Tanks for Nothing – New Zealand’s Regrettable Home-Grown Armoured Vehicle

The New Zealand government's answer to a Japanese invasion -- the Bob Semple tank.

The New Zealand government’s answer to a Japanese invasion — the Bob Semple tank.

“Prototypes of this curious tank were slapped together in the early 1940s amid growing panic that New Zealand would soon fall prey to a full scale Japanese invasion.”

THE GERMANS named some of the their most powerful tanks after ferocious beasts like Tigers and Panthers. Some of Britain and Russia’s heavier fighting machines had their own national wartime leaders for namesakes. Consider the Mk IV A22 Churchill and the IS Joseph Stalin. Illustrious Civil War generals like Sherman, Stuart and Lee were the inspiration for American armoured vehicles.

Then there was New Zealand’s only domestically-produced tank of the Second World War. It was known simply as “Bob”… or more accurately, the Bob Semple Tank.

What About Bob?

Named for the 69-year-old Kiwi government cabinet minister who conceived the entire project, prototypes of this curious tank were slapped together in the early 1940s amid growing panic that New Zealand would soon fall prey to a full scale Japanese invasion. Normally, the government in Wellington would have expected the United Kingdom to supply the former colony with military hardware. But after Britain’s Dunkirk evacuation and the threat of a Nazi cross-channel attack in the offing, London was hard-pressed to spare any heavy weaponry to either New Zealand or Australia.

Desperate for alternatives, Semple, who was New Zealand’s public works minister, figured that the nation’s own manufacturers of civilian machinery could produce a home-grown fighting vehicle using available materials. He argued that assembly lines could easily produce a tracked war machine on the chassis of a conventional six-ton bulldozer. The final result was an ungainly, cube-like mass of steel that rumbled along at a sluggish 24 km/h (14 mph). The tank’s armour was little more than a few sheets of corrugated iron fashioned into a shroud covering an awkward 10-foot wide, 13-foot long (3.3m x 4.2m) frame. The plates would protected the eight-man crew against small arms fire, but little else. Even worse, the Bob Semple as it was soon dubbed was tragically under gunned — it packed only a half-dozen 7.62 mm Bren guns situated forward, aft and along the sides. In fact, the vehicle was less a tank and more of a slow-moving pill-box.

Fatally Flawed

Aside from the lack of firepower, the Bob Semple tank was plagued by a host of other problems. For starters, it was bedevilled by a faulty transmission system that forced the driver to come to a full stop before shifting gears. In addition, the vibrations generated by the noisy six-cylinder diesel engine rattled the crew and caused the tank’s guns to jam. Ironically, the inventors of this 26-ton rolling mistake, couldn’t even go “back to the drawing board” so to speak. That’s because there was none. The prototypes were entirely ad hoc designs – meaning they were slapped together on the go without even a single blueprint.

It’s Ugly But It Gets You There… Sort Of

Despite its manifest shortcomings, the Bob Semple tank did at least do something well: It lifted the morale of a frightened population. Although the army refused to actually order any of the machines, Kiwis considered the regrettable reject a symbol of New Zealand’s scrappy resolve to resist and persevere despite long odds.[1] Although it never fired a shot in anger and was never produced in large numbers, the few finished examples of the Bob Semple tank were proudly exhibited to crowds of cheering civilians. To this day, the vehicle is still fondly remembered among new Zealanders. It even has its own facebook group.

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