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Base Wallahs: Story of the units of the base organisation, NZEF IP

Chapter Eleven — The Scots

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Chapter Eleven
The Scots

For the purpose of a history of the 2nd NZEF IP, the story of the 1st Battalion NZ Scottish Regiment begins when it was a territorial unit in camp at Tauherinikau, just out of Featherston. The battalion was at that time being trained, in common with most territorial units, for the defence of New Zealand. Towards the end of September 1942 information came that the battalion, together with the 1st Battalion Ruahine Regiment, and some ancillary services, was to become part of what was eventually known as the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Pacific. The reaction of the troops to this news was, generally speaking, one of pleasurable excitement, except in the case of a few unfortunates who were debarred on account of age or medical grading. At that time it will be remembered that the age for home defence was lower than that for overseas service, and we had more than a sprinkling of young men. The majority of the under age group were very disappointed at being left behind, they being original members of the battalion.

Final leave over and done with, work began in earnest to bring the battalion equipment up to war establishment. This task would have been more bearable had it not been for such unpleasant interludes as vaccinations and dental treatments. At this stage Lieutenant-Colonel K. B. McKenzie Muirson, MC, took command of the battalion in succession to Lieutenant-Colonel J. L. McAllister, Since it had now become obvious that any fighting in the Pacific would be against the Japanese, there was a good deal of interest, not to say pleasure, shown by the troops when Japanese prisoners from the nearby POW camp were page 71brought in to clean up the camp area. After the battalion returned from final leave, it was moved by trucks to Linton where it underwent the final stages prior to embarkation. At this camp the training was intensified and stress laid on jungle training (so far as we knew it), general range work, and long, hard treks. We were conscious during this period of the disadvantage of not having been included with the rest of the division in the jungle training in the Kaimais.

Outstanding recollections of our days in Linton must include the now famous haircut when, as the result of an order, every member of the battalion became the proud possessor of a 'convict cut.' Loud were the lamentations of the lads who had previously possessed fine locks of hair. Another memory was of the slugging work put in, shifting and packing the whole of the battalion stores by hand into 'two-man loads.' This was made necessary by an order to the effect that all stores may have to be 'man handled' at destination. This order gave rise to a fresh crop of the usual army rumours, everyone of us at one stage or another pictured ourselves sweating over the stores on the 'Kokoda Trail' or was it to be the Burma Road? The final two nights when, since all tents and equipment had gone, we slept where we could—if we could, will be remembered by all. There was also the occasion just prior to embarkation when a very important personage tried by all means to obtain special leave for a member of the battalion. The wires hummed, and there was a great rushing hither and thither, but to his credit our commanding officer was quite stubborn and refused to allow any privileges to any individuals. His final answer was that the man concerned could certainly have extra leave, provided every other man in the battalion was so treated.

Early in the morning of 23 December 1942 the battalion entrained at Linton siding where we proceeded to Wellington and embarked there on the USS West Point. Our desire to be first in all things here served us ill. Being the first battalion to go aboard this ship, we were disgusted to find that the vessel was to be loaded from the keel up, and the men of 1st Scots were as far down in the ship's hold as it was possible to go. On a ship of the size of the West Point, as any ex-Scot will tell you, this is a long way down. We also had the doubtful honour of being chosen as the unit to supply ship's police. When the ship was page 72at Auckland and remained there for three days at Christmas time, this job was definitely no sinecure. Loud and bitter were the wailings of the Aucklanders, forced to stay on a crowded ship, within a metaphorical stone's throw of their own homes.

The trip to New Caledonia was uneventful, but in a ship carrying well over 6,000 men small discomforts are only to be expected. The factor that upset the sun-loving New Zealanders more than anything was the restriction that allowed each man on deck for only one hour each day. On the arrival of the West Point at Nouméa an advanced party comprising four officers and 50 men left the ship for what was to be the area allotted to our battalion. On 1 January disembarkation of the battalion commenced by means of lighter from ship to shore. The only train on the only stretch of rail on the island, 30 miles in length, was the means of transport to the staging camp at Dumbea. It was an amazing contraption, comprising a locomotive, approximating to the small engines used in the average New Zealand freezing works, and carriages reminiscent of George Stephenson's railway pioneering days. As the train pulled out from the docks the troops burst into a spontaneous bleating and other animal noises, indicative of their impressions at the time. Dumbea was, of course, a staging camp only, and within three or four days the battalion was on the road—and what a road!—to its eventual camp area at Nemeara, about 120 miles north.

During those three days, the impressions we gained were to last us during our stay on the island. The troops were impressed mostly with the heat—remember this was midsummer—then the incessant cloud of burning dust, and the ever present mosquitoes, which proved in the months to come to be persistence personified. Green hills and bush were almost non-existent, The country at the time was a uniform dun colour, sparsely patched with the ubiquitous and straggling niaouli. It was here that the New Zealanders were given their first taste of American rations, and although its novelty at the time and the abundance of tinned fruits and juices created a good impression, this was to change rapidly with meal after meal of spam, chili-con-carne, and those horrible little objects known as Vienna sausages. It was at Dumbéa that the natural forethought of the Scot came to nought. The battalion had accumulated in New Zealand and had taken with it to New Caledonia many canteen delicacies in the food line.

