By the side of the road at the Bribbaree turn off on Henry Lawson Way, there is a small white cross with Rosemary planted at its base. It marks the place where a man named Joe Madeley died in a car accident in 2016.
Joe, 96, was in town to visit the wife of a WW2 comrade who had passed.
Joe was one of the famous “Rats of Tobruk”, the Anzac’s that stopped Germany’s Afrika Korps in their tracks as they swept across North Africa during WW2.
Joe served in North Africa in the siege of Tobruk and at the battle of El Alamein as well as in Australia and in Papua New Guinea in his five year service.
Born on a farm near Albury, his father was a WW1 veteran and had secured a soldier settlement property near Weethalle where the family moved when Joe was four.
He went to primary school at Weethalle and high school at Yanco Ag.
Joe had been working on the farm from an early age. By 9 years of age, Joe could drive a team of horses and at age 14, he left school to work for his father.
When WW2 broke out, his father was against him signing up, saying the war would be over by Christmas but Joe’s desire to see more than just the farm and the adventure that the war brought was too much and Joe enlisted in 1940.
Joe began training in Wagga, then in Tamworth, before sailing to Palestine. Here he had some more training, joining the war with the 2/13th Battalion pushing the Italians west across Libya to Benghazi to relieve the 6th Division and take the front line.
Germany however had sent troops to bolster the Italians and the Afrika Korps under General Rommel pushed the British back east. The 2/13th covered the retreat back to Tobruk.
This was the first time that a complete Australian unit had fought against German troops in WW2.
The 2/13th, also known as “the devil’s own”, then spent the next eight months with the 9th Division, defending against all odds the Libyan port city and were to become the only Australian battalion to see out the entire siege.
Joe and the 2/13th then performed garrison duties in Syria and enjoyed some brief leave before being sent to Alamein in July 1942.
They held the northern sector for almost 4 months before reaching the British defences and fighting in the battle that lasted until November.
Joe was wounded by an enemy shell and was “patched up” in hospital by an “angel” from Melbourne. “When I woke, I smelled a beautiful perfume and I thought I was in heaven. I opened my eyes and there was a beautiful nurse leaning over me. There was silence, the noise that had lasted for so long had stopped. She said ‘wakey soldier’. I looked and I was in clean sheets and I had pyjamas on” Joe would by chance meet his ‘angel’ again 70 years later. After a victory parade and farewell attended by General Alexander on an airstrip in Gaza, the 2/13th left Egypt in January 1943. The Battalion sailed for Sydney Harbour to defend Australia against a Japanese invasion.
After jungle training in Queensland, the Battalion performed the first amphibious landing since Gallipoli at Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea. They encountered heavy fighting across multiple locations helping to drive back the Japanese before returning to Australia in March 1944.
After 12 months of training and close to Anzac Day in 1945, the 2/13th then sailed for Borneo to fight the Japanese again until their surrender and the end of the war.
Joe was discharged on the 5-12-1945 and went back to working on the farm. After five years of service, he had some trouble adjusting to normal life and became restless. He left the farm and moved to Sydney where he tried his hand at a number of jobs including tram conductor, vacuum salesman, cane cutter and mine worker before settling in Melbourne at a car assembly plant. “I had no idea how to assemble motor cars. I’d been on the farm my whole life and not really seen many but I stayed there for 12 years and they made me foreman. I was sent to Germany to visit the factories after we started a franchise assembling the Mercedes Benz.”
After Joe’s father had become blind and sold the farm, he returned home and took a job assembling cars for ten more years back in NSW. He then got a job at RCA Records and worked for another ten years becoming production manager before he retired.
In retirement, Joe became involved with the Rats of Tobruk Association (ROTA) and travelled overseas with his wife including two pilgrimages back to Tobruk, a trip to the Afrika Korps reunion in Germany and an invitation to Poland to launch a new medal as he was now the international president of the ROTA.
Joe’s is only one of the countless stories that we reflect on this time of year, a snapshot of hard work, loyalty and determination that has helped define this great country. His story reminds us that Australia owes us nothing. It is only through our own hard work and sacrifice that we will be rewarded.
Wealth for toil.
Lest we forget.
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