CHAPTER 1 — Formation and Training
Formation and Training
The 24th Auckland Battalion grew from a small nucleus of 158 men who assembled at Narrow Neck, the Northern District School of Instruction, on 1 February 1940. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Shuttleworth1 of the New Zealand Staff Corps, had under him, in addition to his Adjutant, Regimental Sergeant-Major, and Regimental Quartermaster- Sergeant, a team of four sergeant instructors. All of these men were soldiers of the regular New Zealand Army who had been allotted the task of training other officers and non-commissioned officers till they, in their turn, should be fit to instruct.
Apart from the staff of instructors, there were 32 officers and 124 prospective NCOs at the school. A few of the officers were veterans of the First World War, the majority had served in the Territorials, and others had been chosen from the First, Second, and Third Echelons. Of the prospective NCOs, some already had acting rank, while the remainder, though still privates, were all regarded as men likely to be worthy of promotion later on. Four squads, throughout which the officers were evenly distributed, were formed to work under the permanent staff. Since those of the instructed who should prove fit for the task were to instruct others in a short time, all training was designed with this end in view. Progressive stages of squad drill, musketry, extended-order drill, night operations, range firing, and field engineering were gone through rapidly, and the men, bearing in mind their own future responsibilities, applied themselves keenly even to the most wearisome preliminaries. In the evenings lectures were given on such subjects as map reading, and some attempt was made to bridge the gap between reality and make-believe — a gap made yawning wide by the absence of modern weapons — by showing films which demonstrated methods of tank hunting and anti-tank protection.page 2
Meanwhile, all went on under the eye of Colonel Shuttle- worth. Ability to excel in the preparatory practices of war is no sure guide in the choice of leaders for war itself, but with this reservation he was in a position to select the most promising NCOs for promotion. His battalion began to assume its own identity on 4 March, when the first routine orders appeared, signed by the Adjutant, Lieutenant McDonald,2 announcing the promotion of 40 acting corporals to be temporary sergeants, and 57 acting corporals to be temporary corporals. The four squads became A, B, C, and D Companies. Preparations were made to move to Papakura Camp, where the nucleus of 24 Battalion would soon be joined by its main draft of the Third Echelon. On 2 April a farewell celebration was held in the canteen. Each officer was brought in by a press gang and greeted with the cry, ‘Sing or Shout!’ The evening grew riotous, but the habit of discipline was already having its effect, and punctually at 11 p.m. silence fell over the camp. Next day 24 Battalion's march through the Auckland streets, headed by the Papakura Camp band, was described by an Auckland newspaper: ‘Bronzed and in magnificent physical condition, the officers and non-commissioned officers moved with precision and the spring of fitness along the sunshine-flooded streets, arousing the admiration of the pavement crowds, which, as usual, preserved a most hearty silence.’3 To many who had taken part in the previous night's carousal these phrases sounded faintly ironical. Whatever their outward appearance, they had not been feeling in ‘magnificent physical condition’, and the ‘spring of fitness’ arose out of nothing but grim determination to conceal their discomfort.
At Papakura training continued on the same lines as at Narrow Neck until 15 May, when the main draft arrived. Throughout the day trains brought in parties of recruits from the various districts of Auckland province. A few officers, eager to know what manner of men they were to command, went down to the railway station and saw emerging from the trains a strangely diverse collection of human beings in all conditions page 3 ranging from complete sobriety to advanced intoxication. These men were facing the ordeal of a totally new experience; the whole course of their lives was in process of disruption; they had recently said goodbye to friends and relations whom they might see no more. If ever an occasion might be said to excuse some excess, it was this. Apart from all else, their appearance was noticeably shabby—in some cases positively eccentric. Under the mistaken impression that their clothes would be taken away and not restored, they had been at some pains to arrive in garments they could well afford to lose. In the rough they were not impressive, and the watching officers must have suffered vague misgivings as to how such a rabble could possibly be transformed into soldiers. Trucks were sent to trail the line of their march to Papakura and pick up any who fell by the way. It was not till after dark that all recruits composing the draft had arrived in camp. They had not long to wait for their first experience of military discipline, which came when RSM Kennedy4 hauled them all out on parade at 11 p.m. and explained that the strip of asphalt on which they were standing (in some cases sitting) was their regimental parade ground, and that thenceforward they should never stroll but always march across it.
