CHAPTER 1 — To the United Kingdom
To the United Kingdom
At 11.45 p.m. on 3 September 1939 a telegram was received by the Governor-General of New Zealand saying simply, ‘War has broken out with Germany’. Within a matter of hours a. New Zealand Gazette Extraordinary declared that a state of war existed between New Zealand and the German Reich as from 9.30 p.m., 3 September, New Zealand standard time.
The Governor-General, Lord Galway, informed the Dominions Secretary that His Majesty's Government in New Zealand entirely concurred with the action taken, which they regarded as inevitably forced upon the British Commonwealth if the cause of justice and democracy was to endure in the world. The New Zealand Government wished to offer the fullest assurance of all possible support, and asked for suggestions regarding the method by which this country could best assist in the common cause.
In reply, the Dominions Secretary hoped that an expeditionary force would be despatched for service in France or to relieve United Kingdom units in Singapore, Burma, India, or elsewhere. By the first week in October, and after communications and negotiations concerning equipment, the decision was taken to send overseas a New Zealand division which would be supplied with arms and trained at its destination.
The force was raised in three echelons, and 21 Battalion was part of the second. On 8 November the officers for the battalion, together with those of some other units, entered Narrow Neck District School near Auckland, where they underwent an intensive elementary refresher course. Prospective NCOs went into camp on 9 December. All the non-commissioned ranks were temporary and no badges of rank were worn, those at the course being regarded as student NCOs. Some were from the First Echelon, some from the Territorial Force, and some were entirely new to the Army. The stronger personalities, irrespective of their previous training or lack of it, speedily rose to page 2 senior non-commissioned rank and were later confirmed in their appointments. There was not much variety of equipment available and training was necessarily restricted to musketry and to platoon and company drill.
After Christmas leave the nucleus of the battalion moved to Papakura and there, with the first volunteers marching in on 12 January 1940, the unit came officially into being.
The 21st Battalion was fortunate in the officers chosen to guide its early steps. Lieutenant-Colonel Macky, MC1 and his second-in-command, Major E. A. Harding, MC2 had both served with distinction in the New Zealand Rifle Brigade in 1914-18, while Major MacGregor3 (A Company), Captain Le Lievre4 (B Company), Captain R. W. Harding, MM5 (C Company), Captain Howcroft, MC6 (D Company), and the Quartermaster, Captain Trousdale, MC7 were also First World War men.
Lieutenant-Colonel Macky was well known personally or by repute to many of his men. He had risen from the ranks to the command of a company in the Rifle Brigade and had been awarded the Military Cross in France. He was a well-known solicitor in Auckland, and as Commodore of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Club was known at least by sight to those who frequented the Auckland Harbour.page 3
In addition to their active service experience, Lieutenant-Colonel Macky, Major MacGregor, and Captains Le Lievre and R. W. Harding had served for many years in Territorial units.
Other more senior appointments were Captain Sadler8 (Headquarters Company), Captain Tongue9 who replaced Captain Cauty, MM10 (E Company), invalided out with a knee injury, and the Adjutant, Captain Dew11 New Zealand Staff Corps.
The battalion was recruited largely from Auckland city and North Auckland, with the balance from the Waikato and Hauraki districts. The city quota was required to report at the Rutland Street Barracks by 8 a.m. on 12 January, but many were there an hour earlier. Queen Street business premises were empty while the volunteers swung along in column of threes to the accompaniment of songs of the day. A chorus of cheering followed, with special outbursts from the doors of shops and factories where employees farewelled their workmates. Almost before they were aware of it, the recruits had entrained and were on their way to a life that was in the main entirely new to them.
The scenes in Queen Street had their counterparts in every town and village in the 21 Battalion area, until by 19 January the unit was fully assembled. For many the metamorphosis from civilian to soldier was not easy. Used to making their own decisions, they had to learn to obey without question the commands of NCOs, even if they were but temporary lance-corporals with one stripe insecurely fastened to their arms. Reactions to apparently pointless orders were prompt, but a system of lectures and later disciplinary action taught recruits what was expected of them in the Army, and all but the born outlaws settled down to the routine of military life. The first page 4 few days passed in a maze of marching and counter-marching.
Between the time the drafts stood huddled together on the camp parade ground, answering with varying degrees of military smartness as their names were called from the marching-in rolls, and the time they were assembled on their first company parade, they found that they had acquired a denim fatigue dress, suffered the dentist's chair, made their wills, had blankets thrust into their arms, been issued with paybooks, sorted into platoons, fed regularly, and had a place to sleep. After the finer points of folding blankets, dressing beds, and aligning boots had been demonstrated by platoon sergeants, and the necessity appreciated of fulfilling the orderly corporal's injunction to appear smartly at the company orderly room when required, life became one long queue—for pay, mess, inoculations, clothing, rifles, equipment, and respirators—until feet were tired and tempers short.
When he had broken in his army boots, perhaps the private soldier's biggest problem was his uniform. After the First Echelon had been fitted out there was a shortage of clothing, and most of the uniforms were culled from the stores of Territorial units. Those that were not outsize were rejects, of odd shapes and poorly matched shades. As one soldier in his first letter home put it, ‘We have two kinds of uniforms to choose from—big ones and whoppers’. Camp tailors did their best, and later serge uniforms manufactured in New Zealand were available in some quantity, but at the time the Second Echelon sailed there were many with ill-fitting, ill-matching dress. The denim fatigue and drill uniforms were so poorly designed that they made men self-conscious in the presence of their well-turned-out officers.
