Leslie Alexander Barrett – Gunner RAA
In 2015 Mr Leslie Barrett’s daughter, Mrs Elizabeth Donnelly, donated his wartime material to the Centre. The material consists of letters, photographs, wartime newspaper cuttings, military badges, sketches, brochures and postcards.
Leslie Barrett was born in London in 1908 and left England at the age of 15 to work on a dairy farm in New South Wales. He later moved to Sydney where he married and had twin daughters before enlisting in the Australian Army in 1939 as a Gunner in the Royal Australian Artillery (RAA).
After initial training in Australia, Leslie sailed with the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, RAA for the Middle East and by February 1941 he was in Palestine for further training. His regiment was part of the 9th Australian Infantry Division which was deployed to Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) in early 1941. Along with the remaining elements of the Western Desert Force (WDF), 9th Division was pushed back by Rommel’s advance through Cyrenaica in March 1941. However, the retreating Allies decided to leave a garrison behind at Tobruk to prevent the use of its deep harbour port by the Axis forces. Leslie’s regiment was at El Adem (south of Tobruk) in early April 1941 at which time the 9th Australian Division was assigned the role of the defence of Tobruk. 9th Division forces, including 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, were therefore withdrawn to the Tobruk perimeter.
The siege of Tobruk by Axis forces began in April 1941 with some 14,000 Australian and 12,000 British and Indian troops defending the town and its vital harbour installations. All the garrison’s supply needs were brought in by sea until the siege was lifted by the 8th Army in December 1941.
Tobruk’s former occupants, the Italian Army, had left partial defensive installations in and around the town, and the besieged Allied forces strengthened these for their own use.
An outer defensive line (the Red Line) and an inner defensive line (the Blue Line) were created. Infantry battalions manned numbered defensive positions along the Red Line, with anti-tank guns sited in their rear and anti-aircraft guns behind the Blue Line. By night, aggressive patrolling was undertaken beyond the outer defensive line to harass the Axis forces and gain vital intelligence on troop and tank movements.
Throughout the siege the defending troops endured continual aerial and artillery bombardment, attempted infantry incursions, and combined tank and infantry attacks. The first major Axis attack involving tanks and infantry came on 12-14 April when an attempt was made to break through in the South East sector of the Red Line near the El Adem Road. The 2/3rd Anti-Tank regiment was in action during this attack and two of their guns knocked out four German tanks. The attack was driven back as was a second, beginning on 30 April, near Hill 209 in what became known as the Battle of the Salient.
Leslie and his fellow defenders were fighting not only the Germans and Italians but also the elements and local conditions. Searing heat, sandstorms, flies, fleas, limited issue of water that was brackish at best, a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, and little defensive cover all took their toll on the men of Tobruk Garrison throughout the summer of 1941. Many were living in little more than holes in the ground, with the infantrymen manning the defensive lines resorting to laying on their weapons to prevent the sun heating the metal to burning point. Significant weight loss became common, sores and infections lingered and, by the end of the summer, it was apparent that the health of the besieged troops had deteriorated to the extent that their ability to continue the siege was becoming compromised. Moreover, the Australian government was pressing for the re-integration of all dispersed Australian forces into one command in the Middle East, and this would necessitate the withdrawal of the 9th Division from Tobruk.
Withdrawal of Australian forces by sea from Tobruk therefore began in August 1941 and continued throughout September and October. Leslie was evacuated on 13 September 1941 sadly leaving behind a number of regimental comrades killed during the siege including his pal Hughie Parr (NX40780 L/Bdr A H Parr), killed in action a week earlier on 6 September 1941. The British 70th Division took the place of the Australians along with Polish and Czech units.
After Tobruk, the 9th Division were briefly in Palestine before being sent to Northern Syria to guard the Turkish-Syrian border. By the summer of 1942 they were back in North Africa for the first battle of El Alamein where they were in action in the northern sector of the Allied front, taking Tel el Eisa some 10 miles north west of Tobruk on 10 July 1942.
Leslie’s material contains a pencil sketch annotated ‘Our Signal Truck parked near Emireah (salt lakes) prior to going up 4.7.42’ indicating he was involved in this first stage of the El Alamein offensive.
9th Division stayed in the front line at El Alamein and was again in action in the northern sector in October and November 1942 leading to the final Allied victory at the second battle of El Alamein. In early 1943 the Division returned to Australia where it was stationed in Northern Queensland for training prior to deployment in the Pacific theatre. This came in September 1943, when they were in action in New Guinea against the Japanese, and again in mid 1945 in Borneo to the war’s end.
Leslie returned to Australia in 1945 for demob, and post-war worked for many years in the Sydney area as a driver. He was a member of Harbord Digger’s Club (Returned & Services League of Australia) and in retirement became the group’s Welfare Officer. He died in September 1979 and is commemorated in Soldier’s Avenue in Sydney, which is a memorial drive for Australia’s servicemen and women where a plaque on a tree bears his name.
The 9th Australian Infantry Division was formed in 1940 and disbanded in 1946. It was one of Australia’s most decorated military formations with the first Australian VC of the Second World War being awarded to NX15705 Cpl J H Edmondson, 2/17th Bn, 9th Div at Tobruk in April 1941 .
The 9th Division won the praise of both Allied and Axis commanders, and was one of the few Allied formations to see action in both the Mediterranean and the Pacific theatres.
Edited by Anne Wickes
Further information on the 9th Australian Division can be found at
Mr Leslie Alexander Barrett – NX27893 Gunner, 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, 9th Australian Infantry Division, AIF