The Tanks: An Unofficial History of the Activities of the Third New Zealand Division Tank Squadron in the Pacific
III. Motor Transport Field Workshops — And Light Aid Detachments
III. Motor Transport Field Workshops
And Light Aid Detachments
After the arrival, mentioned earlier, of the 37 original members of this unit, which camped at Nasese, gear was sorted and the unit's first repair jobs were undertaken. The site was not only over-populated with mosquitoes, but also, after every shower of rain, a plague of spotted Mexican toads swarmed through the camp. Nasese is in the Suva area, which has an average annual rainfall of 118 inches, and the wet season— December to March—was approaching. Despite the use of duck-boards the mud was already boot-top high after rain; the eastern area workshops were therefore moved, a few weeks page 154after the unit had arrived, to one of the Suva wharf sheds. The new location, being a fruit sorting depot, had surprising advantages. On 10 December B section also left Nasese for Namaka, and four days later they were busy setting up a workshops at Lautoka for servicing units in the western area. In the middle of December; A section changed its living quarters to Samambula, near an Indian village, about three and a half miles from the workshops at Suva wharf. The headquarters staff and store-men of the unit were located in part of a copra store in Suva. and it will be long before they forget the 'copra-bug,' and the smell peculiar to drying copra.
The workshops in Fiji were principally concerned with the maintenance of motor transport, although both sections were called upon to undertake a wide range of mechanical jobs, from making dust-bins to some very fine surgical instrument work. For the first 13 months the unit's two small sections were heavily taxed to cope with the maintenance of the army's vehicles on the island. Mud-covered trucks, driven by inexperienced drivers and hauling heavy army equipment over the metalled and rutted circuminsular roads and in; and out of mud-bound camps, demanded constant attention and servicing. Furthermore, the climate caused rapid deterioration of batteries and electrical wiring systems, and lubrication was found to be necessary after every 250 miles of running. At that time each section had several general mechanics but only one tradesman for each class of repair—that is, one coach trimmer, one autoelectrician, one body-builder, one turner, one panel beater. For this reason and because of the pressure of work, siesta hour, introduced throughout the force to allow men to 'dry out' and reduce skin troubles, could not be applied to the workshops for some time. The difficulty was partly overcome by arrangements with units that their driver mechanics assist with the work when their vehicles were brought into the workshops, and by having, as far as possible, an experienced permanent driver allotted to each vehicle. As early as July 1941 the workshop reports showed that many of the vehicles, which were not new when sent to Fiji, had covered well over 20,000 miles. From the outset, therefore, the two field workshops had a heavy servicing programme ahead of them.
A section was ready to move into a new workshop at Samambula in February 1941. The building had extensive floor space page 155and was constructed of corrugated iron, bolted to heavy steel girders set in concrete foundations. A truck-full of workshops men proceeding to lunch on 20 February reached Samambula after a hectic trip from Suva. It was the day of the hurricane and the journey had been a tortuous one, with the truck dodging wreckage all the way, including a large coconut palm which crashed immediately in front of the vehicle and was cleared away by sappers. The last few yards revealed what was, to these men, the saddest sight of all. Not only were huts twisted and clothing scattered, but the substantial new workshop lay completely flattened on the ground. The same evening, when a large building caught fire, the men had to remove all their belongings to safty, in case the fire spread. It was late in May before the structure was rebuilt and the unit at last moved into a properly laid out workshop of its own. The occasion was celebrated with a unit dinner held at the Grand Pacific Hotel, Suva. Members of the unit remember, with gratitude, the assistance of the Government officials—Mr. Ackland and his staff—while the section worked for seven months, under difficulties, at the improvised workshop at Suva Wharf. They also recall the Fijian handy-man with his swarm of cats at 'meat-time,' and the nine-foot shark they landed—a vivid reminder that Suva Harbour was infested with them and was unsafe for swimimng.
During March and April the combined effects of the climate and of long hours resulted in a steady drain on the unit's manpower, and there were many marchings out to the convalescent depot on Nukulau Island. In May, hot showers were installed, to help remove the grease after the day's work. The unit's OC, Captain Simmiss, in addition to his efforts to increase the staff, planned constantly to release the men from the confinement of workshops' surroundings, and launch excursions, 'wog-waggon' trips, and sports activities were encouraged. The men subscribed 2/6 each out of their pay, each pay-day, and built up a small fund for these outings. The scheme was assisted on 29 May by the arrival of 37 men from New Zealand, and although 23 of the older hands left Fiji later, the net increase of 14 men lessened the work of the original men of the unit. Additions to equipment consisting of an air-line, several electrical units, a new ramp, and greasing equipment all helped to speed up repairs and maintenance. A party of 14, including Warrant-Officer J. L. Loner- page 156gan, and Sergeants S. Williams and W. de Rouffinac, returned to New Zealand for duty in August 1941, when Warrant-Officer W. M. Kershaw, Sergeants J. S. Jamieson, P. R. Kenyon and A. Holebrook, and ten other ranks arrived in Fiji to join the unit.
