The Royal New South Wales Lancers
|The Australian Light Horse|
The Australian Light Horse owe their success to the Reserve or Citizen Force nature of their training. Light Horsemen brought their civil skills to the defence of the nation. Shooting and riding were skills most young men, especially those in rural areas learned in their childhood and early teens. Australian horsemen in the Boer and First World wars were initially led by those who had added to their civil skills with part time military training.
The soldiers, and officers commissioned and non-commissioned developed in this way were quite different to those trained in armies dominated by permanent forces where authority was not to be questioned. Having experienced civil as well as military leadership, and known the influence of an unforgiving land; Australian Light Horsemen demanded to be well led; and claimed their place in history as "equal to the best" (Allenby) mobile troops in the Great War.
For overseas visitors to this site please note that Australia follows the British tradition where Cavalry regiments have the combat power of a battalion.
At Federation, Australia was at war. 838 Officers 15,327 Other Ranks and 16,314 Horses saw service in the South African conflict by the time it concluded in 1903. New South Wales had sent Lancers (New South Wales Lancers), Heavy Cavalry (The Australian Horse), Mounted Infantry (New South Wales Mounted Rifles), and Light Horse (Australian Commonwealth Horse); other states had sent Mounted Infantry (Queensland Mounted Infantry, Victorian Mounted Rifles, Tasmanian Mounted Infantry, South Australian Mounted Rifles, Western Australian Mounted Infantry) and Light Horse (Australian Commonwealth Horse). However, it was recognised in this conflict that horsemen exposed and at the gallop with short range "shock" weapons (swords and/or lances) were no match for rapid firing smokeless weapons particularly if channelled by obstacles into murderous killing zones.
Thus when "The Mounted Service Manual for Australian Light Horse and Mounted Infantry" was authorised for publication by Major General ETH Hutton, Commanding the military Forces of the Commonwealth of Australia in July 1902, Mounted Troops were divided into two categories:
Light Horse, required to:
fight on foot in the offensive and defensive;
perform duties classified as information gathering and denial, reconnaissance and screening; and
afford "protection" from surprise for all bodies of troops both halted and on the march.
Mounted Infantry, required to perform only the duties pertaining to infantry who are temporarily provided with increased means of mobility.
All Australian mounted units were Light Horse, there is no record of Mounted Infantry units being raised. The proud colonial titles and traditions of the colonial units were from this point used for ceremonial only. Light Horse units used horse-holders to enhance mobility, in order to engage the enemy, the lighthorsemen would dismount, handing their reins to one of their number who would move the horses out of the combat area. A trained horseholder could handle up to five extra horses.
By 1914 there were 23 Light Horse Regiments on the order of battle. General Order 109 of 1903 listed the following plumes to be worn by Light Horse units:
NSW - black cock's feathers
VIC - a single emu feather
WA - black swan feathers
QLD, SA, TAS - emu feathers
Due to various attempts to establish a compulsory training regime, ultimately overshadowed by recommendations of a report by Lord Kitchener following his inspection of 1910, most of the other ranks in the light horse were young, 19-20. They served under conditions where they were precluded from service outside the borders of the Commonwealth (of Australia).
A bill providing for compulsory military training in peace time (referred to as universal training) was introduced to Parliament by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin in 1909. It was a measure with broad parliamentary support, having been adopted by the Opposition Labor Party at its 1908 conference. At the invitation of Deakin, Field Marshal Viscount Kitchener of Great Britain visited Australia in 1909 to inspect the existing state of defence preparedness of the young Commonwealth, and advise on the best means of providing Australia with a land defence. Kitchener's report, submitted in February 1910, recommended the introduction of compulsory military training. A public version of Kitchener's report was published as 'Defence of Australia: Memorandum', it can be inspected at the National Archives of Australia.
Of interest the compulsory training had little impact on the Light Horse, to be in the Light Horse, you had to supply a horse. Light Horsemen continued to be volunteers.
As part of his visit Lord Kitchener, inspected the Army training site at Holsworthy New South Wales and declared that the area suited a permanent military training area. The militia units of New South Wales assembled at Holsworthy to show his lordship their skills. The Museum's collection includes a series of photos of that visit. They are assembled here as a slide show for those interested in the period.
The Museum acknowledges the work of Museum volunteer Ray Williams in digitising the Museum's photograph collection.
To the last man and the last shilling ..." the Prime Minister of Australia pledged the support of his country to Britain when news. of the war was received. Mr. Fisher had correctly gauged his fellow countrymen, for the recruiting of the force of 20,000 men was an immediate triumph of staff organisation and individual reaction.
