This article deals with the history and development of tanks by the Australian Army from their first use with the troops in World War I, through the inter war period, World War II, the Cold War and beyond.
The Australian Army has used several different types of tanks since the 1920s. Throughout this period the Army has primarily been a light infantry force, with its tanks mainly being used to provide direct support to soldiers. During World War II three armoured divisions capable of independent operations were formed, but none were deployed outside Australia. The Australian Army's tanks have seen combat during World War II and the Vietnam War, where they proved successful despite the designs employed being considered obsolete.
The first Australian tanks were a small number of British light tanks were operated mainly for training purposes during the 1920s and 1930s. From 1942 large numbers of American light and medium tanks were delivered to Australia, along with British Matilda IIs. In addition, a small number of Australian-designed Sentinel tanks were delivered to the Army during 1942 and 1943, but the type was never issued to combat units. Following World War II the Army standardised on the British Centurion tank, which remained in service until it was replaced with the German Leopard 1s in the mid-1970s. After a debate on whether the Army should continue to operate tanks, the Australian Government replaced the Leopards with a small fleet of American M1A1 Abrams tanks in from 2006, which remain the Army's only tanks. In addition to these types, the Army has operated small numbers of other tank designs for training and evaluation purposes.
The operational use of tanks during the latter part of World War I established the validity of the tank concept. After the war, many nations recognised the importance of tanks, but only a few had the industrial resources to design and build them. During and after World War I, Britain and France were the intellectual leaders in tank design, while other countries generally followed, adopting their designs. The Australian Army, which had initially had bad experiences operating with British tanks during the early stages of their employment during the war, had come to realise their utility after the battles of 1918, and after World War I it sought to build its own armoured force. Initially, the Australian Army procured a number of British-made of Vickers tanks, but it later went on to build and design some of its own during World War II. Since then Australia's armoured forces have fought in a number of battles during key conflicts such as those in World War II and the Vietnam War.
Post World War I
After World War I, many European countries attempted to mechanise their cavalry. In parallel, Australian cavalry also shifted to military armoured units. Australia's army (like the US, French, British and Russian armies) tried various methods to integrate modern armour into their traditional horse cavalry formations, as part of a gradual process of mechanization between 1920 to 1940. Experiences during the war, such as the Batte of Amiens where the Australians had fought as part of an attack by 10 Allied divisions—including Canadian, British and French forces—supported by more than 500 tanks, had shown the impact the tanks could have on the battlefield. As a result, after the war, the Australian Army sought to obtain tanks and so procured British Vickers Medium Mark II tanks to build its force. With this beginning, the Australian Army established an armoured force, the 1st Tank Section, which was formed in 1930.
The unit was based at Randwick, New South Wales and training was undertaken at Greenhills, which was part of the Liverpool Military Area, Sydney. This unit was disbanded in November 1937 with the men and equipment transferred to the newly created 1st Light Tank Company. It was not the Australian Army's only armoured unit as World War II approached. The 2nd Light Tank Company was formed in March 1939 and also equipped with the Vickers Medium Mark II medium tank. In addition, the 1st Royal New South Wales Lancers had been established as light cavalry (reconnaissance) regiment, having converted from horses to armoured vehicles and taking on the role of a motorised machine-gun regiment during the inter-war years. It subsequently saw action in World War II as the 1st Armoured Regiment equipped with Matilda infantry tanks.
World War II
Armoured formations and campaigns
At the start of the war, due to the limitations of the Defence Act (1903), which prevented the government from sending the Militia to fight outside Australian territory, it was decided to raise an all-volunteer force to serve overseas. This force was known as the Second Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF), and many of the 1st Light Horse (Machine Gun) Regiment's members volunteered and assigned to the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion, they took part in the fighting in the Mediterranean theatre.
The 1st Armoured Regiment was originally converted from the 1st Armoured Car Regiment on 5 January 1940. In March 1942, the regiment was again renamed, being converted to the 1st Motor Regiment. This change was short lived however, and it was changed again in May to the 1st Tank Battalion, becoming part of the Australian 3rd Army Tank Brigade, equipped with Matilda tanks. In 1943 the unit became part of the 4th Armoured Brigade and was designated as an AIF unit, thus allowing it to be deployed to any theatre of the conflict, and it deployed to New Guinea in August 1943 and fought in the Battles of Sattelberg and Lakona. The unit was then withdrawn to Australia in mid-1944. On 1 June 1944, the unit was renamed the 1st Armoured Regiment, and in May 1945, it took part in the amphibious landings at Balikpapan in support of the 7th Division, being involved in one of the final Australian campaigns of the war in Borneo.
