18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 1 — Early Days
They didn't look much like pioneers, the men who tramped into Hopuhopu Camp just before lunchtime on that October day. They looked like young fellows picked up at random out of offices in Auckland, orchards in Northland, farms in the Waikato, except that they wore their civvy clothes self-consciously, as if they really had no right to them any more. That they were to become the Old Men of a great fighting division it would have been hard to guess. Into Hopuhopu they tramped; and what they saw of Hopuhopu they didn't like much.
That was not altogether surprising. Hopuhopu, though fair enough by 1914 standards, wasn't too good by the changed standards of 1939. The bell tents, dug out from stores where they had lain for years, were by no means waterproof. The cookhouses were inconvenient and outdated. You had to line up for a wash, and rip your whiskers off in cold water. The whole camp had been hurriedly patched up on the outbreak of war to hold nearly twice the numbers it was designed for.
To cap everything, there was a ready-made reception committee of officers and NCOs, who had already been put through it for a solid week by Regular Force instructors, and were now thirsting to pass on the process.
All this had begun some weeks before, after the Government's announcement on 8 September that a Special Force was to be raised for service within or beyond New Zealand. Volunteers, all of them. To enlist ‘for the duration and twelve months’. From 21 to 35 years old. Medically fit for service anywhere in the world. In other words, the Government said, ‘We want the pick of the young men of New Zealand.’ Then, as if to dampen any possible excitement, it added, ‘We will train you for at least three months, and if you are not needed after that, you can go back home.’
If they were not needed after that! Good Heavens!page 2
Not that the men who thronged the recruiting offices would have regarded themselves as the pick of New Zealand. Probably they couldn't have said just why they were volunteering, except the non-committal ‘May as well, I suppose’. They were quite matter-of-fact about it, so much so that the New Zealand Herald remarked, ‘The most striking feature of the recruiting was the entire absence of excitement.’ But the offices were packed to the doors; men queued up from 7 a.m. for the doors to open at 9; two offices in the Northern Military District ran out of enrolment forms on the first day; the District's quota of 2200 men was exceeded that day, and nearly doubled by the end of the week.
It was also noteworthy that a great many of the recruits had never been in the Territorials—to quote the Herald again, ‘Active service always had an appeal to the adventurous which routine training did not possess.’ But there were old soldiers, too, some with war service from 1914–18 to their credit. Some, try as they might, could not even pretend to look under 35, and didn't get past the doors of the recruiting offices. Others did— many who would never see 35 again trained, sailed and fought with the First Echelon. So did many whose twenty-first birthdays were celebrated among desert sands.
The volunteers could choose their own branch of the service. You might ask, ‘Who in his sane senses would volunteer for the footsloggers when there are so many other more attractive and safer jobs to get into?’ Well, many did. More than enough to fill up the Rifle Brigade which was to be the infantry of the Special Force. From the Northern Military District, more than enough to fill up 1 NZ Rifle Battalion, which later became 18 Battalion.
The men who volunteered in the first week were medically examined in the second, and then sent home to await their call into camp, while the Public Works Department got busy preparing camps for them: new permanent camps (for example, one at Papakura, 19 miles south of Auckland); temporary camps like Hopuhopu to tide over until the others were ready. There, on 27 September, assembled 160 officers, NCOs and men of 1 Rifle Battalion. And there to join them, on 3 October, came the main body of the battalion, 546 of them, followed next day by another small party of 32. So the battalion assembled.page 3
Auckland, Whangarei, Hamilton and Paeroa all farewelled advance party and main body in style, with bands and civic functions. Then they went back to their everyday life, while the battalion settled down to work at Hopuhopu in the rain.
The first commander was Lieutenant-Colonel Gray,1 an officer with many years of Territorial experience, young, keen and vigorous, who set high standards and worked ruthlessly to realise them. As second-in-command he had Major Allen,2 Member of Parliament for Hauraki; the company commanders were Major Peart3 (HQ Company), Captain Fussell4 (A Company), Major Evans5 (B Company), Major Petrie6 (C Company), and Captain Day7 (D Company). On these men fell the main responsibility for forging a team out of the collection of individuals that could, as yet, be called a battalion only by courtesy. How they succeeded will be seen as the battalion's story progresses.
