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26 Battalion

Chapter 1 — In Burnham and Journey Overseas

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Chapter 1
In Burnham and Journey Overseas

WHEN war began in September 1939 the military camp at Burnham, 19 miles from Christchurch, almost overnight emerged from obscurity to become the South Island mobilisation centre for overseas units. Carpenters, engineers, and labourers went to work and in a few short months transformed the small camp into a large training establishment. From all parts of the South Island came those who had volunteered for service overseas. They were drafted into units and trained. Early in January 1940 the First Echelon left New Zealand; four months later the Second Echelon followed. After its departure an augmented camp staff prepared for the arrival of the third contingent. In A Block, close to the administrative headquarters of the camp, officers and NCOs selected and trained to take commands in the new unit waited to receive the infantry draft.

On Wednesday 16 May the main draft of men to form the 26th Infantry Battalion arrived at Burnham. They came into camp in an almost constant stream, some by rail and others by road. At A Block they were drafted into companies and directed to their new quarters—long, wooden 30-man huts adjacent to the parade ground. Only a few of the men had been in camp before. Some had served in the First World War and others in Territorial units, but for the majority this was a new venture and a drastic change from civilian life. By Friday all the names on the roll had been ticked and those missing accounted for. On Saturday it rained heavily and the new recruits stayed indoors, thankful they were not housed in the tents which dotted the fringes of the camp. Within a short time every man was equipped and in uniform. Clerk and labourer, tradesman and shop assistant stood awkwardly on the parade ground, ready to receive their introduction to army life.

Similarly in the North Island camps the 24th and 25th Battalions were being assembled, the three forming the 6th Infantry Brigade. In turn 6 Brigade, with 4 and 5 Brigades which had already left New Zealand, formed the infantry component of 2 page 2 NZ Division, under the command of Major-General B. C. Freyberg, VC.

The 26th Battalion consisted of a battalion headquarters, four rifle companies, and a Headquarters Company. This was in accordance with the 1938 British war establishment except that platoon commanders were given commissioned rank. Battalion HQ1 contained, in addition to the Adjutant and his staff, the Intelligence and Provost sections. The four rifle companies each consisted of three platoons and a Company HQ and were lettered A to D. Each was representative of a province: A Coy comprised Canterbury personnel, B Coy Southland, C Coy Nelson, Marlborough and West Coast, and D Coy Otago. In HQ Coy, by far the largest of the five, were the specialist platoons: Signals, Anti-Aircraft, Mortars, Bren carriers, Pioneers, and Transport. To these were added the QM staff and those important people, the cooks. Lieutenant-Colonel J. R. Page2 was appointed to command the new battalion, with Maj J. M. Samson3 as his second-in-command. Senior appointments were:

The battalion's training programme was strenuous. The first six weeks were spent in intensive elementary training. To the orders of their new officers and NCOs the recruits went through the routine of company parades and inspections, rifle exercises, page 3 bayonet drill, saluting, marching, PT, and all the other tedious exercises which make ‘stooge’ drill so distasteful to the average soldier. Route marches were held frequently, and as the days and weeks passed they became longer and tougher. Inclement weather made conditions rather unpleasant, but despite this and other discomforts the men, in their ill-fitting denims and new boots, worked and trained with enthusiasm. Before long everyone knew the parts of the rifle, Bren gun, two or three-inch mortar, and Boys anti-tank rifle. They knew, too, how heavy any one of these weapons became towards the end of a long march.

Near the end of July individual training gave way to field exercises and range work, culminating in tactical manoeuvres around the township of Selwyn. For a start the field work consisted largely of platoon and company exercises—patrolling, movement in battle formation, taking cover and occupying defensive positions. Gradually the scope of the exercises was widened, with the specialist platoons taking a more active part. Intelligence personnel and signallers were detailed to each company and the supporting arms—mortars, carriers, etc.—were given a role in each operation. Nearly half the exercises were carried out at night under simulated battle conditions. A three-day exercise around Selwyn was very successful. It embraced much of the teaching of the past weeks and ended in a long march back to camp. Subsequently the companies set out separately on a three-weeks' trek around Banks Peninsula but were recalled before they completed it.

