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Infantry Brigadier

1. Infancy of a Battalion

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1. Infancy of a Battalion

Mr. Chamberlain's voice stopped. I looked at Jimmie and at my wife, whose face had gone white. ‘That 's the end of the old pleasant days,’ I said. Next morning we fully expected mobilization, but for three weeks nothing happened and I worked very hard at my practice as a solicitor. Then it was announced that New Zealand was raising a ‘Special Force’ for service at home or abroad and I promptly enlisted, passed the medical examination with satisfactory ease, and prayed hard for a command. My tour in command of a Territorial battalion, the First Canterbury, was nearly ended and at forty-two I might have been thought too old.

It was announced that there would be three rifle battalions, the third to be raised in the South Island, and it was that on which I had my eye. After a few days' suspense I called on Keith Stewart, then G. 11 Southern Command. ‘Am I getting the Southern battalion?’ ‘Not if I can help it,’ he replied, ‘I want it myself.’ I assured him that he had no hope. He must be G. 1 of the Division which we felt sure would be formed and of which the Special Force was the first echelon. Keith regretfully admitted the possibility and we got the O.C. District to ring Army Headquarters for me. In a few moments my anxieties were ended and I went out with the joyful news to my wife, who showed some lack of enthusiasm.

On 26 September the selected officers and N.C.O.s were called into camp. The South Islanders went into Burnham, which for some years had been the principal military depot and ordnance store for the South Island. It was situated in the midst of the Canterbury plains, in big stony fields, and surrounded by belts of blue-gums, a most unattractive spot. Hundreds of workmen were building hutments, cook-houses, page 2 latrines, and showers, excavating drains, laying cable, levelling and tarring roads, and there was dust and dirt everywhere.

In my inexperience I had not insisted on having a say in the selection of officers; probably it would have made little difference, as only Territorial officers who had volunteered were available, and there was little choice. I had a look at mine the first evening, found that I knew only a few, and started to learn their names. They looked a useful lot and indeed so proved, with only a few exceptions. The New Zealand Army List contained the names of about eighty regular staff officers and some 600 Territorial officers, and with these, and a smaller number on the Reserve, a division had to be raised and trained and a great expansion carried out. Thousands of new officers were trained, all coming through the ranks, but throughout the war the best of the pre-war Regulars and Territorials kept their lead. There were few battalion or regimental commanders who were not one or the other.

Dornwell, who had been my second-in-command in 1 Canterbury, came in with the same appointment, Frank Davis, a regular, as Adjutant, and Bert Steele, another regular, as R.S.M. Between them they supplied most of the knowledge of routine and the drill-book with which we staggered along in those distant days, all of us keeping just one jump ahead of our subordinates. The rifle company commanders, also selected for me, were Archie MacDuff and Jim Burrows, whom I knew, Ralph Paterson and Mathewson whom I met for the first time. Bob Orr, also a new acquaintance, was Quartermaster, and a curious little man whom I could never discover and who eventually disappeared without anyone mentioning the matter to me, was R.Q.M.S. Peter Speirs, who was regarded with awe, having a Military Cross from the old war, commanded Headquarters Company. Ray Kirk, just getting on his feet as a consulting physician, closed his door and came in as R.M.O. I decided to letter and not number the companies and the company commanders drew lots for their letters. MacDuff, with the Canterbury Company, drew A.; Burrows B. for his Southlanders; page 3 Mathewson C. for Nelson, Marlborough, and the West Coast; and Paterson D. for Otago. We all thought this was a very fateful lottery.

Next morning officers and N.C.O.s started to drill, the first thing obviously being to get saluting right, with and without a cane. I doubted whether I would be any good with the cane and thought it wiser to stand by and observe, and continue with the learning of names. There was no doubt that our saluting was a horrible sight until we had all been induced to conform to the book.

The N.C.O.s were a very mixed lot and only a few subsequently retained their ranks.

We had a week before the men came in. The huts were barely finished, showers and ablution stands not completed; but the carpenters took their kits with them one evening and the drafts to form the Third Rifle Battalion, the Machine-gun Battalion, a Field Ambulance, and an A.S.C. Company came in by special trains. Most were ending a long journey. All were in old civilian clothes and many were far from sober. As I watched some of my men trudge in I remarked to Gordon Washbourn: ‘This is going to be the best infantry in the world.’

On the first night we did nothing more than give them their army numbers, feed them, and get them to bed, in beds, for the one and only time in their service, made up by the officers and N.C.O.s; all slept very well. Next day, with the aid of a big chart showing the establishment of a rifle battalion, we organized and allotted jobs.

The rifle companies were made up by their Provinces, but Headquarters Company was not so easy. Officers kept rushing into the Orderly Room, consulting the chart, and dashing out to collect another driver or signaller or watercart man or range-finder or some such, those already acquired being left seated in puzzled groups under the strictest injunctions not to stray. Gradually the parade ground emptied as the completed platoons were moved away, some already being asked to do so in step; and about midday there were only a few stragglers left who collected and sat themselves down together. Frank Davis and I checked our chart and page 4 discovered that we had omitted to provide for the antiaircraft platoon, which had no officer. There should have been fourteen in that platoon. I went out and counted the survivors. There were fourteen, so establishment was completed, though as a matter of fact this was the only platoon up to strength. Several days later I found three innocents sunning themselves behind one of the huts and found that somehow they had been missed altogether and were apparently quite happy about it. They promptly became riflemen.

Three months later we embarked at Lyttleton in the first transport to leave New Zealand for the war. In the meantime, the mob which had tramped in that afternoon had become a battalion, very young, very partially trained, but already possessing its own memories and beginning to be proud.