The battalion did not yet have its full complement of junior officers. Down to the rank of captain, yes; but on 3 October it had only eleven subalterns. Six more, who entered camp as warrant officers, were commissioned a few days later. The rest were to come from the ranks.
The backbone of the battalion, the four rifle companies, were organised to keep together men from the same districts. A Company was drawn from Auckland city and its surroundings; B from Hauraki, the Bay of Plenty and the Rotorua area; C from North Auckland; D from the Waikato. Each company wore the badge of its home Territorial regiment in the meantime. Headquarters Company comprised the specialists— page 4 signallers, light anti-aircraft platoon, 3-inch mortar platoon, carrier and pioneer platoons, besides the huge ‘administrative’ platoon which includes cooks, drivers, and the various bits and pieces that make a battalion tick.
Unfortunately, the battalion's weapon strength in those early days lay more on paper than in reality; apart from its rifles and bayonets, there were only eighteen Lewis guns, which served as machine guns and light anti-aircraft guns. In its early manoeuvring round Hopuhopu, the battalion had to ‘play soldiers’ with crossed sticks to represent machine guns, anti-tank rifles and all the rest. Such things as 2-inch mortars still lay in the dim future. The signallers had a few field telephones, signal flags and lamps, but no wireless sets.
The transport establishment was also largely imaginary. In theory each rifle company had five motor-cycles, HQ Company fourteen of them and ten push-bikes. Actually there were altogether half a dozen old civilian and Railways lorries—enough to be tantalising, but not enough to do anything much with. The Bren carriers were non-existent. There was a carrier platoon, but its members were ordinary footsloggers in the meantime.
On the second day in camp army clothing was issued, and everyone got a ‘reconditioned Territorial uniform’, or in the vernacular, ‘giggle suit’. Stove-pipe trousers; tunic with lots of brass buttons to be cleaned, and cut to fit where it touched; antique greatcoat. And, of course, the felt hat that marked the New Zealand soldier wherever he went. Collarless grey shirts and heavy woollen underclothes. Web equipment dating back to the Great War, a mass of brass knobs and buckles. The best thing about the whole outfit was the boots. There were no spare uniforms, which was unfortunate considering the weather. It was not until early November that denim working suits were issued. However, in view of the shortage of army gear in New Zealand, the equipping of the battalion with even one suit on the second day was a good effort.
Thinking back, those who were at Hopuhopu in those early days find that the most lasting impression on their minds is one of wetness. Rain that turned the camp roads into morasses, that penetrated the tents both upwards and downwards, that soaked gear and clothes so that at times men had to go round page 5 with only greatcoats preserving their modesty while trousers dried in the boiler room—and the greatcoats were saturated, too. No wonder there were a lot of colds and influenza. There was a real epidemic at the end of October, and patients were sent to Hamilton Hospital when the camp's facilities became overtaxed. The epidemic lingered on long after the battalion had left the damp of Hopuhopu behind, and was not really mastered until late November.
But the rain did not damp Lieutenant-Colonel Gray's keenness. His battalion was going to be a good one if he had anything to do with it. And his officers and NCOs were ‘raring to go’. So the training began. At Hopuhopu this was mainly elementary foot and arms drill, beginning with the painful ‘turn to the right by numbers’, ‘salute to the front by numbers’, ‘slope arms by numbers’. But this stage passed. From week to week it was noticeable how the men became steadier, how the battalion began to gain cohesion and to learn the use of its tools of trade. Potential leaders were sorted out and marked down for promotion. In mid-October a party of twenty-one left for Trentham to be trained as officers, and eight of these came back to the battalion as second-lieutenants at the end of November.
Physically, too, the battalion got harder, helped by physical training and weekly sports. The men's bearing improved steadily. Route marches (including night marches) got longer, sore feet fewer. This process was aided by the regular hours which are one of the best, but least appreciated, aspects of camp life. Good food and plenty of it was wanted.