By August the camp itself had undergone some change. Several new buildings had been completed and roads and paths repaired. Amenities had steadily improved. The cinema was open every night, and at supper-time the troops had the choice of four recreation huts run by various religious organisations. On evenings when there was no night exercise the wet canteen, which also served hot saveloys and pies, was very popular. With a large number of troops in camp it was invariably crowded, and this meant long queues and an equally long wait between drinks. To avoid these delays some of the men returning from leave sought to elude the provosts and camp guards and bring page 4 in a personal stock of liquor. More often than not they succeeded. Night leave to Christchurch was granted to a percentage each week. Despite the hard training this leave was not sufficient to satisfy the men. Weekend leave to enable those of other districts to visit their homes was granted sparingly.

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On 1 August the battalion marched out on final leave. Surprisingly few failed to return punctually, perhaps because the penalties for AWL and other offences were very severe. Rumours of the probable date of embarkation circulated the camp but when the men returned from leave they carried on training as before. On the 17th the battalion, in company with other Third Echelon troops training in Burnham, paraded through Christchurch. Colonel Page led the troops past large, undemonstrative crowds to Cranmer Square, where Brig O. H. Mead, Officer Commanding Southern Military District, took the salute. After the parade was over leave was granted those who wished to stay in the city.

Two days later all leave was cancelled and everyone thought the day of departure was at hand. But leave was soon reinstated, and it was not until a week later that the troops were informed that 27 August would be their last day in New Zealand for a time. During the 26th several company parades were held. Equipment and embarkation rolls were checked and by dusk everything was ready for the morning move. That night each man paid his respects to the old life in readiness to begin a new one overseas. Some wrote letters; others celebrated the occasion at the wet canteen and the Rolleston Hotel.

A check parade was held early next morning, company commanders reporting a full muster. Shortly after nine o'clock the South Island contingent of the Third Echelon assembled on the parade ground in B Block, and from there the troops marched behind the Burnham band to the station. The train was waiting; as soon as everyone was aboard it left for Lyttelton on a non-stop run. At various places along the route, notably at Christchurch station, large crowds waved and cheered until the last carriage disappeared from sight. The train shunted alongside the troopship and embarkation began; by noon it was complete and page 5 everyone was on board. A large crowd had assembled outside the wharf barriers, and as the ship began to draw away from the jetty the gates were opened and the people surged forward. Whistles and sirens were blowing and the music of the Burnham band was drowned by the spontaneous burst of singing and cheering from those waving friends and relatives goodbye. On the ship all ranks crowded the rails. Gradually, as the ship pulled farther out into the stream, the crowd grew smaller and the cheering died away. The last link with loved ones had been broken and the thought was sobering.

The men left the rails to inspect their new quarters. The Orcades, a four-year-old ship of about 23,400 tons, was not as yet converted to a troopship. Tours around the decks confirmed the original impression that as far as quarters went the voyage would be pleasant. There were eight decks, four of them promenade. The first-class accommodation, reserved for officers and nurses, was excellent. Other ranks occupied the tourist class quarters and were billeted in two, four, and eight-berth cabins. A small overflow occupied one of the holds and during the voyage interchanged with those in the better accommodation. There were 1340 New Zealanders on board; 671 were in 26 Battalion and 268 in the two infantry reinforcement companies which had also trained at Burnham. The rest were members of 6 Field Ambulance and South Island personnel of others arms of the service. For a ship the size of the Orcades this was not a large contingent, and consequently there was little overcrowding.

The Orcades remained in the stream until midnight and then put to sea. Off Wellington she joined the Mauretania and the Empress of Japan, which were carrying the rest of the Third Echelon. Escorted by HMS Achilles, the three ships steamed across the Tasman.

From the day of sailing to the day of disembarkation ship's orders were strictly enforced. Boat drill and action stations became a regular routine and severe penalties were imposed on those who broke the blackout regulations. Some training was carried out. As the weather became hotter lectures replaced drill, physical training, and rifle exercises. Instructors were handicapped by the shortage of training pamphlets and modern page 6 weapons. ‘Doc’ Little4 gave several lectures on hygiene, the treatment of wounds, and tropical diseases. Major Rattray5 and Capt McKergow6 gave several talks on the people and the conditions likely to be encountered in the Middle East.