This feeling of inferiority was accentuated on visiting days when wives, sweethearts and mothers, many with acquaintances in the officers' mess, were not slow to make comparisons. However, a few months of familiarity, if it did not breed contempt, induced a feeling of acquiescence in a state of affairs that could not be altered. Drill, discipline, and the adjustment of outlook to the reality of training for war brought about a philosophical acceptance of the inevitable—so many civilian privileges had been surrendered that one more did not matter much.page 5
There was, however, a limit, and that was reached when a Government decision was published to the effect that troops in uniform were to be denied the civilian right of carrying liquor away from hotels. It was mentioned that a similar decision had been made during the previous war. The paper containing the news reached the camp at breakfast time and soon the paragraph in question was the subject of bitter comment. Here was one civilian right the men felt should not be denied them. In a few minutes placards hung on the camp buildings announcing the attitude of a section of the men. They read: ‘No beer no drill.’
This was followed by a gathering of about 150 men of all units on a subsidiary parade ground. The indignation meeting was addressed by a speaker who maintained the right of a soldier to carry away liquor from hotels and decried the injustice of the Government in imposing such a restriction.
When Colonel Macky was informed of the proceedings he went over to the ground, mounted the truck being used as a rostrum, and made it quite clear that the method of approaching the subject was illegal. He concluded by ordering the men back to their lines, whereupon the gathering dispersed. Expectations of banner headlines in the press did not materialise— merely a short paragraph to the effect that there had been a mild demonstration at Papakura Military Camp as a protest against the Government's decision. There the matter ended.
The general instruction was that training was not to go higher than platoon level, but as far as 21 Battalion was concerned this was disregarded. There was a minimum of parade-ground drill and a maximum of weapon training and fieldcraft—Colonel Macky and his company commanders had not fought a war for nothing.
This free translation of general instructions led to some criticism at the time, but it was not long before every training camp in New Zealand had adopted the same practice. Instead of spending hours on the parade ground learning the finer points of deportment, marching, or saluting, recruits were instructed as they moved around the training circuit.
Thorough training in infantry weapons was followed by daily visits to the rifle range at Penrose. Those who did not page 6 qualify in their first attempts were sent back until they became proficient. Every man also received some training with the Bren gun. These weapons were in very short supply at the time, and it was believed that 21 Battalion was the only Second Echelon unit in which every man had some practical experience with the new infantry weapon before going overseas.
Duder's Beach, east of Auckland, was a popular exercise ground and on one occasion every member of the unit had a training shoot at targets on the water. It was a valuable experience, for it was possible to see where every shot fell and each man could correct his own aim. Three times a week there was night training. In addition, full battalion exercises were held frequently and included operations with the Divisional Cavalry and engineer detachments training at Papakura. Because of this advanced training, the battalion led the majority of the brigade exercises in England.
Routine training was interspersed with formal parades. The Governor-General inspected the battalion on 8 February and on the 21st Brigadier Hargest12 who had been appointed to command 5 Brigade, also inspected the troops in Papakura. Two days later there was another parade, this time at the Auckland Town Hall in honour of the men from HMS Achilles, just returned from the victory at the River Plate. Later Captain W. E. Parry, commanding the Achilles, described the battle to the battalion at Papakura.
Day and night training continued until 13 March, when the Second Echelon was declared on active service and given 14 days' final leave. Early embarkation was expected but changes in shipping arrangements resulted in a delay of nearly three weeks. Everyone was rather depressed with the prospect, for with the last farewells said, weekend leave to Auckland was something of an anti-climax.
On 31 March the battalion took part in the funeral parade of the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. M. J. Savage. The parade was from the Auckland Railway Station to the corner of Queen and Customs Streets; 21 Battalion provided the guard of honour and lined each side of the route.page 7
Towards the end of April there were unmistakable signs of impending departure. Large troopships arrived mysteriously at Wellington and Battalion Headquarters became extremely active. Orderly-room clerks worked late into the night typing multiple copies of embarkation rolls, crossing off names for various reasons and including others in their place. Paybooks were checked to see that all the things that happen to a man before leaving for overseas had happened.
The farewell parade in Auckland took place on 27 April. After the march through the cheering crowds from the Domain to the wharf, rifles were piled and the men given leave from 1.30 p.m. to 7.45 p.m., when they were to report again at the wharf before entraining for Papakura. It was an experiment that was never repeated in subsequent farewell parades.
After six hours of send-offs, in which liquid refreshment took a prominent part for most, the troops reassembled. Many were on time; many were late. It was raining and the wharf was blacked out. The first-comers took their rifles from the pile, which then collapsed in a heap. Those arriving later had no chance of finding their own weapons, nor did they worry over the matter, but light-heartedly picked up the first they saw unclaimed. It was a scene of military chaos, with the troops out of control but in the best of spirits. The crowd of several thousand civilians was also out of hand, and the march back to the station was something that had to be seen to be believed.
The following day, Sunday, was the last opportunity for friends and relatives to visit the camp. It was a busy morning. Men were searching every corner in Papakura and Ngaruawahia camps for their own rifles. Then followed a voluntary church parade at which the attendance numbered four—three markers and the RSM, Ray Barnes.13
The emotional strain of saying a last and definite goodbye to friends and relatives was countered the next morning with a lecture by Major E. A. Harding on the battalion's behaviour after the farewell parade. Major Harding normally had little to say but his address on that occasion was long and eloquent.
