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23 Battalion

CHAPTER 19 — Marching On!

page 469

Marching On!

ON 7 May 1945 the battalion celebrated the end of the war in Europe by firing off many coloured flares and with some convivial gatherings enlivened by song and story. Only the shortage of NAAFI supplies and the somewhat critical situation in Trieste acted as limiting factors. On the night of 8 May, the officers had a victory banquet which was also a farewell party for Sandy Thomas, who left a few days later to join the New Zealand Prisoner-of-War Repatriation Unit in England. His departure was a sign of the times and an indication that the unit could now look forward to more and more departures of its long-service officers and men.

In a farewell address to all ranks, Colonel Thomas thanked them all for the magnificent spirit they had shown in the last grand advance in which, he insisted, their success and the lowness of their casualties were both due to the wonderful team spirit in the battalion and the resulting cheerful and efficient co-operation by all ranks. He concluded: ‘To have commanded the Battalion in its final glorious campaign has made me feel extraordinarily proud and grateful—and, at the same time, very young and humble’.

Thomas had built up a most distinguished record for himself as a soldier and an enviable reputation for the 23rd as a fighting unit. General Freyberg held that he had become ‘one of the most dashing and seasoned Commanding Officers of Infantry in the 2 NZ Division’. As platoon, company and battalion commander, in turn, he had always set his men a splendid example of courage and enthusiastic drive in action. He had initiated or stimulated some of the 23rd's most successful feats of arms. Major Don Grant succeeded Thomas as CO. An officer who had been in practically every action with the 23rd since Libya '41, he had the confidence of the men, who recognised him as one of the most reliable and quietly determined officers the 23rd had known.

For May and the first week or so of June, a state of tension existed in Trieste and the province of Istria. Marshal Tito and his forces were trying to consolidate their historical and political page 470 claims to the greater part of Istria by their occupation of it. At first, the 23rd had little or nothing to do with the Yugoslavs apart from running into their road-blocks or meeting their troops in outlying villages. But, on 20 May, the unit moved to the Barcola area about a mile out of Trieste and came under orders to move to action stations if Tito carried out certain threats. ‘Hell! We've finished one war, only to be pitched into what looks like another,’ commented Norman Reed. For a time, the atmosphere was electric and the tension, coupled with the readiness of some Yugoslav soldiers to fire bursts of machine-gun fire on the slightest provocation, was marked. Several alerts and false alarms, operation orders covering the role allotted to the unit in the event of an outbreak of hostilities, an increased sympathy for the Italians and a corresponding antipathy for Yugoslav Communists were features of these days.

Eventually, on 10 June, the Yugoslavs moved out of Trieste and took up positions to the east. The battalion occupied a forward position near Muggia in close contact with the Yugoslavs on the ‘Blue Line’. Tension continued for some time and the situation more than once looked ugly and likely to flare up into something worse. Slowly the tension eased and more friendly relations were established between forces which had been fighting on the same side during the war. The B Company diary for June 1945 gives some idea of the easing of tension:

‘B Coy set off for the other side of Trieste to sit on the “Blue Line”. This was a job requiring tact rather than tactics. For us the Blue Line showed up bold and clear in blue chinagraph on a nicely fixed talc over a 25,000 scale map. The Jugs had a rough version inked heavily on a 200,000 scale map. To establish the exact location of the Line on the ground was a far more difficult matter of compromise than was anticipated. Our cheerful and good-natured approach to the whole affair, while it aimed at creating good relations, was as firm as the clearly obstinate stand of the Jugs…. Our men established the block, while the Jugs set up their block opposite ours. Sentries looked at each other across No Man's Land…. Gradually the Kiwis and the Jugs became more friendly with the aid of an interpreter, some of the local “parlare” and cigarettes. It soon became apparent that despite the friendly relations existing between both sets of soldiers each had a “higher authority” to which it looked for orders…. Finally it was agreed to tie up the whole arrangement between the Bn commanders…. The CO, Lt. Col. D. G. Grant, duly arrived per Jeep. The Jug Bn page 471 Commander rode a fine horse. Each CO had an offsider in the form of an IO and a sense of humour. The result was a happy compromise which saw the CO riding his opposite number's horse, smoking his well-known pipe and confirming excellent relations. We remained where we had been all along and they removed their road block altogether. This spirit culminated on 22 June with their insisting that 8 of our men should attend a dance… B Company felt that it had played a part in the settlement of Trieste and the Blue Line and had a hand in international goodwill.’

