6th Australian Division Cavalry Regiment

Captured Italian Tanks were used by 6 Australian Division Cavalry Regiment during the assault on Tobruk

The 6th Division Cavalry Regiment had only two months training in Australia before being embarked for overseas service in January 1940.

Their main training took place in Palestine and later in Egypt, where, equipped with Machine Gun Carriers, they started using armoured vehicles and developing expertise in the handling of them. Six old Vickers Light Tanks Mark IIB were issued in October 1940 from the depot in Abbassia.

The 6th Division Cavalry Regiment was the first Australian unit to go into action in the Second World War, when they contacted the Italians at Fort Maddalina and Fort Garn on 11/12 December1940. The bulk of the Regiment was engaged in actions around Siwa and Giarabub, using Machine Gun Carriers and trucks. A Squadron, under Major Denzil Macarthur-Onslow, was detached to the Western Desert Force and, equipped with only Carriers, assisted in the capture of Bardia in January 1941. A Squadron was partially re-equipped with Italian Medium tanks, captured at Bardia, for the assault on Tobruk. For this action the Italian Tanks had large white kangaroos, part of the divisional sign, painted on the sides and turrets in order to make themselves known as friendly forces. Of course, with the dust created by their movement the signs were quickly obscured and it was fortunate that they were not engaged with “friendly fire”. It is quite ironic that the first time Australian Armoured Troops went into battle with tanks, as opposed to Machine Gun Carriers, that the tanks were captured enemy vehicles. Tobruk was captured, the Australian Cavalry being used to cover the deep penetration by the 19th Australian Infantry Brigade to destroy enemy artillery. Only seven of the captured Italian tanks managed to complete the approach march, with only one finally reaching the Italian defences.

One troop of carriers, all mounting Vickers and Bren guns, overran one Italian position with the infantry they were supporting and captured seven hundred prisoners. The volume of fire that the carriers were able to produce, with their water-cooled Vickers guns connected to the engine radiators of the carriers, was, in Macarthur-Onslow’s words “…largely responsible for minimizing our infantry casualties”.

The work of Macarthur-Onslow during these battles was outstanding. He was constantly with his forward troops in a carrier, searching for enemy strong points. His practice of standing in his carrier, wearing only a beret, inspired the troops and proved him a very capable mechanised commander. It was said of Macarthur-Onslow that …(he) is worth a squadron of cavalry. For his leadership in the actions in Bardia and Tobruk, Major Denzil Macarthur-Onslow was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

Following the capture of Tobruk, the cavalry was used in the advance guard to capture Derna and then Bengahazi.

Towards the end of May 1941, the Regiment moved to northern Palestine under command of the 7th Australian Division, as the 7th Divisional Cavalry Regiment was at that time detached to the British Army as part of the defences of Cyprus. The Regiment was by now equipped with Vickers Light tanks Mark VIB and Machine Gun Carriers of various types Preparations were commenced for an invasion of Syria, then held by Vichy French Forces. A Squadron was attached to 21st Australian Infantry Brigade to advance along the coast, whilst C Squadron was under command 25th Australian Infantry Brigade which advanced along the Rosh Pinna Road. RHQ and B Squadron were the divisional reserve.

All along the coastal route, very hard fighting was experienced. The rugged hills rose sharply from the road, leaving little room for the manoeuvre of the tanks and carriers. At one stage, the Tank Troops were communicating with naval ships off the coast using signalling flags, and were able to target advancing enemy armoured vehicles. On 13/14 June 1941, A Squadron was relieved by A Squadron 9th Australian Division Cavalry Regiment. C Squadron struck considerable enemy defences near Khirbe. After destroying three machine gum posts, the tank troop came under fire from a fourth post with a 25mm anti-tank gun. Two crew commanders were killed. The gunner of one tank, Trooper Wells, guided the tank to the rear, and then returned to the battle with an artillery forward observer party and the opposition was shelled. For his actions, Trooper Wells was awarded the Military Medal. The next day, an attack by two Carrier Troops met fierce opposition, and all carriers were hit and six men seriously wounded. After further fierce fighting around Fort Khiam, B Squadron took over from C Squadron. After a short lull in the fighting, B Squadron was attacked by French tanks, with strong supporting artillery and machine gun fire. The Australian Cavalry was forced to withdraw.

Whilst undergoing a rest period, A Squadron had taken over three captured French R35 Renault Light Tanks. These tanks, although slower than the Vickers, were much more heavily armoured. B Squadron also received three R35 tanks and both squadrons used them during subsequent patrolling activities. The Regiment returned to Australia in March 1942, following occupation duties in Syria. Moving to Adelaide River in the Northern Territory, the unit was re-equipped with a mixture of Australian and British Machine Gun Carriers, as well as some Australian Two Pounder Anti Tank Carriers. After patrolling and exercising in the Northern territory, a move was made to Murgon in Queensland.

From here the Regiment was converted to a commando unit, taking the title 2/6th Australian Cavalry (Commando) Regiment.