There was to be positively no leave from camp on the night page 8 of 30 April for the troops were entraining in the morning, but the Carrier Platoon felt that they would like to take a little something with them for the road. There was no trouble with the main guard when an alleged picket, smartly turned out under the command of Sergeant Marshall-Inman,14 explained that they had been detailed to collect an ‘AWL’. Their haversacks were peculiarly heavy when they returned.
On the morning of 1 May the battalion, preceded by a band, swung out of Papakura and entrained for Wellington. A familiar figure to the men, ‘Mum’, who lived in a little cottage just around the corner where the camp road joins the Papakura-Hunua road, and who on many occasions had brought out hot buttered scones to men during rests on route marches, saw the battalion off. She joined the column and marched to the station, bidding farewell in a motherly fashion to the men who never passed her house without waving to her. The move was supposed to be a strict secret, but at all stations en route to Wellington the platforms were crowded with well-wishers who handed out cigarettes, chocolates, sandwiches, and bottles of liquid refreshment. Some of the farewell gifts induced a feeling of hilarity in their recipients, but for the most part the men were silent and thoughtful. (There were only seven of them serving with the battalion five years later.)
The battalion embarked at 1.30 a.m. the following morning on the Empress of Japan. As he went on board each man was handed a card showing his cabin number, the deck on which it was situated, the number and time of his mess, and his muster station for boat drill. The men called their cabin numbers as they stepped from the top of the gangway and the ship's officers directed traffic left, right, or below. Stewards were on hand to show each new party of troops to their cabins, where they changed hobnailed boots for deck shoes. They then paraded on deck to collect kitbags, were given a steaming pannikin of tea with bread and butter and sent to bed, most of them in the type of quarters that soldiers of 1914-18 would not have believed possible.
Troops messed in two sittings, most of them in the main page 9 first class dining-room, from which one wing had been partitioned to serve as the officers' and nurses' mess. All were served from the same kitchen.
Embarkation was completed by 5 a.m. It was at this point that the unit lost a valued member and a warm favourite. ‘Sergeant Noodles’ was the battalion mascot, a snow-white terrier which followed at the heels of its owner, Private ‘Tubby’ Ryan15 of C Company, on all route marches. Sergeant Noodles was an example to the untidy, for he was always correctly dressed in a red and khaki cover, on the side of which was attached his three stripes of rank. He wore his NZEF badge on his collar and was never known to give one away to a lady friend. Transport regulations prevented his embarkation and he was turned away at the gangway. However, somebody threw a rope from the deck to the wharf and, through the good offices of one of the wharf staff, Sergeant Noodles was nearly hoisted aboard. While the men were hauling him up his yelping attracted the notice of a ship's officer, who ordered him to be lowered again, and so the battalion lost its mascot.
Though officially the embarkation was a secret, many friends and relatives in New Zealand knew of it, and thousands of them had gathered outside the locked gates leading to the wharf. Their night-long wait was rewarded at the last minute when, despite assurances to the contrary, the gates were opened and they streamed in to gaze hopefully at the towering sides of the large liners.
The Trentham Camp band ‘Rolled out the Barrel’ as each ship moved off into the mist over Wellington Harbour. At midday, under the protection of HMS Leander and HMAS Canberra, the ships slipped quietly out into Cook Strait, where they were joined by the Andes and HMAS Australia from Lyttelton.
The convoy, now complete, formed up in two divisions led by the Canberra and Australia, with Leander as whipper-in, and page 10 set a course for Sydney. That harbour was not entered, but a rendezvous was made off the coast with the Queen Mary and Mauretania, carrying Australian troops. Later the Empress of Canada came up when the convoy, en route for Fremantle, was passing through Bass Strait.
Both the sea and the troops were a little unsettled at first, but by the time the ships anchored off Fremantle on 10 May nearly everyone had found his sea legs and was in good shape for shore leave.
Leave to Perth was granted from 11 a.m. to midnight and the people of Western Australia gave the visitors a royal welcome. Transport, refreshment centres, and guides had been arranged, but for the majority it was a rollicking riotous time, with the police turning a tolerant and myopic eye on the spectacle.
It was necessary to make a premature departure from Fremantle and the convoy sailed at midday on 12 May, with many of the guests slowly recovering from West Australian hospitality. Ceylon was the next likely port of call and the troops settled down to a long voyage through the tropics. Boat drill, training, lectures, entertainments, and gambling in secluded corners filled the time between queueing for meals and passing on the latest rumours. In this last pastime the troops were helped materially by the German radio, which maintained a very sympathetic interest in the voyage.
There was, however, enough bad news over the English radio to restrain the most optimistic. On the night of 9-10 May the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg; then Rotterdam was destroyed and France invaded.
In anticipation of leave at Ceylon, paybooks were filled in to allow the men off the transports as soon as possible after arriving at that port. At 10 p.m. on the night of 15 May, while everyone was contemplating the purchase of ivory elephants and other souvenirs to send home, the convoy's course was altered. Nobody was aware of the change of direction till the morning, when the sun unaccountably rose on the wrong side of the ship. No official announcement was made concerning this extraordinary event, but the best and most reliable rumours said that Cape Town would be the next stop en route for England.page 11
The New Zealand Government was aware of the possible diversion before the transports sailed. The attitude of Italy, with submarines in the Red Sea and her fleet ready to steam out from its Mediterranean bases, dictated a policy of caution that was amply vindicated when, on 10 June, Mussolini declared war and invaded France.
