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

Chapter Twelve — The Ruahines

page 79

Chapter Twelve
The Ruahines

The Ruahine Regiment, with a proud record in World War I, went into recess many years ago to emerge, when danger threatened, from the 2nd Hawke's Bay late in 1941. With the Japanese threat imminent, the 1st Battalion Ruahine Regiment was mobilised under command of Lieutenant-Colonel G. G. Hancox, ED, as part of army reserve troops in the 7th Brigade Group under Brigadier Parkinson. After long months of varied training at Solway, a flood of rumours culminated in the fact that on 8 October 1942 the battalion was told that it was to be transferred to the Third New Zealand Division and to proceed on active service—the only territorial infantry battalion in New Zealand to be represented overseas as a formed unit in both the 1st NZEF in 1914-18 (then as the Ruahine Company of the Wellington Battalion) and in the 2nd NZEF, and thus, to the justifiable pride of its members and the inheritors of its traditions, the senior infantry battalion of the 2nd NZEF, wherever serving.

Morale reached a record high level and haste was apparent everywhere. Men were graded, marched out and marched in. The battalion lost its commanding officer, and received men from all over New Zealand, though the great bulk of the battalion was representative of its home area. The new CO was Lieutenant-Colonel C. N. Devery, DCM, from 2nd Hawke's Bay. Regimental funds were used to procure articles estimated to be of value overseas, and then one cold morning in November the battalion left what had been in spite of all difficulties a happy camp, en route for Linton where for some weeks training was revised, and the men revelled in the luxury of a built camp with certain amenities. Equipment was completed, checked, packed, unpacked, page 80and packed again as a spate of orders and countermanding orders reached us. Bumff' reached a new high level. Bedcots were finally unpacked from the trucks on the very morning of embarkation. The matter of Christmas leave which had been a burning question for some time was finally settled by orders to embark at Wellington on the West Point—a pre-war luxury liner—on the morning of Christmas Eve 1942.

What a morning! Wind blew and rain fell in torrents, and it was a mass of very wet humanity that boarded a crowded train at Linton, embarked at noon, and early next morning found themselves steaming through the heads.. With our shorn Scots comrades we had a very pleasant trip to Auckland where, after several days tied up at the wharf, we set out to sea again, going one knew not where for certain, but with the very conscious feeling that half of Auckland must have come aboard. From then on conditions were cramped to say the least, and the long interminable queues for the two meals a day will never be forgotten, The ship's crew did its best for all until the ship arrived in Nouméa Harbour on New Year's Day 1943. After a few days at anchor, basking in the sun, the battalion transhipped on to a smaller vessel which made its way north-west to Nepoui. Here there was one small wharf, and after much manoeuvring and volumes of shouting the ship was secured and the battalion disembarked immediately. The waiting trucks were packed, and as the battalion journeyed late on that afternoon of Monday 4 January 1943 over narrow, dusty, dirt roads to the staging camp the first impressions of the new home were being crystallized. First impressions—a long winding hill up the side of a valley, red dust covering the trees, the trucks, the men, and most thoroughly, the following trucks of men; trees, trees, and more trees covering hills, hills and more hills, and the hills all seemed much the same and the eternal niaouli trees were much the same. It was not an impression of invigorating energy and keen excitement; there was keen expectation but an impression of a strange yet monotonous similarity that was later to become oppressive. That night the battalion dossed down in the already erected tents at the staging camp at the head of the Nepoui valley, while a small advanced party of each company Was busy preparing the first camp a few miles up the valley. The following day the battalion descended upon the nucleus of a camp and eagerly set to work to page break
A view of the base camp reception hospital, with the base hygiene section's workshop in the foreground. The hills in the background are typical of the New Caledonian landscape

A view of the base camp reception hospital, with the base hygiene section's workshop in the foreground. The hills in the background are typical of the New Caledonian landscape

