A 'tinkering' Digger

Corporal Harold Jeffery's robot tank prototype, nicknamed 'Jeffrey' (sic) after its inventor, is still in the Australian War Memorial. Photo courtesy Australian War Memorial - No. RELAWM20459

Corporal Harold Jeffery's robot tank prototype, nicknamed 'Jeffrey' (sic) after its inventor, is still in the Australian War Memorial. Photo courtesy Australian War Memorial - No. RELAWM20459

Corporal Harold Jeffery. Photo courtesy of Ironsiders.

Corporal Harold Jeffery. Photo courtesy of Ironsiders.

Every Australian has some familial connection with the world wars; so all-encompassing were the conflicts that it was near impossible for anyone to escape their range.

This is the story of my great-grandfather, Harold Edward Jeffery. 

He was part of the generation old enough to enter World War I as a fresh-faced recruit and young enough to be admitted to the military again in the Second.

His legacy is not one of legendary heroism on the battlefield, nor of rallying morale or conducting political strategies on the home front. 

Rather, he came to be renown in military circles for his ‘tinkering’.

Corporal Jeffery, who in World War I held the rank of private, was an inventor, one who captured the armed forces' imagination with a robotic tank during the early 1940s.

Arguably a predecessor to the flying drones considered an essential part of modern warfare, the 'Land Torpedo', los known as the 'Explosive Tankette' and the 'Jeffery Robot Tank', was a compact, remote-controlled vehicle on a caterpillar track designed to drop explosives into enemy lines.

Its pilot could sit safely behind the front line and guide the tank to its target through a cable-guided remote control, before detonating the explosives onboard.

The invention never made it into combat, but one of the prototypes has pride of place in an Australian War Memorial annexe.

Corporal Jeffery's innovation was one of many chapters in a life dedicated to tinkering with machines, a passion that began even before he enlisted in the 1st Australian Imperial Force in 1917.

The then 19-year-old from Wee Waa listed his occupation as a motor mechanic on his army recruitment form, as well as his grazier job more typical of the North West New South Wales communities from which he hailed.

He served in the 1st ANZAC Cyclist Battalion in France before moving across to the Light Horse Brigade.

Upon his return to Australia and discharge from the Australian Army in 1919, Private Jeffery returned to life as a grazier before moving back into his calling as a mechanical engineer.

By the time the Second World War broke out he had moved to Sydney and again enlisted in the military, this time in the Royal Australian Air Force in 1940.

It was during his time in the RAAF that he came up with his idea, possibly after hearing of the Central Inventions Board's request for ideas that could help the war effort.

Rather than providing only blueprints of his device, however, Jeffery presented an actual working prototype to the board for consideration.

After officers approved the idea, the RAAF transferred Jeffery so he could continue developing his idea. 

Field testing of the prototype ended in success in Melbourne in late 1941, with three more prototypes constructed shortly after.

Though further testing the next year across three states provided impressive results, the Central Inventions Board nevertheless felt the tank was vulnerable to enemy fire and wire entanglements, meaning the project halted and did not reach mass production.

Corporal Jeffery unceremoniously returned to the RAAF, where he stayed until the end of the war.

The military's rejection of his robot tank did not deter him in postwar life. 

Corporal Jeffery, inventor of a potential new tool of war, transitioned seamlessly to 'Mr Jeffs', the name afforded to him by members of the Civilian Maimed and Limbless Association of NSW as the inventor of devices to help the disabled.

Early versions of the electric wheelchair, and eating and toiletry devices, were staples of his time working for the association, and built his reputation as a 'tinkerer' until he died in 1968 at the age of 71.

His story shines a light on the behind-the-scenes work on the home front during the war, and how contributions to the war effort happened not only on the battlefield, but in many different facets of life.

Stephen Jeffery is the great-grandson of Harold Jeffery. He wrote this article through family knowledge and with the assistance of the Australian War Memorial.

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