Although this tension around Trieste delayed the post-war relaxation that many had hoped to enjoy, it could not long disguise the fact that in Europe at least the war was ended. Men realised that the purpose for which the battalion had been created no longer existed. A unit which had lived for so long for one purpose, had trained and fought and trained and fought again, could not readily adjust its outlook to the new conditions. The coming of peace was more than welcome, but it was also something of an anti-climax. As Private Berney wrote in his diary, ‘We're sort of out of a job now’; while Major Emery could make the typical comment: ‘The news of the cessation of hostilities was taken quietly, it coming rather as an anti-climax. In fact, it almost seems flat after so long at war.’

But, if the stimulus of preparing for another campaign was lacking, most members of the 23rd managed to enjoy themselves to the full during the last few months of their stay in Italy. When not on guard or other duties, they swam and sunbathed by day and danced and drank by night. Kiwi Concert Party shows, cinema shows, organised sports of various kinds, a trotting meeting at which New Zealand drivers participated and in which Private Tom Gunning was a successful representative of the 23rd, an inter-company harbour swim competition, exchanges of visits with other units and with the Navy and Air Force, all these made the time pass pleasantly.

At intervals as shipping became available, the earlier reinforcements left the unit and returned to New Zealand. During this process the 23rd, along with other units in the Division, moved south, first, at the end of July, for some weeks spent near Lake Trasimene and, later, in early October, to Florence. The 6th Reinforcements left the unit on 23 May, the 7th on 16 June, the 8th on 6 August, the 9ths on 26 September, and the page 472 married men of the 10th Reinforcements on 27 November. The end of the battalion as an organised unit came in early December.

The last few weeks of its life had seen many sporting fixtures. W. Woolley,1 W. Butler2 and W. Thayer3 were picked from the 23rd to play in the trials for the ‘Kiwi’ rugby team to tour the United Kingdom, Woolley being selected. Lieutenant Burtt and a battalion group ran the New Zealand Staging Camp at Dijon in France for all the members of the New Zealand Division going on leave to Britain. This was the last service of note that the 23rd rendered to the Division.

The end of the war with Japan meant an earlier return home for many men. Nevertheless, a party of 4 officers and 80 other ranks, under Captain Frank Rennie,4 went from the battalion to J Force. But the 23rd did not go to Japan as a unit. Its demise came in Italy, the scene of its last battles.

The war ended and the 23rd passed into history. But its record stands as one to be emulated by those units of the postwar New Zealand Army into which something of its spirit has been instilled. In many respects, that record is unexcelled. No unit of the Division saw more fighting than did the 23rd. Certainly, all the infantry units saw their share of fighting, but, whereas the 6 Brigade battalions missed Crete and those of 4 Brigade, together with 22 Battalion, missed the North African fighting of late 1942 and of 1943, 5 Brigade went through the fighting of the Middle East and Italy without missing a single campaign. This leaves only 21 and 28 Battalions to compare with the 23rd, and neither of these was more fully employed in battles, both defensive and offensive, than the 23rd.

The fact that the battalion was never overrun by tanks in the desert and was not cut off in Greece or Crete, but always managed to emerge from battle as an organised fighting unit, led to its being termed ‘a lucky unit’. But Luck is a fickle jade: no man remains consistently lucky. Luck over a period of years is usually found to have sound foundations. Was luck the explanation of the 23rd's record? Or was it the tightly knit page 473 team spirit and the pride in unit which were so strong in the battalion? How much of this luck can be attributed to fate and how much to the indomitable will and tough fighting spirit of the 23rd can be assessed from the record now concluded. The 23rd was certainly lucky in not being decimated in any one major disaster, but, in the main, it made its luck and deserved it.

