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23 Battalion

CHAPTER 1 — ‘What's in a Name?’

page 1

‘What's in a Name?’

‘WHERE Britain goes, we go! Where she stands, we stand!’ said Michael Joseph Savage, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, at the outbreak of the Second World War. He spoke for the whole country. Many factors, including traditional loyalty to the British Crown for nearly one hundred years, sentiment born of ties of kinship and a common heritage, and material interests relating to markets, loans and security, made New Zealand's decision to enter the war the only possible decision at that time. New Zealand declared war against Germany as from 9.30 p.m., New Zealand standard time, on the 3rd day of September, 1939, a time coinciding to the minute with the declaration of war by the United Kingdom.

Almost immediately, the Dominion Government resolved to send a Special Force to fight in the European theatre of war. Somewhat later it decided that this force should be an infantry division under the command of Major-General B. C. Freyberg, VC. The Special Force was to be despatched in three echelons, each made up of an infantry brigade with appropriate supporting units of artillery, engineers, machine-gunners and Army Service Corps. Since the Territorial Army, or 1st Division, with its three infantry brigades was nominally required for home defence, the 2nd Division, as the new force later came to be known, was divided into the 4th, 5th and 6th Brigades. To avoid duplicating numbers borne by any earlier or existing units, the numbering of the infantry battalions began at 18, that is, immediately after the 17th (Ruahine) Regiment of the 1st Division. Thus, the units of the First Echelon or 4th Brigade were the 18th (Auckland), the 19th (Wellington) and the 20th (Canterbury-Otago) Battalions. Similarly, the 5th Brigade had units drawn from the Northern, Central and Southern Military Districts of New Zealand in its 21st (Auckland), 22nd (Wellington) and 23rd (Canterbury-Otago) Battalions. Sixth Brigade was organised in the same way. A tenth infantry unit, the 28th (Maori) Battalion, sailed with the 5th Brigade and served for the greater part of the war in that brigade.

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Twenty-third Battalion, therefore, was a wartime creation, constituted for the one purpose, namely, to fight in the Second World War. But, despite its complete lack of a regimental history or any glorious record of service on earlier battlefields, this unit was to distinguish itself by its active participation in all the campaigns in which 2 New Zealand Division was engaged. Actually, it inherited more from the past than is immediately apparent. The insertion of the geographical names in the official nomenclature of units represented a compromise between simple numerical titles and the older Territorial Army regimental names as well as an attempt to evoke some of the local or provincial pride typical of many parts of New Zealand. The first commanding officer used the title ‘to impress upon all ranks the responsibility of 23rd Bn to uphold the high tradition established in 1914–18 by units of 1 NZEF, particularly the Canterbury and Otago Regiments, which included representative companies from all the existing Territorial Regiments in the South Island.’

So far as New Zealand Army Headquarters in Wellington was concerned, the name 23rd (Canterbury-Otago) Battalion was retained throughout the war. A list of authorised abbreviations, issued by that headquarters on 8 April 1940, stated that the 23rd (Canterbury-Otago) Battalion was to be known as ‘23 Canto’. Another abbreviation, ‘Cant-Otago’, officially authorised on 30 April 1940, was much more popular and was used until a 2 NZEF Order of 29 August 1941 stated that the words ‘New Zealand’ or the abbreviation ‘NZ’ must thereafter form part of the designation of all units of the force. From that date, therefore, the 23rd New Zealand Battalion was the name by which this unit was officially known. To most of its members, however, it was known as ‘23 Battalion’ or ‘The Twenty-third’. Naturally, the omission of the ‘Canterbury-Otago’ part of the name was strongly favoured by the men who came from Southland, Nelson, Marlborough and the West Coast. Possibly the Southland origins of the acting commanding officer were responsible for the premature dropping of the ‘Canterbury-Otago’ portion of the title and the adoption of a further but unofficial name. After embarkation and during the voyage overseas, unit routine orders appeared as issued ‘By Major D. F. Leckie,1 commanding 23rd Rifle Battalion’. These orders page 3 were signed by the first adjutant, ‘R. B. Dawson,2 Capt. N.Z.S.C., Adjutant 23rd Rifle Battalion’, although he had previously issued orders from ‘HQ 23 Canto’. But, as Shakespeare said, ‘What's in a name?… a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ This South Island battalion, with only a number to distinguish it from other units, was to win fame in battle which would have done credit to historic regiments with long lists of battle honours.

