Canberra’s brave ‘Rat of Tobruk’ battles on at 100

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John Fleming and great-grandson Daniel Hamilton… “I wouldn’t marry before I went away with the army in case anything happened to me over there,” says John.  Photo: Rod Henshaw

ROD HENSHAW delights in meeting a centenarian who was born in Scotland, farmed in Bega, fought at Tobruk and only recently gave up his driving licence… 

WHEN you’ve spent the best part of your working life interviewing people, you dread the question that’s often asked of you: “What was your most memorable interview?”

I dread it because there are so many that have been either interesting, funny, embarrassing, spirited, forgettable, inspirational, personally rewarding – or a mixture of all of the above.

Let’s take one of them – personally rewarding. And it happened just last week.

I had the privilege to sit down with Canberra’s surviving “Rat of Tobruk”, John Fleming, two days short of his 100th birthday, which he celebrated with family and friends on today (June 29).

John’s eldest great grandson, Daniel Hamilton, met me in the car park of the neat looking retirement village complex in Bruce to guide me to John’s first-floor unit. Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect when we reached the door. Was there an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair, or reclining peacefully in bed, waiting on the other side? 

Not on your life. The door opened, and there stood a beaming John Fleming with a welcoming handshake and the invitation to “make yourself at home” as he shepherded Daniel and me to the lounge room.

“Have you received your letter from the Queen yet?”, I inquired.

“I’m not a hundred yet. If I don’t last till after Saturday, she won’t write,” the proud royalist replied with a chuckle.

“Well,” I said. “You know what Australia Post’s like. She’s probably written it and it’s late arriving.” 

Born in Scotland, John was just four when his family came to Australia in 1923.They were intending to head to the North Queensland coast to take up sugar farming. But the plans changed when they arrived in Sydney, and instead they headed south to start life as dairy farmers.

“(Dad) only had 10 pounds in his pocket and three kids. So the next thing we knew we were going to Bega,” John said. Presumably travel to Queensland was too much of a financial stretch.

In the army… “The bloke looked at me and said: ‘You’re underage. Oh, that’s close enough’.”

John left the farming life to join the army during World War II. He was three months shy of joining age when he fronted the recruitment office, but was unaware of it at the time.

“The bloke looked at me and said: ‘You’re underage. Oh, that’s close enough’.” So John was in the army and heading to Tobruk.

“We went up to an Italian place north of Tobruk. That was the headquarters,” he said.

“Our blokes went up there with nothing but pea rifles and that sort of thing.”

They held Rommel’s troops at bay until the British arrived to help out. They never lost ground.

After Tobruk it was on to El Alamein, which John remembers being even tougher than Tobruk. When he finally arrived home to Australia, two weeks later he was shunted off to fight the Japanese in what was then New Guinea.

But he didn’t waste the short leave time. He married his long-time sweetheart, Mary, a nurse at Goulburn, before he headed north.

“I wouldn’t marry her before I went away with the army in case anything happened to me over there. But when I came back (from Tobruk) I decided it was time to get married,” he said.

Having survived the ravages of war in Tobruk and El Alamein, it was eventually the Japanese closer to home in New Guinea that brought his military days to an end when he was wounded during combat.

“I was only there about 11 days.”

John and Mary moved to Canberra in the ’60s and had three children and, over time, a brood of grandchildren and great grandkids.

His not-so-secret passion is cars. His great-grandson Daniel Hamilton reckons he was a “bit of a rev head”.

“No, I wasn’t a rev head,” John protests. “I was just a good driver.”

He only recently had to give up driving when one of the family members petitioned the doctor when he sought licence renewal. The doctor declined to endorse his application.

“They said I could get into trouble driving too fast,” he complained.

He assured me the family member who dobbed him in is still in the will!


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