Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon


CHAPTER 11 — BASE, 1943

page 78

BASE, 1943

THE Division found a transformed Maadi Camp on its return from Tunisia. The camp had been acting as the headquarters of the Expeditionary Force, and in four years its size, scope, and amenities had steadily increased. The original Central YMCA, standing in the centre of the camp as its name suggests, had grown haphazardly into a large and useful building. Across the road the Roman Catholics had built an attractive little stone chapel, suitable for small services, with accommodation for two chaplains and another room for private interviews. For the whole period in Maadi Camp the Roman Catholics held their Sunday services in Shafto's cinema, a great barn of a building with four walls, a stage, and a screen. So closely did this well-known landmark come to be identified with Roman Catholic Church parades that it was often facetiously referred to as the ‘Latin Cathedral’.

The Church Army Hut at the other end of the camp had also grown and, though used by all, it became the centre of Church of England work. The best building, and the only one carefully designed for Middle East conditions, was the Lowry Hut. It was built round a comfortable open-air lounge, with a splendid stage and a number of rooms set apart for billiards, table tennis, photography, music, and other activities. A fine open-air theatre, called the El Djem Amphitheatre, had been carved out of a sandy hillside, and could hold 5000 comfortably. Large Church parades were often held there.

Normally the camp population consisted of the headquarters' staff, reinforcements under training, and troops in transit, but at this time the 4th Brigade had been there for almost a year undergoing training with armoured vehicles. The chaplains in this brigade had a splendid opportunity of getting to know their men and the new reinforcements, and they were able to pursue an uninterrupted programme of teaching and fostering unit organisations. Their service on Anzac Day 1943, in which each chaplain participated, was graced by a choir of 150 singing with the brigade band.

The work of the other chaplains in the camp was more difficult and less effective. Most of them were reinforcements for the
black and white photograph of soldiers conducting prayers

Service for the NZSC, 1944 near Alife, Italy (L. to r.) Capt J. M. Sidey, Rev. S. C. Read, General Freyberg, Brig C. E. Weir, Revs. P. C. S. Sergel and J. M. Templer

black and white photograph of group of soldiers

Padres' ConferencePresenzano. south of CassinoBack row (l. to r.): H. S. Scott, A. D. Horwell, H. W. West, J. M. Templer Third row: K. F. Button, W. R. Francis, H. F. Harding, C. G. Palmer, W. A. Mills, S. C. Read, W. J. Thompson, H. E. Rowe Second row: D. V. de Candole, J. S. Somerville, L. P. Spring, J.W. McKenzie, W. T. Huata, A. H. Finally, F. O. Dawson Front row: G A. D. Spence, J. A. Linton, H. G. Taylor, M. G. Sullivan, O. R. Marlow, J. C. Draper

black and white photograph of soldiers in prayer

Rev. II. E. Rowe, 25th Battalion padre, conducts the ThanksgivingService for the 6th NZ Infantry Brigade near Lake Trasimene, August 1945

black and white photograph of chaplains and soldiers

Memorial Service—General Freyberg talks with the Revs. G.A.D.Spence, H. E. Rowe, W. T. Huata, J. S. Somerville, and the Rev.Father L. P. SpringCassino, October 1945

black and white photograph of group of soldiers

3rd NZ Division Chaplains' Retreat at Bourail, New Caledonia, July 1943Back row (l. to r.): W. R. Castle, W. St. A. Osborne-Brown, J. S. H. Perkins, J. R. Nairn, N. C. Hall, R. W. Murray, R. C. Aires, F. Columb Centre row: D. L. Francis, O. T. Baragwanath, K. Liggett, J. C. Pierce, J. W. Parker, G. R. Thompson Front row: W. E. Ryan, J. D. Froud, A. S. Ward, E. O. Sheild

CHRISTMAS, 1943, in the SolomonsVella LavellaThe Revs. D. L. Francis, G. R. Thompson, and A. H. Voyce tookthis service

