CHAPTER 10 — THE ROAD TO TUNIS
THE ROAD TO TUNIS
ON the long journey from Alamein to Tunis conditions did not permit any regular routine for chaplains. Time and again Sundays would be fully occupied in battle or in travelling, and there were few static intervals when religious and recreational activities could be arranged in the evenings. For some units of the Division there was a short pause for garrison duty at Mersa Matruh and a longer pause at Bardia to rest and reorganise.
In the attack behind El Agheila in December 1942 Padre Bicknell was wounded and was eventually evacuated to New Zealand. As the firstchaplain to represent the Salvation Army he had a long record of steady, conscientious work, for which he received mention in despatches. From Alamein onwards he had been serving with the 24th Battalion.
After the action at Nofilia there was a halt of several days, during which it was possible to make adequate arrangements for the Christmas services before the long desert advance was resumed. In time this travelling life came to have its own clearly marked routine. In the brigade groups the chaplains were able to look after their own units and the other smaller groups that were attached. When Sundays were fully occupied with material affairs it was often possible to hold Church services during the week, and whenever an attack was imminent short pre-battle services would be arranged and Holy Communion administered.
But much of the time was spent in travelling in convoy in desert formation with each vehicle two hundred yards from the next. During the halts the chaplain might wander off visiting, but he always had to keep on the alert as it was never certain whether a halt would last for ten minutes or twenty-four hours.
With the ASC
There was one group of chaplains who spent their whole time travelling and never, or at least very seldom, enjoyed the privilege of living in one fixed spot. These were the chaplains attached to the NZASC. At first Padre Jamieson was chaplain for the Reserve page 69 Mechanical Transport Company and the three other ASC companies, but in Syria an extra chaplain was appointed and Padre Jamieson remained with the Reserve Mechanical Transport Company. Later a chaplain was appointed for each of these three companies— Supply. Petrol, and Ammunition—bringing the total to four, and among them they covered the smaller NZASC units such as the Tank Transporter Company, etc.
To the outside world the ASC was a strange tribe which seemed to consist of laconic individuals permanently tied to the driving seat of big trucks, with no apparent entity or attachment other than to their vehicles. But the ASC had a unit life as real as it was strong. Certainly its members were well dispersed and their lives spent in perpetual travel, for there was always someone or something in urgent need of transport. The chaplain had much to do in keeping in touch with a scattered flock and learning their special hardships and interests.
There was plenty of danger, for supply convoys were a favourite target for air attack, and it was never pleasant to contemplate an explosion near ammunition or petrol. Moreover, it was often necessary for one of these trucks to stay for long periods in the battle area until its contents were needed, which meant that the drivers had the unenviable duty of being on the battlefield without any set tasks to occupy the anxious periods of waiting. The ASC chaplains came to appreciate these conditions and to play their part in this specialised gipsy life. Their constant travelling supplied many opportunities for such extra work as services with small units and visits to the dressing stations.
By the time Tripoli was reached the Division was beginning to get very tired; the chaplains, too. were feeling the strain. On being invalided home before the break-through at Alamein, Padre Moore. Senior Chaplain at Divisional Headquarters, had been replaced by Padre Jamieson. He in turn was followed by Padre Buck, who arrived when the Division was at Tripoli.
A short course for chaplains arranged by the latter in a comfortable hotel in Tripoli took the form of a series of lectures interspersed with periods of devotion and rest. At this time many page 70 New Zealand Roman Catholic soldiers joined their comrades in the Eighth Army at a Solemn Mass of Thanksgiving in Tripoli Cathedral.
One important subject received close attention from the chaplains in Tripoli. This was the problem of prostitution, the dangers of which every army has to face. It is the duty of the medical authorities to do their best to protect the soldier from venereal diseases, though on several occasions in the early months of the war the chaplains had objected to the tone used by some doctors while lecturing on this subject. Tripoli had been the Axis base in North Africa and it was said that the disease rate in the town was very high. In a talk with Padre Buck, General Freyberg said that he wanted the chaplains to give this subject special attention. The chaplains appreciated the spirit of this request from the GOC, knowing that he was as deeply concerned about the spiritual dangers as those of health.
For many reasons it was considered undesirable to handle this subject in sermons on Church parades, and it was felt that a clear-cut statement of the fundamentals of the Christian faith, not ethical lectures, was the best answer to moral problems. This meant that the chaplains would have to be given some time on the normal daily syllabus, and, after much consideration, a series of weekly lectures was planned and arrangements made to cover every Army unit, with the Roman Catholics speaking to their own men. But alas for well-laid plans. No sooner had the first lecture been given than the Division was once again on the move. However, the chaplains had achieved something, for the Divisional authorities had unconsciously approved the system of ‘Padres' Hours’
The Padre's Hour
In the British Army an experiment was bearing fruit. Once a week the chaplain was given the opportunity of speaking to the men of his own denomination on a religious subject in the ‘King's time’, that is inside the daily training syllabus. The scheme had been thought out carefully and many very helpful pamphlets had been written. The chaplain never spoke to more than forty or page 71 fifty men at the same time so that a good discussion could follow the talk. In the 2nd NZEF some chaplains, with the permission of the commanding officer of their units, had given occasional lectures, but it was not till the very end of the war that the Padre's Hour found its official place in the life of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
The short and pleasant stay in Tripoli was interrupted by the sudden move to Medenine, and once again the long caravan set out into the desert. Desert life had become almost second nature, and by now the chaplains were thoroughly experienced, ready to seize every opportunity for religious ministrations, though philosophically prepared to take the barren periods with calmness.
