The 36th Battalion: a record of service of the 36th Battalion with the Third Division in the Pacific
Chapter Four — Norfolk Island
There are few members of the 36th Battalion who will have other than happy memories of Norfolk Island. Some were unhappy in Fiji or New Caledonia; the Solomons never appealed to anybody as a tourist resort, still less as a battlefield; but Norfolk was different from these others, unique in the beauty of its scenery, the interest of its extraordinary history and the generous hospitality of its tiny civilian population. Norfolk Island is in no way tropical. It is situated well south of the tropic of Capricon, 630 miles north-west of Auckland and 900 miles from the eastern coast of Australia. Its climate is admirably temperate, not unlike that of North Auckland at its best. The first glimpse of the green slopes behind Kingston from the boat anchored in the bay suggests English down country rather than a Pacific island. The famous pines of Norfolk dominate the landscape with grace and dignity, far different from the' twisted niaouli of New Caledonia that we were to know later. Around the slopes of Mount Pitt patches of bush were strongly reminiscent of New Zealand bush, with their own pungas and nikaus. Nor was there even a single coconut palm. Yes, Norfolk was different.
The days of arrival, both for the advanced party and for the main body a week later, were unforgettable. The former saw Norfolk at its best on a gloriously fine day, while the main body arrived in pouring rain and made their way to their camp areas along roads ankle deep in mud. We were impressed by the masterly seamanship displayed by the Islanders as they skilfully ran their boats laden with men in on a combing wave through the narrow reef entrance up to the convict-built, stone jetty. The unloading of stores and equipment was to prove a very real problem during our six months' stay. The broken down equipment was never meant to handle such loads, but somehow in spite of many mechanical breaks, the job was done. We were always dependent on the weather, and should the swell run from the north, Kingston was the only anchorage which could be worked. Yet, with a change to the south, which could occur any time during the day, the ship would have to heave-to off Cascade. Whale-boats would then have to be loaded on trucks and carted across the island. Unloading was delayed to such an extent that a page 26ship which, further north, we would have unloaded in two days, would take anything up to six weeks under Norfolk conditions.
Camp sites had been allocated to each company, taking into account its proximity to the defensive task allotted it. The force headquarters was in a central position and, fortunately, meeting all strategic requirements, the lovely house and grounds of 'Devon' were available. The name 'Whitewings' appealed to A company's fancy as soon as they arrived, and the beauty of the outlook from the place where they pitched their tents was a never failing source of delight. There were glimpses through the pines of the town of Kingston below, the surf beating against Nepean Island and in the distance the red barrenness of Phillip Island. A drive through beautiful park lands brought you to Anson Bay, and here, tucked away in the wild lantana, B company built its home.
Tall, grass-clad hills close to the coast at Cascade surrounded C company in the valley below. We all envied them their crystal clear stream which flowed through the camp, especially later when, in the dryness of the summer, their garden flourished whilst others wilted and died. Nestling under the tall, dark pines along Collins Head Road D (support) company's tents reminded us of happy days spent camping at home. Headquarters company was likewise situated beneath the pines on a level, green sward, and upon its completion their home was something to be proud of. Here, too, Padre Liggett set up his tents and named his area, the 'Four Pines'. It became the hub of entertainment and learning on the island. It is doubtful whether we will ever again have camp sites like these. It was in these idyllic surroundings that we were to work, have fun and know beauty, until the war called us north again.
Life during the first few weeks was rugged. The tents were still in the hold of the ship, and the weather precluded any speedy unloading. All sorts of temporary shelters sprang up. Two sheets of rusty corrugated iron (if you were lucky enough to get them) and a ground sheet made a home to keep out the worst of the rain. Some men slept in deserted houses and others under the pines.
Six hundred miles north of Auckland and 1,000 miles north-west of Sydney lies Norfolk Island. Five miles long and three miles wide, intersected by dusty red roads and dotted with clumps of the famous Norfolk pine, it is picturesque beyond any other Pacific Island. It was a convict settlement in the 1840's and the stone ruins at Kingston mark that era of cruelty. In 1856 Norfolk became the new home of the Pitcairn islanders, descendants of the Bounty mutineers, who live there still to-day. Discovered by Captain Cook, it is now part of the territory of the Commonwealth of Australia. With a high, irregular coastline which defends it from the sea, Norfolk climbs by hilly roads 'up country' and gather in the centre to the bush-clad peak of Mount Pitt about 1,000 feet high. There is no harbour—landings are made by small boat at Kingston in the south and Cascade in the North. For its healthy climate and beautiful scenery. Norfolk has been called the 'Madeira of the Pacific'
Soon after our arrival we said farewell to the company of the AIF we had relieved. Together with the small Norfolk Island infantry detachment, N Force commenced work on the defence of the island. A 24-hour watch was maintained at commanding observation points, and soon the coastline became dotted with defence works. These had to be continuously repaired, as the mutton birds would fly into them and start to burrow their way out again.
