A World War II veteran who was one of Australia’s last living Rats of Tobruk has died at the age of 100.
Sydney George Kinsman was among the 35,000 Allied soldiers, including 14,000 Australians, who held the Libyan port of Tobruk against the German Africa Corps in 1941, in a vital battle for the Allied forces.
His death in Alice Springs on Wednesday came about a month before what would have been his 101st birthday, and has sent the tight-knit community – where he was a beloved figure – into mourning.
Born in Adelaide in 1921, Mr Kinsman enlisted in the army in 1940, just two weeks after his 19th birthday, and entered the 2/48th Infantry Battalion.
He served with the unit in North Africa, fighting in both the Siege of Tobruk in Libya and the First Battle of El Alamein in Egypt.
“[The Tobruk soldiers] were the first people ever to stop the German Africa Corp in North Africa — until that time, the Germans had moved through all of North Africa totally undefeated, with nobody able to even slow them down,” Alice Springs RSL sub-branch president Chris Clarke said.
“The Rats, as they became known, were formidable soldiers, and they earnt the respect of the enemy. Even [German Africa Corps commander] General Rommel paid praise to [their] fighting capability.”
Captured by the Germans in 1942 during the First Battle of El Alamein, Mr Kinsman spent time in three different prisoner of war camps in Italy for about a year before managing to escape with several other soldiers
“Over several months he climbed the Alps and made his way over to Switzerland,” Mr Clarke said.
“He was there for just on 12 months before the Allies caught up to where they were, close to the border, so they were able to cross back over and rejoin with the Allied forces, and go back to his old unit.”
Mr Kinsman was repatriated to Australia in 1944 and discharged from the army the following the year.
He remained an active member of RSL Australia for many years, and was recently made a life member of the organisation.
Mr Kinsman previously told the ABC about the harsh conditions troops had faced during the Siege of Tobruk.
“It was pretty dusty in the desert, digging your trenches when you had to dig them, and it was rocky … so you couldn’t go [too far] down,” he said.
“Sometimes you had to be that deep in the trench, so you had to keep your head down all the time.
“You had your minefields, but you had your pass to go through them, [and] you had all your tripwires … and barbed wire … they were everywhere.
“There was no continuous trench system … It was never ever a continuous trench system like there were in World War I.”
Alice Springs’ ‘living treasure’
Mr Kinsman was well known in Alice Springs, where he was the town’s last living World War II veteran.
On Anzac Day 2020, after COVID-19 restrictions cancelled ceremonies across the country, hundreds of residents held a car procession outside his home to pay tribute to his service; and later that year, he and his wife were overwhelmed with donations from the community after their annual Christmas lights display was vandalised.
Last year the local council erected a monument in his honour, to coincide with his 100th birthday.
Mr Kinsman moved from Adelaide to the Red Centre in the late 1940s, initially to work as a roo shooter, but quickly moved into the construction industry — in which, along with a few friends, he built a lot of the town’s residential and commercial buildings.
He was also a strong advocate for the Alice Springs RSL and was involved in a number of the town’s sporting and social organisations.
Mr Clarke said Mr Kinsman would be sorely missed by the Alice Springs community, which had been shocked by his death.
“Everybody wanted to be like Syd. He was an absolute legend in this town,” he said.
“The respect that that man had [here] – it covers multiple generations and all sorts of industries and social groups, and the outpouring of emotion has just been amazing to watch.
“People just thought this day would not happen, that Syd would always be there.”