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20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment

CHAPTER 1 — Formation and Training in New Zealand

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Formation and Training in New Zealand

On5 October 1939 the South Island men of the First Echelon entered camp at Burnham. For many it had been a strenuous day. A long train or bus journey with banging doors, popping crown-tops, rollicking songs, and boisterous laughter ended abruptly at a plantation of bluegum trees with the only attempt at marching that could be expected under the circumstances.

It is given to few men to be prophetic, and correct. It may have been intuition, pride, or his ability to judge men, but as the long column of train-weary volunteers, some of them dishevelled and far from sober, trudged past him into camp their future commanding officer remarked to a subaltern standing near him, ‘This is going to be the best infantry in the world.’ A bold prophecy, and one that would have to depend for proof of its truth on the most impartial judge of all—the future enemy in the field.

To arrive in camp was sufficient for the first day. After being given their regimental numbers, in many cases promptly forgotten, the men were fed and bedded down in stretchers which had been made, for the first and only time in their army lives, by those who were to be their future officers and non-commissioned officers.

Next day the eight hundred volunteers for the infantry were grouped to form what was known at the time as the 3rd Rifle Battalion, later to become the 20th Infantry Battalion. It was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel H. K. Kippenberger,1 a veteran of the Great War of 1914-18, a Territorial officer in ‘the years between’, who had risen to command I Battalion, The Canterbury Regiment, and who had made a most intensive study of military history and tactics.

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The organisation of the men into companies took up most of the first morning. Headquarters Company was a mixed collection of specialists of one sort or another—drivers, mechanics, clerks, signallers from the Post and Telegraph and Railways Departments, and some men with previous Territorial experience of mortars and Bren carriers. Towards midday an unexplained surplus of fourteen men still remained unclaimed on the parade ground. Reference to a chart showing the establishment of an infantry battalion showed that an anti-aircraft platoon was required, to the number of fourteen. The survivors were promptly named and marched away. Headquarters Company, commanded by Major Peter Spiers, MC,2 was complete.

The rifle companies were grouped on a geographical basis, the company commanders drawing lots to decide their alphabetical order. A Company, under Major MacDuff,3 came from Canterbury; B Company, led by Captain Burrows,4 from Southland; C Company, under Captain Mathewson,5 from Nelson, Marlborough, and the West Coast; while in D Company, under Captain Paterson,6 were the men from Otago.

The organisation of the battalion took the best part of three days, during which the men were initiated into the characteristic discomforts of army life: the tedious waiting in seemingly interminable queues for meals, kit issues, medical treatment and dental inspections; the strange experience of having commands barked at them on parade, and the even stranger rapidity of their quickly-learned responses; the complete cessation of any sense of privacy; and, as compensation, the rounding-off of awkward individuality, the gradual merging into a fellowship whose bond was the strangeness of the venture and the shared uncertainty of the future.

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In view of the small forces held in New Zealand before the war the staffing of the First Echelon presented a serious problem. Senior officers, of necessity, were men with previous military training, either overseas or in the Territorials. Platoon commanders were usually junior Territorial officers. Four of the company sergeants-major came from the New Zealand Permanent Staff and the fifth was a former Territorial, as were also, at first, the majority of the platoon NCOs.

On 26 September the officers and NCOs of the First Echelon had entered camp to undergo special courses of instruction so that, by the time the majority of the Special Force, as it was then called, arrived, a skeleton training and administrative organisation was in working order. To build up a reserve of officers selected personnel were sent to Trentham to attend an officers' training course, and those who qualified rejoined the battalion shortly before final leave or were posted to later echelons.

The training during the first five or six weeks comprised chiefly squad drill, arms drill and weapon training with the Lee-Enfield that had stood so well the test of the First World War, Lewis machine-gun training, and abundant instruction and practice in bayonet fighting. The equipment available was pitifully inadequate. Light-machine-gun training, for instance, was done solely with the Lewis gun which, despite its value in the Great War, had become obsolete as an infantry weapon. Rifles were plentiful but ammunition was handed out as if made of gold. The latest types of signal equipment were known only by name; everything was of last-war vintage; infantry wireless sets were unknown even to instructors. Each man had been issued with one suit of serge, a suit of denims and, later, one of khaki drill. Officers were equipped with revolvers, binoculars, prismatic compasses, water bottles and haversacks, and other ranks with 1908 pattern web equipment, rifles, and bayonets. Companies wore the hat and collar badges of their Territorial regiments.

