As a brash young reporter for The News in 1980 the assignment was to interview the legendary Bob Quinn as part of an Anzac Day tribute presented by the Port Adelaide Football Club.
The late Robert Berrima Quinn, who would have turned 100 last April, was the original Triple M having won a Magarey Medal in 1938, earned a Military Medal for courage, leadership and devotion whilst serving the Australian Armed Forces at the siege of Tobruk on August 3, 1941, and remarkably won another Magarey Medal by 18 votes upon his return from war in 1945.
Bob’s football achievements also include three premierships during his 186 games for the Magpies from 1933 until his retirement in ’47, and being inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 1996.
He was a special man; putting his life on the line in the North African campaign and later in New Guinea, where in late 1943 he seriously injured a knee, arm and his face. He was then sent home, and no one thought he would ever play football again. But he did.
Slower than his pre-war games, and relying more on his skilful handball, Quinn fell awkwardly during the first quarter of the opening round in 1944 playing for a combined Port Adelaide/West Torrens against North/Norwood and broke that wounded arm, and damaged his hip. He still played out the game.
A truly amazing man of courage in all forms, but it was never publicly revealed why he was awarded his Military Medal, and why he never wanted to talk about it. When asked, Bob looked at this once young face and said: “I could tell you why, but I guarantee that you would never write it.” And being someone who mistakingly thought he knew everything at the time I said: “Yes I will.” The conversation was unforgettable.
Bob, who gained his middle name from HMAS Berrima, a troop carrier during World War I, was a second Warrant Officer Class 2, and while there was just 167cm (or a tad under 5ft 6in) of him, this young bloke from Coglin Street, Brompton, was all heart; a famous Rat of Tobruk. He spoke of how he had to take over the command of 10th platoon as if it were the day before.
During the Siege of Tobruk, which lasted 241 days in 1941 after Axis forces (German and Italian) advanced through Cyrenaica from El Agheila in Operation Sonnenblume against the British Western Desert Force in Libya, Bob’s unit found itself seemingly trapped in a long trench and needing to get through barbed wire to wipe out a German machine gun post so troops behind could advance.
The only way was to lay lengths of pipe, one at a time, join them and ultimately roll down a grenade and blow up the barbed wire, then charge at the machine gun.
Bob told his men he would be the last to complete the join, meaning he was the closest and most likely to die from machine gun fire. He ordered the first man out; he was gunned down, and with him the pipe fell.
Again, Bob ordered a soldier to leap and drop another piece of pipe. He died too. The third man had the more difficult task of joining the pipe. Another death. One-by-one Bob basically ordered his men to their death to achieve the mission. Dozens were killed, and Bob said he could remember every one of their faces as they made the ultimate sacrifice.
Finally, as the pipe lay under the edge of the barbed wire, Bob leaped from the trench in the face of machine gun fire. He used all of his pace and agility to dodge and weave to reach the end. He joined the last piece of pipe.
As Bob started to head back to the trench, he was shot, yet was able to still pick up a soldier who was wounded and saved his life. A grenade was rolled down the pipe, the barb wire was blown apart, and the machine gun post was wiped out. Such remarkable heroics that played a crucial part in the claiming of Tobruk, which denied the Axis forces fuel and supplies and helped the Allies win the campaign.
I looked at Bob, with both of our eyes watering, and commented what a remarkable story and acts of bravery they were, so why shouldn’t this be written? After all, his men sacrificed their lives for this mission.
Bob looked me in the eye and said it was because not every soldier went… they refused orders to get out of the trench knowing they they would die.
“They saw themselves as cowards,” Bob said. “But I saw them as the bravest of men. You need to understand that these men had leapt out of trenches into the line of fire time after time, but in war everyone reaches a stage where you just cannot do it anymore.”
With his voice now quivvering, Bob said that if the story about why he was awarded his Military Medal was published some of the members of his unit who did not go out of the trench, who were still alive then, may have read it. “Imagine how they would feel after all these years?” he asked. “They have had to live with this.”
I looked at Bob and said, no, I couldn’t write this story, but upon Bob’s final days before his passing on September 12, 2008, his family believed the story should be told; that Bob’s harsh reality of all wars was every soldier was a hero, but in different ways.
Bob never saw himself as being more brave than any of his men – including those who chose not to leap the trench that day – and noted they all deserved awards for just being there.
The reason for writing this story again after all these years is to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Bob becoming the original Triple M – Magarey, Military, Magarey – and what would have been his centenary of life, something which has been totally ignored. This Remembrance Day may we honour Robert Berrima Quinn, those who gave their lives in that North African desert mission, and everyone else who has fought for our country at all wars.
Bob said that war changes a man. Ultimately, it can break the heart and spirit of the bravest of soldiers; some just last longer than others. There has never been glory in war, and Bob never wanted to be seen in that light. God bless him. – ASHLEY PORTER