Tentative arrangements had been made for producing a ship's magazine to commemorate the voyage, and when the change in destination was confirmed it was decided to rush the copy and have the material ready to be printed at Cape Town. A competition was held for a pictorial cover and the two winning entries, a sketch of the ship by CSM Sexton16 and a Maori design by Private Johnny Adams,17 a Norfolk Islander in 15 Platoon, were combined. No suitable title came forward but, in recognition of the continuous flow of rumours permeating the ship, the magazine was called The Grapevine. The Cape Times generously rushed the job through at cost price and, with sales at sixpence a copy, a profit of £10 was handed into regimental funds.
Because her Chinese crew had declined to proceed beyond Cape Town into the less peaceful Atlantic, the troops on the Empress of Japan had to be distributed among the remaining troopships. Preparations for the transfer were completed by the time the convoy reached Cape Town early in the morning of the 26th. The 21st Battalion moved into the Empress of Britain and bedded down along the enclosed promenade deck and in the main lounge. Thick mattresses ensured comfort and later, in the heat of the tropics, it was realised that the coolest part of the ship had been secured. The Empress at that time still had her elaborate peacetime fittings and appointments, including a variety of shops, all of which were open for business. In addition there was access twice weekly to her marble swimming baths, complete with roomy and pleasant dressing quarters. But perhaps the greatest luxury of all were the messing arrangements. There was no queueing for meals, and everybody sat at small tables covered with snow-white cloths and page 12 ate meals served on the ship's white crockery and brought to them by the ship's waiters. The battalion never travelled under such conditions again.
The citizens of Cape Town rubbed their eyes when the mist lifted off the harbour on the morning of Sunday 26 May. The naval authorities were the only people aware of the arriving transports and the secret had been well kept. The South African Women's Auxiliary Service sprang quickly into action and took charge of hospitality arrangements. South Africa's mixed population was known to be not entirely pro-British, and a security lecture to the troops stressing the presence of fifth columnists in Cape Town induced at first a cautious response to the many car owners offering sightseeing trips and invitations to their homes.
Leave was granted on three of the four days the transports were in Cape Town and everybody was overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality of the people. With between six and seven thousand troops on shore leave, it was Fremantle over again. Hotels ran out of stocks and beer wagons rushing fresh supplies were unloaded in the streets by Australian and New Zealand troops. Traffic was dislocated, hotels closed early, and many shops barricaded their windows. The Cape Town police force were as efficiently unobtrusive as their West Australian counterparts. Nevertheless they must have heaved a sigh of relief when the transports sailed again on the morning of 31 May.
The Cumberland replaced HMAS Australia at this point and Freetown was made without incident on the morning of 7 June. The days were growing steadily warmer, but in spite of the somewhat crowded conditions 21 Battalion managed an hour's route march in boots on deck each day, as well as organised sports and general training.
There was no leave at Freetown, and while the ships loaded water and fuel, the troops passed the time looking at the amazing collection of shipping concentrated inside the harbour boom. There were warships, aircraft carriers, and merchantmen of all sizes and nationality awaiting convoy.
Native canoes provided another form of entertainment. They clustered around the ships in dozens offering a varied collection of wares, which included bright scarves, breadfruit, mangoes, page 13 coconuts, monkeys, snakes, and little coloured baskets. The troops had very little money to trade with, but the natives overcame the difficulty by accepting oddments of clothing and packets of cigarettes in exchange for their wares. Shirts and deck shoes were good mediums of barter and two monkeys were acquired in this way. The transaction was not entirely successful, for the monkeys were put ashore before departure and there was still the orderly-room fine for shortage in equipment to be met.
Nobody was sorry to leave Freetown the following afternoon. It was steaming hot at anchor and the local breed of mosquitoes appreciated the change of diet offered them. There were 17 cases of malaria on the Empress of Britain. She was the last ship to leave the harbour, and the last person to wave farewell was a white woman in a launch. As the Empress took up her position, a plane overhead blinked in morse ‘Best of luck’. Perhaps the pilot was thinking of what an enemy bomber could do to such a target if the aircraft carrier Hermes had not joined the convoy.
The convoy was to pass through dangerous waters now and blackout precautions were intensified. Four Vickers guns had been borrowed from the Australians and mounted for anti-aircraft defence; submarine lookouts were posted, and measures to be taken against possible incendiary bombs and gas were explained to the troops.
The entry of Italy into the war was known on the afternoon of 10 June, and when on the 14th the escort was augmented by HMS Hood, the aircraft carrier Argus, and four destroyers, there were thoughtful faces in 21 Battalion. The thoughtful ones received large reinforcements next day when the convoy passed floating wreckage strewn over the water— paper, barrels, empty lifeboats and rafts. Later a large fire that had been an oil tanker was seen on the horizon, and finally the ship shuddered violently from the explosion of a depth-charge dropped by one of the warships. Playing at soldiers was over from that moment.
The 17,000-mile journey was nearly ended, safely and uneventfully thanks to the Royal Navy and the RAF. The Irish coast was sighted at daybreak on the morning of the page 14 16th and towards midday the convoy moved into the Firth of Clyde, finally coming to anchor at Gourock. The mist lifted and the neat, chequered pattern of the Scottish countryside disclosed itself to the sea-weary eyes of the men of 21 Battalion.
A fortnight before the convoy made port on the western coast another and larger body of troops had landed in the south-east of England. It was the British Expeditionary Force returned via Dunkirk, carrying only its rifles and its fighting spirit. An almost unbelieveable three weeks of catastrophe had eliminated France as a fighting force; in another week she was not even an ally, so the arrival of the New Zealanders and Australians could hardly have been more opportune. The peaked hat of the Kiwi and the equally characteristic head-dress of the Aussie, both well remembered from the previous war, were morale builders of the highest order—out of all proportion to the material help the Dominion troops would have been able to give had the expected German landing eventuated.
