Home ] What's New ] Armoured Vehicles ] Other Vehicles ] Military Models ] Reviews ]

Australian Armour in the Middle East, 1940-1942


An Australian LP1 Carrier in Cyrenaica, March 1941. It mounts a Vickers Machine Gun. The crew are wearing leather jerkins, and the Carrier wears the Caunter camouflage scheme.

by Paul D. Handel



Each of the three Australian Infantry Divisions of the 2nd Australian Imperial Force which served in the Middle East contained a Divisional Reconnaissance Regiment, later re-designated as Divisional Cavalry Regiments. Many of the pre-war Militia armoured and Australian Light Horse Regiments contributed many trained personnel to the Divisional Cavalry Regiments.

The role of a Divisional Cavalry Regiment was to conduct reconnaissance, surveillance and early warning operations on behalf of its division. A War Establishment of 28 Light Tanks, 44 Machine Gun Carriers and a strength of some 450 men was authorised for each of the Regiments. These units were not equipped with AFVs until they arrived in the Middle East and this article will look at some of that equipment. When carried the unit sign for each Division cavalry Regiment was a white 41 on a black square, with the Divisional sign changing according to the formation.

In addition, most infantry battalions had Carrier Platoons, and some artillery units used Carriers for forward observers and line laying duties.

6th Australian Division Cavalry Regiment

The 6th Division Cavalry Regiment embarked for overseas service in January 1940. Their main training took place in Palestine and later in Egypt, where, equipped with Machine Gun Carriers, they started using armoured vehicles and developing expertise in the handling of them. Six very well used Vickers Light Tanks Mark IIB from Egyptian Army stocks were issued in October 1940 from the depot in Abbassia. These vehicles appeared on a parade wearing the Caunter camouflage scheme, and carrying the Divisional sign, a white kangaroo over a boomerang on a black square, on the left front mudguard. A Bridge classification sign, a black 4 on a yellow disc appeared on the right front mudguard.

The 6th Division Cavalry Regiment were the first Australian troops in action in the Second World War at Fort Maddalina and Fort Garn on 11/12 December 1940. A Squadron was detatched to the Western Desert Force and, equipped with only Machine Gun Carriers of British origin, assisted in the capture of Bardia in January 1941. A Squadron was then partially re-equipped with Italian Medium tanks for the assault on Tobruk. These were M11/39 tanks with the 47 mm gun mounted in the hull and more modern M13/40 tanks with 47 mm gun in the turret. The prominent kangaroo markings, part of the divisional sign, were applied to the Italian tanks in order to identify the vehicles to their own troops. The dust generated by their movement quickly obscured the signs and it was fortunate that they were not engaged with “friendly fire”. Only seven of the captured Italian tanks managed to complete the approach march, with only one reaching the Italian defences. It should be noted that these Italian vehicles, as were most of the Italian transport captured during the early days of the desert war, painted green and not sand.

The Machine Gun Carriers appear to be generally Universal Carriers Mark 1, all mounting Vickers and Bren guns. The volume of fire that the carriers were able to produce, with their Vickers guns connected to the engine radiators of the carriers, was largely responsible for minimizing the infantry casualties. Carriers appear from photographs to be a mixture of sand coloured vehicles and the Caunter Scheme.


A Universal Carrier Mark 1 of 6th Division Cavalry in February 1941. The armament is a Boys Anti-tank rifle and a radio set is fitted to the Carrier. The crew wear Australian Pattern service Dress dating from WW1 with black berets. The Divisional sign is seen on the left front mudguard.


Some Australian LP1 carriers were also on issue, characterised by their truck headlights, double stowage bin on the right and long stowage tray at the rear (see title pjoto). It appears that some of these may have been finished in the Caunter scheme.

Returning to Helwan in April 1941, the Regiment was equipped with Vickers Light tanks Mark VIB and Machine Gun Carriers of various types, and operated with the British up to the capture of Sollum. Towards the end of May 1941, the Regiment moved to northern Palestine under command of the 7th Australian Division, where preparations were in progress for an invasion of Syria, then held by Vichy French Forces.

The rugged hills along the coast rose sharply from the road, leaving little room for the manoeuvre of the tanks and carriers. At one stage, the Tank Troops were communicating with naval ships off the coast using signalling flags, and were able to target advancing French armoured vehicles.

Whilst undergoing a rest period, A Squadron had taken over and got ready for action three captured French R35 Renault Light Tanks. These tanks, although slower than the Vickers Lights, were much more heavily armoured. B Squadron also received three R35 tanks and both squadrons used them during subsequent patrolling activities. The Renaults appear to be in a dark colour, possibly a dark green.

The fight for the town of Damour, beginning on 6 July 1941, was one of the most difficult of the entire Syrian Campaign. The Cavalry did not play a major role in the battle, although a captured French R35 Renault tank being used by the Regiment was destroyed by a French 75mm gun.

7th Australian Division Cavalry Regiment

Arriving in Palestine in February 1941 the Regiment conducted training in desert conditions. During April 1941, a cavalry regiment was required to go in the desert, and of the two available cavalry regiments, the 6th Division Cavalry had much experience in desert warfare but was under-equipped and the 7th Division Cavalry had equipment but no experience. On the toss of a coin the 6th Division Cavalry won and the 7th Division Cavalry handed over their equipment and moved to stations along the Suez Canal.

In May 1941 the Regiment was sent to Cyprus to defend against the likely German invasion. Equipped with Vickers Light Tanks, Carriers, and trucks fitted with 2pdr Anti-Tank Guns, the Regiment served in this role until its move to Syria. The full story of this episode is in another article on this site entitled “Australian Armour On Cyprus”. It was sent to Syria to rejoin its Division in August 1941.


