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23 Battalion

CHAPTER 2 — Battle of Britain Men

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Battle of Britain Men

ATROOPSHIP berthed in Lyttelton on 12 April 1940. Rumours as to the date of embarkation flew thick and fast round Burnham Camp. On 27 April a special parade and civic farewell function was held in Christchurch. On 30 April the order to pack for departure the next morning was given. That night was spent in last-minute packing and letter-writing, and in drinking toasts of good luck and celebration with the one hand and drowning sorrows with the other. At dawn the straw from the palliasses on which the men had slept was burned: in a curiously dramatic way, this detail in the tidying of the camp symbolised the end of a chapter.

At this time of departure from New Zealand, the officers of 23 Battalion were:

Battalion Headquarters

A Company

B Company

  • OC: Capt S. J. Kelly

  • 2 i/c: Capt I. O. Manson

  • 2 Lt E. A. McPhail

  • Lt R. E. Romans

  • 2 Lt A. F. G. McGregor

Headquarters Company

  • OC: Maj T. Fyfe

  • Lt J. B. Gray (AA Platoon)

  • Lt E. E. Richards (Mortars)

  • Lt M. J. Coop (Bren carriers)

  • Lt J. R. J. Connolly (Pioneers)

  • Lt N. Jones (Signals)

  • Capt I. Patterson (QM)

  • Lt T. B. Morten (Transport)

C Company

D Company

  • OC: Capt T. J. G. Pugh

  • 2 i/c: Capt H. M. Smith

  • Lt R. L. Bond

  • 2 Lt J. C. Scoular

  • 2 Lt G. H. Cunningham

Officers who embarked with the 23rd and were treated to all intents and purposes as members of the unit included Captain page 10 M. D. Harvey, Lieutenants D. J. Bell, E. R. Ferguson, M. D. Grant, R. G. McKinlay, and K. Simmonds, Second-Lieutenants T. F. Begg, J. H. Ensor, R. G. Deans and R. K. King.

On the morning of 1 May the troop train from Burnham ran alongside the Andes. The men carried large and small packs as well as rifles and sea kits but they were quickly accommodated in a most satisfactory way. By noon the embarkation of 23 Battalion, the Forestry Company, the Railway Construction and Maintenance Group and some nurses was completed. Ten minutes before the departure time, the wharf gates were opened and friends and relations rushed to the ship's side to take a last farewell. Streamers were thrown from the wharf to the soldiers leaning over the rails of the Andes. They broke as the ship moved out into the stream. That was the signal for the exchange of round after round of cheering between the thousands on the wharf and the departing soldiers. Every whistle and siren joined in sounding a farewell; pipers played their pipes and some soldiers sang the inevitable ‘Roll out the Barrel’; Lyttelton harbour rang with the noise. But there were some who could neither cheer nor sing—they felt a tightening of the throat as well-loved faces faded from view.

Since no structural alterations had been made to their luxury liner, the men were well pleased with conditions on board the Andes. On this voyage 76 officers and 1323 other ranks were carried. With the exception of 214 men for whom hammocks were supplied, all soldiers found themselves in cabins with private bathrooms.

Swimming baths, excellent dining-rooms, wide deck space for training and recreation, wet and dry canteens where cigarettes, beer and spirits sold for approximately half the usual New Zealand prices, and friendly sailors—all these made for happy voyaging and good morale. Comparing conditions with those experienced by soldiers in the First World War, Brigadier Hargest said: ‘This time we all travel in great comfort in the finest super-ships the British Merchant Navy has ever gathered in one convoy. And the comfort is not limited to officers. The most poorly-placed man of this echelon is infinitely better off for accommodation, food and attention than the most favoured of his predecessors in 1914–18.’1

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On 2 May the Andes joined the other ships in the convoy in Cook Strait. They were the Aquitania, the Empress of Britain and the Empress of Japan. Escorted by the Canberra, Australia and Leander, the convoy made a good crossing of the Tasman. The Queen Mary, the Mauretania and the Empress of Canada in turn joined the convoy, which made a wonderful picture of both speed and majesty. A few weeks later, in London, The Times described it as ‘the grandest convoy in all history’.

Life at sea for the 23rd passed very much as it did for other New Zealand army units proceeding overseas. Boat drill, the manning of sixty-nine sentry posts, physical training, lectures and a variety of athletic competitions filled the days and weeks. A welcome break came at Fremantle on 10 May. The residents of Perth more than lived up to their reputation for generous West Australian hospitality. The day passed all too quickly with visits to shops, places of amusement, hotels and private homes. The men returned to ship at or after midnight, some more than a little elated and others with souvenirs as varied as toy koalas, a live kangaroo and ‘Aussie’ hat-badges. The CO's orderly room was busy dealing with offences committed on shore, but only one member of the 23rd was left behind at Fremantle. Perth was soon little more than a pleasant memory, and the men were thinking about the news that the Germans had invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg.

