The Royal New South Wales Lancers

Geoff Francis A Lancer's Story

NX101413 (N244331) Corporal Geoffrey Francis aged 99, passed away on Friday 20 May 2022, his funeral was private, no Regimental presence. This is the story of Geoff's military service during World War 2 in his own words.

"I left Robertson in February 1942 and caught the train to Moss Vale. It slowly took me to Sydney and then onto Orange. At Orange Showground I've never been so miserable in my life. Recruit training is not designed to be fun.

The army required drivers so, as I had a civilian driver's licence that qualified me as a potential army driver. The army had trucks, tanks and bren gun carriers all needing drivers. I quite enjoyed the experience of army driver training. I was posted to the 1st Army Tank Battalion (Royal New South Wales Lancers).

Geoff Francis soon after enlistment About 1942 while in camp at Caboolture Queensland, the whole of A Squadron was taken by tank transporters (similar to low loaders) to a firing range about eight or nine kilometres out of Caloundra. The convoy of eight tank transporters must have been quite a sight and they drove to scrubby country overlooking the sea. The crews rode inside their 28 tonne Matilda tanks and drove them on and off the transporters.

I was driver while Bert Roughly was gunner on the BESA machine gun and the 76 mm (3 in) howitzer. Adrian (Doc) Kennedy was the wireless operator and Lieutenant George Mclean crew commander and troop leader. The practice involved shooting at targets in still positions and also while driving along bumpy ground, just to make it harder.

We were enjoying a break from the range shoot when someone saw a fisherman in a small boat quietly hoping to catch something in a restricted area, the firing range target area. A non-explosive smoke bomb was lobbed fifty metres away from him; he took notice just went on fishing. Another was fired, it smashed into the water seven or eight metres from which caused quite a reaction. He took to his oars and headed for home at top speed, his boat hardly touched the water. The watching troops laughed, a typical soldiers' prank.

On another occasion an old Matilda tank was used for testing the armour piercing capability of the 40 mm 1kg (2 pounder) gun (in out tank troop there were three tanks, two armed with 40 mm anti-armour guns, one with a 76 mm howitzer). Crew commander Bill Halliday's gunner, Roy Faunt was ordered to fire at the turret. The shell penetrated and spun around inside. The CO, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Glasgow ordered him to fire again and re-test the effect. Roy was told the second shot missed. He didn't, there were two shells in the hulk. Photos showed the metal glowed hot when the turret was hit.

Doug Beardmore came to the Anzac day reunion in 2011, a short time after losing his wife. After renewing contact with his fellow tank troopers, he joined a few of us for lunches and regrettably funerals. On one of these occasions he told us the following story laughing about it as if it occurred yesterday.

During a brief respite, some of the troopers were playing cards while others were watching or just smoking beside one of the tanks. Lieutenant David Craven known as the dasher where is perched on the vehicle surveying the scene and generally keeping an eye on things. From his observation post he saw an army photographer approaching. Doug Beardmore was shirtless and absorbed in the card game. “Put your shirt on at once” David barked at Doug in his best officer in command voice. Doug naturally complied.

After the photo shoot, the photographer came up to Doug and asked him quietly who it was that had insisted on dress standards in such an abrupt manner. On learning Dave's identity he replied: “don't worry mate but cut his head off” and there it is the official regimental record. The photos show Dave's legs and trunk only, sitting on the tank one step above everyone else.

One of the operations in New Guinea was concerned knocking-out Japanese machine-gun nests hiding in rough country on the northern side and the Masaweng River. Fortification hill about 250 metres high is part of a ridge which runs down to the Sea at Fortification Point. The countryside here is not really jungle but stunted trees wrapped in masses of thick vines making visibility very limited. Add a sprinkling of large rocks and you have an ideal spot for the Japanese and their weapons.

The tanks negotiated a very narrow rough track overhung with vines so they had to keep closed down to avoid becoming tangled. This meant the driver, myself had to manage with the periscope. The track ran along the coast often very near the cliff edge. We were going slow with the crew commander, George McLean from his vantage point above, giving directions. I suddenly got the command “driver left now”. We just avoided dropping over a 20 metre cliff.

