The Royal New South Wales Lancers

 
 
The Regiment Mechanised November 1936
 
 

On the 1 November 1936, the Regiment was mechanised and converted to a Machine Gun Regiment. Fewer young men, particularly in urban areas, could ride; most could drive and in Australia, mobile forces were essential. The idea of such a unit was new, and the unit was the first of its kind in the then British Empire. The Regiment knew that it was to be armed with Vickers Machine Guns and nominally mounted on 1.5 tonne motor lorries. The role was to be that of Support Regiment to the 4th Cavalry Brigade. That was all that was known. At first the unit had to improvise section and vehicle drill as they went along. Initially vehicles were fitted with discarded tram seats, they were tried in various positions with several alternative methods of packing stores. The dismounted drill was modified light horse drill, finally a definite system was evolved and portée[1] fitments were designed and manufactured. They had many disadvantages and were soon replaced by a new type.

Major JB Pye led the Regiment into its first Mechanised Camp at Campbelltown in March 1937. Everything was strange at first with no horses to look after, but the drivers soon learned that a vehicle requires just as much attention as a horse. We learned, too, some of the disadvantages of mechanised units under wet weather conditions.

In the Regiment's second mechanised camp in November of the same year, the Lancers had become accustomed to vehicles and were able to carry out some advanced work. The Regiment tried its first night march without lights, and found it impossible on rough ground with inexperienced drivers. There was then the first attempt at feeding troops in the field. The Q people had a difficult task, with insufficient and unsuitable equipment, but gained valuable experience.

Moving to Camp at Berry the following year gave the Regiment its first long march and was a good test of drivers, vehicles, and of March Discipline generally. The work became more strenuous than usual yet the physical condition of the men was proved to be quite satisfactory. Travelling kitchens were used for the first time and found that a kitchen with pneumatic tyres, which can be towed by a lorry was needed.

During the March 1938 Camp, 1 Troop B Squadron, the Gordon Troop, won the unit competition, to represent the Regiment against the 16 MG Regiment NSW's other Mechanised Machine Gun Regiment in the Royston Shield competition. Needless to say, the troop was very proud of the fact, stuck out their chests and boasted on every opportune or inopportune occasion. Little did we know what we had brought upon ourselves.

The troop started training for the great day when we were to defend the honour of the Regiment and meet the best team of the 16th. At first training was done on Saturday afternoons. All other work was forgotten. All our training took the form of mounting, dismounting and deploying. Then to the Saturday afternoons were added occasional Sundays. Up 'till then, all the work was done at French's Forrest. We were at last taken to Liverpool and carried out our training at Green Hills with ball ammunition.

Towards the time when the competition was to take place, troop members were out training on three weekends out of four. In addition, some of the NCOs were training recruits on special nights in the Gordon Orderly Room in order to bring them up to standard. Then the fatal date was announced.

On the regular parade night before this date, Gordon Orderly Room was a hive of industry: vehicles were being washed, in some cases painted, guns and tripods cleaned and ammunition boxes painted, cloth belts were filled with .303 ammunition.

Then on Saturday we started off for Liverpool!

On the Woodville Road our No 2 truck swerved to avoid a milk cart. The steering gear locked and the truck finished up in the ditch on. the opposite side of the road. All the occupants were thrown into a heap, some of them ending up on top of the cab. The front of the vehicle was badly damaged, and the men received various light injuries. Many uniforms were damaged. Needless to say, the competition had to be postponed.

Again we started to train, if anything, harder than we had before. We came to know every bush on Green Hills. We froze in the huts of Liverpool Camp. One of our guns exploded. Whilst boiling the billy, we started a bushfire that took a lot of extinguishing. Eventually, a revised date was set, and once again we painted and cleaned our stores.

The day came! A Sunday; the wettest Sunday in the history of Australia. Or if not, it must have been a runner-up. We gathered at the Orderly Room, and everybody said: "They'll put it off again".

But no! The Squadron Leader did a bit of roaring, we put the finishing touches of paint on our trucks and wiped, it off -with our greatcoats, and. sallied forth to Liverpool.

The rain did. not dampen our spirits. The strains of "Daniel Hall"[2] and of "I Touched Her on the Toe"[2] resounded along the deserted streets of Wahroonga, Parramatta and Liverpool. By the time we reached Liverpool Camp the "Ball of Carymuir"2 was in full swing.

A halt near one of the messing huts of the camp. We dismount and peel off our greatcoats that by this time weigh somewhere around the 45 kg mark. Out of our haversacks appear an interblended mass of sat-upon sandwiches, tins of boot polish, banana-skins with the insides squeezed out, and polishing rags well impregnated with the former contents of the above banana skins.

And so; with a ham sandwich in one hand and a boot brush in the other, we endeavour to make ourselves look and feel like soldiers. Where there's a will, there's a way. Before long, equipment started to regain its appearance, and when Major Anderson arrived to inspect the troop; one would never have thought that it was the same troop that had travelled all the way from Sydney through pelting rain that very morning.

After the inspection, we donned our wet greatcoats, mounted our vehicles and started off towards Green Hills.

There was no dust on Moorebank Road this day. Instead, the lorries swam in a squelchy substance that sprayed in every direction and splashed you in the face. Every now and then your truck would do a dainty side slip, and glide towards the side of the road.

