Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Divisional Signals


On4 September 1939 a New Zealand Gazette Extraordinary proclaimed:

His Excellency the Governor-General has it in command from His Majesty the King to declare that a state of war exists between His Majesty and the Government of the German Reich, and that such a state of war has existed from 9.30 p.m., New Zealand Standard Time, on the third day of September, 1939.

Within a matter of hours certain units and servicemen were mobilised; among these was a signal office detachment, drawn from the Central Military District Signal Company of the New Zealand Corps of Signals (Territorial Force). The detachment's immediate task was to provide certain signal communications within Central Military District, these including internal telephone services between District Headquarters, Headquarters Area 5 and Army Headquarters.

Enlistment for the Special Force began on 12 September. In order to safeguard essential industries and services the Government had considered it necessary to impose some restrictions on enlistments. These restrictions were governed by a schedule of what were called ‘important occupations’. The need for such a procedure had come about as a result of some unfortunate experiences during the First World War, when enlistment had been carried out regardless of the effect produced by the depletion of certain essential categories of tradesmen. During the enlistment of men for the Special Force in the Second World War it was inevitable, of course, that some enthusiastic recruits should mis-state their civil occupations to avoid being drafted to similar work in the Army. It is necessary to mention these points because there is no doubt that some of the difficulties encountered in 1939 in obtaining skilled tradesmen, such as Morse operators and page 2 linemen for Divisional Signals, can be traced to the failure of some recruits to disclose their true occupations.

Early in October 1939 a serious difficulty in the supply of skilled tradesmen for Divisional Signals was revealed. Many of the men drafted to the unit had no special qualifications of value to Signals. It was known, however, that there were many employees of the Post and Telegraph Department who had enlisted for service with the Special Force but had not been called up. The matter was taken up promptly with Headquarters Mobilisation Camp, Trentham. Later it was found that some of the men concerned had been called up but had been posted to other units where it was apparent that their special aptitudes and skill were not being usefully employed. Stronger representations were then made to Headquarters Mobilisation Camp, and it was pointed out that these men were in the ‘important occupations’ class and had been released by the Post and Telegraph Department on the understanding that their services were required in their technical trades. In these later representations emphasis was laid on the impossibility of producing qualified technicians and Morse operators of the required standard in a few months from men who had had no previous experience.

Timely though these representations were, they unfortunately did not have the desired effect. At the end of November it was again found necessary to press strongly for assurances that men whose special qualifications fitted them for employment in Divisional Signals, more particularly Morse operators, linemen and technicians qualified in wireless communications, should be posted to that unit.

A General Staff instruction on 8 September directed that officers and NCOs above the rank of lance-corporal were to report to their respective training centres throughout the country on the 23rd. Officers of the Regular Force were appointed as adjutants, and Permanent Staff warrant officers and NCOs as regimental sergeant-majors and regimental quartermaster-sergeants. Training directives for the various arms of the Special Force were issued in September. It is interesting to note that Territorials were not to be told at any stage of their training to ‘forget all that they had ever learned’.

page 3

Officers and NCOs who had been selected for service with the Special Force were notified by telegram on 20 September that they were required to report for duty on the 27th. On that date nine officers and nineteen NCOs of the New Zealand Corps of Signals assembled at Trentham Mobilisation Camp, ready to undergo an intensive five-day pre-mobilisation course of instruction. By 3 October, when the main draft of Divisional Signals entered camp, a skeleton training and administrative organisation was already in operation. In those early weeks of mobilisation the responsibility of administration and training fell to the Regular Force personnel. Major Allen,1 of the New Zealand Staff Corps, whose appointment at that time was Commander No. 1 Camp and who at the outbreak of war was OC Area 4 at Hamilton, was well known to most of the Divisional Signals men in the camp. He had for a number of years been Signals Staff Officer at Headquarters Central Military District in Wellington, and his connection with signals organisation led to his appointment later in the year as CO Divisional Signals in the Special Force. Although Allen's appointment was nominally that of Commander No. 1 Camp, his principal responsibility was the training and organisation of the Divisional Signals unit. In this task he had the able assistance of Captain Vincent, DCM, MM,2 of the New Zealand Staff Corps, Adjutant of the new unit.

Captain Agar,3 who had commanded the Central District Signal Company for some time before he joined the Special Force, was appointed to command No. 1 Company of Divisional page 4 Signals. Staff-Sergeant Stevenson,4 of the New Zealand Permanent Staff, was RSM.