As the BBC announced further German advances almost daily, the interest in the news grew keener. A bulletin was produced and posted on notice boards. The latest news was read out at evening lectures or concerts. Thus, on 18 May, it was announced that Brussels had fallen and that the British Army's lines of communication were threatened. ‘After a moment's hushed silence,’ wrote Lieutenant Brian Bassett to his wife that night, ‘one of the boys jumped up and suggested an item to the band, and a thousand voices sang “There'll Always be an England”. Then they rose and sang “God Save the King”.’

By that date all were aware that their destination had been altered. When they left New Zealand, no official announcement had been made on this subject but everyone took it for granted they were going to join the First Echelon in Egypt. ‘Berlin, via Cairo’ was chalked on one railway carriage on that last morning in New Zealand. Late on 15 May, when the convoy was south-west of Cocos Island, it received orders to steam page 12 towards South Africa. The arrival of HMS Shropshire and the departure of HMAS Canberra and HMS Leander indicated that the voyage was to be continued in the Atlantic.

On 26 May the Andes reached Capetown. Again the hospitality was superb. But the excesses of some, coupled with a large amount of absence without leave, led to a reduction of shore leave until the stragglers had been rounded up from different parts of the Union. Some men had tried to reach Johannesburg, so eager were they to take the fullest advantage of their opportunity to see the world. The Capetown Chief of Police made his own comment on the horseplay of the Australians and New Zealanders who had commandeered donkey carts, fire-engines and buses. ‘He told me,’ Brigadier Hargest reported later, ‘we have loved having both you and the Australians, but, pray God, you never both come back together again.’

When they left Capetown on 31 May, the troops were confident that Britain must now be their destination. As the convoy steamed north up the Atlantic coast of Africa, training continued so far as conditions permitted. Lieutenant-Colonel Falconer, as OC Troops, and Major Leckie, as acting CO of the battalion, worked out a detailed scheme for anti-aircraft protection of the Andes: four Vickers guns, carried by 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion reinforcements, were mounted on improvised mountings and four rifle platoons at a time were given anti-aircraft duties. Crossing the line was celebrated in time-honoured fashion for a representative number of troops and boxing contests stimulated interest when enthusiasm for ordinary PT flagged. The tropical heat was stifling during the call at Freetown (Sierra Leone), where no leave was granted on account of the risk of contracting malaria and other diseases.

On and after 10 June, ‘Action Stations’ was regularly called. This included the manning of additional anti-aircraft and submarine defence posts as dangerous waters were now being entered. Live ammunition was used in practice shoots. Those who had been inclined to complain about the heat and other conditions forgot to complain. On 10 June, too, it was announced that Italy had entered the war. Colonel Falconer told the troops that this deterioration in the military situation meant that they must expect no leave on disembarkation but rather a short period of intensive training preparatory to entering the firing line. The men responded by cheering him loudly. On 15 June the Andes passed the wreckage of two ships which had been torpedoed the previous night. Later that day an oil page 13 tanker sticking straight up out of the water and belching forth flames and smoke was seen. These were certainly dangerous waters but, with the aid of the Royal Navy and the RAF, the convoy reached Gourock in the Firth of Clyde without untoward incident on 16 June. The 17,000 miles of ocean had been safely crossed.

By this time France had signed an armistice with the Germans and therefore the British Commonwealth had to fight on alone. This meant that the Australians and New Zealanders were made doubly welcome. The GOC Scottish Command came on board to deliver an inspiring message from the King. Other messages from Mr Jordan, New Zealand's High Commissioner in London, General Freyberg and the Under-Secretary of State for the Dominions heightened the feeling that the troops had arrived at the right place at the right time. When the troops disembarked at Gourock on 19 June and travelled by train to Aldershot, they found that the formal welcomes were reinforced a thousand times by the people who greeted them at nearly every station.

Arriving at Aldershot North Camp station on the morning of 20 June, the battalion marched behind its own pipe band to its tented camp at Mytchett. Brigadier Hargest spoke for all when he said: ‘We are glad to be here. We would rather be here than anywhere else in the world. We enter this fight boots and all.’ Gratitude to the Navy for its successful escort during a long voyage and pleasure at their stirring welcome from the British people mingled with their original New Zealand spirit to make the men of the 23rd determined to give of their best in the ‘Battle for Britain’.

