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Tobruk: Through the eyes of Lance Corporal Denis William Horan

Denis Horan was a farmer's son, from the Mallee region in Victoria. He was raised during the great depression and had experienced his fair share of life’s difficulties and struggles.

One standout achievement which was no small feat - when Denis was just 14 years old (in 1933) under the leadership of his inspirational teacher, Ellis Bankin, he rode a bicycle from the Mallee to Melbourne return on dirt roads!

Keeping in mind this was during the great depression when food and money were scarce. However, that didn’t stop the crowds turning up to cheer them on, even giving them food along their journey. It was a true show of the Australian spirit, helping others, and was an inspirational story for that time. Bankin reportedly stated; “the trip gave the boys extra equipment for life”.

Undoubtedly, this life experience contributed to the grit and determination shown by Lance Corporal Denis Horan (Service Number: VX47991) during the Siege of Tobruk with 2nd/24th Infantry Battalion.

Denis enlisted on 23 July 1940 and began his journey after saying goodbye to his sisters. Denis wasn’t alone, he had enlisted with his 2 friends from the Mallee, Len Brown and Les Wright. There are a few images of Denis and Les, and we can only imagine the trouble they would have caused together. Unfortunately, Les Wright was the only man to come home from this trio.

Lance Corporal Horan survived Tobruk and was evacuated in October 1941. Unfortunately, on the voyage away from Tobruk, the ship HMAS Nizam was met with disaster, as 20 men were swept overboard. Denis was one of these 20 men, and one of very few to be rescued alive, with many not recovered and lost at sea. His injuries were too severe, and he succumbed to them later that day. Denis was laid to rest in Alexandria, Egypt.

Lance Corporal Denis Horan's descendants would like to honour his memory with the following memorable and sometimes humorous highlights from his diary entries:

Dec 6th 1940 - Ashore. Very dirty & a few peculiar smells. Les, Len & myself had good day.

7th April - Planes machine gunned us & later were shelled. Soon learnt to flatten out. Just been issued with beer when shells came, didn’t spill any.

9th April - Next day we relieved 23rd. Was under our first fire. Went forward to within 500 yards of enemy tonight.

Wed 16th - Good few giving themselves up. No food for 3 days & no water for 2.

Thurs 17th - Some shells landed close today, thought my birthday had come early.

Friday 25th April - Anzac Day. Our artillery shifted & are sending Jerry some love. He returned it this morning.

Mon 12/5/41 - Just after last entry (30th April) dive bombers came over. Then a barrage & then the troops. They forced a way in a fair way & dug in. On patrol one night & was under machine gun fire for half hour. Len Brown killed & Les wounded.

24/5/41 - Was up line for 2 more days. 23rd attacked Jerry. They came right through a section of us, with tanks & carriers. We got all the back wash. Awful seeing cobbers getting knocked.

5/6/41 - We all have greatest admiration for 23rd after their attack. I didn’t think any man could live in the barrage they went through.

19/6/41 - Enemy quiet. I went out 5500 yards on patrol last night & found out a few things. Bren carrier just got shelled. Haw Haw calls us the Tobruk Rats. No mail for 3 weeks. Boat broke down.

25/6/41 - Quiet. Plane dropped pamphlets telling us to surrender & so forth. Mail arrived. On another patrol tonight.

1/7/41 - Shot a gazelle & am sending antlers home. Very good eating. First fresh meat for 3 months.

17/7/41 - D Coy patrol went out 5 miles and got stuck into some Italians, with good results. Jerry has two search lights which he tries to pick up the patrols with. Just like I imagine Pentridge (old Melbourne Prison) to be, only the prisoners are playing up more & very soon will escape.

4/8/41 - We are resting now. I have been recommended for a stripe.

Monday 25/8/41 - And all’s well. I am now a Lance Corporal.

Oct 15th - Recommended for second stripe. Won’t be long before we go out. Birthday quiet. Weather rotten. Dust storm.

The total losses in the 9th Division and attached troops from 1st March to 15th December amounted to 832 killed, 2,177 wounded and 941 prisoners.


Submitted by Norman Letcher and Amanda Letcher Descendants of Lance Corporal Denis William Horan


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