The first major decision was whether the required forces would be formed directly from the existing militia units, or whether an entirely new army was to be formed for the duration of hostilities. Had the war been delayed for a further 4 years, the Australian militia forces might have been accepted for service, as in Canada and New Zealand, As it was, the provisions of the Kitchener report were still being implemented. By 1914, 90% of the 45,000 militia were boys aged 19-21. The inexpedience of sending a "boys army" overseas was obvious, they were also mostly conscripts and were engaged under conditions where they could not be sent outside Australia. As a result, an army was raised to become a parallel organisation to the existing Australian Military Forces (AMF) with its own rates of pay, rules for promotion and seniority list. The Commander of this organisation, General W. T. Bridges, had some decided views upon the name it should bear. "I want a name that will sound well when they call us by our initials. That's how they will speak of us." Being a strong man he adopted his own proposal, and the "Australian Imperial Force" (AIF) was written into the history book.
Generally speaking, the young man, whose youth was such a factor in the rejection of the mobilisation of the militia, joined the AIF in any case. For instance RHQ, A and B Squadrons of the 1 LH was formed directly from the members of the NSW Lancers. Into the staging camps, organised in each State, the would be fighters for the "Mother Country" came from country and city, farm and office: drovers, shearers and boundary riders, clerks, accountants and solicitors.
The organisation of the initial Light Horse Brigade was on the basis of a regiment from each of the States of New South Wales, and Queensland; a regiment from South Australia and Tasmania and, as Divisional Troops, a further regiment from Victoria. Regimental identities were as follows, the marker pennants shown display the colours of the unit colour patch, unit over brigade (they are not lance pennants, true Australian Lancer units have red over white pennants on their lances) there is no evidence they were used in World War 1:
1 LH NSW
2 LH Qld
3 LH SA and Tas
4 LH Vic Divisional Cavalry Regiment
Marker Pennants for 1 LH Bde
However, by 3 Sept 1914, the rush of enthusiastic horsemen was far in excess of that needed by the First Australian Light Horse Brigade and the Second Light Horse Brigade was then formed as follows:
5 LH Qld
6 LH NSW
7 LH NSW
Marker Pennants for 2 LH Bde
At this stage, Western Australia had been overlooked after two major formations and the belated approval to raise a squadron for the 7th Regiment did little to calm the ruffled pride of the militiamen of the 25 LH (WAMI), nor satisfy the expectations of the ardent Western Australian horsemen. Honour was restored with the raising of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade consisting of:
8 LH Vic
9 LH SA
10 LH WA
Marker Pennants for 3 LH Bde
After consultation with the two Governments, Lord Kitchener decided to form the Australian and New Zealand contingents into an improvised Army Corps. To lead this corps, Lieutenant General William Riddell Birdwood, a British Cavalry Officer, was appointed Commander in late December 1914. 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles were to form part of the New Zealand and Australian Division (NZ and A Division). The 2nd and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades were to be attached to what was soon to be known as the ANZAC Corps, as corps troops.
The 4LH was later expanded and split, two squadrons serving on the western front as Divisional Cavalry Squadrons for the 1st and 3rd Divisions, whilst the regiment back at full strength served as part of the 4th Light Horse brigade. In 1917, the two 4 LH squadrons on the western front along with a squadron of the Otago Mounted Rifles formed the II ANZAC (XXII Corps) Mounted Regiment.
On 11 February 1915, the 4th Light Horse Brigade was formed, it consisted of:
4 LH Vic
11 LH Qld and SA
12 LH NSW
Marker Pennants for 4 LH Bde
The 13 LH Vic, was raised in March 1915 deployed to the western front as Divisional Cavalry Squadrons for the 2nd, 4th and 5th Divisions. On the Western Front, terrain and the nature of the war there limited the roles mounted troops could fulfil, but they were still heavily employed. The 13th Light Horse carried out traffic control, rear area security and prisoner escort tasks, and, when the tactical situation permitted, the more traditional cavalry role of reconnaissance.
Soon after arriving in Egypt, most units regardless of their state of origin adopted the use of emu feathers.
Early in 1915, the "Dardanelles project" received considerable impetus from the eager Winston Churchill. Two attempts by the Navy to force the Dardanelles narrows failed. The projected attempt of 4th April 1915 was abandoned in favour of a military operation which was to secure the Gallipoli Peninsular.
By 1 May 1915, a week after the landing, disaster upon disaster had been visited upon the hapless 1st Australian Division and the NZ and A Division. Reinforcements were required immediately. The only available forces in the numbers necessary were the Light Horse regiments still waiting in Egypt. Despite the value of the Light Horse in the defence of Egypt, the enthusiasm of the brigades to fight, even if without their beloved horses, finally influenced Sir lan Hamilton to employ the Light Horse in a dismounted role. The opposition of General Maxwell1 to the use of the Light Horse as direct reinforcements to the infantry battalions resulted in the appearance of the Light Horsemen in their regimental and brigade groups. All the regiments of 1st, 2nd and 3rd Light Horse Brigades served intact, as did the Divisional Cavalry regiments 4 LH and 13 LH. The regiments of 4th Light Horse Brigade (11 LH and 12 LH) were broken up in Egypt and became Light Horse reinforcements prior to the landing at Cape Helles.
