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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Troopship Track

page 31

The Troopship Track

MONTH BY MONTH, their grey paint chipped and faded and splashed here and there with ugly patches of red lead, their forward and after decks cluttered with Carley floats, Bofors guns, pom-poms, oerlikons, and improvised wash-houses, the troopships cleared Wellington heads, carrying reinforcement drafts to the Middle East and the Pacific, Royal New Zealand Air Force trainees to Canada or the United Kingdom, and seamen to Britain for service with the Royal Navy.

Reinforcement drafts for the Middle East were limited usually to one shipload (each ship having a permanent Officer Commanding Troops and military staff), and so were the drafts returning to New Zealand for furlough or for discharge to essential industries.

Men of the RNZAF bound for Canada under the Empire Air Training Scheme, or for the United Kingdom, travelled as ordinary passengers, sometimes in parties 250 strong, but usually in smaller drafts. Little was attempted in the way of training (though in British ships the men manned anti-submarine watches), and living conditions were almost of a peacetime standard, making the later voyages to England in troopships suffer by contrast.

Travelling as a civilian, of course, did not guarantee safe arrival. In November 1940 the Rangitane was sunk by German raiders a few hundred miles east of Auckland, and the civilian passengers were put ashore later on Emirau Island, north of New Guinea, the men signing an undertaking not to take part in the war. Thirteen Fleet Air Arm entrants were among those released on this condition, but fifteen others were made prisoner, some because they were enrolled members of the RAF or the RNZAF, some because their passages had been booked by the Air Department or the Navy Office.

Naval drafts destined for Britain and service with the Royal Navy also travelled as ordinary passengers in many cases, though whenever possible a service passage in a commissioned ship was arranged for them.

In the days before Pearl Harbour, men of the New Zealand armed forces sailed to and from Pacific bases, Canada, and the United States in neutral American ships escorted (‘trailed’ was the term used for this type of escort) by New Zealand warships. At first New Zealanders travelled in civilian clothes, but later they wore uniform.

Month by month the troopships slipped quietly past the heads, and by the end of 1945 New Zealand had sent overseas 114,000 soldiers*, some 18,000 airmen**, and 10,000 sailors. Nearly every man and woman in the three services who went overseas left and returned by ship.

* Of these 38,000 went to the Pacific, many of them serving later in the Middle East.

** A further 19,000 went by air to the Pacific.