CHRISTMAS, 1943, in the SolomonsVella LavellaThe Revs. D. L. Francis, G. R. Thompson, and A. H. Voyce tookthis service

black and white photograph of soldiers praying

Dedication Service, Maravari, led by Rt. Rev. Bishop G. V. GerardVella Lavella

black and white photograph of chapel

Chapel built by islanders at the Allied Military Cemetery, Maravari, Vella Lavella

page 79 Division, eagerly awaiting a vacancy, and it was difficult to concentrate on work which might soon be interrupted. The spirit of the troops was quite different from that of the men serving with the Division. The routine was comfortable but dull, with none of the danger and excitement which helps to build corporate spirit and loyalty in a combatant unit. The chaplains were posted to the different training depots in the camp, spending much of the day with their men on the training grounds, and in the evenings visiting the canteens and the welfare huts. A number of religious activities such as Bible Classes and choir practices enjoyed a precarious existence as both the chaplains and the men were always changing. However, the United Christian Fellowship, which had begun as the Baptist Fellowship, enjoyed a long and flourishing life. The Roman Catholics had their chapel for weekday devotions and instruction. In the Church Army Hut the Church of England chaplains conducted regular services of Holy Communion and Evensong and prepared many men for confirmation. The Protestant Churches held Communion services in the Lowry Hut and the Central YMCA, where every Sunday evening a song service arranged by the YMCA was conducted by chaplains.

Many duties took the chaplains outside the camp. There were weekly services for the New Zealand Post Office and the New Zealand Club in Cairo, and an afternoon service for New Zealanders was held every Sunday in the Egyptian YMCA building. Twice a month chaplains had a long and refreshing drive to visit small units and isolated men. One spent a night with the Port Detachment on the Suez Canal and another went to Alexandria, where many New Zealanders were to be found in the Port Detachment, in British hospitals, or at the YMCA hostel.

The Maadi chaplains had many contacts outside the New Zealand sphere. The Roman Catholics often ministered to men of their own denomination serving with British units in the immediate vicinity of the camp, and they were frequently in touch with their own chaplains and civilian elergy in Cairo. Visits were exchanged with the South African chaplains in their camp at Helwan, and many an envious glance was cast at their beautifully designed garrison churches. Relations with the Royal Army Chaplains' Department were very cordial and many British chaplains, including the DCG, page 80 the Rev. H. J. Clarke, and the ACG from British Headquarters, the Rev. F. P. W. Alexander, visited Maadi to take part in conferences or services. In return the British chaplains invited the New Zealanders to share in many of their activities, whether they were important services on special occasions or meetings convened to hear some eminent clergyman on a short visit to the Middle East. These visitors included several Church of England bishops and leading representatives of other denominations, among them Dr. I. F. Church, former President of the Methodist Conference in England.

In 1943 permission was sought for the New Zealand chaplains to attend the refresher courses organised by the Royal Army Chaplains' Department in Jerusalem. Permission was given and a large quota fixed so that the maximum number of Divisional chaplains could attend during their short stay in Maadi. The leader of these courses was the Rev. J. E. Fison of the Royal Army Chaplains' Department. He was a man of great talent, spiritual force, and friendliness and all New Zealand chaplains appreciated his help and kindly welcome. Opportunity was also taken of enrolling New Zealand candidates for the Christian Ministry in the excellent series of studies arranged by the Royal Army Chaplains' Department. A list of these men, over forty in number, was made in 1942, and the chaplains tried to keep in touch with them and supply them with books and other help as the occasion permitted.


The New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Egypt made use of the British Army prisons for soldiers undergoing detention: short sentences were served in the detention barracks at Helmieh and longer ones in the military prison at Abbassia. Once a week a New Zealand chaplain visited these men. A staff car would deposit him outside the grim gates of the prison and, after signing a book inside, he would be conducted to some small room filled by a dozen or twenty hot and weary New Zealanders. There would usually be a short service, followed by the distribution of such comforts— boot polish, shaving materials, and toothbrushes—as the regulations allowed. Finally there would be a short period for personal interviews.

page 81

Often in these interviews men would complain to the chaplain about the length of their sentences, and on his return to Maadi Camp he would go to the correct office at Headquarters and ventilate these grievances. Often they were imaginary, for some prisoners tend to believe that they are completely innocent or grossly misjudged. But sometimes there was something to be put right, and perhaps such an occasion might lead to the chaplain's first meeting with the Legal Staff Officer. Crime and domestic problems brought chaplains into frequent contact with this officer, and they owed much to the wise and kindly advice of the legal branch of the force.