If Australia and New Zealand confirmed their nationhood during the 7 months on the peninsular, the Light Horse also came of age. The carefree young horsemen, who left their farms for adventure and a "good fight", returned to Egypt after the evacuation, gaunt of body and hardened of spirit, acquainted at last with the horror of war and the irrecoverable loss of many of their comrades and relations.
A squadron of 4 ALH and the whole of 13 ALH sailed for France. These units became part of the Anzac Corps, first as divisional mounted troops and later corps troops as "1st Anzac Mounted Regiment" — the regiments were mounted in the event of a break-through into the open country, or of a retreat. Destiny held little in store for these regiments compared with their brother regiments in the desert. The remaining eleven regiments and two squadrons of 4 ALH were quickly brought up to regimental strength. Egypt was seeing yet again the assembly of an army poised facing the east and the Darb-el-Sultani (the Road of Kings), preparing to march on a conquest of Palestine and Syria. In 1479 B.C., Thutmose III of Egypt set upon Palestine with a then little tried military mobility. His triumphal use of cavalry won him a decisive victory at Megiddo. No less decisive were to be the operations of Allenby (Viscount Edmund Allenby of Megiddo) and Chauvel at the same place nearly 3,400 years later.
The story of this great mounted army has been told in detail in Volume VII of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 by H. S. Gullett. Every student of the Light Horse history should read this volume. It is sufficient here to touch upon two episodes in this campaign to show the light horseman in the role that becomes him most in narrative, even if history records more sober and valuable instances.
H. S. Gullett in Vol VIII of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, records a delightful story concerning the commander of 3 ALH Brigade, Brigadier ("Galloping Jack") J. R. Royston, during the operations at Magdhaba in December 1916.
Riding about with his accustomed gusto in the thick of everything, Royston, his sword sheathed, charged up to a Turkish trench and found himself covered by five enemy rifles. Not at all taken aback by the situation, Royston brandished his cane in the air and barked at the Turks in Zulu (knowing no Turkish). This demonstration so impressed the enemy that they dropped their rifles and joined the 722 prisoners subsequently collected by 10 Light Horse that day.
The Capture of Beersheba 31 October 1917
The initial manoeuvres for the assault of the town having been made by Chauvel, it became apparent that the methodical progress shown hitherto would not result in the completion of the operation within the limits imposed by Allenby. A bold stroke was called for, so a direct mounted attack on the town was ordered and 4 ALH Brigade was called upon to perform this task.
Advancing two regiments up (4 LH and 12 LH), with one regiment in reserve (11 LH), the sub units extended in three lines with fifteen feet between individual horsemen. From the very commencement of the charge of 7,000 yards, the light horsemen were engaged by Turkish fire. With their long bayonet held as a sword, at full gallop the regiments bore down upon the enemy. Such a sight proved too unnerving for the amazed Turks and, in the final stages of the assault, the enemy fire passed over the heads of the Australians. This was later found to be caused by the Turks' failure to adjust the sights of their rifles and the Turkish gunners' inability to correct their fire with sufficient speed to match the furious pace of the charge.
The first wave of horsemen rode over the trenches and galloped on to Beersheba itself. The subsequent waves dismounted and took the trenches at the point of the bayonet. Despite the hand to hand fighting in which the brigade was engaged at the trenches, only 64 casualties were sustained.
The dramatic success of the charge was, in fact, the success of the light horse characteristics. Their speed, determination and tremendous zest for the job, outweighed their limitations of protection and weapons.
In April 1918 the Imperial Camel. Corps, formed prior to Magdhaba in December 1916, was disbanded. There were ten Australian companies numbering approximately 60 officers and 1,600 other ranks, and for a while their future was in doubt. The majority of the Australians had come from the infantry battalions. As the prospect of going to France was the current attraction at the time, there was considerable reluctance about joining the strange units. Consequently the time honoured method of "detailing" future cameleers resulted in the battalions "unloading" those soldiers who had not measured up to the qualities of an infantier. Misfits they may have been in the infantry, but valuable mounted troops they became. It was a suitable solution, therefore, when the Australian battalions if the Imperial Camel Corps were disbanded their members became Light Horse.
On 25 July 1918 the 5th Light Horse Brigade was formed consisting of:
14 LH formed from Australian battalions of the Camel Corps
15 LH (formed from Australian battalions of the Camel Corps
The French 1er Regiment Mixte de Marche Cavalerie du Levant, consisting of two squadrons of 1er Regiment Spahis and two of 4er Regiment de Marche Chausseurs d'Afrique.
Marker Pennants and Badge (FR) for 5 LH Bde
The Capture of Damascus
During September 1918 Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel commanding the Desert Mounted Corps carried out one of the most outstanding Mounted operations in the history of warfare.