The entrance to the camp of the 4th Motor Ambulance Convoy

The entrance to the camp of the 4th Motor Ambulance Convoy

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As it was in the beginning—one of the wards of the 4th General Hospital at Boguen during an inspection by the Governor-General, Sir Cyril Newall. Below: The change—a ward of the new prefabricated hospital at Dumbéa

As it was in the beginning—one of the wards of the 4th General Hospital at Boguen during an inspection by the Governor-General, Sir Cyril Newall. Below: The change—a ward of the new prefabricated hospital at Dumbéa

page 81make its home. Axes rang out and hammers could be heard as cookhouses were formed of niaouli and tarpaulin. Messing improvements followed. This clearing, which became the home of the battalion for the next few weeks, with its bush on the right and sizable river on the left, was not without its attractions, and although mosquito nets were necessary at night the pests were not unduly troublesome It was the considered opinion of the battalion, however, that this valley was the world's business centre for the red ant population, and a vicious, meddling, food stealing people they were. Men soon learned to raise the legs of their cots and stand them in water to avoid the carnivorous habits of the little red ant. We were feeling the heat, and the nearby river was a popular and frequent rendezvous. Training started almost immediately.

Scarcely a week had passed when, late one afternoon, warning that a hurricane was approaching came from 8th Brigade Headquarters just down the valley. That night the evening meal did not take long. In those days when food was rather short It seldom did. Tents were struck and lashed to trees; everything was secured; and as night was falling men now grimly aware that in their first bustle and excitement they had stowed their groundsheets away securely were making for the previously arranged company rendezvous in the hills where, in torrential rain but little wind, they sang their way through the night. That night was cold, and by morning rain-drenched men were vigorously running about getting warm. However a hot if not ample breakfast and an early hot sun that day soon made everyone forget the discomfort of the night, and the camp, with several additions, was restored-Hurricane warnings thereafter received the attention they deserved.

The following week sickness visited us but we were soon back in hard training. Concerts with the very considerable assistance of the regimental band were arranged to while away the few short free evenings. Brigade swimming sports found our friendly rivals over the river, the 29th Battalion, easy victors. Changes soon followed. A company, with a platoon of MMG and a section of mortars from D support company went to Plaine des Gaiacs to carry out guard duties on the red sand of the aerodrome; B company, similarly with a portion of D support company moved hurriedly to Ouatom for guard duties on that page 82airfield and most offensive tactics against the persistent mosquito. Few who were on that tour of duty will ever forget the mosquito. The Ruahines travelled much in their six months as a unit in New Caledonia, but at no place did they meet mosquito conditions as bad as they were at Ouatom. It was early February in the heat of summer, and men had to be fully clothed with long trousers, sleeves rolled down, thick jacket, head net and long sleeved gloves. And men were glad to wear them. The little village of La Foa was visited by some, and the French people had to suffer the attempts of New Zealanders to grapple with the intricacies of the language.

Meanwhile the remainder of the battalion, with Major Brit-land as the new second-in-command, vice Major Ron. Fowler, moved to St. Vincent, or as our camp was commonly known, Tontouta, to be joined on 15 February by the rest of the unit. Here amidst caterpillars, ants, and an excessive abundance of mud we tested the country's speed of flooding during tropical downpours. The area was for the most part flat and impossible to drain. It was the wet season. Manoeuvres were carried out daily, and the battalion's manceuvres against the 29th battalion were completed in teeming rain and quagmire. Much of the flat area was flooded, and at night the men slept over a sheet of water six to eight inches deep in their tents. When the water receded, churned up mud remained. However, there were bright sides to the picture Truck loads of men visited the American cinema at the hospital a few miles down the road, and a few even found their way into Nouméa. And then our own New Zealand travelling cinema unit came to the camp. There were difficulties. The pictures, started' the first night, had, owing to breakdowns, to be completed the next, and then without sound for considerable portions of the pictures. These, however, were initial difficulties soon overcome, and the service was a heaven-sent source of entertainment, playing a major part in dissipating the boredom and monotony of free evenings.