Foundation days are not easily selected when no official ruling has been given. When 23 Battalion came into existence is a question of no great significance, but it is of some interest to recall certain dates in the period of the unit's formation. On 8 November 1939 a group of officers from the South Island Territorial regiments entered Burnham Camp, about 20 miles south of Christchurch, to prepare for the training of the men who were to join them two months later. So far as they were concerned, 8 November was the foundation day or birthday of the 23rd and in later years they celebrated it as such. Several prospective NCOs entered camp in early December and the main body of volunteer recruits entered Burnham on 12 January 1940 as the men of 23 Battalion. On 13 March, as if to mark the close of a brief introductory chapter in its history, 23 Battalion was placed on active service. On 1 May it left New Zealand for the great adventure overseas.

The period of training in Burnham differed only very slightly from similar periods in the history of all infantry units preparing to go to war. Nevertheless, habits and traditions of some importance began to grow. While, on the surface, the time was spent in fitting each individual into his company, platoon and section, in supplying him with the roughly manufactured denims, peaked felt hat and boots which made up the working dress of the private soldier of early 1940, and the serge jacket with brass buttons which, together with the narrowly cut serge trousers, constituted the ‘walking out’ uniform, and in teaching him to look more like a soldier both on and off the parade ground, changes were taking place in the men and the unit. Whereas, at first, the volunteers had merely entered ‘the Army’ or ‘the Special Force’, soon they were talking and thinking in terms of ‘the 23rd Battalion’ and of its quality compared with other units. The senior officers of the 23rd insisted that the fine page 4 record established by New Zealand soldiers in the past must be maintained and that the traditions of 1 NZEF and of the Territorial regiments must be upheld. Such talk meant little or nothing to some recruits, but from commanding officer and company commanders to subalterns, sergeants and section leaders, and thence to the men, there slowly percolated a genuine consciousness of responsibility in this matter. Even more important was the steady growth of a determination to make the 23rd ‘second to none’.

Questioned in post-war years about the origins of the esprit de corps for which the 23rd was justly famous, most officers and men agreed in giving the principal credit to their first CO, Lieutenant-Colonel A. S. (‘Acky’) Falconer.3 The comments of J. R. J. Connolly,4 a subaltern in Burnham and later CO himself, are worth recording: ‘I am sure the foundation of our “esprit de corps” was laid among the original officers of the battalion in Burnham school. Acky must take a lot of credit as he always treated us as full grown men. We were together for long enough to straighten out points among ourselves before the men arrived and I can think of few better weeks in all my life. Either one was in the swim voluntarily or one was thrown in. Absolutely no resisting them and our minds were 23rd right from the start! … I remember Brian Bassett5 giving talks on the subject of morale, esprit de corps, etc., to the companies in Burnham and I never heard a better job made of any subject than he made of it. Brian was intensely Irish and didn't realize it. I saw men—strong men—surreptitiously wiping their eyes that day. Fair Dinkum! It was a great job and many men today will remember it. He skimmed the cream from the regimental histories of World War I South Island units and put it over to each company. I repeat—a really fine job he made of it.’

Without good officers, a battalion cannot readily become a good fighting unit. The 23rd was fortunate in its original officers, who were men of character and personality with natural qualities of leadership. The first commander, Lieutenant-Colonel page 5 Falconer, already possessed a long and distinguished record of service. A Territorial NCO before 1914, he had wide regimental and staff experience as an officer in 1914–18 and, for some years after 1929, he was commanding officer of 1 Battalion of the Otago Regiment. His men took pride both in his Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross and in his record from Gallipoli to Flanders. The second-in-command, Major Leckie, had served for over three years in the earlier war as a trooper in the Canterbury Mounted Rifles and for some fifteen years as an officer in the Southland Regiment. Similarly, Major Fyfe,6 commanding HQ Company, had served as a sergeant in the Otago Regiment in the First World War and as an officer in the Southland Regiment in the inter-war years. Major Thomason,7 commanding C Company, had won an MM in the earlier war and had served as a Territorial officer in Nelson for many years. Both Captain Kelly,8 B Company's commander, and Captain Patterson,9 the Quartermaster, were First World War men and serving Territorial officers. Twenty of the officers had been commissioned before the war in their respective Territorial regiments. The remainder were selected from the original ranks of 20 Battalion for commissioning in New Zealand after a special course of training at Trentham. The general result was that the battalion was officered by a team of men who combined age and experience with youth and enthusiasm, war and regimental training with the latest in courses of instruction.