The Australian 1st Armoured Division was raised in 1941 as part of the 2nd AIF. While the division was originally to be deployed to North Africa in late 1941, it was retained in Australia following the outbreak of the Pacific War. The 1st Armoured Division's armoured regiments were equipped with M3 Grant medium tanks and M3 Stuart light tanks in April and May 1942. Following this, the division was concentrated in northern New South Wales where it completed its training with a series of large exercises around Narrabri. In January 1943, the division was moved to the area between Perth and Geraldton, Western Australia, where it formed part of III Corps, which was tasked to counter the perceived threat of a Japanese invasion of Western Australia. The 1st Armoured Division formed a key element of Australia's mainland defences, but after that threat passed it was disbanded in Western Australia in September 1943.
The Australian 2nd Armoured Division was established on 21 February 1942 by redesignating and reorganising the 2nd Motor Division (which was previously the 2nd Cavalry Division). As an armoured division, it consisted of one armoured brigade of three armoured regiments, and one motor brigade consisting of three motor regiments, supported by an armoured car regiment. It was equipped with M3 Grant medium tanks and M3 Stuart light tanks. The 2nd Armoured Division was disbanded in Queensland on 19 February 1943. Similarly the Australian 3rd Armoured Division was established on 15 November 1942 by redesignating the 1st Motor Division (which was previously the 1st Cavalry Division). As an armoured division the 3rd Armoured was equipped with M3 Grant medium tanks and M3 Stuart light tanks. The division's 3rd Motor Brigade was gradually disbanded between March to August 1943 and the 3rd Armoured Division was disbanded in Queensland on 19 October 1943 as a result of manpower shortages in the Australian Army.
The Australian Army forces also were supplied with the Bren Gun Carrier which was a family of light armoured tracked vehicles built by Vickers-Armstrong and could be used as a anti-tank gun. The vehicle was used widely by British Commonwealth forces during the Second World War.
Meanwhile, during Operation Compass in North Africa, the Australian troops with the 7th Armoured Division had advanced and been part of the forces when Tobruk was captured 22 January, yielding over 25,000 prisoners along with 236 field and medium guns, 23 medium tanks and more than 200 other vehicles.
Due to the capture of British Lieutenant-General Philip Neame by the Germans, Major-General John Lavarack, commander of 7th Australian Infantry Division, was placed in temporary command of all troops in Cyrenaica with the main task of holding Tobruk to gain time for organisation of the defence of Egypt. The Australian troops used the captured Italian tanks painting kangaroos on the side so they would not be attacked by their own side as the tanks played a role in Tobruk's defence during the Siege of Tobruk. Rommel's forces were driving the British back and his initial attack plan called for his tanks to sweep around Tobruk to the eastern side, but at the same time he sent the 15th Panzer Division to attack Tobruk directly from the west. However, the two Australian infantry brigades which had been west of Tobruk—the 20th and 26th Brigades—had succeeded in withdrawing in good order to Tobruk and were placed in covering positions outside the perimeter while the 24th Infantry Brigade, which had been performing garrison duties, and the newly arrived 18th were holding defensive positions on the perimeter. The commander of 9th Australian Division—Major-General Leslie Morshead—set up his troops in a defensive perimeter and as Tobruk was surrounded with German 5th Light Division to the east, the Prittwitz group to the south and the Brescia Division approaching from the west and the Siege of Tobruk began. The siege subsequently lasted for 241 days up to 27 November 1941,
with the Australian 9th Division having been largely replaced by British and Polish troops from the British 70th Division before the garrison was relieved by the Allied 8th Army during Operation Crusader.
The Australian 4th Armoured Brigade was formed in January 1943 to provide armoured support for Australian Army units operating in the South West Pacific Area. The brigade was never intended to serve as a single formation, rather its role was to provide a pool of armoured units from which units and sub-units could be provided to augment infantry forces. The brigade was also responsible for developing doctrine and specialised armoured vehicles for armoured warfare in tropical terrain. In keeping with the brigade's task of providing armoured units to other formations, its armoured regiments were organised into self-supporting regimental groups and the brigade did not possess the reconnaissance, infantry and other supporting elements which were common in World War II-era armoured brigades. Elements of the brigade saw action in the Huon Peninsula campaign of 1943–1944 and attached to the Australian 6th Division during the Aitape–Wewak campaign from October 1944 until the end of the war.
