Australian Armor Procurement

The capitulation of Britain found Australia in a rather poor state. Our industrial base was such that we could dabble in almost any area of technology or manufacture, but there were equally few areas where we had any meaningful production capacity. My analogy is that Australia had a good toolkit but a very limited workshop.

1940 found Australia with exactly 14 tanks on strength, 4 Vickers Medium Mk II and 10 Mark VIA Light tanks. The only armor available in any numbers was our version of the Universal Carrier (Bren-gun Carrier), the Carrier MG LP <Local Pattern> Mk I. (Aust), being built by Ford at their Geelong plant outside Melbourne. There were four other tanks actually in Australia at the time, a troop of Matilda IIs arrived as refugee cargo in merchant ships diverted to Australia at the time of the Halifax Coup.

18 tanks and a 100 odd Bren-carriers were not much of a basis to defend Australia let alone assist the Commonwealth resist any Japanese aggression that might develop with the collapse of colonialism. This was recognized by both the Government and Army, and AFVs were given second priority after aircraft for both production and foreign purchase. Alas like aircraft, tanks were not to be found readily or cheaply in the market of the day. As one cabinet memo of the time put it:

Currently Australia has four options beyond the immediate:
1. Buy what ever we can under what ever terms available from America
2. Ditto from Canada
3. Commence local production
4. Any mix of the above possible!

And yes the exclamation point is original.

There were two problems with purchasing anything from America. While there was plenty of material from Anglo-French orders looking for a home, these were mostly as a result of defaulted commercial contracts and so the vendors were demanding payment up front in US Dollars. The second issue being exactly what was on offer. In terms of tanks, nothing of any real merit was available for delivery before mid 1941 (M3 Lights and Mediums). The only tank that could be delivered quickly was the Marmon-Harington Light Tank, a commercial offering that was no improvement over the Mk VIA lights in anything but age.

North of the Great Lakes the situation was little better, Canada was in the Sterling block, so Australias rapidly devaluing pound was actually worth something and they had two tanks either in development or about to enter production. The Ram had the promise of being a fine tank, combining American automotive components with a design containing much recent European experience. The Valentine on the other hand, while it had not seen much in the way of combat at this stage, was a known quantity and had little to be ashamed about in terms of specification, it was also lighter and cheaper than the Ram was expected to be. The down side was that neither vehicle was going to be available for delivery to Australia sooner than the last quarter of 1941, and probably later still in the case of the Ram.

While Australia was wrestling with the decision on which Canadian tank to order, the rest of the world came to similar conclusions, in that the Valentine was the cheapest real tank available in the free world and it could be bought for pounds rather than dollars. Australia wasnt the last customer to place an order for Canadian Valentines, but a few nations did slip in ahead of us, which when combined with Canadas own requirements, pushed the potential delivery dates back into 1942. We ended up ordering 250 Valentines, the first to be delivered between December 1941 and April 1942.

Time to talk a little about tanks. Between the Coup and the wars escalation with the invasion of Russia and the Breakout, the international AFV market was not to the benefit of a prospective buyer, and thats putting things mildly. The only two suppliers were Canada and the US and both had their own fish to fry. The post coup chaos had washed a number of British tanks ashore in Australia, most of them were packed straight off to their intended destination in Egypt, but a couple stuck to our fingers, actually a grand total of four. Pathetic as it might sound this gave Australia the eighth largest tank park in the world, when combined with our double handful of pre-war vehicles. The latest additions to this mighty force were Matilda IIs and they provided the Army and the DAVP with much to ponder.

Making the Valentine was Canadas introduction to tank production, and with the fall of Britain, Canada represented our only real source for tanks. Not only was the Val judged to be as good a+s anything else on the market, but Canada was within the Sterling block so our rapidly devaluing currency was still had some value. At the time all America had to offer apart from a few commercial designs like the Marmon-Herrington was a spot on the waiting list for the M3 light, or perhaps some M3 mediums at some point in the future, all at a rather higher (hard currency) price than Australia could afford. It might be said the M3 light would have been a better tank for Australia than the Valentine; it was certainly a more attractive vehicle in many respects. But if the Val was a crude looking beast and had some rather deep flaws, it still just about everything we were looking for in a tank.

So we girded our loins and ordered 200 Valentines. Unfortunately Australia was not the only country to follow this train of thought to the same logical conclusion. By the time wed counted our pennies and gotten our act together, more decisive countries with deeper pockets had beaten us to the punch and anyway Egypt was the top priority back then. Ottawa was dreadfully sorry, but there was a two-year waiting list and it was cash in advance. On the bright side the Canuks wondered if we might like a little slice of the action making sub components. The Canadians were already looking towards the next their generation of tank while they beavered away on the Val, so eventually the Val would be surplus for them and we might like to take it over but they still wanted payment in full, nothing personal it was just business and Australia didnt look too solvent at the time.

Canberra said yes three times, if youre half way up an elephants back passage, being bitten by a gift horse can be quite welcome if it looks like it will pull you out. We paid up, tooled up and settled back to make track links, cast manlets, provide a few 2pdr guns and look forward to some shiny tanks in time. Well not quite, Australia was already making tracked AFVs in the shape of LP Universal Carriers, not to mention 2pdr AT guns. With the bits for the Val we were starting to make well alls fair in love and war. If the Canadians could make a fortune out of tanks, perhaps we could too, and get into the business before accepting a cast-me-down design. Enter the Chauvel, which Ive already covered.

There things rested until Russia was invaded. One of the early casualties of Hitlers little excursion to the East were our bloody Valentines. The minute Stalin started screaming of impossible quantities of aid, the Val morphed from useful asset and a nice little earner, to vital commodity. The Canadian produced Val was the answer everyone needed. Surplus to Americas own mobilisation, and about to become surplus to the Canadians as they tooled up for the Ram, the Val was light, cheap, reliable, useful enough in action and most importantly a diesel. In America the M3 Light was the only tank the US had available in any respectable numbers at the time, as the M3 Medium had only ever been an interim type and its production volume never amounted to much, while the M4 was just starting to roll off the lines; and the majority of them all were petrol powered. The Russians werent fussy, theyd take what they could get, I mean they accepted the CAT-2 and were thankful for gawd sake. But they could get better value out of diesels as that was the fuel type they had standardised their armoured forces on, and so the Val became the aid tank of choice.

Good news for the Canadians, and not too bad for Australian industry either. Any tank sent to Russia wasn't going to be sitting around in garrison, so demand for spare track was only going to increase along with the other bits we made. But it was all rather harder on the Australian Army and the rest of the Commonwealth. Of course it was this that put a rocket under the Chauvel getting the bugs worked out of it and the project finished, but TWMAP descended before we had a chance to cash in on the tank market.

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