Battle Honour 1st RNSWL
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This description follows the description of the battle of the Balikpapan Landing. These is a table in that description which lists the officer postings for both operations.
B Squadron Fighting Headquarters Troop landed on Red Beach at midday (July 2) and late in the afternoon was in action with B Company of the 2/l0th Battalion in exploiting Tank Plateau as far as Soepoeleh Hill and the cracking plant. Here more enemy tunnels were destroyed. At night tanks were employed in defensive positions with headquarters and "C" Company of the 2/l0th. There were unsuccessful attempts by the enemy to infiltrate; two of them were killed while approaching the tanks with anti-tank mines (feetstick and conical types). Number 4 Troop in the afternoon had been released from support of the 18th Brigade and attached to the 25th Brigade.
On the morning of July 3 the 18th Brigade launched a three-pronged attack on Balikpapan. A tank troop supported the 2/9th on the left in an attack on Signal Hill and in clearing the town area from Cape Toekoeng northward for about a mile. In the centre of the brigade front B Squadron Fighting Headquarters Troop joined the 2/10th Battalion at the cracking plant and supported its "A" Company with gunfire and flame in an advance through the town to the waterfront north of the 2/9th. Little opposition was encountered in the areas cleared by these two battalions. On the right of the front the 2/12th Battalion moved north-west with the industrial area of Pandansari as its objective and with 1 Troop in support. Heavy fire from two features, known as Nail and Nurse, was encountered and at 17:30 two tanks of 1 Troop, as an assault group, with two of headquarters as a support group, co-operated with B Company in an attack on Nail. At the outset one of the assault tanks destroyed two pillboxes. The assault tanks moved to an anti-tank ditch to the west of Nail, engaging predetermined targets of bunkers and foxholes, while the support group of tanks engaged targets of opportunity. The infantry were forced to retire temporarily by fire from machine gun positions on Nurse to the south-east; these were engaged by the support group of tanks and destroyed. Although the tanks were unable to overrun the Nail feature the supporting fire they gave was valuable and the position was secured by about 18:45. Enemy weapons silenced included a 20-mm. gun, a mortar, two machine guns and two Jukis.
Meanwhile a warning order had been received for a troop of (auks to support the 2/9th Battalion in a landing to be made on July 5 at Cape Penadjam which was about three miles north-west across the bay from the main part of the town of Balikpapan. B Squadron had no operations on the 4th. At 09:00 on the 5th the Fighting Headquarters Troop of B Squadron embarked on an L.C.T. at Green Beach for the move to Cape Penadjam. Al 13:30 when it landed, two tanks immediately sank to the turret rings in soft mud 150 metres short of the high-water mark, but fortunately there were no personnel casualties. The third lank landed successfully some little distance away. As it turned at. the landing was unopposed so the tanks were not required. Several days later the sunken tanks were retrieved from some two metres of mud by a recovery section and were found to have suffered little damage from their immersion.
With the 18th Brigade becoming divisional reserve, the 25th Brigade commenced a drive up the Samarinda Road, or Milford Highway, to Mount Batochampar to which the enemy appeared to be withdrawing his forces. On July 3, 2 Troop (Lieutenant A. Aynsley) had been allocated as additional support for the 25th Brigade and had moved to join 4 Troop at Biyth's Junction on Valley Road; next day they were moving up the highway to join the brigade and B Squadron's headquarters were moved forward to Biyth's Junction.
The enemy was fighting a rearguard action and was entrenched on many of the hills and spurs flanking the Milford Highway. A series of strongly contested actions took place during the drive and although not being always able to act as the spearhead the tanks gave valuable supporting fire. The country traversed during the first few days of the fighting along the Milford Highway was fairly open and it was not difficult for the tanks to give fire support, but later the road was bordered by thick jungle and fields of fire were few. Mostly the tanks were unable to work off the road, owing to the jungle and the roughness of the ground. The enemy in this theatre lacked anti-tank guns of sufficient power to halt the Matildas and during the first few days of the invasion he had prepared the Milford Highway with anti-tank ditches, other obstacles and land mines. Mines were often found to be connected by wire to foxholes from which they would be fired electrically. The task of getting the tanks through the obstructions meant plenty of hard work with slow reward. On July 4, for example, when the detachment was in support of the 2/31st Battalion, a ditch was met that was 3 metres wide, 3.5 metres deep and held 2 metres of water, and at this point no detour off the road was possible. Luckily there were telegraph poles along the road and these were torn down and towed to the ditch by the tanks; then, with engineer assistance, a bridge was thrown across the gap. The tanks moved on to a harbour area near the Nail feature, which had been agreed to by the commander of the 2/31st, Lieut-Colonel E. M. Robson, D.S.O., but at that point they were confronted by another ditch similar to the one just crossed. The task of bridging this one was given to the engineers and was completed by about 22:00.