A Vickers Light Tank Mark VIB of 7th Division Cavalry Regiment in Syria. No markings are evident on this vehicle.

In Syria it took over other Australian equipment, including very well used Vickers Light Tanks Mark VIB, Universal carriers and Renault R35 tanks.

9th Australian Division Cavalry Regiment

Shortly after their arrival in Palestine in mid 1941 the unit was warned out to participate in the forthcoming Syrian campaign. Because the unit had already done armoured training in Australia, and were probably the best prepared of the Divisional Cavalry Regiments at the time of embarkation, the short time between arrival and being committed into action did not appear to be a problem.

As with the other regiments, the 9th Division Cavalry Regiment were equipped with Vickers Light Tanks Mark VIB and various types of Machine Gun Carriers. Contact was first made with the Vichy French Forces at Jezzine on 14 June 1941. The unit acquired some Vichy French Renault R35 tanks, small but heavily armoured, and these were take into action at Barada Gorge. Some of the carriers carried the Divisional sign, an Platypus over a boomerang, along with the unit sign.


A Vickers Light Tank Mark VIB of 9th Division Cavalry Regiment after the Syrian campaign. This vehicle displays the unit and divisional signs and a spare roadwheel is carried on the side of the turret.


At the completion of the Syrian Campaign, the Regiment returned to Palestine for rest and re-training. In January 1942 they were moved back to Syria, engaging in reconnaissance work and patrolling of northern Syria. The 9th Division Cavalry was sent to Egypt after the German advances in July 1942, accompanying their parent formation.

Here, for the first time in the Middle East campaign, an Australian Cavalry Regiment was equipped with modern armour, in the form of British Crusader Mark 2 Cruiser tanks, M3 Stuart Light tanks as well as the ubiquitous Machine Gun Carriers. They provided two squadrons for the protection of the Headquarters of the 9th Australian Division, becoming involved in several tank versus tank engagements. During these actions several Universal Carriers were destroyed and some Crusaders were damaged.


The crew of a Crusader tank of 9th Division Cavalry Regiment working on their vehicle prior to El Alamein. The tank is relatively “clean”, with little stowage evident.

At the time of the battle of El Alamein in October 1942, the Regiment had on strength 5 M3 Stuart Light Tanks, 15 Crusader Mk 2 Cruiser Tanks and 52 Universal Carriers. The Cavalry did not play a major role during the battles of Alamein, being held in divisional reserve. In early November the regiment was chosen as the advance guard to lead the division in the westward advance. The Eighth Army's advance, however, was too fast, and as the 9th Division was being withdrawn to serve in South West Pacific theatre, the Cavalry did not take part in the pursuit of the Afrika Korps.

No photographic evidence has yet been found of the Crusaders and Stuarts carrying Australian unit or divisional signs. Most appear to have the British T number on the left front of the turret.


Each of the Division Cavalry Regiments produced their own form of history, all now out-of-print. For the researcher and modeller, the starting point for vehicle photos should be the Photographic Database of the Australian War Memorial ( www.awm.gov.au ). There are many photos of each of the regiments during their service in the Middle East and later in Australia.

The photos in this article are from the Author’s own files, contemporary journals, soldiers’ own photos or the relevant Regimental History.

A recent book by this author was published by the RAAC Memorial and Army Tank Museum. Entitled DUST, SAND and JUNGLE - A History of Australian Armour 1927 to 1948, it tells the story of Australian Armour during training and operations from 1927 to 1948. It includes details of the formation of the Corps and the School, training and operations, unit histories and vehicle developments.

Its title reflects the many locations in which Australian armour trained and fought – the dust of Puckapunyal, Singleton, Narrabri and Western Australia; the sand of the Middle East, although much of the action took place in the mountainous terrain of Syria; and the jungles of the Pacific, where Australian armour achieved so much.

This hardback book of over 210 pages contains 95 illustrations, 6 maps and 8 scale drawings. The recommended retail price is AUD$40.00 plus postage. It can be obtained from the RAAC Memorial and Army Tank Museum, Hopkins Barracks, Puckapunyal, Victoria 3662, Australia. Telephone is (03) 5735 7285 and Fax (03) 57931735, Email address is atm@ancc.com.au .

A review of this book is contained on the Hyperscale site.



Australian Armour in the Middle East PHOTO ALBUM

Click the thumbnails in the table below to view the images full size. 
Use your browser's "back" arrow to return to this page.

DivCav03 – An Australian LP1Carrier entering Beiruit after the Syrian Campaign. The crew are wearing Australian Slouch hats, indicating that it may not be a vehicle of a cavalry regiment.
A Universal Carrier Mark 1, probably of the 6th Division Cavalry Regiment, entering Beiruit. It mounts a Vickers machine gun with the water can for the cooling water stowed on the front left trackguard. A Bren gun is mounted in the rear compartment.
A Universal Carrier of 6th Division Cavalry Regiment in Palestine. It mounts a Vickers machine gun and a radio set.
A captured French Dodge Armoured car used by the regimental Medical Officer of 9th Division Cavalry Regiment. The canopy over the open rear body and the Red Cross markings are believed to have been added by the Australians. The vehicle was not is service for very long.
A parade in Syria by 9th Division Cavalry Regiment. The variety of Carriers and Light Tanks can be seen. The differing camouflage patterns – Caunter, sand, Khaki Green with added splotches – show the miscellany of vehicles and paint schemes used by Australian Forces in the Middle East


Article Text and Photographs Copyright © 2003 by Paul D. Handel
Page Created 25 April, 2003
Last Updated 25 April, 2003

Back to Anzac Steel Main Page

Back to Anzac Steel Armoured Vehicle Index