This was not always available, however. The inconvenience of the Hopuhopu cookhouses has already been remarked on. Some of the cooks were cooks only in name. The quality of the food, the men said, was all right, but the cooks did some fearful things to it. Worst of all was the washing up—come out of the mess marquees and fight for room to dunk your tin plates in a bucket of greasy, lukewarm soup masquerading as washing water. There were a lot of complaints, some justified and some exaggerated, all quieted by the promise of something better when the battalion moved to the palatial new camp at Papakura.
The five weeks at Hopuhopu were weeks of hard work. page 6 Fatigues, that curse of camp life, were few, so the training was not seriously interrupted. There wasn't much chance of recreation in the evenings apart from an occasional film or concert in the YMCA marquee—you could go there and write, read or have a cup of tea, but it was always overcrowded, and the only alternative was to make the most of a book or a game of cards in your leaky tent by candlelight. The weekends, except for Saturday mornings and Sunday church parade, were free, and there was generous weekend leave. Hamilton was not far away, and special weekend trains ran to Auckland.
In the meantime the battalion had been renamed. The original names, ‘Special Force’, ‘1 NZ Rifle Battalion’, and so on, had been stopgaps, created for temporary convenience. Now, late in October, the important question of permanent names was settled. The Special Force was to be the nucleus of a New Zealand Division. Battalions were to be numbered from north to south, carrying on from the 17th (Waikato) Regiment of the Territorial Army. So to 1 Rifle Battalion fell the honour of heading the list. With its death 18 Battalion was born. Along with 19 and 20 Battalions from farther south, it made up 4 Brigade, the infantry of the First Echelon.
On 7 November 18 Battalion, with very few regrets, packed its gear at Hopuhopu for the last time. A special train took it north to Tironui railway siding, and from there the men marched into Papakura Camp, realising for the first time how much army gear weighs when it all has to be carried at once. The battalion's heavy stores went to Papakura by truck at the same time.
Two months earlier Papakura Camp had been bare pasture land.Then the Public Works had moved in, and ever since had been working flat out to make what was to be the best training camp in New Zealand, with new standards of comfort. Its battalion ‘blocks’ with their rows of 40-man wooden huts, slat beds, cubicles for officers and NCOs, messrooms connected to the kitchens by servery hatches, hot showers and closed ablution sheds, later to become the normal thing in New Zealand camps, were novelties in 1939. Papakura's accommodation was page 7 ‘considered to surpass average housing conditions’, and, though this statement is open to doubt, it was certainly a great advance on Hopuhopu. Instead of a candle stuck into an old bayonet, there was electric light. Instead of mud there was asphalt, and hot water to shave with instead of cold. There was a reasonable amount of room for gear, and room to move round in the huts. You could hang your greatcoat up instead of trampling it underfoot. True, you still had to lay your kit out in inspection order every day, but you weren't working under the same disadvantages. There were better facilities for drying clothes too.
The improvement most appreciated was in the food. With up-to-date cookhouses the cooks could at last turn out something edible. It was served direct from the cookhouses without having to be carried out into the open, which meant that the hot meals really were hot. Complaints didn't die out—it wouldn't have been the Army if they had—but they simmered down to normal.
Only a short hop from the camp was Papakura township, which offered the attractions of a pub and a change of diet in the local restaurants. And Auckland was within easy hitchhiking distance. Weekend leave was still generous, and there was now evening leave as well.
The camp wasn't complete when 18 Battalion moved in. Canteen, recreation huts and other facilities were still under construction or not even begun, but there was enough to carry on with, and more were opened as they were finished. Notably the wet canteen. After a lot of controversy the Government finally decided on 15 November to establish wet canteens in New Zealand camps, and the following Monday (the 20th) the first beer flowed at Papakura. For once nobody grumbled at having to queue up.
