Bob Semple OAM BEM 1920–2020
Bob Semple OAM BEM, one of the last Rats of Tobruk, died on 16 January at the age of 99.
The eldest of four children, Bob was born on 4 May 1920 in Essendon, the suburb in which he lived his entire life.
His uncle was among the Anzacs killed during the Gallipoli landings on 25 April 1915, and Bob was determined to join up when the Second World War broke out. He was just 19, and had to get his parents’ permission.
Bob joined the Royal Australian Artillery, was sent to the Middle East and found himself at Tobruk. For eight long months in 1941, 14,000 Australian and other Allied troops held the strategic Libyan port in what was to be one of the longest sieges in British military history.
‘You had to try and win the game because if you weren’t there to try and win the game, you were wasting your time,’ Bob said.
He recalled the psychological and physical toll that holding Tobruk exacted on the defenders, particularly the incessant attacks from Stuka dive-bombers. An enduring and sad memory he carried was of the tragedy involving ten of his mates who were all killed when an artillery shell hit a truck in which they were travelling.
Bob also served in Lebanon and at Al Alamein and later in New Guinea.
When he returned to Melbourne on leave in 1944 he married his sweetheart, Isabel Buchanan, at his local church in Essendon. He ended the war in North Borneo. Bob attained the rank of sergeant and was discharged on 13 November 1945.
Bob became Drum Major of the Hawthorn City Pipe Band and chieftain of Pipe Bands Australia. He performed in Red Square in Moscow and at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Scotland four times. He also became President of the Victorian Rats of Tobruk Association.
Bob returned three times to the desert, where he played the lament at the war cemetery at El Alamein, and visited the graves of his mates who are buried side-by-side in the desert sand. Looking back, he wondered how he managed to survive it all.
‘I’ve been at reunions where you would just look at one another, and say nothing, and the tears would just roll down the faces … to shed a tear is not a disgrace in my book.’
Bob featured in a commemorative stamp issued by DVA and Australia Post in 2018.