The Bald Hill Exercise (Part 1)
Seventy two years ago the 1 Australian Armoured Division created history when they took part in Australia’s largest military manoeuvres to date. Held in the North West of NSW nearly 20,000 men participated in training aimed at making them a cohesive fighting force. While that particular event isn’t well known, what is even less well known is how the Division’s exercises were strategised, photographed and then publicized to the Australian population. This article looks at why and how the largest ever Australian armoured division was used as a public relations exercise during the dark days of 1942.
Seventy two years ago (August 1942) with Japanese incursions into the South Pacific and the recent bombing of Darwin the Australian populace was concerned, quite rightly, that invasion plans were afoot.
The Japanese had marched through China, the Philippines, Burma, Malaya, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) with relative ease, decimating any resistance effectively and without mercy. They had claimed a long list of victories and a reputation as an almost indefatigable enemy determined, as a matter of honour, to claim or destroy anything in their way.
And, whilst the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 7-8 1942) halted Japan’s thrust south, on paper, when looking at the losses sustained by each side, it was only a victory in so far as, for the first time, it stopped the enemy. Rightly, veterans and historians and those that were witness to the time, say that the Coral Sea was decisive because the Japanese were halted, but what they were also painfully aware of was that the advancing army was not defeated, not destroyed and certainly not cowed.
Certainly, at this time, Prime Minister John Curtin and the majority of Australians believed that Australia was next and whilst the Coral Sea had stopped the dominos collapsing it was felt likely that Japan would push for Australia to become the next tile to fall. Darwin being bombed regularly and the recent shelling of Sydney and Newcastle could only mean one thing – it was only a matter of time until a Japanese invasion force would land in Queensland, the Northern Territory or Western Australia.
In The North West of NSW
In the North West region of NSW it was certainly believed that the Japanese were coming – at Baan Baa Margaret Illingworth recalled her mother keeping fresh water and stores in a hollow tree in the middle of our scrub paddock … because if the Japs came over the hill she would hide in the hollow tree with us two kids.
Similarly, at Rowena, Helen Mackie remembers the children (including herself) taking the pins out of the tricycle pedals rending them useless to Japanese invaders to steal – as the pedals would just go round and round not catching in order to make the wheels turn.
These examples aside though, did Australians believe that Australia could be defended? Did they believe that the Japanese could be stopped? The Government needed Australians to believe they could be; so in conjunction with some scheduled expansive manoeuvres in the North West, the military put on one of the largest and greatest press opportunities of the War. The unit to be the public face of Australia’s defence in the Spring of 1942 was the 1st Australian Armoured Division.
The North West of NSW
The 1 Australian Armoured Division under the command of Major General Horace ‘Red Robbie’ Robertson had made its way to the North West area of NSW during July 1942. Robertson, together with able Brigadiers Macarthur Onslow and Fergusson (both holding DSOs), was determined to bring all of the Division’s far flung elements together for a series of exercises with the express aim of teaching the Division how to fight as an effective armoured unit.
The geography of the North West was considered highly suitable for the manoeuvres and the Division soon located its two brigades and support group near Wee Waa and Narrabri. Supply, ordnance and medical were further south at Boggabri, Baan Baa and Gunnedah. The Division was at its height with between 16,000 and 20,000 men, and the small towns in the area soon witnessed large scale mock battles the like of which have not been equalled since.
The Premise of the Exercise
Prior to ‘action’ a memo was released to unit commanders and the attending press giving a premise to the action. It read … all military activity in the North West region was aimed at defending it, as a key strategic area, from the Japanese since their invasion into Queensland in the month prior to the Division’s arrival. Whilst the major part of the invading force was still being held off … forays by Japanese commandos … were increasing. Troops were advised that twenty five enemy paratroops had been spotted … with prisoners from the 2/9 Australian Armoured Regiment near Carbeen Siding on the 26th.
The Division was summarily advised that the Japanese were testing resistance, seeking a way south in order to cut communications and supply lines – therefore they were being called to defend the North West. The ‘Battle of Bald Hill’ was to be a small part of that defence and the only part fully open to all of the press to witness.
