Australian Armour in the Middle East 1940 to 1943

Last year celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Fall of Crete, the Siege of Tobruk and the Battles for Syria,all of which included Australian forces. The efforts of Australia’s fledgling armoured units is less well known, and this article will attempt to give an overview of Australia armoured operations in the Middle East during the Second World War.

Tanks and soldiers in World War 2
Australian Armour in the Middle East 1940 to 1943
Australian Armour in the Middle East 1940 to 1943

By Paul Handel
Museum Manager, Australian Army Tank Museum

The outbreak of war in September 1939 saw Australia ill-prepared and ill-equipped to undertake a modern war. Each of the newly formed 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Divisions of the 2nd Australian Imperial Force was to contain a Divisional Reconnaissance Regiment, later re-designated as Division Cavalry Regiments.

The pre-war Militia Tank and Armoured Car units and Australian Light Horse Regiments contributed many trained personnel to the Division Cavalry Regiments. The role of a Division Cavalry Regiment was to conduct reconnaissance, surveillance and early warning operations for its division. A War Establishment of 28 Light Tanks, 44 Machine Gun Carriers and 450 men was authorised for each of the Regiments. However, a critical shortage of suitable armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) in Australia at the outbreak of war meant that the Regiments commenced training in Australia using British made Vickers Mark VI A Light Tanks, formerly in service with the Australian Tank Corps, and Australian made Machine Gun Carriers. It was anticipated that the regiments would be equipped from British stocks on their arrival in theatre.

By the end of 1943 all Australian Division Cavalry Regiments had all been converted to Cavalry Commando units. Presumably their skill at reconnaissance and independent operations was thought to be useful in the South West Pacific in a similar role but on foot instead of being mounted. 

Although this appeared an apparent waste of trained and experienced armoured personnel, many officers and NCOs of the Division Cavalry Regiments were transferred to units of the Australian Armoured Corp to pass on their knowledge and experience. It is interesting to note that at the conclusion of the Second World War, Australia’s only armoured formation committed to operations in the South West Pacific area, the 4th Australian Armoured Brigade, had five of its units commanded by former officers of the Australian Division Cavalry Regiments. The Brigade Commander was Brigadier Denzil Macarthur Onslow. That record speaks for itself.