Already, on 4 June 1940, Mr Churchill had declared, ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills: we shall never surrender.’ Invasion was definitely expected. Consequently, the spirit in which the men entered upon their training could not have been more serious nor more willing.

Conditions in the Mytchett camp were not as luxurious as in Burnham, but they were much more in keeping with the idea of being on active service. The tents were well dispersed or concealed among the pine trees instead of being, as in the Aldershot tented camps of the previous world war, regularly pitched in the open. At first, the men worked on camp improvements and in digging slit trenches in case of bombing. Issues page 14 of steel helmets, groundsheets and anti-gas equipment were made and the elementary training undergone in New Zealand was revised. Before the end of June, Bren guns and anti-tank rifles had been issued, and intensive training on them begun. Commenting on these issues, Major Leckie wrote in his diary on 29 June: ‘We get down to hard training for all we are worth—German attack expected soon’.

War Office orders placed the New Zealanders, with the role of a mobile reserve, on eight hours' notice to move. Anxious to be present to command the New Zealanders most likely to enter battle first, General Freyberg arrived on 27 June by air from Egypt. In addition to 5 Brigade, he had another brigade under his command. This brigade, eventually christened the 7th, was composed of 28 (Maori) Battalion, a Composite Battalion, later known as the 29th, formed from the reinforcements for both 4 and 5 Brigades, and 4 Anti-Tank Company. Under the arrangements made for this New Zealand Division (UK), the senior officers of the 23rd carried out an extensive reconnaissance of south-eastern England while the troops continued with their intensive training. Their route ‘recce’ in Surrey, Hampshire and Kent in spring, when the hopfields were at their greenest and the countryside looked its best, made their journey a sheer delight. They were more than ever convinced that England was a country worth fighting for. They returned to the unit determined to push ahead with training with renewed vigour, only to find that the War Office had unexpectedly ordered the New Zealanders to go on leave. Apparently, the value to public morale of the appearance of Canadian, Australian and New Zealand troops in London and other cities at this time was held to justify a short postponement of training. Certainly, the distinctive ‘Kiwi’ felt hat and the reputation earned by the New Zealanders in 1914–18 opened many doors for the men of 1940 and there was scarcely a man who did not have some story of unexpected hospitality when the main leave party returned to camp on 3 July.

Various important people visited and inspected the unit in those early days in England. In turn, Mr Jordan and General Freyberg, accompanied by Mr Anthony Eden, then Secretary for War, visited the battalion. Mr Eden later said of the New Zealanders: ‘They are a magnificent body of men and are looking exceedingly fit. We are delighted to have them here.’ On 6 July His Majesty the King paid an informal visit to the 23rd who, at his request, continued with normal training. Of page 15 course, the opportunity to put on something of a show was too good to miss and Private ‘Joe’ Murphy,2 a man with the torso of an Olympic shot-putter, appeared, shirt open to the waist, and ‘instructed’ the NCOs in bayonet fighting to such good effect that War Office visitors accompanying the King marked the New Zealanders down for a front-line role if it became necessary to repel the Germans. General Sir Alexander Godley (GOC 1 NZEF) was also present that day, and he spoke in glowing terms of the training being carried out.

The issue of battle dress to the men improved the appearance of many, but still more important was the arrival of more weapons. By 8 July the battalion had 10 Bren guns, 8 Boys anti-tank rifles, 3 two-inch mortars and 1 three-inch mortar. The Quartermaster, Captain Patterson, the RQMS, Harry Dalton,3 and their staff were very busy in those days. Cooks as well as men had to be trained to manage with British rations which were in many items only half as generous as those issued in New Zealand. Clothing and ordnance stores also gave the Q staff plenty of problems, especially as so many issues were in short supply. The scrupulously exact accounting required even in the face of invasion, the filling of the correct forms demanded by Equipment Regulations (a 1000-page volume), and the attempt to secure the scale authorised in the G1098 tables provided the administrative staff with practical training which later proved most valuable. Further useful experience both in administration in the field and in the siting of defensive positions was gained during the first full-scale tactical exercise which was undertaken in the Ashdown Forest area in Sussex between 18 and 22 July.

Defence, a relief in the line, and a withdrawal were practised during this first exercise. On 28 July another training scheme saw the 23rd acting as the advanced guard for 5 Brigade in an attack on 7 Brigade. Later the battalion passed into reserve before being called upon to ‘leapfrog’ through the forward units and pursue the retiring ‘enemy’. July passed without invasion. In August General Freyberg decided to toughen his force with a route march of 100 miles. For some it was a real test of stamina; for others it proved the last straw so far as their boots were concerned. General Freyberg took the salute as, on the fourth day of the march, the 23rd was marching out page 16 of Partridge Green. This was the occasion celebrated thereafter in story in the 23rd: who has not heard Dick Orbell4 give his best rendering of the General's saying ‘Best platoon so far!’ to each platoon as it marched past, well separated from the others as a passive air defence measure?