Domestic Problems

Within the martial machinery of Army organisation there existed an elaborate system to protect the rights and interests of the common soldier. It has been said that a court martial gives the accused a fairer hearing than any other court of justice. In addition, there was machinery to help the soldier face domestic problems. If he heard of difficulties in his home in New Zealand there were ways of making official inquiries, and the soldier might be excused duty while he attended to these personal matters. In extreme cases he could be sent home on compassionate leave.

This system was good and the intention was excellent, but in the exigencies of war many a man facing trouble was uncertain of his legal rights and timid in making inquiries. This was where the chaplain could help. He would visit men awaiting court martial and help in getting the right man to act as the Prisoner's Friend. He could find out for the prisoner the answer to certain legal questions which affected his case, and he could, on occasions, appear at the court martial and testify to the prisoner's good character. If the man was convicted and had to serve a prison sentence, the chaplain could still keep in touch with him by letter or personal visit, and when he was released it was often possible to help in his rehabilitation. The chaplain might respectfully suggest what unit the man should be sent to, and then make sure that he received sympathetic treatment in that unit.

But crime and its consequences were not the only problems a soldier had to face. Letters from his family at home might bring news of death, serious illness, or unfaithfulness. The soldier then page 82 needed advice and immediate sympathy for there were occasions when such a letter caused a man to attempt suicide. At first a man felt powerless to do anything, for the distances were so great and the Army seemed so inhuman. The wise soldier talked it over with the chaplain, who would listen sympathetically and help in various ways. He would first try to comfort the man and strengthen him to bear the bad news; then he might have a confidential talk with the man's commanding officer and make sure that he was treated kindly and given time to deal with his affairs. Finally the chaplain helped in practical ways. Sometimes a wisely written letter could avert a domestic tragedy, or at least delay it till the soldier could deal with it in person at the end of the war. At other times the break seemed final and all the distasteful proceedings of divorce had to be faced. Many chaplains said that they dreaded the arrival of mail for it brought so much bad news. A broken engagement may be a small thing as the years roll by, but, at the time, to a soldier serving far from home, such news may be overpowering in its pain; and hundreds of engagements were broken. As a chaplain tried to comfort a man he often longed for the chance of some straight speaking with the wife or fiancée in New Zealand, though it must be admitted that marital infidelity was by no means confined to the wives.

The best regulations and the finest laws cannot cover all the difficult cases, and the chaplain felt free to approach the authorities direct and submit that some individual deserved special treatment. For example, owing to the acute shortage of shipping, it was laid down at one time that those going on furlough could go to no other country than New Zealand. But if a man had all his family in London, and if perhaps they had been bombed out in the blitz, it was quite reasonable to suggest that in this case the regulation might be relaxed. The chaplains were impressed and delighted by the painstaking care and thorough investigation that all such cases received.


The chaplains in Maadi Camp had to take many weddings and almost invariably the civilian churches round Cairo were used for them. A special entry had to be made in the registers that the page 83 marriages had been solemnised according to the ‘Foreign Marriage Act of 1892’. This was a British law and did not necessarily apply to New Zealanders. New Zealand camps might have been deemed New Zealand territory and therefore subject to New Zealand law. but the fact remains that most of these weddings took place outside the boundaries of the camp.

There were many regulations and Army forms in connection with marriages. In 1944 these were revised and published by Headquarters 2nd NZEF, with one amusing misprint. New Zealand soldiers were warned that if they wished to marry South African girls they might be required to make an ‘Anti-nuptial’ financial settlement! The Army always tried to dissuade soldiers from making what were considered unsuitable marriages, and the chaplains also used their influence in this respect.


Many Church of England members received instruction and were confirmed during the war. While Bishop Gerard was with the Division he conducted many confirmation services, and at other times help was received from visiting Bishops, including those of Pretoria, Uganda, Persia, Portsmouth, Maidstone and Ripon, while in Italy New Zealanders were confirmed during the visits of the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of Lichfield, Southwark, and North Africa. The Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem confirmed many in Syria and Palestine, and in Cairo Bishop Gwynne and Bishop Gelsthorpe were always available in All Saints' Cathedral, and on many occasions arranged special confirmation services for New Zealanders in transit.

