Australian Military Vehicles Research


THE DEFENCE OF PORT DARWIN - Northern Territory War 1940-1945 by Simon Pratt
 

Northern Territory Force

As the component of the Australian Army most likely to have encountered a Japanese invasion during WW2, it is worth looking at the strength and equipment of NT Force in mid-1942, when such an attack was most likely.

NT Force, created on Anzac Day 1942 was tasked primarily with the defence of Port Darwin, the only strategic target in northern Australia. Commanded by Major General Sir Edmund Herring – previously the commander of the veteran AIF 6 Division in the Middle East – NT Force in mid-1942 was a divisional sized formation consisting of 3 Infantry brigades, a Cavalry Regiment and two Field Artillery Regiments. Additionally, there were AA, coastal artillery, garrison and base troops defending the Darwin Fortress itself.

On 24 March 1942, the day Herring took charge, the Central War Room in Melbourne advised him to expect a Japanese attack on his command by the end of that month, so while we know now that Japanese intent to invade was absent, it must have seemed quite real at the time. Singapore, Ambon, Timor, Rabaul and Java had just fallen, Malaya, the Philippines and Hong Kong were gone, and Darwin itself had just been hit by four Japanese carriers.

Herring quickly realigned the defences, leaving a garrison in Darwin, but pulling his combat troops back from the coast, and setting his battalions up in independent ‘fortresses’ along the highway south of Darwin to allow room to manoeuvre for counterattacks.

There was a wide range of potential invasion sites both east and west of Darwin, and launching his battalions successfully against attackers would have required an effective combination of mobility and firepower.

Mobility

In mid-1942, Herring’s 3 brigades consisted of 5 Militia, 2 AIF, one Pioneer and one Machine Gun battalion, as well as (from July) the reconnaissance squadrons of 2/6 Cavalry Regiment. While there was no Australian armour deployed to the Territory despite the existence of over 600 tanks and the 1st Armoured Division, it is probable that such units would have been sent had the Japanese landed their own tanks.

NT Force’s Combat Efficiency Report of June 1942 confirmed that all his units had a full war establishment of vehicles and equipment, even if Herring acknowledged that much more Militia unit training was required. The supply system ‘up the Track’ from the south had markedly improved since 1941, and a considerable arsenal had been established at Adelaide River.

Mobility for his battalions would have been provided by a combination of Machine Gun (MG) Carriers and ‘Blitz’ trucks. Both were plentiful in Australia at this time.

Although this is likely to have varied in practise, contemporary Australian Infantry battalions had a standard establishment of 36 x 15 cwt trucks, 19 x 3 tonners (60 cwt), 21 MG Carriers, 12 motorcycles, 10 utes and the battalion AT platoon with 2 pounders mounted ‘portee’ style on 8 more 15 cwt trucks. The trucks mentioned were however for the admin and support elements of the battalion only, plus one truck per Infantry platoon; the 36 Infantry sections would have required external RASC transport when being deployed, probably with each section travelling in their own 15 cwt Blitz. Pioneer and MG battalions would have likewise relied largely on external motor transport when deploying over a distance.

This differed from the Motor Regiments then replacing the Light Horse Regiments in Australia which were fully motorised with an establishment of 37 MG Carriers, 73 x 15 cwt trucks, 21 other trucks, 11 Scout cars and 48 motorcycles. None of these Motor Regiments were however dispatched to the North during 1942.

The tracked and lightly armoured MG (or commonly ‘Bren’) Carriers were Australian-produced derivatives of the British Universal Carrier, around 5000 of these useful 4 ton weapons platforms being made here during the war. Crewed by four men, they were powered by a Ford V8 petrol engine and could reach 40 mph cross country, making them ideal reconnaissance vehicles. Amazingly, these diminutive Carriers were the only armoured vehicles that NT Force possessed.

Armament was normally two of the Bren LMG, Vickers MMG or Boys AT rifle. Some later versions mounted the 2 pounder AT gun or a 3 inch mortar on a turntable.

The most common of the Blitz trucks were 15 cwt (3/4 ton load), 30 cwt (1.5 ton load) and 60 cwt (3 ton load) versions. These Canadian Military Pattern (CMP) vehicles were manufactured by Chevrolet and Ford in Canada, shipped to Australia as components and assembled by the local subsidiaries with a number of different body styles added. They were generally all-wheel drive with high/ low range and powered by either a V8 (Ford) or straight 6 (Chevrolet) engine. Simple, reliable and tough, these Blitzes were popular with the drivers and troops.

Like the Infantry, rather than its war establishment of Scout cars and light tanks, the 2/6 Divisional Cavalry Regiment was also equipped with a combination of MG Carriers and trucks. While there was a quantity of locally-made Rover and Dingo Scout cars and US M3 Stuart light tanks in Australia at this time, these were allocated to the armoured units in eastern Australia.

Motorcycles, employed for communication purposes, were British BSA’s, Nortons or Royal Enfield 350cc, of which the Australian Army purchased 725 in 1940. Later, American Harley Davidsons would also be widely used.

Firepower

Again, referring to the mid-year Combat Efficiency Report, we know that the NT Force battalions had a full war establishment of weaponry. Standard heavy weapons for an Australian infantry battalion in mid-1942 included 49 Bren or Lewis LMG’s, 4 twin LMG’s for the AA platoon, 7 Boys AT rifles, 6 x 3 inch and 13 x 2 inch mortars, 8 Vickers MMG’s and 8 x 2 pounder truck-mounted AT guns.