Companies were on the move again. A company went to the delightful spot of Saramea, while on 1 March C company, reinforced by a platoon of MMGs and a section of mortars, went to Ouatom for guard duties, whilst B company went through the pass to the very pleasant Thio on the north-east side of the island. At the end of a fortnight these companies returned to the main page 83camp, where Lieutenant-Colonel J. M. Reidy had taken over temporary command of the battalion on Lieutenant-Colonel Devery's return to the staff college in New Zealand, and Lieutenant J. E. Tier had become adjutant, vice Captain Logan. The following week presented plenty of interest. Late in the afternoon of Wednesday, 18 March, rain began to fall in torrents, and by dawn of the 19th water was everywhere. Folds in the ground eight feet deep were overflowing; a tiny bathing stream scarcely three feet deep and ten wide was 20 feet deep and 60 yards across; the very substantial bridge, sufficient to take the heaviest trucks, was washed away. In brief, the camp for some days was, like Gaul, divided into three parts, no one part being able to communicate with the other, except by raft made from petrol drums. Trucks were bogged, and for the following fortnight the very capable drivers had to exercise all their skill in extricating vehicles. Members of headquarters company will remember the rather hilarious rescue by means of ropes, of Major Britland, whose island home was completely surrounded by rushing flood waters.

A change in administration found the Ruahines in the ill-fated 15th Brigade, under command of Brigadier Goss, and on its travels once more, this time, on 3 April, to a charming spot, Nessakouja, just eight miles short of Houailou on the north-east side of the island. Set in most picturesque surroundings opposite the large native village, and skirting an exceedingly popular river, this camp, already established by the 37th Battalion, was soon improved by additional native bures, rifle ranges, grenade ranges, and a combat range. Lieutenant-Colonel C. E. Lees, ED, took over command on 8 April, and remained the commanding officer of the battalion until its disbanding. These were pleasant though strenuous days. Training was hard and with no respite, but our conditions were comfortable. There was a good river to bathe in, plenty of fruit to eat, pictures, perched on the slopes of the transport park, once or twice a week, trips to the Bourai! Beach for some on Sundays. A fine recreational bure and an excellent swimming pool constructed by the busy pioneer platoon under Lieutenant Rutherford, added to our luxuries. The unit was happy and hardworking, and its spirit was high.

Major D. Trevarthan became second-in-command of the battalion, and the company commanders were:—Headquarters com-page 84pany, Captain John Conly; A company, Captain H. Glen; B company, Captain D. Cameron; C company, Captain A. Dods; and D (Support) company, Major L. Ross. Captain J. Clarkson remained quartermaster of the battalion throughout its existence. Lieutenant S. M. Jones commanded a very fine intelligence section which knew every track through the bush, and probably had no superiors in the division for bushcraft. Football, on. a reasonably good field, was popular. Our excellent brass band was a wonderful asset, and the French people of the district were most cordial. It is difficult to imagine better relationships existing between two peoples than was the case in this area. In the field of sport the battalion had some great games of football and was narrowly beaten by 1st Scots after a magnificent game, 3-0, while we trounced them at the brigade swimming sports. The brigade athletic meeting produced some fine contests, and the sight of Private Wayman winning the three mile will not easily be forgotten. (Nor will the sight of Private Tully's shorts—or nearly longs—which did not hamper him from winning the shot-putting and anchoring the winning tug-of-war team.) Private Wayman was later to be wounded in the thigh at the Treasuries—may it not hinder his athletic efforts. The brigade commander at the swimming sports suggested a commanding officers' race—a most popular event—and as the long, the short and the tall were preparing, the band played 'In the mood,' and as the trio plunged into the water for their 'dash' the band appropriately rendered 'For those in peril on the sea.'