Between 'southerly busters' at the crowded Garrick Hotel, men on leave from the eastern area workshops found much that was of interest in Suva. Indian cobblers, squatting on their haunches, made oriental sandals which many of the men bought, and hand-made European shoes. Like the Indian tailors who made excellently cut khaki shirts and shorts, they worked in the front part of their shops, assisted by 14 or 15 year old boys who were just as skilled, apparently, as their fathers. Indian women, wearing ornate jewellery and brightly coloured saris, walked gracefully by in the streets, past fuzzy-haired Fijian policemen, whose precise marching contrasted strangely with their sulus and bare feet. When men from the unit visited 'All Nations Street' in Suva, they found themselves at the heart of this cross-road of the Pacific. Squatting beside their wares in the market-place were Fijians, Indians of many castes, Eurasians, Rotumans and some whose race was difficult to determine. A nearby street filled the air with spiced odours from the back-alley cooking of dishes that had a dim origin somewhere in Calcutta. Laid out neatly on the ground, sometimes on native mats or giant banana leaves, with just enough room to walk between them, were the curious, unfamiliar 'groceries' of native life. Much of the merchandise had been brought there in heavily laden canoes, which were moored in the evil-smelling canal-like stream that flanked one side of the market place. In the early morning on market days these small craft could be seen on the harbour making their way in towards the river mouth, often assisted by a spare, brightly coloured sulu hoisted temporarily as a sail. As this was invariably taken down as the craft approached the Suva shore, there was reason to doubt whether it really had been a spare sulu, or whether it was the canoeist's one and only. The sights of the market place are well worth a visit. At one end of the street is the wire cage of the fish market, complete with the appropriate smell, heightened by the heat of the tropics; at the other sits an aged Hindu, with a short grey stubble on his yellow shining pate, selling tobacco-twist from a rope-like coil on the pavement. 'Try,' he says. 'Threepence a piece. European like 'im.'page 157
'It looks pretty lousy,' is the soldierly comment, but the Hindu misses the point and answers, 'Oh yes! Stink very good. Try.' The boys of the unit don't think they will, and reply, with exaggerated politeness and subtle emphasis, 'We're not feeling very well today, thank you.'
The men leave the rest of the market with its weird assortment of cockerels, taro, 'ladies' fingers,' crabs done up in bundles of three, tumeric, yams, and small faggots of firewood for cooking, turning to notice, as they pass, an Indian wearing a vivid yellow turban. He sits there with nothing but 24 small chillies spread out in two rows before him, about half of them red, the rest green. They sell at several for a penny, but he will sit there patiently, wearing an inscrutable expression, and bargaining,, until the last chilli is sold.
Following the pattern of the rest of the divisions's heavy programme of trench-digging, grenade and rifle training, and rigid blackouts at camp, the section's activities increased with Japan's sudden entry into the war. Fifty-four men arrived for the unit on 6 January 1942, including Second-Lieutenants R. W. Calder, D. T. Costelloe, H. Jones and Warrant-Officer J. W. Aikman. In March the unit was reorganised as a divisional ordnance workshops. Warrant-Officers Kershaw, Patton and Rowell became second-lieutenants, followed by Captain Simmiss's appointment as major, and on 1 April Lieutenant Signal was transferred from the 8th Brigade to take charge of the eastern area workshops. One hundred and seven other ranks also joined the unit in Fiji, on 12 March. Later in April an exchange of over 40 men was made with infantry units, and Second-Lieutenants Lawson and R. W. R. Johnson became officers in charge of main workshops and western area recovery section respectively.
The establishment of the divisional ordnance workshops was laid down as 226 men, divided into sections as follows: Headquarters and main workshop in the eastern area, with workshops, field work, and recovery sections in each of the two areas, eastern and western. One of the last major undertakings in Fiji was the assembly of 174 trucks. These vehicles arrived boxed, and each truck averaged approximately 40 man-hours to assemble and service ready for the road—a good performance in a Pacific island, without the facilities of a modern assembly plant. B section in Lautoka was quartered partly in a house, with the page 158remaining men living in tents. Many were feeling the effects of vaccination during the setting up of camp. Under Second-Lieutenant A. E. Tilley, Warrant-Officer Rowell and Sergeants J. Enright and S. Williams, the section became the workshops for the western area, from Lautoka to Momi, 60 miles away.