To accommodate the Special Force an immediate start had been made on the erection of permanent hutted mobilisation camps. Tented camps were established at Trentham to accommodate the troops while the huts were being erected, and by 3 October some hutted sleeping and messing accommodation was available. In the Divisional Signals' area, however, sleeping huts had not yet been started and mess halls, kitchens, and hot-shower houses were still incomplete.

Fifty-nine men of the main draft for Divisional Signals marched into camp on 3 October. They were followed by ninety-nine on the 4th and another forty-four on the 5th.

In the early days of mobilisation the private soldier spent much time waiting in queues. He stood in long queues to receive his food; he stood patiently in pay queues, where his position from the front of a seemingly interminable line depended solely on his place in the alphabetical register; he stood in other long queues and shuffled forward one slow step at a time to receive as a reward for his patience a uniform which fitted his frame only where it touched. As he looked at his new boots his heart sank. Perhaps, if he were not too young, he had heard of ‘Bill Masseys’; or perhaps other dim recollections of the massive footwear that his father had worn in the First World War stirred his apprehension. Fortunately there were many there who were Territorials and had learned to tame the army boot. In many of the bell tents which stretched in four straight rows towards the shower houses and administrative buildings at the southern end of the camp, groups of men put on their new garb; odd assortments of serge tunics and trousers made up sombre combinations of dusty brown and bilious green, while here and there battered brass buttons flaunted their motif of verdigris.

A vast amount of administrative work, such as the issue of clothing, medical and dental examinations, protective inoculations, and the completion of personal files and paybooks, was crammed into the first week of mobilisation. On 9 October, page 5 however, training commenced in earnest. The men were grouped into thirteen small parties, each of which, every morning from Monday till Friday, carried out basic training, which comprised infantry, small-arms and physical training. In the afternoons they were rearranged into another thirteen groups, according to their knowledge of the Morse code, for training in Morse flag, Morse buzzer and Morse lamp. This type of training ceased at the end of October, and from then until the end of November the men were grouped for specialist training as operators, despatch riders, linemen, drivers, and workshops personnel. New recruits, of whom fifty-five had marched in during October, were associated with the operator group for Morse training.

From Monday until Friday each day began with a forty-minute period of infantry and small-arms training. This was followed by trade training in six periods, each lasting forty minutes, and the day closed with thirty minutes of physical training. In the evenings the men were encouraged to attend voluntary classes in Morse training. Each group concentrated on those phases of signal work with which it was directly concerned. Operators and technicians had the use of four No. 9 wireless sets and thirteen No. 1 sets. During November the arrival of thirty-two new motor vehicles, including nineteen 8-cwt WT (wireless telegraphy) trucks, enabled considerable progress to be made in the training of drivers. Unfortunately no motor-cycles had yet been made available for the training of despatch riders. Repeated representations to Camp Headquarters were without avail, so despatch riders had to be content with instruction in map-reading and other less exciting forms of training. This continued, except for occasional spells of driving and vehicle maintenance with the drivers' group, throughout the whole of the despatch riders' training in New Zealand, as the unit did not receive any motor-cycles until shortly after its arrival in Egypt.

An epidemic of influenza had been hindering the progress of training to a serious extent and the number of Divisional Signals men in hospital or ‘sick on leave’ began to rise sharply in the last week of October. A mobilisation camp order issued on the 26th directed that ‘epidemic’ units were not to move page 6 more than one mile from the camp during training. Leave, however, was not curtailed. In the opening days of November the epidemic continued to wax and wane, reaching its peak on the 9th, when seventy-two men of Divisional Signals were in hospital or excused duty. By the middle of the month the number affected had decreased rapidly.

The composition of the Special Force was announced on 16 October by the Director of Mobilisation, and the Divisional Signals unit became 2 New Zealand Divisional Signals. The name given to the Special Force was 2 New Zealand Division; the designation 2 New Zealand Expeditionary Force, by which the whole force despatched overseas was to be known, was not adopted until 12 December 1939. The decision that 2 NZEF was to go overseas was made public on 23 November. At the same time it was announced that Major-General B. C. Freyberg, VC, had been appointed to command the Force. General Freyberg was to leave England as early as possible for New Zealand to inspect the officers and men of his new command.

