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22 Battalion


page 461


[By Paul Donoghue, who apologises for any names of team-mates omitted; these notes are written from memory going back fourteen years.]

The11th January 1940 was the last day in civilian life for some 800 members of the original 22nd Battalion, and like many another that day I had to decide just what gear to take to camp with me, and it seemed perfectly natural to include football boots, socks, pants and jersey in the equipment. The next morning saw us off to Trentham and throughout the day we were joined by hundreds from Taranaki, Hawke's Bay, East Coast, Wanganui, Manawatu, Wairarapa and Bush. In those early days Rugby was a common bond and canteens and tents became places of reminiscences of games won and lost, of players who according to the raconteurs had never played a bad game, and it seemed that in the ranks of our battalion we had the nucleus of a football team which could hold its own with any pre-war Provincial team.

We were fortunate in having for our Colonel L. W. Andrew, VC, whose interest in the game was great and whose pride in the whole battalion as a team never diminished. We had a first-class referee in Major Leeks, a first war Army representative in Major McNaught, a real enthusiast in school-master Major Jim Leggat, and a well known exponent of the game in Irvine Hart, later Major, who had been half-back for Wairarapa in their palmy Ranfurly Shield days. With these supporters as senior officers in the battalion there was never any doubt in our minds that Rugby would take up a good share of our relaxation.

I remember well the Colonel announcing one morning on parade that he had received a cup from the people of Hawke's Bay for inter-company football [somebody pawned the cup about a year later], and that after these games had been played a team would be picked to play the other battalions, and that we would beat them too. This last statement made in the Colonel's brittle tones seemed to me to resemble an order more than an expression of hope.

Our football gear went with us overseas. On the famous Newlands ground in Capetown, Mervyn Ashman, Gerry Fowler and I played for the Second Echelon against Combined Universities.

So to England. Our first inter-battalion game took place with a memorable scoreless draw with the 21st Battalion, to be followed by equally as exciting games with the Maoris, the 23rds and Artillery, Anti-Tank, ASC, Field Ambulances, etc. Scores and results have page 462 faded from memory, but I believe I am correct in saying that we won more than we lost. These games were played in truly unique conditions and illustrate the love of New Zealanders for their national game. The Battle of Britain was being fought in the skies and many a game was played in Kent beneath the machine-gun bursts from Spitfires and Messerschmitts, while the spectators had their attentions divided between football and the more grim game being played above. Bren guns were set up on the sidelines as anti-aircraft defence, and many a time during a lull in the game we would see fights to the death above us.

I think our teams in those days usually included Joe Simpson, Taranaki; Bruce Skeen, Hawke's Bay; Ron Ayres, Hawke's Bay; Gordon Couchman, Wanganui; Joe Patten, Taranaki; Morry Stewart, Wanganui; Shorty Sangster, Taranaki; Keith Elliott, Bush; Sammy Sampson and Fred Knott of Taranaki; Ewen Cameron, Doug Bond, Doug Gollan, all of Dannevirke; Jack Stewart of Hastings; Ron Newland of Bush; Merv. Ashman of Hastings; Gerry and Tim Fowler of Taranaki; Eric Newton of Poverty Bay; Earl Hunt, Hawke's Bay, and myself of Wellington. One very enjoyable game was played against the Military College of Sandhurst at Camberley. In this game Ron Ayres received an injury which resulted in his eventual return to New Zealand. Captain of this team in England was Gerry Fowler. We had several representatives in the Second Echelon team which played on many of the famous grounds of England.

They were just as good as infantrymen in Greece and Crete as they were footballers—Joe Simpson, wounded in the leg, left behind on Maleme—Doug Gollan, a sniper's bullet taking off the tip of his nose, was also left behind, as were Ewen Cameron, M. Stewart and Eric Newton, soldiers of the first order, all becoming POW's. Poor Bruce Skeen died from a stray bullet in the only bayonet charge in which I ever took part—much to our relief the Germans fled. Bruce was truly unlucky. Major Dyer and Lieutenant Tifa Bennett of the Maori Battalion led this charge—the gallant Major armed only with a walking stick. Many of our football friends from other units also became casualties. Sickened and saddened from our experiences in Greece and Crete, we were still able to welcome amongst our reinforcements many whose names were well known in New Zealand Rugby circles and whose presence later on brought the 22nd to the forefront of 2 NZEF Rugby.

Once we were on the football field rank ceased to exist, as I had good cause to remember when playing with Major (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Tom Campbell. The Major, who played for us periodically in England, was once making a determined run down the sideline and looked as though his progress would be stopped by the defenders. I had come up inside of him and had a clear run in. I was calling to him ‘With you Major, pass to me Major,’ but all in vain as Tom careered on. Finally in desperation I called page 463 ‘Pass you selfish B—, pass,’ and he passed immediately and I duly scored, and upon receiving the Major's congratulations no mention was made of my doubting the legitimacy of his birth.