On July 5 tank support was not called for by the 2/31st until fairly late in the day, at which time the tanks were in the vicinity of Orr's Junction. Besa and 2-pounder fire was delivered on to indicated targets but was not returned by the enemy. It was not possible to support directly another company's attack that was being directed at Metal, a feature to the right, owing to the proximity of infantry to the targets, but the tanks did cover the company's left flank. The walkie-talkie radio sets (the SCR 536) carried by troop leaders were invaluable in these operations as the infantry command post was often well away from the road, to which the tanks were tied, and a troop leader necessarily spent much of the day at the command post.
Next day the 2/31st Battalion was relieved by the 2/33rd (Lieut-Colonel T. R. W. Cotton, M.C.) which by sheer determination and doggedness in the face of casualties succeeded in occupying Metal. Supporting fire being used by the infantry in this operation up the Milford Highway was mainly by artillery and mortars which were able to put down heavy concentrations fo precede infantry attacks. This caused the tanks to be used only on direct support when an attack went forward. At 11:00 three (auks were called forward from the harbour and from a position on the highway they bombarded the elaborate trench system on (he slopes of Jam and the bunker observation post on the crest. A device of the Japs to stop the tanks was seen at this point. Across the highway was a line of 200 litre drums of oil; on the found of the tanks moving out of their harbour these drums were ignited and burned fiercely for 30 minutes and they would have acted as a barrier to further advance had that been the intention. The drums were sited in a position where a detour was impossible as the ground on the side of the road fell away and was covered with thick undergrowth. Later a frog tank, covered by a gun tank, was sent forward to flame positions where snipers were thought to be hiding.
On the morning of July 7 it was learned at the 25th Brigade's command post that it was intended not to use tank support for day or two, so the crews were put to much-needed maintenance of the tanks which had given six days of service with only essential maintenance, checking, refuelling and replenishment of ammunition. The squadron quartermaster-sergeant, WO Jack Hirtell, with Corporals D. Hand and L. Rowan, began ferrying forward hot meals to the tank crews in a jeep and trailer each afternoon.
A wooden bridge over a dry creek bed had been burned down with enemy between the tank harbour and the position reached infantry on July 9, and as this made an obstacle 20 metres wide and 10 metres deep the divisional engineers spanned it with a Bailey bridge. The tanks, which comprised four gun tanks, two howitzer tanks, one frog tank and a D8 tractor, crossed it to advance to a harbour area on the highway and to the left of Joint, where they formed a leaguer linked with a perimeter of the 2/25th Battalion.
At 07:00 on 10 July Lieutenant Aynsley's 2, Troop, with a frog tank attached, was called forward to give support to "A" Company of the 2/31st in its successful attack on the jungle-clad Cello feature to the left of the highway. At about 13:30 2 Troop and the frog tank went into action again, this time with "D" Company. A 2-pounder tank was to move off the highway to provide left flank protection from the direction of Cello. Forward scouts and engineers preceded the remainder of the tanks which followed the track with infantry sections alongside in dispersed order. Targets on both sides of the highway were engaged with gunfire and flame; five machine guns were taken. The tank on the left flank had not gone far when it developed rackham trouble. While attending to it the crew came under fire from a light machine gun; another tank gave covering fire and eventually an infantry section silenced the machine gun.