The era of marching set in next day, and on Sunday, 19 May, there was a church parade for the full battalion. The issuing of uniforms was the main concern at first; on the 25th the companies were inspected in their new battle dress, and then granted general leave the same evening. A remarkable change had come over the recruits since their disorderly arrival. Already the formerly demoralised, bewildered civilians were beginning to feel pride not only in their own soldierly appearance but also in the unit which now claimed their loyalty. There could be no further doubt whether or not they would make soldiers; it was merely a question of how long it would take.
The initiated from Narrow Neck turned with enthusiasm to the task. Formerly the led, they were now to be leaders themselves, but their keenness was soon put to the test and their progress hindered at every turn by a general shortage of equipment. page 4 Light machine guns, mortars, grenades, to mention only a fraction of the total requirements, were all in short supply. Only two vehicles were available for the training of drivers for Bren carriers. Both of them had been in continuous use for a long time without having been overhauled, and as a result were showing every sign of wear and tear. When the first Bren gun arrived, the men crowded round eagerly to get a view of the strange object. For various reasons the range course had to be fired only two weeks after rifles had been issued. It was a course intended for trained soldiers, and high scoring could scarcely have been expected of raw recruits firing for the most part in showers of heavy rain or wind of gale force. Moreover, there were no armourers available to inspect and adjust faulty weapons. In more leisured circumstances, specialists such as signallers, cooks, or drivers of Bren carriers could have undergone the ordinary recruit course before taking up their special duties, but under the existing urgency they had to be hurried through the preliminaries with insufficient grounding. No allowance had been made for the time that must necessarily be given up for inoculation, dental treatment, X-ray, and the making of wills, while a number of men applied for special leave on the grounds of having been called up without sufficient notice to allow the winding up of their affairs.
Such were a few of the items in the long account now being paid for the short-sightedness of men in high places. While protesting vigorously at this shortage, Shuttleworth made shift to carry on with what was available. As nearly as possible he divided his battalion into companies on a territorial basis as follows: A Company (Auckland City), under Major Dill;5 B Company (Hauraki), Captain Collins;6 C Company (North Auckland), Captain Morrison;7 D Company (Waikato), Major Closey.8 Headquarters Company, under Captain Hedge9 and page 5 composed mainly of specialists from all provincial districts, could not of course be given any territorial designation. The company commanders grouped their platoons on the geographical pattern so that, wherever possible, those who had been neighbours in time of peace might not be separated when they marched to war.
The troops were quartered in well appointed but somewhat overcrowded huts, and when an epidemic of mild influenza broke out in mid-June it spread rapidly. All things considered, discipline had been excellent during the first month, but a sense of grievance arose when all leave had to be cancelled—a grievance which a large number of men chose to redress on their own account by going absent without leave. The supposed injustice loomed larger in face of the fact that another unit had allowed its men leave in spite of the ban. No visitors were allowed in the camp. The weather had broken and June was miserably wet. When the camp hospital was full to overflowing, auxiliary hospitals were opened at the Ellerslie racecourse, and students from the Teachers' Training College were sent away to make room for the sick. It was a time of stress which gradually ended as the weather improved and more advanced field operations replaced the dull grind of preliminary training. Route marches, field schemes, ceremonial parades, night operations, marching in respirators, defence and concealment from aircraft—these were exercises which had some air of reality in their performance.