Eventually the troop got to Green Hills, and proceeded to range its guns. Since the ground was very wet, there was not an expectation that the strikes would be visible. However, when the thumbpiece was pressed, strikes could be observed beautifully. So I presumed that the ground was sufficiently dry underneath. The spot ranged on was covered by about 5 cm of water, the strikes were splashes. Everything set the troop was at the starting point, and off they went. Apart from the fact that the trucks refused to hold the road and skidded in every direction, all was going well so far.

"Prepare for action - Ammunition normal. Dismount".

Over the tailboard, and into a pool about 15 cm deep. Troopers tumbled out of the trucks wiping off a good deal of green paint with wet greatcoats, drag out our stores, wiping off more green paint from barrel casings, and race squelching and splashing to the position of readiness. Down on their guts in the water. Just then the rain, which had hitherto poured on us in a steady shower, came down in torrents. "Action!" Off raced the gun teams, tripods placed in soft slippery ground. Ram the shoes as hard as you like, you cannot get them to remain firm on ground like that. The troop opens fire. Not one hitch. Not one stoppage. The bursts are as even as the most exacting Commander could wish.

After everything is over, Major Anderson addressed the Troop. He regretted that the score we had put up in the actual shooting, although a very high one, was not high enough to beat the phenomenal score of the 16th. But in every other respect, turnout, drill movements, and vehicles, we had beaten our opponents. Taking into consideration this, and the exceptionally difficult conditions under which we had to go into action, Major Anderson regretted that he had no points that he could distribute at his own discretion. He therefore had to give the decision to the 16th MG Regiment.

On the way back as we were passing through Liverpool, Colonel Whitehead, who decided that we were quite wet enough for a rum issue, went into one of the pubs to purchase the most important ingredient for that ceremony. Rumour has it that Mine Host refused, to supply the goods on the grounds that it was Sunday, and that the CO persuaded him by saying that he would bring the Troop in and take what he needed.

On the way back to Turramurra, "Daniel Hall"[2], "O'Reilly's Daughter"[2], and the "Funeral March" [2] were sung with particular gusto at the thought of the rum and the hot dinners that were awaiting us in the not so distant future.

The beach defence exercise held at Berry in February of 1939 was the biggest job to date. A long night march tested the endurance of drivers and men. It gave the first opportunity for co-operation with Light Horse. The biggest problem was speed differential. Great difficulty was experienced in keeping touch. The unit also gained further experience in feeding the troops in the field. By using fast utility trucks to transport food from kitchens to the troops we were able to get meals out in time and hot on most occasions.


1939 Vehicle Husbandry

The affection of the cavalryman for his mount is traditional, and many poignant and touching stories have been written on this subject.

Today, our mounts are inanimate things of steel and wood, so our natural feelings towards them cannot be expected to be those we would have for that magnificent animal the horse. The combination of horse and man has produced the "Cavalry Spirit", that nothingness which is so vital to our efficiency and esprit-de-corps.

Those who were in this Regiment when it was horsed, need no reminding that tho care of the horse came first. He had to be watered, fed, groomed and rugged before the man attended to his own personal comfort.

Two things were necessary to obtain the best results, knowledge and horse-mindedness. An incident during World War 1 comes to mind. A party of Light Horsemen were attached to a mounted unit of Royal Engineers; one of the Tommy's horses had got off the lines during the night and was found to have gorged on dry barley. The tommy was advised by the Aussies not to let him drink, but did not heed the advice; in consequence when moving out on a stunt next morning, he was minus his mount.

The Royal New South Wales Lancers of 1939 found themselves with a different mount. Knowledge of it is just as important; motor-mindedness had to replace horse-mindedness; but the light horse spirit, bred of the horse, had to remain.

Every member of the Regiment was encouraged make a point of gaining as much knowledge of the vehicles on which they were mounted, as that soldier's job allowed. Every Lancer needed to feel that they, the crew, and the vehicle are a fighting unit. In the main the care of the vehicle falls on the driver and crew, and that care is as important as the care of the horse.

Routine maintenance as laid down should be carried out with meticulous care, remembering that small things neglected, grow into large ones. Much of a maintenance schedule may seem ridiculous to those unaccustomed to military methods; for instance the frequent cleaning of plugs and points; but let us examine the result of one driver to neglect it:

A vehicle has a dirty plug, to clean it on the march can hold up :-

The individual vehicle.

The troop.

In hostile country, the Regiment or even a large column.

In getting out of a gun position, could unnecessarily endanger lives.

A golden rule is never to leave what was all right yesterday. Make sure today.

To have affection for a thing of steel and wood, as mentioned earlier, is hardly possible, but treat it as part of your fighting equipment and see that it is serviceable before you attend to your personal comfort.

The Light Horse spirit needing to remain with motors as with horses.

1940 many members of the 1st and 16th MG Regts were to find themselves in Egypt, Libya and Greece having transferred to the 2/1 and 2/2 MG Regts AIF providing mobile heavy machine gun support to infantry.

2021 finds the Regiment's vehicles with neither plugs or points nonetheless the lessons learned when PMVs crewed by poorly trained non RAAC soldiers were found unreliable in recent conflicts emphasises that nothing much changes.

Assembled from articles in "The Lancer" August 1939.

Notes

[1] Portée - The practice of carrying an artillery piece on a truck which can be fired from the vehicle or quickly dismounted and fired from the ground.

[2] Songs with connotations that would not be permitted in today's army.


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