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The Tanks: An Unofficial History of the Activities of the Third New Zealand Division Tank Squadron in the Pacific

Chapter Two — Some Problems And Observations

page 167

Chapter Two
Some Problems And Observations

This story has been concerned, so far, with the unit-life of the Ordnance Corps in Fiji. No less colourful is the story, which can now be told, concerning several somewhat startling supply problems which confronted the force in Fiji, and the Ordnance Corps in particular. Quite apart from the general allied un-preparedness for war, New Zealand does not, or did not then, make or hold large stocks of war-like stores. No large permanent staff of ordnance specialists was kept in the country 'blue-printing' up-to-date war equipment, as is invariably the case even in peacetime in larger countries abroad. Our troops in the last war, and the Second Division in the Middle East during this one, were almost completely maintained from British Army sources. The troops in the Pacific, on the other hand, were the first major expeditionary force ever to be entirely equipped and maintained (in bulk) from New Zealand. Within six months of Japan's sweep in the direction of Australia and New Zealand the country was faced with the problem! of not only equipping Pacific and home service forces totalling, by July 1942, 200 000 men, but also of procuring from halfway across the world thousands of items ranging from raw materials to arms and specialist technical equipment. At that time New Zealnd's requirements were also subject to a low order of priority, there was an acute shortage of shipping, and Britain required, for her own armies, every ounce of material and equipment she could produce. A striking and typical instance of how Empire-wide shortages affecting ordnance equipment in Fiji were grappled with is contained in Brigadier H. E. Avery's report on the page 168Quartermaster-General's Branch, in which he pays tribute to the British War Office, and to the' excellent, treatment we received at their hands.' The instance quoted is the case of antiaircraft guns. The report states: 'At the end of December 1941 we had a total of four in New Zealand. These were urgently required for the defence of Fiji and were despatched accordingly, leaving us bare—dummies were erected in their place. But almost immediately the War Office shipped us 16 modern AA guns which were specially withdrawn from the London defences to meet our urgent needs. Within 12 months we received a total of 770 AA guns.'

When, for a time, there was a shortage of tentage in Fiji, and when bren guns arrived badly worn—to the grief of the unfortunate armourers of the corps who had to service them— very few of those who were in Fiji knew that these difficulties were largely caused by losses at sea while en route to New Zealand, as well as by the production burden abroad. To relieve a shortage of small arms, rifles were 'impressed' and used in New Zealand, thus releasing standard types for the force in Fiji, and both 2-inch and 3-inch mortars were rushed into production at New Zealand plants. Ammunition for small arms was also in short supply when the division in Fiji was preparing to meet a possible Japanese attack, and on one occasion brigade commanders were limited in a special authority to the expenditure of 'up to five rounds' a rifle for training. Overcoming many difficulties, New Zealand procured the services of an expert from abroad, obtained and installed machinery enabling four manufacturing units to operate double shifts for the production of 303 ammunition, and thus stepped-up' the output from the 1938 pre-war contract level of 3,000,000 rounds to 74,500,000 rounds in 1943. Large quantities of grenades were also made in New Zealand.

A special feature of ordnance supply problems in places like Fiji was the close study of the effects of tropical conditions on equipment and materials. These included, in Fiji, the rapid deterioration of textile materials, such as tentage, and of boots and all leather equipment. It was also found, for example, that rubber-treated linings of steel helmets were affected by the tropical heat, and left a black, gummy deposit on the head of the wearer, and rubber-cushioned fibre linings had to be procured page 169and fitted. The accelerated rate of deterioration of equipment, due to moisture and heat, had to be assessed from actual experience; tentage, with a normal life of from one to two years in dry climates, was found in Suva to be completely unserviceable in some instances within three months, and would last six months or longer on the western side of the Island. Wastage and the ravages of the tropics were combated wherever possible, but it was necessary to keep special records of the issues of many items which had to be budgeted for on a scale widely at variance with the normal army allowances for such replacements in temperate climates, and the experience took, of course, some months to gain. With the serious interruption of supplies of material to New Zealand from overseas, the production of drill clothing was for a long time insufficient to meet all requirements. This difficulty was partly alleviated by the prompt action of Captain Myers, DADOS, who arranged for the purchase and shipment to New Zealand of a large quantity of drill from private Indian importers who received delayed consignments in Fiji.

The complete change-over by overseas manufacturers to standardised war-types of vehicles and accessories left the Pacific force, which had largely to use 'impressed' vehicles, with a wide variety of second-hand transport for which tools and spare parts were no longer procurable. The original tools were either retained or lost by the vehicles former civilian owners, and manufacturers! were no longer making spares for such pre-war types. Ordnance workshops and ancillary maintenance units of the corps waged a constant battle of their own, in Fiji, against the handicap of these unavoidable shortages. Young mechanics, often with a modicum of experience, and some with none at all, applied themselves with the infinite skill and ingenuity for which New Zealanders are known, and maintained and serviced the wide range of light and heavy trucks, armoured weapon-carriers, motor-cycles and other equipment, despite all handicaps. To make intricate spare parts on the spot, often using scrap metals, without any of the lathes and machinery usually employed in their manufacture, meant working long hours, and more than doubled the task of keeping all vehicles on the road. Something of the pride of achievement and the eagerness of these men whose work was vital to the transport of men, food and munitions is discernible from the following entry found in the page 170ordnance workshops records: '18 September 1941. Large convoys have completed the change-over of the 30th Battalion from the eastern side, and the 29th Battalion from the western side. The battalions were scheduled to move simultaneously, one taking the northern route round the island, and the other the southern. Work on the numerous vehicles proceeded at high pressure and when the day arrived there was not one vehicle which had any mechanical trouble.' At the end of their service on the island ordnance mechanical units were able, in spite of all difficulties, to record that throughout 21 months of service in Fiji only one vehicle had to be written off as beyond repair.