Reality and purpose were further emphasized when final leave began on 1 August, and a flood of rumour was unloosed. The issue of drill uniforms pointed to some tropical country as a destination. No conjecture seemed too unlikely. The time between final leave and embarkation was a period of suspended animation interspersed with ceremonial parades and farewells to friends and relations. ‘We said goodbye on two successive weekends’, says the battalion diary.10 ‘After the third week- page 6 end we didn't bother about goodbye. Strangely enough we went after that.’ The battalion entrained at Papakura on 26 August, and ran the gauntlet southward through stations where crowds were gathered waiting to fill the troops with beer. Te Kuiti had turned out in force, but the train did not stop. At Taumarunui the bagpipes played, the crowd sang songs, and a certain amount of liquor was smuggled on to the train, but temptations occurred less frequently as the borders of the King Country were left behind. Next morning the train passed through Wellington with windows closed and drew up at the quayside. On like occasions in earlier days there had been indignant comments regarding the shamefaced stealth with which our troops slunk away to defend their country, but by now New Zealanders were becoming inured to the demands of security. Thus, with none of the time-honoured pomp and circumstance of departure, 24 Battalion was met by its own advance party and escorted on board the Empress of Japan. The ship's one-time status as a luxury liner had led the men to expect cabins and bunks for sleeping quarters, but she had since been fitted up as a troop transport. Hammocks were certainly a disappointment; and it was felt to be inherently wrong that the ship of an Empire said to rule the waves should be manned largely by a Chinese crew. Before long, however, the China- men became generally popular; not so the hammocks.
The Empress of Japan sailed from Wellington on 28 August together with the Mauretania, while the Orcades, with South Island troops on board, left Lyttelton a few hours earlier and joined the other two ships in Cook Strait. Colonel Shuttleworth had been placed in command of all the troops on the Empress of Japan, and command of 24 Battalion devolved upon Major Mantell-Harding,11 who had arrived at Papakura early in May to take over the duties of second-in-command. The Empress of Japan carried a total of 2635, of which 33 officers and 638 other ranks were from the 24th. Accommodation provided for no more than 2250 and the ship was considerably overcrowded. There were cases of mumps, influenza and measles; vaccination was carried out at sea, and sore arms were not easy to nurse page 7 while sleeping in hammocks. As for training, the chronic shortage of equipment was still in evidence, but now among the other things lacking was space for movement. There were, however, certain kinds of technical instruction which would have required no great space. For instance, even on narrow decks the ways and workings of the Bren gun might have been demonstrated, but there were no Bren guns. For want of greater scope, military activity assumed two forms, one consisting of lectures and the other of physical training and route marches round and round the promenade deck. This latter exercise, though scarcely inspiring, had the merit of keeping the men's feet hard. As for amusement, concerts were arranged, films were shown, and a ship's daily paper called Serial Waves began to appear seven days after leaving port; but sports and deck games were limited by the cramped conditions. Lack of living room led to the continual mislaying of possessions, which entailed the constant recurrence of ‘Lost and Found’ notices in routine orders. Insufficient occupation, boredom, and strange environment were responsible for a number of small breaches of discipline.
The convoy had its first taste of bad weather in the Australian Bight, but after Fremantle the seas were calm and the over- crowding was eased to some extent when troops were given permission to sleep on deck. Bombay, the next port of call, provided most men with their first glimpse of the East, and also with the less fortunate experience of having their money changed into a different currency. They arrived on 15 September and were given shore leave. Fascinated by the sights of the great city, they were at the same time dismayed to find that no native shopkeeper would accept the Ceylon rupees into which their money had been changed while on board. Banks and some of the larger stores were ready to convert at face value, but many of the soldiers fell among native money changers who charged a commission of anything up to seven per cent. All these transactions entailed much coming and going—an unnecessary annoyance and waste of time for which some of the troops applied their own remedy by overstaying leave.
