“BIG BOB” stood tall at 3.6 metres, but that was the full extent of its impressiveness. In virtually every other respect “Big Bob” inspired little more than mirth. The man who commissioned “Big Bob”, New Zealand’s first home-made tank, was Public Works Minister Bob Semple. Never overly fond of being laughed at, he is said to have snarled at his critics: “I don’t see anyone else coming up with any better ideas!”
The irrepressible Semple, one of the most colourful members of the First Labour Government, had a point. At the outbreak of World War II, in September 1939, New Zealand had precisely zero armoured fighting vehicles.
Not that the military was all that worried, not then. If Mother England’s distant daughter needed tanks, then tanks she would have – and they would be “Made in Great Britain” – like just about every other weapon in New Zealand’s tiny arsenal.
This was a perfectly reasonable expectation for a nation of 1.6 million – right up until mid-1940, when Mother England was obliged by Herr Hitler’s armoured blitzkrieg to leave nearly all her tanks in France. If New Zealand wanted an armoured fighting capability, it would now be obliged to manufacture its own. After Dunkirk, every new tank that rolled off Britain’s production lines would be dedicated to homeland defence.
In December 1941, things got considerably worse. Starting with the American fleet at Pearl Harbour, Japan launched her own blitzkrieg across the Pacific Ocean and into South East Asia. For the first few months of 1942, New Zealand was without effective defence. Her army was in the North African desert fighting Germans and Italians. With contemptuous ease, Japanese bombers had sunk the two great battleships sent out by the Royal Navy to “steady” the dominions. Singapore had fallen, and no one was 100% sure the Americans were up to beating the seemingly invincible Japanese.
“Big Bob” may have looked like a corrugated iron outhouse bolted onto the tracks and chassis of a caterpillar tractor (which is pretty much what it was!) but, as Semple rightly observed, nobody else in those terrifying months had a better idea.
Thus it was that Bob Semple’s tank rattled into New Zealand folklore. Ponderously heavy, acutely vulnerable, inadequately armed and lethally slow, three of these 25-ton behemoths were made. None (thank God!) saw action.
THE ONLY THING more important than having the weapons and ordnance you need, is the ability to replace them. War is a voracious beast, gobbling up human-beings and materiel at a speed that makes the logistics of re-supply critically important. As New Zealand discovered between 1940-42, rifles without ammunition are little more than clubs, and artillery without shells no better than scrap metal. Which is why your country’s enemies are, when you come right down to it, also the enemies of the nation supplying your nation with its armaments.
New Zealand may talk about having an “independent” foreign and defence policy, but that’s not much more than spin. Think for a moment about those eye-wateringly expensive “Poseidon” surveillance aircraft purchased by the RNZAF to replace its decades-old “Orions”. Or the super-sized tactical airlifters scheduled to replace our truly ancient C130 “Hercules” aircraft. To whom should New Zealand apply for replacement parts and upgrades for these new aircraft? Why, to the manufacturers, of course. And who are the manufacturers? Boeing and Lockheed Martin – mega-corporations located in our “very, very, very good friend”, the United States of America.
That’s right, Uncle Sam has replaced Mother England as New Zealand’s principal armourer. Had he not, our claim to independence might be more credible. Then again, just imagine the uproar in Washington, London, Canberra and Ottawa if Wellington announced that, henceforth, New Zealand would be armed by the Peoples Republic of China. That instead of the MARS assault rifle from America, our infantry would be armed with QBZ191’s from Norinco. That, instead of the Lockheed Martin “Super-Hercules”, our new tactical airlifter would be the Xi’an Y-20 Kunpeng.
Such an announcement would signal a strategic shift in New Zealand’s foreign and defence policy. Our “Five Eyes” partners would, not unreasonably, assume that New Zealand’s loyalties now lay with the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
Alternatively, we could attempt to set up our own armaments industry. Prohibitively expensive, of course, and there’s always the risk of turning out another “Big Bob”!
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 September 2023.