The greater part of the coastline consisted of sheer, rocky cliffs against which the Pacific rollers thundered, throwing into the air clouds of spray. Here enemy landings were impossible, but, wherever there appeared to be any possibility of the enemy gaining a foothold, positions were sited to beat him off. At dawn each morning the island coastline was manned. Though this was an enforced vigilance, the beauty of those early morning sunrises is in retrospect an unforgettable memory. The ruthless demands of war dictated that the stately 'Avenue of Pines' be destroyed in order that an aerodrome might be constructed. These pines had been a source of pride of the islanders and had delighted their eyes over scores of years. Tears were shed as the old gave way to the new and war, willy nilly, thrust progress on these home-loving, contented people.
When most of the defence works were completed, every effort was made to maintain interest, and prevent 'browning off'. Too easily a unit with nothing to do slips back. Route marches, plenty of sport and minor training exercises saw to it that the standard of efficiency of the battalion was maintained. In spite of its smallness —five miles long by three miles wide—Norfolk was able to provide up to 25-mile route marches by road without covering the same ground twice. One company commander in outlining the route to his company, declared that it was almost all down hill. Almost? He has never lived that statement down.
The 36th Battalion athletic sports were held in December and were convincingly won by D (support) company, who thereby gained page 28possession of the Luke Shield. These were closely followed by N Force sports on Boxing Day. Perhaps the battalion had fared too well on the previous day, for the 215 Composite AA Battery carried the field at the conclusion of a splendid meeting.
Christmas Day on Norfolk will never be forgotten. Every company had gone to great lengths to make our first Christmas away from home a memorable one. Mess halls were decorated, table cloths were borrowed, as were also cutlery and plates, beer had arrived in the nick of time; there were even cigars, and the tables literally groaned under the weight of good things. Early on Christmas morning news had arrived that two planes laden with lamb, new potatoes and green peas were on their way from New Zealand. Exactly at a quarter to nine, the first plane dropped its load of parachutes over the drome. Some failed to open and the strip was strewn with potatoes and shelled peas. The other plane decided to come down and was thus the first plane to land at Norfolk. It was a great moment for the island people, and we were proud that it was the RNZAF which had this distinction. Before long these welcome Christmas presents from home were cooking in the company ovens. Some companies left theirs to the following day, as they had ordered supplies of pork or poultry earlier. At 'Whitewings', 'Steggo' as Santa Claus, dressed in a red dressing gown, a vast straggly cotton wool beard and a tin hat had everyone in fits of laughter, as he took down from the Christmas tree an appropriate present for every man, accompanied by his own inimitable comments.
New Year's Day was a momentous one for Major Pringle and the other farmers of the battalion, for on that day 300 sheep arrived from New Zealand. The difficult task of getting them ashore on lighters was successfully accomplished with the loss of only one overboard. Besides providing a subject for study and discussion for the many farmers in the battalion, they were—which was more important—a very welcome addition to our fare.
As each company completed the building and beautification of its camp area, it held an 'At Home'. These functions allowed us to reciprocate the hospitality we had received from the Norfolk people. Each company provided something interesting and novel, ranging from rides in bren carriers to gymnastic displays, wrestling, tennis, wood chopping, fortune telling and displays of weapons. One should page 29not forget B company's scheme of 'how to destroy a tank', with the able assistance of the engineers, anti-tank rifles and 16 sticks of gelignite.
No record of how we conquered idleness would be complete without reference to the entertainment we had to make for ourselves. There were no picture theatres, so it was a question of co-opting all available talent. In the hands of Padre Liggett, Lieutenant A. G. Steggles, and Warrant Officer Second class R. J. Rough splendid concerts were produced each fortnight. Starting with the tray of a truck for the first stage at 'Waverney', before long a first-rate stage was built in Bailey's paddock. Here the whole military and civil population would gather on a Saturday night for an evening's thorough enjoyment. Let us not forget the officers' concert, either, when the combined officers of the force really let themselves go. The battalion and force swimming sports were held in the clear, blue waters of Emily Bay toward the end of February. Both contests were held in fine weather, when the beach looked at its best. The excellence of B company's swimmers gave the battalion an unassailable lead in the force sports. About this time the Force boxing championships were held at the stage in Charley Bailey's paddock. We enjoyed a good, clean afternoon's sport, under strict army rules of boxing, and saw the battalion team easy victors at the end of a fine contest.
When the late Rt. Hon. J. G. Coates arrived on a visit of inspection he found a hot bed of rumours. Were we going home, or were we going north to rejoin our old brigade in the Third New Zealand Division? Information was sought from him in his breezy visits to each camp, but upon his departure no one was any the wiser. Then, within a few weeks, movement orders were received. Our destination was to be New Caledonia. By now we were well versed in the art of packing. Soon it was completed, and we were making our farewells to the island people with whom we had been so happy.
The move was carried out in three stages. The advanced party, consisting of Major Pringle, the battalion's second-in-command, the company commanders and a selected party of handymen from each company, embarked under atrocious weather conditions on 29 March 1943. During the following week the handing over to the 1st page 30Battalion of the Wellington-West Coast Regiment took place, and on 7 April the main body embarked. A week later the commanding officer and the rear party, who had completed the relief with the incoming unit, left to join up with the battalion in New Caledonia.