Age stills Rat of To­bruk spirit

The West Australian - - NEWS - Mal­colm Quekett

They were a spe­cial group of blokes, those Dig­gers who fought for us in World War II.

Such char­ac­ters. There was the mod­esty, even about their reg­u­lar acts of brav­ery.

And there was tough­ness. So bloody tough. Many sur­vived the de­pri­va­tion of the De­pres­sion years be­fore go­ing to war.

And the hu­mour. And, yes, a touch of a lar­rikin streak that would sur­face in the yarns about those des­per­ate years — per­haps de­liv­ered with a cheeky grin or a wink.

And there was pride. Deep pride that would come to the sur­face on An­zac Day when noth­ing would stop them from march­ing in mem­ory of their mates.

John “JJ” Wade was one of those blokes.

But last week­end even he was fi­nally lost, aged 100.

Mr Wade had been driv­ing trucks in Leonora be­fore he joined the 2/28th Bat­tal­ion in Au­gust 1940 at the age of 22.

He saw ac­tion at To­bruk in Libya and El Alamein in Egypt.

It was at To­bruk that the Al­lied forces, mostly Aus­tralians, held firm against re­peated Ger­man and Ital­ian as­saults, shelling and bomb­ing, en­dur­ing scorch­ing day­time heat and freez­ing nights. When Ger­man pro­pa­ganda de­ri­sively re­ferred to them as “rats”, the Al­lies em­braced it as an ironic com­pli­ment and the name be­came a badge of hon­our.

Mr Wade was wounded by shrap­nel and spent time in a mil­i­tary hospi­tal be­fore the Dig­gers were brought home, re­trained in jun­gle war­fare and sent to fight the Ja­pa­nese in New Guinea, tak­ing part in the bat­tle for Lae.

He fell ill with malaria and was even­tu­ally “man­pow­ered” out of the army by his fa­ther in Oc­to­ber 1944 to help run the fam­ily dairy farm at Yar­loop.

He spent many years dairy farm­ing and then grain farm­ing.

In an in­ter­view with The West Aus­tralian last year, he played down his shrap­nel wound, say­ing it was “just a small one” and that “they fished it out”.

And though he would re­flect on the fu­til­ity of war, he was also able to tell of the lighter times such as when “some of the men started fish­ing with hand grenades at one point, then some started us­ing land mines”.

“The fish parts were splat­tered all over the camp,” Mr Wade said.

The Dig­gers who held out as Rats of To­bruk had done so us­ing the sort of de­ter­mi­na­tion and abil­ity to over­come chal­lenges that we view as the An­zac spirit in ac­tion.

Mr Wade re­mem­bered that they made use of the “bush ar­tillery”, con­sist­ing of cap­tured Ital­ian anti-tank guns.

“They thought we had a lot more ar­tillery than we did,” he said. “We had all these old guns.

“The fel­las on them, they were cooks, they were any bloody thing. They weren’t ar­tillery-trained.”

Re­cently, Mr Wade had be­come just one of three WA Rats of To­bruk on the Re­turned and Ser­vice League’s records.

Asked once about how to get through the sort of scrapes he sur­vived, he said it was sim­ple: “Al­ways look for the bright side if you can find one, it’s no good look­ing on the crook side, it gets you nowhere. That’s life’s story in gen­eral, in the army or out.”

Sadly, even his hu­mour and op­ti­mism has fi­nally been dimmed.

Rat of To­bruk John Wade ac­knowl­edges the crowd dur­ing the 2012 An­zac Day pa­rade.

John ‘JJ’ Wade at war.

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