One fact about the history of the 23rd redounds to its credit without suggesting ‘good luck’ and that is the number of its casualties. Although it never succumbed to any major disaster, its accumulated casualties were higher than those of most units. The officer casualties, both in killed and wounded, were the highest for any unit in the Division. This may be taken as a measure of the tough fighting in which the 23rd was engaged and, in particular, of the aggressive leadership in attack displayed by the junior officers of the battalion. In lowness of numbers lost as prisoners of war, the 23rd was second only to the Maori Battalion, and yet, in total numbers of killed and wounded, was second highest in the Division. These facts demonstrate something of the hardness and the long duration of the fighting seen by the battalion.

In Cassino and one or two other places, the battalion was given tasks virtually impossible of full execution. The unit therefore was not able to live up to the proud boast of Colonel Romans that ‘The 23rd always takes its objective’ but, at least, it always tried hard, and the number of times it held a difficult place in a defensive line or spearheaded a 5 Brigade attack bears testimony to the trust placed in it by the senior officers of the Division.

As has been indicated in this book, morale in war is a highly important factor, especially for infantry soldiers. In the 23rd morale normally ran high, faltering but rarely, and, at certain critical times, as on the eve of an important battle, it reached amazing heights. A staff corps officer, who belonged to another infantry battalion, once told the writer: ‘I was lectured on morale and esprit de corps at Duntroon and lectured on them myself at Trentham and Burnham but I never really knew what they meant until I met the officers and men of the 23rd Battalion’.

The lifting of the morale of the 23rd to the high pitch which saw it emerge victorious from most of its battles, and which won the appreciative comment of outsiders, was due to the unit's leaders, to its discipline, to the strong unit spirit and the closely page 474 knit comradeship within the battalion. ‘Morale is, in the first place, based on leadership. Good morale is impossible without good leaders.’5 Not only was the battalion blessed with good leaders from Falconer through to Thomas, but there was also a remarkable continuity of command which in itself helps to explain the spirit of the 23rd. No matter how brilliant a commander may be, unless he is known to his men, his influence will remain limited until he has proved his quality in some way or another. The 23rd was never commanded in action by any but original officers of the unit. Probably, the battalion was unique in the Division in this respect, in that while other units had to accept commanders appointed according to the gradation list or seniority, the 23rd in battle maintained the succession in the ‘original line’ from Falconer to Thomas.

Falconer laid the foundations for the 23rd on a broad basis and laid them truly. He aimed at building a unit with as fine a spirit and as fine traditions as the Canterbury and Otago Regiments both in the First World War and in the Territorial Army. Leckie, with a narrower but fiercer spirit, instilled more of the Southland-cum-Highland clannishness or partisan spirit into the unit. He helped to generate a genuine pride in the battalion, which in turn made demands on the men to live up to their vaunted ‘second to none’ record. Watson took over during a campaign and went ‘into the bag’ before he could impress his personality on the unit to any marked degree. Romans built on the broad foundations laid by Falconer and utilised wisely the spirit instilled by Leckie. The early months of his distinguished tenure of office nearly coincided with General Montgomery's early period as commander of the Eighth Army, a period when reform was very definitely in the air. Romans saw that the discipline of the unit was tightened and the efficiency of the unit improved in the direction of making the 23rd a better fighting instrument. Connolly continued in the Romans tradition and encouraged his men to regard themselves as ‘the salt of the earth’ simply because they were the 23rd Battalion. He was unfortunate in being given such a tough assignment in Cassino. Morale slumped after the heavy losses suffered there and the setbacks which accompanied the loss of so many good leaders at all levels. McPhail successfully set about the patient and careful rebuilding of the unit and its page 475 spirit. Thomas was assisted by the very considerable reputation he had established for himself as a fighting soldier, as well as by his infectious enthusiasm and colourful personality. In him, personal pride and professional ambition were mixed with as genuine a love for the unit as his predecessors had borne. In the last campaign, the 23rd ‘pushed on’ with a will and with a morale as high as it had known at any earlier stage of its history.

