Skip to main content

RCEME and the Kangaroos

By BGen (ret’d) Peter Holt

Normandy, France, 31 July 1944, RCEME Major George A. Wiggan, received orders that both excited and daunted him. His unit, 2 Tank Troops Workshop (2TTW), had been tasked with ensuring that 2nd Canadian Corps had 72 armoured vehicles to transport the entire assault wave of the first phase of Operation Totalize. Assault troops had to be in place by nightfall on August 9th, which gave Maj Wiggan’s soldier-technicians less than a week to create a new kind of armoured fighting vehicle, which would become known as the Kangaroo.

Operation Totalize

The objective of Totalize was to break through the German positions to the south and east of Caen in Normandy and advance down the road to Falaise. The further the Canadians got; the more German formations would be pushed against the Second British Army to the north. Canadian Lieutenant-General Guy G. Simonds, commanding 2nd Canadian Corps, had learned two lessons during the previous weeks: first, tanks can’t win battles without infantry to deal with mortars and anti-tank artillery and, second, infantry are no match against tanks and emplaced artillery without protection and mobility.

General Simonds couldn’t afford to keep losing infantry, so in his orders to his division commanders for Totalize he wrote:

“The infantry accompanying the armour to the first objectives in Phase One must go straight through with the armour. Arrangements have been made for about 30 stripped Priest chassis to be made available to each of the infantry divisions. … The essentials are that infantry shall be carried in bullet and splinter-proof vehicles to their actual objectives.”

Advanced Workshop Detachment Kangaroo

Maj Wiggan was instructed to set up an ad-hoc Advanced Workshop Detachment (AWD) code-named Kangaroo to convert 72, M7 Priest self-propelled guns into armoured personnel carriers. The completion date was soon changed to 6 August with “as many as possible” by the night of the 5th.

AWD Kangaroo was established in two fields near Bayeux, about 32 kms northwest of the Totalize launch location. A total of 8 RCEME and 5 British REME units came together to form a 250-man ‘Kangaroo” workshop. The first crews arrived late on the afternoon of 2 August, and by last light, they had already stripped 14 vehicles. Creating armoured personnel carriers was not a small task. 

The War Diary for 2TTW describes the conversion of the M7 Priest to an armoured personnel carrier as four “easy” steps: "Remove gun - weld armour plates - remove engine and give 100-hour check and overhaul - overhaul transmission and brakes." The conversions were to be made in such a way that the Priests could be converted back into self-propelled guns. 

Bill Avery was a Sergeant with 2TTW and recalled his role in the AWD in a letter to the Canadian Kangaroo Regimental Association in 1996:

"...Our unit was selected to form an Advanced Workshop Detachment ... We were moved back to a safer location near Bayeux. We had one RCEME officer, Capt Bert Hargrave, who was the best and finest they could have put in charge of this operation. We had a meeting and he told us this was no ordinary assignment. No parades, only production, and come hell or high water it must be completed by 6 Aug 44.

"One little thing sticks in my memory. We ran out of armoured steel plating for the sides, so Capt Hargrave who was an engineer decided we could use 1/2" mild steel on each side with another 1/2" mild steel about 4" apart and fill the cavity with sand. I detailed my Despatch Rider (DR) to find sand. Harold Brieder (nicknamed Hard Tack) was my best DR and went out. He returned and told me that all beaches were mined, and MPs would allow no one on the beaches. I told this to Capt Hargrave, and he said, ‘I couldn't care less for mines or MPs, get me sand and that's an order.’ I sent a Corporal out with Hard Tack to find a beach. He found one, but the Cpl dug up a live bomb; it didn't blow up but scared the life out of our Corporal."

By the evening of 5 August 1944, 72 Kangaroos were ready; four more were done by noon on the 6th, each capable of carrying 10-15 fully armed infantrymen and their equipment. On 7 August, for the first time in Canadian history, infantry advanced with the tanks to protect them from enemy small arms fire and shell splinters. The use of the Priest Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers was an immediate success, as was Phase 1 of Totalize.

123 Light Aid Detachment

To maintain the 36 Priest Kangaroos allocated to 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, an ad-hoc Kangaroo Light Aid Detachment (LAD) of 31 RCEME all ranks was established under the command of Capt W.T. Erskine “Dunc” Duncan, for an initial period of ten days to two weeks. However, the continued success of the Kangaroos during the drive on Falaise, led to the formal establishment of 123 LAD in October 1944.

Liberating the Channel ports was the next major phase of operations; the Kangaroos quickly added mileage and sustained battle damage. Obtaining spares and keeping the equipment in shape over this rapid pace of operations proved difficult. Ever-changing command and control orders meant that the LAD did not always have access to a second line workshop to provide support for heavier work such as engine replacements. 