The afternoon was spent in listening to addresses of welcome delivered over the ship's loudspeaker by the GOC Scottish Command on behalf of the King; by Brigadier Falla,18 representing the High Commissioner for New Zealand; and by Brigadier Miles,19 speaking for the GOC 2 New Zealand Division. The King's message read:
To the Officers commanding the Australian and New Zealand contingents—A few months ago we sent a few words of welcome to the first echelons of the 2nd Australian and New Zealand Expeditionary Force when they disembarked in the Middle East. It has fallen to your lot to take your place alongside us. You find us in the forefront of the battle. To all I give a warm welcome, knowing the stern purpose that brings you from your distant homes. I send best wishes and look forward to seeing you soon.
GEORGE R.I.page 15
When not preparing to disembark, the troops lined every point of vantage from the sun deck to the mastheads admiring the heather-covered hillsides and the quaint little cottages scattered over them. Lights out at nine o'clock with the sun still shining was a novelty not appreciated.
Disembarkation was spread over three days, 21 Battalion's turn coming on the 19th, when it entrained for Aldershot. Official news of the Anzacs' arrival was not released until they were safely in camp in the south of England, but they themselves exuberantly announced their own presence as they sang their way through Scotland and England.
It was a long but interesting journey after six and a half weeks at sea. While daylight lasted there were cheers and handshakes, gifts of sandwiches, rolls, pies, tea, coffee, and chocolate at every stopping place; there was the ‘thumbs-up’ greeting to passers by and the waving to and from girls, boys, and old men among the crops in the patchwork fields. The most blasé Kiwi felt he was among his own kith and kin. If there was any ‘see the conquering hero comes’ feeling engendered by the continuous welcome, however, it was dissipated when the unit detrained in the morning at North Camp, a few miles from Aldershot. Led by a band they marched, fully laden, five miles to their camp at Mytchett. The route was through a closely settled civilian locality and the coolness of their reception was very deflating indeed. Later they realised that the Aldershot area had seen troops coming and going for generations and that they were just another intake to Mytchett. When they reached the military area, however, they were welcomed with smiles, cheers, hand waving, and the thumbs-up sign from steel-helmeted British soldiers, and everybody felt better.
The troop trains continued to arrive until Friday the 21st, when 5 Infantry Brigade had assembled in one area for the first time in its short history.
Mytchett Camp was a new experience for men used to huts and tents in orderly array. Certainly there were tents, thousands of them, but pitched with an eye to safety from the air. They were scattered around under trees, and if there was a straight row it was only because there was a straight row of page 16 trees to shelter beneath. Tents in the open were pitched haphazardly around and camouflaged to merge with the brown pine needles or the green grass. Fifth Brigade and divisional details had to themselves three wide, tree-covered ridges and two broad valleys crossed by tree-lined lanes and divided into tree-lined paddocks.
Several miles away other arms were likewise dispersed, and a visit to every unit of the Second Echelon involved a journey of nearly fifty miles. Eight men to a bell tent with a wooden floor was thought by some to be rather cramped, but old diggers who remembered the Suez Canal zone after Gallipoli told tales of 24 to a tent, a man to each seam and the last two unable to lie down until the flaps were drawn—and no wooden floor. It was no use arguing with experts; but a few months later the same men were sleeping tentless in Greece and Crete. Until 24 June, when four days' disembarkation leave began, the time was spent in completing the camp facilities. Marquees were erected, sanitary and ablution arrangements organised, and slit trenches, though ill planned and badly sited, were dug. These holes in the ground were looked on with ill-concealed disdain until an air-raid warning in the early hours of the first night in camp had everybody roused and ready to move if necessary. It was not necessary that night; but at each company orderly room in the morning there was a queue of men to report the loss of steel helmets and request a new issue.
Londoners, still shaken by the defeat in France and the Dunkirk evacuation, looked with puzzled faces at the influx of soldiers wearing peaked hats and bright puggarees. Obviously they were strangers by the way they stood at street corners staring at such everyday things as London Bridge and Nelson's Monument, and obviously they were civilised by the way they made periodic visits to the nearest hotel. The older generation of Londoner was quick to recognise the return of the New Zealander. Organised and private hospitality were immediate and overwhelming. If anybody got lost the London policeman was ready to oblige, and if the soldier found the local ales a trifle heavy, that was all right with him too.
Training gear began to arrive and with it British instructors to explain the new techniques. Fearsome beings these Tommy officers and NCOs were supposed to be—tigers on saluting and devils for discipline—but, like most unknown terrors, they were not so bad when you got to know them. At first equipment was on a very meagre scale, as England was almost denuded of weapons and the High Command was counting the hours while the first convoys of American arms crossed the Atlantic. This position altered as the weeks went by and the flood of American arms, together with the rising tide of local output, flowed into every front-line battalion and every Home Guard unit. But all that was beyond the ken of the private soldier. His trouble was to get used to the English scale of rations, and until the battalion cooks learned how to get the utmost out of it, the NAAFI had many a hungry New Zealand customer.
Perhaps the biggest uplift to morale was given by the issue of battle dress in the first week in July. The ill-matched uniforms, especially the narrow ‘snake-proof’ trousers, were thankfully discarded in favour of the easy fitting, neat, and comfortable battle dress. This in turn led to the worsted ‘New Zealand’ shoulder flash, a recognition device introduced by the Canadians. The characteristic peaked hat was not worn with battle dress and, except for the small badge on the cap, the New Zealanders' individuality was largely lost. It was completely obliterated on manoeuvres when the steel helmet replaced the cloth cap, but with the battle dress and the shoulder flash the troops were supremely content.