Australian tanks also played a role in the Borneo Campaign of 1945, which was the last major Allied campaign in the South West Pacific Area, during World War II. In a series of amphibious assaults between 1 May and 21 July, the Australian I Corps, under General Leslie Morshead, attacked Japanese forces occupying the island. The tanks of C Squadron of the 2/9th Armoured Regiment was attached to the 26th Brigade Group during the campaign which opened with Oboe 1, with a landing on the small island of Tarakan, off the north east coast on 1 May 1945. This was followed by Oboe 6, in which the remainder of the 2/9th Armoured Regiment was attached to the 9th Division, on 10 June 1945 with simultaneous assaults on the island of Labuan and the coast of Brunei, in the north west of Borneo. A week later, the Australians followed up with attacks on Japanese positions around Weston on the north-eastern part of Brunei Bay. The 1st Armoured Regiment and the Armoured Squadron (Special Equipment) were attached to the Australian 7th Division and took part in the Battle of Balikpapan which was the concluding stage of the Operation Oboe. The landings took place on 1 July 1945. The Australian 7th Division, composed of the 18th, 21st and 25th Infantry Brigades, with support troops, made an amphibious landing, a few miles north of Balikpapan, on the island of Borneo. The landing had been preceded by heavy bombing and shelling by Australian and US air and naval forces. The Japanese were outnumbered and outgunned, but like the other battles of the Pacific War, many of them fought to the death. The battle was one of the last to occur in World War II, beginning a few weeks before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively ended the war. Japan surrendered while the Australians were combing the jungle for stragglers.
Australian tank program
Following Japan's entry into the war in late 1941, the Australian government initially feared that Japan might invade the Australian mainland, and with the UK unable to spare tank production for Australia, a program to produce an indigenous tank was initiated. The Australian tank program designed and developed a cruiser tank called the Sentinel tank, which was the first tank to be built with a hull cast as a single piece, and the only tank to be produced in quantity in Australia. The few Sentinels that were built never saw action as Australia's armoured divisions had been equipped by that time with British and American tanks. Due to a lack of experience in tank design a mission was sent to the US to examine the M3 design and a British officer with many years tank design experience was provided by the UK.
The design used existing parts where available from the M3, simplified where necessary to match the machining capacity present in Australia. The hull was cast as a single piece, as was the turret; a technique not used on the hull of any other tanks of the era. Sixty-five production vehicles had been completed by June 1943. That year, the 3rd Army Tank Battalion was equipped with a squadron of AC1 tanks, which were modified to resemble German tanks and used in the filming of the movie, The Rats of Tobruk. Nevertheless, the completed Sentinel tanks were used for evaluation purposes only and were not issued to operational armoured units, as the Australian Cruiser tank program was terminated in July 1943. By this time the Japanese threat had lessened, and US and British-made M3 Grant and Matilda tanks were being supplied to Australia from the Middle East, and it was felt that Australia's manufacturing resources would be better spent on railway locomotive production. During the early post war period, the tanks were used for training and not declared obsolete until 1956.
Following the end of the war the Australian Army was demobilised and the 1st Armoured Regiment was reconstituted as a reserve formation in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF) on 1 April 1948, adopting the designation of the 1st Armoured Regiment (Royal New South Wales Lancers), in recognition of its previous history. During this time the regiment continued to operate Matilda tanks and was based at Lancer Barracks in Parramatta, in New South Wales. However, in 1949 the regiment was renamed the 1st Royal New South Wales Lancers and its battle honours and history were perpetuated by this unit, in order to reallocate the former name to the tank regiment that was to be established in the new Australian Regular Army.[Note 1] Later, in 1956 the 1st Royal New South Wales Lancers merged with the 15th Northern River Lancers to form the 1st/15th Royal New South Wales Lancers, equipped with a small number of Centurion tanks. Meanwhile, a number of other CMF units operated M3 Grant medium tanks in the immediate post–war period, including the 8th/13th Victorian Mounted Rifles and the 4th/19th Prince of Wales's Light Horse, before also converting to Centurions.
The 1st Armoured Regiment was formed as a tank unit in the new Australian Regular Army on 7 July 1949. Initially, the new regiment was equipped with Churchill tanks,[Note 2] although this was only a temporary measure until Centurion tanks could be acquired. However, due to the perceived unsuitability of the Churchill and the late arrival of the new platform, the regiment was not deployed as part of Australia's commitment to the Korean War. The first Centurions finally began arriving in June 1952, with the regiment receiving 39 tanks. The regiment subsequently saw service during the Vietnam War.
