War on Film: The Desert Rats (1953)

The battle scenes are, in the main, well made, especially in showing what it was like for men hiding in dugouts and wadis in the desert under intense artillery-fire.

The see-saw war in North Africa went back and forth after Mussolini ordered an initial incursion from Italian Libya over the border into Egypt in September 1940. The next round went to the British under General Richard O’Connor, whose troops advanced 500 miles in two months and captured 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks, and 845 guns. At home, cinema audiences cheered the newsreels showing long lines of Italian prisoners winding off into the distance.

Then Hitler appointed his most daring general, Erwin Rommel, to come to the aid of his Italian ally. With just two German divisions at first, he pushed the British back towards Egypt. But behind his advance, he left the Libyan port of Tobruk in Allied hands. Here, Australian, British, and other troops, reinforced and supplied by the Royal Navy at night, held on grimly from April 1941.

Rommel tried repeatedly to capture Tobruk, as he could not advance into Egypt without using the port to supply his army. But the defenders fought fiercely and maintained the siege despite the odds. In a period of the war that did not bring many British successes, it was a lone story of courage and grit.

In 1951, Twentieth Century Fox made a film about Rommel, The Desert Fox (director: Henry Hathaway), starring James Mason. The film portrayed Rommel in a favourable light and proved very popular at the box office. But there was anger that Hollywood was making a hero out of a German general.

Partly to counter this criticism, but partly to follow up on the success of the Rommel film, Twentieth Century Fox decided to make a sequel about an Allied victory in the desert. They bought the rights to the book, The Siege of Tobruk by Gregory Rogers, and adapted it into a screenplay by an American, Richard Murphy, who had worked with Australian soldiers in the Pacific War.

Filming began in December 1952, with James Mason again playing Rommel, who this time was presented less sympathetically. A 27-year-old Richard Burton was cast in the leading role of a British officer in command of an Australian company.

Burton was well respected in Britain as a Shakespearean theatre player but had just moved to Hollywood to play in My Cousin Rachel (director: Henry Koster) with Olivia de Havilland. This performance won him a Golden Globe Award as the New Star of the Year. The Desert Rats was his second Hollywood enterprise and his first war movie.

No location filming took place in North Africa. All the desert scenes were shot in California near Borrego Springs. But the film extensively uses archive shots from the great British propaganda film Desert Victory (director: Roy Boulting, 1943; see MHM May 2016). This was a documentary compilation film produced by the Army Film and Photographic Unit, dedicated to the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and factory workers who had delivered the crushing victory at El Alamein.

The siege

The Desert Rats begins with Rommel (James Mason) being driven across the desert in a staff car. He comes across as impatient and determined to capture Cairo and Suez. But Tobruk holds out in his rear, and he must seize it before continuing his advance into Egypt.

Inside Tobruk, at the HQ of the Australian 9th Division, the unit is told to hold up the German advance for two months. The various commanders, including the unnamed commander of the division (played by Englishman Robert Douglas), are aghast at the thought of holding out for that long, but they prepare for Rommel’s next assault, which they know will come soon.

Meanwhile, an experienced English captain, Tammy MacRoberts (Richard Burton), is put in command of a newly arrived and completely green Australian company. He is shocked at the lax and unsoldierly attitude of the men, and attempts to bring some discipline to the unit.

The rowdy and unruly nature of Australian troops was a widespread trope at the time. The men react against the disciplinarian MacRoberts, and the story of the gradual growth of mutual respect between officer and men becomes the central spine of the film.

Rather improbably, MacRoberts discovers among the men his old school master Tom Bartlett (brilliantly played by Robert Newton). Bartlett is a drunk and had apparently left England for Australia where, in a boozy escapade, he joined the army as a private.

MacRoberts takes pity on the intoxicated Bartlett, whom he repeatedly calls ‘Sir’, reverting to his school days when he was his favourite teacher. He tries to transfer him to a safe desk job, but Bartlett insists he wants to stay with the infantry in the front-line.