After the Infantry Corps had broken the advanced Turkish line of defence, two Mounted divisions less one Brigade advanced along the coast line and two other divisions along the Jordan flank, whilst the 5 LH Brigade (14 and 15 Light Horse) and a Free French Cavalry regiment advanced as an independent role in the centre and captured Tuzkerram.
Covering up to 500 kilometres in ten days and living "off the country" as the transport were not able to keep up with the fast-moving mounted troops, the Corps converged on Damascus in a "pincers" movement.
Brig. Wilson commanding the 3 LH Bde. (8, 9 and 10 Light Horse Regiments) was ordered to follow Brig. Macarthur Onslow's 5th Bde. (14 and 15 Light Horse and a French Regiment) to cross the Barada Gorge and block the enemy escape route to the north.
Thus the stage was set for an engagement that was to prove worthy of the men of the Australian Light Horse and produce many examples of individual courage and initiative. Progress was slower than expected. Wilson conceived the bold plan of taking his horsemen through the city itself. The Turks were caught by surprise and made no effort to stop the Australians who rode on in pursuit of the fleeing Turks and Germans.
Damascus, the oldest city in the world, had fallen to the Australian Mounted Division. Later the city was in an uproar, Civil government did not exist, Arab fought Syrian, Sherrifan troops streamed in to loot and pillage. General Chauvel decided on a show of strength and escorted by a Squadron of 2 LH, rode through the city about noon on the 2nd October, followed by representative units of his Cavalry Divisions. The effect was electrical —the turbulent city was instantly awed to silence. The crowd dispersed, merchants opened their shops and order was restored.
At the end of the conflict, Field Marshall Lord Allenby wrote to General Chauvel in commendation:
"I knew the New South Wales Lancers and the Australian Horse well in the Boer War, and I was glad to meet some of my old friends of those days when the Light Horse came under my command just two years ago ...
The Australian Light Horseman combines with a splendid physique a restless activity of mind... on every variety of ground - mountain, plain, desert, swamp or jungle - the Australian Light Horseman has proved himself equal to the best.
He has earned the gratitude of the Empire and the admiration of the world".
Military Order 364. August 1918 stated: "In order to maintain the traditions and perpetuate the records made and distinctions gained by the Australian Imperial Force ... it has been decided to alter the designation of all Citizen Military Force ... units to the numbers borne by the Australian Imperial Force Units abroad". Thus as units were re-formed after the war, they bore the numbers, colour patches, emu feathers and ultimately carried the battle honours of the wartime units. As with the AIF, rising sun rather than former unit badges were worn.
By the end of 1919, the demobilisation of the 1st Australian Imperial Force was virtually complete; death in battle and subsequent death from wounds and illness had reduced the numbers tragically. The returning lighthorsemen had lost the devil may care approach to the Great Adventure and wished only to take off their dusty uniforms and return to farm and store, far from the prospect or thought of war.
Yet war, or its prevention, weighed heavily upon the minds of Lieutenant General Sir John Monash (late commander of the Australian Corps in France), Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel (late commander of the Desert Mounted Corps) and Major General Sir Cyril Brudenel White. These officers had been called upon by the Minister of Defence to assist him formulate a policy for the future defence of Australia.
Considering the problems of finance and manpower, it was recommended that the Army should be maintained at 130,000 in peace and 270,000 in war. The cavalry commitment for peace to be:
Two Cavalry Divisions, and
Three Light Horse Regiments for local defence.
It was planned to man these and the five infantry divisions by Citizen Military Forces with a regular army cadre holding key appointments in the units and headquarters. The CMF numbers were to be raised by universal service. The basis of this service would be of eight years duration, in which thirteen weeks training were to be completed in the first year, four weeks in the second year, three in the third and one in the fourth. For the remaining four years attendance at annual muster parades would be considered sufficient.
Despite sound suggestions from very experienced officers, the final Government pronouncement spelt nothing short of disaster for the three services. The two cavalry and five infantry divisions were restricted to 31,000 men. Annual training for the CMF was reduced to four days home training and six days camp training. 25% of the militia officers were retired officers rich with operational experience.
This sorry situation was further beset with lack of funds, training stores, suitable instructional courses. Seven light horse regiments were lost, either by being absorbed or linked. From a total of thirty regiments in 1919 (though by no means at full strength) the new divisional reorganisation (1921) removed the divisional cavalry units under the previous Brigade organisation, e.g. 27 LH, 28 LH, 29 LH and 30 LH. Also in 1921, the "universal training" law was amended and service was restricted to the more populous centres and to certain age quotas only. This further limited those units whose area of recruiting was essentially rural.
