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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Homeward Bound

page 32

Homeward Bound

AS THE REINFORCEMENT drafts reached the Middle East, men who had seen long service overseas were sent home on furlough or for discharge to essential industries. The first furlough draft sailed from Egypt for New Zealand in June 1943 in the Nieuw Amsterdam, the second in January 1944 in the Scythia, trans-shipping to the Mariposa at Bombay. The ships were very crowded, but under the circumstances it seemed unreasonable to complain.

After victory in Europe, and increasingly after VJ Day, troopships brought back to New Zealand not only servicemen and released prisoners of war but the wives, children, and finacées of men in the three services.

With the blackout lifted, with no unnecessary parades or picket duties to annoy them, the men had little to grumble about (except the food and the overcrowding) and even less to do. At sea they played Crown and Anchor and two-up, fell into deep day-dreams of the future, and nursed the children on the boat-decks. In port many of them took the opportunity of having a final fling, but not with the old fierce concentration, and they returned almost with relief to the boredom, the day-dreams, and the babies on the boat-deck.

‘Mothers,’ wrote a soldier in the Durban Castle, ‘soon grew resigned to losing sight of their children for hours at a time. They always turned up safe and sound, for there is no doubt that Kiwis make good mothers.’ In this ship the children took part in a biblical tableau: ‘The singing of the angels made a scene not unlike a 15th century fresco of choiring angels on the walls of some old Italian church—the same grave, untroubled faces, and the same deep concentration on the work in hand, so characteristic of children and of angels’.

In Australian ports the ships picked up military staffs sent from New Zealand to help with the arrangements for disembarkation and leave.

One after another the ships came into home waters. The Orion, which had left Taranto on 10 January with 4500 New Zealand soldiers, 33 sailors, 16 wives and fiancées, and one child, passed the Snares, south of Stewart Island, early in February 1946. Peeping between the rails was the ship’s mascot, five-year-old Diana from La Spezia, in the Gulf of Genoa. She was bound for Auckland with her mother.

Porpoises—olive-grey sometimes, sometimes steel-blue—played about the ship’s forefoot, leaping and plunging in the bow-wave, scraping themselves against the bow-plates, turning cartwheels in twos and threes, and delighting Diana from La Spezia.

The Orion, which had sailed with men of the First Echelon six years before, came into Lyttelton harbour on 9 February. It was a warm, sunny morning.