The Egyptian summer of 1941 and the November campaign in Libya commenced, and one of our first casualties was beloved Shorty Sangster, a first five-eighths of much guile. Another well-known footballer in Hartley Kirschberg of Wellington, who had recently joined us, received a serious arm wound at Gazala in this campaign. Some of my friends, Tom Steele, Tim Fowler, Keith Elliott and Dave Barton amongst others, were captured and held in Bardia for some weeks. All except Dave were released by the South Africans on New Year's Day. Dave, being an officer, was taken along to Italy with Brigadier Hargest before the town was captured.

The week preceding this Libyan campaign saw a really great match played on the sands of Baggush2 NZEF versus the South African Division, and in this historic match the 22nd was ably represented by Mick Kenny of Wellington, Jack Sullivan, Taranaki All Black, Dave Barton of Wanganui, and if memory serves me right, Gerry Fowler, Taranaki.

The battle over saw us back in Egypt before doing a tour of duty at El Adem, near Tobruk, and finally going to Syria. In this period the 2 NZEF played a series of games in Cairo, Alexandria, and Maadi, and the 22nd secured its usual quota of players in the team namely Jack Sullivan, Athol Mahoney, Bush All Black who had just joined us, Gerry Fowler and myself. We had at least one inter-battalion game in this period against the 21st, defeating them in the Canal Zone. The sands were our home at this time and company football was the order of the day, and A Company commenced to build up an unbeaten record which held for a long time. Later on, in February 1943, A Company was known as No. 1 Company and it supplied six members of the 2 NZEF team which defeated the Rest of Egypt. The six were Mick Kenny, Lin Thomas, and myself of Wellington, Gerry Fowler of Taranaki, Ron Newland of Bush, and Dave Whillans, a man who represented Canterbury, Auckland and Wanganui. Another well-known player, ‘Triss’ Hegglun, also joined the company about this time.

July the 15th was a fateful day for the battalion, most of its members being captured at the ill-fated Ruweisat Ridge. One of our football team at least will always remember this day—Keith Elliott gaining the Victoria Cross—and we were more than proud of his achievement. Casualties were a penny a dozen these days and many of us, including Jack Sullivan, were wounded. Athol Mahoney and a well-known Hawkeapos;s Bay Maori All Black, Wattie Wilson, as well as All Black trialist, Chris Anderson, were amongst those captured that day.

The next few months were probably the most trying of our infantry days and nobody was sorry when after the November page 464 break-through at Alamein we were finally told at Sollum that we were returning to Maadi to join the newly formed 4th Armoured Brigade as their motorised infantry. Back to Maadi, where we were fully reinforced, and upon joining our new brigade what could bring more joy to a footballer's heart than to find a fully organised Rugby competition in full swing. Before we had played a game Mick Kenny, Jack Sullivan and Ron Newland were selected for the Brigade and 2 NZEF sides, and later Lin Thomas and myself joined them. Tim Fowler made the Brigade side, and never was there a greater travesty of football selection justice than when Tim, playing in the final trial to select the 2 NZEF team to play the Rest of Egypt, not only scored three glorious tries but also outhooked his opponent, and was then omitted from the final selection. We were really amazed as well as indignant. Tim showed what a great little sportsman he was by coming down to Alexandria to see us play and cheer us on.

The battalion at this time was fortunate in obtaining an ex-All Black and 1941 2 NZEF player, Jock Wells, in its ranks. Jock had retired from the game but in his new role of selector-coach his was the hand which guided us in the next few weeks to a record of seventeen wins in eighteen matches, to the winning of the Brigade championship, and to the defeat of the Maadi competition winners, the Maori Training Unit. This game put the name of the 22nd Battalion on the Harper-Lock Shield, a trophy now competed for by Wellington Clubs.

At the commencement of this season Jack Sullivan was elected captain and myself vice-captain of the team. After a game or two Jack, nursing his recently wounded leg, injured the other one in a game against the South Africans, and this resulted in the end of his playing career. I, like the others, missed the brilliance of his play and the joy of seeing his defence-splitting runs.

