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Return To Libya 2009

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Return To Libya 2009

As the material for inclusion in the 2010 edition of “Take Post” was being assembled, I was contacted by Rob Bennett. Rob is the son of Max Bennett (8th Battery) and a Bass Drummer with the Rats of Tobruk Memorial Pipes and Drums Band. Rob advised that the Band had travelled to Libya during August / September 2009 to participate in a Tattoo style celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Great Alfatah Revolution. During their visit to Libya, the Band also visited Tobruk and conducted a Memorial Service at the Tobruk Cemetery, where many Australian WW2 servicemen are buried, including a number who were killed in action whilst serving with the 2nd / 3rd Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. We are grateful to Rob Bennet for providing the story written by Ken Butterworth and for the photos taken during the Band’s visit to Libya and Tobruk.


By Ken Butterworth – President

The Rats Of Tobruk Memorial Pipes & Drums Inc.

I must admit that when the email arrived at home back in November 2008, we were absolutely amazed. It was from Vitaly Miranov inviting our Band to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in August / September 2009.

There were to be five Edinburgh Tattoo style performances commencing on the 1st September to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Great Alfatah Revolution and the coming to power of Muammar Gaddafi. It seems that members of the Libyan Government had been at the first Kremlin Zoria and were impressed with the format.

Other countries that were sending performers were as follows:

  • Libya – joint band of the Libyan Armed Forces
  • Austria – Military Music Band Tyrol
  • France – French Foreign Legion Marching Band
  • Russia – Chief Military Band of the Ministry of Emergency Situations
  • Ukraine – Central Air Force Band
  • Great Britain – Band Pres Porth Tywyn
  • Malta – Band of the Armed Forces of Malta
  • Mexico – Symphonic Band of the Mexican Navy
  • Italy – Banda della Brigata Meccanizzata Sassari
  • Algeria – National Guard Band
  • Egypt – Egyptian Military Band
  • Tunisia – Tunisian Army Band
  • Pakistan – Three Arms Band of the Pakistani Army
  • Ethiopia – Ethiopian Army Band
  • Senegal – Senegal Armed Forces Band
  • Australia – The Rats Of Tobruk Memorial Pipes & Drums Inc
  • New Zealand – Pipes and Drums of Christchurch City
  • South Africa – Transvaal Scottish Pipe Band

Other countries invited included Canada and Scotland who declined.

This left the Pipe Band side very thin with only three Bands and further depleted when Transvaal Scottish withdrew with two days to go.

Stuart Samson had declined the offer to co-ordinate the Pipes and Drums due to his involvement with the Glasgow Piping College and the Basel Tattoo. The position eventually fell to Robin Loomes, Pipe Major of the Christchurch Band.

The two major reasons we said “yes” apart from the opportunity to see this part of the world, were firstly to be an all expenses paid trip including international airfare, and the promise of a visit to Tobruk. Whilst there, we would conduct a remembrance service in the Tobruk cemetery where so many Australians are buried. These include Ron Barassi’s father, and Corporal John (Jack) Edmondson the first Australian to be awarded a Victoria Cross in World War II. Also a number of Bob Semple’s mates who were killed when the truck they were travelling in received a direct hit.

The logistical side of the trip had its many highs and lows, but with Emirates the designated carrier, we departed Melbourne on 25th August. Prior to departing, our passports had to go to Canberra not only to get visas, but the front page had to be translated into Arabic.

Our total strength was one Drum Major, fourteen Pipers, ten Drummers, and five others which included the President, Secretary, and two chaperones for our junior members, the names of all as follows:

Drum Major Kathleen Matthies Pipe Major David McNamara
Pipers – Bruce Macfarlane, Andrew McKay, Les Kenfield, Bruce MacPhie, Deborah Clark, Nicole Koenig, Margaret Hooper, Sharon Urquhart, David Hynd, James Mackinnon, Lloyd Page, Stuart Robertson, Emma Hood.
Drummers – Bass – Robert Drummond
Sides – Drum Sergeant Robert Bennett, Pauline Kenfield, Hayden Middleton, Peter Robertson, Marcus de Rijk
Tenors – Ron Chrystal, Blair O’Brien, Ellie Mackinnon, Matthew Clark
Support crew –
President Ken Butterworth Secretary Mary Butterworth
Husband of Drum Major Greg Matthies
Chaperones Vicki Middleton & Joanne Lightbody

On arriving in Tripoli, we were met by a Libyan Government Official and Tom Yates, the Australian Consul General who ushered us through customs. Tom had been invaluable in the lead up to our trip and even more so when we finally touched down in Tripoli. Tripoli Airport is quite small and very old (not as bad as Cairo). A new terminal is under construction to cater for the ever-growing tourist trade and business representatives. Our accommodation along with rest of the cast, was the Janzour Tourist Resort just out of Tripoli. This is very nice with four to a room, and is right on the beach so we can swim in the Mediterranean or the salt water pools. Food is very different being mostly lamb or chicken with salads, rice or couscous. Also a lot of pasta which reflects the Italian influence from colonial days.