We worked from week to week on a progressive syllabus. Once the initial recruit training was over, my guiding intention was to foster the independence and initiative of the companies and then to weld them into a team.

There were pleasant experiences that we shared—a delightful week camped in green fields beside a sparkling stream at Cave where we joyfully heard we were going overseas—a week of exercises at Tai Tapu when, in turns, the companies held the township and sustained attacks by other companies, while Battalion Headquarters sensibly and cosily umpired the operation from the hotel parlour—days and nights in the open, in lovely weather—the years that have passed leave a nostalgic glamour in memory. None from that time will forget the campfire concert when first we heard ‘Now is the hour when we must say good-bye’, feeling for a moment the cold hand of fate and the shadow of the long years ahead.

There were jokes that we shared. Having taken over from the Adjutant on battalion parade, I said ‘Hats off’ and turned to face the padre and found no padre, whereupon the battalion, which had been waiting hopefully, chuckled with me.

There were things of which we were proud. We felt certain that our leave parties were better turned out and more soldierly than those of our neighbours, the Machine-gunners. page 5 As infantry, we were amused at the efforts of the Field Ambulance and A.S.C. to drill, and at their outlandish formations. At Cranmer Square, when we were to be addressed by the Mayor of Christchurch on our farewell parade before a large concourse of citizens, His Worship said that the men might sit down. Other units did so, but not we. We stood fast until I had ordered ‘Ground Arms. Sit Down.’ That pleased us all very much.

Also, there was one incident that gave us a common indignation. The O.C. District rang me up and curtly directed me to have officers and N.C.O.s paraded, he would be out in half an hour. He arrived, did not return my salute, and spoke to the parade. We were about to go on final leave and it appeared that a number of men had sent a joint telegram to the Minister of Defence protesting against their rail warrants being made only to the place of enlistment. He had thought that we were going to be a good unit, but was evidently wrong, we were unsoldierly, undisciplined, there was no goodness in us, and he had come out to let us know. He stopped speaking and glared. I said ‘Thank you, Sir’ and saluted. He did not return the salute and departed. I dismissed the parade and, after a little reflection, went round the mess-rooms and told everyone how naughty they had been. All were very contrite, the action had been natural enough for the New Zealander, accustomed to approaching his Minister or Member whenever he felt aggrieved. Perhaps they didn't quite take the point, for that evening each company sent a telegram direct to the Minister protesting its regret and more or less indicating that it was quite willing to walk home if necessary.

We had now become the Twentieth Battalion, just after furnishing ourselves with paper headed ‘3rd Rifle Battalion’. Seventeen New Zealand battalions took part in the First World War and with a commendable sense of the continuity of history our numbering was started from there. The Auckland Battalion became the Eighteenth, that raised in Wellington the Nineteenth, and we the Twentieth. After the Libyan campaign of 1940 I saw captured papers which showed that Italian intelligence officers, having identified page 6 the Nineteenth and Twentieth Battalions at Bagush, were deducing that as there were nine battalions in a Division a third New Zealand Division must have arrived.

General Freyberg called on his tour of inspection, gave us a speech in which he told us what a fine army the French had, and interviewed all the commanding officers, including those nominated for units not yet formed. His talk with me was short.

‘Do your men drink beer?’ ‘Yes, Sir.’ ‘What sort, do they mind?’ ‘They say they prefer Speights, Sir, but I don't think they really mind.’ ‘H'm…. Well I suppose we'll see a lot more of one another.’

The officer commanding the Machine-gunners had a long interview and had come out downcast so that I was satisfied with mine.

A few days later Lindsay Inglis, who had undergone a grave operation to get himself fit for active service, took command of the Machine-gun Battalion. He had commanded a machine-gun company with distinction in France and was a thorough soldier. He had for years been my C.O. or Brigadier in the Territorials, and I had learned more of soldiering from him than from anyone else with whom I had served.

After being embodied for three weeks we had to send candidates to the first O.C.T.U. One or two nominated themselves and were duly turned down, and I had to select twenty from some fifty nominated by my company commanders and the Field Ambulance, whose C.O. preferred not to make any selection. I told each candidate that infantry platoon commanders at the beginning of a war had poor prospects; if they seemed to mind, the inquiry went no farther.

This worked very well and we sent away a very fine draft, about a third of whom died in due course and nearly all the others did good service. Several ended the war as battalion commanders. On my last parade with the Division, five and a half years later, Alan McPhail was an Acting-Brigadier. Charlie Upham asked to be left out as he was afraid he would not get away soon enough. I left him out page 7 and sent him off at very short notice with the advance party. Archie MacDuff thought his company was ruined, more than half the candidates came from it, but every second New Zealander will make at least an N.C.O. and he and A. Company soon recovered.

Only one officer had to be dispensed with, a melancholy individual who never spoke. I tired of trying to cheer him up.

Final leave passed like a dream and at last came the day when I told the men that the battalion was now their home and we started our wanderings. My wife waved from the roadside till out of sight and then drove home, running through her tears into a mob of sheep on the way.

On 5 January 1940, with Fourth Field Ambulance and Divisional Signals, we embarked on the Dunera, the first transport to leave New Zealand; Inglis with the Machine-gunners and A.S.C. went with us on the Sobieski. I went back down the gangway to say good-bye to the O.C. District, who was speechless, a band played ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and with the whistles of all the ships in port blowing, we pulled out into the stream. The last I saw of my own kin was my small son dancing up and down on the bridge of a tug.

Next morning, in Cook Strait, we joined the other transports coming out from Wellington and the first New Zealand convoy set out for the wars.

1 G. 1: the senior Staff Officer for operations or training in a division or equivalent formation or command.