The 36th Battalion: a record of service of the 36th Battalion with the Third Division in the Pacific
Chapter Five — New Caledonia
The advanced party from Norfolk landed at Nouméa at 1100 hours on 31 March 1943 and moved to Bouloupari, where they were warmly welcomed by Brigadier Row and his staff. The brigadier was undoubtedly glad to have one of his battalions back, and the members of the advanced party felt—and this feeling was later shared by the main body—that, even after the pleasant Norfolk interlude, it was good to be back with the Eighth Brigade, to be able to renew old friendships and to be again part of an organisation that seemed likely to take an active part in the Pacific theatre of operations. On the following morning the advanced party moved into the new battalion camp site on the Ouenghi River, erected a temporary camp and immediately set to work preparing the camp for the main body.
The Ouenghi Camp, which was to be our home for the next five months, was in many ways the best the battalion has had in its wanderings. It was situated on a well-drained, sandy river flat of sufficient area to accommodate the whole battalion. This was a great advantage as, except for the brief periods spent in Papakura, Avondale and Samambula Camps, the battalion had not been together before in the one area. The Ouenghi, a sizeable stream, provided each company with a bathing pool, and on its banks were enough trees, the ever-present niaouli and the Australian sheoak, to give cover for tents and camp buildings. On the seaward side M. Peyrolle's broad fields gave an outlook to the camp and allowed the welcome sea-breezes in. The only real disadvantage, as we very page 32soon discovered, was the myriads of mosquitoes, but as they were common to most parts of New Caledonia it was a case of grin and bear it.
The advanced party put in eight days strenuous work, laying out company areas, erecting tents and constructing such camp facilities as cookhouses, stores and latrines. Large quantities of niaouli saplings and bark were collected, and soon there began to appear in the various areas buildings of the Fijian bure type, except that the thatching was done with niaouli bark. Necal will probably always be to us the land of the niaouli. For the next five months we were never away from it. We made buildings of it; we used it for thatching; we burned it in our fires; and we burned the bark and green leaves in our tents to help suppress the mosquito menace; we trained in forests of it; it provided our jungle ranges; in short, what the pine was to Norfolk, the niaouli was to New Caledonia, only a hundred times more so. In addition to camp preparation, the officers of the advanced party found time to reconnoitre that part of the brigade area which the battalion was to defend, and to make themselves familiar with the guard duties at Tontouta, Oua Tom, Thio and La Foa. So, by the time the main body arrived on 7 April, not only was the camp ready for occupation, but the battalion's role was known, guard duties could be taken over and training commenced with the least possible delay.
New Caledonia marked a new phase in the battalion's history. For the first time supplies were plentiful. The advanced party was almost deluged with equipment of all kinds. New Zealand-assembled 'quads' which were soon to give evidence of an excellent cross-country performance; oil-burning stoves that gladdened the hearts of the cooks and mess orderlies; and a host of articles of camp equipment were made available. The rations, too, were abundant, though, being mainly American B ration, they caused the cooks and quartermasters a few headaches at first. We had been on them in the last days in Fiji, but from now on they were to be our staple diet, varied occasionally with fresh food from New Zealand, and later with the unforgettable C and K rations. Ammunition also was in excellent supply and the broad areas of Necal provided ample space for range shooting, jungle shooting and battle practices.
There seemed no doubt that a change was taking place—a change from the defensive to the offensive. We were to be equipped to page 33 page 34the last detail and trained ready for offensive action some time in the not too distant future, we hoped. After the arrival of the rear party from Norfolk early in April, the battalion commenced training in earnest and, except for periodic guard duties and some necessary camp improvements, training was the keynote of our stay in Necal. It must not be imagined that life at Ouenghi was all work and no play—far from it. There were excellent playing areas, and in spite of the heat, football and kindred sports flourished. Swimming was ever popular. Here, too, it was that we saw a movie for the first time in six months, and no time was lost by new arrivals in paying a visit to the movies at the negro camp 'up the road'. Neither will we easily forget the times we came back to the camp, pictureless, because the machine had broken down or the schedule had been unexpectedly altered. Another activity indulged in by its devotees was deer-stalking and pig-hunting, and often a piece of venison or pork would find its way to a company cook-house.