Later in the same day there was a third and very memorable action which took place on ground that was overlooked in particular by Coke Spur on the right and by Chair on the left. A two hours' barrage by artillery and mortars opened the attack. At about 17:00, while two tanks covered the command post, the frog tank and two former dozer tanks of the 2/1st Armoured Brigade Reconnaissance Squadron and the howitzer tank of 2 Troop advanced with "A" Company. The tanks engaged targets alongside the road and in particular at a timber loading stage on the forward slope of Coke. When the artillery barrage lifted, tanks and infantry moved cautiously along the track which swung to the left, went down into a small cutting and reappeared in the open on a level at the foot of Coke Spur. Then hell descended from a well-timed ambush. From the jungle on both sides and from Coke Spur machine gun fire rained. Tanks had great difficulty in locating the well concealed positions, some of the machine guns having been dug in beneath large fallen logs. Artillery opened fire again, tanks kept firing hard while ammunition lasted; the infantry hung on gamely but lost practically an entire platoon in killed and wounded.
While observing this action, personnel at the command post came under cross fire from enemy snipers who caused a number of casualties among the infantry and also hit Major Ryrie, the regiment's second-in-command. Wounded first by one sniper, he was killed by fire from another direction while endeavouring to escape to cover behind a tank.
The infantry reached within 20 metres of the foremost enemy positions on Coke but, as mentioned earlier, suffered heavy casualties. At 17:45 it was found necessary to withdraw as the tanks were running short of ammunition. They had put up an intensive fire to cover the infantry and every tank had been firing as fast as it could in order to keep the enemy's head down. Two of the tanks, covered by the third, brought wounded infantrymen back and also retrieved a 6-pounder anti-tank gun. The tanks had to travel in reverse all the way back as to have turned on the road would have resulted in their crushing the dead and wounded who were lying around. In the withdrawal Corporal Murdoch of the reconnaissance squadron showed great courage and devotion to duty when he dismounted from his tank and moved forward under fire to give the infantry a message to withdraw, and on returning to his tank he operated with his head and shoulders exposed above the open hatch while he directed the evacuation of four wounded men on the rear of the vehicle. Corporal Murdoch and Trooper R. Dalton, also of the reconnaissance squadron, were wounded. Trooper R. J. Hole (See photo, Reg Holles, father of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Holles CO 1993-1995), who was acting as intelligence orderly, distinguished himself when, under heavy fire, he moved to the rear of a tank and gave orders through the telephone directing fire on to an area occupied by the enemy and from which was coming fire which was pinning the infantry down. This resulted in silencing the enemy fire. Trooper Hole was awarded a mention in despatches for this action.
The loss of Major Ryrie was a sad blow to the regiment. A very capable officer, popular with all ranks, he had a charm and cheerfulness which endeared him to everybody. Not only was he mainly responsible for the tank planning at Morotai; as liaison officer he was a big factor in the success of the tanks on the 18th and 25th Brigade fronts. At all times when he could be doing anything to assist the troop leaders or crew commanders in their task of supporting the infantry he showed little concern for his own personal safety. As one observer put it, "he walked around Parramatta Ridge as if it were a parade ground". For his work as a tank liaison officer he was awarded a posthumous mention in despatches.
The 2/31st held a defensive position astride the road during the night and early next morning a composite troop under Lieutenant Ballard, comprising the two gun tanks of 4 Troop and the howitzer tanks of 1 and 3 Troops, which had arrived as a reinforcement, awaited orders at the 2/31st Battalion's command post. At 10:45 the two gun tanks, whose crew commanders were Sergeant H. Clarke and Corporal N. C. McDonald, moved forward with infantry to the scene of the previous day's action to assist in recovering the dead who had of necessity been left where they lay on the previous afternoon. On approaching them it was noticed that the bodies had been moved by the enemy during the night and this caused a suspicion that they had been booby-trapped. The tanks were still edging forward when a mine was exploded by remote control five metres in front of Clarke's tank. Clarke had been operating with his head out of the hatch and the blast from the mine forced him down on the floor and left him severely dazed. Then small arms fire commenced to rain on the tanks which replied by firing at suspected positions at and near the timber loading stage. The infantry decided to postpone attempted recovery of the dead as the risk of booby traps was too great, so the tanks were ordered to return. In any case the tanks would not have been able to advance as the road was now impassable, having been cratered by the mine to a depth of about 4 metres. The blast of the explosion had damaged Clarke's tank and it could not be driven back, so McDonald moved up, had his tow rope hooked on to Clarke's tank by a medical orderly who had been following closely, and towed it back along the road. At midday the howitzer tank of 3 Troop took the artillery forward observation officer through the cutting and immediately came under fire. Later it was decided that no further advance would be undertaken without prior artillery concentration and bombing on Charm and other nearby features where the enemy appeared to be making a final stand.