After dusk a strict blackout was maintained and no smoking was permitted on the open decks. Various forms of entertainment were available at night in addition to the usual games of cards. Two impromptu orchestras were formed, one on B Deck and the other on G Deck companionway. The ship's cinema showed films almost every night and several concerts were organised. In particular, one given by the ship's crew was excellent and was thoroughly enjoyed by the men. Card tournaments and housie-housie had their adherents, while far away from provosts and officers pontoon, crown and anchor, and sundry other games of chance were played. The ship's orderly room issued a daily news sheet and the BBC news was broadcast over the loudspeaker system. On 7 September the Berlin radio reported that the Orcades had been sunk, news that caused considerable amusement to those on board her. Meals were served by waiters in large dining halls and were always good. Doc Little had a field day on 3 September when all ranks were vaccinated and given an anti-tetanus injection.

Washing day aboard ship was always an epic affair, all types, shapes, and sizes of multi-coloured wearing apparel fluttering from improvised clothes-lines. There was always plenty of soap in the ship's canteen; in fact there was plenty of everything, and the prices charged were reasonable. The most popular item—beer—cost only sixpence a pint bottle. Sports equipment was provided and places on each deck were reserved for games, deck tennis being popular. When the weather became hotter the ship's two swimming baths were favourite rendezvous.

Besides the entertainments provided on board there were often other items of interest. When only one day out from Wellington page 7 the troopships held firing practice. The three of them formed in line, with the Orcades in the centre, and each fired six rounds from their six-inch guns at a target towed by the Achilles. The Orcades gun crew recorded the best shoot—four direct hits. On the following day Australian aircraft circled the ship and HMAS Perth replaced the Achilles as escort. The latter sailed close alongside the three troopships and the sailors lining the decks sang farewell songs. It was a memorable incident. Land was sighted about ten o'clock next morning. The men hugged the rails as the ship sailed through Bass Strait and entered the Australian Bight, where four transports escorted by HMAS Canberra joined the convoy. Two days of rough seas and cold weather followed, the Orcades rolling and pitching heavily, and then on 4 September she steamed into Fremantle. The ship berthed at 11 a.m. and by 1 p.m. the troops were streaming into Fremantle and Perth on leave. An overwhelming welcome awaited the New Zealanders. Homes were thrown open to them, cars were made available, tours around the countryside arranged and meals specially prepared for the visitors. To complete the picture, the Aussie soldier with his slouch hat was on hand to take part in the festivities. The local hotels did a great trade for beer was not rationed. Most of the men were back on the ship by midnight, although the usual few failed to arrive until the early hours of the morning, all somewhat the worse for wear.

After only 24 hours in port the convoy weighed anchor and sailed up the West Australian Coast. The weather became steadily hotter and conditions below deck uncomfortably warm. Awnings were stretched across the open decks. The Equator was crossed and suitable mementoes of the occasion were given to each man. On 12 September identification discs were issued; next day HMS Colombo took over the escort duties and on the 15th the Orcades anchored in the muddy stream of Bombay harbour. In the morning she steamed through the lock to Alexander Dock and the troops prepared to disembark. Although keen to explore the city, all ranks were sorry to leave their ship. The voyage on her had been enjoyable and the crew and troops alike were sorry to part.7

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To the men watching from the ship's rails Bombay presented an animated scene. It was a stiflingly hot morning, and the hills surrounding the city with their green mantle of tropical growth looked cool and inviting. The wharves were a hive of activity; hundreds of natives paused to gaze at the New Zealanders as they streamed ashore and marched to the Churchgate station. Wearing drill trousers and battle-dress tunics and carrying packs and rifles without slings, the men found the five-mile march trying. At length, bathed in perspiration and footsore, they reached the station and boarded a modern, wide-gauge electric train. Fifteen minutes later they detrained at the Mahalaxshuri station. A short march brought them to the grounds of the West India Racing Club, where the battalion and reinforcements were to spend the next few days. The troops occupied fairly comfortable quarters in the club's buildings and most of the officers stayed at the Taj Mahal hotel in the city.

Two days were spent at the racecourse. On the 17th leave was granted to visit Bombay. Although few had time to explore the city, everyone was impressed by the splendour of its palaces, temples and hotels, and the appalling conditions in the poorer areas. But Bombay will always be remembered for the meals supplied to the men, for they were nearly always inedible and unappetising. Most preferred to appease their hunger with fruit bought from local vendors.