From early July onwards, selected officers, NCOs and men of the 23rd, as of other New Zealand units, attended courses of instruction in a variety of military subjects—gas warfare, tank hunting, cooking, Bren-carrier driving and maintenance, and other forms of mechanical training. At several of these courses, and also at a special school set up at Headquarters NZ Division (UK), the instructors were officers and NCOs with experience of the fighting in Europe prior to Dunkirk. Some of these instructors were attached for a period to the 23rd: an officer of the Coldstream Guards dealt with infantry experiences, while Tom Wintringham demonstrated how very simple it was to deal with tanks. A unit tank-hunting platoon under Second-Lieutenant ‘Ted’ Thomson5 was organised right away. Its members were among the first to be issued with tommy guns, which were still in short supply. Otherwise, by mid-August, ammunition and equipment were up to establishment. More and more unit and brigade tactical schemes gave the battalion practice in moving rapidly to occupy defensive positions or to oust the ‘enemy’ from strongpoints. Still the threat of invasion failed to materialise. The apparent passing of the crisis enabled the battalion to send 10 per cent of its number at a time on a week's leave. Again the hospitality offered by private individuals and a host of organisations was most generous.

August passed into September. On 31 August General Sir Alan Brooke, CIGS, inspected the battalion. In a message which he later sent to all New Zealand units, he said: ‘New Zealand troops are not strangers to Great Britain. The New Zealand felt hat is remembered here by all of us and it gives me the greatest pleasure and pride to have New Zealanders serving under my command at this critical moment. My inspection today … shows that you have reached a high standard of training and it reflects credit upon all ranks…. I am sure that the 2 NZEF will worthily uphold the high traditions of the New Zealand forces.’

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colour map of greece

A few days later, on 4 September, Mr Winston Churchill inspected the New Zealanders and told them: ‘I am sure you will crown the name of New Zealand with new honours, with a lustre which will not fade as the years pass by. May fortune rest upon your arms. May you return home with victory to your credit, having written pages into the annals of the Imperial Army which will be turned over by future generations whenever they wish to find a model for military conduct.’

All ranks of the 23rd considered that these important inspections and messages presaged highly important events on the South Coast. Indeed, Major Leckie, then commanding the unit, wrote in his private diary about Mr Churchill's visit: ‘He addresses us “on the eve of battle” as he did the New Zealanders as Minister of Munitions, when in France with Lloyd George in 1917.’ Actually, the war in the air had been very much intensified of late, invasion was expected more confidently than ever before, and on 5 September the 23rd moved, along with other New Zealand units, to take up defensive positions in East Kent, a vital sector if the Germans did attack.

The New Zealanders were now front-line troops required to deal with enemy airborne or parachute troops in the area Maidstone-Chatham-Faversham and also to counter-attack the enemy should he land at Deal, Dover or Folkestone. The Luftwaffe intensified its raids on London at this time and the Battle of Britain was on. The 23rd had seen a few bombing raids in London and in the vicinity of Mytchett. Now swarms of enemy raiders were seen crossing the south coast daily, ‘like a run of whitebait’, as one soldier wrote at the time. Regular ‘stand-to’ periods at 4.45 a.m. and 7.30 p.m. were observed and route-marching, physical training and reconnaissance work in the surrounding country occupied most of the time when the troops were not watching ‘dogfights’ in the air, crashing aircraft or parachuting airmen. Several ‘near misses’ from bombs were recorded but no casualties were suffered from direct hits. The first losses arose from accidents in which men were struck by motor vehicles in the blackout.

The Battle of Britain was fought and won in the air. Britain was not invaded and, although the danger remained, and therefore the NZ Division (UK) was retained in Britain for a few months longer, General Freyberg evidently concluded that the invasion season was over because on 22 September he returned to the Middle East. The improvement of the military situation and the onset of colder weather meant two things—that the page 18 men were moved from their bivouacs under the trees into houses or barns and that rugby football became the principal means of maintaining the interest of men who had been keyed up to expect action of a more violent nature. Inter-company and inter-battalion games were played and, although beaten by the Maoris and by the Artillery, the battalion won its remaining five games. From the 23rd, Lieutenants F. S. R. Thomson and King,6 Lance-Corporal Graham7 and Neighbours8 played for the NZEF (UK) XV which contested eight games in England. Hockey and soccer enthusiasts played their own games. The playing fields for all sports were on these occasions usually ringed with Bren and other machine guns, and frequently air battles were being fought while the game was played. But no game was ever stopped on account of the danger. Thus was launched the tradition that during the appropriate season football matches must go on, unless active operations dictated otherwise.