But good officers alone do not make a good unit. The men who joined the 23rd in January 1940 represented a fair crossection of the male civilian population of the South Island. Nearly all walks of life were represented, and if miners predominated in C Company and farmers and farmhands in B, this factor accounted for the physical prowess displayed by these two companies on rugby as well as battle fields. There were a few rogues and military ‘undesirables’, some of whom had been inherited from the First Echelon. A greater number were freedom-loving New Zealanders who believed that they page 6 themselves were the best judges of what they should do and how and when they should do it. ‘There was a good percentage of ratbags who kept going Absent Without Leave,’ wrote one 23rd officer about his first platoon. ‘But every second New Zealander will make at least an N.C.O.,’ General Kippenberger has said, and the two statements are not irreconcilable. Men of initiative, accustomed to complete liberty of action, do not submit immediately to a life of discipline. But, when trained and brought to understand the value of organisation and discipline, these same men can often prove to be able and popular leaders. Only a very few proved to be unworthy of a place in the 23rd. The camaraderie, the mutual feeling of confidence between leaders and led, and the generally excellent relations between officers, NCOs and men had their beginnings in the training period in Burnham. Most of the NCOs and many of the men had undergone some military training in High School cadets or in Territorial regiments, and what the others lacked in experience they made up for by keenness to learn.

A Southern Military District recommendation to adopt 20 Battalion's nomenclature for companies was followed and thus A Company drew its men from Canterbury, B Company from Southland, C from Nelson, Marlborough and the West Coast, and D from Otago. In the main, this practice was followed throughout the war and reinforcements normally went to the company connected with the province from which they came.

All the training was done under the unit's own officers and NCOs. The senior officers already mentioned, together with Captain Campbell,10 formerly Highland Light Infantry and Indian Army, and Captain Pugh,11 commanding A and D Companies respectively, kept the training as realistic as possible. General Freyberg had insisted that training for war was to be the keynote of all instruction given and this suited both officers and men. Nevertheless, the senior NCOs, especially the Regimental Sergeant-Major, WO I Johnson,12 and the Company Sergeants-Major, A. M. Buckley,13 A. E. M. Lawrence,14 A. W. page 7 Moodie15 (these four from the New Zealand Permanent Staff), L. M. Kidd16 and J. D. Conning,17 saw that the time spent on the parade ground produced a general smartening. But more time was spent on musketry, elementary tactics and fieldcraft. The CO demanded a high standard of marksmanship and, despite the poor range facilities at Redcliffs, this was attained by the great majority. Route marches and night exercises along lines familiar to most infantry units completed the pattern of training. Potential NCOs and specialists in HQ Company were amazingly keen: Major Leckie later reported that ‘the few Bren guns, Bren carriers, 3? mortars and A/Tk rifles were always in use for training purposes by the many enthusiasts long after parade and training hours were completed for the day.’ The same officer also reported that ‘all problems in training that arose were met and overcome with the usual 23 Bn resource and initiative’. A Highland pipe band, formed from pipers in the unit, produced a marked improvement in the marching. Most of the light-machine-gun training was done on the Lewis. The men were introduced to the Bren but too few of this new weapon were available for full training to be done on it. The Thompson sub-machine gun was not issued in New Zealand and anti-tank weapons were in short supply. Otherwise, the battalion trained under good conditions with suitable equipment for basic and individual training.

To assist the recruiting rallies which were a feature of the appeals for volunteers until conscription was introduced, the whole battalion paraded and gave special demonstrations in Christchurch. A party of 250 from the 23rd also paraded in Dunedin, Gore and Invercargill. On various occasions, the unit was inspected by the commander of 5 Brigade, Brigadier James Hargest,18 whose record in the 1914–18 war inspired complete confidence in his ability and whose Southland associations made the battalion feel that it had a special claim upon his interest. Two special parades came in late February and early March: the first was for Lord Willingdon, the official representative of page 8 the British Government at the New Zealand centennial, and the second was for the Governor-General, Viscount Galway. In mid-April Major-General J. E. Duigan, Chief of the General Staff in New Zealand, inspected the unit. That meant the day of departure from New Zealand was not far distant.

