In Peace & War: A Civilian Soldier's Story
2 — Sailing off to England
Sailing off to England
The ancient Scottish air The Pibroch of Donuil Dhu was chosen as our signature tune by Lieutenant Colonel L W Andrew VC, the original commander of the 22nd NZ Infantry Battalion I served in during the Second World War. Many a weary mile was made bearable by that rousing music played by our pipe band, itself unique in the Second New Zealand Division. The band instruments were presented to the Battalion by Ian Cameron, a Wairarapa farmer friend of Colonel Andrew. He, in turn, was supported with substantial goodwill by Nimmos, the Wellington music dealers from whom the instruments were purchased.
The song refers to an expedition in 1431 when some of my forebears of the Clan Donald put to flight the Earls of Mair and Caithness. The words show the spirit of the Highlanders in those days:page 8
“Pibroch of Donuil Dhu, wake thy wild voice anew,
Come from deep glen, and from mountain so rocky,
Leave the corpse uninterred, the bride at the altar,
Come every steel blade and strong hand that bears one,
Leave the deer, leave the steer, come with your fighting gear.”
What a compelling sense of urgency! Similar, in fact, to the urgency which made me report to the Masterton drill hall, ready to join up, at 7.30 am on the morning after war was declared on September 3, 1939. However, after waiting for an hour and a half for someone to appear, I rode my bicycle disconsolately to work at my father's factory where I was busy making wool presses.
My younger brother Graeme had already left. My last remark to him, when we parted on the Wellington wharf as he was heading for England, was: “Well, I'll see you in a year's time”, and one year to the day later we met by chance in the New Zealand Forces Club in London. In the meantime he had been commissioned as a pilot in the Royal Air Force aged 20 years and I was a 2nd Lieutenant in the New Zealand Division at the age of 22.
My call-up came when the 22nd Infantry Battalion officers gathered at Trentham Camp for a preliminary course in December 1939 to prepare for the arrival of the troops early in January 1940. Our commanding officer, the adjutant and the senior non-commissioned officer were regular soldiers while the remaining officers and some NCOs were drawn from territorial and school cadet units. Several early volunteers from the First Echelon, who had been recommended for commissions, passed out in time to join our course as junior officers.page break
This amusing illustration, colourfully drawn by Nichola Shanley to depict the tale of how our branch of the Donald family became ‘Lords of the Isles’, also features the family coat of arms.
Donald homes in the Wairarapa.
Rotopeko, my family home, with my mother on the right.
The photograph below, taken when the company was later established in Perry Street in Masterton, shows a consignment of 50 woolpresses bound for South Africa. As the company envelope shows, Donald and Sons developed and manufactured a range of agricultural equipment.
Preparing for war.
The entire battalion of some 800 men, with the exception of the three regular soldiers, had volunteered direct from civilian jobs, showing how pitifully short New Zealand was of regular, trained soldiers. We were issued with left over First World War equipment of dubious quality and we lived in lines of bell tents which leaked badly. Expenditure on the armed forces had been criminally neglected for two decades previously by successive governments, the politicians aware they would buy very few votes with spending on defence. Shooting practice was severely restricted as there was little ammunition. The country boys, used to shooting rabbits and deer, and those of us who had been trained in civilian rifle clubs, were able to lift the standard a little by example, but it was not very high. We could not rely on the Army to teach us much. However, plenty of discipline, route marching and physical training gradually moulded us into a workable infantry battalion.
Our four fighting companies of about 120 men each were formed on a regional basis: A company from Wellington; B Company from Wanganui south to Wellington; C Company from Gisborne down to Wairarapa; and D Company from Taranaki. C Company, known as the Hawke's Bay Company, consisted of 13 Platoon drawn from the Gisborne area, 14 Platoon from Hawke's Bay and 15 Platoon from Wairarapa. Each platoon had three sections and approximately 36 men.
As the junior of two platoon commanders from the Wairarapa, I was given 14 Platoon, 36 raw recruits from Hawke's Bay. The Wairarapa Platoon went to Lieutenant Irvine Hart whose uncle, Sir Herbert Hart KBE CB CMG DSO, also from the Wairarapa, had been a dashing young brigadier in France during the First World War. On our first parade I introduced myself to the boys from Hawke's Bay, saying how pleased I was to be appointed to 14 Platoon. I say ‘boys’ a little ironically because really I was the boy and younger than page 10 most of them. Luckily John Ormond (later Sir John) was my sergeant. He was 12 years older than me and it helped greatly that he was well-known and highly respected in the Hawke's Bay community.