Under the cover of a sandstorm, Rommel orders his Panzers to attack Tobruk. They are lured into an ambush, and MacRoberts’s men are at the centre of the action. They must hold their fire until the Germans are almost upon them. The battle scenes that follow are well done and capture one of the key features of the desert war. With no fixed lines and with the combat extremely fluid, it was always difficult in the sandy mayhem of battle to follow what was going on.

Armour was the key to almost every desert battle. If their armour was knocked out, then the infantry could do very little in the open expanses. Pundits at home were always amazed at the high proportion of prisoners taken in desert battles, but that was largely because without armoured support the infantry had little option but to try to retreat or to surrender.

The Germans are turned back, but one young officer, Lieutenant Carstairs (Charles Tingwell), leaves his post and MacRoberts orders his court-martial. Bartlett pleads with MacRoberts to lift the court-martial, telling him that Carstairs is a fine officer. MacRoberts finally relents. Bartlett admits to being a coward and is physically sick with fright in combat. MacRoberts tells him he should be medically discharged. But his one-time schoolteacher insists he must carry on and face his demons.

MacRoberts is promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and put in command of an Australian battalion. A narrator tells us that time passes as one month follows another with no hint of relief in sight. The Australians adopt a policy of aggressive defence, moving out of their lines and hitting enemy positions every night.

After one of these raids, a prisoner reveals that Rommel has brought up heavy guns and the commanders work out where the ammunition dump is located. MacRoberts leads a group of volunteers on a successful mission to destroy the dump. But, during the raid, Carstairs is killed and MacRoberts is wounded and captured.

While MacRoberts is treated – without anaesthetic – for his bullet wound, Rommel arrives at the medical tent, also wounded. They talk together in English. ‘Within a month we will have taken Cairo’ boasts Rommel. ‘If you can’t take Tobruk, you can’t take Cairo,’ MacRoberts brazenly tells the German general. Their friendly sparring ends with Rommel telling the English officer: ‘When your country is defeated, we may meet again.’

He instructs those guarding him to treat MacRoberts with respect. Apart from the issue of language, the scene was perfectly possible, as Rommel did turn up in medical centres throughout the desert war, and it neatly encapsulates the relatively decent and honourable way in which the war in this part of the world was fought.

MacRoberts escapes and gets back to Allied lines. In a final sequence, he leads his men to guard a hill at Ed Duda for three days until the relief column arrives. After eight days, they are exhausted, thirsty, and almost out of ammunition. MacRoberts can take it no longer and orders a withdrawal.

But Bartlett refuses to pass on the order to withdraw, insisting the men can hold on a little longer. Their roles are reversed, as MacRoberts becomes the coward and Bartlett the hero. The men come under fire once again, but to the sound of bagpipes the relief column arrives. The siege of Tobruk is lifted. It is now December, and the fortress has held out for eight months.

Tobruk after its relief

The eight-month siege of Tobruk was lifted on 9 December 1941, by troops of the Eighth Army taking part in the successful Operation Crusader. This was the third operation that had been attempted to relieve the port town (Operations Brevity in May and Battleaxe in June had both failed).

After its relief, Rommel admitted defeat and withdrew his combined German and Italian troops in the Afrika Korps by 150 miles to the west. He was desperately short of supplies at this point, especially fuel, ammunition, and spare parts for his armour, as about 80% of Axis shipping in the Mediterranean was being sunk by naval and air attacks from the island of Malta.

In January 1942, Rommel – now reinforced – began a new offensive that pushed the Allies back again to a line in the desert at Gazala. General Claude Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief Middle East, had put his deputy chief of staff, General Neil Ritchie in command of Eighth Army. He was a capable staff officer, but no field commander, and his Corps and Divisional commanders resented his promotion over their heads.

When fully re-equipped, Rommel launched the Battle of Gazala on 26 May 1942. Rommel’s first attack stalled, but Ritchie was disastrously slow to take advantage of this, and Rommel relaunched his offensive. Bitter fighting took place in the area known as the Cauldron, and large numbers of British tanks were lost. In mid-June, Ritchie accepted defeat and withdrew towards, the Egyptian border. Auchinleck intervened and dismissed Ritchie, taking personal command of the Eighth Army.