Battalion parades began to assume an important part in training. In the moulding of a unit the discipline of the parade ground is a powerful factor in promoting the habit of prompt and unquestioning obedience. This is something quite apart from the spectacular effect of simultaneous response to an order and crispness of movement. As the purpose of all training page 4 should be to prepare men for battle, it is obvious that the habit of steadiness under strain is essential to a unit. The uncomplaining endurance of a long parade is some preparation for the discomforts of the field, while enforced habits of tidiness and cleanliness have obvious ultimate value. There have been some excellent soldiers who were not smart at rifle exercises and, conversely, some parade-ground soldiers who were of questionable value in action; but the fact remains that a unit that is smart on parade and efficient in guard mounting has a pride of achievement in one aspect of soldiering that can be transferred at the appropriate time to the more serious business of steadiness under fire, cheerfulness in the face of discomfort, perseverance against odds, and refusal to accept defeat.

It is universally accepted that the tone of the parade ground and the smartness of the guard are a direct reflection of the unit's Regimental Sergeant-Major. In this respect due credit should be given the early RSMs, Bert Steele7 and J. D. Gibb,8 for the standard reached in the battalion. The first guard mounted in Burnham from men of the Special Force was drawn from 20 Battalion.

The high standard set by the first two RSMs was maintained by the third, WO I ‘Uke’ Wilson,9 who gave four very full years to the 20th, and whose loyalty to the battalion was such that he refused all chances of a commission.

With increased proficiency in their handling of the weapons available the men progressed to the stage where night manoeuvres were undertaken. At least here was something new and the opportunity for a number of humorous incidents. It was customary for the defending company to leave camp about midday for the scene of operations, which was usually three or four hours' march away in the vicinity of Tai Tapu. After a suitable interval the attackers sallied forth, the intervening time permitting the first party to organise its defence.

Many were the ruses employed to obtain information that might sway the action. In those early days fifth-column work was much more than a name. The people of Tai Tapu entered page 5 heartily into the spirit of the manoeuvres, though strangely enough their sympathies appeared usually to lie with the attackers. On one occasion the attacking force, C Company, illegally sent an advance party into the township before the arrival of the defenders. The party was secreted in a barn but failed to achieve its purpose as it was discovered, much to A Company's indignation, and made prisoner. Another time Captain Cliff Wilson,10 the second-in-command of C Company, dressed as a civilian, rode through the defensive area at dusk on a horse and thoroughly reconnoitred the dispositions of the defenders under the pretext of looking for two stray cows.

Still another surprise movement was effected on the occasion when a river crossing was being opposed by troops who were guarding every existing bridge. The defence seemed impregnable until some attackers, led by Sergeant Charlie Upham,11 crossed the river where no bridge existed by wading through it breast high. Equal initiative was shown one night by two signallers who converted a toll line to army use by attaching field telephones to the wires. This completely disorganised the toll system of Banks Peninsula and caused considerable consternation in the Post and Telegraph Department until the conversation overheard indicated the cause of the trouble to its engineers.

These night manoeuvres frequently led to incidents with civilians whose own nocturnal excursions sometimes had a most unexpected conclusion. On one occasion a party of motorists, after driving several times up and down a road in a manoeuvre area, was halted by a patrol. Unable to obtain any clear information in reply to their queries, the troops promptly locked up the mixed party for two hours in one of the rooms of the church on suspicion of fifth-column activities.

Despite the inconvenience of having men tramping through their sections and over their farms, the people of Tai Tapu district extended unstinted hospitality to the troops, and many a man has pleasant memories of a cup of tea and hot scones in a warm farmhouse kitchen. From lack of information about the page 6 general plan, manoeuvres are often considered boring by the men in the ranks, but in those early days the keen inter-company rivalry in the exercises was mild compared with the spirited verbal battles that took place after the return to camp.

