The Royal New South Wales Lancers

 
 
George McLean A Lancer's Story
 
 

Colonel GEORGE BEATON MCLEAN (NX122689) died on 7 December 2012, joined the Regiment at Singleton in September 1942 as a lieutenant fresh from Duntroon. He had joined the Army as a private.

Previously he had been a jackaroo on a grazing property near Inverell. George had the easy open manner of many who have worked in the bush. He would have been 92 in January 2013.

George tells his own story. Training in Queensland to be ready for overseas service we had a field firing range at Caloundra, a fishing and holiday resort just North of Brisbane. The range faced out to sea so warnings were given to shipping and local when firing was to take place.

One day my troop was first up and we found a fisherman in a rowing boat sitting right in the danger area. The fisherman ignored all attempts at communication and time for out shoot was getting very short. In desperation I consulted my gunner, Bert Roughley, about firing a shot to warn the fisherman and persuade him to move. Bert agreed that, at the relatively long range involved, most shooting could be dangerous. However he did suggest that a 3 inch Howitzer shell at that range would descend almost vertically and an HE round with cap on would not burst until about 1 metre under water. The depth of water would stop the shell splinters from spreading and make noise without much danger. Bert's shot was brilliant, exactly level with the boat and 150 metres to the right. No Olympic sculler could have caught that fisherman before his home port and, perhaps surprisingly, no complaint was ever made.

Also at Caloundra we tried a night firing exercise. The idea was to form a laager and set the funs of fixed lines so they could be fired defensively in the dark. Naturally, only those guns aimed toward the danger area could be fired. Jim Hartridge and I had met two WAAF girls whom we invited to see the fireworks which were spectacular. The only problem was that one gunner had set his 3 inch howitzer sights as if it were a 2 pounder so the HE shells landed very short indeed. Two officers and two WAAF spent a very scary few minutes flat in a shallow ditch listening to shell splinters whistling by.

At long last the order arrived for our move to New Guinea. Personnel, except a tank loading party, embarked at Townsville nearly 1300 kilometres north while the tanks were to load at Brisbane. A and C squadron tanks loaded happily but B Squadron met disaster. The crew of the B Squadron ship had left the drain cocks open so as the ship settled with the load and listed with the weight of the last tanks swinging out on the cranes the water gushed in and the ship sank. The delay getting them loaded effectively kept B Squadron out of New Guinea operations.

At Milne Bay, in New Guinea, we came under command of 9th Australian Division, defenders of Tobruk, victors at El Alamein, and witnesses of the disaster to Matilda tanks at Halfaya Pass. They were therefore sceptical of the value of Matildas and were sure, as were many others, that heavy infantry tanks would merely bog in tropical jungle mud. It was up to us to change their views if we were to see action.

The Japanese had a reputation, well earned, for dogged defence in solidly made bunkers of heavy logs which were virtually shell-proof. To convince the infantry of our worth as we persuaded them to build the strongest bunker they possibly could and let us attack it. They made one in the jungle which they claimed was as good as the best the Japs could produce. We took two Matildas to attack the bunker. One used 2 pounder AP to open holes in the wall, the other 3 inch howitzer HE with cap on, to explode inside. Within minutes the bunker was reduced to matchwood. We were now accepted by 9th Division, still with some reservations. C Squadron was warned for possible operations and the regiment moved by sea to Morobe.

We spent quite some time at Morobe, a relatively pleasant sandy area with a beach suitable for swimming. There had been an air raid during our landing there with no damage but next day an LST was hit and 21 crew killed. A nearby radar station attracted several hit and run raids. Latrines in the sand were deep trench style and burnt out periodically with petrol to keep flies down. One of my spare crew, Len Mansell, lit a cigarette while seated and forgetfully tossed the match down the hole. The resulting explosion injured his dignity more than his body but did make him temporarily airborne.

