The Black Rat

He lived in a tin hut with a hard dirt floor.
He had bags sewn together that was his door.
He was a Rat of Tobruk until forty five,
He was one of the few that came back alive.

Battered and scarred he fought for this land,
And on his return they all shook his hand.
The price of fighting for the freedom of man
Did not make any difference to this Blackman.

He returned to the outback, no mates did he find.
If he had a beer he was jailed and then fined.
He sold all his medals he once proudly wore:
They were of no use to him any more.

Confused and alone he wandered around,
Looking for work though none could be found.
The Anzac marches he badly neglected,
Would show to his comrades how he was rejected.

He fought for this land so he could be free.
Yet he could not vote after his desert melee.
And those years in the desert they really took their toll,
He went there quite young and he came home so old.

This once tall man came from a proud Black tribe,
Died all alone – no one at his side.

Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Clayton- Brown

The service of Cecil Clayton in World War Two was the inspiration for this poem by his daughter Iris Clayton (1945 – 2009). The poem was first published in 1988 in Inside Black Australia edited by Kevin Gilbert. Cecil Clayton and another Wiradjuri man, Tommy Lyons were both members of the 2/13th Battalion, 9th Division AIF.

Tobruk is a North African town on the Libyan coast originally captured by the Australian 6th Division in January 1941. In April the 9th Division, which had arrived in Libya in February, were encircled and held under siege in Tobruk by a German–Italian army commanded by General Erwin Rommel. The siege lasted eight months and involved 14000 Australian soldiers including the men of the 2/13th Battalion, together with British and Indian troops.

For eight long months, surrounded by German and Italian forces, the men of the Tobruk garrison, mostly Australians, withstood tank attacks, artillery barrages, and daily bombings. They endured the desert’s searing heat, the bitterly cold nights, and hellish dust storms. They lived in dug-outs, caves, and crevasses.
AWM Exhibition notes 2011: Rats of Tobruk 1941

While others from the garrison were relieved, Cecil Clayton’s unit remained till the last.

William Joyce, the Nazi broadcaster, known as Lord Haw Haw coined the term ‘rats’ for the defenders of Tobruk – but contrary to his intention this slur became a badge of honour for those involved – and posterity. The siege of Tobruk is one of the best known events in Australia’s military history. Less known is the presence there of Aboriginal servicemen. Iris’ poem, with strong irony, not only draws attention to this but speaks for the many Aboriginal servicemen in all conflicts whose service until relatively recently remained unrecognised.

NOTE Tommy Lyons’ father also Thomas, served in France with the 54th Battalion in World War One. He was twice wounded in action in 1917 and 1918.

Philippa Scarlett 18 April 2013

As a tribute to Cecil Clayton and his daughter and to other Indigenous Rats, in December 2013 John Tognolini has recorded Iris’ poem, set to his own music .

About Indigenous Histories

Author & Publisher of Australian history, art and culture.
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  1. Damien Seden says:

    Cpl Timothy Hughes MM, MBE was a Aboriginal Man that fought at Tobruk & later received the Military Medal fighting against the Japanese at the Battles of Gona & Buna.

  2. Thanks Damien I know about Hughes and a few more Perhaps you can supply additional names A second post on an anniversary relevant to the siege could enlarge on those who were there.

    • Damien Seden says:

      Stan Grant grandfather was also a Black Rat of Tobruk Cecil Grant & Stanley Yuke.

      My mate great grandfather was a full blood Aboriginal who served at Tobruk & was a Bren Gunner. One incident when they were going on a night patrol & their Officer wanted to go to a certain direction & my mate great grandfather said Sir you can go that way but I’m going this way. He then went on the opposite direction & the rest of the platoon decided to follow him. He was later wounded in action after a incident when him & his mate decided to swap seats in their transport vehicle when they hit a land mind instantly killing the other Digger & wounded his great grandfather.

      His name is either Thomas Richard or Richard Thomas. Need to properly confirm his name.

  3. A number of Grants in WW1 and two of them are related to Stan. Try NAA series B883 for Richard Thomas/Thomas Richard

  4. barry mccann says:

    George Kearney NX18319 from Pt. Kembla served at the Siege of Tobruk with my father in B Company,of the highly decorated NSW 2/17th Battalion and at El Alamein. George fell into the Coral from the US. landing craft as they met heavy Nippon Army fire at the battle of Scarlet Beach N.G . The 2/17th and 2/13th battalions led the first opposed landing at Scarlet Beach since Gallipoli. He would rest at Lae Cemetery.He was a member of the mortar platoon.

    • Thank you Barry I am keen to establish the names of Aboriginal men who were part of the siege of Tobruk. Have you a photo of Kearney – perhaps with your father?