The weekly training programme made adequate provision for recreation. Tabloid sports were organised, as well as the ever-popular tug-of-war, but the enjoyment of one of these sports meetings held on Labour Day was dampened when the men had to parade after the last event to receive their first inoculation.

Off-parade activities were varied but the most popular was the enjoyment of a cup of tea and a pie at the Salvation Army tent. In the evenings sing-songs and concerts were held there, and in the early days in Burnham this large double was marquee was undoubtedly the hub of the social life of the battalion. A congenial atmosphere was created by the friendly Salvation Army workers, without a tribute to whom this history would not be complete. The informality of their church services appealed strongly to the troops, who attended in such increasing numbers that in time the marquee could scarcely accommodate those who made it their choice on Sunday morning parades. It was at these services that the men learned the well-known chorus, ‘He Careth for Me’, in later years to be sung in places and under circumstances little dreamed of by those who taught it.

Leave to Christchurch was granted on a quota basis. Trains were crowded with high-spirited troops, while many a motorist responded to the hitch-hiker's signal. At the Christchurch Welcome Club, established in the Art Gallery, dances and suppers were provided for the men. The YMCA also provided supper on Sunday nights and many civilian homes received soldier guests.

About this time it was realised that the troops had reached the stage where they required field training of a type not possible in the area around Burnham Camp. Accordingly, on 23 November, the battalion moved by rail to Cave, where training was carried out until the return to Burnham on 3 December. This was the first time the men had made a move of any kind with all their gear. Everything was taken, even kitbags. After a fairly quick train journey the troops disembarked and carried their gear to the areas allotted them, ate page 7 their first meal cooked under field conditions, and erected lines of bell tents in green fields overlooking a pleasant stream.

At this stage, owing to the strong representations made to the Government by the Returned Soldiers' Association, wet canteens were opened in military camps. At Cave, where the canteen was opened in a large marquee, men were required to provide their own mugs and those of the largest sizes were naturally in popular demand. The day the battalion arrived at Cave the Prime Minister publicly announced that the Special Force would shortly go overseas. This news coincided with the opening of the wet canteen, thus providing both the excuse and the means for celebration.

The training at Cave consisted mainly of field firing and range practices, as well as day and night exercises. Aircraft from Wigram co-operated in several of these field exercises, in which the troops first learned the art of camouflage. At the close of one of them two officers and nine other ranks were withdrawn from the battalion to join the advance party of the First Echelon; they returned immediately to Burnham and went on leave from 5 to 9 December. Twentieth Battalion members of the party were Lieutenant D. B. Cameron, Second-Lieutenant G. A. Murray, WO I A. J. Steele, CQMS G. L. Lawrence, Sergeants S. J. Green, T. H. Wilson, and C. H. Upham, Corporal L. L. Andrewes, and Privates R. J. Glubb, J. Robertson, and G G. P. Weenink.12

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On 11 December the advance party embarked at Wellington on TSS Awatea, sailing the same day for Sydney. It went from Sydney to Melbourne by train and joined the 2 AIF advance party on 15 December on board RMS Strathallan, which also carried a number of civilian passengers. After a pleasant voyage, with leave at Adelaide, Colombo, Bombay, and Aden, the New Zealanders disembarked at Port Said on 7 January 1940.

The date of the First Echelon's move overseas was finally fixed at 6 January 1940, and the period at Cave, originally intended to last a fortnight, was curtailed by four days. While the battalion was away from Burnham a second draft of volunteers had marched in on 28 November, and to help train them four corporals were sent back from Cave.

At Burnham training was continued and preparations made for sending the troops on final leave. With the assistance, without charge, of members of the Canterbury Law Society, the men made their wills, and all ranks were blood-typed in preparation for the stamping of identity discs. A gratuity of £3 was paid to each man and, as from one minute past midnight on 14 December 1939, the First Echelon was placed on active service.

Arrangements made by the Defence Department with the New Zealand Railways permitted free travel only to soldiers' homes and back or to the place of enlistment. In the First World War soldiers on final leave had been given free rail passes without limitation, and this created some dissatisfaction among the troops. The outcome was a number of unauthorised telegrams to the Minister of Defence asking for free rail warrants ‘anywhere’ for the period of final leave. This procedure was considered by the Army to be most irregular, and the Officer Commanding the Southern Military District made a hurried trip to Burnham, delivered a verbal blitz to the officers and NCOs, and departed in high dudgeon. No change in arrangements was made, except that individual passes allowed the men more freedom to travel.

