Sergeant Robert (Bob) James Knox Semple
OAM BEM MID VX25240, 2/12 Field Regiment Rat of Tobruk 14th May 1920 – 16 Jan 2020, 99 years of age Past President of ROTA (2016-2020)
Bob Semple was born in Melbourne in 1920. He grew up in Essendon and left school when he was about 16, securing a job in the ‘rag trade’ at a warehouse in Flinders Lane. He decided to join the army around 1936, approaching the Victorian Scottish Regiment in South Melbourne. He had to scrimp and save to pay for his kilt.
Since Bob was from Scottish stock, his grandfather encouraged him to learn the bagpipes. Hetook lessons and became very proficient at ‘wrestling the octopus’. Playing the bagpipes is something that has been very important to Bob the whole of his life.
Bob was just 20, when his then unit, the 2nd / 12th Australian Field Regiment, was called to fight German troops in the Libyan port of Tobruk. They first disembarked in Palestine in December 1940 and later they were moved to Tobruk. Lacking much of their own artillery, they were forced to rely on captured guns. There was one unforseen problem with this, the captured guns used the metric system and Bob and his regiment were trained in the imperial system.
The landscape, being under fire day and night, the single water bottle per man per day and the searing heat took a toll. Bob’s strongest memories of his time in the Middle East, is living in a hole in the ground, under difficult conditions, almost overwhelming odds and scarce resources. He once said, ‘Living in a hole in the ground does awful things… and the challenge brings out that quality of mateship and will.’
After Tobruk, the 2nd / 12th Australian Field Regiment fought at El Alamein. Bob and his regiment left the Middle East in January 1943. Bob went on to fight in New Guinea, and Borneo. He was honourably discharged from military service on 13 November 1945.
Back in civilian life, Bob went back to working in the ‘rag trade’. He worked for Sargood Gardiner Ltd who were in Flinders Lane, Melbourne. He stayed with them for 27 years.
Walking in Moonee Ponds one night after his discharge, he was moved to see the Hawthorn City Pipe Band playing in the park. He could play the bagpipes and because of his Scottish ancestry, he decided to join the pipe band. He is still a member. In 1998, he was made Chieftain of Pipe Bands, Australia. In 1983, Bob was awarded the British Empire Medal. Then in 2016 he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal. Bob Semple became president of the Rats of Tobruk Association in 2016. On 23 October 2018, a stamp was issued with Bob’s picture.
Bob Semple has lived his life by four principles: mateship, loyalty, integrity and respect. Bob passed away on 16 January 2020, during his 100th year.
To read more about Bob Semple go to the following links: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/bob-semple https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/bob-semple-part
VX15131, 7 Div: 2/6 General Transport Company Rat of Tobruk 4th December 1918 – 10th June 2016, 97 years of age. Past President of ROTA
Ron was born in the eastern suburb of Surrey Hills in Melbourne in 1918. As a 3 year old, he moved to Hobart, Tasmania, where his father had purchased a business selling new cars. After 6 years, Ron’s father sold the business and returned to Melbourne due to his wife’s failing health. When WW2 broke out, Ron was in the militia, 3rd Div ASC Transport. Ron enlisted in May 1940 as a private in the 7th Division, 2/6 General Transport Company. He was promoted to staff sergeant before leaving Australia. In October 1940, Ron’s company sailed on the original Queen Mary to the Middle East. Early in May 1941, the men were assembled in Alexandria and prepared to sail to Greece because Hitler had commenced the invasion of this country. However, plans were changed; they headed for Cairo to pick up 25 pounder artillery guns and tow them up the desert towards Tobruk. Rommel and his Panzer Division had crossed the Mediterranean Sea at Tripoli and were moving towards the Suez Canal. As the 2/6 General Transport Company moved towards Tobruk, they were met by endless convoys of allied troops in retreat calling to them to “Go back, go back! The Germans are coming!”. However, the 2/6 General Transport Company had their orders so kept going; they were able to deliver the guns to the Royal Horse Artillery just beyond Tobruk, who used them to destroy the German Tank Panzer Division intent on invading Tobruk; the rest is history. After being relieved from the Tobruk siege, the 2/6 General Transport Company’s next job was to service the troops on the Turkish border from Aleppo, Syria. When Japan declared war, Ron’s company were hurriedly deployed back to Australia where they retrained in Far North Queensland before heading to Milne Bay, New Guinea as part of the 18th Brigade. The Japanese were invading Milne Bay and were soon defeated by this famous brigade. This was the Japan’s first defeat on land in WW2. Ron and his unit’s last role of the war in the Pacific was to participate in the invasion of Borneo at Balikpapan. After the war and back in civilian life, Ron resumed employment with Brashs Music, a company he had worked for before the war. Brashs was a Melbourne institution which sold pianos, other musical instruments, sheet music and vinyl records. Ron was very successful, and he retired as managing director in 1983. Ron was an integral member of the Rats of Tobruk Association. He became President in 2011 and remained in this role until his death in June 2016. He became famous for his jokes, which he would tell at the monthly meetings of the association. If there was one word to describe Ron, it would have to be ‘gentleman’.
