Frederick Fletcher Fenn:

SX1089, 2nd/10th Battalion by Mike Kiernan

Many of our ‘First Nations’ people who enlisted at the start of WW2, served at Tobruk during the siege.  Affectionately known as the ‘Black Rats’, their exact number is unknown. After the war, they returned home to a segregated county.  At that time, they were not recognised as Australian Citizens, they were not counted in the census, and they could not vote.  This is the story of one of those courageous men.

Frederick (Fred) Fletcher Fenn was born on 2nd January 1916 at a cattle station north of Oodnadatta, South Australia.  His father a white man, was the manager of the station and his mother was an Aboriginal woman.  He new his father who he saw on occasions, however he did not know his mother.  It was his understanding that she must have been employed at the station.  At the age of five, Fred was placed in an orphanage in Adelaide and brought up there until he left at age 13, to work as a farm hand.

Fred enlisted on 20 November 1939, he was 23 yeas of age.  After initial training he was attached to the 2nd/10th Battalion and served as a driver.  He disembarked in the Middle East on 31 December 1940.  Whilst at Tobruk, Fred risked his life to save two of his mates, who had been seriously wounded by a nearby shell bust, during a fierce artillery barrage.  One of his mates had one leg blown off and the other was badly fractured.  He was in danger of bleeding to death. Despite being under heavy attack, Fred ran almost 200 meters to a truck, drove it back and picked up the two wounded men.  Unfortunately, when driving towards shelter, he ran into a barbed-wire entanglement.  Still under heavy selling, he single handedly, cleared the truck and finally made it to safety and medical help.  He later described the incident as ‘one of the most terrifying experiences in his whole life’.  Both of his mates survived and were evacuated back to Australia.  Surprisingly, it does not appear that Fred was given any formal recognition for this heroic act. 

After the Middle East, Fred went on to serve in the Pacific where he was wounded in action.  He was discharged from the Army on 2 October 1945, shortly after returning to Australia for the last time.

After almost six years in the Army, he found living as a civilian again difficult.  He just wanted to get married and live out his life in peace and harmony.  He didn’t talk much about the war. 

Being a person with Aboriginal blood, he found some aspects of Australian society rather strange.  He could not enter a hotel and have a drink with his mates.  The only way he could get around this was to apply for an ‘exemption certificate’ from the provisions of the Aborigines Act.  To do this he had to get three ‘learned gentlemen’ to certify that in their opinion Fred was able to conduct himself in a proper manner.  Often referred to as a ‘dog licence’, this made him an honorary ‘white’.  Whist this gave him access to hotels, it also meant that legally he was not allowed to mix with aboriginal people.  

He joined the South Australian branch of the Rats of Tobruk Association and was eventually made a Life Member.

Fred died on 17 August 1990, at the age of 74.

Fred’s experience in Tobruk is described in ‘Purple and Blue: The History of the 2/10th Battalion, AIF’ by Frank Allchin.  His bravery in saving his mates’ lives, was also widely reported in local newspapers at the time.  The two mates were Sidney Amey (SX766) and Murray Suridge (SX697).

Acknowledgement: This account draws on an article by Clair Hunter titled: “Frederick Fletcher Fenn: ‘One of the most terrifying experiences in my whole life’ “, which has been published on the Australian War Memorial website (www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/frederick-fletcher-fenn).