Pacific Pioneers: the story of the engineers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Pacific
Chapter Three — The Story of the Companies
The Story of the Companies
The birthday of the senior Pacific engineer company, the 20th Field Company, coincides with the birthday of that singular body of men known as B Force. B Force and the 20th Field were born on 1 October, 1940, at Papakura. No silver spoon was our lot. From the outset training was limited by the lack of actual engineer equipment, but a solid basis was laid in infantry training and, as the men became acquainted with one another a grand company spirit was built up. Three months of comprehensive bull-ring supplementing the keenness of volunteer recruits was not without its disciplinary toning up, a feature relatively unknown to later, more hurriedly trained reinforcements.
Typical of engineering operations in Fiji were the huge excavations for petrol tanks in Sealark Hill, Suva. Men at work on the floor of one hole arc seen above and at the left. The other picture, shows how the spoil was dumped in Walu Bay
Above: Engineers digging slit trenches in Samambula Camp, Fiji, in December 1941. Below: The tubular steel bridge over By-pass Road which carried spoil from the holes in Sealark Hill. In the photo on the right is shown a patch of dalo with a man among the leaves
By the time that ordnance had replaced some of the fire losses and we had finished clearing up the place it was late May. The Rangatira on 29 May brought the first relief and 60 odd men headed back home to New Zealand. But still we did works and mighty little field engineering training. Of four officers and 138 other ranks at the time in Suva over 100 were engaged on camp page 18maintenance works and hospital buildings. Endeavours to make a specialist training group in rotation around the unit were continually thwarted by the increase in the number of jobs required. This difficulty, along with the paucity of equipment, meant that we remained in the role of army troops and construction workers throughout the major portion of our stay in Fiji. On both the 'wet' and 'dry' sides the same conditions obtained in this respect.
A second relief which came on 21 August, 1941, had had little more field engineer training than the originals. However, it knew how to work. Division of forces between the Namaka and Samambula camps continued, but it became increasingly apparent that with the advent of the Japanese war a stronger grouping was required. On 14 January, 1942, therefore, a further reinforcement having arrived from New Zealand, there came into existence the Western Field Company, under command of Second-Lieutenant M. N. Bishop. This took place on the changing of the 8th Brigade Group into a division. Finally on 6 February, 1942, Mr. Bishop's section was transferred to form, with Major Black as OC, the Field Company, Western Section, under 14th Brigade command. It was later known as the 23rd Field. By a process of dismemberment and reunion the 20th had become the 20th. and the 23rd; and, as twins, each with three officers and 150 other ranks, they continued their workaday existence, squeezing in, as the situation permitted, an occasional titbit of field training.
Then after long agitation for something more suited to the needs of a defence area than two field companies doing a works programme, there appeared towards the end of the Fiji period a third company, scheduled to do works only. This was the primer stage of what was to be, in more spacious days, the 37th Field Park Company. In late May, 1942, a reinforcement draft of four officers and 150 other ranks arrived in Fiji to bring the strength of field companies up to establishment. This draft, after 10 days became officially the 24th Army Troops Company and, having canvassed the non-engineer units for keen workers, finally developed into a lusty child with a total of 194 all ranks—the largest therefore of the three companies in the island. Its equipment was similarly canvassed from such sources as the 20th Field and ordnance, but the greater proportion was obtained from visits page 19paid by officers and quartermasters to the larger and smaller stores in Suva, Since the CRE had issued a priority claim on any tools and equipment to be found, search was made in the darkest corners, under the dustiest shelves and in pokey back rooms with the unmistakable flavour of the pakapoo den. Some of the gear so obtained proved of the greatest value during the whole of the unit's existence. It was not till the spring of 1942 that, after many weary months of gazing out to sea for an American sail beyond Nukulau, we Robinson Crusoes were finally rescued, by the ill-fated President Coolidge, from our island exile.
On return from disembarkation leave we found ourselves among the evergreen of Hilldene macrocarpas and the totaras of Manurewa where our sturdy stock now burgeoned into new and spring-like growth—the Third Division Engineers. Reinforcements from NZE territorial units, who had been carrying out in New Zealand much the same type of work as that done by the older hands in Fiji, began to arrive. To bring units up to war establishment strength of divisional engineers an intake of approximately 50 per cent new personnel was called for. On 2 September the 24th Army Troops became officially the 37th Field Park Company in order to square with rearrangements pending. On 11 September there sprang into mushroom growth at Orford's an entirely new phenomenon, Headquarters 3 Div Engineers. Major Andrew Murray, ex-CRE of 1 Div, now took over. His official appointment was dated 21 September, as also with new appointments made to the command of the companies: Major W. G. McKay to OC, 20th Field; Captain A. H. Johnston to OC 23rd Field, and Captain S. E. Anderson to OC 37th Field Park. The posting of reinforcements, the selecting of an engineer section from our ranks for Norfolk Island N Force, and training programmes were put in hand Endeavours were also made to expedite the delivery of shortages in stores and equipment. By the end of September we had converged from our 'out-at-grass' areas in Opaheke, Manurewa and Hilldene upon E block, Papakura, From our bell tents there on 6 October we marched, with a thirst-quencher at Drury, in the steps of the redcoats 80 years before us. A bivouac at Bombay and another walk to Maunga-tawhiri made us so weary in well-doing that we trucked the rest of the way to that blessed spot of fragrant memories, our concentration area. Te Rapa Racecourse, Hamilton.page 20
It was from Te Rapa that we attacked the Kaimai Hills and it was thence, with equal thoroughness but greater joy, that we 'did' the rounds of Hamilton. Kept up to scratch by full dress pay parades for the new CRE, and the imminent threat of a deadly looking assault course, we yet enjoyed our stay—particularly the race meetings. Continual coming and going of reinforcements prevented any very effective reorganisation until those days in late November when, after mooching about the horseboxes for a re-hash of tropical gear, we headed for the north. The N Force detachment had already left but were destined, for the most part, to return to the fold just prior to our move into action. The near approach of Christmas spirit, however, developed in at least one company a strange reluctance to leave home. Many sappers were a long time catching up or in being caught up with, but time, that great healer, brought most of these other strays back to us again in New Caledonia. There were some more or less fortunate ex-Fijians who, wearied with dusky belles, found themselves finally in the Middle East Forces. Time again re-united the survivors but this time within the ranks of the 'other' division.