Papakura, being the Army's show place, attracted plenty of visitors, both high and humble. Every Sunday it was thronged with the men's relations and friends, along with hundreds of others out from Auckland just to see the camp. Before 18 Battalion had been there a month it had been inspected by Major-General J. E. Duigan8 (Chief of the General Staff), by page 8 the Minister of Defence and by the Governor-General— probably a record number of important visitors in such a short time.
Three days after moving to Papakura 18 Battalion got its first reinforcement draft of ninety men, replacing those who had gone to train as officers, or had been found unfit, or had fallen by the wayside. Some of the newcomers had been in the Papakura camp guard before 18 Battalion arrived. They made a brand-new company, 1 Reinforcement Company, under Captain Lyon9 (Member of Parliament for Waitemata). From then on most new arrivals went to this company, which (as its name implies) was drawn on when necessary to keep the other companies up to strength.
The battalion now resumed its training where it had left off, and that training was solid. It had to be, if the battalion was to be knit together into an efficient fighting unit in another two months. There was still a lot of parade-ground work, but this was varied with section, platoon and company exercises, and more route marches, including a couple of night compass marches over the countryside. There were extra night classes for the NCOs, most of whom were only one jump ahead of the privates in their military knowledge. At Penrose the men had their first rifle-range practice, and at Duder's Beach (14 miles from Papakura on the coast of the Hauraki Gulf) they fired rifles and Lewis guns on the range.
The march to Duder's Beach was made partly on foot, partly in the battalion's own transport. The battalion had progressed since Hopuhopu days, and now had more than twenty trucks, Fords and Bedfords, enough to carry a third of the men. For moves such as that to Duder's Beach these trucks ran a shuttle service to a complicated timetable, worked out so that everyone marched and rode approximately the same distance, and so that the whole battalion arrived at its destination together. The organisation of such a timetable was the kind of thing in which Colonel Gray took particular delight.
The progress made was remarkable. The men, as befitted volunteers, were keen, and their keenness was increased by the knowledge that they would not be going home when their page 9 three months were over. Of course few, if any, had ever believed they would be. Almost as soon as they had set foot in camp, Rumour had them halfway across the globe and in the most unlikely spots. Any lingering fears were killed for good on 24 November, when the Prime Minister announced that the Special Force would go overseas after its training was satisfactorily completed, as ships and escorts became available. This was definite enough. Rumour still had the question, ‘Where are we going?’ to play with—but it was quite certain now that they were going.
However, a lot of things have to be done to soldiers before they go off to war. Both at Hopuhopu and Papakura the 18 Battalion men lined up for blood tests, typhoid and tetanus inoculations, dental inspections. The first typhoid ‘jab’ was a major disaster, putting scores of men out of action, some for several days. Many more men found, to their surprise, that they had to spend uncomfortable hours in the dentist's chair.
Episodes there were in plenty. Who among the 18 Battalion originals will forget the First Conscript, an unwilling white goat smuggled into camp and tethered outside the battalion orderly room, and later exercised on the parade ground at 3 a.m. by a subaltern caught introducing it into the officers' quarters? Or the martyr put ‘on the mat’ by the RQMS after an argument over the breakfast sausages? Or Captain Day cancelling his company's weekend leave because some unknown person had misused one of its more delicate domestic facilities? You will always have these incidents, dozens of them, in the Army.
On 14 December the battalion went ‘on active service’. The same day it went on leave.
This leave was a solemn rather than a joyous one. Its official name was ‘Christmas leave’, not ‘final leave’; yet it was final leave, everybody knew that. The exodus from Papakura took all morning, beginning when the first trainload (the North Auckland men) crawled out of their blankets at 4 a.m. At eleven o'clock the last train left, and Papakura lay desolate, while for a swift fortnight the men banished reveille and parades from their minds.