The first ordnance depots in Fiji were based in and around Suva with sub-depots at Namaka and Lautoka
One night, as a change from camp life, some of the section visited a Fijian tra-la-la at Vitongo village, about seven miles from Lautoka. As is usual on these occasions the Fijians had anointed themselves with coconut oil scented with lemon grass. In the village bure, in the heat of the humid February night, the natives danced, wearing sulus and leis of strongly-scented herbs and leaves. The smell of these and of the oil became worse as the evening drew on. As the Fijian orchestra sang and clapped rhythmically, the boys from the unit urged them on, hoping to work them up into a frenzy, but the natives were not to be fooled, and greeted their efforts with uproarious laughter. On another visit to the same village Second-Lieutenant Tilley and Warrant-Officer Rowell sampled a native meal which consisted of turtle soup, ngunga (fish) boiled in coconut milk, baked crab served in the shell with grated coconut, and small young dalo shoots, or leaves, cooked in coconut milk.
The western area section was added to from time to time as reinforcements arrived in Fiji for the motor transport field workshops. Sergeant I. W. MacFarlane and 13 other ranks joined the section on 5 June 1941, Sergeants A. Holebrook and P. R. Kenyon and four other ranks on 22 August 1941, and Second-Lieutenant H. Jones brought with him 15 other ranks on 6 January 1942. Thirty-one men accompanied Lieutenant H. B. New and Second-Lieutenant Lawson to complete the establishment in the western area on 29 April 1942.
Men who are mechanically minded often form almost a sentimental attachment for certain equipment and vehicles they are associated with over a long period in an isolated location. An amusing instance was the remark recorded by Driver Woodley on the last page of his vehicle running book before leaving the unit for the Middle East: 'Goodbye, old faithful, you have served me well.' Among others who left the section were a number bound for the Middle East, including Sergeants J. Enright and S. Williams.page 160
The camp at Lautoka was in the centre of an Indian settlement and one morning, at 2.30 am, an Indian rushed into the unit's lines shouting, 'Soldier please fire! Soldier please fire!' The men had been having fire drill for camp purposes, using a small fire hand-cart by permission of the Public Works Department. They collected this, and rushed down to a burning Indian cafe, and soon had the fire out. Later in the morning, when the local volunteer fire brigade heard what they had missed, they were very enraged, and there was almost a riot. They said morosely that they had been waiting for a good fire for years. A typical scene, when natives of the district had fish to sell, was the arrival of a Fijian blowing a giant conch-shell, followed by a native carrying a live turtle or some fish. The latter was all one price—one shilling a bundle—and the unit learnt from experience which was the best fish to buy.
When the section moved to Namaka on 8 October 1941 the men took with them some pleasant memories of their ten months at Lautoka. There had been dysentery and septic complaints to contend with, long months of greasy work in the heat, and the recovery of vehicles stranded by floods, at all hours of the day and night; but also there had been some interesting hours off-duty at weekends, swimming at Saweni beach—a half-moon shaped, palm-fringed shore, with the palms leaning out over clear, blue water; a trip to the gold mines 50 miles away, where 3,000 Fijians were employed and where ingots valued at £5,000 each were seen, and an Indian meal on the way home, of curry and roti, the latter being a sort of pancake the flour for which is said to be made from sharks. There was also the occasion when Privates Miles, Coates and Bullen went sea-fishing with some natives, and were missing for three days. A New Zealand air force plane was sent out to search for them, and discovered the party, which had been weather-bound on Vomo Island, making its way home.
Loading landing craft on the beach at Guadalcanal. The equipment littered along the beach is only a small portion of that taken forward by one brigade in action
A bathing party from the Ordnance Depot and workshops on the beach at Guadalcanal. The division's FMC was established on rising ground behind the beach
Men of the Advanced Ordnance Depot ammunition section working at a dump among the coconut palms on Guadalcanal. This dump covered many' acres and contained hundreds of large stacks of ammunition
One of five crocodiles shot in a stream on Guadalcanal. Privates W. Harris and G. Pringle of the Ordnance Ammunition Section, with the trophy.
A view of part of the Advanced Ordnance Workshops in a bush area on Guadalcanal
Second line repairs were carried out in Fiji by the 20th, the 36th and the 37th Light Aid Detachments. These mobile units kept in constant touch with the transport officers of brigaded units and were called upon for repair-work at unit car-parks all over the country. They maintained staff cars, trucks, motorcycles, lighting plants, diesel and petrol compressors and bren carriers, and their breakdown trucks, fitted with a light crane, were often seen 100 miles or more from their camps recovering army vehicles that had met with mishaps or were in difficulties.