Meanwhile the affairs of the convoy were not without complication. page 8 Troops from the Mauretania and Orcades were being transferred to the Ormonde and Orion, but conditions on the former vessel were such that the men refused to allow her to sail. Before arriving at Bombay Shuttleworth had been warned that his men should be ready to disembark, but on arrival he was informed that two Forestry companies only, numbering in all 324, would leave the ship. This was satisfactory in that the Empress of Japan would have been left with approximately the number for which her accommodation provided. While in port, however, Shuttleworth was told that the Forestry companies were to be replaced by no fewer than 600 men of another formation. In view of the fact that the hottest and potentially most dangerous part of the voyage was yet to come, the intention expressed was positively alarming, and Shuttleworth, supported by a strong protest sent by the ship's Medical Officer to the embarkation medical authorities, refused to accept the additional 600. Eventually he consented to receive 65 men only in place of the Forestry companies. In the light of what followed it seems that his action was fully justified. The diminished numbers on board made it possible to provide more sick- bay accommodation, which was soon filled up when cases of measles, mumps and tonsilitis, in numbers greater than any hitherto, broke out while crossing the Indian Ocean.
Ten very hot days after leaving Bombay, the Empress of Japan arrived on 29 September at Port Tewfik, the convoy's destination. Next day the battalion disembarked and moved by rail to Maadi Camp, near Cairo. Having arrived in darkness, the men had no idea of their surroundings until dawn broke and revealed a vast camp, several miles in extent, overlooking the Nile valley—‘a blurred maze of tents and huts staggered to present a difficult air target’.12
Another of the ever-recurring demands of active service was now made on the troops' capacity to adapt themselves to a new environment. The tents were sunk below sand level, and sand was an all-pervading substance. It was not actively aggressive, however—a claim which could hardly be made on behalf of the flies. The men had received copious warning of what they might have to fear in the nature of sickness. A numerous array page 9 of prohibitions instilled into their minds by medical authorities held out the threat of a perpetual menace, and the selection of dread diseases to which carelessness might render them liable made a formidable list. To a major degree flies were the agents of infection, and flies were ubiquitous.
Not least among the problems which confront the creators of a citizen army is that of deciding to what extent natural initiative and self reliance shall be made subservient to discipline. Even under the best regulated conditions, periods of intense boredom are inseparable from life on active service; and it is during these that men are most prone to perpetrate minor offences (which the Army in its wisdom describes as crimes) by way of protest against restrictions which gall their sense of independence. As a counter measure authority finds itself obliged to regulate, by an endless series of prohibitions, the behaviour of men who, as individuals, would be perfectly capable of ordering their own lives wisely. The case in point may be illustrated by quoting a few of the warnings and injunctions which appeared from time to time in 24 Battalion's routine and administration orders. While at sea troops must not collect pieces of the ship's cutlery, silver, or crockery as souvenirs. They must not use the ship's wash-basins for washing their socks, and they must be careful to remove their false teeth before being sick over the side. While in Egypt they must not refuse to pay tram fares, nor should they raise violent objection to producing their pay- books when requested to do so by the Military Police, or give fictitious names. They must not wear Egyptian tarbooshes when walking out in the streets, and they must—the importance of it was continually being emphasized—salute all officers of other corps and nationalities.
Naturally enough, offences less trivial than those mentioned above were committed—especially after first arriving in Egypt, when the men had plenty of money brought over from New Zealand—and the nature of these offences may be inferred from the orders designed to check them. Only a few days after the landing at Port Tewfik it was found necessary to publish a forthright warning that the ingenious excuse that liquor had been drugged would on no account be accepted as valid in cases of drunkenness. As to gambling, it began on board the transport page 10 and was prosecuted, with what can only be described as admirable perseverance in the face of every discouragement, throughout the whole course of the war. Some concern was aroused during the early Egyptian period when it was discovered that certain Crown and Anchor bankers had remitted sums of several hundred pounds to New Zealand. The hollow thunder of official denunciation rolled over typewritten sheets, but the gravest admonitions, even when issued by the highest military authority, were not competent to deal with a prevalent national disorder.
