Desert Rats (1953)




Director:  Robert Wise.

Starring:  Richard Burton (Capt. MacRoberts), Robert Newton (Bartlett), Robert Douglas (General), Torin Thatcher (Barney), Chips Rafferty (Smith), Charles Tingwell (Lt. Carstairs), James Mason (Rommel), Charles Davis (Pete), Ben Wright (Mick), James Lilburn (Communications), John O'Malley (Riley), Ray Harden (Hugh), John Alderson (Corp.), Richard Peel (Rusty), Michael Pate (Capt. Currie), Frank Pulaski (Maj. O'Rourke), Charles Keane (Sgt. Donaldson), Patrick O'Moore (Jim), Trevor Constable (Ginger), Albert Taylor (Jensen), John Wengraf (German Doctor), Arno Frey (Kramm), Alfred Zeisler (Von Helmholtz), Charles FitzSimons (Fire Officer).


A follow-up to The Desert Fox, this movie deals with the Australian side of the Battle of Tobruk.  


O.k. movie.  This version of the Siege of Tobruk gives us a better idea of the tactics used by the Allies during the fighting.  The first line of defense for the town of Tobruk is the old Italian line.  The second line consists of Col. White's supporting artillery.  The big fear of the Allies is how to handle the German tanks.  The officers come up with the idea of letting the German tanks pass easily through the outer defense line and then to ambush them with artillery fire from artillery pieces lined up along the two sides of the open corridor.  When the tanks pass through the outer defenses, the Allied soldiers will then put a stop to the German infantry thrust. 

A group of green Australians arrives at Tobruk.  To supervise them and give them the benefit of more battle experience, English Captain MacRoberts (Richard Burton) is called upon to command them.  MacRoberts resents the assignment of having to baby-sit green horns.  And this leaves the Captain with a bad attitude.  He is unfriendly and downright harsh with the Australian officers and men. 

The one bright light among the new unit for Captain MacRoberts is his old English school teacher, Bartlett (Robert Newton).  MacRoberts has a great deal of respect and admiration for his old teacher.  But Bartlett has seen better days and is found drunk in the ranks.

The unit is sent to the first line of defense.  Australian Captain Currie gets wounded and is in danger of being killed or captured by the Germans.  Lt. Carstairs decides to take some men and rescue Captain Currie.  Just at the time the rescuers reach the Captain he dies.  Captain MacRoberts has to pull men from his position to cover the hole left by Lt. Carstairs.  After the skirmish, MacRoberts decides to court-martial Lt. Carstairs for leaving his position and endangering the whole line.  The men already resent MacRoberts and this news only makes them more angry at their commander.

Bartlett tries his best to dissuade MacRoberts from the court-martial but MacRoberts rejects the suggestion.  (But Bartlett's arguments have a telling effect later as MacRoberts writes a letter recommending canceling the request for a court-martial.)

For holding the line, MacRoberts is promoted to temporary Lt. Col. and given command of three Australian companies.  MacRoberts is not happy about now being in command of three Australian companies, instead of just one unit of these Australians.

To make sure the Allies hold Tobruk, the command group decide to employ hit and run tactics.  Their soldiers are sent out from the outer defense line to destroy German targets and then immediately return to their lines.  MacRoberts is given the task of running some of these hit and run raids.  Proving successful, he is given the dangerous job of leading 54 picked men to destroy a German ammunition dump. 

Will Lt. Col. MacRoberts ever learn respect for his Australian troops and ease up on them enough to ensure they remain effective fighting men? 

Patrick L. Cooney, Ph. D.

Historical Background: 


See Fighting Rats of Tobruk (1944).


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