Last NSW ‘Rat of Tobruk’ dies aged 106

Several of the famed Rats of Tobruk in the searing heat of the Libyan Desert in 1941.

Several of the famed Rats of Tobruk in the searing heat of the Libyan Desert in 1941. Photo: AAP/Australian War Memorial

The last remaining of the NSW Rats of Tobruk has died, leaving behind only a few survivors of the infamous World War II campaign in the North African desert.

Ernie Walker was remembered as a “modest hero” after he died last week aged 106. His funeral will be held on Thursday.

He was among a contingent of around 15,000 Australians that helped to hold the Nazis at bay in Libya.

Starting in April 1941 at the height of the war, the mostly Australian Tobruk garrison endured Italian and German tank attacks, artillery barrages and daily bombings for eight months.

The Australians who served in the Libyan port city took on the rats moniker after British propagandist William Joyce, who switched sides to Nazi Germany, insultingly said they were trapped for months like rats in dug-outs.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and opposition leader Peter Dutton marked Mr Walker’s passing in parliament on Tuesday.

“Ernie was an extraordinary member of what is known as the greatest generation – one of the famous Rats of Tobruk and a veteran of Kokoda,” Mr Albanese said.

“His passing at the grand age of 106 means the last of the NSW Rats of Tobruk has marched into history.

“On behalf of parliament, we honour Ernie’s memory, we salute his service and we reflect on the bravery of all those Australians who risked and lost their lives to defend our nation’s freedom.”

Five Dock RSL president Robert Ridge described Mr Walker as “a cherished comrade” of the sub-branch, regarded as the “spiritual home” of the Rats of Tobruk.

“This modest hero, who passed away peacefully at his south coast home, will always be remembered by those who knew him,” he said.

Lachlan Gaylard, secretary of the Rats of Tobruk Association, said the grinding battle galvanised Australia’s nascent national identity on the world stage.

“We were a young country and it was really the largest battle since Gallipoli with that amount of numbers and so many killed – so we really did ourselves proud,” he told AAP.

Mr Gaylard said the last survivors of the infamous desert campaign were still alive in Victoria.

“It was so important for the Rats to set up an association of their own when they came back because they were a band of brothers through all the adversity,” Mr he said.

“It was this mateship that meant the most and Ernie was certainly the embodiment of it”.


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