On 14 December the exodus from camp took place. During the next fortnight the sight of khaki-clad figures brought home to the civilian population the fact that for the third time in forty years New Zealand troops were about to go overseas. Farewell functions were organised in every town and country page 9 district. The men spent Christmas at home and returned to Burnham on 28 December.

At once preparations were made for embarkation. The issuing of seakits, completion of embarkation rolls, alteration of allotments, and collection of unemployment levy books meant many tedious parades and queues, but leave was granted on most evenings. On the 30th the battalion was inspected by the GOC 2 NZEF, Major-General B. C. Freyberg, VC, and on 3 January, with other units from Burnham, it marched through Christchurch for an official farewell in Cranmer Square. It was a muster parade, of course, and it found the usual few somewhat at sea. The battalion was well turned out, everything was spick and span, but something of a sensation was caused when a well-known driver, after leaving his vehicle, marched across to take his place in his company with his rifle on the wrong shoulder, and crowned everything with a left-hand salute as he passed the CO. The rifle drill and general bearing of the battalion was of a sufficiently high standard to win the applause of the watching crowd before the troops marched off. One incident at the beginning of the parade reflected the training of the previous months. Before beginning his speech the Mayor of Christchurch told the men to sit down. All other units promptly did so but the 20th stood fast, rifles at the order, till the CO gave the commands, ‘Ground arms! Sit down!’

That afternoon visitors were allowed into the camp. It was no ordinary occasion. Those who had relatives within visiting distance met them at the camp gates and quickly guided them to the limited privacy of hut or cubicle, and then, sensing the feelings of their less fortunate mates, included them in the family circle with that quiet insistence and compelling sincerity so typical of army friendships. Mothers and sisters, wives and sweethearts, delighted at being permitted a few last precious hours with ‘their’ soldier, masked sentiment with solicitude and in customary practical manner unpacked the afternoon tea. Fathers and other male relatives were lavish with tobacco and added their good-natured banter to the conversation. Everyone was determined to keep a brave face, but in occasional unguarded moments it was plain that some were already experiencing a foretaste of the agony of suspense that is many a woman's part in war.

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After several practice entraining and embarkation parades the battalion, complete with full equipment and seakits, marched to Burnham station on Friday, 5 January 1940, and went by train to Lyttelton. A number of men also carried musical instruments, one of them, Private ‘Sandy’ Robertson,13 taking with him a gramophone and an extensive collection of records.

The battalion's officers on leaving New Zealand were:

Headquarters Company

  • OC: Maj P. W. G. Spiers

  • Lt G. A. Murray (Signals—advance party)

  • 2 Lt G. A. T. Rhodes (Mortars)

  • Lt K. G. Manchester (Carriers)

  • 2 Lt R. L. D. Powrie (Pioneers)

  • Lt D. B. Cameron (Transport—advance party)

  • Lt C. K. Fleming (Transport)

A Company

  • OC: Maj A. P. MacDuff

  • 2 i/c: Capt T. H. Mitchell

  • 2 Lt J. R. Coote

  • 2 Lt P. G. Markham

  • 2 Lt J. F. Phillips

B Company

  • OC: Maj J. T. Burrows

  • 2 i/c: Capt M. C. Rice

  • 2 Lt V. C. Poole

  • Lt J. P. Quilter

  • Lt W. Ayto

C Company

  • OC: Capt B. J. Mathewson

  • 2 i/c: Capt H. O. Jefcoate

  • Lt D. J. Fountaine

  • 2 Lt G. A. Brown

  • 2 Lt F. J. Bain

D Company

  • OC: Capt R. D. B. Paterson

  • 2 i/c: Lt M. C. Fairbrother

  • 2 Lt J. F. Baker

  • 2 Lt J. H. Beale

  • 2 Lt J. D. Aiken

E Company

1 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1916-17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939–Apr 1941, Jun–Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde, Crete, May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942–Jun 1943, Nov 1943–Feb 1944; 2 NZ Div, 30 Apr–14 May 1943, 9 Feb–2 Mar 1944; 2 NZEF Prisoner-of-War Reception Group (UK) 1944–45; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories; died Wellington, 5 May 1957.