On 1 July 1929, even before the full effects of the economic depression were felt, two more light horse regiments were removed from the order of battle. The 21 LH (Illawarra Light Horse) was linked with 1 LH (New South Wales Lancers) and became inactive, and 19 LH (Yarrowee Regiment) was linked with 17 LH (Prince of Wales's Light Horse) under the same conditions. Most of the remaining units in the order of battle were restricted by over half their war strength. However, Light Horse regiments suffered least from the reduction in Universal Training because 90% of their numbers were voluntarily enlisted, this being the only way country troop centres could be maintained.
As the full weight of the depression struck the country, defence was to suffer yet again. All services were reduced, five ships were paid off, and all ranks of the Permanent Military Forces were required to take eight weeks' annual leave without pay. Needless to say, the funds available to Militia training were further reduced. Some units were unable to group for regimental camps for two years, due to the lack of funds.
On 1 November 1929, compulsory training was replaced by a voluntary system. Attempts were made to brighten uniforms, regimental badges were re-introduced, and uniforms made more ceremonial with coloured collars and gilt (silver for the light horse) buttons, but these cosmetic adjustments had little effect; and broke links with the AIF. Whilst the volunteer force was ultimately established at approximately 25,000, the standard of horsemanship and horses fell sadly. Accepting recruits with quite unacceptable medical categories, the units strove desperately to have sufficient names in their roll books to justify retention of their unit identity. Training, when it could be conducted, was based apparently on the promise that the cavalry would conduct its future operations in exactly the same circumstances as those encountered by the Desert Mounted Corps in its operations in 1916-18.
As the country climbed back from the disaster of the depression, it was obvious that for the Light Horse things could never be quite the same again. Industrialisation had eaten into many rural areas. It became virtually impossible to maintain horses in many of the centres which had been traditionally cavalry recruiting districts over the past one hundred years. Added to this was the fact that the horse no longer held its place in the business of transportation. Indeed, the breeding of working horses had so declined, that the former export of army horses had now almost ceased. It was unlikely that there would be sufficient mounts to mobilize the light horse.
It came as no surprise, therefore, when in 1937 four regiments were changed to Machine Gun Regiments. These, generally speaking, were those regiments for whom maintenance of their horses was now quite out of the question. the 1 LH (Royal New South Wales Lancers) centred on Sydney was an example of this.
The Machine Gun Regiments were equipped with the Vickers Machine gun and a strange variety of trucks. Seeking feathers where they could, the lighthorsemen retained their plumed slouch hats and as much of an equestrian appearance as possible.
The alarm in Australia, created by the international situation during the three years leading up to World War 2, may be judged by the expenditures passed for the fighting services.
1938 £43,000,000 (for expenditure over the next three years)
Yet by 1939 only the four Light Horse units had experienced military mechanisation, by being changed to Machine Gun Regiments. In parallel, the Australian Tank Corps had been formed in 1930 with the purchase of 4 Vickers Medium tanks from the UK. By 1939, there were two tank companies one in Sydney (Randwick) and in Melbourne (Caulfield).
The decline in availability of horse flesh was, as indicated above, a powerful factor in the disappearance of the mounted units. However, the natural resistance of the majority to give up their horses was not a case of "head in the sand" when the natural modern alternative, the Armoured fighting vehicle, was not purchased by the Government. The horse had certainly had its day, but its performance in the 1939-45 war was significant, even if without a record as exciting and conclusive as the mounted operations in Egypt, Palestine and Syria 1915-1918. The contribution of the horsemen is described later in this chapter.
The initial action in regard to the light horse was to place all units on a war footing with camps of a greater duration than for peace time training. Their operational role was in the nature of garrison troops, which involved considerable mounted patrolling.
As for the 1st World War, an Imperial Force was raised for service overseas. Many light horsemen naturally volunteered for the AIF and found themselves in a variety of units. Following the 1st AIF tradition (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th divisions) the 2nd AIF commenced with 6th Division and followed with 7th, 8th and 9th. The 6th, 7th and 9th were destined for the Middle East, until Japan entered the war in 1941, and the 8th Division was sent to Malaya.
Australian Cavalry - (2nd AIF) Middle East and South West Pacific
With each AIF Division was raised a Cavalry Regiment (ALH). These units were equipped with light tanks, but their role was still very much the same as that detailed for the light horseman in the Light Horse Manual 1902. " .... to afford protection from surprise for all bodies of troops ... to perform recce and screening duties." Some of them undertook their initial training at Puckapunyal, only a few miles from the "Marengo" run, where the 7th Light Horse (VMR) had trained in 1905.
The 6th Division, with 6 Cavalry Regiment, sailed from Australia in January 1941 to commence training in Palestine. In June-July 1941, the Division found itself engaged in action in Syria. Brig Berryman was faced with a situation where the use of tracked vehicles on a narrow track was impossible. On the east an escarpment rose; on the west, a swamp stretched for thousands of yards. The brigade was in danger of being outflanked.