Rehearsals got under way on the 28th August at the Libyan Naval Academy which is just down the road from where we are staying. Being only two Pipe Bands though, meant we are usually left standing around waiting whilst the Military Bands sort themselves out. This involved numerous marches on and off the parade ground interspersed by production meetings of group leaders and the producers. Of course, the Pipe Bands march on and get it right the first time, which means we can finally go home.

Tonight the Pipe and Drum Major go in to Tripoli to see Green Square (not Red) where the parade will take place. If anyone cares to ‘google’ Green Square Tripoli, you will see an old fort on one side of the square. The Bands would march on from the opposite side of the square and form up on either side of the Austrian Band for the finale, where we would play MacPherson’s Lament with the Military Bands. All the dignitaries would be seated in grandstands with their backs to the fort.

Upon the return of the Pipe Major and Drum Major, we were informed there would be a rehearsal of the finale on Green Square tonight commencing at 2300hrs and finishing at 0300hrs. The buses arrived at 2100hrs and after a harrowing trip in to the city with the assistance of a police escort, we finally arrived around 2300hrs. This trip would normally take any sane Aussie around twenty minutes, however, we were in Ramadan, which means most things don’t happen until after sunset.

The roads were absolute chaos and the city was teeming with people. Shops and restaurants were doing a roaring trade. The military did a great job keeping the general populace out of the way and our five non-performers did a good job keeping an eye on our equipment and providing water to our Band. The temperature is still in the high twenties even at this late stage, and during the day climbs to the high thirties and low forties.

Most members slept in the next morning and missed breakfast, however, there were no rehearsals scheduled until that evening. One disappointing thing occurred when we were told that all individual group performances were to be reduced to four and a half minutes, meaning the Pipe Band segment would only be the march on tunes (we would have to drop the standing selection).

Our Drum Major Kathleen had worked on the idea that the Pipers would form the number forty, and the Drummers remain in block formation. This was now relegated to the rubbish bin. The two Bands would simply march on, do a number of front to rears, and retire. The Tattoo style performances had also been reduced from five to one with the other major performance being a march past with the obligatory salute to the dignitaries. Things were changing by the hour.

Friday was free until 2100hrs when we again journeyed to the Square. This night was so frustrating with many false starts, then the Pipe Bands not being required at all, and the Military Bands having no end of trouble getting their performance together. Finally they sent for the buses at 0130hrs.

Sunday the 30th sees most members sleeping in with only a few hardy souls braving breakfast. This afternoon we were feted with a visit by Tom Yates, the Consul General for Australia in Libya, and Tim Fischer A.C., former Deputy Prime Minister and Australian Ambassador to the Holy See. Tim was here as the Australian Government Representative for the 40th Anniversary commemorations. After a photo session and a few tunes on the pipes, it was off to dinner before changing in to uniform for the full dress rehearsal on Green Square.

The rehearsal started at 2200hrs and we arrived back at our accommodation at 0300hrs, however the night was certainly not without drama. Blair O’Brien, one of our 16 year old side drummers, had to be taken off in an ambulance after coming down with severe stomach cramps.

She was most distressed, and it was most likely brought on by the heat, lack of normal diet, and the strenuous schedule of the last couple of days. Her mother, who came along as chaperone, accompanied her. The other problem we had was the crowd. Both us and the Kiwi’s were marching on from a small street perpendicular to the main square. This street is flanked by two large restaurants and another smaller square which is a seething mass of humanity. They were all pressing in on us wanting photos, and just being curious.

At one stage it was so bad, we were compressed in to a circle of approximately four metres, and had to be rescued by security, who threatened to wade in with batons. I personally had to remonstrate with some of our members who were agreeing to be photographed, thereby inflaming the situation. In the end we had to move out on to Green Square to escape the crowd. Rehearsals finished around 0230hrs, so it was 0330hrs before any of us got to bed.