The commanding officers were supported by men of like mind and spirit. Ted Thomson, Peter Norris, Gordon Cunningham made good commanders of platoons and companies—they would have made grand commanders of battalions. Ted Richards, Tom Morten and Alan McPhail, in fact, did go to command other units in the Division. The 23rd was fortunate it could spare them. Officers of the calibre of Bert Thomason, Don Grant, Ian Wilson, Alex Robins, ‘Wiff’ McArthur, Charlie Mason, Harry Low, Fred Irving, Dan Davis, Tuan Emery and a score of others kept the confidence of the men in their officers at a high level. That confidence was intensified and increased by the type of discipline which became more or less traditional in the battalion.

In his first address to his officers, Falconer insisted that authority could be exercised quite firmly but in ways other than the tyrannical and blasphemous bullying which had been known in some army units in the past. His requirement that officers should clearly recognise their responsibilities to those under them paved the way for the mutual feeling of confidence which prevailed between officers, NCOs and men. His policy in dealing with crimes and in awarding punishments was not soft, but neither was it lacking in generosity.

If the discipline in the 23rd was not always as severe as it might have been, this may have been due to a policy which Leckie declared had its origins in the officers' mess: ‘No efficiency without happiness’. Possibly the accent was occasionally laid too heavily on happiness and too lightly on efficiency, but the 23rd was certainly a very happy battalion and it always maintained a wonderful feeling of comradeship, typical of the citizen-soldiers from the somewhat slow-moving society of the South Island. The comradeship in the unit was not restricted to one level, such as the section or the platoon, but united the great majority of men, irrespective of rank, in a remarkable determination to place the honour of the battalion above personal interests. This comradeship, a most important element in page 476 the unit spirit, grew stronger after the unit had been through its first actions. After all, the test of war is the greatest test to which the comradeship of men can be put. Close association in the face of death, one man depending on another, one company trusting its neighbour, the mutual confidence that intensified when men had been put to the test and found dependable—these factors increased the bonds of unity in the battalion. If some of the ‘originals’, after their eighteen months of being the battalion, were somewhat reluctant to welcome newcomers, that feeling soon disappeared and later reinforcements were quickly made to feel they were being admitted to their permanent ‘home’ in the Army, to the unit to which henceforth they would belong or form a part.6 They were also given to understand that the 23rd had a very special record which they must aspire to maintain or develop.

Lord Wavell once said: ‘I am sure that they [soldiers] fight best of all when they are part of a good unit, and feel it’.7 Lord Moran expressed much the same idea in a slightly different way: ‘Loyalty to a fine battalion may take hold of a man and stiffen his purpose’.8 The men of 23 Battalion knew or came to know that they belonged to a good unit, a fine battalion, and they responded accordingly. Most members of the 23rd were conscious of belonging to and being possessed by a force much bigger and much more important than themselves. In consequence, with few exceptions, they strove with a deepening loyalty to give of their best to their battalion and to make it the best battalion in the Division. Of course, to its members, each battalion was, or should have been, ‘the best battalion ever’. Members of the 23rd will not deny to others what they claim for their own. They know they earned for their unit the reputation of being a first-class fighting battalion. At peak, the 23rd possessed a tremendous spirit, an élan, which carried it through the difficult times and enabled it to make a distinguished contribution to the record of the 2nd New Zealand Division.

page 477

What has happened to this splendid spirit of the 23rd Battalion? In a general sense, it has returned to the country from which it sprang. In a more particular sense, it continues to provide a bond between its former members. This bond finds its most exuberant expression at 23rd reunions, but it goes deeper than the feelings inspired by periodic meetings with old friends. It goes as deep almost as the bonds of blood and kinship and provides a lasting basis for comradeship between men of different walks of life, between farmer and clerk, between businessman and miner, between high-country shepherd and tradesman, and between wharf labourer and university lecturer.