Fifth Brigade was inspected at different times in those first weeks by high civil and military dignitaries, including Mr. W. J. Jordan, New Zealand High Commissioner, and Mr. Anthony Eden, Secretary of State for War, but an event which will page 18 always be remembered was the visit of King George VI on 6 July. The King inspected the various units as they went about their training, which was carried out in the normal manner in spite of a persistent drizzle. After lunch with General Freyberg and a hundred officers from all arms and of all ranks, His Majesty met 21 Battalion route-marching. The weather had cleared in the afternoon and the King, standing on the side of a country lane, took the salute in an informal march past. On the opposite side a small group of women and children had gathered. One woman with a basket on her arm leaned unconcernedly on the handle bars of her bicycle as the troops passed, while a few miles away an enemy bomber could be heard dropping his unpleasant cargo. The march past was an unpretentious ceremony but a stirring one.
The separation of the First and Second Echelons had for the time being prevented the formation of the New Zealand Division in the Middle East, but plans had been made to use the Second Echelon to meet the expected invasion. The force was accordingly organised as a small division in three groups:
A covering force commanded by Brigadier Miles, comprising C Squadron Divisional Cavalry, a machine-gun company, and an improvised infantry battalion formed from anti-tank personnel.
5 Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier Hargest. A smaller mixed brigade under Brigadier Barrowclough, made up of 28 (Maori) Battalion and a composite battalion formed from the reinforcement companies of each unit, including those intended for the First Echelon.
On 9 July, therefore, E Company 21 Battalion marched out to Dogmersfield and became part of the newly raised 29 Battalion of the mixed brigade. Major R. W. Harding, OC C Company, became second-in-command to Lieutenant-Colonel McNaught,20 CO 29 Battalion. Captain Reanney,21 page 19 second-in-command of E Company, replaced Captain Tongue as OC of that company, and Tongue replaced Major Harding as OC C Company. E Company rejoined the battalion in Egypt and sailed to Greece.
In the role allotted to the force the emphasis was on mobility, and the balance of July was spent in day and night practice moves by transport, full-scale tactical exercises, and toughening-up marches.
Invasion was in the air. The Germans were concentrating barges and motor boats along the French coast and their air force was probing and testing the English defences. Air-raid warnings became more and more frequent, until they were almost continuous as the opening phases of the Battle of Britain were fought over the Channel. The battalion area escaped attention from bombers until 8 August, when a lone raider dropped a bomb among the slit trenches at the end of the camp. After that individual trenches were dug close to the tents.
Although the leave situation and quotas changed from time to time, there were always some troops in London, and the need for a residential club was met by the acquisition of the Italian Fascist headquarters building in Charing Cross Road. It was an all-ranks club with beer licence, billiard rooms, washrooms, storage rooms, and showers. Most of the Italian inscriptions, all plaques and decorations were taken down, but a bronze profile of Mussolini was so firmly fixed that the wall would have had to have been removed to displace it. The difficulty was surmounted by covering Mussolini with a large framed portrait of the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser. A full-sized statue of Julius Caesar was also for the same reason left to adorn the balcony. Those who had studied him in their schooldays said he was not a bad sort of bloke and that, had he been born a couple of thousand years later, he might have been on our side because he did not like Germans either.
The final training exercise was scheduled to begin on 3 August and took the form of a 100-mile route march to be completed in six days. Because of the possibility of air attack the battalion marched by platoons at 50-yard intervals, and at the end of each day's march was picked up and taken by transport to the bivouac area, where the company trucks delivered the meals, valises, and blanket rolls.page 20
It was the height of the English summer, and the route through the southern counties lay along tree-lined roads with villages every few miles. The consistent hospitality of the English people was shrewdly taken advantage of during this march, for whenever a village church spire indicated a settled area ahead the troops lustily announced their coming with a full-throated rendering of ‘Maori Battalion’ or ‘We are the Boys from Way Down Under’. A wayside inn always produced agonised renderings of ‘How dry we are’. The pathos in the final line, ‘God only knows how dry we are’, would have brought tears to the eyes of a bronze statue. It was seldom indeed that the vocal efforts failed to fill the village street with people offering fruit, drinks, and cakes. There was a particularly lucky break at the end of the fourth day near Partridge Green, after 16 miles of hard going, mostly over concrete-slabbed road and topped off by a long hill. The halt was in front of a private hospital and it was the first occasion that the transport was late in arriving, but the time was easily filled in. Within very few minutes the only people in the hospital were the bedridden patients; sisters, nurses, garden boys, walking patients, and later the Matron carried tea, biscuits, cakes and fruit to the lucky platoons nearby. Finally the Matron produced sufficient cigarettes to go round one company.
The bivouac areas on this march were at Pheasants' Copse, West Grimstead Park, Wych Cross, Partridge Green and Whiteways Lodge, and on each day the troops saw something of rural England prepared for invasion. Paddocks were strewn with old cars, trucks and carts, and any other obstacle that would make air landing hazardous; barbed-wire barricades were handily placed along the roads and tank traps ready for immediate use; every road junction was mined for demolition, with troops or Home Guard standing by—any day might see the invasion.
The exercise ended at Petworth, where the battalion embussed for Mytchett with 84 miles of marching behind it, and a long trail of empty inns waiting replenishment from their brewers. Seven days' leave followed the return to camp. Troops with a free rail warrant and a comforting paybook credit set page 21 out for destinations ranging from the north of Scotland to the south of England; some even unfolded well enough a tale of pining relations in Ireland to manage a trip across the Irish Sea.