There were no tank operations on the two following days. On July 12, while Lieut-Colonel Glasgow and Major Ford were at the command post of the 2/31st, the position came under heavy and accurate mortar fire and an air-burst barrage, causing all present to make for shelter at top speed, but fortunately there were no casualties.
On July 14 the "C" Squadron Group arrived at Balikpapan and moved into a new regimental area being established at the junction of several tracks, known as Petersham Junction. Regimental headquarters also moved there that day and on the next Headquarter Squadron and the remainder of the regimental group and the 2/lst Armoured Brigade Reconnaissance Squadron disembarked. Major S. Hordern, O.B.E., was appointed to the vacant posting of regimental second-in-command, and Captain F. B. Levingston was appointed to command C Squadron. On July 17 Major L. G. Coleman, Australian Staff-Corps, who had served with British armour in the invasion of North-West Europe, arrived and took over command of A Squadron.
Meanwhile there had been some further activity by tanks in the Mount Batochampar area. On July 15, 2 Troop of B Squadron was employed in firing a concentration on four enemy machine gun posts whose positions had been pinpointed on the slopes of Chair. After the gunners had been briefed regarding the targets, the troop moved along the road and through and beyond the cutting to the scene of the ambush on July 10 and from that area fired point blank at the machine gun posts tor 50 minutes. Ammunition expended was 71 2-pounder high explosive, 15 2-pounder armour piercing and 44 howitzer shells and two and a half belts of Besa rounds. In this concentration twenty 3-inch howitzer shells were fitted with the 25-pounder Number 231 fuse as an experiment. The howitzer shells with their standard fuses exploded on contact and it was thought that the delay in the Number 231 fuse would give a penetration before explosion which was desirable when attacking bunker positions. Observation of effect was difficult on this day owing to dust and smoke haze hanging over the target but the impression was that there were improved results from using the Number 231 fuse.
On the same day 4 Troop was released from further operations on this front and moved back to the squadron area for the first time since F-Day.
The enemy was still holding out in the area of Coke, Charm and Chair. On July 16 at 14:30 3 Troop (Lieutenant B. S. Johnston), in support of the 2/33rd Battalion, fired concentrations on enemy positions on the forward slopes of Charm with an unusually heavy expenditure of 2-pounder high explosive, Two nights later Lieutenant Johnston was accidentally wounded in the forward perimeter. On July 19, 2 Troop with, in addition, two frog tanks and the Covenanter bridgelayer, moved forward to support the 2/31st Battalion in clearing Hill 60, and fired concentrations on the forward slope. At midday two tanks were used to take Brigadier Eather and Lieut-Colonel Robson forward to the foot of Hill 60 to observe the enemy positions. At 14:00 the composite troop under Lieutenant Aynsley moved forward with the bridgelayer leading in order to bridge the crater which had been blown in the road on July 11, so that the tanks could pass over and give support to the infantry advance towards the Pope's Track junction. The bridgelayer spanned the crater in six minutes and the tanks advanced. A short distance further on the second tank ran over a contact mine which blew off the left track and damaged the front idler assembly. Next day L.A.D. and workshop personnel under Warrant Officer M. Robinson and Sergeant J. Miller came forward with spare parts and carried out repairs under protection of the infantry.
This was the end of tank operations at Balikpapan. Three days later the enemy broke contact; this marked the end of organised resistance in the area and the successful conclusion of the Oboe Two operation, to be followed on August 15 by the end of hostilities with Japan.
The B Squadron tanks returned to the squadron area at Biyth's Junction on July 25, and by the end of the month the entire group had congregated in the area at Petersham Junction.
