Thursday, April 25, 2013

How a Tobruk Rat turned Pacific hero


NEIL Russell is turning 96 next month and he needs a walking stick to get around, but this extraordinary digger was on the winning side in two of the toughest WWII campaigns in the Middle East and the Pacific.
Captain Russell is one of a handful of surviving Rats of Tobruk, who successfully defended the crucial Libyan port and gave the German forces their first major setback of the war in 1941.
With little time to enjoy the victory, however, he was shipped off to Papua New Guinea, where he played his part in delivering the first blow to the advancing Japanese forces.
As a 25-year-old first lieutenant, he helped stop the Japanese from taking Port Moresby in the 1942 Battle of Milne Bay.
He was made a captain and after the war awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal - the second highest medal for valour behind the Victoria Cross.
The Brisbane resident, who turns 96 on May 18, says when the order came to fix bayonets and charge, his company "stormed the enemy stronghold".
"And the Japs shot off like a Bondi tram," he said.
His son Doug says his father's dry Aussie humour helped him deal with stressful, life-threatening moments.
"During the heat of battle, someone said to him, 'What's the time?'" he said.
"He said, 'Time for a Capstan' (a brand of popular cigarettes at the time)."
Capt Russell will take part in the Anzac Day march through Brisbane today from 10am (AEST).
The march will start at the corner of George and Elizabeth Streets.

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