Those with lean paybook balances had to do some high financing to get away, for no one was given leave unless he had a credit of £3 IOS. to show. This regulation was a result of the first four days' London leave. With a touching regard for odd soldiers who might run short of cash, an auxiliary pay office had been opened in London, but the word soon got about that Father Christmas was in town and a rush set in to get some easy money.
With ammunition and equipment now up to war establishment, training emphasis was on mobility, anti-gas precautions, and passive air defence. Convoy organisation was tested in frequent practice moves by transport, as well as by exercises in embussing and debussing by day and by night.
As August drew to an end a close watch was kept on the German preparations for invasion. Everything pointed to Dover as the first objective. Troops and shipping continued to concentrate in the Pas de Calais area; two mountain divisions with mules, presumably to scale the Folkestone cliffs, were located, and powerful long-range batteries to command the Channel came into existence daily. If the attempt was to be made it would have to be in September, for the October equinoctial gales would preclude any small-boat crossing of the Channel.
It was an exceedingly pleased Second Echelon that learned on 3 September that it was fit for front-line duty and would probably move to the critical area around Dover. The Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, addressed them the next day in a characteristic speech:
Soldiers of New Zealand, in the name of the British Government I wish to tell you how very glad we are to have had you with us during these last four months, so critical for our island home and so fateful in the history of the British Empire. When you came our forces in this island were by no means as strong as they are today. When you first came a comparatively small army of the enemy might have wrought much havoc before they had been finished off. But now we have very powerful armies and if, as some think, that page 22 bad man is inclined to try his venture, we feel sure we shall give a good account of ourselves. And again I say we are very glad that troops from New Zealand would bear their part in the defence of this ancient State and island—the heart of the Empire, the cradle and the citadel of free institutions throughout the world.
We in this island are now bearing the accumulated weight of the malice and tyranny of the enemy. We do not feel unequal to it. We are sure we shall prove ourselves not unequal to the task of once again being the champion and the liberator of Europe. We do not feel lonely when the sons of our great Dominions overseas —lands where they breed the finest fighting races—come back here or come to other parts of the British Empire, there to bear their parts in this great contention. I wish you well. I wish you great good luck. May God protect you. I am sure you will crown the name of New Zealand with honours, with a lustre which will not fade as the years pass by. Of all the wars we have ever fought, none has been more honourable, more righteous than this. None has been more unsought by us. In none has greater weight been thrown upon us. From none shall we emerge with a greater sense of duty done. May fortune rest upon your arms. May you return home with victory to your credit, having written pages into the annals of the Imperial Army which will be turned over by future generations whenever they wish to find a model for military conduct.
New Zealanders are not very good at cheering, but they cheered that day.
Together with other troops massing on the south-east coast, the 2 NZEF (UK), with 8 (British) Royal Tank Regiment under command, was ordered to move closer to the coast and come under the command of 12 Corps in a counter-offensive role. The 21st Battalion moved by bus column on 5 September to a bivouac area in King's Wood, south-east of Maidstone, and was placed on short warning.
The task allotted to 5 Brigade was to counter-attack enemy forces moving on Dover from either the direction of Postling in the south or Canterbury in the north. To this end very thorough reconnaissances of the Dover area were made daily by the responsible officers, while the rest of the battalion watched the fierce combats overhead by day and listened to the noise of anti-aircraft guns by night. The weather, until then perfect, broke a few days later and the battalion, with page 23 its task allotted, moved into billets in Leeds village. This was a new and not unwelcome experience, in spite of daily excursions and alarms. Battalion officers were quartered at Burgess Hall (Battalion Headquarters) and other ranks were billeted with the local residents in the village; Headquarters Company was in barns at the foot of the village; A and B Companies were at Langly close by; D Company was at Bleak House, some three miles distant; C Company, detached as support troops to 8 RTR, was at Eastwell Park and attached for rations only, with sleeping quarters in the stone towers at the entrance to the park.
Route marches to familiarise the troops with the countryside were interspersed with brigade exercises. There was London leave for 10 per cent, and regular weekend leave to Canterbury, Maidstone, and other nearby centres. At Maidstone on 17 September the battalion sustained its first casualties when a bomb landed close to a crowded leave bus. Two men were slightly wounded; the others escaped injury.
By the end of September it was thought that the invasion season was over, for winter was noticeably at hand. Football grounds were marked out and Rugby matches were played daily. They commenced at platoon level and gradually worked up to inter-battalion matches. It was not one of 21 Battalion's best football periods for, after drawing with 22 Battalion, it lost to 23 Battalion and 28 (Maori) Battalion. A one-point win was secured over the Artillery team and a convincing victory gained over a combined ASC and Divisional Headquarters team.
When all danger of invasion was thought to be over, there was an alarm in the early hours of 25 October. At 3 a.m. carriers were heard dashing along the main street shortly after a warning order to stand to was issued. Troops billeted with private families were wakened by runners and everybody warned to be ready to move by 8 a.m. This undoubtedly was it. The troops were fed at 5 a.m. and within two hours the brigade was ready to move off. At 8 a.m. it was learned that it had been an exercise to ascertain the time it would take to move the brigade without prior warning. It is not necessary to describe the men's feelings and remarks—they were unprintable anyhow.page 24
The battalion went into winter billets at Camberley on 4 November, after two months in the field as part of Britain's defence force. The accommodation consisted of a number of vacated civilian houses less than a mile from the town, with heated and lighted rooms available for reading, writing, and indoor recreation.