Sir Leslie Morshead
1889 - 1959
Sir Leslie James Morshead was born on 18 September 1889 at Ballarat. He grew up in country
Victoria. He was good academically and also excelled at sport, captaining his school’s football and
cricket teams. Morshead qualified as a teacher and worked at a number of schools. During this
time he became involved in the cadet corps.
Morshead’s military career spanned both world wars. When the first world war broke out, he
resigned his teaching position to enlist as a private in the 2nd Infantry Battalion, the first
Australian Imperial Force. He served as a captain at the Gallipoli landing and later as a major at
Lone Pine. His reputation for calmness and organisation brought him promotion to lieutenant
colonel. He went on to serve in France where he developed under the eye of Sir John Monash.
Morshead was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and mentioned in dispatches five times.
Back in civilian life after the end of the war, Morshead was a successful businessman working for
the Orient Steam Navigation Co. During this time he was active in the militia, commanding a
number of battalions. He was promoted to colonel and later temporary brigadier.
On 13 October 1939, Morshead was appointed to the A.I.F. Early in 1941, Morshead was sent to
the Middle East; he was promoted to major general and placed in command of the 9th Division.
As a leader, Morshead was vigorous and resolute. His insistence on discipline and hard work
brought him the nickname ‘Ming the Merciless’, which in time became ‘Ming’. The 9th Division
eventually reached Tobruk. By then they were almost exhausted but were still an organised
force, eager to have a go. At Tobruk, Morshead initially came under the command of Major
General John Lavarack. However, he quickly succeeded Lavarack as commander of the fortress of
Tobruk. Talking to his men, Morshead famously said: ‘There will be no Dunkirk here. If we
should have to get out, we shall fight our way out. There is to be no surrender and no retreat.’
Morshead was a brilliant strategist, often using tactics which were new to the Germans.
Morshead and his mixed force of Australian, British, Indian and Polish troops won this important
defensive battle. Not only had they denied the Axis powers the port of Tobruk, but they had also
compelled General Erwin Rommel to hold a significant part of his army back from the Egyptian
frontier for six months. After Tobruk, Morshead and his 9th Division went on to fight at El
Alamein. In February 1943 they finally returned to Australia.
Back in civilian life after the war, Morshead was again a successful businessman. He attended
many unit reunions and other special occasions, including the opening of Tobruk House. He was
always received with acclaim by his men who greeted him with the rousing ‘Ho Ho’ cry of the 9th
Division. Sir Leslie died of cancer on 26 September 1959.
This is a précis of an article ‘Morshead, Sir Leslie James (1989 – 1959), by A. J. Hill which is published in Australian Dictionary of Biography. You can read the full article by using the link below: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/morshead-sirleslie-james-11180
Corporal John Edmondson VC
Australia’s First Victoria Cross (VC) of WW2 won at Tobruk
NX17505, 2/17th Battalion, Rat of Tobruk
8th October 1914 – 14th April 1941, 26 years of age.
Cpl John Edmondson was awarded the VC for conspicuous courage in a night attack on
enemy forces outside Tobruk on the night of 13th April 1941, when he received serious
On the night April 13 a party of German infantry broke through the wire defences of
Tobruk and established itself with at least six machine guns, mortars and two small
field pieces. It was decided to attack the enemy with bayonets. A party consisting of
one officer Lieutenant Fred Mackell, Cpl Edmondson and five privates took part in the
charge. During the counter-attack, Cpl Edmondson was severely wounded in the neck
and stomach from machine gun fire, however hiding the severity of his wounds; he
continued to advance under heavy fire and killed one enemy with his bayonet. Later
his officer whilst bayoneting an enemy soldier was grasped about the leg by that
soldier and another attacked the officer from behind with a pistol. Lieutenant Mackell
called for help and Cpl Edmondson who was some yards away, immediately came to
his assistance and the injured corporal killed both the enemy. This action undoubtedly
saved his officer’s life. Shortly after returning from this successful counter-attach, Cpl
Edmondson died from his wounds.