Still at Morobe our Church of England padre was concerned at the small numbers attending his services. In helpful spirit Neyle Cameron and I rounded up all non-Catholics and marched them to next Sunday's service. Still in helpful mode we sat in the front row and sang lustily. To our chagrin after the second hymn Chaplin Gilhespy leaned across and in a stage whisper said: 'Would you two mind not singing. You are putting the others out of tune.' Needless to say at a subsequent squadron concert we brought the house down with our duet rendering of 'One Day When We Were Young'.

Experts at home in Australia decided that tanks in the tropics must have extra cooling for the crew to survive. It fell to my Troop Corporal, Bill Lynch, to try out a cumbersome petrol driven refrigerator unit stuck on the side of the turret. After twelve hours closed down with cold air piped into their tank suits the crew voted solidly to do without it even though medical staff said measurements showed they were better with it.

Early one morning, a month after arrival at Morobe, Commander Scruggs USN appeared in the bay with his LST which had been part of the lift from Milne Bay. He announced cheerfully that he had arrived to take part of the regiment to Langemark Bay to join 9th Division. As we had left 9th Division command when we moved to Morobe this caused some frantic telephoning by RHQ. It was eventually established that one squadron was to be detached to support 9th Division so C Squadron were told to get loaded and go. Two hours after Commander Scruggs' news they were loaded and gone.

C Squadron supported 9th Division at the Finschhafen landing and capture of the heights at Sattelberg. The quickly earned the appreciation of the infantry by knocking out bunkers and other strong points indicated to the tanks by infantry walkie-talkies (US C547 portable wireless). They also used prophylactic fire into suspicious areas along the track. The presence of heavy tanks seemed to be a complete surprise for the Japanese whose 37 and 75 mm guns were ineffective against them. Their explosive charges with magnetic attachment did little damage and anti-tank mines broke tracks but only slowed things a bit. They improvised with bundles of anti-tank mines augmented with large picric acid charges buried on and near tracks. One of these caught 'Calamity Jane' near Gusika; after track repair she was being moved by Tpr Crane, her driver, to pick up the rest of the crew. There was a mighty explosion and 'Calamity Jane' was blown feet into the air, the floor of the compartment was blown off and engines and gear box through the covering louvres. The tank was a write-off but Tpr Crane only badly shaken.

North of Finschhafen A Squadron took over from C Squadron to continue along the coast. During preparation for an attack against Lakona plantation we came across a creek with a high vertical bank of rock coral on the enemy side. Matildas can climb very steeply but not vertically and even our RAE bulldozer could not do much. The engineers produced some explosive but had no means of preparing a bore hole for a charge. A 2 pounder APHE fired into the cliff produced a suitable hole and the charge angled the bank somewhat. The bulldozer then managed to get near the top and with shots ringing off his blade the driver eased the slope some more. Sapling were cut to make a corduroy track but it was still too slippery until Tpr McDade suggested removing alternate saplings to let the tank tracks spuds fit between. This done one tank managed the climb with a judicious bump from behind at the right moment. One tank up used its tow-rope to help others until five were up in time to go in with the infantry. A claimed first for jungle warfare here was five tanks in line for the assault with engine smoke giving cover for the final charge by the infantry.

Further north we crossed the Masaweng River to be confronted by Fortification Hill, steep, rough, and jungle-clad, rising to 250 metres. Running down to the East was Fortification Ridge, still rough and jungly, and ending in a cliff at Fortification Point. We continued the advance with one tank each side of the narrow track climbing up to the point. Thick undergrowth still necessitated direction by wireless from Squadron Leader Bob Watson using a walkie-talkie with the following infantry. Trevor Darby, 5 Troop Leader, was on the left and I on the right, or sea side. Unknown to me the walkie-talkie broke down and both track and cliff veered sharp left. A startled call from Darby in the other tank stopped me with about three feet of tank track poking over the cliff edge sixty feet above the rocky shore.

