Faith, love always first for Tobruk Rat

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Dennis Davis, now 100, gestures during an interview with The Catholic Weekly. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Dennis Davis, now 100, gestures during an interview with The Catholic Weekly. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Prayer and faith is the wisdom that 100-year-old WWII veteran and parishioner of St Bernadette’s Parish Castle Hill, Mr Dennis Davis, is giving to everyone during the tribulations of COVID-19.

It was these that sustained Mr Davis, who served in the highly decorated 9th Division of the Second Australian Imperial Force, through some of the most gruelling battles of the Second World War – including the infamous Siege of Tobruk.

“I carried my rosary beads with me all the time, always in my right hand pocket throughout the Siege of Tobruk and throughout the whole war – every day of my life,” he said.

Mr Davis is one of the last living Rats of Tobruk. The stubborn defence by the Australians earned them the derision of the Nazi propaganda machine calling them ‘rats’ in hiding holes – a name the laconic Australians adopted for themselves with pride.

For 269 days in Tobruk, the outnumbered and out-gunned Australians stubbornly held off the-then undefeated Germans under Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps for a gruelling 269 days in the Libyan desert.

Through thick and thin: the beginning of 61 years of happy marriage - Dennis and Margaret on their wedding day in 1943.
Through thick and thin: the beginning of 61 years of happy marriage – Dennis and Margaret on their wedding day in 1943.

“My first experience of being shot at was when a German Stuka had come through and dropped its bombs. The plane strafed us and fortunately me and my best mate dived for cover.”

Mr Davis recalled the faith life of himself and his comrades throughout the ordeal to The Catholic Weekly.

“Most of the men believed in the hereafter and when you were in a dangerous situation – that’s in your mind all the time. I prayed every day that I would live through the night, and every night that I would live through the day – it was a struggle but God was good to me. I was blessed.”

Born in London to an English father and Alsatian French mother, Mr Davis, his parents, and his two sisters emigrated to Sydney in 1938 at the end of the Great Depression.

While the Depression was waning, a terrible war was looming on the horizon. Mr Davis, like most young men of his generation, took up the call to defend the country.

Aside from Tobruk in North Africa, Mr Davis served with the 9th Division in Syria-Lebanon, New Guinea, Borneo and the two battles of El Alamein – turning in his prayers to the intercession from St Therese of Lisieux.

“Saint Therese of the Child Jesus was always a Saint very close to my heart throughout the war. My first daughter was named Maureen Therese,” Mr David said

Dennis Davis points to a photo of an undamaged statue of Our Lady in Tobruk during an interview with The Catholic Weekly. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Dennis Davis points to a photo of an undamaged statue of Our Lady in Tobruk during an interview with The Catholic Weekly. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Thousands of soldiers in World Wars I and II were devoted to the popular saint.

Providence not only guided Mr Davis safely through battles across the world but also in the battle of his heart for his future wife Margaret – a battle which raged on the home front when she broke off their engagement.

“We were separated for two and a half years and I received a ‘Dear John’ letter saying she was planning to break off the engagement – that really broke my heart.

“I then received a letter from my mother telling me that Margaret was getting married to someone else in March. I was praying that I could get home as soon as I could before March.”

With the onslaught of the Japanese offensive in the Pacific, Australian troops, including Mr Davis, were recalled to the home front. It gave Mr Davis and Margaret an opportunity to reconcile.

Dennis Davis as a soldier in 1940.
Dennis Davis as a soldier in 1940.

“I arrived in Sydney on 28 February – a Saturday night – and we got back to camp at 11 o’clock at night. I had about two hours of sleep and then I got up and went to Mass on Sunday morning.” Mr Davis then rang Margaret letting her know of his love.

“There was only one chance and I said ‘I love you’ and put the receiver down so she didn’t even get the chance to reply.”

The next day they met and were reconciled when Mr David visited her family home in Carlton.

“She was lying in bed after an asthma attack. I got to her room, stood there and did not know what to do. She put her arms out to me and we hugged and kissed.

“The following Saturday we were married in a nuptial Mass. This was during rationing so we needed a supply of coupons to pay for the cake.”

Mr Davis and Margaret were blessed with two children, seven grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren and after 61 years of marriage, Margaret passed into eternal life in 2004.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic Dennis walks one kilometre every morning to Mass at St Bernadette’s.

With a century of life behind him, Mr Davis gave words of encouragement to all to keep their faith during tough times – especially to young Catholics who are pressured to walk away from the faith.

“It is hard during this pandemic. Keep up the good work. Life is very short and eternity is very long. We’re living through tough times. Focus on eternity.”

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