2 Maj P. W. G. Spiers, MBE, MC, VD; Dunedin; born NZ 28 Nov 1890; bank clerk; Otago Regt, 1915-19 (Maj), 2 i/c Reserve Bn.

3 Maj A. P. MacDuff, ED, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Timaru, 29 Aug 1906; commercial traveller; p.w. 29 Apr 1941.

4 Brig J. T. Burrows, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Gk); Christchurch; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn May 1941, Dec 1941–Jul 1942; 20 Bn and Armd Regt Aug 1942–Jun 1943; comd 4 Bde 27-29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul–15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug–Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul-Aug 1944; Commandant, Southern Military District, Nov 1951–Oct 1953; Commander K. Force, Nov 1953–Nov 1954; Commandant SMD, Jan 1955-.

5 Maj B. J. Mathewson, ED; Westport; born Westport, 18 Apr 1905; company manager; 2 i/c 26 Battalion, 1941; wounded 26 Nov 1941.

6 Maj R. D. B. Paterson, ED; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 20 Aug 1908; stock agent; 2 i/c 20 Bn May 1941, Sep 1941–Apr 1942; Commandant, Southern District School of Instruction, Burnham, Jun 1942–Dec 1944.

7 Maj A. J. Steele, MBE; Burnham Camp; born England, 25 Jul 1907; Regular soldier; comd School of Instruction, Fiji Military Forces, Jun 1943-Mar 1945.

8 Capt J. D. Gibb; Oamaru; born Blenheim, 9 Dec 1913; Regular soldier; p.w. 15 Jul 1942.

9 WO I T. H. Wilson, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Milton, 14 Mar 1918; bacon curer; RSM 20 Bn Nov 1940–Apr 1944.

10 Maj C. Wilson, m.i.d., MC (Gk); born England, 25 Aug 1907; insurance clerk; killed in action 21 May 1941.

11 Capt C. H. Upham, VC and bar, m.i.d.; Conway Flat, Hundalee; born Christchurch, 21 Sep 1908; Government land valuer; three times wounded; wounded and p.w. 15 Jul 1942.

12 The advance party, commanded by Major A. W. Greville, consisted of 2 officers and 50 other ranks, plus 18 officers and 41 other ranks who attended courses in the Middle East. The calibre of the battalion's representatives is shown by their records: Lieutenant Dave Cameron reached the rank of major, was mentioned in despatches and was twice wounded; George Murray became a major in 26 Battalion and was mentioned in despatches; Sergeant-Major Bert Steele became a captain and later served in Fiji, winning the MBE; CQMS George Lawrence served as a captain in 23 Battalion, came home on furlough, and returned to that battalion in Italy; Second-Lieutenant Stan Green was killed in action in Crete; WO I ‘Uke’ Wilson was RSM in the battalion and later in the armoured regiment for three and a half years and was mentioned in despatches; Captain Charlie Upham won the VC and bar and mention in despatches, was thrice wounded, was taken prisoner at Ruweisat and ended the war in Colditz after several attempts to escape; Corporal Len Andrewes was wounded and taken prisoner in Crete; Reg Glubb became sergeant cook and served the battalion well until he returned home with the first furlough draft; Jim Robertson became a captain in Base Pay Office and served as paymaster at Port Tewfik and in the hospital ship Oranje before returning home on furlough with a mention in despatches; George Weenink became a staff-sergeant, won the BEM, and was RQMS in the battalion and in the regiment until he came home on furlough after Cassino. Three have died since the war: Cameron was drowned at Maori-bank on 24 February 1951, Andrewes died on 20 November 1947 and Glubb on 22 December 1948.

13 Tpr J. W. Robertson; Invercargill; born NZ 11 Nov 1904; journalist; wounded

* Padre Spence joined the battalion in Egypt on 14 February and Lt H. C. Tremewan succeeded Capt Kirk as MO on 15 February.