Now forced to use hand signals we continued on to find a small clearing with a ten metre rock on the far side narrowing space to a one tank front. We had been using a lot of ammunition so my Troop Sergeant, Bill Halliday, now took over the lead. As he edged past the big rock a loud explosion signalled that a Jap 37mm had let fly at ten feet range with an APHE round. Penetrating the left front sponson the shot broke a precious bottle of brandy, being saved for Christmas the following week, and fragments went under Bill's tank to wound Bob Watson in the chest and our Reconnaissance Officer, Ben Hall, in the ankle. Halliday's gunner, Pancho Faunt, disposed of the Jap gun and crew before they could fire a second shot.

After Fortification Point the Japs retreated quickly and our advance continued without unusual incident except for two American planes landing close to RHQ. One a Catalina, landed off-shore and sent a boat in, the other a Thunderbolt, landed on a cleared flat and the pilot walked into the HQ. Both merely asked directions to get back to their bases.

By February out tanks were no longer needed and we returned to Bonga to rest and refit. While we were there we tried some interesting experiments.

Vision in the jungle was always a problem and someone sent us an 'all-round vision cupola' to try in place of the Matilda Cupola which had only a periscope when closed down. The new one was of cast steel about three inches thick and had eight vision slits backed by very heavy glass. Unfortunately, small arms fire entered the slits and broke the glass enough to made it opaque and every AP shot from 37mm up was able to defeat the armour.

Japanese ammunition, and ours, was also tested against the turret of 'Calamity Jane' the tank knocked out by an enhanced anti-tank mine some time earlier. The Jap ammunition, besides the common 37mm AP, APHE, and 75mm HE, included a 75mm shell of quite different type which, although found stacked beside captured guns, had never been fired against us. Our regimental gunnery officer suspected they might be a hollow charge type which, at this time, was known to us only by rumour.

To the chagrin of the artillerymen 25 pounder did no real harm with HE and the AP managed only to warp a corner of the turret roof. Japanese 37mm AP and APHE made some dents and 75mm HE did nothing. At this stage our Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Derek Glasgow, dismissed all except those needed for the trial and said to L/Cpl Pancho Faunt, my sergeant's gunner: "Try the 2 pounder AP. Put it that sort of hollow just right of the mantlet." Pancho fired. Looking through binoculars Glasgow called out: "My god its gone through. Better try another." "Same place, sir?" asked Pancho, "Yes". He fired again. "Hell you've missed" called the CO. "No Sir. You said same place, sir," said Pancho. Close examination revealed a slight burr on the top of the original hole and an exit hole on the far side of the turret. A result which chastened all of us.

Even so, the real shock was yet to come. Using a captured gun we fired the suspected hollow charge round. There was a quite different sort of explosion as it hit the turret and to utter horror there appeared a neat round hole through the armour wit nasty damage inside. We thanked our stars that the Japs had not used this round against us but never found out why. This un-nerving result caused Lieutenant Colonel Glasgow to swear us all to secrecy and we were happy to agree; it must have been effective too because I have never seen or heard any reference to this test. Further, the Japanese never did use this round against us or other Matildas in New Guinea, Bougainvlle or Borneo.

Also at Bonga an American anti-aircraft unit occupied a plateau just above our camp. They were new to New Guinea and inclined to be trigger happy. We didn't mind the occasional false air alarm but did feel hardly done by when a series of hole appeared in the wall of our squadron officer's mess. Trevor Darby poked the nose of his tank over the edge of the plateau and assured then the activity down-slope was not Japanese. Things were much quieter after that.

The Americans really were quite friendly and had more cigarettes than we had ever seen. A brisk trade in souvenirs developed as we stocked up on cigarettes for the expected return to Australia. Actual carriage of these large quantities, as well as fear of customs checks, produced some ingenious stowage arrangements in our tanks, which we naturally expected to accompany us home. In due course our personnel embarked leaving a small party of drivers for the expected tank loading. Then utter dismay, a last minute change in orders had our rear party take the tanks to Madang to hand them over to 2/4 Armoured Regiment for use there and later in Bougainville. 2/4th members have since told me all sorts of horror stories; 50 gallon jettison tanks that would take only 4 gallons, the rest of the space taken up by cartons of cigarettes, guns that would not elevate, cartons behind the mantlet, ammunition bins foreshortened with cartons behind, and more. All admit however that despite the cigarette problems we had given them tanks in good order.

