In 1959 the Victorian Branch of The Rats of Tobruk Association decided to establish a lasting legacy to commemorate their role in the Siege of Tobruk in North Africa during World War II. As well as the purchase of Tobruk House in Albert Park, it was decided it would take the form of a Pipe Band that unlike a statue or other monument, would be a “living” memorial.
So, in 1960, The Rats of Tobruk Memorial Highland Band held its first official meeting with the majority of members coming from the Royal Caledonian Society Pipe Band.
With an initial donation of £1,000 from the Association, the Band and Association set out to choose a suitable uniform. It was decided that scarlet doublets, Glengarry headwear, and full plaids would be the go. In relation to the tartan, the MacLeod of Harris tartan was deemed to be the most suitable as the dark hues would signify remembrance with the yellow and red stripes to represent the sands of the desert and the blood spilt during the Siege.
Along with playouts for the Rats of Tobruk Association including their annual Debutante Ball at St Kilda Town Hall, the Band were kept very busy with practices and playouts including the Melbourne Show, Moomba Parade, Melbourne Cup, and of course, the ANZAC Day Parade. The Band would also appear with The Rats of Tobruk Marching Girls in street parades, Association Reunions, and the Rats Annual Picnic.
It was also decided the Band would enter competitions. Initially a Grade 3 band, they were swiftly moved up the ranks and were promoted to Grade 2. Once again, the Band enjoyed success and continually placed in the top three at most competitions in Victoria. The Band also travelled widely throughout Australia for reunions of The Rats of Tobruk Association and competitions.
The Band participated in the Melbourne Military Tattoo at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the 1980’s. These were instigated by the Premier at the time, Sir Rupert Hamer, himself a Rat of Tobruk.
Up until 1986 the Band had been a male only Band, however, due to the demise of the Melbourne Ladies Pipe Band, female drummers and pipers joined the ranks.
In 1987 it was decided the Band would attempt a visit to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Scotland, to celebrate Australia’s bicentenary in 1988. Along with a group of colonial dancers, and Rats veterans, a performance was put together and duly accepted by the Tattoo’s producer for 1988.
After the final performance, the Band was invited back to be part of the massed Pipes and Drums. This saw the Band as part of the cast in 1994, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2008 and 2012. Three Band members have had the honour of being the lone piper at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, those being Bruce Macfarlane, Lois Cairns and Greg Boyle.
Prior to the 2001 shows, the Band travelled to Egypt and held a memorial service at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at El Alamein to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the historic Siege, the longest in British Military history.
In 2007 the Band participated in the first ever Kremlin Zoria marching out of the Kremlin each night on to Red Square with the world-famous St Basil’s Cathedral as the backdrop.
2009 saw the Band receive an invitation to participate in the Libyan Music Festival on Green Square in Tripoli. After much deliberation, it was decided to accept the invitation on condition they were permitted to visit Tobruk. With significant assistance from the Australian Consul General in Libya, this was agreed to. This saw the Band along with various overseas and Australian dignitaries, board a private jet provided by the Libyan Government for the two-hour trip from Tripoli to Tobruk. There the Band donned full uniform and conducted a memorial service at the Tobruk War Cemetery, and on conclusion of the ceremony Band members placed poppies on the headstones of various graves including Corporal Jack Edmondson, the first Australian to be awarded a Victoria Cross in WWII, and Ron Barassi Snr., father of the Melbourne Footballer and later Carlton Coach Ron Barassi Jnr. This was followed by a visit to the Knightsbridge Cemetery, the legendary Fig Tree and outer defenses, then a brief tour of Tobruk itself. The Band was then flown back to Tripoli for their flight back to Australia.
The Band has also appeared at the Basel Tattoo in Switzerland on three occasions – 2010, 2014 and 2018.
In 2017, the Band along with Glenbrae Highland Dancers, participated in the Shanghai Music Festival.
The Band has also been a part of the cast for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Sydney 2010, Melbourne 2016, and Sydney 2019.
In 2008 and 2016 the Band also performed with Andre Rieu during his concert tours of Melbourne.
Another little-known fact is the three pipers who appear on the film clip “It’s A Long Way To The Top” with ACDC, were members of the Band – Les Kenfield, Kevin Conlon and Alan Butterworth. On the actual recording of the tune was Band piper Charlie Williams as Bon Scott could not play the bagpipes.