Although tactical exercises and training schedules continued to keep the unit employed in the Maidstone area till early November, the nearest the 23rd came to battle was on 25 October, when at 3 a.m. ‘stand-to’ was called, with the word passed down that this time it was the real thing. It proved, however, to be nothing more than a test of the time it would take the brigade to move. The continuance of an operational role without real operations was growing somewhat irksome. No useful purpose was served by staying in Kent and, on 4 November, the battalion was transferred to vacated civilian houses in Camberley. So attached had most of the men become to the Maidstone-Bearsted district that ‘the gloomy business of departure’ was, as Brian Bassett wrote home, ‘almost like our departure from New Zealand, the girls really looked heartbroken and the older women actually had tears in their eyes. Our men's faces were pretty grim … they look on Maidstone now as their English home.’

During the remaining few weeks in England training continued steadily. There were range and battle practices with all weapons, exercises with the wireless equipment, which was good without being perfect, and route marches. Leave schemes were operated with up to 50 per cent of the battalion away at a time page 19 for four days. On 29 November all the unit transport was sent under Lieutenant Coop9 to Liverpool, the embarkation port. That was the beginning of the move to the Middle East. The men had to remain in England till 4 January 1941. They thus had their first Christmas overseas in their quarters in Camberley: mess huts were decorated with holly and streamers in provincial colours, the fare included roast pork and plum pudding and made what one private soldier recorded in his diary ‘a damned good dinner and well cooked’. After dinner most men visited the homes of friends or the local public houses such as the Brown Jug, the Cambridge and the Camberley Court, where they made the rafters ring with their songs.

Visits from Air Marshal Sir Cyril Newall, Governor-General designate for New Zealand, and from the Duke of Gloucester were occasions for extra effort. On 28 December Brigadier Hargest conducted his last inspection of the unit in England.

The period the 23rd spent in Britain was of great importance in its moulding. The sharing of so many experiences—travel on ship and train, visits to the same places, training under the same stirring conditions before the Battle of Britain and literally under the air-war, living together alternately in bivouacs and mansions—gave the men a common background and a fuller understanding of one another. Since they constituted the only South Island battalion to serve in England, they developed a spirit of exclusiveness which was partly pride in the 23rd and its record and partly the result of being nicknamed ‘Cook's Tourists’ and ‘the Glamour Boys’ by those units which had gone straight to Egypt. The tactical training in the fields and hedgerows of Surrey, Sussex and Kent, as well as the experience of seeing the battles in the sky above them, helped to prepare the men for fighting in the close country of Greece where the enemy was to have air superiority. They felt they had been privileged to have been front-line troops manning the southern ramparts of England at a time when invasion was expected daily. If it had been somewhat frustrating to be inactive when the Air Force and Navy were doing so much and when civilians were being mercilessly bombed, their experiences in Kent toughened the 23rd both physically and mentally for the conflict that was to come. When the unit left England, senior officers said that the men were as ready for war as it was possible for them to be without actual battle experience.

1 By way of comparison, it may be stated that the Andes was a Royal Mail Line ship of 25,800 tons while the Hawke's Bay, which sailed from Port Chalmers in September 1914, was a cargo ship of 7207 tons with practically no passenger accommodation, yet she carried 970 all ranks and 569 horses to Egypt.

2 Pte J. R. Murphy; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 13 Jul 1918; labourer.

3 Capt W. H. Dalton, m.i.d.; Ashburton; born Ashburton, 21 Mar 1913; company secretary.

4 Maj R. M. S. Orbell; Greymouth; born Oamaru, 17 Feb 1915; shipping clerk; wounded 17 Aug 1942.

5 Maj F. S. R. Thomson, MC, m.i.d.; born NZ 25 Aug 1912; draper; twice wounded; died of wounds 28 Mar 1943.

6 Capt R. K. King, MC; England; born NZ 20 Feb 1909; school-teacher; wounded and p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

7 L-Cpl T. Graham; born Scotland, 20 Jul 1913; upholsterer.

8 Pte F. J. Neighbours; Waimangaroa; born Waimangaroa, 4 Apr 1918; miner; wounded 3 Jul 1942.

9 Maj M. J. Coop; England; born Christchurch, 21 Jul 1911; shepherd; three times wounded.