In the special sphere of army service, the influence of the 23rd has not been without its effect. Just as during the war the battalion provided commanders for other units and staff officers for Divisional and Brigade Headquarters, so in the post-war years it has been well represented in the Regular and Territorial Armies. Sandy Thomas joined the British Army and has seen service with the Hampshires in Kenya, Malaya and elsewhere. Harry Low was awarded the DSO for his work as commanding officer of the Fijian Battalion for two years in Malaya. Frank Rennie commanded the Special Air Service Squadron of New Zealanders in Malaya. Bob Dawson, Rex Musgrave, John McPherson and Selwyn Jensen, as officers, and ‘Tubby’ Ramsay and probably others, as senior NCOs, continue to serve in the New Zealand Regular Force. In the Territorial Army, Brigadier ‘Acky’ Falconer is Colonel of the Otago and Southland Regiment. Monty Fairbrother has commanded the 2nd Infantry Brigade, while Alan McPhail and Tom Morten have commanded the 3rd Brigade. Battalion and company commanders have been widely spread and numerous. Dick Harrison has commanded the 1st Battalion of the Hawke's Bay Regiment, Bob Dawson and Carl Watson the 1st Wellington Regiment (City of Wellington's Own), Ted Richards and Dick Orbell the 1st Nelson, Marlborough and West Coast Regiment, Tom Morten the 1st Canterbury Regiment, Alan McPhail and Angus Ross the 1st Otago and Southland Regiment. Some of these and many others, including Bridge Grey, Fred Marett, Andrew Cooper, Lex Reeves, Bernie Cox, Jim Baxter, Toby Thomas, Bob Barton and Fred Irving, have all been company commanders in Territorial units.

In dealing with an intangible such as the spirit of a wartime unit, it is impossible to be precise and definite but it is reasonable to claim that most of the officers named have striven to page 478 recreate in their new battalions something of the spirit of the 23rd, the spirit which meant so much to them during the war and which was so largely responsible for their volunteering to serve again in the post-war years. Two items of evidence may be adduced in support of this claim. After a 3rd Brigade commander's inspection of the 1st Otago and Southland Regiment, Brigadier McPhail told the troops a little of the history of the 23rd Battalion and said he was confident that the spirit of the 23rd lived on simply because so many of its officers and NCOs were members of the new Territorial units. In the officers' mess of the same unit, a junior subaltern, who must have been a schoolboy when the war ended in 1945, concluded an argument by saying, ‘Well, Fred Marett told us that in the 23rd they always….’ That was sufficient. His point was accepted by his contemporaries.

This continuing service of the members of the 23rd is not yet ended. In addition, many members of the battalion are rendering service in other spheres and walks of life. The spirit of the 23rd is not dead! It is marching on!

1 WO I S. W. Woolley; Mangawhata, Palmerston North; born NZ 26 Nov 1919; farmer.

2 Pte W. G. Butler; born NZ 27 Nov 1922; clerk.

3 Capt W. R. Thayer; Gore; born NZ 13 May 1919; farm labourer.

4 Maj F. Rennie, MBE, MC, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 9 Aug 1918; Regular soldier; served in Pacific Jan 1942-Jan 1945; Italy, 1945; J Force Sep 1945-Jul 1946; OC NZ SAS Sqn, Malaya, 1955–57.

5 Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery, ‘Morale in Battle’, an address given to the Royal Society of Medicine, and published in British Medical Journal, 9 Nov 1946.

6 The unit war diary for 10 October 1945 describes the farewell to those members of the 23rd going to J Force. In his reply, Captain Frank Rennie spoke of the pleasant and happy time that all of them had had with the 23rd and mentioned the warm welcome afforded men from 3 Division (Pacific) on their arrival in the unit.

7 A. P. Wavell, Soldiers and Soldiering, p. 121.

8 Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage, p. 70.