The MG battalion fielded 48 Vickers guns and the Field Artillery Regiments two batteries each with 8 x 18 pounders and 4 x 4.5 inch howitzers. Despite plentiful 25 pounders being available on the continent at this time, NT Force was still using the WW1 weapons. If there was a weakness in Herring’s division, it was definitely in artillery; only two rather than the normal three Regiments, using older guns at that.

In a defensive role, deployed for all-round defence, the Australian infantry ‘fortresses’ would have been able to deal with the famous Japanese flank attacks using the half artillery battery assigned as well as their small arms, LMG’s, MMG’s and mortars over flat, open terrain. They were also reasonably equipped to defeat any Japanese armour with their Boys rifles and 2 pounder guns, and of course, the 18 pounders. The .55 inch Boys could penetrate the frontal armour of Japanese Type 95 light tanks out past 500 yards, while the 2 pounder – though obsolete elsewhere - could beat both the Type 95 light and the Type 97 medium tanks out to 1000 yards.

The Japanese never invaded the Northern Territory, but at times in 1942 they certainly had the capacity to land a significant force in the vicinity of Darwin. In the open savannahs of the tropical north, it would have been a very different style of warfare from that in New Guinea; much more akin to North Africa. The Japanese had very little experience in open, mobile warfare, while many of the Australians in NT Force had just come from two years of just such combat. Generally lacking mobility and firepower, and with their favourite flanking tactics somewhat nullified by the terrain, the Japanese would have struggled against a similar sized force, which would, of course, have been quickly reinforced from the south.

Captions (all photo’s courtesy of AWM, with written permission)

AWM150575

Two of the stalwarts of Territory defence; an unarmed Carrier passes an 18 pounder of a Field artillery Regiment, Darwin, NT Sept 1942.

 

 

AWM150173

Troopers of 2/6 Divisional Cavalry Regiment at their vehicles before an inspection by Major General Herring, Northern Territory, August 1942. The B echelon vehicles in the background are mostly CMP 15, 30 and 60 cwt trucks, while the MG Carriers are armed with Boys AT rifles and Vickers MMG.

 

AWM028675

A CMP truck mounting a 2 pounder AT gun ‘portee’ style on exercise in WA, October 1942. Each infantry battalion was usually equipped with eight such vehicles.

 

AWM150762

A line-up of BSA motorcycles in the Northern Territory 1942. These and versions by other makers were used by dispatch riders throughout the units of the Australian Army.

 

AWM027689

A Chevrolet CMP tows a 4.5 inch howitzer in October 1942 over flattened spear grass and through sparsely wooded scrubland typical of the Territory during the ‘dry’ season

 

AWM011610

Constructed in kit form by Chevrolet in Canada, shipped to Australia and assembled at Fishermans Bend General Motors plant in Victoria, this truck undergoes testing prior to acceptance by the Army in February 1942.

 

AWMP05457.015

White M3 Scout cars lined up in Victoria 1943. They supplemented Australian-made Dingo and Rover Scout cars for reconnaissance duties in the Armoured Regiments. Some, perhaps destined for Dutch forces, were used in the Northern Territory.

 

AWM127874

A 40 mm Bofors mounted on a cut-down 3 ton Blitz. This undated photo, probably from 1943/4, is a fine example of combining mobility and firepower.  Deadly against low and medium altitude aircraft, when using AP rounds it would also have been very effective against lightly armoured Japanese tanks. While no versions are known to have been deployed to NT Force, it is certainly possible that such a versatile platform may have been locally modified in Darwin, should invaders have arrived

 

AWM008801

Shown operating in Syria in 1942 is a battered AIF truck armed with Boys AT rifle and a Bren AALMG on a modified mount. Arming motor transport was a common occurrence in the Middle East/ North African theatres, from where many NT Force troops arrived in mid-1942, and would probably have been carried on by units based around Darwin also.

 

Sources

Australia’s Forgotten Army Graham McKenzie Smith Highland Press 1995

British Armies in WW2: the Australian Army David A. Ryan, David Hughes & Steve Rothwell  Nafziger Collection

Dust, Sand and Jungle Paul Handel RAAC Memorial & Army Tank Museum 2003

The Vital Factor Paul Handel  Australian Military History Publications 2004

1942 Australian Army Combat Efficiency Report MP729    Australian War Memorial

Australian Military Equipment Profiles Volume 2 Local Pattern Carriers & Volume 3 Australian Scout & Armoured Cars Michael K. Cecil 1992

The Models

To illustrate this hypothetical defence of the Northern Territory Force scenario, I have used the following 1/35 scale model kits:

Tamiya’s newly released British LRDG Command Car – a CMP Chevrolet 30 cwt truck. Tamiya’s British Universal Carrier Mk.II (ok, I know it’s not an authentic Australian LP2)

 Tamiya’s BSA 350cc Motorcycle Military Police set.

 Mirror Model’s CMP C60L GS Cab 13 truck kit fitted with a Bofors gun taken from the Hobby Boss GMC Bofors 40 mm Gun kit (what a mongrel those were!).

 Firestorm’s Aussie slouch hats.

Anyone interested in this theme should also note a fine looking model from International models Asia of an Australian MG Carrier mounting the 2 pounder (not included). More at: http://www.imaco.com.hk/cgi-bin/prod.pl/id/IMA04035


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