Wistfully the Brigadier expressed the wish that he might well do with a light horse troop. The former light horsemen in 6 Australian Cavalry Regiment (AIF) needed little encouragement. They "acquired" a number of horses and mounted forty all ranks. This extraordinary group numbered, among the elect, a sergeant cook, who acted as Squadron sergeant major, a vehicle mechanic as the sergeant farrier and a Corporal wireless operator had the required talent to accompany the group in the capacity of vet. However, the "Kelly Gang", as they became known, performed valuable patrolling service to Bmoriq, Kafr, Hammon, and Mazraat Islamige.
This was the last mounted operation in this theatre, but the unit was further engaged in battles before departing for Australia in December 1941.
The last action involving cavalry units in the Middle East was fought by 9 Australian Cavalry Regiment (AIF) at El Alamein. On the departure of this unit from Palestine, their regimental biographer, Colin Kerr (Tanks in the East) prepared a list of things with which he was thoroughly fed up. They were:—
Army messes .....
Butter that smelt like cheese
Small boys who want to take you to a "good sheila Aussie!"
The contemptuous expression on a camel's face.
Nothing about the rigors endured by the Cavalry of the 2nd AIF! As with their comrades of 1914-18, by such men is history made.
Retaining their black beret on their return to Australia (a hat described by Lt Col Bastin, late 4 LH and the CO of 9 Australian Cavalry Regiment (AIF) as "the noblest form of headgear known to man") the divisional cavalry regiments were redesignated as Cavalry (Commando) Regiments (ALH). As such they served dismounted during the South West Pacific Area campaign.
It was during this campaign that the horse and the light horseman appeared yet again. In New Guinea in 1942, at Koitaki estate, a number of horses of good blood still remained from the days before the War when race meetings were held. From these horses, 31 were selected by a group of 22 soldiers who, on 1 April 1942, became 1st Independent Light Horse Troop (AIF). The troop operated on patrolling tasks and location of missing aircraft. Until the Pack Transportation Companies were formed, the troop also delivered supplies on the Kokoda Trail. As a horse could carry 80 kg (the equivalent to 4 carriers), their contribution was a valuable one in the early days of the campaign, when supply was critical.
Eight Independent Commando Companies operated with South West Pacific Area including Timor, Wau-Salamanda-Lae districts, and Bouganville. By October 1943, the subunits were re-designated squadrons, the privates retitled troopers, and the full name became Cavalry (Commando) Squadrons (Australian Light Horse).
CMF Light Horse Units
In 1939, the citizen military force order of battle contained two cavalry divisions and two mixed brigades. The light horse units therein were organised as follows:
MG regiments 4
Armoured Car regiments 1
Light Horse regiments 17
Total 22 regiments
As mentioned earlier in this chapter, the regiments were placed on war establishment, but were not called up for full time duty. The regiments were deployed around vital areas and prepared defensive positions.
Despite ominous indications of the territorial plans of the Japanese, the attack upon Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 surprised and shocked not a few and Australia suddenly faced an active enemy upon her northern approaches.
However, within the CMF the re-organisation of the light horse units had just commenced:
Additional MG Regiments raised 3 (25LH, 26LH, 14LH*)
Additional Armoured regiments raised 1 (2 Armed Regt)
Changed to Motor Regiments (1 December 1941) 5 (5LH, 11LH, 6LH, 15LH, 20LH)
Changed to Recce battalions 2 (8LH, 21LH)
Remained as Light Horse Regiments 10 (9/23LH, 3LH, 13/19LH, 4LH, 24LH, 10LH. 22LH, 7LH, 2LH)
Remained as MG Regiments 4 (18LH, 17LH, 16LH, 1LH)
*Note: 14LH (MG) was raised in Eastern Command (NSW) NOT Queensland.
The formation organisation produced two motor divisions from the previous cavalry divisions. Some were to lose their light horse identity completely and become infantry units, e.g. 5 LH and 11 L.H. Others were to be completely disbanded and the militiamen formed reinforcements to many and varied units. By the end of 1944 only 1 LH as 1st Armoured Regiment and 20 LH (VMR), as 20th Australian Pioneer Battalion, were recognisable. However, the final nine months of the light horse were to be marked by the performance of an operation undertaken in the traditional light horse style.
In June 1943, 2nd Australian Cavalry Regiment was directed to form an Independent Light Horse Squadron of 5 officers and 157 other ranks. Having reacted to this direction with great enthusiasm, the unit undertook patrolling duties as part of Yorkforce until disbandment in 1944, the remainder of the regiment being disbanded in July 1943.
Some CMF LH units were fortunate enough to be accepted as an AIF unit while others were redesignated AIF, after fulfilling certain conditions. Despite the burning desire to see their light horse regiment in action again, the majority of the ALH units were frustrated in this ambition.
1 Australian Tank Battalion / 1 Armoured Regiment (Royal New South Wales Lancers) and 20 LH (VMR) were two units who saw service in the South West Pacific Area.