They were a fine body of men and I had the privilege of nominating six of them for commissions before we left for overseas. They included Eddie Norman who became commanding officer of the 25th Battalion, and was later Bishop of Wellington and knighted for services to church and community.
In the months of training at Trentham, there was a competition to determine the most efficient company in the battalion and then the most efficient platoon in that company. As reward for my platoon winning the competition, I was proud to lead 14 Platoon at the head of the 22nd Battalion in the final march through Wellington prior to embarkation. There was never another platoon like it — though some may dispute that — and I stayed with them till promotion required me to move on.
Travelling in style aboard the Empress of Britain, the 22nd Battalion, as part of the 2nd Echelon, set sail for the Middle East on May 2 1940 to join the 1st Echelon. Half way across the Indian Ocean, we were diverted, via Cape Town, to Scotland. Plans had changed because of the disaster at Dunkirk, with Britain itself threatened with invasion by the victorious Nazi troops. On arrival in the United Kingdom, we were hailed as saviours by the British press which was looking for every opportunity to boost morale. “Australian and New Zealand troops, fully trained and equipped, coming to help the Mother Country in her hour of need” read the headlines. Fortunately we were never called upon to repel the expected invasion but, instead, had a marvelous time in a friendly country where we were treated like blood brothers and generally thoroughly spoilt.page 11
Soon after we were settled in a strategic location south of London in Kent I was granted overnight leave with one or two other officers to explore the city sights. We went up to London by train with our first call the New Zealand Forces Club. On walking into the foyer I noticed a familiar looking figure walking towards me dressed in RAF blue. I took a second look and, yes, it was my brother Graeme. “Doctor Livingstone, I presume,” I said as we shook hands warmly. In the bar later we worked out that it was exactly a year to the day since we had parted on Wellington wharf.
After a few drinks, Graeme insisted on taking me to his favourite restaurant and on the way out of the club we watched a bizarre incident. Drawn up alongside the kerb outside was a highly polished Rolls Royce with what appeared to be a dowager duchess sitting alone in the back seat. The chauffeur had gone into the club on some mission or other. A somewhat inebriated New Zealand soldier who, in civilian life, could well have been a cat burglar was lovingly stroking the Ecstasy symbol on the radiator when, suddenly on impulse, he leapt up onto the bonnet and walked over the roof of the car as nimbly as if he was climbing over the roof top of a building he was about to burgle. He came down over the boot and circled round to the open driver's window, poked his head through and said “Your Majesty, I bet that is the first time you have been run over by a pedestrian.” Perhaps flattered by having been mistaken for the Queen, she smiled as the tipsy rascal was led off by his mates. We had a good night out and arranged that on my next leave I should visit him at his base at Bircham Newton, north of London.
About two weeks later when I was able to get leave again, Graeme had arranged for his rear gunner to go on sick leave so I could take his place on a mission over the North Sea to escort a convoy of ships from the United States. By arrangement, his crew failed to tell me that it was normal to page 12 fire the guns as they crossed the coastline and they had a good laugh at my expense as they watched me anxiously scanning the sky for a target. We did see a German reconnaissance plane in the distance and had a submarine scare which we hurried off to investigate but, otherwise, everything went smoothly. It had been a most interesting experience for me, all the more so when I was told they had lost several rear gunners, this being the most vulnerable position in a Hudson aircraft.
As my brother later reminded me, at the end of an aircraft convoy escort it was customary to signal recognition with an Aldis lamp to the joining aircraft, radio silence being necessary, and to bid ‘farewell’ (good luck) to the leading naval vessel by ‘shooting it up’. This involved a mock diving attack to give the ship's gunners some non-shooting practice. Unaccustomed as I was to the turbulence of these actions, my gills turned green and I was glad to regain the warmth of the squadron mess and refurbish my emptied stomach.