Final inoculations, final leave, the fighting of the last round of ‘the paper war’ in New Zealand, official and private farewells were soon completed. The 23rd was now trained as well as time and equipment available would permit: the men were physically fit, the administration had reached a reasonable standard of efficiency, and the unit, while not yet ready for action, was fitted to proceed to final training overseas. Its nearest neighbours in Burnham were the men of the Railway Construction and Maintenance Unit, who looked on themselves as skilled technicians rather than as men-at-arms. By way of contrast, the men of the 23rd felt that they were fighting soldiers. In common with most of the early units of volunteers, they had a superb confidence in their ability to live up to the record of New Zealanders in earlier wars. A new unit had come into being. Its members were already proud to belong to the 23rd.

1 Col D. F. Leckie, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Invercargill; born Dunedin, 9 Jun 1897; school-teacher; Canterbury Mounted Rifles Regt, Anzac Mounted Division, 1916–19; CO 23 Bn Aug 1940-Mar 1941, May 1941-Jun 1942; comd 75 Sub-Area, Middle East, Aug 1942-Mar 1944; wounded 25 May 1941.

2 Col R. B. Dawson, DSO, m.i.d.; Bangkok; born Rotorua, 21 Jul 1916; Regular soldier; BM 5 Bde May-Sep 1941, Jan-Jun 1942; BM 6 Bde 1942-43; CO 3 Bn, 2 NZEF (Japan), 1947–48; Director of Staff Duties, Army HQ, 1949–52; Director of Plans, 1955–57; Planning Staff, SEATO, 1957-.

3 Brig A. S. Falconer, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Mosgiel, 4 Nov 1892; tobacconist and secretary; Otago Regt 1914–19 (BM 2 Inf Bde); CO 23 Bn Jan-Aug 1940, Mar-May 1941; comd 7 and 5 Inf Bdes in UK, 1940–41; NZ Maadi Camp, Jun 1941-Oct 1942; 5 Div (in NZ) Dec 1942-Aug 1943; Overseas Commissioner, NZ Patriotic Fund Board, Nov 1943-Feb 1945.

4 Lt-Col J. R. J. Connolly, m.i.d.; Ashburton; born NZ 13 Aug 1910; petrol serviceman; CO 23 Bn Apr-May 1943, Dec 1943-May 1944; twice wounded.

5 Maj B. I. Bassett, m.i.d.; born NZ 12 Sep 1911; barrister and solicitor; BM 10 Bde May 1941; BM 4 Bde Aug 1941-Jan 1942, Jun-Jul 1942; killed in action 5 Jul 1942.

6 Maj T. Fyfe, ED; born Pakanui, 3 Oct 1892; school-teacher; killed in action 20 May 1941.

7 Maj H. H. Thomason, MM, ED; Motueka; born Ngatimoti, Nelson, 9 Oct 1896; estate manager and orchardist; Wgtn Regt 1914–19 (2 Lt); wounded 29 May 1941.

8 Lt-Col S. J. Kelly, ED; Invercargill; born Winton, 7 Feb 1895; schoolteacher; OC NZ Reception Depot, Maadi, Oct 1941-Apr 1942; CO 1 NMWC Regt (in NZ) 1942–43.

9 Capt I. Patterson, MSM, ED; Dunedin; born Wellington, 5 Dec 1895; company representative; CQMS, NZASC, 1914–18 War; wounded 22 May 1941.

10 Capt A. le G. Campbell; Stoke, Nelson; born Wellington, 3 Dec 1896; Regular soldier.

11 Maj T. J. G. Pugh, ED; Mosgiel; born Highcliff, 17 Jul 1904; farmer; wounded 27 Nov 1941.

12 Lt A. Johnson; born England, 3 Jul 1900; Regular soldier; wounded May 1941.

13 Lt A. M. Buckley; born Christchurch, 24 May 1911; Regular soldier; died of wounds 3 Sep 1942.

14 Maj A. E. M. Lawrence, MBE; Christchurch; born Hokitika, 30 Dec 1913; Regular soldier.

15 2 Lt A. W. Moodie; born Dunedin, 9 Jun 1913; Regular soldier; killed in action 29 Apr 1941.

16 WO II L. M. Kidd; Amberley; born Amberley, 22 Jul 1922; farmhand; wounded 15 Jan 1944.

17 WO II J. D. Conning; born Wanganui, 15 Sep 1916; carpenter; killed in action 24 May 1941.

18 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d.; born Gore, 4 Sep 1891; farmer; MP, 1931–44; Otago Mounted Rifles, 1914–20 (CO 2 Bn Otago Regt); comd 5 Bde May 1940-Nov 1941; p.w. 27 Nov 1941; escaped Italy, Mar 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.