Tobruk, by Peter Fitzsimons

Reviewed by Dale Harcombe

Tobrukis a story of fighting against the odds. It details the story of The Australian Infantry’s Defence of this strategic place. But what FitzSimons has done in this story of Tobruk is not only give the story behind the story but given human faces to those involved.

He starts by introducing his cast of characters who will play a major part in this narrative. FitzSimons not only tells the reader about the men who fought but gives a picture of the families left at home.

The reader meets the young John Hurst Edmondson, known as Jack, and comes to understand the family background from which he came. Jack, the only child of Will and Elizabeth Edmondson went on to become the first AIF recipient of the Victoria Cross. Fitzsimons also introduces the reader to Leslie Morshead, the ex schoolmaster, who also had an instrumental part to play in the defence of Tobruk. His character comes out in his actions and his letters home to his wife Myrtle. And then there is the story of Josie and John Johnson and the motivation initially for enlisting. Part of the Johnson’s story is the poignant recounting of the loss of the Dumbo book- the last book given by John to his son. These insights into the personal lives of those involved ensure that this is more than just a story above war, strategy and battles.

Through the use of diaries and letters, FitzSimons gives glimpses into the character and attitudes of those who shaped this episode of Australia’s history. The incidents of Australian humour and mateship that surfaced even in the face of danger are evident too. As one Australian wrote to his mother while in Tobruk, ‘I’m proud to be an Aussie. The Hun fights with grim determination, the Tommies fight by number, but the Aussies tear about like kids at a picnic, swearing and laughing the whole time.’ It was this attitude that confounded the enemy.

Even when Lord Haw Haw, the radio broadcaster intending to discourage the Australians at Tobruk announced that; ‘living like rats, they’ll die like rats,’ his derogatory comment had the opposite effect to what he intended. The comment provoked laughter among the Diggers and they delightedly adopted the title of ‘Rats of Tobruk.’

However Fitzsimons does not content himself with portraying the character and motivation of the Australians but also manages to give a picture of Hitler’s early life and what propelled him into popularity as well as the rise of Rommel and the role he played. Extracts of letters from Rommel to his wife Lu, show another side to this man who played such a major part in the Tobruk campaign.

Fitzsimons demonstrates some of the anomalies that happen during war. One such event was the intervention of the German officer who came forward to protect Father Tom Gard and the Australian men from certain destruction by a minefield as they sought to rescue their wounded. For a time it was as though the war didn’t exist as German and Australian men worked side by side to help each other gather those who had fallen. In the words of one Australian soldier, who took part in it, ‘it was as though two armoured combatants had paused to raise their visors and for one moment had glimpsed human faces behind the steel.’

This comment perhaps sums up the tenor of the book. Throughout, FitzSimons presents the human face of those involved in the long, drawn out defence of Tobruk. An interesting and informative read.

Tobruk, by Peter Fitzsimons
HarperCollins, 2006 Hardcover RRP $49.95
ISBN 0732276454