I had been advised to register my name with the Victoria League in London, a group of friendly ladies who put themselves out to provide entertainment for overseas officers far from home. When an invitation arrived to attend a dinner dance at Grosvenor House in London I went up from Hollingbourne in Kent and presented myself to the imposing looking major domo at the door of the hotel in Park Lane. He ushered me into a glittering hall where a dining table was set for 100 guests and a dance band presided over a polished dance floor. I was shown to a seat at the dinner table and had been sitting there for some time with an empty seat on my right when in came a charming looking lady escorting her daughter who was, without doubt, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, dressed in a most elegant ball gown. My subconscious mind willed her mother to seat her beside me and, bless her heart, she did. I leapt to my feet to hold her page 13 chair out for her and so started a friendship which lasted until the end of the war. Anne Chambers and I frequented most of the night clubs in London, the Mirabelle being our favourite, and she was a lovely companion. Where was there ever a war without romance?
On another occasion, when I was granted a week's leave, the Victoria League took me in hand again. When they asked what I would like to do, I told them that in New Zealand I enjoyed deer stalking and duck shooting. A five minute phone call to Mrs Stansfeld of Dunninald Castle near Montrose in Scotland and the venue was arranged. You will need some guns if you want to shoot grouse up there, I was told. Another phone call and arrangements were made for me to pick up a pair of Purdy shotguns (the world's best) on my way up to Scotland later in the week.
Was I spoilt when I got there! My bag was emptied and everything in it was freshly ironed and put away in drawers. Anything the slightest bit soiled was washed and ironed. I was asked what food I liked and everything was done to perfection. My visit downstairs to the kitchen and laundry staff to thank them was the first, I believe, by any guest at the castle — they seemed embarrassed but delighted.
Shooting parties were arranged and I joined Lord Dalhousie and his party on his property ‘Invermark’ for a deer stalking expedition. There were six of us shooting and we were accompanied by several gillies and a small train of ponies to bring home the spoils. As I was new to the country, I was allotted a gillie to act as my guide and mentor with instructions to shoot only stags. The deer were very wary, having been shot at many times before, and the country was open but covered by low heather. We stalked a herd wriggling upwind on our bellies. Take that one, said my gillie, pointing at a nice young stag about 200 yards away. Luckily I had zeroed my rifle before setting out so I took careful aim and fired. He page 14 dropped instantly but, to our consternation, a hind which we had not seen behind him dropped also. The gillie was my witness, so I was pardoned. I bagged one more stag later and another member of the party also shot one so they were very pleased to get all that venison to replenish their larders, meat being in very short supply. I watched my gillie gralloch a stag and was amazed at his dexterity. (I remembered this later when Herr Hess, one of Hitler's henchman, parachuted into the area and got away with simple imprisonment!)
We also shot some grouse but there were not enough beaters available to organize a proper driven shoot over butts so I was not able to use my pair of Purdys to advantage. Instead we did what they termed ‘arse-plugging’ which consisted of walking the birds up and shooting as they flew away. Our circuit took us over the boundary of Balmoral, an adjacent property, and I had the pleasure of shooting a royal grouse. It was a wonderful holiday and especially made so by my charming hostess Molly Stansfeld. She later came to London and took me off to stay with her parents, Mr and Mrs Eardley-Wilmott, who lived near Gerrards Cross just west of London. Her father took me out to shoot ducks, partridges and pigeons, the latter being very hard to hit as they swooped amongst the trees. After I shot the first snipe of the season each member of the party gave me two shillings on the spot, this being a longstanding custom. They insisted, too, that I take the pin feathers which were greatly prized for mounting in brooches. These I gave to my special friend Anne Chambers, whom I saw whenever I was in London.
In case it should be thought that life in England was all fun and games, I will quote from a letter I sent home to my mother early in September 1940:
“So far nothing much of military importance has happened to us since we have been in England but it looks as if something might be brewing as we were page 15 called back hurriedly from manoeuvres yesterday because of reports of Jerry concentrations on the other side of the Channel. He will get a hot reception if he does come. Lately we have been living out in the open for four or five days at a time. One night we had to sleep out with no blankets or extra clothing as we had to do a mock attack at dawn next morning. It is remarkable how you can make yourself warm and comfortable. There was no chance of choosing a warm or dry spot to sleep in as we were given a platoon area which we had to stay in and make the best of. We were put on an open hillside but there was plenty of fern about and, by piling it thick on top of us with a ground sheet underneath, the whole platoon, except the sentries, were able to sleep soundly. We took up these positions in the dark at half past ten and got up next morning at half past three to take part in the attack. We are now getting quite used to finding our gear in the dark without lights and no one in our platoon mislaid anything.”