Then the first wartime Christmas was over, it was 28 December, and back streamed the men. But not for long. page 10 Departure was in the air, and everyone was keyed up to it. The battalion might not be trained to the last click of the heels, but it was well on the way to fighting trim—a very different body of men from the one which had straggled into Hopuhopu three months before. Now the men had almost forgotten what civvy clothes felt like, they walked with a new swing, their speech was sprinkled with curious jargon and complicated oaths. Some had for the first time learnt the art of living among men. The first matter-of-fact approach to the Army had changed, too, replaced by a unit pride, though the men would have been embarrassed to hear it put that way. There was a notably good spirit in the battalion, that comradeship which can never be fully grasped by those who have not experienced it. The closer the prospect of adventure and danger, the better the spirit. With departure imminent even officers and sergeants could be tolerated. Significant of this change was the most effective threat to wrong-doers in those days—unless they mended their ways, they wouldn't be allowed to go overseas!
On New Year's Day 18 Battalion entered a rifle team of four to compete at Penrose against all comers, including rifle clubs. The team nearly brought home the bacon, being beaten by only one point; but individual members collected five trophies among them, a good performance in competition with Auckland's best.
One ceremony yet remained. Auckland, though it had showered hospitality on the troops, had not seen them en masse, and it was to get the chance on 3 January, when the men from Papakura and Hopuhopu would parade at the Domain and then march through the city. So after its return from leave the battalion went back to the parade ground to smarten up and rehearse its part. The parade ground is normally a most unpopular place, but this time everyone entered into it with zest— there were going to be thousands of eyes on them on 3 January, and the show had to be good.
The day before the parade the battalion had a visit from the commander of the Expeditionary Force, Major-General B. C. Freyberg,10 just arrived from England to take over his page 11 command. ‘Tiny’ was to become a familiar figure to the men of his division in all sorts of places and situations, but now he was meeting them for the first time. It was a brief glimpse, but the General was pleased with the look of his troops. And vice versa. A ‘man's man’ was the popular verdict.
If the General was pleased, so was Auckland next day; and its way of saying it was much less restrained. From quite early that day there was a current of excitement running through the city, and all roads led to the Domain, for this was its first mass parade since the war had begun. They had a brilliantly fine day for it—in fact, the men in their heavy serge found it too hot until midday, when a merciful breeze sprang up to take the edge off the heat.
The battalion made an early start that day. Brass was polished as never before. The troops left Papakura on a special train at 9.30 a.m., and at Auckland station formed up with the rest of the parade, which marched with three bands to the Domain and took up mass formation before a crowd of at least 15,000. There were over 2500 men on parade; of these 18 Battalion, by far the largest unit, formed a third.
After marching on, the parade gave a general salute, and was then addressed by the commander of the Northern Military District (Colonel N. W. McD. Weir11), the Mayor of Auckland, and the Hon. Walter Nash. Colonel Weir's popularity took a leap that morning when he ordered the parade to sit down before he began to speak. An officer who shows this consideration is always regarded with favour, and you feel more like listening to him, too. Not that any of the speakers said anything out of the ordinary. They gave you a pat on the back, and you stirred restlessly and muttered to your neighbour, ‘Why can't the old … dry up?’, even though deep inside you felt quite pleased.
This part of the proceedings didn't last very long. The parade marched off to the outer Domain, had lunch, and at midday set off again on its farewell march, past the Hospital and through the city by the main streets.
Then it was that heads really went up, shoulders straightened page 12 that extra fraction of an inch, marching took on an added swing, all quite involuntarily. The route was thronged. Auckland's everyday business affairs came to a standstill, shops and offices were emptied, every roof, window and verandah top was full of spectators. And they cheered, and they cheered, and they cheered. Probably not one of those 2500 men had ever been the object of such cheering before, nor would be again. Excited people ran alongside the parade—Great War veterans, wearing their medals, joined in the march. Some men had gifts thrust into their hands, others had their rifles carried for them by admiring girls. At the Town Hall Colonel Weir and the Mayor took the salute, and on went the parade in its triumphal progress down Queen Street, along Customs Street and Beach Road, before disappearing into the railway station, where the crowd could not follow. At 1.30 p.m. the trains began to pull out for Papakura. The public followed at leisure, and at 3 p.m., when the camp was opened to them, in they swarmed in thousands. There had never been so many visitors there before, and a sort of hysteria was in the air. Even after the visitors had gone the camp's atmosphere was tense.
