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Pioneers of Australian Armour – Book Review

September 30, 2015

This book presents the earliest mechanised warfare activities of the Australian Army. It covers not only the local construction of armoured cars and the raising and deployment of an armoured car section to the Middle Eastern theatre, but also an account ofhow the first tank was brought to Australia for PR and fundraising purposes in 1918.

It was a remarkable start: pre-war motoring enthusiasts sought and gained permission from the Minister of Defence to form a mechanised armoured unit in 1915, with three of them donating their own Daimler and Mercedes cars. The chassis would be re-fitted with 3/32” armour plate and a machine- gun turret at a South Melbourne civilian engineering works. The 1st Australian Armoured Car Section’s fifteen original members wereeither former sports drivers, mechanics or chauffeurs. They were to showmuch initiative, practicality and resourcefulness in the years ahead.

After vehicle trials at Port Melbourne, they sailed to Egypt in June 1916 and were deployed into the Western Desert against the Senussi tribesmen, learning their trade as they went. Modern soldiers will readily recognise the trials of sand-dune crossing techniques, navigating by compass (but checking away from the vehicle!) and all the vehicle maintenance issues. Later, in Dec 1916, the unit had its vehicles replaced by lighter, stripped-down Model T Fords and, as 1st Aust Light Car Patrol, it deployed in May 1917 for Palestine and beyond with Chauvel’s Desert Mounted Corps. They functioned in all the classic roles: flank protection, route reconnaissance, VIP escort and raids. In Oct 1918 they dashed to Aleppo before the Turkish surrender. They were repatriated as a unit in 1919.

In the first half of the book, the authors have lightly edited the contemporary account written by Captain E. H. James, MC (who raised and led the unit) and then extensively supported it with extracts from official records, soldiers’ letters home, articles published in local newspapers, and over a hundred photographs from family collections (now mostly held at the Army’s Tank Museum). This is followed by a brief biography of each of the 33 men who served (including the later reinforcements). This provides a rich vein of social history for a wider civilian readership, although the stand-alone biographies are necessarily a bit repetitive about common dates of unit deployments and events.

In the second half of the book, the authors give their account of how the first tank (a brand new Mk IV female version, normally armed with machineguns) came to be sent to Australia, and how its 8-man crew (smaller than usual because no need to fire guns, of course) was selected from some mechanically-experienced troops who were medically unfit for further combat duty. They trained at Bovingtonand then sailed home to operate it in public displays. At War’s end, that team was replaced by Permanent Force troops from the Garrison Engineers at Swan Island near Queenscliff, who continued to show it for another three years before it was “mothballed” in 1921, first in Melbourne and later at the new AWM in Canberra, where it still is today. Again, this section of the book is followed by a brief history of each of the men who served with the vehicle.

We are shown that Tank 4643 (later named “Grit” in a public competition) had been preceded by several dummy versions used around Australia to raise war bonds. Nevertheless, the real thing caused a sensation wherever it appeared at Showgrounds and in parades, as the photos and news articles show. It soon had a well-established display routine that included obstacle crossing, building demolition, a static display, plus special rides for some (who paid the equivalent of two weeks’ average wages for the opportunity). The tank was displayed in Adelaide, then Melbourne, Albury, Sydney and Brisbane.

Military readers may not be surprised that bureaucratic red tapeintruded: the crew had to transfer from the AIF and re-enlist with Home Service status. Then State Government authorities had to pay for rail transport (including a different, specially-modified flatcar for each relevant state rail gauge) plus crew meal and accommodation costs. After the war ended, the British Government in its turn billed Australia for the cost of the tank, plus costs for shipping it to Australia (eventually withdrawing these claimsafter outraged protests from this loyal ally).

As stated by the current Head of the Royal Australian Armoured Corpsin his foreword, this book fills a significant gap in our Army’s history. It deserves a wider audience too. These men were trailblazers in a time when such technology was in its infancy.

The Royal United Services Institute of Victoria Library wishes to thank the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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