Certainly this was all very basic training but it was essential if we were to become efficient. One orchard which my platoon stayed in overnight was full of ripe fruit and vegetables, but the owner, checking up apprehensively next morning, found nothing taken and the area spotlessly clean. He was so pleased he made a special trip to visit us at our next stop and gave us 10 gallons of milk and two boxes of freshly baked cakes.
On one overnight anti-parachute exercise, after we bedded down for the night under a copse of trees alongside a deep drain. I was woken by something moving under the small pillow attached to my sleeping bag which I had purchased in preference to the army issue blanket. Thinking it was a frog from the ditch, I brushed it away and went to sleep again. Once more my head page 16 started to move but it was more pronounced this time. Something slippery and cold slithered down the back of my neck and into my sleeping bag. I was out like a flash — not knowing I could move so fast — and there was this animal convoluting around in the bag. A few hits with my boot and I shook out a three feet long green snake which, while not poisonous, thank goodness, was a most unwelcome bedfellow. It was probably only trying to get warm, but it was not in the least bit appreciated.
My next assignment was to do an intelligence cum snipers course at Bisley, the first of many visits to that ‘Mecca’ of Commonwealth rifle shooting. After this course I trained a group of snipers in the battalion who were issued special rifles with telescopic sights. Later, they all bagged a good tally of Jerries in the fighting on Crete.
For most of our time in England, we were stationed at a small village in Kent called Hollingbourne where we were adopted by the local people. The Vernon family kept open house for our battalion officers and we all coveted the attention of their daughter Avril, who was a charmer. She later married Edwin Bramall who subsequently became Chief of Staff in Great Britain and was elevated to the peerage as a reward for his excellent service.
We were centrally situated in Hollingbourne and transported in old London buses ready to be thrown into the fray at any point along the south coast should Jerry attempt an invasion. The Cockney drivers became very popular with our troops. We were sad to leave the good people of Hollingbourne and, when the time eventually came, we held a moving last service in the local church at which our commanding officer presented a New Zealand flag to the vicar. (It has now, with the ravages of time, been replaced twice.)
The Royal Air Force, with my brother Graeme and many other New Zealand pilots had, in the meantime, won the ‘Battle of Britain’ in the air. The threat of invasion appeared to be over as page 17 the winter weather set in and it was becoming too cold for our liking. Anxious to join up with our First and Third Echelons in Egypt, we embarked on the Duchess of Bedford. With us came ‘Beet’ Chapman (née Lowry), a member of a prominent Hawke's Bay family, and a great favourite with the troops. Her father, T H Lowry, donated the Lowry Hut at Maadi Camp, a popular gathering place where tea and cakes, chocolate and many other personal requirements were available. He also supplied Beet with a van which she drove round southern England supplying the troops, especially the 22nd Battalion, with comforts and the necessities of everyday life. She was so cheerful and helpful that everybody knew and loved her. With her van, she travelled with us to Egypt, where she would appear in the most remote places in the desert and she was so welcome. Apart from furlough in New Zealand, she was with us until the war ended, becoming one of the longest serving members of the division.
Life on board ship was fairly monotonous but Colin Armstrong and I were given the task of studying the one and only Tommy gun, which had been issued to the 22nd just prior to embarkation. There was no information with it so our first job was to produce a handbook. I had some knowledge of technical engineering terms and could draw up and describe the parts and Colin was good at putting it all together. We had some ammunition and learned the intricacies of how to handle it effectively. Then we gave courses to all the NCOs so they could instruct their sections after the guns were finally issued to us in Egypt. When the official handbook was distributed, we found it was almost word for word the same as the version we arranged to be printed on board the Duchess of Bedford.
Shipboard conditions were certainly not comfortable and the food was poor, but we had a pleasant break at Cape Town, where we were given a rousing reception. On March 3 1941 we disembarked at Suez and were soon welcomed into the ranks of the division. Initially, there was some jealousy and resentment about our globe-trotting, but it soon evaporated.