The Australian Armoured Corps
The armoured or tank corps had experienced a slow start in Australia and was still fairly undeveloped in 1939. However, the war gave considerable stimulation to the field and by 1943 the Armoured Corps organisation was as follows:—
1st Armoured Division 3rd Armoured Division 4th Armoured Division 5th Armoured Brigade 2nd Tank Battalion Group 3rd Tank Battalion Group
Whilst all the units contained in the above organisation affected the light horse, insofar as light horsemen fought with them as AIF volunteers, the light horse story deals only with the following:—
1 Armoured Regiment, RNSWL and (AIF)
6 Armoured Regiment (AIF)
4 Armoured Regiment (AIF)
8 Armoured Regiment (AIF)
20 Motor Regiment, VMR and (AIF)
9 Armoured Regiment (AIF)
The connection of the light horse with these units occurs in retrospect and is described in the following chapter.
The light horse as a fighting formation had been supplanted by the Armoured Corps. The Armoured Corps had not evolved from the light horse but, as their modern counterparts, were the obvious guardians of the traditions amassed over the previous two wars by the mounted men.
The passing was made easier by the general disbandment of the AIF and the suspension of the CMF system. With the exception of the PMF and the Occupation Forces in Japan, the war machine which started so belatedly in 1939, yet ultimately ran at such a magnificent pitch, finally stopped in 1945 and the world was at peace.
If war can ever have glory, the glory of 1939-45 belongs as much to the light horsemen as it did in 1914-18. The militia contribution was substantial and many formations were as good as any the country has produced. The spirit of the light horseman prevailed, the characteristics, called for in the Lighthorse manual 1902 . . .."both cohesion and individuality", were much in demand.
The territorial, proud of his lineage, gave again to the growing history of the Australian Military Forces and confirmed Australia's standing as a worthy ally.
Such is peace, that by 1947 the international tensions became severe once more. The distasteful task of defence rebuilding had to be faced again. The national aftermath of war had caused the disposal of much of the wartime equipment and the majority of the forces were demobilized.
The CMF was re-introduced in 1948 and with its re-introduction came the need for militia Armoured Corps units. To the great delight of the former members, ten regiments were raised, all with light horse numerical and territorial identities. The regular armoured units, subsequently raised, did not have any light horse title until 1960 when two regular squadrons were formed - A Squadron 4/19 Prince of Wales's Light Horse and A Squadron 2/14 Queensland Mounted Infantry. The parent CMF units were thereby restricted each by one squadron. The pride of the regular soldiers belonging to these two fine regiments was reflected in their training, bearing and discipline, a major lesson in the value of historic associations with the modern soldier.
In 1956, the existing units on the order of battle were instructed to prepare claims for battle honours for which they considered themselves entitled. The apparently belated approach to recording the names of the battles in which units took part was brought about, in the first instance, by Australia waiting until the British schedule of Battles, Engagements, etc. was available.1 In the second instance a committee had been appointed on 25 July 1947 with General Sir Thomas Blarney as Chairman, and had completed considerable investigation at the time the instruction for claims to be submitted was issued.
It must be realized that on the cessation of hostilities the AIF and militia were disbanded. Even with the re-introduction of the CMF, with very few exceptions, the units who had taken part in the 1939-45 war were no longer in existence.
The policy to be adopted was contained in an Army Headquarters memo dated 10 August 1959:—
"Prior to the 1939 war CMF Cavalry and Infantry Units were awarded all honours won by 1st AIF units bearing the same numerical title, thus this "Regimental" tradition link was recognised and perpetuated after the 1914-18 war. It is the intention that this Regimental tradition will continue to be perpetuated in relation to honours won by cavalry and infantry units in the 1939-45 war."
It was then a question of units and their AIF Associations submitting to the Committee claims in regard to Corps units of the same numerical distinction during the period 1939-45.
The Committee, now under the Chairmanship of Major General Sir George Wooten KBE, CB, DSO, ED consisted of Major General J. A. Bishop DSO, OBE, ED, Lieutenant Colonel C. J. Miles, Director of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps, and Major A. J. Newton, MBE, representative of the Director of Infantry, as members, and Major C. A. Ridley, Secretary.
The Military Board (Minute number 154/1958 dated 5 September 1958) directed the committee to examine and make recommendations in regard to:
a) Claims of AMF units for Battle Honours for service in the Second World War 1939-45 and Korean Operations 1950-53.
(b) Which units, if any, at present in the order of battle may inherit (because of numerical or geographic association) the Battle Honours of AMF units no longer in the order of battle.
This detailed, frustrating, sometimes amusing, but ultimately rewarding work was conducted at the Australian War Memorial and Melbourne. Hundreds of records, notably the war diaries of units were consulted. A vast amount of correspondence was received and forwarded and finally the results were published as Australian Army Order No 135 of 1961.