Every moment of this display, of 1 Australian Armoured Brigade’s forward strength against the enemy at Bald Hill, was planned and controlled in detail. The six Staff Cars full of reporters attending included editors from The Argus, The Sydney Morning Herald and Sun News Pictorial. In short all major Australian papers were covering the event. It was THAT important.
For the purpose of the battle the 15 Australian Motor Regiment and the 47 Field Battery were the enemy and the 1 Australian Armoured Brigade were the soldiers striking hard at the foe. For the remainder of the manoeuvres carried out in this particular action the enemy was to be the imaginary Japanese in the form of the 2/11 Australian Armoured Car Regiment (more on this in part 2 of the Bald Hill story to be published next edition of Armour).
The Thrust of the 1 Australian Armoured Brigade
Whilst known as the ‘Battle for Bald Hill’ or the ‘Battle for Narrabri’, the three days of manoeuvres that started with a thrust into enemy lines were enacted from Gunnedah, in the south, very nearly through to the Queensland border.
However, commencing on the 29th of August at 3pm, the first critical battle/manoeuvre, took less than an hour. Prepared for diligently and enthusiastically, it went like clockwork as the well oiled machine of the 1 Australian Armoured Brigade was placed on display for the journalists to observe.
To give an idea as to the precision planning an excerpt from an August 1942 entry for the War Diary of 1 Australian Armoured Brigade G Branch HQ, is warranted. It noted:
- At 3.00pm the 2/1 Armd Bde Recce Sqn moved forward to ascertain strength and flanks of enemy at Bald Hill.
- At 3.10pm the enemy, 15 Mot Regt commenced its attack on left flank so as to stop Recce Sqn.
- At 3.15 pm one troop of the enemy the 47 Fd Bty, detached from the 16 Fd Regt and on secondment to the 1 Armd Bde, comes out of action at posn near Edgeroi homestead where it has been Recce and 15 Mot Regt proceeded to new position.
- At 3.20 pm the 2/5 and 2/7 Armd Regt followed by Bde HQ commenced frontal attack.
- At 3.25 pm the 2/6 Armd Regt attacked from right flank.
- At 3.35 pm the 15 Mot Regt is pinned by 1 Armd Bde within 40 yards of Bald Hill. One troop of 47 Fd Bty comes into motion in new position. The 47 Fd Bty less one troop comes put out of action at Edgeroi Homestead.
- At 3.40 pm the 2/5 and 2/7 Armd Regts, followed by Bde HQ, halt before reaching objective. The 2/6 Armd Regt help on right flank before reaching objective.
- At 3.45pm the demonstration of efficiency of the Brigade concluded and all units move into form prior to inspection.
- At 3.50pm the spectators inspect the Brigade.
Later, respected WW2 journalist Mervyn Weston was to note about his experiences with the troops during that time:
An Australian armoured division, with which war correspondents have just spent 2 days, has been developed into the greatest military striking force Australia has possessed.
Manoeuvres being carried out are historic for hundreds of tanks and some thousands of armoured cars, scout cars, carriers, jeeps, supporting artillery AA and anti tank guns, troop transport, supply trucks, field workshops and medical units … For more than 2 weeks this tremendous striking force has been on the move deployed in battle formation as it advances to meet an imaginary enemy.
The objective is to see that the whole organisation of the division functions perfectly. The exercises will be continued until it does … and after 2 days in the field with units it can be said that the goal is rapidly being reached.
The aim of such reporting was of course to dispel fear and promote national unity – which it helped to do. However, aside from the PR exercise, what did the Army learn from the Bald Hill manoeuvres about one of its elite Divisions? Part two of this series will explore the logistics and, subsequently, the lessons learned from the exercise.
Cate Clark is the author of To Fight and Do Our Best: The 1st Australian Armoured Division in Gunnedah and also The Black Soil Plains and Beyond: Recollections of the 1st Australian Armoured Division. Both books are still available through www.writerightmedia.com.au or 0408 425564 or by ordering on the flyer inserted into this edition of Armour.