1 July 1945 marks the Landing at Balikpapan in Borneo by the 7th Australian Division, which was supported by Matilda tanks of the 1st Armoured Regiment AIF (Royal New South Wales Lancers).
The Lancers’ steeds were Matilda Mark 3s, manufactured in Britain. Weight 25 tonnes they had a crew of 4 – Comd, Driver, Gunner and Loader/Wireless Operator. Designed as an Infantry Support tank, they had a 40mm main armament, a 7.92mm Besa Coaxial MG, and provided a good level of overall protection against existing threats, with up to 78mm of armour. The Matilda had a maximum speed of 26 kph.
On 23 November 1899 at Belmont South Africa New South Wales Lancers were the first Australian soldiers to fire their weapons inaction. On 1 July 1945 the Royal New South Wales Lancers at Balikpapan in Indonesian Kalimantan staged the largest employment of tanks in combat ever made by the Australian Army.
But let’s step back and understand how the Regiment got to Balikpapan. The Lancers existed between world wars 1 and 2 as a militia unit initially training as Light Horse and Cavalry, then de-horsed in 1936 to become a Mechanised Machine Gun Regiment, mounted on trucks and equipped with Vickers Machine guns. On the outbreak of World War 2 many members of the Regiment left to join the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion AIF, a unit that fought with distinction in the North Africa including Tobruk. Despite their departure the lancers continued on and saw an influx of young men for periods of compulsory training. Equipped with Bren Gun Carriers in 1942 the unit is renamed the 1st Motor Regiment. Later in May the Regiment was renamed again the 1st Army Tank Battalion AIF, and from September equipped with surplus Matilda tanks from the UK. The Matilda had performed well in France in 1940 (although in low numbers) as well as in the early phases of the North African campaign in 1941, but by 1942 had been replaced by larger, faster, better protected tanks with larger main armament, like the Sherman produced by the United States. Despite being outdated, the Matilda tank proved itself to be an excellent jungle fighter, much better than light Stuart tanks that the Japanese could break into using hand tools. Veterans from our Regiment loved the Matildas, although they were a handful to maintain.
At the beginning of 1943 the Regiment transferred to the AIF, after the majority of members agreed to do so in order to eligible to serve overseas. In August, the now 1st Tank Battalion AIF deployed to Milne Bay in New Guinea in preparation to support operations by the 7th and 9thh Australian Divisions in the recapture Lae and the Huon Peninsula. Over the course of November 1943 to January 1944 both C and then A Squadron took part in operations supporting the 9th Division, with C Squadron taking part in the battle of Sattelberg, and A Squadron supporting the infantry advance to Wareo and Fortification Point. Unfortunately, B Squadron remained at Milne Bay for the duration, much to their frustration.
The majority of the Regiment returned to Australia in May 1944 and were based at Southport on the Gold Coast in QLD with the specialist 4th Armoured Brigade. The Brigade was the last armoured formation in Australia after the disbandment of the 1st Armoured Division and its role was to train Tank Regiments in the Infantry Support role. No one knew whether the Regiment would get another guernsey, but in 1945 we were lucky (as was 2/4th Armoured Regiment in Bougainville) to be given another opportunity to support Australian operations in Borneo as part of the ‘Final Campaigns’ against Japan. Tarakan, Labuan, Brunei Bay and Balikpapan were all identified as objectives to be secured, before any future operations to liberate Singapore and Malaya.
The reasons for the Lancers’ selection are not known, but the Regiment had to swap their M3 Grant tanks for Matildas, the vast number of which were handed over by the 2/5th Armoured Regiment in a very poor state. Many arrived on the back of trucks as they were not roadworthy and could not move under their own power. For 6 weeks the Regiment worked day and night to get all of the vehicles ready. Sadly during this time, two soldiers were killed during a Firepower demonstration at Wasp Creek on 14 March 1945 – Lance Corporal Ben Evans and Trooper Merrick McNamee.
