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How bulldozers shaped World War II

In celebration of the 400th edition of Earthmovers & Excavators, journalist Anthony Wingard looks back to the history of bulldozers in Australia and how they played a pivotal role in World War II in Australia and across the Pacific.

There exists a photograph of a Royal Australian Air Force bulldozer being paraded on the back of a truck through the streets of Melbourne in front of an adoring crowd.

Taken on October 27, 1944, the image is a part of the machine parade, which took place in the second Victory Loan March through the city.

The march aimed to encourage the Australian public to buy war ‘victory’ loans to help finance the country’s involvement in the Second World War, one of 12 major government loan options from March 1944 until the end of the war.

A bulldozer on display during the Second Victory Loan March

But that poses a question – why would a dozer, and not tanks or fighter planes, be used to encourage the public to support Australia’s war efforts?

Well, as it turns out, bulldozers and other earthmoving machinery played a pivotal role in the war. The contribution of the machines reaches far and helped the country safeguard its borders against a potential Japanese invasion both on our own shores and across the Pacific theatre.

Decorated World War II English soldier and chief commander of the Legion of Merit of the United States Bernard Montgomery summed up the influence of the bulldozer best.

“You can do everything with a bulldozer but shave with it,” Montgomery said.

Dozers as we know them today were invented in 1923 when Kansas farmer James Cummings and draftsman J. Earl McLeod created a large blade that could be fitted onto the front of a tractor.

It didn’t take long for the technology to reach Australian shores, with Richard Tilly – grandfather of Tilly’s Crawler Parts founder Andrew Tilly – purchasing one of the first ever crawler tractors imported into Australia in 1924.

The machine was a Holt 2 Ton and was built by the Holt Manufacturing Company, which eventually amalgamated with the Best Tractor Company to form Caterpillar.

Initial Holt crawler tractors were used by British and US forces in the First World War to move heavy artillery shells across the front lines, but it wasn’t until the 1930s where tracked machines became more common.

When the Second World War was declared, Australia’s armed forces were in a period of neglect, with author Mark Johnson ascribing this to a “lack of will and resources, as well as an excessive reliance on Britain”, in his book Australia’s Home Defence.

When Japan entered the war in 1941 and started a campaign to conquer parts of Asia and the Pacific, Australia turned to the United States for military help, and benefited from the foresight of General Douglas MacArthur, who recognised Australia’s need to bolster defence lines and infrastructure in the north.

With a US headquarters established in Brisbane in 1942, Australia would not only benefit from larger armed forces to fight the Japanese, but also through the larger machinery inventory of the US. Part of this inventory came from Caterpillar – now firmly established as an earthmoving equipment manufacturer.

A crawler tractor is used to pull logs in New Guinea (1944)

Caterpillar won over US$570 million in war contracts throughout WWII, with its biggest contribution being crawler tractors with an affixed bulldozer blade.

In all, Cat’s manufacturing plants in California and Illinois produced 56,306 units of its D2, D4, D6, D7 and D8 crawler tractors, according to figures from Caterpillar’s archives.

The units were used across the European front but also across the Pacific, where their versatility made them a Swiss Army Knife on the battlefield.

In Australia the need for better military infrastructure was urgent – and it was partially met by the formation of the Allied Workers Council (AWC) and Civil Construction Corps (CCC) in early 1942 – groups where civilians could enlist to undertake war-related construction projects.

Over 50,000 men had joined the CCC by mid-1943, using machinery to build infrastructure such as aerodromes, airstrips, docks, roads, wharves, factories and camps.

Throughout the war, 15 aerodromes and airfields built by the AWC and CCC were used by Australian and US forces, including 10 in Queensland and four in the Northern Territory.

A further 12 upgrade projects were also completed on existing airfields, such as Cairns Airport where the main runway was given a hard surface and lengthened to handle military aircraft.

The period of military infrastructure building also saw the construction of four RAAF bases in Amberley, Archerfield, Townsville and Darwin.

“In pre-war days there were few landing fields in Australia with proper runways. But now, our airfields are equipped with runways able to handle the fastest fighters and biggest bombers. The bulldozer has done this,” read an excerpt from a 1943 Daily Telegraph story.

Work was done to secure key cities and towns such as Darwin and Townsville, which were the most susceptible to a Japanese invasion.

“The men of the CCC did a wonderful job for the Australian and US forces during World War II,” former CCC member Jack McAuley recalled in a transcript recorded by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

“We carried out their building requirements all over Australia, particularly in northern parts. It was just like being in the forces because you had to go wherever they sent you.”

In the Pacific, Australian armed forces joined the US to thwart Japanese advances in New
Guinea and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). At some locations, such as Morotai Island in northern Indonesia, and Hollandia, a town on the northern coast of Western Papua, Australians were responsible for repairing airfields and building new ones.

To do so, heavy equipment was required, meaning the Australian corps had to coordinate the landing of bulldozers and graders used to build the airfields and clear jungle.

Bulldozers levelling off a hill in 1942

Australian and US forces used 22 airfields in Papua New Guinea throughout the war; of which 18 were constructed during the war using the dozers.

The bulldozers, which were largely commercial machines with minor adaptations made, were used for other applications such as filling shell and bomb holes and to level heavier sections of jungle. The machine could push earth using its blade, while with a scraper it could haul materials such as rock or coral.

With a rear winch mounted, the bulldozers were also used to recover tanks that had become bogged in the muddy terrain. Other machinery, such as graders and angle dozers, were also used to widen roads in the tough terrain in New Guinea.

Newspaper accounts from the time also recount unusual ways in which the bulldozers were put to work, including clearing jungle to build a racetrack where RAAF servicemen would bet on ponies for leisure.

The legacy of the bulldozers lies not in their combative ability to perform on the battlefield, but in their ability to both figuratively and literally pave the way to better facilitate the armed forces throughout the war.

Many praised the bulldozers for their role in World War II

When the US and its allies commenced its famous ‘island hopping’ campaign to push Japanese forces back toward the Japanese mainland, air victories were crucial.

These largely benefited from aerodromes built using these bulldozers. Operation Postern, which sought to recapture the northern New Guinea towns of Salamaua and Lae from the Japanese, included a landing of US and Australian paratroopers.

The air support of the 374th Airlift Wing Unit of the US Air Force in Operation Postern departed from Wards Airfield, which was built using the machinery, and, in 1943, was the busiest aerodrome in the southern hemisphere.

Former US Navy Fleet Admiral William Halsey gives what might be the most accurate and honest description of the role of bulldozers throughout the war.

“If I had to give credit to the instruments and machines that won us the war in the Pacific, I would rank them in this order: submarines first, radar second, planes third, bulldozers fourth,” he said.

Similarly, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served as deputy chief in charge of Pacific defences among other roles in World War II, also ranked bulldozers in his most influential machines.

But it might be best to leave the final word to a Tasmanian journalist, who observed at the time that the bulldozer was making an important contribution.

“The bulldozer probably played a more important part in the war than any other individual piece of equipment with the exception of the aeroplane,” a Tasmanian newspaper story at the time wrote.

“But aircraft could not operate successfully without the help of the bulldozer.”


All images: Australian War Memorial

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