self depreciate by affectionately referring to themselves as "dickheads", "bastards", "mongrels" and "drongos". Hence when the Germans called them 'rats', the Australians were not offended. To the contrary, they embraced the description; dubbing themselves the "Rats of Tobruk." It was seen as a sign that the underdogs were indeed making life difficult for the domineering power.
During their reaction time, the Australians like to play a spot of cricket against the British. It was a good way of keeping their spirits up. Owing to some occupation hazards of the time, special rules needed to be drawn up in order to adapt to situation.
July 30, 1941 - Rules of cricket between Australia 's 20th Brigade and Britain 's 107 Royal Horse Artillery
Rule 2. Play to be continuous until 1800 hours, except by interference by air raids. Play will NOT, rpt NOT cease during shell fire.
Rule 4. Shirts, shorts, long socks, sand shoes if available. ITI Helmets will not be worn or any other fancy head gear. Umpires will wear white coat (if available) and will carry loaded rifle with fixed bayonet.
Rule 6. All players to be searched for concealed weapons before start of play, and all weapons found, other than S T grenades, Mills bombs, & revolvers will be confiscated. (This does not apply to umpires.) Rule 8. Manager will make medical arrangements & have ambulance in attendance.
The Australian withdrawal from Tobruk
The Diggers had shown great mental strength in Tobruk, but there were physiological limits that their mind could not push their body through. In response to reports their health had been suffering, in the summer of 1941, John Curtin, the Australian Prime Minister, ordered the withdrawal of Australian troops. While they were being withdrawn, they were being replaced by British, Polish and Czech soldiers.
The British, Poles and Czechs didn't let Tobruk fall - they actually contributed strongly to the lifting of the siege by breaking-out and linking up with 8th Army - with the Germans and Italians eventually in full retreat.