General Hospitals

The chaplains who worked at Base were by no means confined to Maadi Camp. Each General Hospital had an establishment for three, usually consisting of one Church of England chaplain, one Roman Catholic, and one other. Hospital work was hard and specialised, and, though not lending itself to headlines or glory, it supplied scope for some of the best work done by the Department.

Duties were many and varied and fell into several well-defined divisions. On the staff side were doctors, nurses, and orderlies, all page 84 of whom required a chaplain's help and advice. The officers' mess was composed almost entirely of medical practitioners and hospital chaplains must have received their fill of medical ‘shop’. The sisters, nurses, and voluntary aids formed a large and important section of hospital life, and like everyone else needed spiritual help and comfort. The orderlies and other men working in the hospital were nearly all men who could not serve in the front line. Some had been seriously wounded and were not fit for further combatant service, while others had been medically regraded before seeing any action. There was always a third group consisting of conscientious objectors who were not prepared to act as combatants. All medical units had their quota of conscientious objectors and it was noticed that these men with sensitive consciences seldom excelled the others in hard work or loyalty to the unit. Of course there were splendid exceptions, but many people felt that it would have been easier to admire these men had they served as medical orderlies with the infantry in the front line, sharing the same dangers and hardships as the common soldier.

A General Hospital with these diverse elements on its staff was a difficult unit in which to foster esprît de corps and there was plenty of work here for the chaplain. But his main work was with the sick and wounded and it was impossible to devote too much time to regular visiting. The three chaplains co-operated and usually worked to some rough plan whereby each bed-patient was likely to see at least one chaplain every day. Those men on the Dangerously Ill and Seriously Ill lists were visited by the chaplains of their own denomination at least once a day, frequently more often, and sometimes during the night, for the chaplains were on call every hour of the day and night.

When the chaplain began his daily round of visits he usually carried a supply of Red Cross comforts, writing paper, and library books. He would try to speak to each man in each ward. Some who were feverish or in pain would want just a word of sympathy and a prayer, while others would welcome a much longer talk which frequently led to religious discussion and instruction. When a man was completely incapacitated by bandages or wounds the chaplain would write letters for him. Of course the chaplain had a big correspondence of his own as he answered questions from page 85 next of kin or tried to comfort them in the death or illness of sons and husbands, but frequently he found time to act as amanuensis in the wards. The story is told of one soldier, a Maori, who was lying prone in bed, begging a chaplain to write some letters for him. The chaplain looked sympathetically at his body covered by the bed clothes, and, sitting down by the side of the bed, he wrote five letters.

‘You seem fairly fit,’ said the chaplain when he had addressed the last envelope. ‘Where are you wounded?’

‘In the foot, Padre,’ was the answer.

‘But why don't you write your own letters?’ the chaplain asked.

‘Oh, I thought your handwriting would be better’, said the Maori.

There were always a number of Empire and British troops in these hospitals, and occasionally Germans and Italians, besides the New Zealanders. The chaplain's visits had to be carried on day by day, week by week, and he needed great reserves of energy and will-power to keep up the standard of his work.

In addition to visiting the bed-patients the chaplain looked after the walking wounded and when possible arranged trips and concerts. In each hospital a room or a tent was set aside for a chapel, which the chaplains furnished and used for the celebration of Holy Communion, small services, and as a place for private devotion. On Sundays there would be services in the chapel and a unit service in some larger place for the staff and walking wounded, while special arrangements would be made for the bed-patients. Short services would be held in some of the wards and Holy Communion administered privately to patients in bed. At Christmas time a carol choir composed of staff, nurses, and patients used to go round the wards.

The chaplains at these hospitals were given an office where they could hold private interviews and distribute comforts and books to those patients who could walk. Much of the unit welfare work fell upon them, and although it was extremely valuable and necessary, it was always liable to encroach on their main work—the spiritual care of those in bed. The supply of work was never-ending and the conditions were difficult. The Middle East climate was exhausting for a man who had to be continually on his feet, the sticky heat page 86 sapped his mental energy, and the very nature of a hospital had a depressing effect on those not hardened to a medical regime. There were frequent deaths—and that meant death-bed prayers, funerals, and letters to the next of kin; there were men in great pain, splendid young bodies smashed by the senselessness of war; and there was the pallid boredom and misery of malaria, dysentery, and jaundice.