This was the last action my troop saw in New Guinea. We were withdrawn to a campsite out of the action. I was sent back to hospital at Finschafen where I was treated for tropical ulcers on my legs.

When in action we existed on tins of bully beef and biscuits for several weeks at a time. It was not possible to get fruit and fresh green vegetables, so necessary for the promotion of healing, up to the forward troops. On a better diet and masses of sulphur drug pills (the forerunner to penicillin), I was able to re-join the unit when it was called back to base near Finschafen.

After that we took one tank at a time on a barge up to Alexishafen north of Madang. The main body of the regiment went back to Southport QLD after enjoying some leave. We joined them later. I was one of the rear party left there at Alexishafen to prepare the camp for the 2nd/4th armoured regiment who were coming up to take over our tanks. There were a lot of disappointed tank crews from our regiment as some of them had already loaded their tanks up with cigarettes to take home and avoid customs duty.

To fill in the days, Johnny Stevenson and I acquired an outrigger canoe we had great fun exploring the creeks in that rather unstable craft.

A big shark was sighted in one of these creeks so one of the boys tossed a hand grenade at it. The shark just shook itself and carried on regardless. We still went swimming in that beautifully clear water teeming with fish of many brilliant colours.

When we got back to Southport in Queensland we stayed in camp for about a year. Here we were equipped with new Matilda tanks and did lots of training with some home leave between exercises.

Then came the landing at Balikpapan in Borneo or Kalimantan. We took our tanks ashore after heavy bombardment which left oil storage tanks and other installations ablaze. There was thick black smoke everywhere. We were guided in by engineers who had cleared passageways between tank traps buried bombs and mines. What a welcome!

We were sent up to hills to help in pushing the remaining Japanese further back into the Bush. We established a camp on one of the plateaus.

The war ended in August 1945 with much rejoicing.

The Balikpapan rear partyGeoff Francis on the Balikpapan rear party Our Regiment was then gradually reduced the in size as men were sent home and demobbed there were political tensions at this time between the Dutch and Indonesians, so an allied presence in the area was considered necessary.

Our regiment was asked to retain a rear guard party (of which I was one) to remain on the island for an unspecified time that turned out to be for a year after the end of the shooting war. We settled down to a routine built reasonably comfortable huts, made contact with the few remaining Dutch residents and patronised the local markets. We spent most mornings maintaining the tanks and the afternoon enjoying various sports.

There were football matches and sometimes cricket I spent a lot of time playing basketball sometimes challenging Chinese team from the village. We did a lot of swimming too. the rear guard duty went on for about a year before we were finally sent back to Australia right after regretfully sending our few remaining tanks over a cliff to disable them rather than sending them back to Australia.

I was finally discharged to civilian life in September 1946.

George McLean (centre) Geoff with Maureen 2014
Bert and Geoff with the Governor General Geoff with ACE 2017

On 30 August 2014 the city of Parramatta and the current Royal New South Wales Lancers, same unit I served in in WW2, staged a parade through the streets pf Parramatta to commemorate 100 years since the formation of the First Light Horse from members of the Regiment. Bert Castellari and I as the last World War Two Lancers able to make it to the parade were invited as VIPs to attend a dinner hosted by the Lord Mayor of Parramatta in the presence of His Excellency General Sir Peter Cosgrove and Lady Cosgrove.

On 4 November 2017 I was the only World War Two Lancer present when ACE, the first Matilda tank to land at Balikpapan, fully restored after a 10 year project by the Lancers' Museum was welcomed back to Lancer Barracks."

Geoff with John Arnott and ACE 2014 Geoff with John Arnott and ACE 2014

In civil life, Geoff worked in then took over his father's kitchen renovation business.

Geoff Francis 2017
John Howells 2022

New South Wales Lancers Memorial Museum Incorporated ABN 94 630 140 881; Linden House, Lancer Barracks, 2 Smith Street, PARRAMATTA, AUSTRALIA
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