As was mentioned earlier in this narrative, the 20th Light Aid Detachment was the first ordnance unit to arrive in Fiji. From 1 November to 17 December 1940 the detachment remained at Nasese camp, and between periods of repair work and physical training there were trips to Suva Point and elsewhere to practise recovering vehicles. A move was made to Samambula on 17 December and on 7 January 1941 Warrant-Officer Gable and four men left for Namaka district to form a section there. This was necessary as the 20th Light Aid Detachment was the only unit of its kind in Fiji at that time. At the end of May 1941 six members of the unit left for New Zealand, and 12 men arrived to join the detachment.
Great stress was laid upon physical training and fitness in this unit, and the detachment's records are liberally strewn with such entries as the: following one for a recreation day: 'Men's feet inspected. Lecture on personal hygiene and tropical infections, and care of the feet. Football, swimming and baseball arranged.' Then follows a note by the commanding officer: 'Physically the health of the men who have been stationed here for eight months is very good, and shows that fit men are able to stand up to tropical conditions. Sport and vigorous exercise have, in my opinion, played a big part in keeping the men in good health.' It was also important to rest long enough each day to allow the air to dry the skin. This proved to be the best deterrent for ever-present fungus troubles of the skin. In Fiji it was usually possible to rest, wearing little or nothing, for an hour at the hottest part of the day. Without this precaution, even the most up-to-date treatment for skin complaints was slow and sometimes ineffective. Sandals were issued by ordnance, and page 162these enabled troops to discard boots, puttees and hot woollen stockings when in camp off duty.
The detachment was represented at the force sports meeting in May 1941 by Private M. L. Stephens, who won the 100 yards army championship, and Warrant-Officer Gable was a member of the Suva rugby team which played against Namaka. When Second-Lieutenant Signal left for New Zealand in August, the command of the unit was taken over by Second-Lieutenant E. J. Sandelin. On 2 February 1942, after the 14th Brigade arrived in Fiji, the section at Namaka rejoined the unit at Samambula. The whole detachment then set up a new camp at Nausori, and was quartered at the Dilkusha Mission, on a small hill overlooking the Rewa River. For several miles inland from this point the river is navigable for small craft, and bamboo rafts, laden with bananas and other native produce, were to be seen moving down stream towards the densely populated delta.
There were several scenes reminiscent of pantomimic comedy while the camp at Nausori was being set up. In the first of these, during the dismantling of a bridge, preparatory to rebuilding it to give access to the workshops, 'acrobats' Jack Buckley and Roy Leask gave an excellent exhibition of an unrehearsed crash-dive when they accidentally fell from the unsupported decking and disappeared, a waving mass of arms and legs, into the stream 12 feet below. The second scene was the familiar burlesque in which the plumber gets into difficulties and ends up in an indescribable mess. An oil-burning hot water heater and a bath were being ingeniously rigged up by the unit from scraps of material and piping, in Heath Robinson style, when suddenly a water pipe was discovered in the ground. As no valves could be found, the plug was removed to see whether there was any water in the pipe. There was; and up it went—30 feet into the air. Drenched to the skin, the 'comedian,' Sid Craven, struggled violently against the pressure of water to replace the plug, and a scene in the best traditions of slap-stick comedy was greeted by a gallery of men of the unit—too delighted to assist—who, roaring with laughter, offered ironical applause.
The 36th and 37th Light Aid Detachments which arrived in Fiji in January 1942 shared the work of first line maintenance with the 20th Light Aid Detachment during the last six months of the division's stay in Fiji. Second-Lieutenant D. W. Lawson page 163was the original commanding officer of the 36th, and was succeeded in April by Second-Lieutenant T. H. Beauchamp, who remained in command until the return of the Third Division to New Zealand in July. The 37th arrived under the command of Second-Lieutenant R. W. R. Johnson. These two units, with an average strength of under 20 men each, carried out first line servicing and repairs for the 8th and 14th Brigades respectively. Some of the men, notably Warrant-Officer Hennessy and Privates Robbins, Hewitt and Waters, became experts in diesel and other types of compressor engines. Both units performed excellent work along the lines already recounted in the story of the 20th Light Aid Detachment. Members were usually to be found toiling among wire slings, jacks, ropes and chain-blocks, and working at all hours with their break-down vehicles, but the scope of their activities was apparent also in the maintenance of lighting plants, work at the wharves moving mines with their portable cranes, and in assisting in the installation of freezing-plants.