On 7 June the battalion, which by geographical circumstances usually played a lone hand on the Houailou side of the island, crossed the range to Néméara and joined the remainder of the brigade for the brigade ceremonial parade, when it was inspected by the divisional commander and the French Governor of New Caledonia. A 15th Brigade legend, strenuously denied by all other units of the division (who were not there), holds that the Governor stated that this was the first time he had seen real soldiers in Necal. The brigade was together for a more strenuous period in the Scylla exercise, when it marched towards Cap Goulvain and took up a defensive position on Able and Baker ridges. How hard the ground was, those who dug slit trenches and machine gun posts will remember. The battalion's jeep drivers showed how near to mountaineering that vehicle could page 85come, even if one driver did run down a steep place into the— niaouli. The exercise lasted three days and ended in a very warm march back to Néméara—a march which the battalion did singing.

This may be a suitable place to speak of the fine work of the transport platoon under Lieutenant L. Peters, who was backed up by an excellent team. Not one battalion driver was involved in an avoidable accident during the life of the battalion with the division, and the platoon cheerfully responded to every demand made on it, in spite of having some very 'iffy' trucks and some of the stiffest driving on the island. While at Nessakouja it maintained an unofficial 'breakdown' service to assist allied vehicles which got into difficulties (mainly into rivers and mainly during the week-ends). Two jeep drivers had a hair-raising drive over bridle-tracks to Kouauau Bay, to which place they took a patrol led by Lieutenant S. M. Jones following an urgent report that a Japanese submarine had appeared in that area and had landed men, For a few hours 1st Ruahine had high hopes that it might have the first chance of action in the division. The Nessakouja period involved as part of the scheme of training a number of hard three or four day treks through the bush. Two companies would start out, one at each end of a bush track— usually discernible only on the map—three days apart, and work towards each other. Victory in the 'battle' when they met usually went to the force which first made contact. After the fight the companies would reassemble and pass. The hills were steep and rocky, the bush and lantana thick, and the contrast from the cold of the hilltops to the heat of the valleys made these excursions no trifle. They were, however, more popular than the graduated route-march training laid down by brigade, at the end of which some grand marching was done, though rather perhaps at the expense of the football team, which was not excused. The combat range: fitted up by an enthusiastic party under Major Trevar-than and RSM Finlay, with many surprising targets among the bush and rocks of a steep hillside, provided more popular training, and made a great improvement in quick and accurate shooting.

On 27 June, the 'Palm Grove' rest house was opened a few miles up the river in delightful surroundings. A few parties only from the 15th Brigade were able to make use of it before the page 86unhappy end came, but it was later put to good use as a convalescent camp. On 1 July the GO C addressed the battalion on a special parade and informed all ranks of the impending reorganisation of the division and the disbanding of the 15th Brigade, It was a sad day for the unit was a happy and efficient one. And so the battalion was disbanded. Retreat sounded on the last evening. In the following fortnight men reluctantly scattered, some to complete the establishment of units of 8th Brigade, the others, including most officers, warrant officers and sergeants to base training depot, for the other units were full in these categories. A small party formed the headquarters of field maintenance centre. The only bright spots in this unhappy time were a football match between the officers and the sergeants in which, wonderful to say, the officers ran out the winners, and a letter from Dr. Gabillon, Mayor of Houailou, expressing good wishes, and speaking on behalf of the residents of the district in the highest terms of regard for the battalion.

Regretfully we think of the friendships broken up, and most particularly of those mates of ours whose names appeared later in casualty lists from the forward area. Amongst these was the popular Major Britland who died of wounds on the LST taking him to Guadalcanal, where old members of the Ruahines there serving laid him to rest We remember them with pride, however, as we remember that Corporal Armstrong, who received his decoration for skill and bravery on the Treasuries, was one of ours—the 1st Battalion Ruahine Regiment. Very many of the old battalion saw action—many of them passed through the casualty clearing station on Guadalcanal—and few better than these old wearers of the 'Starfish and Seaweed' ever left New Zealand.