One incident of importance occurred toward the end of the first month in the new camp. Torrential rainfall was experienced on the afternoon of 27 April, and the river rose rapidly. By midnight the floodwaters were within a foot or two of the banks. Accordingly orders were issued to pack all equipment in preparation for an emergency move out of camp. During the early hours of the following morning the waters still rose and in some places broke over the banks. However, by 4.30 am the flood had reached its peak, and by daylight the rain had ceased, the waters had begun to subside and the danger period was over. The advisability of our remaining in an area subject to sudden flooding was discussed, but fortunately it was decided to remain.
Mention of training in Necal will probably always call to mind three exercises in particular—Ring Contour or Mé-pin, Dent de St. Vincent and the 'Bula' exercise. These exercises were carried out in the various types of New Caledonia country which gave scope for all kinds of manoeuvre. They were very strenuous, especially in the tropical heat, but the battalion acquitted itself very well and really enjoyed the feats of endurance; especially in retrospect.
New Caledonia landscape, Mount Dent de St. Vincent from Peyrolles Ridge
The largest island in the Pacific, apart from New Guinea. New Caledonia is a French colony. For 40 years at the end of last century, it was a convict settlement rivalling Devil's Island. There are 30,000 native Melanesians who in 1878 made a formidable rebellion against French rule, 8,000 indentured Javanese and Tonkiness labourers, and 17,000 French, the majority born in New Caledonia. The mineral wealth of the island is enormous. Compared with most Pacific islands, New Caledonia appears very bare, with its steep mountain ranges and drab niaouli flats. The climate is quite pleasant and dry. Nouméa with its population of 11,000 has a magnificent land-locked harbour
Probably no member of A company will forget toiling up Pinnacle Peak, nor B company scaling the slippery and almost vertical sides of Sugarloaf. Nor will C company forget the mortar bombs which landed uncomfortably close to them as they commenced to move through to Ring Contour. By mid-afternoon the final objective was taken and consolidation commenced. At 1630 hours the exercise ended and the battalion retired to Oua Tom for a hot meal before returning to the Ouenghi.
The trek over Mount Dent de St. Vincent was first and last a feat of endurance. It involved climbing the high peak, Dent de St. Vincent, then moving across barren, rugged, high country to Mount Tonta and then down to the Tontouta River, where the exercise was to conclude with a river crossing.
On the afternoon of 17 May the battalion moved up the Ouenghi Valley preparatory to commencing the climb at daybreak the following morning. Every man carried five days' rations as well as his normal equipment. In addition, medium machine guns, mortars and ammunition, as well as battalion reserve ammunition and a reserve of water in two-gallon cans were to be man-handled over the difficult country ahead, and carrying details had been organised to this end. Dent de St. Vincent, a peak of some 5000 feet, rises almost sheer from the flat coastal land at Ouenghi. To the soldier carrying normal page 36equipment it is a tough climb, but to the battalion, moving with heavy equipment and additional supplies, it was a terrific feat of endurance.
At 0530 on 18 May the head of the column passed the starting line, and throughout that day the column toiled up through the loose gravel, stunted niaouli and mountain scrub of the lower slopes of the feature. There was no shelter from the intense rays of the sun, and the grade was extremely steep. By mid-afternoon the first day's march was completed and the battalion bivouacked for the night on the open, razor-backed ridge immediately beneath the main peak. It was unbelievably cold, considering that we were in the tropics and at no great altitude. Every available clump of fern and stunted scrub was utilised for shelter, and the brews of New Zealand 'billy' tea helped to keep out the cold. The first and perhaps the most difficult part of the climb was over. Next morning the trail led upwards again, but this time through thick bush country, known in New Caledonia as cloud-forest. We were grateful for the cool shade, but the going was still very difficult. Rocky out-crops of from twenty to thirty feet high had to be scaled; the trail was nowhere smooth and always steep. We were ascending rapidly, though of necessity with frequent halts, to the summit. By 1030 hours the battalion had passed over the Dent and was moving eastward along the bush-clad ridge toward Mount Tonta where it was expected the 'enemy' would be contacted. That night was spent in the bush.