Monday the 31st, most missed breakfast this morning with nothing happening until 1500hrs when we met at the buses and journeyed to the Naval Academy to iron out any bugs from last night’s rehearsal, then back to the resort for dinner. Robin, the piping co-ordinator, then wanted to change the format of our tunes by adding ‘Skye Boat Song’ and ‘Glasgow City Police Pipers’. This was fraught with danger as up till this time, all the tunes had been 4/4 marches, ‘Will Ye No Come Back Again’ and ‘No Awe To Bide Awe’ were played with the Military Bands, then we marched off to ‘Scotland The Brave’ and ‘Black Bear’.

After dinner we hastily donned full kit and on the buses for a 2100hrs departure. The whole of Green Square and its’ surrounding streets had been placed in lockdown with no public entry, and all businesses closed so there would be no repeat of the previous nights fiasco.

Once on to the parade ground, the wheels really fell off. Our short segment with the Drummers failing to get the change from ‘Skye Boat Song’ in to the jig. I don’t know how it sounded from inside, but standing on the side lines was bad enough. Anyway, with very little rehearsal time left before tomorrow’s big parade, the officers will have to sort something out. Tonight also saw us have a photo taken with the Band of the French Foreign Legion, an opportunity not to be missed.

We also observed the remnants of a large tree. On the previous night this had been filled with screaming locals, and had finally come crashing down spilling bodies in all directions.

Just before this however, I started to get severe stomach cramps and moved away from our group to try and hide the fact that I was not feeling well. My eagle eye wife, however, saw me and soon I was surrounded by concerned members of our group. I was ushered to a park bench where they loosened my belt, and administered so much water I thought I was turning in to a fish. An ambulance on scene was summoned, and I was able to talk to the paramedics, but there was no way I was going anywhere in that ambulance. After half an hour I was able to make my way to our bus and by the time we arrived back at Janzour, I felt much better.

We would all kill for some cereal and toast, also anything but hard boiled eggs and pasta. There is generally fresh fruit (floury apples and soft bananas) and yoghurt with tea and coffee in the morning. Lunch consists of various salads along with bowls full of unknown origin. The lamb and chicken looks like it was cut with a chainsaw, and is generally boiled then covered with some sauce or curry, and floating in fat.

I think if we saw a cow, we would all get out our Skean Dhu’s and butcher it on the spot. Also living on the Mediterranean, you would think we would get plenty of fresh fish.

Tuesday, 1st September, the day of the big parade dawned. On to the buses at 1600hrs for our usual kamikaze ride in to the city. Once there however, we had a substantial walk to our usual start point due to the lockdown of Green Square and its’ precinct. We had to go through metal detectors and everyone was patted down, all instruments were searched, even the canisters inside pipe bags. A helicopter continually flew overhead and there were snipers and soldiers on the rooftops. Security was unbelievable.

The parade started with a fly-over of all sorts of military aircraft. The Military Bands went on and played continuously for over an hour and a half, while troops representing various nations marched past. Finally came all the army weaponry starting with Land Rovers with rocket launchers on the back and proceeding to massive field funs.

Then came the tanks, their enormous rumble as they clattered across the Square was followed by missiles mounted on the back of massive trucks.

Finally, us and the Kiwi’s marched on to join the brass bands to ‘Bonnie Lass’, then there was a joint playing of ‘Will Ye No Come Back Again’ and ‘No Awe to Bide Awe’. The two Pipe Bands then went straight into ‘Scotland The Brave’ and ‘Black Bear’. At a designated point, we cut out and the brass bands struck up, did a left turn, and marched off. It was all over, so back on the buses for a later dinner back at Janzour.

Wednesday 2nd September

Another change of plans – originally told we had the day off till this evening when we were due back on Green Square for the Tattoo. We had arranged a practice with the New Zealanders for 1100hrs, but that had to be cancelled. They want a complete rehearsal back at the Naval Academy. Most members spent the afternoon swimming, as tonight is the show where each country gets to showcase its’ own talents.

Upon arrival at Green Square, we were ushered to our starting point, once clearing security. Each country lined up ready in turn to go on. The evening started with an artillery salute of forty rounds, followed by one of the most impressive fireworks displays seen. What was most disconcerting to us was this took place no more than seventy-five metres from where we assembled.

