Remembering the Rats

Jo FulwoodThe West Australian

As the first soft rays of dawn peek over the horizon this Anzac Day, one of WA's last remaining Rats of Tobruk will be remembering.

At 97, JJ Wade is one of the last men standing from the 2/28th Battalion, part of Australia's legendary 9th Division from World War II, known as the Rats of Tobruk.

The years may have passed but the memories of the months spent in the Libyan desert are still fresh.

This Anzac Day, like the many that have gone before, Mr Wade will rise before dawn to honour those who served alongside him, and those who did not make it home.

Mr Wade is still president of the 2/28th Battalion and 24th Anti-Tank Company Association, although he admits the group is mostly run by the sons of veterans these days.

Does he see any of the remaining soldiers these days?

"They're pretty much all dead," he says.

The son of a dairy farmer, Mr Wade grew up on a dairy property outside Fremantle, in the days when the now bustling city was a town and surrounded by intensive agriculture.

His father moved the family to a dairy business in Yarloop, where Mr Wade spent some of his farming life after the war, before venturing into wheat and sheep farming at Buntine, Three Springs, Narembeen and Cordering.

But it was in Leonora, where he was driving trucks, that Mr Wade made the decision to join the war.

"It was May 1940 and they had a recruitment drive that came through Leonora - 25 of us joined up on that day," he said.

At 22, Mr Wade went to war.

"On August 1, 1940, we were called up and sworn in," he said.

"I was in Claremont only about four weeks when they formed the 2/28th Battalion of the 9th Division at Melville and I was a member of that."

Mr Wade's 9th Division first went to Palestine before heading to the strategic city of Tobruk in the Libyan desert in early 1941. Being naturally deep and protected, the Tobruk harbour was of critical importance to military supply lines in North Africa.

According to Mr Wade, the notorious tunnels had been built by the Italians during an offensive earlier in the war, and were close to the coast.

He said hospitals and other medical facilities were located underground as part of the tunnel systems.

History has it that the English traitor radio caller and German propagandist Lord Haw-Haw gave the Australians their title, mockingly labelling them "the poor desert rats of Tobruk".

The name stuck, the siege was won, and those Rats have now earned an eternal place in Australian military history.

As Mr Wade recalls, the name was not something that bothered the soldiers.

"Haw-Haw, he was the bloke who gave us that name," he said.

"But no, a thing like that didn't worry anyone. You worry about things like that you are in for a bad time.

"We had a bit more to think about at the time."

Mr Wade recalls Tobruk as the first defeat of the German offensive, with the Allies, including thousands of Australian troops, winning the siege against German General Erwin Rommel.

"It was the first place the Germans failed to take," he said.

"They went all through Europe, and there was no fortress able to withstand the German onslaught, until they came to Tobruk, and we were the first to stop them."

But conditions for those fighting in the Libyan desert were anything but comfortable.

"Dust could blow for hours on end, many men had dysentery," Mr Wade said.

"The red line was on the front. Then behind the red line, there was the blue line, in case the tanks got through. So you spent time up the front on the red line, but then you had a bit of a spell and you went back on to the blue line.

"If you were lucky, you could get a ride on a truck down to the sea and have a swim and wash your clothes in the sea water.

"The dust stuck on to everything and sometimes, if you were really lucky, you threw a grenade into the sea and you might have even got a few fish."

Food and water were scarce commodities during those many months spent in Tobruk.

"We were always short of rations," he said.

"They did have a well there, but it wasn't enough water to fully supply us, so the navy had to bring in most of our water, and all the other supplies.

"After the first 10 days in Tobruk, we didn't have an air force there, the airstrip was in range of the German-Italian artillery.

"So we were dependent on the navy for all our supplies. The ships used to come into the harbour when there was no moon, under the cover of darkness.

"They'd unload the supplies, then load up with casualties and head away towards Alexandria."

Does he remember being hungry, scared or homesick?

"Hungry - oh yes, but I didn't do too bad, a lot of fellas lost weight but I was OK," he said.

"We used to have to eat what we called dog biscuits. There was quite lot of nourishment in them, but they were as hard as hell.

"If you could 'acquire' some tinned milk, you were right.

"You could put a bit in a dish overnight and soak the biscuit in it, and it would swell up overnight and they were like porridge in the morning.

"I suppose I was homesick and scared to a certain degree, but you didn't really have time to be feeling like that."

Like the supplies, ammunition and equipment were also scarce. The Rats of Tobruk are also remembered for their cunning in seizing weapons and ammunition left behind when the Italians retreated.

From Tobruk, Mr Wade's 9th Division went back to Palestine and then Syria, before word came through that Rommel was advancing on El Alamein, in Egypt.

This was where Mr Wade received shrapnel wounds that put him in a British military hospital in Cairo.

"It wasn't too bad, they cut those pieces out," he said. "A lot of fellas were killed and others badly wounded, but the wounds I had weren't real bad wounds. A lot of the blokes you got to know, but some of the fellas, well, you only knew their nickname, you might never have known their real name. There were 15,000 in the entire division."

After then prime minister John Curtin's recall of Australian troops, members of the 9th Division were trained in Queensland for jungle warfare and sent to New Guinea.

There Mr Wade took part in the battle of Lae, including the famous crossing of the Busu River, where it has been reported up to 15 men drowned.

Again, Mr Wade survived to tell the tale.

Onwards to the battle theatre of Finchafen, where Mr Wade contracted malaria and was subsequently discharged from the army in November 1944, and returned to the family farm in Yarloop.

"Unlike a lot of other fellas, I got home - whether it was predestined or not, I don't know," he said.

After many years as a dairy farmer, Mr Wade sought a change of pace and purchased a farm in Three Springs in 1964, where he eventually became the largest grain producer in the district.

Earlier this month, Mr Wade was a guest of honour at the unveiling of three honour boards in Koorda, alongside fellow World War II and El Alamein veteran Paddy Alford.

Mr Alford is the last surviving World War II veteran from the Koorda district.

The boards list all those from the Koorda district who served in both world wars and the Vietnam War.

More than 70 people attended the unveiling event, and guests were able to view photos and information displays from local families of those who fought in the wars and who were involved in peacekeeping in later years.

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