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23 Battalion


page vii


In writing this book, I have had a twofold purpose. In the first place, I have attempted to place on permanent record, primarily for the benefit of the members of the 23rd Battalion itself, their friends and relations, including, I trust, their descendants to the second and third generations, the part played by this unit in the Second World War. Secondly, I have tried to make this history something more than a chronicle of the life and battles of the 23rd Battalion by making it a study in morale. The writing of a unit history, especially of a faithful and true unit, needs no justification: in an age when wars are fought, not by professional soldiers but by virtually the whole nation, it sets down a segment of our national history; it records the achievements of New Zealand citizens turned soldiers; it contributes to the growth of regimental traditions; it commemorates the sacrifice of those who fell, and it may help to inspire infantry soldiers of the future.

My interest in morale is the product both of my own experience in the fighting in North Africa before and after the battle of El Alamein and of my reading of military history. Morale is still the most important factor in fighting (the degree to which it may depend on the quality of machines and weapons being understood), just as man remains the first weapon of battle. War is not just a matter of logistics, of plans, of operation orders and generals' decisions; it is a flesh-and-blood business. In the last analysis, it is fought—or, at any rate, prior to the atomic age, was fought—by men, organised in battalions such as the 23rd Battalion.

In his last report on active operations, General Freyberg paid tribute to the qualities of the men of 2 New Zealand Division. ‘In the New Zealander you have qualities of heart and mind that place him high among men. It is to resolute courage in our junior officers and men that this Division owes its fighting record. No men could have done more than they have done.’ The campaign histories do not neglect the morale of the fighting men but, by necessity, they cannot mention many individuals. Since they treat periods of a few weeks or months, they cannot treat the rise and fall of units' fortunes and the reactions of individuals over longer periods. A unit history therefore seems to be the best place where morale can be studied at the level where it is probably most important—that of the fighting infantry, the men who, in both defence and attack, were normally in the front line.

page viii

I have tried throughout to remind myself and my readers that the battalion was made up of individual New Zealanders and not simply the ‘personnel’ of certain Army orders and memoranda. Unfortunately, the official records credit certain companies or platoons with various achievements and only rarely mention individuals by name. In addition, the unit war diary was sometimes very limited in its treatment of hard-fought battles or periods for which the fullest details were required. This was often so because those responsible for keeping the diary were killed or wounded. To remedy these deficiencies, I collected as many private diaries as possible. Although the keeping of these diaries was forbidden on security grounds, they have been most valuable in giving me contemporary evidence of the state of morale. But they, too, were brief and only rarely mentioned individual efforts of note.

Where official and private records were sketchy, I secured, by correspondence and interviews with leading actors in the scenes I was trying to reconstruct, some of the essential details, including the names of individuals who would not otherwise have been mentioned. Again, when chapters were completed in their first draft, I circulated them among those members of the unit most likely to make constructive criticisms and to remedy omissions. Nevertheless, I am only too conscious of my failure to mention many many members of the battalion who rendered splendid service. I trust such men will appreciate the difficulty of doing justice to each and every individual and accept my sincere apologies for not having honoured them as they deserve.

Particularly in dealing with individual reactions to danger or events involving fear or excitement, I have preferred to quote directly from the contemporary statements to making my own summary. To those who might criticise this use of quotations as a ‘scissors and paste’ method of writing history, I would say that, in dealing with the emotional side of military history, the author should intervene as little as possible between the reader and the fighting men who have spoken for themselves. Furthermore, some of the quotations from private diaries are so good and so picturesque in themselves that it would have been a grave mistake to tamper with them. John Ruskin exaggerated when he wrote: ‘the only history worth reading is that written at the time of which it treats; the history of page ix what is done and seen out of the mouths of the men who did and saw it’, but his statement applies particularly to the feelings of men in or about to enter battle.

After reading some of my chapters, readers may ask, ‘How trustworthy as witnesses were the men who kept these diaries? Were they typical? Were they not, like some writers, more emotional and more inclined to embroider than the normal down-to-earth South Islander who never put pen to paper concerning his experiences, still less his emotions or feelings?’ My answer is that I have known personally most of the men whose diaries I have used. In the main, they were reliable soldiers, men of steady eye and no lack of courage, men I would and do trust. In addition, it should be remembered that their diaries were not written for publication but as a record for the writers and their more intimate relations. My debt to most of these diarists is acknowledged in the text or in footnotes.

I am also indebted to Mr John Clark, who, before the war ended and for some time thereafter, assembled source material and copied official records.

In addition to thanking those members of the unit who have supplied me with information or have corrected drafts for me, I should like to thank the late General Sir Howard Kippenberger and his staff at the War History Branch for their unfailing courtesy and co-operation. Without the records and campaign narratives they placed at my disposal, this book could not have been written. Without the maps and sketches they have supplied, it might have been unintelligible.

Angus Ross

15 December 1957