The New Zealand Engineers for the most part did not take kindly to military life with its intricate organisation based on tradition, regulation, and restriction. Given their own type of work they were happy, and if initiative, courage, and speed were needed, so much the better. They were individualists, a little army within an army. They submitted but did not take kindly to uniform, rifle drill, and parades, and treated this side of their life as one of the annoying restrictions which war introduced between a man and his work.
The Engineers had no chaplain of their own until 1943. In Base camps they had attended Church parades and individuals had sought the ministrations of chaplains of their own denomination, while in the field they welcomed occasional services from one or two chaplains, such as Padre Taylor, of whom they approved. They were split into many sections inside and outside the Division, and in the early days it had not been possible to post a chaplain to them, nor is it quite certain whether one would have been welcome.
By the end of the Tunisian campaign conditions had changed and the Senior Chaplain was able to find a chaplain for them. In Africa they had suffered many casualties as they laid or picked up minefields. Indeed the many little crosses beside the main road to Tunis recalled the text: ‘They shall prepare thy way before thee’
In Italy their most dangerous duty was the construction of bridges in the battle area, for while the infantry could usually find their own way across rivers, the engineers had to get the armour and transport over. Night after night they followed the rifle companies and, often in the most appalling weather and under severe enemy fire, struggled to make a bridge so that the tanks and supporting arms could cross before daylight.
Their chaplain was Padre J. K. Watson12 who had served in the ranks during the early years of the war. He was an ordained minister of the Methodist Church and was commissioned as a chaplain in 1943. As the engineers were not accustomed to having a chaplain on their strength he had many difficulties, but his commanding officers were helpful and hard work combined with courage bore its inevitable reward. He commanded respect and attention by page 109 consistently working with the most forward troops, and was awarded the Military Cross for splendid work done in the Cassino area.
Bridges were needed in the most hotly contested parts of the battlefield, and the engineers had to work amid shellfire and machine-gun bullets on ground thickly strewn with mines, often subject to attacks by enemy infantry. The long hours of a night would slowly pass with their regular number of casualties, alarms, and setbacks. A sapper might have been excused if he had hoped that his company would not be called upon to go forward more than once or twice in a week, but Padre Watson went forward with every company and never once stayed in B Echelon when the engineers were working in the front line.
In reality the Engineers were like any other group of New Zealanders, having a limited knowledge of organised religion, but at the same time they had a great respect for real character and practical common sense, and it was fortunate that their first chaplain should have been a man of Padre Watson's calibre. His courage, combined with a transparent sincerity and friendliness, made a great impression, and the standard he set for his successors as chaplain to the New Zealand Engineers was very high.