The announcement that the Special Force would be despatched overseas had a stimulating effect on the training of the men in camp, on the men themselves, and on recruiting. The attitude of the public towards the men in camp also changed appreciably after the announcement. The average New Zealander had been more than a little complacent about the war up to this stage, and an idea seemed to have prevailed that the men were enjoying a good holiday in camp. A large number of people really believed that when the men had completed their three months' training they would be returned to their civil occupations. Cases of obstruction of uniformed men had occurred in several places, while open scoffing by hooligans had been frequent. One soldier, Signalman O'Hara,5 had been accosted in his own home town by some village louts, one of whom even had gone so far as to spit in O'Hara's direction to demonstrate his contempt for a uniformed soldier.

In Wellington several fights had occurred between hoodlums and military patrols when the offensive heckling to which they were subjected had exhausted the servicemen's patience. page 7 A favourite stamping ground for these louts was the Hotel St. George corner, where several small parties of Divisional Signals men had been molested and abused on a number of occasions. Towards the end of November the activities of these parties of yahoos had reached such a pitch of insolence that some of the men decided to organise a punitive expedition into the city. Brian Fargus,6 a Divisional Signals soldier of imposing stature and impressive muscular proportions, was the instigator of this move. Ostensibly, the party which Fargus selected for the task was to be a picket, but he selected his men with an eye to Rugby characteristics rather than military deportment. The party set off on a Friday evening and made its way to the Hotel St. George area. Fargus sent two of his men forward to act as decoys for the hoodlums while he and the rest of the picket lurked in the throng which surged through lower Willis Street. The two decoys reached the corner and in a short time the louts appeared and commenced to heckle them and shoulder them about the footpath. Suddenly Fargus and his party burst out of the crowd and the fun commenced. After a decent interval the officer in charge of the picket, Captain John Feeney,7 appeared and, judging that the decontamination had reached a satisfactory stage, called the party off. It is interesting to record that this particular area was free for some time from the unwelcome activities of street loafers.

Towards the end of November the first contingent of Divisional Signals began to assume some resemblance to the organisation which would enter the field. Men were posted to headquarters to fill its establishment, while the majority were drafted to the component parts of No. 1 Company which, besides its company headquarters, comprised a wireless section (A), a cable section (B), an operating section (D), a technical maintenance section (M), and a small section (C) of electricians, instrument mechanics, and fitters which would be attached to Divisional Cavalry. Two other sections, one of which (E) would be attached to 4 Field Regiment of the Divisional Artillery and the other (J) to 4 Infantry Brigade, completed the establishment of First Echelon Signals.

page 8

In addition to the small ‘schemes’ held as part of the regular collective training programme, two out-of-camp exercises were carried out early in December. The first of these occupied only a single day, but Major Allen, who watched the work of the various sections with a critical eye, attached much importance to this first attempt at advanced training. The tremendous enthusiasm shown by the men was a heartening sign. When another exercise, this time on a more ambitious scale, was held a couple of weeks later in the Wairarapa district, some valuable experience in signal office organisation was obtained, but probably the most useful lesson learned during the two days and a night of this training scheme was the precarious balance demonstrated between day and night wireless communications.

Although the No. 1 wireless set gave very satisfactory performances during daylight, a number of wireless operators had some slight stirrings of suspicion as to its limitations at night. There was, however, modest satisfaction at the splendid performances of the new No. 9 wireless sets, whose additional power and more suitable frequency range enabled them to maintain communications during darkness with satisfactory efficiency.

In the cable and operating sections there were other difficulties. The line-telegraph instrument then in use for training was the Fullerphone Mark III, a device of First World War vintage. These Fullerphones were not capable of sustaining stable adjustment for any length of time and were a dreadful trial to those who operated them and to the instrument mechanics responsible for their maintenance.

The men of B (cable) Section also had their little troubles, but these were more easily solved than those in the wireless and operating sections. Nevertheless, there were unsuspected pitfalls into which even experienced men were prone to stumble, and the former Post and Telegraph linemen, cable jointers and faultmen, of whom there was a fairly high proportion in the cable section, began to see that the change of technique from civil line construction to the laying out and maintenance of field cable was not merely an automatic transfer of skilled experience.

page 9

At the close of the exercise the two days' work was submitted to a searching but very helpful analysis by Major Allen, who laid strong emphasis on the many useful lessons brought out by the scheme and the manner in which they might be studied for the benefit of future training.