Fortunately, the LAD happened to “liberate” a large German 88 mm anti-tank gun and ammunition trailer which when suitably modified, could carry as many as six replacement 450 horsepower Continental aircraft engines for the Priest Kangaroos.

The Passion Wagon

Capt Duncan and his men also “liberated” a German division commander’s staff car which became Capt Duncan’s after painting all its Nazi symbols with olive drab paint and adding a false Allied registration number. Duncan recalled stopping at a crossroads as a car very similar to his was heading east. It was painted black, with distinctive German Army markings! The German and Canadian officers looked at each other in alarm, then hurried on their separate ways!

Ram Kangaroo

By early October 1944, the original Priest Kangaroos were being replaced by the Canadian Ram tank chassis. By early October, the first 64 replacement Ram Kangaroos were issued to the newly formed 1 Canadian Armoured Carrier Regiment (1CACR). Fortunately, the engine, final drives and many other components were the same as the old Priest Kangaroos, so the changeover presented no major technical problems. The LAD grew to 52 all ranks to support the increased number of Ram Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers. 

Ram Kangaroo Drive Test

Watch the test run of a Ram Kangaroo at the Canadian War Museum with a refurbished transmission and engine.

Crossing the Rhine

On 27 March 1945, as part of Operation Plunder, 1CACR and 123 LAD crossed the Rhine. From then on until the end of the war Capt Duncan spent most of his time keeping in contact with the members of his LAD attached to 1CACR squadrons. On May 2nd, with rumours of a German surrender imminent, the LAD had finally gathered in one location when a Luftwaffe Junkers 188 bomber came in for a crash landing on a nearby farmer’s field. After a successful belly landing, the five-man crew climbed out unhurt and promptly surrendered to Capt Duncan and Sgt Bill Heil. Heil, who was casually holding his Sten gun and acting as translator, learned that they had flown from Trondheim, Norway, to surrender. This may have been the only time a RCEME LAD captured an aircraft and its crew, but then, the Kangaroo LAD had a reputation for doing things out of the ordinary!


“Prime Minister Churchill broadcast at 3 p.m. and announced that the war would end officially at one minute passed midnight tonight. His Majesty the King spoke at 2100 hours. All ranks celebrated the closing of hostilities in a manner befitting the occasion.”  — 123 LAD War Diary, May 8, 1945

On 11th May 1945, the CO of 1CACR summed up the story of the Kangaroos:

“…we have also been instrumental in saving the lives of countless soldiers who, without the Kangaroos, would have had to advance on foot unprotected from enemy fire…”

The RCEME Corps significantly contributed to the success of the Kangaroos in WWII and the subsequent development of the modern-day Armoured Personnel Carrier.


The following RCEME Officers played key roles in the Kangaroo story and were appointed to the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for their… “initiative and technical ability”… “inspiring their men to exceptional endeavours” and “demonstrating resourcefulness and perseverance.”

Maj G.A. Wiggan, MBE
Capt H.T. Hargrave, MBE
Capt W.T.E. Duncan, MBE

When Captain Duncan was interviewed by the author in October 2012, he credited the success of 123 LAD to the “great bunch of guys” that worked for him. In his self-effacing way, he referred to his MBE as the “Many Bastards Efforts”. Capt William Todd Erskine Duncan, MBE, passed away December 3rd, 2014. 

Arte et Marte


References / Credits

All photos and quoted material used with permission. 

Story by BGen (ret’d) Peter Holt with contributions from LGen (ret’d) Bob Fischer.

  • Notes from an interview by BGen (ret’d) Peter Holt with Capt Duncan on 12 October 2012
  • Canada’s Craftsmen at 50!  by Colonel Murray C. Johnston
  • A Collection of RCEME Individual Unit Histories in North-West Europe in World War II, Edited by Doug Knight
  • MilArt Blog: The ‘Priest’ Kangaroo Armoured Personnel Carrier, in Canadian Service, 7 August to 30 September 1944,  by Mark Tonner
  • War Diary of No. 123 Light Aid Detachment RCEME, September 1944 – May 1945, The RCEME Heritage Archives
  • Canadian Kangaroo Regiment Archive
  • Kangaroo (armoured personnel carrier), Wikipedia
  • Canadian Kangaroo Regiment Archive : Bill Miller’s tribute to Capt ‘Dunc’ Duncan (10 Dec 2014) 

Images sources include:

  • Map: Operation Tractable. (2023, April 13). In Wikipedia.
  • Mark W. Tonner collection
  • Royal Canadian Artillery Museum
  • Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre, Medicine Hat, Alberta
  • Canadian Kangaroo Regiment Archive
  • 1CACR Archive
  • Library and Archives Canada 

Learn More

MilArt Blog: The ‘Ram’ Kangaroo Armoured Personnel Carrier, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, by Mark Tonner

CBC News:  Kangaroo Armoured Personnel Carrier Creators Honoured

Help support the mission of the RCEME Museum...