Australian armoured units of World War II

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Members of the 2/4th Armoured Regiment with a M3 Grant tank in 1942

Armoured units made a relatively small, but important, contribution to Australia’s war effort during World War II. While Australia formed three armoured divisions and two independent armoured brigades during the war, Australian armoured units only saw action as independent regiments and companies supporting larger infantry formations.

Pre-war[edit]

The Australian Army formed its first armoured units in the late 1920s when two independent Tank Sections equipped with Vickers Medium tanks were formed in New South Wales and Victoria. An armoured car regiment was formed in 1933 based on the 19th Light Horse Regiment. A second armoured car regiment was formed in Sydney in 1939.

As with the rest of the Australian Army, the outbreak of war in 1939 lead to a dramatic expansion of Australia’s armoured force. Each of the four divisions in the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was authorised a cavalry reconnaissance regiment equipped with light tanks and scout carriers.

Divisional cavalry regiments[edit]

Tanks and carriers of the 9th Divisional Cavalry Regiment in Syria in 1941 (AWM 041776)

Until the formation of the 1st Armoured division, the three AIF divisional cavalry regiments were Australia’s only armoured units. What the Australian armoured force lacked in numbers, however, was more than made up by the intense activity of these regiments in the Middle East.

While all four AIF Divisions were authorised a divisional cavalry regiment, only three regiments were eventually formed as it was wrongly believed that the 8th Division did not need armoured support in Malaya. The three AIF Divisional cavalry regiments were:

In December 1941, four militia light horse regiments were converted to form Divisional reconnaissance battalions. These battalions were re-designated as Cavalry Regiments in late 1942. The four units were:

  • 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion (ex 2nd Light Horse Regiment)
  • 8th Reconnaissance Battalion (ex 8th Light Horse Regiment)
  • 21st Reconnaissance Battalion (ex 21st Light Horse Regiment)
  • 25th Reconnaissance Battalion (ex 25th Light Horse Regiment)

The organisation of a divisional cavalry regiment was:

  • Regimental Headquarters (4 light tanks, 2 carriers)
  • Administration Squadron
  • Three Fighting Squadrons each with:
    • One Squadron Headquarters (2 light tanks, 2 universal carriers)
    • Two light tank troops (each with 3 light tanks)
    • Three carrier troops (each with 3 carriers)

In early 1943, the AIF divisions and three of the militia divisions were converted from motorised infantry to light infantry 'Jungle Divisions'. As part of this conversion, the AIF divisional cavalry regiments were re-formed as unarmoured commando regiments with the regimental headquarters commanding previously independent commando companies. The 3rd and 5th Divisions' cavalry regiments appear to have been disbanded. Armoured support for the jungle divisions was provided, when required, by elements of the 4th Armoured Brigade Group.

Carrier platoons and companies[edit]

The 13/33rd Australian Infantry Battalion's Carrier Platoon at Sydney in 1943 (AWM 053617)

During the early years of the war all Australian infantry battalions were authorised a platoon of Universal Carriers. The Carrier Platoon's main roles were to transport the Battalion's crew served weapons and conduct reconnaissance. The carriers were also occasionally used to transport infantry.

Experience in New Guinea in 1942 demonstrated that, like almost all vehicles, the Universal Carrier was ill-suited to the dense jungle terrain common throughout the south-west pacific. As a result, when the Australian Army restructured its six front-line infantry divisions as Jungle Divisions in 1943 the infantry battalion Carrier Platoons were disbanded and replaced by a single divisional carrier company. The divisions which were retained on the British-pattern organisation retained their battalion carrier platoons. Due to the Universal Carrier's vulnerability in jungle terrain the divisional carrier companies were mainly used to transport supplies to forward positions and provide defence for the division's rear areas. While the carrier companies continued to train for offensive roles it is unclear if they were ever used for this purpose.

Universal Carriers were also issued to anti-tank and armoured regiments during the war:

  • Several anti-tank regiments were issued with 2 pounder guns mounted on modified Australian-built Universal Carriers.
  • Standard Universal Carriers were issued to the Army's Armoured Regiments in 1941 and early 1942 for training purposes and to provide the Army with a minimal armoured capability until the arrival of large numbers of M3 Grant and M3 Stuart tanks in April 1942.