Next morning reconnaissance patrols located the 'enemy', and at mid-day the battalion advanced against his positions, maintaining contact with him as he retired from high, open country down to the Tontouta Valley. The advance continued throughout the night over extremely rough, broken country, and culminated, in the early hours of the morning, in an attack on the 'enemy' at the junction of the Tontouta River and one of its tributaries. The exercise finished shortly before daylight. After breakfast the battalion carried out the river-crossing exercise, using assault boats and a vehicle ferry manned by New Zealand engineers, and then moved on down the valley to the vehicles which took us back to camp. And so finished the most gruelling and difficult exercise ever carried out by the battalion. It it doubtful if we will ever think of New Caledonia without recalling vivid memories of the Dent de St. Vincent.page 37
At this stage the battalion changed to a new establishment. It had become increasingly clear that for 'jungle' troops—and everything pointed to our becoming such—the battalion had too many heavy weapons. The Dent exercise—although the performance of the battalion and of the support company, in particular, in man-handling the weapons and supplies across such difficult country and in such good time was an excellent one—only went to show the short-comings of the old establishment for jungle warfare. So when, at the end of May, the change-over from the old to the new establishment took place, although it meant the breaking up of old friendships in many cases, it did not come as a complete surprise, or, rather as an altogether unwelcome change. One platoon of machine gunners went to the new brigade machine gun company; the remainder were distributed throughout the battalion, while the mortar platoon joined headquarters company. The old D (support) company vanished, and a new D rifle company was formed by taking one platoon from each of the other three rifle companies. The new D company quickly settled down to its new existence.
The 'Bula' exercise was carried out early in June. It was a brigade manoeuvre, and the ground covered during the five days it lasted stretched from Bouloupari to Moindou, a distance of some fifty or sixty miles, along the Route Colonaile, Necal's main highway. Unfortunately the few days prior to the exercise had seen very heavy rain, and with intermittent rain during actual operations the going was difficult, especially on subsidiary roads and across country. As a result conditions were very unpleasant, and the most enjoyable part of the exercise was the return to the Ouenghi camp at the end of it.
One of the outstanding features of the exercise was the splendid work done by the drivers. On the Ouameni—La Foa Road, in particular, the trucks were brought up through the mud with the greatest difficulty, and in places progress was maintained only by using winches. However, at night they came forward unfailingly with the cooks and the hot meal that brought cheer to the hungry, cold, wet and mud-bedraggled campaigners. Other memories are the swamp that was not on the map, the 'strafing' by fighter planes on the Saddle, the difficulties encountered in fording the Moindou River and the final assault on Red Farm near Moindou.page 38
In June Lieutenant-Colonel Barry relinquished command of the battalion on medical grounds and Major Pringle took over the reins until a successor could be appointed. Colonel Barry was farewelled at a function held in the officers' mess on 21 June which was attended by the battalion's officers, past and present, and the next day the battalion paraded and marched past as a mark of respect and farewell to the departing CO. A month later Lieutenant-Colonel McK. Muirson, MC, arrived to take over. In the interim the battalion had taken part in a ceremonial parade on Dubois Field, near Ouenghi, when the Minister of Defence, the Hon. F. Jones, and the GOC, Major-General H. E. Barrowclough, CB, DSO, MC, inspected the troops.
Two days prior to this parade the battalion had received a large draft of reinforcements from the recently disbanded Ruahine Battalion. There were 89 NCO's and men in this one draft, and this number was gradually increased up to the time when we left New Caledonia, till it was well over the hundred mark. The battalion was the richer for this addition to its strength, the newcomers proving fine soldiers and quickly settling down to take a full part in the life and activities of the battalion.