A mild stir arose when two officers, a warrant officer, three sergeants, and four other ranks were hastily despatched on final leave on 5 December. They comprised Divisional Signals' portion of two advance parties that were to proceed immediately to Egypt, one to attend special courses of instruction at an overseas base, and the other, consisting mainly of quartermaster-sergeants, cooks and clerks, to make messing and quartering arrangements, in readiness for the arrival of the main body of the First Echelon in Egypt. Lieutenant Burns,8 Second-Lieutenant Wilkinson,9 Sergeants Andrews,10 Jones11 and Pedersen,12 and Corporals Healy13 and Tankard14 were the Divisional Signals' quota in the advanced instruction party, and Sergeant-Major Waters,15 Lance-Corporal Christie16 and Signalman Robinson17 were included in the advanced administrative party. After the four days' final leave, which afforded them the last opportunity to see their wives, families, and sweethearts and to make their farewells, the members of the page 10 two parties reassembled at Trentham on 10 December and embarked at Wellington next day.

From one minute after midnight on 13-14 December 1939 the First Echelon of 2 NZEF was placed on active service. The significance of this, which was explained very carefully to all ranks of Divisional Signals by Major Allen, was that the Army Act now had a much wider and deeper application. Emphasis was laid on the provisions for arrest, trial, and punishment for offences by soldiers on active service. In peacetime soldiering many offences were prone to be regarded as misdemeanours of a venial kind; under active service conditions the provisions of Sections 1 to 44 of the Army Act were inviolable.

The 14th December marked the commencement of fourteen days' final leave for all ranks. From the 16th, when the last of the leave drafts moved out, until the 28th, when the first of the men began to return, an unruffled calm lay over the camp. Behind the scenes, however, embarkation preparations were moving to a close, and by the time all the troops had returned to camp arrangements were complete.

On Sunday, New Year's Eve, HMS Ramillies, the first British battleship to visit Wellington, appeared in the harbour and berthed at Pipitea Wharf. Within a few days the Leander and Canberra, which with the Ramillies were to form the ocean escort for the First Echelon's transports, were also in port. HMS Leander was to provide the local escort for sailings between Wellington and Lyttelton. By this time six large ships waited in the port, all or most of them now clad in their wartime garb of drab grey. By arrangement with the Harbour Board, barricades were erected at the entrances of Glasgow and King's wharves and placed under police guard. Each transport was examined by the naval authorities to ascertain its defensive state, armament and convoy equipment, and the approaches to the ports of Wellington and Lyttelton were swept by mine- sweepers.

Meanwhile, with the return of the troops from final leave, the mobilisation camp at Trentham had awakened from its fortnight's spell of calm and was now the scene of much bustle and seeming confusion. General leave was discontinued and the issue of overseas kit and similar preparations
black and white photograph of army officers


back row: Captains A. E. Smith, R. L. C. Grant, Lieutenants D. M. Burns, R. Dasler, Second-Lieutenant A. G. Holms, Lieutenant C. G. Pryor
front row: Lieutenant D. M. McFarlane, Captains J. Feeney, J. Vincent, DCM, MM, Lieutenant-Colonel S. F. Allen, Major G. L. Agar, Lieutenant C. A. Borman, Captain E. L. J. Marshall, Lieutenant N. G. Fletcher

black and white photograph of soldiers climbing ship

Embarking on HMT Dunera at Wellington, 4 January 1940

black and white photograph of soldiers next to train

Third Echelon detraining at Maadi, September 1940

black and white photograph of soldiers climbing ship

A ‘bread-van’ wireless truck

black and white photograph of army tent

Western Desert Force Signals' camp at Baggush, 1940

black and white photograph of soldiers cooking food

Men's mess at Baggush

black and white photograph of soldier making phone call

Underground exchange at Western Desert Force Headquarters—F. L. W. Stubbs testing and J. W. Bateman on telephone

black and white photograph of soldier on wireless set

Sgt A. D. Morgan on a No. 9 wireless set, Western Desert

page 11 for embarkation stimulated the men's sense of expectancy. On 31 December General Freyberg inspected and addressed a parade of all units of the First Echelon in Trentham.

Divisional Signals took part in a farewell parade through the streets of Wellington on 3 January. After the march past the troops assembled in front of the steps of Parliament Buildings, where they were addressed by the Governor-General (Viscount Galway), the Prime Minister (Rt Hon M. J. Savage), the Leader of the Opposition (Hon A. Hamilton), and the Dominion President of the Returned Soldiers' Association (Mr B. J. Jacobs). In the afternoon, after the men had returned to Trentham, the camp was opened to visitors to give friends and relatives an opportunity to make last farewells.

That evening the details of the routine for embarkation next morning appeared in routine orders, and the fever of expectancy ran high. As the camp subsided into silence, the last notes of Lights Out marked the culmination of twelve weeks of zeal and industry; when the bugles sounded again at dawn they had a new note—a prelude to high adventure.