Armoured divisions and brigades[edit]

The 2/10th Armoured Regiment during a training exercise in Western Australia in 1943 (AWM 043801)

The 1st Armoured Division was formed in 1941. Following the outbreak of hostilities with Japan a further two armoured divisions and two independent armoured brigades were formed:

Following the disbandment of the 1st Armoured Division in September 1943 the Division's 1st Armoured Brigade survived as an independent brigade group until it was also disbanded in September 1944.

Armoured regiments and battalions[edit]

Australian howitzer-equipped Matilda II tank in combat at the Battle of Tarakan

Upon its formation the 1st Armoured Division was organised along British lines and was authorised six armoured regiments and an armoured car regiment. While these regiments began forming in mid-1941 they were not issued with any tanks as it was planned to equip the Division and finalise its training when it deployed to the Middle East between December 1941 and March 1942. Following the outbreak of war in the Pacific and the decision to retain the Division in Australia the 1st Armoured Division's armoured regiments were issued with newly arrived M3 Grant medium tanks in April and May 1942, and the Division completed its training in northern New South Wales.

The Australian Armoured Corps was expanded in early 1942, with the conversion of the 2nd Motor Division to the 2nd Armored Division. This conversion involved three motorised regiments being armoured with M3 Grants and a further motorised regiment being converted to an armoured reconnaissance regiment. In addition, the 3rd Army Tank Brigade was formed to provide armoured support to infantry units. In keeping with this role, the Brigade's three Tank Battalions were equipped with Matilda II infantry tanks.

While a third armoured division was formed in late 1942, this only resulted in the formation of an additional armoured reconnaissance unit as the 1st Armoured Division's 2nd Armoured Brigade was assigned to the new division and provided its armoured units.

Due to the Matilda II's superior performance in jungle terrain almost of the armoured units to be deployed to the South West Pacific were re-equipped with these vehicles before deployment.

Independent Squadrons[edit]

Casualties[edit]

Due to the nature of their employment, casualties amoung Australian armoured units during World War II were limited in comparison with the infantry. In total, the three Divisional Cavalry Regiments sustained 82 men killed or died of wounds, while the armoured regiments lost another 36 men.[1]

Summary list of Australian armoured units[edit]

This table was derived from Dust, Sand & Jungle by Paul Handel and Australian Armour by Major General R.N. Hopkins (Retired) and the unit war diaries available on the Australian War Memorial website[dead link]. It is currently incomplete as it does not contain the armoured training formations and the anti-tank regiments issued with self-propelled guns and may not include all of Militia divisions' reconnaissance regiments and the armoured brigade reconnaissance squadrons.

Note that the date of formation given for the Militia units is in most cases the date they were converted from a horse-mounted or motorised unit into an armoured unit.

