When Dennis Davis was serving his country as one of the famous ‘Rats of Tobruk’ in World War II, it was his faith that got him through each day and night.
That same faith continues to sustain him today, at the age of 99.
“Oh yes, God was my constant companion,” he says of his war years serving in Africa, the Middle East, New Guinea and Borneo.
“Every morning I prayed to live through to the night. And every night I prayed to make it through until morning.”
It wasn’t always easy to maintain the practice of his Catholic faith, but his belief never wavered.
“In the seven months I was in Tobruk, I got to Mass three times if I was lucky,” he recalls. “We didn’t see a priest very often. But it didn’t affect my faith, it increased it actually.
“You’re there, in that situation, and you need God.”
Dennis, who was born in Ealing, London, says while he had been raised in a practising Catholic family, his own faith didn’t firmly take hold until he moved to Australia with his family in 1938, aged 17.
Working as a clerk, Dennis found himself a bit lonely, having left his friends behind in England, and when some work colleagues asked him to attend a dance held by the Marist Brothers in Kogarah, he made a special prayer before he went, asking God to send him “a good Catholic girl”.
“That’s when my faith really blossomed,” he says. “When I got on my knees and prayed for that good Catholic girl. And it was reinforced when I finally got married to the same girl.”
That girl was Margaret, and she and Dennis were married for 61 years before her death in 2004.
But the path of true love did not run smooth in the early days. In July 1940, with World War II now well underway, Dennis volunteered for the Army following news of the fall of Dunkirk. In September, he and Margaret became engaged, on her 18th birthday, and, after initial training, he shipped out for Tobruk on Boxing Day as part of the newly formed 9th Division of the Australian Imperial Force, to drive supply trucks for the Army Service Corps.
The Australian War Memorial records that “between April and August 1941 around 14,000 Australian soldiers were besieged in Tobruk by a German–Italian army commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
“It was vital for the Allies’ defence of Egypt and the Suez Canal to hold the town with its harbour, as this forced the enemy to bring most of their supplies overland from the Port of Tripoli, across 1500 km of desert, as well as diverting troops from their advance. Tobruk was subject to repeated ground assaults and almost constant shelling and bombing.
“The Nazi propagandist Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) derided the tenacious defenders as ‘rats’, a term that the Australian soldiers embraced as an ironic compliment.”
It was Dennis’ job to drive the trucks bringing ammunition and other supplies to the Allied forces. He and his mates had no idea they would one day be so honoured for their efforts.
“We were eating bully beef and biscuit rations. There was very little water to drink, let alone wash in,” he says.
“When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t know you’re making history,” he says. “You’re just a peg in a hole doing the job you’re given.”
After Tobruk, Dennis was sent to Syria as part of a peacekeeping force, driving ambulances. In 1942, the Germans had pushed the British forces back to the strategic railway post of El Alamein and it looked as though they could go on to take Egypt and the Suez. Dennis’ regiment was re-tasked to drive ammunition up to the front at El Alamein. There were two decisive battles there, before the Allies finally succeeded, in a turning point for the North African campaign.
But during those battles, when defeat looked very possible and casualties were heavy, Dennis and his companions felt pretty low.
“When you were writing home you couldn’t even tell your loved ones where you were, let alone what you were doing,” he recalls.
In the midst of all this, on the day before Christmas, 1942, Dennis received a letter from Margaret, in which she broke off their engagement. He was heartbroken.
Looking back, he realises that his letters home would have made for depressing reading and Margaret had misinterpreted that to mean that he was no longer interested in her, or had met someone else.
“You have to remember I’d been away for two years at this stage, with very little meaningful communication. It was terribly hard for her,” he says.
“I wrote home telling her I loved her more than ever. And I was praying, praying, praying.”
At around this same time, the war in the Middle East ended and Dennis headed home on leave, with one mission on his mind.
On arriving back in Sydney, he headed over to Margaret’s parents’ house, hoping to talk with her mother before Margaret arrived home from work. But when he arrived, Margaret’s mother told him Margaret was at home, and he could see her.
“She was in bed with asthma and I just walked in and stood at the door. We looked at each other and then she held out her arms to me and I went to her and held her and everything was ok,” he recalls with tears in his eyes.
They got married the following Saturday.
In June 1943, shortly after they were married, Dennis was sent back into action, this time to New Guinea, and he didn’t return until March 1944, one day after their first wedding anniversary. He spent 11 months in hospital with malaria and having surgery on his feet which had been injured. After that he re-joined his unit and they set off for their final campaign of the War in Borneo.
When the War ended, Dennis returned home to Margaret and they went on to have two daughters, seven grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.
Dennis worked at the Australian Tax Office for 42 years, and was Chief Assessor when he retired in 1980 and went into business for himself as a tax agent. He had to give up work in 2004 when he lost his sight due to macular degeneration.
These days, in his 100th year, and despite his eyesight issue, Dennis’ faith is still his guiding light.
He gets up at 5am every day and most days, he walks a kilometre or so to attend the 6:45am Mass at St Bernadette’s Parish, Castle Hill. On Sundays he gets a lift to Mass where he is one of the collectors. He also takes Eucharist to the sick, often attends Thursday evening Adoration, and is a regular at parish Lenten groups, Bible studies, retreat days and social gatherings. Once a year Dennis also takes part in a week-long retreat for seniors at the Redemptorists’ Galong Park Retreat Centre.
Outside of Church life, he walks about six kilometres a day, enjoys listening to audio books, spending time with his daughters and family, and once a week he goes to a men’s group hosted by the local council.
Dennis, who is one of only about 30 remaining Rats of Tobruk takes part in Anzac Day commemorations each year and in recent years has travelled to Canberra for the 75th anniversary of the Siege of Tobruk and the Battles of El Alamein.
A year after Margaret’s death, with his eyesight faded, Dennis wrote a memoir of his life, after learning to touch type with the help of Vision Australia. It was, he says, the best thing he could’ve done to help find his way through the grief.
“Going back through my life that way, showed me what a good life I’ve had, especially with Margaret,” he says. “I’ve got nothing to complain about. I’m blessed.”