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One fateful night some of our most prized foodstuffs were 'engineered' into the blue, but we failed to obtain evidence of our suspicions and salvaged only the empty tins.

The road to Nemeara, which was to become so familiar to, and so hated by, the New Zealand truck drivers, was at that stage 120 miles of burning dust and pot holes. It was a good introduction to the area which was to be our new home. The vehicles turned in an old 'gate' along an old farm track to the side of a stream running through virgin New Caledonian niaouli clad hills—this was it. Our first job, company areas having been allotted, was obviously to turn the wilderness into 'home.' Only when one starts on such an undertaking does one realise the amount of work involved. The first and most obvious difficulties were the opening of a quarry—for we had to make our own roads—the clearing of the area, and the erection of tents for living quarters, stores, mess-huts, headquarters, and recreation. There was, of course, the building of the cookhouses, the fording of the river and, until we were able to establish our own point, every drop of water for cooking and drinking represented a 26-mile run for the water cart Now the total capacity o£ a water cart is 132 gallons, so one needs little imagination to realise just how precious that water was when spread over 800 or so men. However, gradually the camp took shape, and before many months the men of the battalion made themselves personally comfortable, had erected a bridge and had built large bures for such essential buildings as cookhouses and mess huts, and had even produced a stage in a natural amphitheatre, which was the envy of units in the vicinity. We were lucky in that the camp area contained, as part of its river, a large hole which was ideal for swimming, for in the New Caledonian climate swimming was the only sport that was not rendered either impossible or at least uncomfortable by the heat. It was no uncommon sight to see up to 500 men swimming at the top end of the pool, and industriously washing clothes near the outlet. Our own water point was constructed by damming a section of the river and manufacturing some hundreds of yards of water piping out of heavy bamboo. This primitive reticulation system worked amazingly well and saved an enormous amount of time, petrol, and trouble until the brigade water point was established close by the Mission and within a mile of our own camp.

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One of the bad moments in the history of the Scots Battalion at Néméara was the discovery among its stores of a refrigerator belonging to a brigadier of another brigade. The very fact that it had been 'discovered' by the Scots Battalion appeared to reduce the value of our explanations and protestations, and certainly gave rise to a certain amount of frivolous comment. To this day no one, even the Quartermaster 'Old Bill' can give a reasonable explanation of its inclusion with the bagpipes and other warlike impedimenta.

As soon as the battalion had become reasonably settled training started again, this time under conditions approximating to what we believed would be the real thing. Our range, which we had built in the hills, echoed all day with the crack of the rifle and the chatter of the automatic. Parties were continually disappearing, fully laden, into the heat and dust, as actual combat conditions as far as possible were the aim of the commanding officer. Being brigaded we had such extra duties as the supply of guards for the detention barracks and hospital, the usual working parties to brigade, and even a platoon which relieved a French detachment of coast watchers at Cap Goulvain, on the west coast. Among the arduous duties that the battalion was called upon to perform about this time was the identification and pin pointing of trails as shown on existing maps. This was important in the event of action in New Caledonia, but meant, as can be imagined, weeks of painstaking and gruelling expeditions through the rugged hinterland. One that will never be forgotten by those who took part in it was the testing of the nutritious value of the chocolate ration. Small parties of men were sent on trek, carrying with them the emergency ration only, and asked to live on it for days at a time, but still do a normal output of work. It will probably be years before any of those men will ever again sample even the tastiest of chocolate. They had it dry, they had it baked, they boiled it, they melted it, they mixed it with odd handsful of rice and raisins, but no matter how it was dressed up, it tasted exactly like chocolate. The results of the experiments, which were painstaking, were disappointing. Different men were affected in different ways. Some of the men, by the end of six days, simply could not keep the stuff down.

In June full scale brigade manoeuvres were held within the brigade area. Three full days were spent out in the blue under page 75conditions as close to the real thing as could be. Looking back, most of the time seemed to be spent endeavouring to alter the landscape with pick and shovel. Every conceivable excavation a la pamphlet was dug, plus many more. At the completion of the exercise all 'holes' had to be filled in. To us this seemed unnecessary, as no beast could possibly live on such waste country. However, maybe the ghost of some Frenchman with the usual claim for 40 million francs in his hand hovered over the powers that be—who knows?