Unit Name Formed Disbanded Notes
Armoured Divisions
1st Armoured Division July 1941 September 1943 Formed as an AIF Division
2nd Armoured Division February 1942 February 1943 Previously 2nd Cavalry Division and 2nd Motor Division
3rd Armoured Division November 1942 October 1943 Previously 1st Cavalry Division and 1st Motor Division
Armoured Brigades
1st Armoured Brigade July 1941 September 1944 Independent brigade group from September 1943 to September 1944
2nd Armoured Brigade July 1941 October 1943 Transferred from 1st Armoured Division to 3rd Armoured Division in November 1942
3rd Army Tank Brigade May 1942 September 1943
4th Armoured Brigade January 1943 End of war Brigade HQ previously 6th Armoured Brigade HQ
6th Armoured Brigade February 1942 February 1943 Previously 6th Australian Cavalry Brigade and 6th Motor Brigade. HQ to 4th Armoured Brigade upon disbandment.
Armoured Car Regiments
1st Armoured Car Regiment Late 1933 Converted to 1st Motor Regiment in 1941, later 1st Army Tank Battalion
2nd Armoured Car Regiment March 1939 Converted to 2nd Army Tank battalion in 1942
6th Armoured Car Regiment February 1942? February 1943? May never have been converted from a motor regiment. Previously the 6th Light Horse Regiment.
2/11th Armoured Car Regiment August 1941 April 1944
12th Armoured Car Regiment November 1942 October 1943? Previously the 12th Light Horse Regiment and 12th Motor Regiment
Divisional Cavalry and Reconnaissance Regiments
6th Divisional Cavalry Regiment November 1939 End of war Converted to the 2/6th Commando Regiment in early 1943
7th Divisional Cavalry Regiment May 1940 End of war Converted to infantry in late 1942 and to 2/7th Commando Regiment in April 1943
9th Divisional Cavalry Regiment July 1940 End of war Formed as 8th Divisional Cavalry Regiment. Converted to the 2/9th Commando Regiment in December 1943
2nd Reconnaissance Battalion ? July 1943 Militia unit, previously the 2nd Moreton Light Horse. Later renamed 2nd Cavalry Regiment. This unit was the 5th Division's reconnaissance battalion in mid-1942.
8th Reconnaissance Battalion December 1941 Early 1943? Militia unit. This unit was the 3rd Division's reconnaissance battalion. Renamed 8th Cavalry Regiment in late 1942.
10th Light Horse Regiment January 1942 December 1943 Militia unit. Named 10th Reconnaissance Battalion between 1940 and 1942. It is, however, if unclear if this unit was even partially armoured. Patrolled the Bunbury to Lancelin area of Western Australia on horseback. It formed part of the Australian III Corps corps troops in early 1943.
21st Reconnaissance Battalion December 1941 May 1943 Militia unit, previously the 21st Light Horse Regiment. Renamed 21st Cavalry Regiment in September 1942. As an armoured unit this battalion served under a number of divisions. Upon disbandment the regiment's personnel were used to form a number of carrier companies and platoons.
25th Cavalry Regiment ? ? Militia regiment. This unit was the 4th Division's divisional cavalry regiment in late 1942.
Armoured Regiments
2/4th Armoured Regiment October 1942 End of war Formed from 2/1st and 2/2nd Light Tank Squadrons and D Squadron, 2/11th Armoured Car Regiment
2/5th Armoured Regiment July 1941 End of war
2/6th Armoured Regiment August 1941 End of war
2/7th Armoured Regiment August 1941 October 1944
2/8th Armoured Regiment July 1941 February 1944 Converted to the 41st, 42nd and 43rd Landing Craft Companies upon disbandment
2/9th Armoured Regiment August 1941 End of war
2/10th Armoured Regiment July 1941 September 1944
12th Armoured Regiment June 1942 April(?) 1943 Previously 18th Light Horse Regiment and 18th Motor Regiment
13th Armoured Regiment May 1942 October 1943 Previously 13th Light Horse Regiment. Re-designated 13th Motor Regiment in March 1943
14th Armoured Regiment June 1942 March 1943 Previously 17th Machine Gun Regiment, 4th Armoured Regiment and 104th Motor Regiment
1st Army Tank Battalion May 1942 End of war Previously 1st Armoured Car and 1st Motor Regiment. Redesignated 1st Armoured Regiment in 1944.
2nd Army Tank Battalion May 1942 March 1944 Previously 2nd Armoured Car Regiment
3rd Army Tank Battalion May 1942 March 1944 Raised as 3rd Armoured Regiment
Independent Squadrons
2/1st Light Tank Squadron October 1941 October 1942 Re-designated 1st Armoured Brigade Reconnaissance Squadron in early 1942
2/2nd Light Tank Squadron October 1941 October 1942 Re-designated 2nd Armoured Brigade Reconnaissance Squadron in early 1942
3rd Armoured Brigade Reconnaissance Squadron February 1942? February 1943?
2/1st Reconnaissance Squadron September 1943 End of war Previously 1st Armoured Division HQ Squadron. Later re-designated Special Equipment Squadron
2/1st Amphibious Armoured Squadron August 1944 End of war
1st Armoured Car Squadron January 1946 Formed for occupation duties in Japan. Expanded to form the 1st Armoured Regiment following its return to Australia in July 1949.
Divisional Carrier Companies
3rd Division Carrier Company Early 1943? End of war
5th Division Carrier Company Early 1943? End of war
6th Division Carrier Company Early 1943? End of war
7th Division Carrier Company Early 1943? End of war
9th Division Carrier Company Late 1943? End of war
11th Division Carrier Company Early 1943? End of war

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Beale 2011, p. 242.

References[edit]

  • Beale, Peter (2011). Fallen Sentinel: Australian Tanks in World War II. Newport, New South Wales: Big Sky Publishing. ISBN 978-1-921941-02-3. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Handel, Paul (2003). Dust, Sand & Jungle: A History of Australian Armour During Training and Operations, 1927-1948. RAAC Memorial and Army Tank Museum. 
  • Hopkins, R.N.L. (1978). Australian Armour: A History of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps 1927–1972. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service. ISBN 0-642-99407-2. 

External links[edit]