A soldier is a matter-of-fact animal—once a thing is finished, his normal attitude is, ‘Well, that's that. What happens now?’ But this time it wasn't like that. This was an occasion that happens once in a lifetime, and you couldn't help being affected by it, although you might sneer at yourself for getting sentimental. The anticipation of adventure ahead was tinged with an almost furtive regret for what was to be left behind.
The tension was still there next morning, but toned down by the bustle of departure. There was a general tidying up, final equipment issues were made, kitbags packed and stacked for loading. All equipment was handed in, except rifles and personal gear. After lunch, though relatives and friends were not allowed into the camp, there were many of them just outside the gates or at the boundary fences, and for two more precious hours discipline relaxed. All too soon the time was over, the last goodbyes said, the parades called, and at 4 p.m. 18 Battalion marched off to Papakura station.
The blanket of security silence officially fell on the battalion when it left Papakura. For weeks everyone had been lectured on the necessity for henceforth keeping a tightly closed mouth. page 13 Anyone letting out the strictly guarded secret of departure would be severely dealt with. The newspapers, which had been chronicling the doings of the First Echelon since October, described the Auckland parade with enthusiasm, then fell suddenly silent.
But these security measures didn't baffle the people of the North Island. Everyone knew that the men were headed for Wellington to embark on the liners that (said the grapevine) had arrived there. The ships certainly weren't there just on a pleasure cruise, and neither was the battleship Ramillies, whose bearded sailors had been the admiration of Wellington for the past three days. So the journey south became a triumphal procession nearly comparable with the one in Auckland. Station platforms were packed with people eager to bid the troops farewell, and to speed them with food parcels and drinks. Bands turned out, songs were sung. It was late that night before the men settled down to sleep in their cramped carriages.
The ‘security’ at Wellington took a rather ridiculous turn. On leaving the station for the wharf all the carriage blinds were pulled down and the men ordered to stay inside and keep quiet. For those last few hundred yards on New Zealand soil they travelled blind, something like men going to execution.
At ten o'clock on the morning of 5 January 18 Battalion carted its gear, seakits, packs, rifles and all, on to HMNZT Z4 (in normal times the Orient liner Orion). The men's big kitbags, which had come down from Papakura in bulk in the care of a baggage party, disappeared into the holds.
The Orion left the wharf at 2 p.m. that day and anchored in Port Nicholson with the rest of its convoy, containing the North Island part of the First Echelon; for the rest of the afternoon the men hung over the rails and gazed down on the sightseers of Wellington, who flitted round from ship to ship in small boats of every description.
At six o'clock next morning the ships—four big liners, with HMS Ramillies and HMAS Canberra—moved off down the harbour. Even at that hour the waterfront road was lined with hundreds of cars, and hundreds of horns tooted farewell. Through the Heads went the line of ships, and out into Cook Strait, where they were joined by two more liners bearing the page 14 South Island contingent, along with HMNZS Leander. At last, though there wasn't any opportunity yet to get to know each other, the entire First Echelon was together, and it was off to the war.
All that day the convoy steamed in bright sunshine up the west coast of the North Island. Apart from getting organised into boat stations and running through the emergency drill procedure, there wasn't much to do except lean over the rail and watch the coast slip by. In the evening the peak of Egmont was still visible above the mist on the horizon. Then darkness fell, and the last glimpse of New Zealand was lost.
10 Lt-Gen Lord Freyberg, VC, GCMG, KCB, KBE, DSO and 3 bars, m.i.d., Order of Valour and MC (Gk); born Richmond, Surrey, 21 Mar 1889; CO Hood Bn 1914–16; comd 173 Bde, 58 Div, and 88 Bde, 29 Div, 1917–18; GOC 2 NZEF Nov 1939-Nov 1945; twice wounded; Governor-General of New Zealand Jun 1946-Aug 1952.