During 1964–1965 the regiment provided most of the men for 1 Troop, A Squadron, 4th/19th Prince of Wales Light Horse, which was subsequently equipped with the new M113A1 Armoured Personnel Carrier and was deployed on active service to South Vietnam in May 1965. In October 1967 the Australian government announced it would increase the size of the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province from two to three infantry battalions, while additional supporting arms, including a tank squadron would also be added to the force. As such in February 1968, C Squadron was sent to Vietnam, with a total strength of 20 Centurion tanks.
Over the next four years all three of the regiment's operational squadrons eventually served in Vietnam, providing invaluable close support to the infantry, particularly during the clearance of Viet Cong bunker systems. Although their value in Vietnam was originally questioned by some, they proved a powerful weapon in both offence and defence, and were responsible for limiting infantry casualties. The Centurions were able to move through the countryside more easily than expected and although they were vulnerable to anti-tank weapons and mines, their firepower and shock action had a decisive effect on the battlefield. In late-May 1968 the tanks played a significant role in the Battle of Coral–Balmoral in May and June 1968.
In February 1969, C Squadron was relieved by B Squadron. On 6–7 June, B Squadron was involved in a fierce action during the Battle of Binh Ba, a village 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) north of Nui Dat. One Australian was killed and 10 wounded, while communist losses included at least 107 killed, six wounded and eight captured. By late-1970 Australia was beginning to reduce its commitment to the war and the size of 1ATF was again reduced from three infantry battalions to two. The tanks, however, continued operations and were involved in heavy fighting at Long Khanh on 6–7 June 1971, as well as numerous smaller actions. The last elements of the regiment were subsequently withdrawn from Vietnam in September 1971. A total of 58 Centurions had served in Vietnam; 42 had suffered battle damage, of which six were beyond repair, while two crewmen had been killed in action.
Post Cold War to the present
There were changes for the 1st Armoured Regiment, and for the Australian Army, with the abolition of National Service after the end of Australian involvement in Vietnam depleting its strength to the point where training was severely restricted until it was reinforced during 1974. During 1973, B Squadron of the 1st Armoured Regiment (designated the Medium Tank Trials Unit (MTTU)) evaluated the German Leopard 1 against the American M60A1 Patton as a replacement for the obsolete Centurions. The Leopard was judged the superior tank, and 90 gun tanks, eight Leopard 1 Armoured Recovery Vehicles Medium and five Leopard 1 bridge layer tanks were ordered. The Australian tanks were designated the Leopard AS 1, and were based on the Leopard 1A3 which had been built for the German Army. The main difference between the Australian and German tanks was the inclusion of a SABCA fire control system, equipment to allow the tank to better operate in the tropics, additional storage boxes on the sides of the tank as well as improved trunnion bearings and combustion cleaners. These tanks were delivered to Australia in batches between 1976 and 1978.
In 2007 the Leopard was replaced by 59 M1A1 Abrams AIM, after 31 years of service. The Leopards never saw operational service, although during the 1999 East Timor crisis the regiment was placed on standby to deploy in the event the conflict escalated, while the regiment was not deployed during Australia's involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Today, the 1st Armoured Regiment is based in Darwin as part of the mechanised 1st Brigade, and is the only armoured unit in the Australian Army to be equipped with main battle tanks, operating the M1A1 Abrams AIM.
Tanks used by the Australian Army
- Vickers Medium Mark II
- Vickers Light Tank Mark VIA
- M3 Light Tank
- M3 Medium Tank - Grant and Lee variants, some used post war to 1955, others converted to Yeramba self-propelled artillery
- Churchill Tank
- Cruiser Tank
- Matilda Tank
- Grant Tank
- Sherman Tank (3 for trials purposes only)
- Stuart Tank
- Australian Cruiser Tank Mk1 - Sentinel – all but three of the AC1 Sentinel tanks were dismantled or disposed of in 1945. Surviving Sentinels can be seen at the RAAC tank museum at Puckapunyal, Victoria (serial number 8030), and at the Bovington Tank Museum (serial number 8049). The only completed AC3 (serial number 8066) is located at the Treloar Technology Centre at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
- Centurion tank
- Leopard 1 Main Battletank
- M1A1 Abrams AIM Main Battle Tank
- See 1st Armoured Regiment (Australia).
- Over 500 had Churchills had been ordered during the war, this was reduced to the 51 already delivered.
- Laffin 1999, p. 114.
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