On 1st July 1941, the British War Office advised the Australian Government, that King
George ‘has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the Victoria
Cross to Corporal John Hurst Edmondson’. This was the first of 20 VC’s awarded to
Australians in World War 11.
Cpl Edmondson was 26. He was born at Wagga, but moved to Liverpool as a child. He
had red hair which earned him the nick name ‘Meggsy’. Until he joined the militia
shortly before the war began, he worked on his father’s farm. He was a champion rifle
shooter. He served in the militia until the 20th May 1940, when he joined the A.I.F.,
sailing for overseas on the 20th of October.
In 1961, Cpl Edmondson’s mother Maude, presented his VC to the Australian War
Thomas (Tom) Page Pritchard
VX23441, 2/5th Field Ambulance Rat of Tobruk
Tom Pritchard was born in Portland, Victoria in 1921 (25 May 1919), but grew up and attended school in Box Hill. Tom’s father, who had been a miner in England, served in France in WW1 with the 1st Australian Tunnelling Coy and was involved in the famous battle of Hill 60 on the Western Front. After leaving school at 14, Tom started work in Melbourne with a wholesale tobacco and ‘fancy goods’ importing business, and he worked there until he joined the army in 1940. With France having fallen, the war appeared to be going badly at the time, and so Tom enlisted with two friends, despite being underage. Like many other young men at that time, he had put his age up and although Tom’s mother wasn’t too pleased, his father didn’t stand in his way. Tom was assigned to the 2/5th Field Ambulance, a unit that was eventually attached to the 18th Infantry Brigade. Training at Puckapunyal from June to October involved first aid and stretcher bearing procedures, and whilst admitting that before this time he could barely ‘stick a bandaid on’, this training held Tom in good stead for what was to follow. Most of their officers, who were all well respected, were doctors. Embarking from Princes Pier on the Mauritania in October 1940, the 2/5th eventually found themselves in Tobruk, via Bombay, Palestine and Egypt. Tom was assigned to an ambulance and his duties involved collecting the wounded and taking them to the dressing stations and to the hospital at the harbour. This was no mean feat, as it meant having to balance and hold onto 4 or 5 stretchers in the ambulance, in an effort to steady them, while travelling on terrible roads; a journey which would sometimes take an hour or two. The ‘ambulance’, unlike the ambulances of today, consisted merely of a driver, a stretcher bearer, blankets and a basic first aid kit. Sadly, many wounded soldiers did not survive this arduous trip. At the beginning of the siege, the shelling and the air raids were relentless, day in and day out, and the living conditions were extremely trying. Water was rationed and Tom has vivid memories of eating ‘goldfish’, better known as herrings in tomato sauce! He was not exactly sorry to leave, when, as ordered by General Blamey, the 18th Brigade left Tobruk and rejoined the rest of the 7th Division in Syria in August 1941. The 2/5th then spent a number of months engaged in garrison duties at Aleppo in Syria before returning to Australia to prepare for the war against Japan. Under depressing and very different conditions to those encountered in the desert of Tobruk, in August 1942, Tom and the 2/5th found themselves in Milne Bay, New Guinea. As the roads were impassable, the wounded were often evacuated by water instead. Supplies for the troops were taken up the coast and any wounded were brought back on schooners to Milne Bay. After contracting malaria for a second time, Tom was evacuated back to Australia. He was reunited with the unit for more training in Queensland before taking part in the Markham and Ramu Valley campaigns, which also involved the battle for Shaggy Ridge, a particularly treacherous place, consisting of dense jungle and precipitous slopes. At one stage in this campaign, Tom and his unit were meant to parachute in (for which they had received only rudimentary training), an ‘interesting’ thought for someone who had never been in a plane before, but luckily it didn’t come to pass! After these campaigns, the 2/5th Field Ambulance spent time back in Australia before embarking for the last time, in early 1945, for Balikpapan in Borneo and it was here that Tom found himself when the war finally ended. Twelve months after the war, Tom married his sweetheart Gwen and settled into family life raising 4 children. He had gone back to work for his previous employer, but eventually left there to work for an electricity supplier in Box Hill. After about 6 years the Pritchard family moved to Creswick and Tom found work in Ballarat with the SEC. He also worked in Hamilton before returning to Melbourne, where he continued to work for the SEC until he retired. Tom was a member of the Rats Committee for many years and is still a most valued member of our Rats of Tobruk Association family, with a wicked sense of humour!