From December, 1942, then, we find the engineers in New Caledonia. HQ Div Engineers found a pleasant resting place beside the pool on the Moindah River, adjacent to divisional HQ, and remained there for the Necal duration. The 20th stayed at Népoui for December, then hastened up to pioneer the Taom Valley on 31 December. With the exception of the detachment at Bouloupari they remained there for the rest of the incident, growing gardens and shooting Colonel Dix's cattle and, of course, training. The 23rd, arriving early in January, 1943, ensconced themselves among Néméara's niaoulis, with a belated break at Bonloupari from June to July. They also trained. The 37th Field Park held the fort at Nepoui and unloaded such things as beer and ammunition for the months from January to August, 1943— and trained.
Then one by one we pressed forward to the 'ruthless' war. While advanced parties often preceded the main body the dates which follow here are approximately those on which the different units moved up. Boats and echelons, the units travelled in varied by a week or two.page 21
|Left NZ||Nov. '42.||Nov. 42.||Dec. '42.||Dec. '42.||Sept. '43.|
|Arr. Necal||Dec. '42.||Nov. '42.||Dec. '42.||Dec. '42.|
|Left Necal||Aug. '43.||Aug. '43.||Sept. '43.||Aug. '43.|
|Arr. G'canal||Sept. '43.||Aug. '43.||Sept. '43.||Sept '43.||Sept. '43.|
|Left G'canal||Oct. '43.||Sept. '43.||Oct. '43.||Apr. '44.||Oct. '43.|
|Arr. Vella||Oct. '43.||Sept. '43.||det Oct. '43.||Oct. '43.|
|Arr. Mono||Oct. '43.|
|Left Vella||Feb. '44.||Feb. '44.||det. Feb. '44.||Feb. '44.|
|Arr. Nissan||Feb. '44.||Feb. '44.||det.||Feb. '44.||Feb. '44.|
|Left Nissan||May '44.||May '44.||det. May '44.||May '44.|
|Left Mono||May '44.|
|Arr. Necal||June '44.||June '44.||May '44.||Apr. '44.||June '44.|
|Diet! Necal||July '44.|
|Came Home||Aug. '44.||Aug. '44.||Aug. '44.||Aug. '44.|
The last of the field companies, recorded above as the 26th. had been one of the units of the extra brigade which, it was fondly hoped at the beginning of 1943, would bring the strength of the Third Division up to a full three brigade division. It had, after months of vicissitudes, survived to join the division. Survival, however, was attributable to that something extra above WE which the peculiarities of jungle warfare had proved desirable. The increasingly large amount of work called for from engineers in the new amphibious and jungle warfare had been underlined by the Australian experiences in New Guinea. Operations in the Solomons drove home the lesson. It was as a direct result of information there gained that the additional engineer company was sent from New Zealand; and this in spite of the fact that in all other arms except medical the division was kept on a two brigade basis.
The 26th had first seen the light of day on 12 April. 1943, when three officers and 24 other ranks from the Northern Military District units of engineers were mobilized at Papakura. Within days the company had grown to a strength of a company headquarters and two full platoons. Personnel were gleaned from territorial sapper personnel who for the last 18 months had been feverishly defending New Zealand from the Japs. Full strength was brought up by the survival of a complete platoon ex Norfolk on 31 July, 1943. The ever present leave problem had assumed its proper proportions when on 20 September they gathered themselves together again in Guadalcanal. Another two weeks and they were on Vella Lavella in the thick of it.
Such then, in brief, are the official movements of the company headquarters. Space precludes our enlarging on the flights back from the forward area; on the ambitious airmen who were lucky enough to be allowed to tear themselves away from their 'combat- page 22trained 'cobbers in September, 1943; on the old men and crocks who finally 'made it' and whose departures we followed with our blessings and bunches of sour grapes; and on the final demoli-tionary influence of the manpower draft appeal, 5 April, 1944. On no other single day was the versatility of the average sapper better illustrated than on this last. The manpower arrangement was at least a move in the right direction for a change, and how popular it was is evidenced by the sequel. Between July and August, 1944, the companies were so reduced in numbers 1hat on Le Gere's farm, Bourail, where the stragglers had gathered themselves together it was not long before the 23rd Field became virtually defunct. Nor was the ultimate fate of the rest of the Div Engineers happier. We were shortly home again and on the scrap heap.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum, which put in plain English mentis, 'Concerning the things which are dead and gone let us speak nothing but what is good!'