Meanwhile Lt-Col Page had received advice that the battalion would leave Bombay on the 18th aboard the Orion, a sister ship to the Orcades. The reinforcement companies were to remain behind to follow by another ship, and Maj Brook8 was left in charge of them.

With memories of the excellent conditions on the Orcades fresh in their minds, the troops embarked on the Orion. Disillusionment awaited them. Gone were the cabins, the waiters, and the atmosphere of the Orcades. In their place were hot, stuffy mess decks with hammocks slung over the meal tables, and the ship was crowded with Australian troops—hundreds of them. The officer accommodation, on the other hand, was excellent. The Australians were disgruntled and discontented page 9 and their grievances soon had an effect on the New Zealanders. For two days after the ship put to sea meal arrangements were chaotic. Australian officers exercised little control over their men and only good work by members of the battalion prevented serious trouble; as it was, there was some fighting. At length the commissariat arrangements were placed on a workable basis and New Zealand officers saw that each mess table received its meals at the scheduled time. Another problem was the poor sanitary arrangements. The ship had been only partly converted as a troopship, but this could not excuse the dirty state of the quarters. Little could be done about the latrines or quarters except to keep them as clean as possible.

The journey past Aden through the Red Sea was uneventful. The heat was terrific as the ship steamed through the Red Sea, with dry winds making conditions below deck almost unbearable. Summer dress had not been issued and only a lucky few were allowed to sleep on deck each night. There was a mild outbreak of infective enteritis, or ‘Gyppo tummy’ as it is more commonly known; otherwise the troops stood up very well to the change of climate and food.

Early on 29 September the Orion dropped anchor in the stream off Port Tewfik. An advanced party left the ship, but the main body did not disembark until the following day. Lighters carried the men ashore, where they boarded a train, occupying dirty, third-class carriages. After some delay the train moved off for Maadi Camp, the 2 NZEF base. Although the route lay through Cairo, the men were unable to catch more than a glimpse of the city. At various stops they made the acquaintance of the redoubtable Egyptian salesmen who haunt all troop trains and roam the streets of Cairo. By 3 p.m. the battalion was detraining at the Maadi siding and the long journey to Egypt was over.

1 To conserve space ranks have been abbreviated and the following Army abbreviations used in the text: HQ (Headquarters), OC Officer Commanding), CO (Commanding Officer), Coy (Company), QM (Quartermaster), MO (Medical Officer), IO (Intelligence Officer), TO (Transport Officer), LO (Liaison Officer), 2 i/c (second-in-command), RMT (Reserve Mechanical Transport, PT (physical training), AWL (absent without leave), RTO (Railway Traffic Officer), Tac HQ (Tactical Headquarters), OP (Observation Post), RAP (Regimental Aid Post), AFV (Armoured Fighting Vehicle), FDL (Forward Defended Locality), TCP (Traffic Control Post). Other abbreviations not as frequently used are explained in a footnote on first mention.

2 Brig J. R. Page, DSO. m.i.d.; Wellington; born Dunedin, 10 May 1908; Regular soldier: CO 26 Bn 15 May 1940–27 Nov 1941; wounded 27 Nov 1941; Commandant, Northern Military District 1950–52; Adjutant-General, Army HQ, Apr 1952–.

3 Maj J. M. Samson, ED; Blenheim; born Dunedin, 27 Feb 1904; company director; wounded 27 Apr 1941.

4 Maj W. W. Little; Auckland; born Mount Serrat, 28 May 1896; medical practitioner; RMO 26 Bn Mar 1940–Aug 1941; 2 NZ Gen Hosp Aug 1941–Jan 1944; SMO Advanced Base, Italy, Jan–Sep 1944.

5 Maj N. A. Rattray, MBE; Waimate; born Dunedin, 7 Nov 1896; farmer; p.w. Apr 1941.

6 Lt-Col J. W. McKergow; Rangiora; born Twineham, England, 26 May 1902; farmer; CO 20 Armd Regt Jun–Dec 1943; wounded 22 Dec 1943.

7 The Orcades continued to transport troops until she was sunk by a U-boat off the Cape of Good Hope on 10 Oct 1942.

8 Maj F. J. Brook; born NZ 4 Sep 1901; school teacher; died of sickness 19 Feb 1941.