By the end of July everything seemed to point to a move in the near future. Four months of intensive training had been completed, supplies of equipment had been coming forward in splendid style, so that the battalion had practically everything it needed for active operations. And then came the 'rest cure'. On 4 August the battalion, less a small rear party, moved to Thio on the opposite coast for a complete rest. For the next five days army routine and restrictions scarcely existed. We were free to enjoy what facilities Thio had to offer or simply to do nothing. During the day there was transport to take those who so desired down to the beach or up to the nickel mines—though many preferred to travel to the latter place by the quaint nickel train that connected the mine to Mission Bay. At night there were pictures. The screen was slung between two coconut palms, and the surroundings of this open-air theatre were more exotic and much more like the tropical scenery of 'romance' than were the niaouli-covered hills and plains around Ouenghi.
Here for the first time in Necal we found fruit in abundance, and very welcome it was. There was a 'pub', too, of sorts, where one page 39could have a 'dollar' meal or sample the wines and spirits at exorbitant prices. Thio itself was a typical French-colonial village with its shuttered houses, its mairie and its gendarmerie and its strange collection of races made up of French, Tonkinese, Javanese and Kanakas. Our stay drew to a close all too soon, and it was with mixed feelings of pleasure and regret that we left our holiday camp.
The battalion returned from Thio refreshed and ready for the move they now knew was coming. Norfolk had revived the tan gained in Fiji, New Caledonia had deepened it, and Thio had put the finishing touches. The Australian journalist who, at this time, reported that the New Zealanders in Necal were 'lean, bronzed and hard' was probably not far from the truth, although it tickled our fancy at the time.
Now it remained only to make preparations for the move. Equipment was finally checked and made complete to the last detail. Our web equipment was camouflaged. Crates were marked, and loading and vehicle schedules prepared. During this period, too, and the few preceding weeks we had become malaria-conscious. We had listened to a series of lectures on the various aspects of malaria and the anopheles mosquito which carried it. We had learned what precautions we must take in order to avoid contracting the disease, and we now had specially trained squads of men in our own units whose particular task in the forward area was to fight the causes of malaria, and so help to reduce its incidence.
It was during this last month in New Caledonia that we became part of a combat team. This was the final stage in our preparation for the move north and the amphibious training we would undergo on the way. A battalion, with field and antitank artillery, engineers and other arms under command, was considered the ideal fighting unit for the type of warfare waged in the scattered Pacific islands. Its size was such that a medium-sized transport could accommodate it with all its equipment and supplies. It had its own support weapons and its own system of supply. In short it was a self-contained, independent combat team, which could be detached from the brigade and used for a separate task, although at the same time its organisation permitted it to work as part of a larger organisation. From now until we reached our forward base we were to move and undergo page 40training as one of these teams. After that—well, it depended on what operations lay ahead of us.
Observers had been to Nouméa where the 14th Brigade was embarking and had studied the method of loading transports for amphibious operations. The principle that first things off must go on last, had to be applied to a complex combat team with an even more complex lot of weapons, equipment and supplies. It had to be applied to men as well as to equipment. And this was only the beginning. For landing operations the combat team had to be sub-divided into tactical groups which would leave the ship and hit the shore in succeeding waves. Each wave must have with it the necessary supporting arms and equipment. And since each assault boat, whether for personnel or for vehicles, had a definite capacity and a definite position on the ship, it is obvious that every detail of the landing and unloading operations had to be clearly understood before loading could begin.
On the return of the observers from Nouméa the final organisation of the 36th Battalion combat team took place, in readiness for the move north. All surplus kits were despatched to the base kit store. Crates and equipment of all kinds were allotted priorities for loading and unloading, and marked accordingly. Vehicle and equipment dumps were established near Nouméa, and here the stores of the various units comprising the team were received and arranged in their correct priorities for loading.
Meanwhile the advanced party, under Captain H. W. Williams, had already left for the forward area to prepare for the arrival of the battalion. Loading parties for both ship and shore tasks and personnel appointed to administrative positions on the transport left to commence their duties. Finally, on 2 September, the battalion left Ouenghi and during the afternoon of the same day embarked on the President Jackson at Nouméa. The 29th and 34th Battalions and their respective combat teams embarked at the same time on two sister ships. Another stage in the history of the battalion had been passed. Keyed up by the prospect of novel and interesting training and of action at the end of it, we welcomed what lay ahead of us.