This team is my proudest football memory. Mick Kenny at full back was superb. A machine gun in Italy prevented New Zealand from seeing the real Kenny, but even on his return and only partial recovery from a serious chest wound, Mick was still able to become a Maori All Black. At this stage he always managed to get selected for the big games in Egypt ahead of the later famed Bob Scott. Two flying wingers in Tommy Walford of Hawke's Bay and a Captain Young from Duntroon were real try getters, and after Jack Sullivan's injury Joe Patten from our original team in England was a cool, resourceful centre. Three others, Digger Down, a Maori from the Rangitikei, Keith Elliott, and Mick Crawford of Gisborne, also had several games on the wing. Their tackling was extra good on the hard grounds, and Keith Elliott in particular had a devastating tackle. His marking of the late George Hart, All Black winger, in one game was classical. Jack Alexander of Buller (selected after the war to play for the South Island) was second five-eighths. Jack would always oblige with a penetrating straight run and at first- page 465 five Lin Thomas was the guiding genius of the back line, and I think the greatest compliment I can pay Lin is to say that I never once saw him bustled, and the thrill of his left-footed drop kicks always at a critical moment warm my heart yet. Noel Parris of Manawatu was an efficient half until he had the misfortune to break a leg, whereupon Ray Mollier and a youngster, Snowy Leighton, deputised for him. So well were these boys playing that All Black Vince Bevan, who had just joined the Battalion, was not called upon to play.

The forwards were on a par with the backs. Diminutive, lion-hearted Tim Fowler to hook the ball, giant Maori Frank Kerrigan and tough, fast Mervyn Ashman comprised a front row second to none. They certainly lived up to the Colonel's motto ‘Second to None’. George Murfitt from Taranaki, on one side, was a typical Taranaki forward—he never tired, while Earl Cross and Dagwood Jones, who played on the other side, were full of energy, and Tom Reynolds, from the spud town, Pukekohe, Sammy Sampson and Freddy Knott of New Plymouth all took turns in making a real forward pack. Last but not least my co-lock, Ron Newland, who was my partner in platoon, company, battalion, brigade and divisional Rugby—what a forward he was. His genial nature often made his play innocuous. Ron was best when he was aroused, and I must now confess that often I was the cause of his becoming aroused, as I gave him a hefty kick in the shin or a full blooded punch in the ribs. Then he would become a veritable Maurice Brownlie, and he would tell me about how dirty one of the other side was. Such are the depths to which a captain must sink to get the best out of a gifted, easy going player.

The hard grounds were a constant source of injuries to our players. In the few absences of Ron Newland I locked with a Poverty Bay shepherd, Max Rogers, who was a man of great strength, which he demonstrated freely. Shortly afterwards the first furlough party departed for home, the Division for Italy, and we of the second furlough party waited patiently for a boat home, during which time I had the doubtful honour of being captain of the first New Zealand Army team to be defeated in Egypt. The South Africans under the captaincy of Kenyon, 1949-1951 Springbok skipper, beat us twice, but upon my return home I was overjoyed to learn that a team captained by Did Vorrath of Otago had reversed our losses. My biggest thrill was to come later on, however, when one day as a civilian in Hastings I read in the paper that the 22nd Battalion, fresh from the front lines of Italy, had come back to win the coveted Freyberg Cup—trophy for the Divisional champion football team. The only points were scored from the trusty boot of Lin Thomas in one of his inimitable drop kicks taken in a sea of Italian mud.

My impressions of football in four years with the battalion are of the happiest, and I can honestly say that no matter how hard page 466 or tough the game not one of us ever made an enemy through football, and now at home many of us are not rich in a material sense but are wealthy in our friends made in NZEF Rugby.

To illustrate the quality of the talent available in Egypt in our unit, we were embarrassed by the return of three divisional players who had been away at OCTU, Gerry Fowler, Dave Whillans and ‘Triss’ Hegglun, players any team would be proud to have—yet we had to ask them to keep on playing in the base competitions as it would be unfair to drop players like Murfitt, Ashman and Kerrigan, who were doing so well. A too large crop of good players can almost be as big an embarrassment as a scarcity of them.

Before concluding I would like to give the lie to a statement often made that if you were a footballer in the Army you were protected as far as the fighting went. Although we were ready to have a game at the drop of the proverbial hat, the boys of the 22nd never missed a campaign and many won decorations. There was our own Keith Elliott, and from memory Tom Campbell, Ray Mollier, Gerry Fowler, Frank Kerrigan, Mick Kenny and Tom Reynolds. Others certainly deserved them as well. Infantrymen are simple souls with a zest for life, and our team was always fortunate in having the whole unit on the sideline cheering us on. To all loyal supporters, to all our courageous opponents of all nationalities against whom we played either on the luxuriously appointed grounds of Cairo, Alexandria, Maadi, Capetown or England, or on the gritty, dusty sands of the desert, we say thanks for the memories. I am sure that every one of our unit who returned to New Zealand joins with me in a heartfelt prayer for all those we left behind.