Last Tasmanian Rat of Tobruk celebrates 100th birthday

WAR STORIES: George Henderson pictured in the trenches in 1941 reading The Examiner. Mr Henderson is the last surviving Tasmanian-born Rat of Tobruk and will celebrate his 100th birthday on March 16. Picture: Supplied
WAR STORIES: George Henderson pictured in the trenches in 1941 reading The Examiner. Mr Henderson is the last surviving Tasmanian-born Rat of Tobruk and will celebrate his 100th birthday on March 16. Picture: Supplied

The Siege of Tobruk lasted 241 days and saw 749 Australians from the 9th Division killed.

Another 604 became prisoners of war and 1996 were wounded.

The battle began in April 1941, almost two years into World War II.

During the eight-month campaign in Libya, about 14,000 Australian soldiers were besieged in Tobruk by a German–Italian army.

They sought shelter in trenches and tunnels, facing repeated ground assaults and constant bombing.

Among those brave soldiers was Tasmanian, George Henderson.

Born in Dilston Mr Henderson enlisted at Brighton in October 1939.

He was assigned to the 2/12 Australian Infantry Battalion.

Trained as a signalman, he travelled to England on the Queen Mary before being posted to the Middle East.

Throughout his years, he served in Egypt, Syria and Papua New Guinea. 

He also spent time in both England and Scotland after the fall of France.

It was his time in Libya, however, that would earn him the title ‘Rat of Tobruk’.

The title was a badge of honour for the Australians and the result of a radio broadcaster describing the men as the “poor desert rats of Tobruk” who were living in trenches and tunnels.

After 491 days in service in Australia and 904 days overseas, Mr Henderson was discharged in March, 1944.

More than 70 years since leaving the Australian Army, Mr Henderson still remembers his life on the frontline- where he said he witnessed “some big fights”.

Now the only surviving Tasmanian-born Rat of Tobruk, Mr Henderson will mark a century on Thursday when he celebrates his 100th birthday. Looking back on a photograph taken in Egypt in 1941, he recounted sitting in the trenches reading a copy of The Examiner.

“We built these trenches so we had a bit of safety,” he said.

Receiving his letter from the Queen this week, Mr Henderson said he remembered meeting her in England when she was a “young girl visiting the battalion”.

These are just two of the many stories from his time at war that he shared with his children, including his daughter Leanne Banfield.

“We were always intrigued to hear of the things that he did,” she said.

“He has been a hard-worker all of his life, before the war and after the war.”