Saturday 2 September 2023

Bob Semple's Tank.

Home-Made Armour: It was in the context of the seemingly unstoppable German and Japanese victories of the early-1940s 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.

“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.


sumsuch said...

Corrugated tank. Much laughter. Lefties even at their best are cranks, as Orwell framed well.

I'm trying not to be so personalized, egocentric, in my comments since reality is so much more important and this age of comfort has made us all solipsists. BUT, a family story again. My car salesman G.Uncle Shelley, who ended up on Paratai Dr, had his biggest 'killing' when at the height of the Japanese threat people returned their cars. More immediate concerns on their mind and he got to sell them again.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

If this column is about buying weapons, there are plenty of neutral countries with decent arms industries some of which don't have much more population than we do. Because they haven't destroyed their industrial base like we did.

new view said...

Nothing has changed. We have no effective military except our peace keeping and SAS forces. The false assumptions that any military action will happen a long way from us is nonsense. If we were a larger country with a bigger wallet we may have committed more towards our own protection but the last world wide conflict ended in 1945 and only us boomers had parents who were involved in it. The other problem with having an effective military is not only does it cost, but most of the time it sits around not being used and going out of date. So it seems that we will wait until the problem comes to us, possibly in the form of China and its agenda in the Pacific, but it need not be close to us, for if China attacked Taiwan and the US intervened it will require us to choose. In the mean time our neighbour Australia will try and encourage us to commit more to our own protection knowing we are not doing enough. Our neutral stance only works until there is conflict and then we will be dragged kicking and screaming into the real world where we will be expected to do our part.

Gary Peters said...

So another labour leader who avoided conscription and had lofty but impractical ideas 😎

David Stone said...

So Who do we need to be prepared to defend ourselves against ? The only possibility of needing to be prepared for war that i can see is by being tied to the US as we were tied to the UK to help them with their wars. I would strongly suggest that if China say decided to invade instead of letting us supply their milk powder that we would be in a very similar position to where Ukraine is at the moment. The US would supply some more weapons ( Witch we would owe them for if we survived) and watch from a safe distance.
Why does anyone imagine any other scenario ?
We should have the means to manage our fisheries and defend them against outside pirate fishing companies ; but recognise that we can only defend against major military powers by getting on with them. And maintaining our neutrality.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Dirk

Thank you, Dirk, for the kind words.

If you contact me as before with your address, I'll send you a replacement copy!

Wayne Mapp said...

As Andrew Little said in May this year, we made our choice years ago.

Invariably in these sorts of articles,I have to point out that New Zealand's only formal ally is Australia. Of course, I know that our host knows this. So, of course, as an ally we necessarily have to have weapons systems that tie into our ally, and more importantly a broad understanding of our ally's key defence relationships.

We could choose to be neutral. That would inevitably mean the end of CER and the end of the preferential relationship we have with Australia. I don't think the choice that Ireland has made is going to apply to New Zealand. We have not had the vexed relationship with Australia that Ireland has had with the UK. However, abandoning the alliance with Australia would certainly vex that trans Tasman relationship. How many of us are willing to do that?

It is not as if we have no choices within the alliance. Helen Clark showed that over Iraq. David Lange showed that over ANZUS and nuclear ships. But both those things are well short of abandoning the Australian alliance and declaring ourselves neutral.

David Stone said...

An interesting comment Wayne; especially from one who has been in a position to know.
Does that alliance with Australia give us any influence or even the right to know what other alliances they enter? Did we get asked if they should join AUKUS? Or even told in advance? Or are we automatically in pickaback alliance with whoever Australia chooses to be in alliance with ?

Anonymous said...

Clearly Angry Andy has been seduced by the "second tier" Aukus nonsense and the Indo-Pacific jargon. Even my apolitical.Aussie mates have worked out there are better ways to spend billions than on Yankee subs. .which can't be used in the South China seas because its too shallow.
And now we are getting new torpedoes for our replacement Orions.
Poor old Big Norm.and an idependent foreign policy. At least Holyoake got beef sales for sending young men to Vietnam.