Ernest William Kiernan
VX40843: 2nd / 23rd Infantry Battalion
It is common for sons and daughters of ex-serviceman to say that their father didn’t say much about the war. This was the case with my father, he would only talk about parts of his experiences, but not to any depth. On several occasions over a few beers and glasses of wine, I tried to get Dad to discuss in more detail his experiences. All I achieved was a hangover in the morning. What we knew was that he was one of the legendary ‘Rats of Tobruk’, who defended Tobruk in Libya, from the German forces for 242 days, the longest siege in British military history. He was captured, when wounded in action. As a ‘Prisoner of War’ (POW) he was transported to German POW camps in Italy and then in Poland. From there, Dad, with two mates, escaped making it to the advancing Russian front line in Ukraine. From what Dad told me, I have pieced together some of the jig saw from his service records, and other references. This is Ern’s story.
In the Beginning
Born in Melbourne on 24 February 1918, Ernest William Kiernan (Ern) grew up in orphanages and foster care. From an early age he had to learn how to look after himself. Despite this harsh upbringing, he developed a set of values that held him in good stead the whole of his life. By the time he was 18 years old, although short in stature, 160 cm tall (5 ft 2 in), he was extremely fit having worked hard as a labourer on farms and in the timber industry. Ern volunteered for the Australian Militia Forces, joining the 4 / 19th Light Horse Regiment where he proved to be an excellent horseman. He was good looking and always maintained a neat appearance. Whilst he could only afford a single pair of shoes, those shoes were always shiny and well maintained. He was very musical, teaching himself to play by ear, the piano, banjo, and mouth organ.
At around 18 years of age, Ern befriended the Harry family. The matriarch of the family was Maude Harry, a widow who had eight children the majority of whom lived in the family home, a two-story terrace house in Flemington Road, Parkville. He was made to feel welcome like a lost son. This gave him the family he never had.
Destination Middle East
Ern enlisted in Melbourne on 16 June 1940 at the age of 22. He nominated Maude Harry as his next of kin on his Attestation Form. After training he join the 2nd/23rd Infantry Battalion who subsequently became known as ‘Albury’s Own’. They were called this because a large majority of the battalion’s initial intake of volunteers came from the Albury – Wodonga region.
Just before Ern departed to the Middle East, Maude and two of her daughters, Dorothy, and Joan, gave him a gold signet ring with his initials engraved on its face. He was wearing this when he sailed from Station Pier, Port Melbourne with the 2nd/23rd Battalion on 16 November 1940. The ship was the Strathmore, a passenger liner converted to a troop ship. The Strathmore sailed to Fremantle where it joined a convoy. The convoy sailed via Colombo and then through the Suez Canal to El Qantara in Egypt. The troops disembarked on 17 December 1940. They were then moved by rail to Dimra in Palestine where joining the 26th Brigade, they underwent further extensive training for the next few months.
This period wasn’t without incident. Whilst on leave, Ern and 17 other men from his battalion decided to visit the port town of Jaffa for a bit of fun and recreation. After many beers, they started to enjoy themselves a little too much. Their antics brought the attention of the British Military Police. It is no secret that most Australian soldiers had little respect for the British military hierarchy. A skirmish broke out and the Australians came off second best. This was no surprise as the Military Police were armed with truncheons and they did not hold back on using them. Dad and his mates were thrown in the Jaffa Jail for the night. On return to their camp the next day, all the 18 were charged with various misconduct offences.
Ern being a member of the 2nd/23rd Battalion was in Tobruk at the start of the siege on 10 April 1941. In May, Ern’s platoon was part of an offensive to recapture defence posts along the ‘Red Line’ to the west of Tobruk, lost to the German’s during the Battle of the Salient. The platoon became disoriented in the early morning darkness and haze of battle. They finished up beyond the German occupied defence posts in what was previously no man’s land. They were surrounded by Germans. Whilst sheltering in a German trench, Ern put his head up to try to see where they were. He was shot through the left side. A German soldier pulled him to safety saving his life. All the members of the platoon were captured. He was later treated for his injuries in a German field hospital. He was reported missing on 17 May 1941.
Prisoner of War
Being a Prisoner of War, Ern was eventually transferred from the Middle East via the Libyan port of Benghazi, to the POW Camp PG66 located at Capua, Italy. He arrived in September, four months after being wounded and taken prisoner. On arrival in Italy most POWs were in a pitiful state enduring many months with limited supplies on the North African front. Early in 1942, he was moved to Campo 57 at Gruppignano in north-east Italy. The camp was commanded by Colonel Vittorio Calcaterra who was considered a sadist. Conditions at Campo 57 were extremely hash and overcrowded. Ern was at Campo 57 for around 16 months.