      • barry mccann says:

        George nickname Darkie Kearney, a Wadi Wadi elder is actually on the AWM /Wikepedia site.I have an unnamed photo of 6 men of B Company about a few weeks before Alamein. It is taken at an anceint site in Egypt and I assume where our mighty 9th Division rehearsed the coming 12 day Battle.I believe that George K is seated beside Paul McCann and Harry Wells, who wrote the book B Company 2/17 Battalion.Harry mentions Darkie in his book twice. Those NSW fellas were a strongheaded bunch and at the forefront of the Tobruk Easter Battle-the first defeat of German troops,Rommels men in WW2 by 20th Brigade. I think that Georges WSR is open and would have his enlistment photo. I would have to check, you just type in Georges NX number at the site. I paid for Dads WSR and found out a lot/confirmed/linked little things he mentioned-they didn’t talk much about it. So my brother and I learnt not to probe, you’d get the silent treatment. He even told us he played for Souths, our legendary rugby league club, and so naturally we would’nt ask about that either. We have worked out he must have played lower grades around 1937/38 before the then 7th Divisions 2/13, 2/17th Battalions(brother battalions) sailed on the Queen Mary in 1940. When they disembarked at Bombay,India there were large vats of milk for the troops to use with their tea. My father never had milk with his tea after Bombay because the milk vats were covered with maggots! Georges picture image is different between the photo I have and the Wikepedia one. He is quite dark on the desert photo as is my father, being what is called black irish. Pauls father was born in Cooma of irish parents and I’m told lots of irish descendants have the blue eyes and olive skin. I have some of my fathers story with B Company in Tobruk on the internet, just type in -what happened to hugh paterson, banjo patersons son. That story is not about the poets son, rather dads mate Banjo of the 2/17th and probably of B Company. Jack Edmondson earned Australias first WW2 VC , a member of D Company ,2/17th Btn. Ive talked to another son of a Rat also in the Airforce , and he reckons a Company had about 130 men which is what I had guessed. The AIF battalions usually seem to have about 650 men.So A, B,C, D Companies and maybe a headquarters Company. I can see that Pauls closest mates were all from B Company, so I suppose they were always together in battle(Finschaven was very hard, Dad said)-that was a fortress near to Scarlet Beach,having their meals and on leave in little groups.

    • Anne O'Malley says:

      George Kearney is my uncle……my father Edward Kearney’s brother……

      • barry mccann says:

        hello Anne, I have an unnamed photo of 6 men,all would be from B Company taken several weeks before Alamein., The 3 infantry seated are a soldier looks like a big nose & very tanned George K?,Cpl.Paul McCann in the middle & Cpl. Harry Wells who wrote the book “B company second seventeenth infantry” by hd wells1984. George is mentioned several times in his book,one instance a comical scene where Georges foot was run over by a truck tyre when they were skedaddling into the ensuing Defence of Tobruk as Rommel’s army had arrived in the Western Desert. Darkie was jumping around on one foot and Harry was amused at the scene.The book mentions the battle off Scarlet Beach as the mortar fellas were hit as they jumped off the landing craft. Not long after that the 20 Brigade had to take Finschaven-Dad just said it was very hard.A few weeks later there were 12 men dug-in on a hill,all veterans from B Company killed when the enemy were encircling.Paul was absent, his WSR says malaria. Paul got the lucky shrapnel wound early at Alamein & then his not there when his best mate Fatty Peters falls among the 12. Paul spoke a couple of times of playing for the Rabbitohs, also Codocks the legendary Rozelle team.Must have played lower grades I believe a few years after the Depression.He coached junior league at Toongabbie Tigers & from the South Coast Bruce Ardler’s boy was one of his halfbacks.I do have an internet “amazon” story mainly about Tobruk under “what happened to hugh paterson banjo paterson son”. It is mainly about their life in Tobruk. The 2/17th Banjo(Walter) Patterson was there with George Kearney. I doubt Banjo was a poet, definitely had the gift of the gab and a good drinker.To read the whole script just register with a password. I wrote the story for my dtrs,nieces & cousins.We live at Port Macquarie now & you can locate my number under Barry McCann if you would like a scan or photocopy of that picture Anne.

  5. kapani says:

    what is the meaning of this poem?

  6. Craig Proctor says:

    We at the Descendants of the Rats of Tobruk Australia are doing Tributes and certificates for all Aboriginal men who fought In the siege of Tobruk, at the moment I have 24 names. If you would like one for you relative please come join the Facebook page, would love to have you there

    • Kim Woods says:

      Hi Craig, Just found your post as I’m doing a story on Rat of Tobruk, Tommy Lyons, an Aboriginal man from Narrandera, NSW. Is he on your list? Cheers Kim Woods

    • Anne O'Malley says:

      Hello Craig ….. George “Darkie” Kearney’s niece here ……

  7. Kaye Ross says:

    I am making a memory box for the 80th anniversary of the Siege of Tobruk to be held in Brisbane in April, would I be able to add that poem please? Kaye Ross, Descendants of the Rats of Tobruk Association Australia.

  8. Craig Proctor says:

    I have 52 names on my list of Black Rats with help of Michael Bell

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