19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
How many gallant, distinguished, and well-loved soldiers who saw service in the 19th are worthy of a separate and personal appendix in the history of their unit? The answer is, of course, too many to be contained in a single volume. Each and all of us would have our own ideas about who was the most worthy.
The distinction is reserved for a dog, but those who served with him will not begrudge him this favoured treatment, for he epitomised those fine qualities which men admire. He was a personality, and a distinctive and well-known one; the proud name of the 19th will always be associated with any mention of him.
‘Major’ had a unique place in the 2 NZEF. He was accorded rank and title which placed him far above the humble place of a military mascot. He was ‘top dog’ from the day he sailed from New Zealand, and his position was one in which his unit took some pride, for on parade or in action he proved himself well worthy of the official title, No. 1 Dog 2 NZ Division. Conspicuous in all the activities of the 19th from 3 October 1939 until his death on active service on 17 December 1944, ‘Major’s’ service covered nearly the whole of the history of the unit to which he belonged.
In 1943 Sergeant Ron Jones wrote a history of the dog, and his account gives many details which will interest the thousands of men who hold the memory of ‘Major’ in great affection. The reason for its preparation at that time shows, too, the responsibility the 19th felt towards their fellow soldier—it was enclosed with an official request to the New Zealand Government to pass special legislation to permit the dog to re-enter New Zealand on his return from the wars, should he survive. Sergeant Jones’s account is reprinted hereunder.
With more than five of his slender six years spent in martial atmosphere and over three years on active service, Major “Major”, the white bull-terrier mascot of 19 NZ Armd Regt, has a title to the style of No. 1 NZ Dog based on something more secure than the mere accident of priority of registration in the NZ Forces. He has known the smug repose of military academies in a peace-time army and the rigours of active service page 532 in the foul reek of a country whose desert floor was never more than six inches from his fastidious, aristocratic nose. He has been a familiar figure on parade grounds in three or four countries and he has travelled thousands of miles by every description and mode of conveyance that the mind of man could devise in this age of mobile warfare. By steamer and train, by truck and Bren Carrier and tank, and on occasions even by aeroplane he has accompanied his Unit everywhere it has wandered, and when such artificial aids to movement have failed, he has followed the example of the Regiment and resorted to the use of his four padded feet.
Major is by birth an Australian and pedigreed, and began his career as a public figure when as a pup he was presented as a gift by a young lady to a New Zealand cadet at the Royal Military College at Duntroon. He went back to New Zealand with his master in 1938 and became an inconspicuous part of the then far from conspicuous New Zealand Army, of the Staff Corps of which his master became a member.
After less than a year of the purely ornamental soldiering of the brave days of peace, the dog found himself whirled into the merry-go-round of late 1939 in Trentham at the heels of Capt E. W. S. Williams, who had been appointed to the Special Force then in the process of formation, and eventually became adjutant of 19 NZ Inf Bn, one of the senior units of 2 NZEF.
Major at this stage was still without rank or distinction, but he was too familiar with the military scene to be put out of countenance by any of the innumerable discomfitures that worried the civilians-turned-soldiers with whom he paraded day after day. He endured the endless ritual of inspections with a nice admixture of boredom and respect which was to stand in fine stead when he came to face the visitations of foreign royalty, ambassadorial seigneurs and military pundits that were to follow each other in steady succession in Egypt.
When he joined the Special Force he was registered as No. 1 NZ Dog and his future in the Army was assured. He paraded through the streets of Wellington with his Unit on their final public appearance and cocked a knowing ear at the political valedictions that resounded through Parliament grounds when the Prime Minister extended his good wishes to the first representatives of New Zealand to go overseas. He experienced his first march past when the GOC, General Sir Bernard Freyberg, made his first inspection of the Battalion, and with the New Year of 1940 hardly more than a few days old he found himself on board H.M.T. Strathaird en route to war. And on the final leave that preceded that departure he saw his master married to the lady whose gift he had been.page 533
On arrival in Egypt in 1940 (February) Major and the 19 NZ Inf Bn struggled manfully with the lack of ordinary amenities which was Maadi Camp at that time and survived a wide variety of ceremonial occasions. Then came the Desert and the long business of digging the Bagush Box. In his youth and innocence, Major thought it was all a great joke at first, and expended both energy and enthusiasm on the job in hand in a fashion completely foreign to his present-day old soldier’s attitude of “as little as possible as seldom as you like.” The end of 1940 found the Battalion still in the Desert but in the New Year a return was made to Cairo.
The spectacular days of Greece and Crete were close at hand but fate had other plans for Major. When his master was posted to ME OCTU as O.C. NZ Coy, Major found himself translated to the seats of the mighty also. The Battalion had disposed of the Grecian interlude and had made its way out of Crete and back to Egypt before, at the end of June, Major and his master were released from the regimental atmosphere of Kasr-el-Nil Barracks to rejoin the Bn at Helwan. In the meantime he had found it necessary to instil some discipline into the hybrid hides of some of the local dogs who seemed to have less than a proper appreciation of quality. He did it, but did not emerge unscathed. When he followed Capt. Williams into the orderly room of Wellington West Coast Coy one day late in June 1941 his left ear displayed a chronic flop which persists even after a couple of years.
