19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 1 — Trentham
Hark to the call of war.
—Robert W. Service
Dormant beneath the encircling hills from which the winter snows were fast disappearing lay a great camp: Trentham, haunted by spirits yet without a spirit. Twenty-five years of peacetime soldiering had little more than flickered the eyelids of a military camp which in the years 1914-18 had epitomised strength, purpose, and vigour.
But with the spring of 1939 the bugles sounded again and volunteers flocked to answer the call. The ranks of the Territorial units throughout the country all yielded their quotas to the first 6600 men wanted ‘for active servic’. The recruits of 1939, however, were by no means confined to those who had already had some soldier training. Out of the cities and towns, off the farms, came men of all shades of opinion and from all walks of life.
From the chaos which marked the assembly of this ‘Special Force’ order slowly emerged. The citizen turned soldier, quickly adapting himself to the new way of life, became an integral part of the military machine which the old camp was designed to serve. As the shuffle of civilian shoes changed to the measured tread of iron-shod boots, the spirit of Trentham Camp awoke once more. In this atmosphere, charged with the memories of their fathers’ prowess, young men were again trained for war.
On 27 September 1939 officers and NCOs commenced an intensive course prior to selection and posting to units. Theirs was a heavy responsibility, for the training and moulding of this new force was in their hands. Too few young men had responded to the appeals made since 1929 for volunteers to fill the ranks of Territorial Force units. NCOs, the backbone of any unit, had to be found quickly—we were fortunate in the leaven of ex-Territorials through- page 2 out the Special Force. They responded quickly to the brief intensive course and as instructors themselves undertook recruit training for their own small commands as soon as they were posted.
On 3 October 19 Wellington Rifle Battalion, with its headquarters at Trentham, was born. The principal appointments in the unit were allocated to officers who had given stalwart service to their country for many years and whose energy and efficiency were well known. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel F. S. Varnham, MC, ED,1 had a distinguished record both as an officer in the New Zealand Division during the First World War and subsequently as a Territorial unit and brigade commander. His senior officers were:
|Major C. A. D’A. Blackburn||Second-in-Command|
|Lieutenant E. W. S. Williams, NZSC||Adjutant|
|Lieutenant J. E. F. Vogel||Quartermaster|
|Major A. B. Ross||OC Wellington Company|
|Major R. K. Gordon||OC Wellington West Coast Company|
|Captain C. M. Williamson||OC Hawke’s Bay Company|
|Captain S. F. Hartnell||OC Taranaki Company|
|Captain C. E. Webster||OC Headquarters Company|
Life for the seven hundred-odd enthusiasts on the battalion roll soon shook down to an orderly routine. Neither the sweat of intensive training nor the vagaries of the spring weather dampened their ardour. The keenest rivalry sprang up between the companies, which retained the names and something of the high tradition of the famous regiments from which they had sprung. The response from all ranks was remarkable. Flags emblazoned with the badges of those regiments under whose colours many men now in the ranks of the 19th had previously served were presented by Territorial associations. These were proudly flown in company lines. Reveille each day was heralded by the Orderly Sergeant breaking out on the battalion flagpole page 3 the colours of his own company. This duty company also provided the guard, and the drill of mounting it was attended by all the traditional ceremonial.
Results were soon apparent; shoulders rounded by the office desk squared as the chests beneath them expanded with health. Appetites grew even keener than the inter-company competition. With the opening of the wet canteen the last faint call from civvy street faded. The evening intake could now be guaranteed to equal the day’s sweat—thus the nice balance between work and recreation was maintained at a comfortable level and this added considerably to the general air of well-being.
As the programme progressed from individual training to section and platoon training, each small command developed a team spirit which conditioned every action of its members.
The Force had started behind scratch; it had no modern automatic weapons, few mortars, little specialist equipment, and the pool of transport which had to serve all units in the camp was woefully inadequate. Clothing, too, was of last-war vintage. The men worked in denim suits, and on ceremonial occasions and on leave dressed in heavy two-piece serge suits with stovepipe trousers, choker collars and brass buttons.
Deficiencies in modern equipment were overcome by improvisation and ingenuity. Two factors, teamwork and the faculty for improvisation, later became well-known characteristics of New Zealand troops, and whatever criticism may be levelled at the training methods of those early days, at least it was not lacking in those two essentials. The will to work never flagged, but an influenza epidemic took a toll of men and resulted in many gaps in the ranks between the end of October and mid-November. Collective keenness compensated to some degree for these enforced absences and progress was steady.
An announcement by the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon M. J. Savage, gave the first official intimation that the Special Force was destined to serve overseas. The news that a full division was to be raised and sent away in three echelons was the signal for a faster tempo in training. The 19th as page 4 part of the First Echelon would soon be on the way to Waiouru for a period of advanced work which the restricted confines of the Hutt Valley would not permit. The promise of a fortnight under the shadow of Ruapehu caused frenzied administrative activity.
