Pacific Pioneers: the story of the engineers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Pacific
Chapter Two — Pioneers of the Pioneers
Pioneers of the Pioneers
The general was speaking. The perfect blue of the Fijian sky above was reflected in the flying boat base which had once been peaceful Lauthala Bay. The reef beyond Nukulau creamed monotonously. But the general was thinking of another sky, dark with German planes. He was telling us—almost our first official story—of the invasion of Crete; of a blue sky black with Junkers, of the heavens filled with shooting, and of the men down below with no equipment. It was a hint of what might well happen again, for what equipment did we have? But let the pioneers of the 'Pioneers' speak; we, the 18th Army Troops Company, who blazed the trail of the dark blue pugaree and in fact of the whole NZEFIP in more ways than one.
We go back to 1936. It was then that the defence of Fiji was made her own responsibility. Problems of manpower and equipment were, however, so great that at a conference of New Zealand Chiefs of Staff in 1938 it was considered that the island groups of Fiji and Tonga, each approximately 1,000 miles north of New Zealand, should form portion of the outer ring of New Zealand defence in the likely event of war with Japan. It was therefore agreed that New Zealand should assist these groups by the provision of some arms and equipment. This decision was ratified by a Pacific Defence Conference held in Wellington early in 1939 and attended by representatives of the armed forces from all parts of the Empire. New Zealand was to be held responsible for defence along the line Tonga-Fiji-New Hebrides. It is interesting to note that an appreciation prepared by this conference correctly anticipated the moves made by the Japanese two and a half years later.page 13
The strategic value of Suva as' a naval base in the South Pacific is obvious. It is as naturally the outpost for the defence of Australia and New Zealand as Pearl Harbour is for the western coast of the United States. It is a central point where great ocean routes meet, an important cable and wireless station, with a harbour of sufficient depth of sheltered water to accommodate a large fleet. So it was that with the rapid deterioration of the military situation in Europe, and the 10 years' alliance made by
Japan with the Axis powers in 1940, that the decision was taken to engage more actively in the defence of Fiji. As the result of a visit to Tonga and Fiji by the Chiefs of Staff in July, 1940, immediate arrangements were made to send a force to Fiji. Preliminary arrangements were made for the accommodation of some 300 engineer personnel, and later it was decided to establish a page 14main camp at Samambula with other camps at Namaka adjacent to the airstrip, and at Nausori.
Meanwhile in New Zealand it was rumoured that Churchill, as was only natural, wanted engineers. Everyone was keyed up by the stories of Dunkirk and the engineers were ready to go. The 8th Field Company was formed into two army troops companies, the 18th and 19th. We were all set to sail when, on further deliberations of the Chiefs of Staff, it was decided to attach the 19th Army Troops to the Third Echelon while we, 'the mugs,' were to be sent to Fiji as an adjunct to the newly formed B Force on a construction programme of camp buildings. B Force, consisting of Force HQ, two infantry battalions and a reserve battalion, one field battery, one ASC company, one field company and one field ambulance, with ancillary troops, was embodied in various camps in New Zealand where equipping and training commenced. The force had a final establishment of something over 3,000 men. Because the preparation of camps, prior to the arrival of troops in Fiji, was an urgent necessity the engineers arrived in Fiji within two weeks' time of their formation. 12 October, 1940.
An advanced party was ready with all the work mapped out. Plans had been prepared for such of our more outstanding memorials as the Samambula A and B camps and Borrans, the site chosen for headquarters. With a total strength of eight officers and 280 other ranks we started in. Contracts having been let to local builders also, there were some 500 natives employed during all daylight hours for seven days a week. The Fijian Public Works officials had been most helpful in the earlier arrangements and we found that conditions for working were at least reasonable. There were not many of us at first and the Suva folk welcomed us heartily and opened their homes to us as they were unable to do later on when the full weight of a division descended upon them. Our small company was moreover well divided. We had one section at Nasese where we assisted the PWD in the erection of huts; we had another section 120 miles away at Namaka, and the bulk of the unit centred on a pioneer cookhouse in the guava clumps which were to be Samambula Camp. One by one the huts went up and as they went up we occupied and fitted them. Rudimentary roads began to branch off from the main Suva-Nausori highway, winding around the mango tree page 15belts and overlooking the tongues of mangrove-filled lagoon which smelled their way about the camp site. At Namaka there was not the same need of permanent hutments—a slight difference in annual rainfall of some 50 inches—so again we assisted the PWD to erect tents, with, in time, board sides and flooring.
The handful of engineers had their work cut out to make the necessary reticulation with the Suva town water supply. Piping was, of course, in everlastingly short supply. Then, as each hut appeared from the hands of the carpenters, there was electric Aviring to do; there were the necessary conveniences to be arranged for and general digging to be done to clear the muddy areas into the intersecting gullies. A permanent force HQ had to be prepared. Borran's house commanded a grand view and made a comfortable headquarters, though rather a good target for a bomb. We saw to this weakness very early, however, by starting the construction of an underground battle chamber. We unloaded ships —this purely as a side line. In fact as 'accommodation works' were the order of the day we accommodated ourselves to anything that had to be done in order to make Fiji habitable for New Zealanders. In the brief three months that we spent there a big hole was made in the original programme and on 11 January. 1941, we headed back for New Zealand and our postponed trip to the Middle East.