We could feel the concussion as the pieces of pyrotechnics rained down around us. One could just envisage a drummer screaming down the road with their feather bonnet ablaze. Finally, our two bands marched on and everything came together on the night as they say. The finale also went off without a hitch, which pleased the organisers no end.

During our total time in rehearsals and performances, our five support crew had kept all members well hydrated with copious amounts of bottled water. It was then on to the buses at 0245hrs for a well earned rest.

Some interesting observations on Libya:-
Where we have signs warning of the danger of kangaroos, they have signs warning of the danger of camels.
Petrol recently went up to 12 cents per litre, formerly 7cents per litre.
The traffic lights have a large digital countdown clock which shows how many seconds before they go green. Great for the drag racers.
You can buy non-alcoholic beer in cans.
Most common languages spoken are Arabic and French.

Thursday, 3rd September
After getting to bed after 0330hrs, Drum Major Matthies has just pounded on the door to say if we want to go to Sabratah, then we need to be on the bus in 15 minutes. Unfortunately, my wife and I cannot go as we are required to attend a dinner at the Australian Consul General’s home which will be attended by Tim Fischer and some business people. It’s now 1400hrs and the Band have just returned. The entire cast was not taken to Sabratah, but taken to the Bab Al Aziziya compound which in 1986, the Americans bombed killing the Colonel’s adopted daughter and injuring two sons.

The Band has been informed that they now need to be on the bus at 1730hrs for a civic reception.

Both myself and my wife Mary, and Pipers Bruce MacPhie and Andrew McKay had a wonderful evening with Tim Fischer who is an excellent raconteur and spoke on many subjects. I gave a short speech on the origin and profile of the Band to approximately thirty Australian business leaders and their wives, and consumed a small amount of fine Australian wine and excellent food, all provided by Woodside.

The entire cast were taken to an Army base which had been set up with marquees. Dinner was provided in the form of a lunch pack containing rice and a piece of roast chicken, a tetra pack of juice, and some water. After another fireworks display and some local entertainment, we were presented with a certificate for all members commemorating the visit, and the Band received a medal especially struck for the occasion. They arrived home at 0210hrs.

Friday 4th September

Today is a ‘do nothing day’ so some of the Band members lounged around the pool, went for a swim or were off scuba diving. We are still waiting on the final details of our trip tomorrow to Tobruk.

Saturday 5th September

This morning we woke at 0500hrs for an early departure to Tobruk. Our flight was to depart at 0900hrs. On arrival at Tripoli airport, we checked in the instruments and uniforms and caught up with Tim Fischer and Tom Yates. We were then joined by the British Ambassador to Libya Sir Vincent Fean, and the Maltese Ambassador, Doctor George Cassar and his wife.

We were all ushered aboard our private V.I.P. charter jet, a BAE146, for the hour and twenty minute flight. With only thirty-seven people on board a one hundred and forty-six seat plane, there was plenty of room to move around. We flew out over the Gulf of Sidra and directly over Benghazi. On touching down in Tobruk, we couldn’t help but note half a dozen MIG fighters parked on the runway. A bus then picked us up from the runway for the short trip to the Tobruk Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.

On arrival the Band changed in to full kit then paraded to the Australian Memorial where the dignitaries awaited. We conducted a very moving ceremony with speeches, wreaths laid, and letters from home read. I then read the Ode, Bruce Macfarlane played the Lament, followed by a minute’s silence. David McNamara then played the Australian and British National Anthems. The Band then retired and broke off. It was then time to disperse and visit various graves, in particular those mates of Bob Semple, and also visiting the grave of Ron Barassi Senior, and John Edmondson. We then moved on to the Knightsbridge Cemetery passing the magnificent harbor and the German War Memorial.

Finally we visited the famous fig tree, under which is a cave used by the Australians as a Regimental Aide Post during the Siege.

By then it was time to return to our aircraft for the flight back to Tripoli. On the way we had a brief look at the magnificent harbor and port of the town.

On arrival back at Janzour, it was time for dinner, then most started packing as our flight departs at 1530hrs on Sunday back to ‘Oz’.

At the airport we said our final farewell to Kamahl our interpreter, and Tom Yates who had come to see we got off okay. Finally, let me conclude by saying that without Tom this trip may have not happened. He worked behind the scenes to procure our visas, and I suspect the trip to Tobruk. He was there for us whether it was changing currency, obtaining sim cards for our phones, and our general well-being. THANK YOU TOM!!

Ten members of our team travelled straight home via Dubai, with the other twenty travelling to Singapore for a stop-over.