For the first time the battalion was on the move. Military confusion was multiplied. Moving is a task which taxes any organisation, and the arrival at its destination of a complete unit, fully equipped and in good order, is an achievement which only careful drill and constant practice can ensure. In this first essay, only by many preliminary conferences, reams of detailed instructions, and much shepherding was intact arrival ensured. The miracle of transferring camp was completed amid sighs of relief from all ranks—there was some sadness, too, for the facilities at Waiouru did not compare with those of Trentham. The wet canteen was absent and town leave non-existent. Jack Foster,2 the dapper and efficient NCO in charge of the officers’ mess, found no flowers upon the Desert Road, and bereft of its trimmings by an unfeeling edict from the Quartermaster, his mess fell far below previous standards.
Work in the wide open spaces of the Waiouru Plains was hard but enjoyable. The crisp mountain air added zest to all activities and piquancy to the first open-air efforts of the battalion cooks. Quantity rather than quality was demanded. Training was measured in similar terms; gusto rather than military science marked the manœuvres.
The unit had its first experience of night operations here and in one night sent seventy thousand rounds of small-arms ammunition into the darkness; then, when the noise had died away, the men slept at the posts they had prepared. Battle practice, later to become so close to the real thing that neither participants nor onlookers enjoyed the show, was then as thrilling as any cinema interpretation. The visiting reporters did not neglect this first opportunity to use the jargon of war, and the battalion’s battles were recorded in the press under bold headlines.
The sudden withdrawal from the unit of an advance page 5 party consisting of Lieutenant Budd,3 WO II Wroth,4 Staff-Sergeant Golder,5 Sergeant Taylor,6 Sergeant Oram7 and Lance-Sergeant Thomas8 caused much speculation. Rumour had it that they had been whisked away to a waiting ship and that embarkation for the First Echelon was imminent. Major-General B. C. Freyberg, VC, then in the United Kingdom, had been appointed to command the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force and would soon arrive in New Zealand. The Waiouru interlude was cut short, and soon the battalion was on its way back to Trentham. Excitement ran high.
Back to familiar fields, the 19th once more assiduously applied itself to achieving parade-ground excellence. On 10 December the whole of the Special Force was suddenly placed on active service, and final leave of two weeks began on the 14th.
Mixing again with civilian friends and with the public gave a strange feeling of unreality. The war was completely out of the orbit of the man in the street. He did not share the enthusiasm of the volunteer and was sceptical of the necessity for overseas service. Public opinion seemed to be united in one premise only: that the war would be a short one. The defeat of Hitler was discussed in terms of weeks, and the ‘cardboard tanks’ of his last year’s propaganda were pointed out as examples of clumsy Teutonic bluffing. The Graf Spee, too, meeting her fate while a breathless world-wide radio audience waited, created an oasis-like mirage in the grey sands of war. So Christmas passed, and with the gilt of enthusiasm somewhat tarnished, the soldiers of three months’ standing returned to camp in Trentham.page 6
With embarkation in the air, the battalion took a little longer than it should have done to settle down. Busy with administrative details, officers saw less of their troops than previously, but by 31 December some of the hard-won smartness had been regained. The programme of daily route marches starting early each fine summer’s morning will always remain as a pleasant memory of the last days at Trentham. The green hills around Akatarawa and Haywards echoed to lusty singing as the platoons swung along. All civilian awkwardness was lost, the troops were fit, well fed and happy. The company was good, and though each man knew that his days in his homeland were getting fewer, the bearing of the battalion and of every soldier in it was one of confidence. General Freyberg, making his initial inspection, commented favourably on the unit’s bearing and turnout.
On that Sunday parade the General and the men he was to lead into battle met for the first time. An impressive church service, followed by an inspection and march past, then later by a lecture to selected groups, gave both parties time for something more than a cursory appraisal. The GOC’s quick all-embracing glance, his incisive metallic voice and commanding presence made a lasting impression. The fact, too, that cooks and quartermasters were singled out for his special attention was not lost on the troops. In the lines, after the parade that afternoon, the only topic of conversation was ‘Tiny’ Freyberg, his legendary exploits and his actions that day. No leader could have inspired confidence more quickly.
On 3 January 1940 the battalion, led by its mascot ‘Major’, the black-and-white bull terrier which was later to become famous as the No. 1 dog of the New Zealand Division, marched through the streets of Wellington to form up in front of the steps outside Parliament Buildings. Speeches from representatives of all sections of the community wished the troops ‘God speed and good luck’.
In camp that same afternoon private farewells were said. Next-of-kin, friends, and wellwishers gathered to say goodbye. Leaving home had at last become a sad reality. The page 7 battalion lines, trim tented and subdued, will remain long in the memories of mothers, wives and sweethearts; for them the sorrow of parting did not ride buoyantly on a sea of excitement. Two days later Trentham was deserted.
1 Brig F. S. Varnham, MC,* ED, m.i.d.; Gisborne; born Wellington, 1 Nov 1888; newspaper manager; Wellington Regt 1915-19 (Staff Capt 1 NZIB); CO 19 Bn 3 Oct 1939-15 Apr 1941, 9 Jun-20 Oct 1941; comd 7 Army Tank Bde (NZ) May 1942-May 1943; injured 15 Apr 1941.