Facilities for free attendance at technical, commercial, language, and art classes at civilian colleges and night schools were also available. Owing to the lack of parade grounds, training took the form of thrice-weekly route marches and intensified weapon training. There were, in addition, range practices and shoots with Thompson sub-machine guns, anti-tank rifles, and mortars. It was an enjoyable period, with one melancholy exception when RSM Ray Barnes died of pneumonia on 9 November, the first death in the battalion. WO I Dave Sweeney22 was appointed to the vacancy.
Night and weekend leave, temporarily suspended during the move to Camberley, was restored and with London only forty miles away quotas were always filled. Entertainment in Camberley was also varied and plentiful—there were inns, particularly the Victoria with its special singing hall, and the Cambridge, where Sandhurst officer cadets were quite swamped by other rank Kiwis, to the former's patent disgust. There were regular ENSA shows, dances, and private hospitality.
Although in those weeks it was far more dangerous to be a civilian in London than a soldier out of it, there were always plenty of applicants for weekend leave to the city. Air raids were at their height and London was burning, but the fact did not deter the troops. The reason became apparent by degrees. Owing to public commendation of the action of some men in helping the city fire-workers to rescue people from blazing buildings, the shrewd soldier saw the best excuse in his army career to overstay leave and get away with it. The number of people allegedly rescued rose steadily, while the AWL list grew to such proportions that Colonel Macky had to point out firmly that it was not the battalion's duty to do this noble work but to be clear of the city and back in camp by the appointed hour.page 25
During the period the battalion was in billets at Camberley, the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces visited the area and garaged his car for the night adjacent to the quartermaster's stores. In the morning the stately Rolls-Royce had lost something of its stateliness for it was minus radiator cap and C-in-C's pennant. Widespread inquiries were instituted with no result, but suspicion naturally pointed to the Q staff, who were generally alleged to be thieves by both birth and instinct, otherwise they would not be quarter blokes. After some vicissitudes and changes in ownership, the pennant now adorns the mantlepiece of a farmhouse in North Auckland.
Whispers of another early move involving travel by sea put new vim into training, and hitherto unheard of reasons for the granting of leave were hopefully submitted to Battalion Headquarters. By the middle of November it was generally known that 5 Brigade was going to join the First and Third Echelons in Egypt, and on 26 November orders for embarkation were received. Two days later the road party with all vehicles marched out for embarkation at Liverpool, followed the next day by the carriers. A march past for the Governor-General designate, Sir Cyril Newall, and for the Duke of Gloucester on the 9th and 11th respectively completed the brigade's training. Four days' embarkation leave commenced on 12 December with 50 per cent away at the one time. Twenty-eight were AWL from the first draft and 23 from the second, but their pay, accumulated during the nine weeks' voyage to the Middle East, helped to meet the fines inflicted, and they maintained that the extra days had been worth the cost.
The first snow fell on the evening of 23 December and it was in a typical English winter setting that the battalion celebrated Christmas Day. Even the enemy raiders refrained from marring the whiteness with black bomb craters. Many of the men accepted hospitality from local residents, others went to London and dined at the Forces Club, while those who had to remain in camp ate turkey served by the officers and NCOs, followed by a bottle of beer for each man and a rum issue in the afternoon. The last week of 1940, the last week of 21 Battalion's stay in England, was filled with preparations for embarkation.
5 Brig R. W. Harding, DSO, MM, ED; Kirikopuni, North Auckland; born Dargaville, 29 Feb 1896; farmer; Auck Regt 1916-19; CO 21 Bn 10 May-12 Jun 1942, 18 Jul 1942-30 Apr 1943, 14 May-4 Jun 1943; comd 5 Bde 30 Apr-14 May 1943, 4 Jun-23 Aug 1943; twice wounded.
7 Lt-Col A. C. Trousdale, MC; Howick, Auckland; born Canada, 20 Oct 1895; estate agent; comd 1 Bn North Auckland Regt Aug 1942-Jul 1943; CO 21 Bn 21 Jun-9 Jul 1944; comd Freyberg Wing, 2 NZEF PW Repat Unit (UK) 1944-45; wounded 22 Nov 1941.
12 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d.; born Gore, 4 Sep 1891; farmer; Member of Parliament 1931-44; Otago Mounted Rifles, 1914-20 (CO 2 Bn, Otago Regt); comd 5 Bde Jan 1940-Nov 1941; p.w. Sidi Azeiz27 Nov 1941; escaped Mar 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.
18 Brig N. S. Falla, CMG, DSO, m.i.d.; born Westport, 3 May 1883; managing director Union Steamship Coy; NZ Fd Arty 1914-19 (Lt-Col comd 2 and 3 NZ FA Bdes); comd 2 NZEF Base, Feb 1940-Jun 1941; NZ repve on Ministry of Transport, London, 1941-45; died 6 Nov 1945.
19 Brig R. Miles, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d.; born Springston, 10 Dec 1892; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1914-19 (Bty Comd and BM); CRA 2 NZ Div 1940-41; comd 2 NZEF (UK) 1940; wounded and p.w. 1 Dec 1941; escaped Mar 1943; died in Spain 20 Oct 1943.
20 Lt-Col G. J. McNaught, DSO, ED; New Plymouth; born Wanganui, 26 Nov 1896; schoolmaster; NZ MG Corps 1916-19 (2 Lt 1919); CO 29 Bn (UK) Jun 1940-Mar 1941; 25 Bn Sep-Dec 1941; wounded 23 Nov 1941; headmaster New Plymouth Boys' High School.