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   Battle for Australia Association
    Preparing for the Battle for Australia

Patron: Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC, Governor of New South Wales

This is the story on one unit, one of only two Australian combat units that were "Royal" in 1939, the Royal New South Wales Lancers as they prepared to take part in the "Battle for Australia".

At 2115 on 3 September 1939, tune into any Australian radio station (TV was not around 'till 1956) and you would hear the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies make a speech, in essence:

"Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in consequence of ... by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war on her and as a result Australia is also at war."

Use the controls below to hear the full speech:

Why "as a result"? Well things were different then. By the "Statute of Westminster 1931" an act of the UK parliament had granted most of the trappings of independent sovereignty to the then British Empire's "Dominions". The Australian Parliament, however, had never adopted the Act. That meant that if the UK Government declared war, Australia was at war, Australian troops once they left our waters fell under UK command, and appointments of governors and governors general could be over-ruled by our imperial masters. That was to be all changed with Vice Regal assent to the "Statute of Westminster Adoption Act" on 9 October 1942.

In 1939, the Lancers were a mechanised machine-gun Regiment. The Regiment was placed on a war footing. 7 October 1939 found the Regiment in camp at Campbelltown showground. Each section had two 1.5 tonn trucks carrying a Vickers machine-gun, each with a crew of 3 and another 3 scouts, all but the gunner armed with Lee Enfield Mk III rifles. The gunner also carried a Smith and Wesson Revolver. There were 2 sections per troop. Headquarter Squadron was augmented by an intercommunication troop and an anti-aircraft troop with four Hotchkiss LMGs. The trucks were still hired by the Army from individual soldiers. In camp, soldiers were paid 4 pounds 16 shillings ($9.60*) per week for their 1.5 tonn truck or 2 pounds 8 shillings ($4.80*) for their car. This camp of four weeks was followed by another of 90 days, commencing 24 January 1940 at Wallgrove, adjacent the M4/M7 interchange. The camp administrative officer at Wallgrove was Major de Groot of ribbon cutting fame; the once fascist had metamorphosed into a patriot and had been promoted.

Mechanised Machine Gun Battalions were being formed in the newly raised Second Australian Imperial Force. Many good soldiers and senior commanders left to fill their ranks. Most Lancers were taken on strength of the 2/2 MG Bn AIF, and set-off to fight in Egypt and Libya.

1940 had seen two of the Lancers' COs, David Whitehead and Robert Hawke, leave to join the AIF. John Pye, who had commanded in the mid 1930s, now nearing retirement took command in an era of rapid change.

February 1941 saw the Lancers in camp initially at Narellan; the Regiment was now for the most part a full time unit. November 1941 saw the Regiment at Cowra with Army supplied Ford 1 tonn trucks. When Japan entered the war, many left to join the AIF; some went into captivity in Singapore with 8 Div. The ranks were filled by Universal Service Personel (conscripts). From then on, most members of the Royal New South Wales Lancers volunteered to join the AIF whilst remaining in the Regiment.

December saw the Regiment assembled at Rutherford and classified as a Motor Regiment ("The theory of Motor Regiment warfare is much akin to that of the Light Horse. Just drive up, dismount, fire a few shots, then drive out again. This sounded very easy," [Edwards]) and given the operational role of defending the beaches in NSW north of Newcastle.

"Colonel Pye frequently told us of our glorious heritage and of our honoured affiliation with the renowned King's Dragoon Guards. The CO's inspection of the lines was most impressive. That such a large body of dogs and men was required for such a simple job never ceased to cause us much perplexity." [EDWARDS]

At this point in order to build fitness, route marches were practiced in earnest, up to 100 km in a single exercise. The troops speculated this would steel them if there was a petrol shortage.

On 8 May 1942, the Royal New South Wales Lancers became an Army Tank Battalion to eventually be equipped with Matilda tanks. Officers and Senior NCOs were rotated through the AFV School at Puckapunyal to learn the new skills. The Regiment was issued with a light tank and bren-gun carriers to learn the new tactics.

The Regiment's older officers were by now replaced by young men mostly commissioned from the volunteer ranks. John Pye's health was suffering, he was replaced as CO by Robert Gordon.

The end of 1942 saw the Regiment with a full compliment of Matilda Tanks, training at Singleton. In February 1943 any of those who had not joined the AIF were transferred out; the Regiment was styled 1st Army Tank Battalion AIF (Royal New South Wales Lancers). In March the CO changed again, Derek Glasgow, an officer with tank combat experience in Egypt and Libya assumed command. Officer ranks were also augmented with men who had seen combat.

The Regiment was honed and ready. RHQ had 4 tanks, there were three sabre (or combat) squadrons, SHQ with 3 tanks and five troops each with 3 tanks. Two of the tanks in each troop had a two pounder (1 kg) gun, the third a 3 inch (76.2 mm) howitzer. Much tropical training took place around Southport QLD, as the Lancers anticipated combat deployment.

On 1 August 1943 the Regiment was augmented by the elements necessary to survive as a mechanised unit in a tropical environment against the fanatical Japanese enemy. On 8 August the first elements sailed out of Townsville headed for Milne Bay in New Guinea.

John Howells 2022
References: Lancers' Regimental History and Philip Edwards' Story
Mr Menzies' 1939 Speech courtesy NFSA
*Direct conversion to Australian Decimal Currency as at 14 February 1966.

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