Indissolubly linked with the incidence of conduct, good or bad, were the provisions made for recreation and amusement. In Maadi Camp were the NAAFI and YMCA huts, and one cinema which was invariably overcrowded. The camp was only some ten miles from Cairo. Leave was granted on a generous scale, and camp and city were connected by a diesel railcar service. In Cairo, before the New Zealand Forces Club came into existence in February 1941, there were only British forces clubs, but for those with more catholic tastes there were restaurants, bars, and cinemas. With their own country so poor in antiquities, the New Zealanders took a special interest in the historic monuments which are Egypt's unique possession. Visits to historic sites were arranged by several of the clubs, and civilians with special knowledge offered their services as guides. A certain loquacious but well-informed Mr. Goldhaber organised special tours for the New Zealanders, and Egyptian drago- men were always ready, for a consideration, to ‘impart a minimum of incredibly inaccurate information’.13 Sports equipment, being an ordinary requirement of peacetime rather than a special necessity of war, was in fairly good supply. Cricket was organised almost immediately after arrival and an opening match played against 25 Battalion. Later on, in cooler weather, a football committee was formed, but conditions for this game, which has its origin in colder, wetter climates, were by no means ideal, and when the first match was played early in December the players were immediately enveloped in a cloud of dust. Hockey and basketball both had their followers, and there was a nine-hole golf course on the outskirts of Maadi page 11 Camp. Books were scarce. Small bookshops were attached to the Naafi units and there was a library at the central YMCA, but these were not adequate to cope with all demands. Bab el Look, a battalion periodical edited by Lieutenant Halstead,14 was brought out on 15 January, but most unfortunately, from the historian's point of view, it was not continued after the first number.
More serious work was afoot and intensive training began at once. Colonel Shuttleworth lost no time in pointing out to his battalion that ‘The inevitable result of the voyage has been a deterioration in the standard of drill, bearing, and general appearance of all ranks’,15 but, being either unable or unwilling to see themselves as others saw them, the troops still preserved a rather unjustifiably exalted idea of their own smartness. Sixth New Zealand Infantry Brigade, formed of the newly arrived 24, 25, and 26 Battalions, was reviewed by Lieutenant- General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, GOC-in-C British Troops in Egypt, on 12 October. Realising, in all probability, that the men were but recently landed, Wilson was not critical, but when Brigadier Barrowclough16 took over command of the brigade a week later he inspected 24 Battalion, and afterwards, in brief but incisive language, dispelled any illusion the men might have entertained as to their soldierly bearing on parade. Thoroughly roused, all ranks bestirred themselves. Much drilling and hustling brought about a complete transformation within an incredibly short space of time, and when on 25 October the battalion marched past Mr. Anthony Eden, then Secretary of State for War, and General Sir Archibald Wavell, GOC- in-C Middle East Forces, there was nothing but praise for its performance.
Shortage of equipment was still acute, but Shuttleworth, having protested vigorously on a former occasion at being required to make bricks without straw, now warned his men page 12 that they would have to rise superior to all material deficiencies. ‘The attitude that duties cannot be carried out because the full scale of equipment has not been provided is a defeatist one. In war, full scale equipment will be the exception.’17 Resort was had to a variety of expedients, and the troops, like an audience at a Chinese play, were called upon to use their imagination in recognising objects and situations that did not actually exist. The generosity of British units, who showed themselves ready to lend whenever possible, was a great help in the early stages.
For reasons already given the results of range firing at Papa- kura had been unsatisfactory, so the course was fired again in Egypt by all who had not qualified as first-class shots. Those who had done so fired battle practices, and 74 men were specially chosen to be trained as snipers. Every man in the battalion was required to fire the light machine-gun course. At first only three two-inch mortars were available, and the few experts in this weapon gave instruction to the NCOs of each company in turn, so that they might be ready to instruct the rank and file as soon as full issues should be made. The same procedure applied to anti-tank rifles. In fact, no pains were spared to ensure that every man knew how to use all weapons which infantry might be called upon to employ, so that these weapons might never be rendered ineffective by heavy casualties among specialists.