When the Italian’s surrendered in September 1943, Ern was one of the POW’s quickly rounded up by the Germans and transported by train to Stalag V111A in Poland. The trains were so cramped the prisoners spent days and nights standing up with little food and water and no toilet facilities. He was later moved to a sub-camp of the infamous Stalag V111B (later renumbered to Stalag 317) during November 1943. Sub-camp E543 was located at Dombrova. Here Ern and the other prisoners were forced to work as slave labour in a coal mine. Conditions were harsh and dangerous.
Towards the end of 1944, with Germany facing defeat, the prisoners were concerned what would happen to them. During the final months of the Second World War in Europe, allied POWs were being force-marched westward across Poland and Germany in appalling winter conditions, resulting in many deaths. Ern and two mates Bob ‘Doc’ Harvey (WX11924, 2/28 Inf Bn) and Lindsay ‘Snowy’ Lehmann (VX12450, 2/5 Inf Bn) decided to escape and head for the advancing Russian forces along the eastern front. If they were recaptured by the Germans, there was a high probability that they would be executed. After several days with the support of local patriots and after several close calls, they finally achieved their objective. Although the Russian’s had been prewarned regarding escaping allied prisoners, it was still a precarious situation approaching the front line. They yelled out ‘English, English’, hoping that they would not be fired upon. They were worried that if they called out ‘Australian’, it could have been misinterpreted as ‘Austrian’ and mistaken for the enemy. When they finally met up with the Russians, they were taken to a freed POW Camp, where they were identified and after several weeks, passed on for transport to Odessa, Ukraine. They reached Odessa in March 1945.
Now liberated, Ern and other ex-POWs started the long voyage home, sailing from Odessa on 8 March 1945. The route was via Palestine where they changed ships. The ‘Moreton Bay’ arrived at Port Melbourne on 14 April 1945.
It was the morning of the 14 April when Ern disembarked the ‘Moreton Bay’. He had been away almost four and a half years. He was 27 years old. He was still wearing the gold ring given to him by the Harry’s before he left Australia. If that ring could talk what a story it could tell.
There was no one to greet him when he arrived, as there wasn’t any prior news regarding his homecoming. An Officer offered him a lift which Ern declined. He hailed a taxi and headed straight to the Harry’s house in Parkville. He was greeted at the front door by Maude Harry. Ern rushed inside, ran up the stairs and jumped on the bed of Dorothy, waking her up. There must have been a hell of a party at the Harry’s that night. Ern would have been in the centre of the room leading everyone in a good old sing along.
Later that year Ern married Dorothy. They went on to have three children: Robert, Michael, and Josephine. Ern worked extremely hard for many years, so that he could give his children everything he never had when growing up. He had several war related ailments and eventually received a TPI Pension. There is no doubt that Ern also suffered from what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which raised its head from time to time.
Ern noticed that a number of his mates who had a similar service record, had an additional medal. It was the Defence Medal awarded for six months service in non-operational areas. He queried this with the Central Army Records Office and was advised that he only had 5 ½ months of service which counted towards the medal, this was insufficient. Surprisingly, more than 2 ½ years as a POW and the several weeks in the Russian freed POW camp did not count. Erm felt cheated and challenged the ruling. He was eventually awarded the Defence Medal. The other medals that were awarded to Ern are the 1939/45 Star, Africa Star, War Medal and Australian Service Medal (1939-1945).
Dorothy died on 16 January 1999. They had been happily married for 53 years. Ern looked after himself for most of the next 11 years, using the skills he developed when growing up. This was despite his vision becoming severely impaired due to macular degeneration. For the last twelve months of Ern’s life he had to go into aged care; he had one too many falls at home to continue living by himself. On several occasions at the Age Care Facility, he was found walking the corridors looking for a way to escape.
Ern died peacefully on 13 December 2010; he was 92. He had lived an incredible life.
Music sustained Ern throughout his life, so at his funeral, country singer Billy Bridge sang a few songs. Billy was so moved by one of the eulogies which included the story of the ring, he wrote and recorded a song about it. Some of the lyrics to ‘The Ring’ are written below:
“He went to war with nothing but his courage and a ring
Three women placed it in his hand with love
He held it tightly in his hand as he sailed off to war
His angel looking down from up above
It was with him when he landed on those barren foreign shores
As the Rats did storm the deserts of Tobruk.
He held it hidden safe away when shot by foreign guns
As they locked him in that place that no one dared to look
But he held that ring hidden hard against his skin
So they could not take it away
And he held that ring given hard against his heart
Cause he vowed he’d return again one day”
Author: Mike Kiernan
I wear Dad’s ring as a tribute to him.