The Regiment departed Brisbane in late May 1945 on three American Liberty Ships bound for Morotai, one of the northernmost islands in Indonesia, which was being used as a major Allied staging base for future operations in Borneo.
The trip was not without mishap. One Liberty ship, the Henry Thoreau, carrying C Squadron’s tanks, the LAD (Electrical and Mechanical Engineers ‘Light Aid Detachment’) and Workshop, caught fire in Moreton Bay and had to return to port. Another, the Millen Griffith, carrying the Regimental Main Body, was hit by a big storm off the coast of northern New Guinea and early on the morning of 2 June 1945 ran aground at Bonga, coincidentally where A Squadron had been based in 1944! Regimental personnel and all the stores are taken off the ship and billeted at Dreger Harbour. A week later they are re-embarked. All of the unit’s spare track and idler wheels were lost in the storm when a pontoon carrying them broke free and was smashed against the rocks.
Following the grounding, and much to everyone’s surprise Craftsman Ron Rummans from the A Squadron LAD hopped down off a tree branch, walked along the beach and into the scrub and retuned with his toolbox that he had inadvertently left there the year before. I am not sure whether he completed a Loss and Damage Form for the Squadron Quartermaster Sergeant!
Because of the delays, the Regiment finally arrive at Morotai on 16 June, only 5 days before the Operation was planned to begin. As a result, there was no time to do any Tank-Infantry co-operation training with units of the 7th Division, however ship borne rehearsals of the landing did take place.
The convoy sailed on 26 June 1945 and consisted of over 270 ships of all types and sizes.
The overall plan for Operation OBOE II was relatively simple.
Before the landing Balikpapan was subjected to weeks of Air and Naval Bombardment by Australian and US Forces the largest ever in the SW Pacific theatre. It was said by some of the Regiment that you could read a newspaper at night from the glow of the naval bombardment.
The 7th Division’s objective was to capture and hold the Balikpapan area to ‘enable the establishment of air and naval facilities, as well as conserve the petroleum producing installations’.
The landings at 0900h on 1 July were a complete success with 33 tanks and 2 tractors of the Regiment landed without mishap. They were greeted by a scene of desolation and opposition was minimal.
During the first day 1 Troop A Squadron supported the 2/24th Battalion clearing buildings near Pump Road, and 2 Troop A Squadron supported 2/16th Bn in clearing Hobsons Road.
Interestingly, the A Squadron Recce Party, including CPL Peter Teague, discover several tunnel entrances. Peter found a number of trap doors and encounters two or three Japanese running towards him with a Samurai sword or Katana. He killed all of them and took the katana as a trophy. It is now part of the Lancers’ Museum collection.
B Squadron operations on F-Day were similar. 1 Troop B Squadron supported the 2/12th Bn capturing Parramatta Ridge and Hill 87. 4 Troop support 2/12th Bn moving east along Valley Road. They encounter numerous anti-tank ditches and obstacles.
Over the next 18 days the Regiment’s tanks provided constant and effective close support to the Infantry. Sadly not without incident or loss:
By the end of July all operations had finished and the Regiment was concentrated at ‘Petersham Junction’. Three hour’s work was done each day on the tanks followed by Sport. Battlefield tours were conducted and a points based demobilisation scheme is introduced. To avoid boredom, classes on maths, accounting, electrical, radio, carpentry and joinery are introduced.
VJ Day is declared on 15 August 1945. The older tanks are destroyed and the remaining ones are locked in a guarded compound to prevent the Indonesians from getting them to fight the Dutch.
The Regiment’s Rear Party remains in Balikpapan until September 1946 when they return to Brisbane. LT Doug Ferns was the last man discharged from the Regiment on 6 November 1946. The regiment was reformed with the rest of the new Regular and Citizen (Reserve) Army on 1 July 1948.
Five members of the Regiment lost their lives at Balikpapan. They are:
Lest We Forget
David Brown July 2017
The above paper was given as a presentation at the Royal New South Wales Lancers Regimental Dinner on 1 July 2017. The presentation can be viewed below.