Three chaplains had unusual jobs. These were the men posted to the Anti-Tank Regiment, the Anti-Aircraft Regiment, and the Machine Gun Battalion. In action these units were constantly split up and posted to different brigades, making it almost impossible for the chaplain to minister to all his men. At one time in Syria it was suggested that these units did not need chaplains, but each had a full muster of men and quite as much unit spirit and corporate life as any other, and the work of the chaplains was appreciated. One of them, Padre W J. Thompson,1 was mentioned in despatches while serving with the Anti-Tank Regiment.
The Wounded in the Field
In action these three chaplains reported at the Advanced Dressing Stations as soon as an attack was expected and took their places alongside the Roman Catholics, staying there while the battle lasted, It was work of great value and intense activity. All through the night of an attack and all the next day the doctors worked continuously till the last wounded man had been treated, and in this period the chaplains were constantly on their feet. They met each ambulance and talked to each man. Sometimes they stood by the stretcher as the doctor dressed a man's wounds, or else they went off to another tent where the men lay after treatment. Their time was fully occupied in giving religious ministration or in little acts of page 72 personal kindness, which varied from carrying a stretcher to promising to send a cable. And of course there were the inevitable burials. Although it was sometimes suggested that, where possible, all the dead should be sent back to the dressing stations for burial, this was seldom done. The advantages would have been the concentration and careful marking of graves and the avoidance of funerals within range of enemy shellfire.
Casualty Clearing Station
Farther back with the Main Dressing Station there was usually at least one chaplain, and there was always one permanently attached to the Casualty Clearing Station, where the more serious operations were performed and patients kept till they were fit for the journey to the hospitals. Padre H. F. Harding2 served longest with this unit and for his work was awarded the MBE. Often before some critical operation he would strengthen a man with prayer and sometimes stood by his side in the operating theatre as he received the anaesthetic.
The Divisional Cavalry
While the wounded were receiving treatment and sympathetic care in the rear of the battle, the Eighth Army was being led towards Tunis by the light tanks and Bren carriers of the Divisional Cavalry- Padre Taylor served continuously with this unit from Greece to Cassino and he was one of the best known and most respected chap lains in the Division. His conscientious and courageous pursuit of duty was cloaked by an exuberant and lighthearted friendliness. He found time to take services with many isolated groups of soldiers and was always welcome, even with those hard-bitten men, the New Zealand Engineers!
In his own unit, where he was affectionately known as ‘Harry Kaitaia’. he had very great influence and there was seldom a time when he did not know the name and face of every man in the regiment. He was untiring in his visiting and organising, and on occasions a great and outspoken preacher. Gradually he made his position in battle an established tradition which was widely appreciated by the troopers and officially approved by the Colonel. page 73 A short distance behind the first line of skirmishing Bren carriers and light tanks came the chaplain, often some two miles ahead of Regimental Headquarters. He travelled in a Bren carrier, which had been specially allotted to him. with a medical orderly and a Red Cross flag. At night he took his place with the advanced laager, and in the early light of the morning nearly all would be present as he took prayers or celebrated Holy Communion.
Padre Taylor was wounded on the way to Tunis but refused to go back. The only time that he was seen to be frightened was on one occasion when his colonel sought him out and said, ‘I will put you on charge if you don't wear this,’ and he pinned a medal ribbon to his shirt. This was the first intimation he had of the immediate award of the DSO; he was the second chaplain in the war to receive this decoration. Padre Taylor's friends in the Department often accused him of believing that there was no more important unit in the war than his beloved ‘Div. Cav.’. and certainly his regiment believed that there was no other chaplain like him; and they were right.
End of Tunisian Campaign
The fighting round Takrouna and Enfidaville was some of the fiercest that the Division saw; coming at the end of a very hard year, it made great demands on stamina and endurance. For his work in the long campaign from Alamein to Enfidaville a Military Cross was awarded to Father Kingan of the 6th Brigade. Father Kingan had originally been attached to the 26th Battalion, where he was greatly beloved. With the doctor. Sam Rutherford,3 and later the YMCA secretary, Geoff, Gray, he formed a remarkable team in that unit. Their friendliness, courage, and devotion to duty as they cared for the spiritual and material needs of the men had a profound influence on the battalion. Father Kingan was widely known and respected by all denominations in the 6th Brigade, in which he served with valour and distinction from the time that he was posted to the 26th Battalion in 1941 till the day when he was seriously wounded in an Advanced Dressing Station in Italy.
