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Celebrating Anzac day in Tobruk, Libya

Kim Wildman
Dawn service, Tobruk

Travelling to Tobruk in Colonel Gadaffi's Libya may not be high on everyone's to-do-list, but as Kim Wildman reveals, it is a pilgrimage all Australians should take.

It's just gone 5am on Anzac Day morning and I'm sitting in a car a million miles from home, lost somewhere in dark streets on the outskirts of Tobruk, Libya. My driver, David, is knocking on the door of a nearby house that stands sentry in the flat, desolate landscape. Despite the inviting glow of an outside light, the house's occupants cannot be woken from their slumber and David returns defeated.

Looking down at the folded piece of paper in my hand, my heart sinks and my eyes begin to well. "Please let us find it in time" I silently pray. David's sister, Fatma, my guide and translator who is sitting in the front passenger seat, turns to me and seeing my despair reassures, "Don't worry, we'll find the cemetery."

The Rats of Tobruk

While many Australians make the pilgrimage to Gallipoli in Turkey to mark ANZAC Day, with my grandfather one of the last remaining ''Rats of Tobruk'' my trip here to attend the much less elaborate service at Tobruk's Commonwealth War Cemetery is a very personal journey. In fact, the paper in my hands is a copy of a speech written by my grandfather who this very day will present it at a ceremony back home in Australia.

Like Gallipoli, Tobruk is a name that means much in the war annals of Australia's short colonial history. For it is here where the legend of the ANZACs was forged. Yet for many Australians it's a place we know exists but is so far from our shores that it's nigh impossible to imagine much less visit.

Longest siege

Some 1500km east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, Tobruk was the scene of one of the most ferocious sieges of the 20th century when more than 24,000 Allied troops (including 14,270 Australian soldiers) were surrounded by German and Italian soldiers. The 9th Division, to which my grandfather belonged, was ordered to hold Tobruk for eight weeks to await supplies and reinforcements.

In what turned out to be the longest siege in Allied military history, the largely Australian force, dubbed the Rats of Tobruk by a German radio announcer, held out from April 10 until December 10, 1941 — lasting an astounding 240 days. The cost to the Australian forces, however, was devastating with 650 dead, 1597 wounded, including my grandfather, and 917 captured.

As David pulls the car back out onto the deserted road, we spy a line of car lights cutting across the darkened landscape just in the distance. "See, that must be it," Fatma smiles warmly.

Impromptu ceremony

When we finally reach the cemetery I'm surprised by how immaculate it is. Six kilometres south of Tobruk's harbour on the road to the Egyptian border, its well-built sandstone walls enclose 2479 identical graves stones, set in neat rows on perfectly tilled soil, lined by palm trees.

Beyond the arched entry, instead of representatives from the Australian High Commission, I find a small group of expat Aussies, Kiwis and Brits assembled before the cemetery's simple concrete memorial. As we approach them they invite us to join their group.

With the sun fast rising and the high commission nowhere in sight, we decide to stage our own impromptu ceremony. Standing in a small circle we each introduce ourselves and explain why Anzac Day is significant to us. When it comes my turn I show them my grandfather's speech which I am still clutching tightly and ask if they'd mind me reading it.

"That would be perfect," a burly British ex-soldier to my left pipes up.

Not a great speech giver at the best of times, my voice quavers and my hands begin to shake. In spite of my nerves I do well … well, almost, until near the end when I choke and stumble on my grandfather's final words in which he writes:

"Remembering our mates"

"While remembering our mates and their bravery and dedication sometimes it is so easy to forget just how young these men were and what they did for their country. It makes you feel so proud to be an Australian."

After I compose myself, Fatma and I wander down the lines of headstones. On closer examination, we discover that the seemingly identical stones are in fact rich in diversity with inscriptions in English, Afrikaans, French, Yugoslav, Polish and Arabic and also include two soldiers who were awarded the Victoria Cross.

At around 6.30am when we're about to leave, in typical laid-back Aussie style, the Australian High Commissioner and his contingent finally arrives and the official ceremony begins. In all the years I've attended Anzac Day services at home, watched the parade or simply just enjoyed the public holiday, until this very day its true significance had been lost on me and so with the sounding of the last post, I finally crumble and my tears for the heroes of Tobruk flow freely.

In loving memory of my grandfather Private John Joseph Alman who sadly passed away before I was able to see him again. May your spirit and that of the ANZACs live on.

Details:

Private and group tours of Libya for Anzac Day can be organised through Teneney Tours. Tours vary in price according to duration, itinerary and group size, though includes tourist visas, accommodation, most meals and all transportation. For more information, visit: www.teneneytours.com

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