George was attending a school in Australia when the regiment was ordered to Morotai and was not allowed release to go with it. He caught up with A Squadron on 9 July. However, most of the action after that was B Squadron's.

George continues his story. Rested, re-equipped, and refreshed we were off nearly a year later to Morotai for the assault on Balikpapan. The main body sailed on the USS Millen Griffith from Brisbane. The ship was a liberty ship, hastily converted from a cargo carrier, and not overly comfortable. Meals were provided by two Wiles Cookers, a trailer type steam cooker, lashed to the upper deck near the forward hatch. The crew were new chums, rather hastily trained, and the weather was foul with sea-sickness rife. Our men were helping with ship's lookout and at first light one morning my troop corporal, Bill Lynch, called to the Officer of the watch; “I think I see land ahead' the officer replied “No, that's only low cloud we'll sail straight through it.” The shuddering crash ten minutes later demonstrated that Bill's eyesight was better than the seaman's.

My troop sergeant, Bill Halliday, with others raced out of the forward hatch to see tree branches around the starboard Wiles Cooker. As daylight strengthened it became evident that the ship had struck exactly where we had been camped a year before a Bonga. To prove the point Ron Rummans, of the squadron LAD, climbed down the over hanging tree and collected a tool box he had left under a log on his departure the previous year. The assault landing at Balikpapan, in Borneo, on 1st July 1945 was successful and spectacular with very heavy naval and air support. For the first three days tank operations were only minor because the Japs had mostly left the area to escape the heavy bombardment. By the fourth day infantry had reach Manggar airstrip about ten miles East and met heavy opposition. Tanks were called for but were unable to get there because of the Manggar Besar River so two troops were sent by LCM and LCT, on 5th July, to join the infantry at the airstrip. Dick Steele's 3 Tp landed on the beach with John Bartlett's 4 Tp on call out to sea. Dick moved his tanks off the beach and started removing waterproofing to get ready of action. They came under fire from naval coastal guns whose heavy shells hit the tops of the turrets. Two tanks brewed up and the third was recoverable. Six crew members were wounded by the situation would have been much worse if the crews had not been outside working on the waterproofing and if the guns firing at them had not been sited so that their maximum depression only allowed them to hit the very tops of the tanks.

Some six weeks later the war ended and we moved into a comfortable tented camp near Balikpapan. I managed to resurrect an old Dutch car engine which had been in use to drive a circular saw. The engine, a Stoewer, I hooked up to a welding generator and with some bits from Japanese search lights organised a lighting system for the tents of our A Squadron area. So that the orderly corporal could control the lights by starting and stopping the engine from the orderly room I had arranged a switch and about two hundred yards of wire connected to the ignition and starting system.

Some time later our CO, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Glasgow, became the proud owner of a magnificent Phillips wireless which could receive Australian programs. He installed the wireless in the RHQ Officers mess and promised all the latest news from home. His only problem was that, as soon as it got dark, interference drowned out all frequencies on his wireless. By this time I had transferred to 65 Aust Inf Bn at Morotai to go to British Occupation Force in Japan so was not available to explain that a long aerial connected to an ignition system on a petrol engine makes a very effective radio jammer.

When the war ended George transferred to the BCOF to serve in the occupation of Japan. In following years on return to Australia he served in the 1st Armoured Regiment (regular army) and later was posted to England for service with the British Army and then to an armoured regiment in the occupation army in Germany. On return to Australia he became an instructor at Duntroon.

George was a Colonel on retirement from Duntroon. He was very much a man of the land and. possibly thinking back to his life as a jackaroo, he bought a property 'Tenterden', near Guyra. Both he and Harry were frequent attenders at the Regimental Association's annual reunions.

When he passed away in 2012 he was survived by his wife, Helen and four adult children.

George McLean et al


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