Fighting Rats of Tobruk (1944)




Director:  Charles Chauvel.

Starring:  Grant Taylor (Bluey Donkin), Peter Finch (Peter Linton), Chips Rafferty (Milo Trent), Pauline Garrick (Kate Carmody), Mary Gay (Sister Mary Ellis), George Wallace (Barber of Tobruk),  Joe Valli (Northumberland Fusilier).

one of Australia's greatest wartime legends


An o.k. movie.  It is interesting, because it deals with Australian point of view about the Australian contribution to the battle for Tobruk.  For 8 months at Tobruk in 1941, 15,000 Australians and 8,000 British and Indian troops held a German army 7 times their number and 7 times their armor.  The Germans called them the "Rats of Tobruk" always digging in the ground and urged them to come out and fight.

As in many war movies, the "camaraderie" of the men is stressed.   In Australia we are introduced to three friends: Peter Linton, an English writer in Australia to study the land; 2) Bluey Donkin, boss of cattle drives; and 3) Milo Trent, another cattle man. 

Bluey needs to drive his herd to the farm of a one-time girlfriend, Kate Carmody, in order to get water for his cattle.  The two had broken up two years earlier.  And three months ago Kate's father died.  Kate is still in love with Bluey and vice-versa, but Kate thinks that because of his philandering ways, Bluey is not the marrying kind.  Bluey argues otherwise, but with out apparent effect.  While at Kate's farm, the news of the start of World War II is shared by all.

Now we learn of the battles in north Africa.  The ANZAC troops are in Libya and the paper says "Bardia Defense Smashed."  Then Tobruk falls and some 20,000 prisoners are taken.  On patrol all three Australian buddies are wounded.  In the hospital, Peter falls in love with the nurse Sister Mary Ellis.  (Obviously, "Sister" doesn't mean Sister in the sense of nun.)

A new German commander, the soon to be famous Rommel has arrived and he launches a new offensive.  The Australian 9th Division is forced back and Rommel smashes the British position beyond Bengazi.  The 2nd armored division at Micheli tries to hold off the German offensive, but the town falls to the Germans. 

The Allied forces have only a division and a half to fight off the advancing Germans.  The first line of defense (the perimeter line) is 32 miles long and 8 miles out from Tobruk.  The goal is to hold Tobruk for at least two months. 

A lot of the fighting is done at night and it is very difficult to see what is going on because the film has gotten darker over the years. 

For relief, the Australian soldiers get to go "sight-seeing" in down town Tobruk or what's left of it.  They read their newspaper "Tobruk Truth" written by soldiers for soldiers.

Will our three soldiers survive the battle for Tobruk?  Or will they become casualties of war? 

I wish the DVD version I have had subtitles because at times it is difficult to understand the accents of the Australian, an English and a Scottish soldier.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

Historical Background:


The town of Tobruk in Libya was assaulted by German troops under General Rommel. For most of the siege, the Australian 9th Division under General Sir Leslie Morshead had the responsibility of holding Tobruk. The orders to Morshead (via General Archibald Wavell) were to hold the fortress for eight weeks.



The Australian 9th Division formed.


early March  --  the 9th Division was sent to Cyrenaica in Libya.

March 24  --  German-led Axis forces launch an offensive.  The Allied forces were quickly driven out of Cyrenaica.  (The Australians nicknamed this the "Benghazi Handicap".)  The division escaped without severe loss.

April 6  --  the retreating 9th Division was ordered to defend the Tobruk.  General Wavell, the commander of the British Middle East Command, ordered the defenders to hold the fort there for at least two months. (They were reinforced by the 18th Brigade of the Australian 7th Division and British artillery and armored regiments.)

April 10 General Erwin Rommel invested the fort at Tobruk.

May 15 - 27 Germans launch an assault (Operation Brevity) that is stopped..

June 15 - 17 second German assault (Operation Battleaxe) also stalled.

September and October  --  just before the next offensive, the Australian troops were gradually withdrawn and replaced by the British 70th Infantry Division and the Polish Carpathian Brigade.

November 18 - December 10 third failed German assault (Operation Crusader).

The Australians, British and Indians held the fortress for over 8 months. This was the longest siege in British Empire military history. And it was the first notable land defeat for a German army in World War II.

The Australian 9th Division suffered 3,164 casualties (650 killed, 1,597 wounded and 917 captured).


Rommel captured Tobruk in a new offensive in the Battle of Gazala.


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