Honouring local WWII hero Dennis Davis; one of the few remaining “Rats of Tobruk”

Published on 18 April 2019

When it comes to the title of “local hero,” few fit the phrase as perfectly as Dennis Davis, a Castle Hill resident who is one of only a few surviving Rats of Tobruk. These are the men who go down in history as the first to dispel the myth of the invincible German war machine.

Mr Davis, who will turn 99 in June this year, is proud that he has lived to see the 78th anniversary of what is known as one of the most gallant battles of WWII.

“It was a very difficult time in my life and the lives of all the men. I remember it very well and we all knew we had an enormous job to do,” Mr Davis says.

Tobruk, in northern Libya, was an important port surrounded by steep escarpments, making it easy to fortify against attacks. Around 14,000 Australian troops, 12,000 British and Indian soldiers were present in the campaign.

German forces, under Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, were believed to be unstoppable – using tanks across the desert to drive much of the Allies away from Libya and into Egypt. All that stopped the Germans’ march into Egypt was the defiant garrison at Tobruk. The Germans surrounded the port in early April 1941, and so began the siege of Tobruk.

Mr Davis has an amazingly vivid memory of everything he experienced, even though he was just 20 years old when he arrived in Tobruk.

“My most vivid memory is when we arrived in Tobruk we had no trucks; that made it very difficult. Field Marshall Rommel and his troops landed in Tripoli, far west Libya, at same time we landed in Palestine and we finally met in Tobrok,” Mr Davis says.

Dennis Davis' medals, from left to right: Africa Star- Tobruk Bar: El Alamein, Pacific Star (New Guina & Borneo), 1939/45 Star (for overseas service), War Medal, 1939/45 medal, 1945 & subsequent medal, Victory medal, Tobruk Medal (they all got an additional medal for Tobruk).

“When we got our trucks, we were working all night, driving to the front with ammunition. The Germans had to bring their equipment supplies from Tripoli down to Tobruk and that was about 1,300km through the desert. That was one reason why Tobruk had to be held because the Germans wanted to take hold of the Suez Canal.”

The men were nicknamed the “rats” of Tobruk after Radio Berlin described the garrison's defenders as “caught like rats in a trap.”

During the siege, some 3,000 Australian troops were killed or injured.

Mr Davies still remembers the friends he lost.

“Yes, I saw mates fall around me and it’s something you never forget. We were driving trucks and occasionally we’d have a direct hit on a truck. On one occasion I remember, in the El Alamein campaign, one of our trucks was hit and the driver was killed instantly. I still remember many friends; I still pray for their souls.”

Life was incredibly tough – the men worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, surviving on small rations consisting of ‘bully beef’ [corned beef] and biscuits, with just one canteen of water a day.

“There was very little water, so washing was almost impossible. Food was dreadful, mostly biscuits that were rock hard, you could only break them up with a hammer. We were always thinking about the food we were missing.”

For eight months, as the Allies were surrounded by German and Italian forces, the Rats of Tobruk withstood tank attacks, artillery barrages, and daily bombings. They had to deal with the searing heat of the desert, freezing cold nights, and dust storms. The men got whatever sleep they could by sheltering in tiny dug-outs, caves, and crevasses.

“The biggest problem though was being homesick and missing loved ones. I got engaged to my fiancé Margaret before I left. She was only 18 and it was very difficult for both of us being apart for so long.”

The couple actually broke up at one stage, leaving Mr Davis heartbroken in a foreign land, with the threat of death all around him. 

But, when he returned home more than two and a half years later, his love story with Margaret continued and they married on March 6, 1943.  Margaret, who was his wife for 61 wonderful years, sadly passed away in 2004, leaving Mr Davis devastated.

“She was the love of my life. I feel very lucky that we have two children and now seven grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, so I have been very blessed. But I still miss her terribly.”

For Anzac Day 2019, Mr Davis’ granddaughter will take him to the Anzac march in the city before attending a lunch. Last year Mr Davis was thrilled to go to Canberra for the 75th anniversary of the Siege of Tobruk.

“Anzac Day is always a very special time, even though there are only about 30 of the Rats of Tobruk left today. The number gets smaller every year,” Mr Davis says.

Mr Davis lives at a Castle Hill retirement village, a short walk from St Bernadette’s Church where he attends each weekend. He lives a very full life, walking every day, attending a ‘men’s group’ every week and spending time with his family. He also volunteers to help elderly sick people.

Dennis Davis' The Story of a Lifetime' about his time in WWII

Mr Davis has written a book about his time in WWII ‘The Story of a Lifetime,’ so that his family can understand all that he went through during the war years and beyond. His book is an incredibly achievement; Mr Davis is vision impaired due to mascular degeneration (due to driving in the desert without windscreens or eye protection).

If there is one thing Mr Davis would like younger generations to remember about the Rats of Tobruk is that they were young men who were “ordinary” Australians who made huge sacrifices for their country.

“War is a terrible waste of human life. My hope is that our leaders will continue to have dialogue to resolve conflict at all times,” Mr Davis says.

 Join veterans and their families this year by attending the ANZAC Day Dawn Service on April 25. Attendees are requested to arrive at 5:45am for a service commencing 6am at the War Memorial, Centenary of Anzac Reserve, Wrights Road, Castle Hill.