This was an age when for the most part armies moved rapidly on wheels, yet dared not depend unduly on a means of locomotion of which they might be suddenly deprived by the chances of war. Infantry was still infantry and, as such, had to be prepared to cover great distances in time-honoured fashion. With this in view, ‘Very long route marches were a feature of training. Beginning on a modest scale, they were increased in length until, by the end of December 1940, marches of twenty miles or over were at least a weekly occurrence. It was found that desert marching tended to leave the feet soft, and about the middle of January 1941, instructions were issued by HQ NZ Div for all units to include in their training programme road marching on the tar sealed roads of the Nile Valley.’18page 13
Meanwhile, as supplies began to arrive in ever-increasing quantities, the preparations for war grew more nearly to resemble the reality of war itself. If interest had ever slackened on the parade ground, it revived in the course of field operations. More and more time was devoted to field training, especially after the battalion moved from Maadi to Helwan Camp on 11 December. First by companies, then as a battalion and finally as a brigade, the troops were inured to conditions under which it was supposed they would actually fight in the near future. The exercises laid down for performance, of which we may mention a few examples, comprehended a wide and varied field of operation. Under the direction of the New Zealand Engineers, 24 Battalion made a night crossing of the Nile with portable assault bridges and light assault boats, while the instructors fired explosive charges on land and water to give some slight imitation of an enemy barrage. Afterwards the engineers gave a demonstration of ferrying Bren carriers across the river on heavier craft. Then, for five days, 6 Brigade went out into the desert on manoeuvres designed not only to train the rank and file but also to test the administrative capacity of commanders and staffs. Mock attacks were made on the columns by low-flying planes of the RAF. In columns of motor transport the brigade practised moving in desert formation, with flank guards thrown out and tank-hunting parties organised to deal with the light armoured vehicles of the Divisional Cavalry, which acted as a hostile force. A large wadi, representing the sea, was crossed at night by 25 Battalion, which landed on an open beach—in this case the wadi's further bank—and established a bridgehead. The 24th and 26th Battalions then moved through to capture an imaginary port, carrying all their fighting equipment and manhandling their anti-tank guns across wide stretches of desert. This was indeed the image of war, but perhaps the nearest approach to reality was reached on 21 January 1941, when 24 Battalion carried out an attack with live ammunition and live artillery support. First the men lay under cover while guns laid down a barrage on enemy positions. The barrage lifted. The infantry advanced. Bren carriers with light machine guns gave covering fire from a flank, and mortars came forward to blast enemy pockets of page 14 resistance. Finally the infantry made their assault with bayonets fixed and Bren guns firing from the hip. Nothing was lacking from conditions of actual warfare except an enemy who was also using live ammunition.
3 Quoted in 24 Bn diary.
8 Lt-Col R. V. Closey, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Papatoetoe, Auckland; born Bury, England, 14 Nov 1897; builder; OC NZ Reception Depot, Mar-Oct 1941; OC 1 NZ Fd Maint Unit, Libya, Nov 1941-Apr 1942; OC 1 NZ PW Repat Unit, Italy, 1945.
9 Lt-Col S. J. Hedge, ED; Paeroa; born Waiuku, 25 Nov 1896; chemist and optician; Wellington Regt 1 NZEF 1917-19; 2 i/c 24 Bn 30 Nov 1941-15 Jan 1942; CO Northern Inf Training Depot Mar-Apr 1942; CO NZ Reception Depot Feb- May 1943; CO 1 Bn Hauraki Regt 1944-49.
10 Kept while the battalion was in New Zealand, before the official war diary was begun.
12 Bab el Look, 24 Bn magazine.
13 Notes to 24 Bn chronology.
15 Training directive, 24 Bn, 7-12 Oct 1940.
16 Maj-Gen H. E. Barrowclough, CB, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US), Croix de Guerre; Auckland; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915-19 (CO 4 Bn); commanded 7 NZ Inf Bde in UK, 1940; 6 Bde, 1 May 1940-21 Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in Pacific and GOC 3 NZ Div, 8 Aug 1942-20 Oct 1944.
17 Training directive, 24 Bn, 17 Oct 1940.
18 Notes to 24 Bn chronology.