At first sight the bomb-cratered, sandy spur running south from Parramatta Ridge offered little inspiration for a camp. However, the regiment followed its usual policy of making the camp as comfortable as possible, no matter for what period it was expecting to remain in it. All tents were built up off the ground and had good wooden floors. Each squadron had its own lighting plant and lighting was installed in most of the tents. Large recreation huts and mess huts were built, also with wooden flooring in some cases. In these building operations there was keen rivalry between squadrons in obtaining timber which was in relatively short supply, particularly on account of the fact that the native population had to rebuild all their homes. Recreation huts were furnished to some extent with furniture from ruined buildings. Kitchens and shower rooms were given concrete floors. Kerosene refrigerators were installed. A wireless set for each squadron and quantities of indoor games and sporting material were purchased from Amenities. The principal sport engaged in was basketball. Headquarter Squadron installed flood lighting over its basketball court for night games. Circles and softball also became popular. A picture theatre nearby showed twice weekly.
There was to be no further role for the regiment, so work on tanks was reduced to three hours daily and the remainder of the day was devoted to sport. Tours of battle areas were conducted for those left out of battle personnel who had recently arrived from Morotai and had not previously had the opportunity of viewing them. Demobilisation plans came into effect and Captain Conners was appointed Regimental Demobilisation Officer. About a dozen members of the unit helped to man the 7th Division De-mobilisation Unit at Balikpapan whose task it was to organise the transfer to Australia of personnel of all units who had high priority for discharge. The staff of the unit comprised Captain G. R. Cumming, Lieutenants D. H. Ballard, A. Aynsley and R. H. H. Steele of the regiment and Lieutenant R. G. McKillop, 2/lst Armoured Brigade Reconnaissance Squadron. A number of members of the regiment, who had high priority, were transferred to units of 7th Division for the purpose of early repatriation. Others with low priority went to units which were allotted occupation duties in the Celebes and elsewhere.
Repatriation from Balikpapan, however, was slow due to the enormous demands being made on shipping at that time. To help to occupy those who had to wait, in addition to sport a lot of encouragement was given to education and hobbies. There were lectures by 7th Division Education personnel, but also a variety of courses of instruction were organised within the 1st Armoured Regimental Group itself. These included mathematics, business principles, bookkeeping, accountancy, advertising and other commercial subjects and a range of technical subjects taking in electrical, radio and motor transport. Captain Cumming established the hobby section which dealt with carpentry, joinery and leather-work.
On September 8 the commanding officer and second-in-command were present on board HMAS. Gascoyne at the signing of the Implement of Surrender by the Japanese commander in the area, Vice-Admiral Kamada. Later Major Hordern was evacuated to the 2/12th Australian General Hospital and subsequently returned to Australia on a hospital ship. Major Ford then became second-in-command of the regiment and Captain Bent took over B Squadron. Captain Levingston was seconded to the Armoured Fighting Vehicles School, Puckapunyal, as Chief Instructor.
There was a large prisoner-of-war cage about half a kilometre from the regiment's area. Commencing on September 27, working parties of prisoners from this cage were allotted to the regiment for labouring work connected with camp construction, maintenance, hygiene and so on. The policy regarding their treatment was laid down in orders: "a correct and stern attitude with no harsh treatment" was to be observed. No personnel were to return the salutes of the Japanese; there would be no fraternising, and disobedience and truculence were not to be tolerated.
On September 30 four officers and 52 other ranks volunteered to go to Japan with the Occupation Force, the officers being Captain Hardcastle, Lieutenants McLean, Sellars and Hanridge.
The commanding officer left to return home in October and Major Ford administered command thereafter. The strength of the regimental group decreased considerably as the process of demobilisation went on, and in December Major Ford and the remaining personnel, approximately 30 in number, embarked, with the tanks, for Morotai. Several weeks were spent there, during which time the tanks were dumped into about 18 metres of water off the shore. With due credit to tank crews and members of the L.A.D. and workshop, the performance of these Matildas throughout the operations in New Guinea and Borneo had been really good, and it was not without a pang of regret that the men drove their old friends over the coral reef into the sea at Morotai.
The personnel reached Sydney in January and were sent to Ingleburn Camp. From here most of them were discharged with no delay and it was left for Lieutenant Ferns, a warrant officer, a sergeant and one other to finalise disposal of records and other matters at the Marrickville Personnel Depot, Ferns himself being the last member of the regiment when he was discharged on November 6 1946
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