IN MAY 1941, a Bendigo soldier came across dead bodies being whipped by a Saharan sandstorm.
"Hitler's storm troopers, young chaps about 20 [years old]," Colin Odlum later wrote in his diary.
"That [sic] had been so foolish to carry on this mad conquest of Hitler's, their reward a desert grave in the open air."
This is the story of one soldier's experiences over a week-and-a-half at Tobruk, a lonely holdout from German occupation and is the first of two articles written ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Bendigo Soldiers Memorial Institute on November 15.
It is based on a copy of a diary sitting in the institute's museum.
The Libyan town of Tobruk became the scene of a desperate siege for control because of its port, which the Allies had to hold if it had any chance of disrupting German supply lines across north Africa in 1941.
Odlum was a 23-year-old signaller when he was sent to the battle zone 80 years ago.
"First time under fire, feel a bit shaky," he wrote on April 10.
Odlum's life quickly became one of patrols, battles and the constant threat of air raids.
A month after being fired on for the first time, he and his company found themselves clinging to their lines in a grinding battle for control of a series of artillery batteries outside Tobruk.
They were making do with salty water and the hope that the next shell would not land on them.
Then, on May 8, German soldiers surrounded an outpost close to Odlum's and were only driven away when a sandstorm rolled through.
Odlum and his captain wanted to take advantage. Sandstorms broke visibility in the flat, sparse country, making it easier for people to move around without being shot.
The pair struck out for the outpost and found a group of surviving defenders.
The pair dragooned four of them into a reconnaissance party that headed out to search the dead for maps and other clues about what might be coming their way.
That's when they found seven dead stormtroopers.
"We search a Hun that is alive although badly wounded, we get very little information of them," Odlum wrote.
"Get back just before sand storm lifts and he lays there all day until darkness falls."
One of Odlum's possessions from Tobruk eventually wended its way back to Bendigo and today it is sitting in a Soldiers Memorial Institute exhibition on the besieged soldiers.
The piece is a mirror he would have used for shaving.
It is difficult to see your own reflection in the mirror because it points directly up towards the museum's ceiling from a glass case.
Yet it's easy to imagine Odlum looking into that mirror in the months that followed and wondering if his eyes might soon be the ones staring lifelessly out into the distance.
As he shaved, his thoughts might have turned to the German they had met out there.
Did Odlum and his companions know what happened to that man? His diary does not say.
The reconnaissance party was clearly not in a position to take a seriously injured German prisoner back to an isolated outpost.
It could have decided to leave him for his friends to fetch that night.
Australian and German soldiers treated each other with respect, Bendigo Soldiers Memorial historian Peter Ball said.
"One bloke from that time wrote in a book that it was a 'war without hate', at least during that campaign," he said.
"Both sides sort of respected each other and that was the way it was."
There's a picture of another Bendigo soldier that accompanies the exhibition.
An injured Bill Jeffers is shown being carried by another Anzac.
Next to them is a German soldier who has surrendered. He is carrying an Anzac's gun and backpack.
Odlam spent another week on the frontlines as heavy shelling and air raids wore on.
When his company finally did get relieved from the frontlines they could at least take a dip in the Mediterranean and sleep, even if they were awoken by machine-gun bullets pelting the tops of their dug-outs, and a 1000-pound bomb landed close by.
"Not the ideal place for a rest but worse to come," Odlam wrote.
Like this story? Here's another from our history series: Dark spirit possessed man, ruined séance in Bendigo
News had reached them. The Germans had overrun a position. So Odlum found himself among those stamping their feet to keep warm in the frigid pre-dawn, waiting for the sun and the "ack-ack" of machine-gun fire to arrive.
His company's commanders had hoped to bring some tanks with them. But the machines did not arrive in time so some artillery began laying a smokescreen and thousands of rounds of covering fire across the battlefield.
"The enemy is too, it's almost choking but we have to keep our line," Odlum wrote.
"Our skipper's voice is heard in the roar of the fire, shell fire is terrific. Enemy ack-ack fire and shrapnel fire directed at us, it is hell on earth."
Odlum was rotated out of Tobruk in October and was killed the following July during the first battle of El Alamein.
He could not know any of that, the day the tanks failed to show up on time.
All that was clear was that his company was being pushed too far to the Allied forces' right flank and that it was time to make an exit.
"We get back under machine gun fire ... Washed out, we watch our boys being taken prisoner," Odlum wrote.
"If only our tanks had carried out their job. We have a drink of salty tea."
At the going down of the sun that day, the guns fell silent long enough for both sides to go out and find their dead and wounded.
"A lot of faces are missing. But we will remember them," Odlum wrote.
The siege would not be lifted until December.
Remembrance Day is this Thursday. Visit the Bendigo RSL's website to purchase a poppy.
This is the first of two special "What Happened?" stories written to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Bendigo Soldiers Memorial Institute, as well as Remembrance Day. Special thanks to Peter Ball and Peter Swandale for their help on this story.
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can access our trusted content:
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.