Tobruk was left garrisoned by a combination of Commonwealth troops led by Major-General Hendrik Klopper, commander of the South African 2nd Division. He was astonished to find that the defences around the town had fallen into disrepair and the minefields that surrounded the old lines were in disarray. They had even lost the maps that showed the extent of the minefields. Klopper began to prepare for another siege, but his men were dispirited, feeling they had been abandoned by the rest of the Eighth Army, and morale was desperately low.

At dawn on Saturday 20 June, Rommel began his assault with a massive air raid on the defenders. Two hours later, his tanks had penetrated the outer defences, and by afternoon they were in the centre of the town firing on the harbour. Klopper sent a message saying he would fight to the last man, but on the following morning realised the situation was hopeless.

Further resistance would lead to a pointless massacre. On the Sunday, a white flag was raised over his HQ. Desultory fighting carried on for the rest of the day, until the last defenders laid down their arms. In 1941, Tobruk had bravely held out for eight months; in June 1942, the garrison capitulated in a weekend.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill was in a meeting with President Roosevelt at the White House when news arrived of the surrender of 33,000 men to an Axis force of little more than half its size. He later described the surrender as one of the most bitter moments in the war, writing: ‘Defeat is one thing. Disgrace is another.’

Fine elements

There are lots of fine elements to the film. Richard Burton gives a rugged performance as the no-nonsense British officer and is exactly the right age to play such a role. Chips Rafferty, Charles Tingwell, and Michael Pate give good performances as Aussie soldiers. Apparently, they rewrote parts of the script to add Australian slang to it.

The battle scenes are, in the main, well made, especially in showing what it was like for men hiding in dugouts and wadis in the desert under intense artillery-fire. And the shots from Desert Victory add some authenticity to the combat sequences.

However, the film is full of historical and military inaccuracies. Even the title is wrong. The Desert Rats was not a phrase used to describe the besieged defenders of Tobruk. They were known as ‘The Rats of Tobruk’, but an Australian film of this name had been made in 1944, directed by Charles Chauvel.

That film was structured around the story of three drover friends, who join the Australian Army and find themselves fighting together in Tobruk. It is a wooden tale, told with care for authenticity (although it was shot in the Australian desert), but without much emotional power. When released in the US with the title The Fighting Rats of Tobruk, the New York Times film critic described it as 85 minutes of ‘crawling agony’!

British commanders instructing tank operations during the Siege of Tobruk, 1941. The fortress ultimately held up for eight months.

Other errors in The Desert Rats include the fact that Rommel is referred to throughout as ‘Generalfeldmarschall’, even though he was not made Field Marshal until after the later capture of Tobruk in June 1942.

But probably the most serious fault of all is that the only defenders of Tobruk shown are the men of the Australian 9th Division. Certainly, this unit played a central role during the siege, but as men were relieved by sea and others brought in to replace them, the balance of troops constantly shifted and a mix of troops (including Poles and Czechs) fought at Tobruk. At the lifting of the siege, there were 15,000 Australians, 7,500 British, and 500 Indian troops defending the town.

Even more incorrectly, the film shows the Australian troops as led by British generals. The actual commander of 9th Division was Lieutenant-General Leslie Morshead, a determined and courageous Australian, who adopted the policy of an aggressive defence of the town. The general in the film is given no name but is clearly English, prompting Morshead to say on the film’s release in Australia that ‘the story is wholly foreign to the Tobruk I knew, and to its force which comprised almost as many gallant, purposeful British troops as those of the 9th Division, all of whom I had the honour to command.’

The Desert Rats is far from being one of the great war movies, but it introduces Richard Burton, who would go on to play several major roles in the genre, in The Longest Day (1962), Where Eagles Dare (1968), and The Wild Geese (1978). And James Mason, with his velvety voice, gives another fine performance as Rommel.

The war in the desert was not easy to capture on film, taking place over vast stretches of sand and shrub. The Desert Rats is a credible effort to convey something of the nature of this conflict. It is just a shame that it does this along with so many yawning historical errors. •

The Desert Rats (1953)
Director: Robert Wise. Producer: Robert L Jacks. Writer: Richard Murphy. Starring: Richard Burton, James Mason, and Robert Newton. A Twentieth Century Fox production.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons.