Tobruk by Peter FitzSimons

‘It was one of those things I suppose …’

In his introduction to this book, Peter FitzSimons writes of how seeing ‘… a framed certificate of some kind, featuring the title Rats of Tobruk Association’ on the wall of the spare room in his aunt and uncle’s home in Tamworth led him to write this book.  I’d heard of the Rats of Tobruk: a family friend was one of the Polish Rats of Tobruk.  But when I picked up this book, I knew very little about Tobruk itself, or its significance.  By the time I finished the book, I had a much better understanding.

Mr FitzSimons approaches Tobruk through the experiences of a handful of individuals.  Before reading this book, I knew that Jack Edmondson had received a posthumous Victoria Cross, but I knew little about the man or his family.  By including Elizabeth Edmondson, Jack’s mother, in the book, Mr FitzSimons broadens the story of the soldier into an account of an only son, close to his mother, a good mate to those who knew him.  Through Mrs Edmondson’s eyes, I get a different view of the cost of war.  There are others whose stories were not known to me, such as John Johnson.  There’s detail as well, about Leslie Morsehead.  And on the other side, Mr FitzSimons includes details about Adolf Hitler and about Erwin Rommel.

This book is written in a series of short sharp bursts: most chapters are short; the focus moves between the key characters.  We might move from Elizabeth Edmondson on her farm outside Sydney, then to Leslie Morsehead (perhaps via letter to his wife Myrtle).  Then we might be with Jack Edmondson in Tobruk, or with John Johnson’s family.  I found this distracting at times, but it kept me reading.  I wanted to know what would happen next.

It took me a while to warm to Mr FitzSimons’s style of writing.  Did the Australian soldiers always refer to British artillery as ‘Pommy guns’?  I suppose that they probably did.  What Mr FitzSimons achieves so successfully in this book is giving the soldiers (on both sides) voices and human faces. He also puts the defence of Tobruk in its World War II context.  I finished the book wanting to know more (especially about the Polish Rats of Tobruk) but feeling that I had a good starting point for any further reading.  I also appreciated the information about the families at home, especially Elizabeth Edmondson and John Johnson’s wife Josie and their children.  Mr FitzSimons used diaries and letters to provide us with glimpses into the lives of both the soldiers and their families.  As one soldier wrote to his mother:

‘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.’

I found this book both interesting and informative.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


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