But to a broken left ear he had added a “pip” and when he was marched onto the ration strength of WWC Coy, of which Capt Williams was now O.C., he did so as 2/Lieut “Major”. Followed the usual sequence of special occasions. He said farewell to Brigadier Puttick when the commander of 4 NZ Inf Bde took the salute prior to his return to NZ on a tour of duty and renewed his acquaintance on the parade ground with General Freyberg who inspected the Bde a short time later. Also, in spite of his rank and dignity he went AWL and gave only an imperfect explanation of his dereliction when he returned.
In August 1941 he went with the Bn on combined operations exercises in the Canal Zone and managed to relieve the colourless monotony of a celibate military existence with a carelessly rapturous liaison with a naval wench on a Glen ship in the Canal. The affair, however, was short-lived. Within a week or so he was back in the Bagush Box, sniffing at desert dust again and sneezing the deposits of innumerable sandstorms out of his patrician nose.
When the NZ Div went through the Italian wire into Cyrenaica to commence the Libyan Campaign of 1941, Major page 534 travelled in the pickup of Major Williams at the head of Wellington West Coast Coy and saw several days of confused fighting and manoeuvring before he was cavalierly despatched to B Echelon while his Company went on its 10,000 yards march to Ed Duda. The following day his master was killed in action while leading his company and dark days came for the dog, who mourned for a long time and refused to be comforted. While the Coy pushed on towards Tobruk, Major was brought back to the Box and spent the next fortnight wandering around the semi-deserted company lines like a lost soul.
About mid-December WWC Coy returned from Libya to its old area in the Box for a bleak and blustery Christmas and New Year. At this stage Major passed into the care of Capt W. E. Aitken. In the first week of the New Year, the Bn returned for a brief spell at Maadi Camp, but Major, even with his second “pip” up was still listless and distrait. A month or six weeks in the Canal Area again with more combined exercises was followed by a complete change to the mountains of Lebanon, where the Syrian climate and the fresh mountain air made a new man out of the dog and most of those with him too. Two days before he left Egypt, Major’s promotion to the rank of captain was recorded in Bn orders.
A little over three months after settling in the mountains a hasty return was made to Egypt. Rommel was at the gates of the Delta and after a wild scamper across three countries and into a fourth the Division moved into action on 25th June, playing a holding game while the Alamein line was being manned and then falling back onto the line itself. In July, after about ten days of fighting Major was found wounded by a piece of stray shrapnel, and found himself queueing up at the RAP to have his thigh dressed. After first aid at the RAP truck, he was presented with a field medical card and evacuated to the ADS. While he took his place in the line of wounded he cast a limpid eye at the DDMS as he went by, and had the good fortune to be taken straight back to Maadi for a proper convalescence.
In the meantime pressure on the Alamein line increased, and the 19 NZ Inf Bn struck a “sticky patch”, as a result of which a great many officers and men found their way into “the bag”. Among these was Capt Aitken, the keeper of the dog. Not long afterwards the residue of the Bn was withdrawn to Base at Maadi to re-organise, and Major, who in the meantime had been convalescing under the personal care of Lt-Col Anson, returned to his Unit and was attached to Major A. M. Everist for discipline and rations.page 535
In September 1942 Major received his crown “to complete establishment” and it was noticed that a critical gleam often came into his eyes as he contemplated the many new subalterns with whom the gaps in the ranks had been closed. At the Bn swimming sports in September, Major entered in the 33⅓ yards dog paddle (open) and secured a not very glorious second amid loud applause.
Christmas came around again with the Regt—which by now had been training for three months as an armoured unit—still in Base Camp, and Major, like everyone else, deploring the Dantean repose of routine and obedience and casting a wistful eye towards the Tunisian scene where the rest of the Division was at least getting some action and movement.
Two months later the position was still the same. The Regt stays put and turns out in February for an inspection by the GOC. On this occasion Major came very near to developing a swelled head. General Freyberg gave him special attention and greeted him with the remark, “Ah, the old dog. You’ve been on every parade yet.” Perhaps it consorts ill with the dignity of a field officer to be patted on the head but in the circumstances Major could be excused for condoning such a familiarity.
In the following month the Minister of Defence inspected the Armoured Brigade and as he marched past with the 19 Armd Regt, Major caught the Ministerial eye and in spite of King’s Regulations conceived some bare-faced lobbying right on the parade ground itself. Statutory obstacles on his return to New Zealand with his Unit must be removed somehow so he made the best impression he could. The degree to which he succeeded is illustrated by the fact that before he left the parade ground the Minister suggested that a formal application for a special authority should be made through the usual channel.
* * *
There is little to add to the above. ‘Major’, after a period in the Armoured Depot in Maadi, sailed for Italy with Lieutenant Steve Whitton* and served with the regiment until, in the severe winter of 1944, he sickened and died. He was buried with full military honours, and of this moving ceremony the then RSM of the unit, WO I Dave Rench, has written: ‘When we laid Major to rest at Rimini, I think perhaps some of the later members of the unit found it hard to appreciate the deep sentiment shown by the old hands for the old Dog. However, it was not only as unit mascot that Major was so affectionately remembered, but as a link with his first fine soldier master, Capt E. W. S. Williams, killed in action 28 November 1941—a man to whom the 19th owed much, and who page 536 we buried on the rocky slopes of Ed Duda in November 1941—and indeed to many other good men who had followed him as Keeper of the Dog who now shares with two of them a place on the 19th’s Roll of Honour.’
* Died of wounds, 24 Sep 1944.