During the division's last three months in Fiji there was heavy wear and tear on men and materials, as a programme of defence works was hurried to its completion. Singapore had fallen on 15 February, an allied fleet had suffered severe losses off Bali in an encounterd with a Japanese invasion fleet, and in May the Japanese established bases as far south as Tulagi and Guadalcanal. The United States forces required bases immediately in the South Pacific, including Fiji, and the Third New Zealand Division thus came to be relieved. The news caused the wildest excitement. Only a few men of the corps were to stay behind. Captain New was appointed to command an ordnance workshop section which remained in Fiji, together with the 36th Light Aid Detachment, commanded by Lieutenant Johnson, to maintain the vehicles and equipment of New Zealand units which were not returning and to assist the Fiji Defence Force. Similarly, Warrant-Officer Daken, Sergeant Dodds and Armourer-Sergeant P. Mahony remained to continue with ordnance depot work at Tamavua.

When a division moves, ordnance units are confronted with a heavy task. Base ordnance men set to work packing the depot's stocks, and received additional supplies, including bulky camp equipment, to crate for shipment, from units about to leave for New Zealand. Storage capacity was soon fully taxed. Workshops and other mechanical units assisted with the shipping of vehicles, and further sections loaded transports with ammunition. There was also feverish last minute shopping, with some of the corps planning how to despatch such awkward mementoes as inlaid Indian coffee tables. Indian tailors, long accustomed to putting one off with behan (tomorrow) when asked when a job page 171would be finished, had to be told that behan might be too late; but despite the inscrutable half-smile on their faces it was clear that they had known what was happening before the shrewdest Kiwi had guessed anything—the Indians were like that. Within camp, in the 'fattening pen' at Namaka and in the 'cage' at Samambula, the song of the hour was, 'There's a troopship just leaving Fiji,' This was hardly anti-security because the song was sung after drafts began to sail and, in any case, for the men who had sweated on the island for nearly two years the novelty of Fiji had departed, like the fat on their bones, and nothing could suppress their jubilation at the thought of leaving for home.

Later—much later—when men's memories returned to the Fiji scene, its charm remained; stress and toil were forgotten. Some of the corps recalled weekend trips to beautiful' Levuka, erstwhile capital of the group, on Ovalau Island; a few remembered the strange spectacle of fire-walking; others recollected yoked Indian oxen straining beneath the whip in the mud of the paddy fields, the night-long-singing of Fijians; ripe fruit; warm nights, heavily scented with the fragrance of papaya and frangipane; the swish of bare feet passing in the dark, and the shrill laughter of native girls wearing gaily coloured flowers in their dark hair. Acquaintance with the Fijians was, in itself, an experience few could forget, and wherever men of the corps meet they discuss them to this day. The Fijian's pleasure in living, typified in his splendid physique, and constantly expressed by his uninhibited outbursts of laughter and song, induced wonder and not a little heart-searching in anyone comparing the single-minded happiness of the Fijian with the complex regimentation of western civilisation. To Rupert Brooke, the Fijian was 'like a Greek statue come to life; strong as ten horses. To see him strip and swim a half-flooded river' (he wrote) 'is an immortal sight.' Under a wise British Administration, 100,000 unspoilt natives have been encouraged to live their care-free lives, little affected by the customs of the 4,000 white people in the group, and it was a humbling experience to discover, as Brooke did, that the Fijians were 'so much better-mannered than oneself stronger, kindlier, more hospitable and courteous, greater lovers of beauty, and even wittier than average Europeans.'

Shortly before the departure of the troops for New Zealand enemy submarines had been active off Australia, in the same lati-page 172tude as Fiji, and when a draft which had embarked was waiting to sail one evening in July, an army chaplain, quick to capitalise the situation, addressed the men as follows: 'At the moment the ocean we are about to cross is probably as dangerous as any in the world. We therefore pray for a safe journey; but in case it should be our lot to lose our lives, I would ask you to remember that this mortal life is not the beginning and end of all things, and to be prepared for the life hereafter.' At this, a thousand jaws dropped several inches, and the draft proceeded to New Zealand with thoughts torn between the cool heaven of home and the possibility of a long; hot stay in quite another region.

Most of the Ordnance Corps returned to New Zealand in July or August 1942, and some in September., Few will forget the scene as the liner President Coolidge moved slowly out from her moorings, when sturdy Fijians grouped themselves on the Suva wharf and sang, with inimitable harmony, the slumbrous strains of Isa Lei. They seemed moved at the departure of the division, and sang slowly, and somewhat sadly. If, in the hearts of these people, some chord had been struck by the New Zealander, an echo now returned across the water' in the haunting, full-throated melody of their song of farewell.