Some units' submissions were so enthusiastic that the Committee had to reduce the list, where the war diary failed to support the evidence of sufficient of the unit engaged to constitute "unit participation". Other units showed some reluctance to forward claims. In February 1961, the Secretary observed that either no claims, or incomplete claims, had been received from some armoured units. In these cases the Secretary acted as claimant, in order that every possibility for awards could be investigated.
Where the Committee expressed doubt in a particular claim, correspondence was entered into with unit or sub-unit commanders in an effort to clarify the situation. What soldier could fail to appreciate the reply of the former squadron commander in the 4th Armoured Regiment. Informed that the war diary did not support evidence for the claim for some of the Bougainville operations, the former squadron commander (awarded a DSO during these operations) pointed out that "they" at Regimental Headquarters maintained the diary and lack of specific detail was no doubt due to the squadrons being so busy fighting and advancing at the time. With further evidence produced, the day was won in favour of 2/4 Armoured Regiment.
The question of the Divisional Cavalry units was examined. It was decided that they should be considered as separate units for purposes of former traditions and awards as direct inheritance from any one past unit of dissimilar title and role would be hard to justify. For example, associations existed for 8 LH and 2/8 Armoured Regiment, and a CMF unit 8/13 VMR was a logical claimant for 2/8 Armoured Regiment honours. Therefore the Divisional Cavalry units were entitled to battle honours in their own right. Although no guidon was presented to these units, the entitlement exists.
The Vietnam War 1965 - 1972 saw service by regular army units only. The regular units numbers were supplemented by national servicemen and individual CMF volunteers, but none of the CMF units saw service. This time the political manoeuvring that saw the 1st (by Vietnam 1/15 Royal New South Wales Lancers) eventually see service as an AIF unit in WW2 did not work, and its centurion tank crews whose vision was to fight alongside their regular counterparts did not happen.
On 27 May 1965 1 Tp A Sqn 4/19 PWLH departed for Vietnam. The troop sailed to Vietnam aboard HMAS Sydney and arrived in Vung Tau on 11 June 1965. The troop included eight M113 APC, which had only recently been issued (the troop had been training with Ferret, Saracen and Saladin prior to departure) and two Landrovers. The troop formed the APC Troop of the 1st Australian Logistic Support Company, which was supporting the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR). In March 1966, the troop became officially known as the 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Troop.
The troop, being the only armoured unit in Vietnam, was given a wide variety of tasks. They were constantly required for operational tasks and there was little opportunity to hold crews in reserve. Fatigue was caused by constant operations, the need to maintain constant security and long hours of maintenance. On 30 September 1965 the remainder of the troop’s vehicles, 3 APC (one belonging to the Light Aid Detachment and the other two being the reserve vehicles of the troop) and two APC (Mortar) arrived in Vung Tau. In May 1966, the troop was relieved and subsequently absorbed into 1 APC Squadron.
In 1965, A Sqn 4/19 PWLH moved to Gallipoli Lines, Holsworthy, and in November was redesignated as A Squadron 1st Cavalry Regiment. A Squadron 2nd/14th Queensland Mounted Infantry became B Squadron 1st Cavalry Regiment. A Squadron 1st Cavalry Regiment had a complement of 156 all ranks which included an increment to permit the squadron to operate as an independent entity. B Squadron 1st Cavalry Regiment was restricted to 76 personnel because of a temporary manpower shortage. The organisation of the two squadrons was similar and included a squadron headquarters, an Administration Troop, an Anti Tank and Surveillance Troop, a Support Troop and three cavalry troops (B Squadron only had one cavalry troop). A Squadron underwent its last name change on 16 January 1967 when it became known as A Squadron 2nd Cavalry Regiment.
The 1970s saw the conversion of all CMF, now called Army Reserve RAAC units to Reconnaissance/APC, armed with M113A1 vehicles. In the early 1980s for a short time, they were armed with the FSV Scorpion, an M113 mounting a Scorpion AFV turret. These vehicles were not effective, however, and were soon withdrawn from service. Units also changed, as a result of the misguided Millar Committee report, in 1976 8/13 VMR, 3/9 SAMR and 10 LH were reduced to independent squadrons, ultimately 8/13 VMR was disbanded in 1991 and its traditions passed to the 4/19 PWLH.
Today, the Royal Australian Armoured Corps carries on the traditions of the Light Horse.
The regiments reserve and regular train and serve today in a variety of vehicles and maintain the mobile warfare traditions of the Australian Light Horse. There are reserve units based in every mainland state, currently 500 RAAC soldiers regular and reserve are in service overseas.
If you wish to serve with the modern day Light Horse, CLICK HERE.
This account was adapted from "The Australian Light Horse" by RJ Hall, November 1968. Additional historical detail was sourced from the Australian War Memorial (www.awm.gov.au) and the New South Wales Lancers Memorial Museum. Thanks to Michael Martin for the badge images and some of the vehicle pictures.
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