The pluck and spirit of the wounded set a high standard for all who worked in a hospital. The chaplain could only do his best. He watched the convoys of ambulances come in after a battle and had a brief word with each man. There was not much that he could do on those occasions except be friendly, answer questions, and arrange to send cables or letters. Later, when the men were settled in the wards, the chaplain came to know them better, and these friendships grew until the day when they were cured and left for a Convalescent Depot, or were fit enough to leave on the hospital ship for home. Not every good chaplain made a good hospital chaplain, and when one was seen to succeed in this difficult work every effort was made to leave him undisturbed. Padre R. T. Dodds1 and Padre A. MacFarlane2 were very successful and spent their whole war service working in General Hospitals.

Convalescent Depots

Men discharged from the General Hospitals were sent to a Convalescent Depot for several weeks until they were considered fit enough to go back to their normal duties. The depot was usually placed in some attractive spot near the sea; it was the chaplain's duty to look after these men during their short stay. Time and again it was not only bodies that needed attention. Battle exhaustion and lingering disease left wounds on the mind, and the chaplain had to give much of his attention to morale and mental health. In this unit the chaplain could throw himself wholeheartedly into welfare work and recreational organisation, for the men were free most of the day and the chaplain came to know them as he shared their sports and sight-seeing trips. Men came and went, and the chaplain's contacts and friendships ripened for a brief moment and page 87 were then interrupted. Choirs, Bible Classes, and Church services fluctuated according to the population of the moment.

Sometimes a chaplain was posted to a Convalescent Depot as a rest from battle, but the work was specialised and did not benefit from frequent changes. Padre N. E. Winhall,3 who sailed with the Second Echelon, was the first chaplain with the 1st Convalescent Depot when it was by the Suez Canal at Moascar. He was awarded the MBE for hard and devoted work which unfortunately was cut short by ill-health. Padre C. MacKenzie4 also served long and faithfully with this unit.

Hospital Ships

Two hospital ships were staffed by New Zealanders, the new Dutch ship Oranje and the Maunganui, already well known to New Zealanders, especially to soldiers of the 1914–18 War. These ships carried wounded and sick back home and they also made trips with other patients to Britain, South Africa, and Australia. Towards the end of the war the Maunganui was posted to work in the Pacific.

The chaplain on a hospital ship was really a normal hospital chaplain, except that he lived on a ship. At one time the Senior Chaplain posted a new chaplain to the Maunganui each time it reached the Middle East, and thus a Divisional chaplain had a voyage home, a few weeks in New Zealand, and then returned for duty in the Middle East, rested and refreshed. This practice ceased when the ship's staff complained that the constant changes were proving detrimental to the good work of the ship. There were special difficulties on the Oranje as she was manned by a Dutch crew and administered by a joint staff comprised, at various times, of British, Dutch, Australians, and New Zealanders. Not every chaplain succeeded in these conditions, one of which was the difficulty in creating a unit spirit amongst the mixed staff, but at the request of the staff, Padre Holland was specially recalled for a second term of duty as he had been very successful on the first. Life on the hospital ships varied between the intense activity of a voyage home, laden with wounded and sick, and the quiet peace of the voyage out in a ship empty but for the staff.

page 88

Railway Companies

The 2nd NZEF supplied two specialist railway groups, a Construction and Maintenance Group and an Operating Group. A chaplain served with these, and his parish was as long and as narrow as the railway. He spent his time travelling from station to station and from detachment to detachment. Each night would see him in a different place with a different group of men. He would hold a service for them in the evening and probably a celebration of Holy Communion next morning. The rest of his stay would be spent in welfare work and in getting to know the men. Small groups appreciated these regular visits from their own chaplain, and in spite of the unusual conditions good work was done by the chaplains until the time when these units were disbanded after the close of the North African campaign.

1 Rev. R. T. Dodds (Presby.); Whakatane: born Dunedin, 1 Feb 1897.

2 Rev. A. MacFarlane, m.i.d., (Presby.); Mosgiel; born Mataura, 3 Nov 1900.

3 Rev. N. E. Winhall, MBE, (C of E); Auckland; born London, 1 Aug 1905.

4 Rev. C. MacKenzie (Presby.); Cambridge; born England, 4 Feb 1909.