In common with all troops on the island, we were forced to make most of our own amusements. Naturally the construction of a football ground was given a high priority, and the battalion won its fair share of honours in outdoor sports. Indoor entertainment was always more difficult, but this was partially overcome by the organising of our own concert party under the aegis of 'Waddi' and the interchange of parties and artists with other units. We owe a debt of gratitude to the National Patriotic Fund Board which helped to furnish, with such items as ping-pong tables, dart boards, etc, our recreational bures. The New Zealand soldier is fairly competent when it comes to improvisation, and the men of the Scots Battalion were no exception to the rule. On three occasions the battalion organised a race meeting in the approved army style, where the horses moved somewhat jerkily, according to the throw of dice. However, the essentials, primarily a totalisator, were supplied, and were most definitely patronised. These meetings proved an outstanding success and added considerably to the enjoyment of what was normally an extremely monotonous existence. Haggis, the unit newspaper run by our adjutant was, in common with most contemporary publications, designed to create amusement by describing in no uncertain manner the amusing daily incidents of the camp, and the personal peculiarities of its occupants.

Two soldiers, who will forever remember the camp at Nemeara, will carry with them till their dying days memories of some unusual explosions. The camp latrines, for reasons of hygiene, were built away from the river and well up the hill-These two men, during one of our periodic outbreaks of dysentery, crawled up the hill in the early hours of the morning under difficulties. One of them, in search for black widow spiders, and the other in a moment of mental aberration, dropped naked lights page 76down the hole. The average civilian is unaware of the explosive properties of gases generated by spent American rations, but these two men, both of whom recovered in hospital, will bear witness to the violence of the resultant detonation.

One of the highlights of our history in New Caledonia, short as it was, was the King's Birthday parade in June of 1943, when Major-General H. E. Barrowclough, CB, DSO, MC, his Excellency the Governor of New Caledonia, and the Commander-in-Chief of the French Forces reviewed the 15th Brigade, of which we were a part. The parade included an inspection, advance In review order, and a march past, and judging from observers' comments and the report in the Kiwi press it was an outstanding success. The battalion pipe band was, of course, very much in evidence. This band made quite a name for itself, and since its members wore kilt, was a source of never-failing interest to French and American audiences. Although the original band had been sadly depleted when we became part of the NZEF IP, training and constant practice for the newcomers had produced a pipe band of which everyone was proud. At the request of allied authorities the band was in evidence at many functions in Nouméa. At one such function in honour of the French Governor, so impressed was this dignatory by their performance that he invited the bandsmen into his bar and gave them carte blanche with his whisky. The temptation for Scotsmen was naturally too strong, and the commandant of Nouméa transit camp had a busy and almost exciting afternoon salvaging the scattered remnants of a proud race.

Towards the end of June the battalion was assembled and given its worst news. Without even the common army rumour to give us an inkling of what was to happen the battalion was paraded before Brigadier L. G. Goss and informed by the GOC of his decision to disband the 15th Brigade. Apparently manpower difficulties had arisen in New Zealand, and it was not possible at that time to maintain a flow of reinforcements to the division. The Scots and Ruahine Battalions, with subsidiary units, were to become reinforcements to our remaining two brigades. It would be hopeless to try and express the appalling feeling of frustration and disappointment. The battalion, of which all of us had become so fond and for which we had worked page 77so hard; was to disappear. Men were to become numbers in a training depot, and the home we had built was to be handed over to the gunners.

Since this decision spelt the termination of 1st Battalion, NZ Scottish Regiment, so far as the 2nd NZEF IP was concerned, it is fitting to conclude this history by quoting its death warrant:—

Special Order of the Day

It is with very great regret that I have to announce that it has been decided that this division will be reorganised on a two brigade basis. This will necessitate the disbandment of two of our infantry units—the First Battalion of the Ruahine Regiment and the First Battalion of the Scottish Regiment. An infantry battalion is much more than a mere tactical unit. It is a band of men associated together by a strong bond of comradeship and brotherhood in arms. It is an association that is unique in human experience and there is nothing less than tragedy in the contemplation of the breaking up of such a special community.

I need hardly say that the decision to disband these two fine battalions was accepted only because it was inevitable. The demand for men, already very considerable in respect of New Zealand's commitments in the Middle East, has been accentuated by the expansion of the RNZAF. The requirements of industry for war production are increasing rather than diminishing. New Zealand simply cannot, at this juncture, bring the Third (NZ) Division to full strength and furnish adequate reinforcements. The Ruahines and the Scots must be used as reinforcements for the other two brigades or our very existence as a division would be impossible.

A soldier suffers many vicissitudes of fortune and many disappointments. There can be no greater disappointment than that which is felt by the soldier who is compelled to sever his association with the regiment of which he is a part and of which he is so justly proud. On behalf of every member of this force I wish to tender to the commanding officers and members of the Ruahines and the Scots our sincerest sympathy with them in the disbandment of the battalions which they are compelled page 78to leave and a warm welcome into the ranks of any infantry battalion to which they may ultimately be posted. We shall indeed be proud to have them serve with us.

(Sgd.) H. E. Barrowclough

1 July 1943