All the chaplains were tired in this last battle in North Africa, but many were refreshed by a welcome visit from Padre McKenzie who searched them out in the front line and comforted them. For a year the Division had endured constant action, movement, and stress, and it was only natural that the men should be thoroughly tired at the end although some of the chaplains considered that more could have been done to keep them fresh. The chaplain was in an ideal position to know what the troops were thinking, for like the civilian policeman he appeared to wander around and watch people working. He normally enjoyed the confidence of senior officers, and thus knew the inside story of many matters of policy and strategy; his daily visiting and personal interviews made him well acquainted with the hopes and fears of the other ranks, while his frequent contact with brother chaplains gave him a good general picture of the life of the Division.
Many chaplains considered that morale was a subject that did not receive proper attention, believing that the spiritual and mental happiness of the men were sacrificed for physical health. The welfare services supplied by the YMCA and the Church Army were excellent and owed much to the splendid co-operation of the Army authorities. The Army Postal Service delivered mail with unfailing regularity to all places and on all occasions, and letters from home, whether received at Base or in the middle of a battle, were very important in maintaining morale. The supply of radios, army newspapers, bands, and concert parties did much to keep the men bright and alert, but more could have been done. The modern civilian soldier has a background of education and mental activity unknown in earlier wars, and unless these intellectual appetites are satisfied he will become a prey to boredom and fear. Air Marshal Tedder. Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Middle East, was thinking of this when he asked for the formation in Cairo of that successful club known as ‘Music for All’. where cultural magazines and classical music were avidly sought by his Royal Air Force sergeants and other servicemen.
In the 2nd NZEF periods between battle were devoted almost entirely to training and physical exercise. The chaplains believed that no daily training syllabus was complete without one period page 75 specially designed to exercise the mind. Quizzes, spelling bees, and cultural lectures would have been better than nothing, and the chaplains believed that such periods could have been arranged with valuable results.
Some of the following suggestions could have been put into practice, but the suggestions are not as important as the implications behind them, namely that the soldiers should have been given much more mental exercise and that this could have been supplied quite easily:
Reinforcements in Maadi should have had some teaching on battle psychology in which some of the following points could have been emphasised:
Most men are frightened in battle, but you don't look as frightened as you feel. It is a man's duty to disguise this fear and keep high the morale of his friends.
The longer you stay in a trench the more frightened you get The best cure for fear is activity.
Night attacks usually appear at the time to be complete failures but next morning things often look a lot better. First reports of an attack are usually absurdly false and pessimistic.
A man has usually greater reserves of nervous energy than he thinks and the use of this extra bit wins battles.
Training should include one or two lectures on Army organisation so that the soldier could appreciate what contingencies cause the normal and infuriating succession of cancelled orders. It is hard to see what danger there would be in Base officials and administrators having an opportunity of ‘putting themselves onside’ with the fighting soldier, and it would be invaluable if some exaggerated ideas of muddle and silly ‘red tape’ were thus removed.
Time should be set aside for frequent lectures on war aims and world events. It was frequently said that the New Zealander is too wise to be fooled by propaganda, and this is largely correct: but this very wisdom would have helped him to enjoy the truth when it was ably expressed. Such lectures would depend for their success upon the right men being found to give them: those who possessed the two essential talents—knowledge of a page 76 subject and the ability to speak in public. Men of this type were rare, very rare, but they did exist and with care a good team could have been found. For example, there was in the Division a history lecturer from Otago University who could give really inspiring lectures on the growth and constitution of the British Empire, lectures which crowds of men attended in their spare time. There was a foreign correspondent from a great newspaper who could speak on world affairs, and an Artillery officer who had worked in a Russian factory. These men could always get packed audiences for evening lectures, but their talents should have been used throughout the whole Division in the daily syllabus. Their success would have depended entirely upon their gift for public speaking for the soldier had his fill of dull instructors, though one brilliant exception was Major Jasper Maskelyne, of the British Army, a well-known figure on the London stage. His lectures on security to New Zealand troops were extremely witty and packed with valuable information.
There was room for a system of informal talks describing the different aspects of the war effort. In this instance a high standard of public speaking would not have been necessary, provided there was an opportunity for questions. The ordinary soldier would have been interested and cheered if he could have heard something of the work of a fighter pilot, of a man serving with the Commandos, the Long Range Desert Group, or with submarines —just to mention a few.
The system of Padres' Hours would undoubtedly have been of benefit to morale.
Urgent overhaul of British Broadcasting Corporation news bulletins should have been demanded, with one programme designed for civilians and another for soldiers. The Libyan debate which followed the fall of Tobruk suggested that we had everything save good Generals. This may or may not have been the truth but it was discouraging information for the troops. Later the BBC set about preparing the civilians for the possible loss of Alexandria and Egypt. Perhaps civilian morale needed such preparation, but it was depressing for the soldiers, fighting in the Alamein Line, to hear that the BBC half-expected them to lose the battle.
The chaplains were convinced that the men should be given some mental training for battle, that they should know what they were fighting for, and that they should enter an attack not only with knowledge of their weapons and physical health, but also with alert minds stimulated and strengthened by regular mental exercise.