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

I. Pacific Outpost

I. Pacific Outpost

When a group of four Ordnance Corps men entered a Chinese cafe in Suva, late in November 1940, and sat at a table, it was partly to order crab omelettes and partly to discuss their recent sea' voyage from New Zealand. They also stole approbatory glances at an extraordinarily beautiful Chinese waitress, and agreed enthusiastically that China was a most desirable ally. These men had recently been part of the first two ordnance drafts to leave New Zealand for the Pacific. In bright sunshine on 11 November, immediately after the two minutes' silence at 11 am the armed cruiser Monowai had left Auckland, arriving at Suva at 2.30 pm on the 13th. When, nine days later, the Ranga-tira had also berthed, the two troopships had brought between them, with drafts of other units, the nucleus of the Base Ordnance Depot in Fiji. It is therefore interesting now to look back and recall a few of the earliest men in whom the depot had its origin; those 'on deck' then included the following:—-Lieutenant P. N. Erridge (OC), Warrant-Officer. H. C. Cooper, Staff-Sergeant G. C. Leighton, Sergeant M. W. Dobbs, Corporal J. Thomson, Privates. J. Roughan (who was mentioned in despatches four years later), R. Benge, R. Gibbs, C. G. Rowlatt, A. W.. Buckley, A. Allen, and J. Hartshorne. Privates J. Daley, W. H. W. Pullman, A. S. Daken, L. F. Stewart, F. Vale, and D. Lyons arrived a little later.

If a soldier's best friend is his rifle, his sense of humour ranks almost as highly, and the 'rookie' soon came in for his share of good-natured banter. After the first drafts had become bronzed page 199in tropical uniforms of shorts and open-necked shirts, later arrivals looked, somehow, conspicuously new and pink-kneed. They were therefore humorously referred to as 'white leghorns' as often as possible in their presence, and made to feel they were faintly disgusting in the eyes of all 'old hands,' until they acquired a respectable tan. The shorts then on issue to the earliest drafts were a preposterous looking garment scornfully known as 'long-short-longs,' and as they were quite incapable of letting the sun do its work, they very soon found their way to an Indian tailor's shop for shortening. In these early days before prices soared a sartorially-minded New Zealander could have a shirt and a pair of shorts superbly tailored to measure by Indian tailors for a total outlay of from 12/6 to 15/-.

At Nasese, about a mile from the heart of Suva, amidst the red and black mud churned up by recent camp construction, men of the depot settled in, while down at the palatial new Government buildings they opened up their stores in a basement measuring 40 by 60 feet. It was here that the unit made its first issues comprising equipment for the reserve battalion, later to become the 34th Battalion. Men standing wide-eyed at their tent doorways at Nasese, watching for the first time a tropical downpour, could now appreciate the remarks made in New Zealand by a fat and fatherly sergeant after issuing waterproof capes He had said, 'It rains every day of the rainy season in Fiji, and you're going into it.' A soldier learns much about the countries he visits, and his environment becomes an inseparable part of his regimental history. Thus it is not easily forgotten that from December to March is the wet season in Fiji, and that in the south belt, or Suva side of Viti Levu, the average annual rainfall is 118 inches. Everyone was therefore in high spirits when, in the middle of December the unit left Nasese's mud and mosquitoes and moved into tents in the grounds of the Boys' Grammar School, in the centre of Suva, near the city's swimming baths. Already space beneath the Government buildings' was proving inadequate for the increasing quantities of equipment arriving, and a move was soon made to the ground floor of the old Government buildings, where there was space for sorting and handling the army's needs. The top story of the new depot was occupied by the 1st Battalion of the Fiji Defence Force, who will be remembered for their admirable character and soldierly bearing.

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They and the Fijians generally impressed New Zealanders immensely, and were frequently the subject of discussion. In addition to their obvious health and exceptional physique, they possessed marked qualities of loyalty and inherent honesty, and it was observed that they were self-disciplined, carefree, and quickly moved to laughter. Along the sides of every road they appeared in bright red sulus, walking often unashamedly hand in hand beneath the sunlit green palms, and singing as they went.

Stationed in Suva in these early weeks, men of the ordnance depot made the most of the opportunity, while on leave or on army duty, of seeing something of the town. For most of this slice of New Zealand's young men, with horizons hitherto bound by their small country's shores, the capital of 'Little India of the Pacific' had much that was of great interest. Sitting cross-legged in the native market place in 'All Nations Street' (Cumming Street) were Moslem Indians and Hindus, Fijians, Rotumans, Eurasians and turbanned Sikhs. Dogs of every breed walked about lazily in the heat, and to Kiwis on leave from the depot, the bazaar presented a strange kaleidoscope of brown-skinned people and unfamiliar native produce, As Christmas approached, Fiji's white population organised dances and entertainments for the troops. Some from the unit were fortunate enough to receive invitations to these, or to Christmas dinner parties. The majority celebrated, however, with the welcome help of Patriotic parcels, free beer, and perhaps a cake from home.

Living quarters were again changed in January, when the unit moved to Tamavua, which overlooks the harbour, about a mile and a half from Suva-It was while the unit was there, in the third week in February, that a large yellow flag was hoisted in Suva, indicating the approach of a hurricane. On 20 February it had been changed to a black one, a warning to take cover. That day, meteorologists recorded the most destructive hurricane in Fiji since 1910, and ordnance men accustomed to a 15-minute journey from depot to barracks, found it took them an hour and a half to get back to lunch through the wreckage.

Lieutenant S. A. Knight arrived from New Zealand in May 1941 and became ordnance officer when Lieutenant Erridge relinquished his command. Considerable numbers of reinforcements were then arriving. To take care of the increasing calls for ordnance equipment, and to replace several-men bound for the page 201Middle East, the depot now received 12 additional men from New Zealand. Extensive new buildings were erected at Samambula, including a tailoring and textile workers' room, for altering clothing and repairing tents. A well-organised new depot was set up, complete with an armoury and living quarters. The whole of the wide range of arms, field equipment and clothing was then divided into efficiently organised groups and sections, using bins and racks which had been built into the new stores. For the next 12 months, as Japanese aspirations in the South Pacific became a potential threat to New Zealand, the work of ordnance in Fiji assumed an increasing responsibility to the troops stationed at strategic points throughout the island, In those difficult days of heavy shipping losses, and of supply shortages following Britain's lone stand, arms, ammunition and equipment were rushed out to troops as fast as supplies arrived from New Zealand. Men of the depot not only trained as part of the general defence, but toiled and sweated long hours in the sultry heat of the stores, packing, loading up trucks, and despatching thousands of tons of ordnance material to troops who, like themselves, had to be prepared to beat off a possible invasion at any moment. Realisation of the depot's vital role spread from the enthusiasm of its officers to a noticeable rivalry between the various stores sections. Warrant-Officer Leighton, looking comfortably cool beside his own personal electric fan—which was the envy of everyone— directed the accounting staff with Sergeant W. A. Pascoe as chief assistant. Sergeant Dobbs was foreman of stores, with Sergeant A. Daken in charge of A Group, Sergeant J. Roughan directing C Group, and Warrant-Officer G. Adamson controlled E Group, including the armoury local purchasing operations were conducted by Lance-Corporal Beal and Private L. D. Calder. Later, Staff-Sergeant Buckley represented the unit with a sub-depot at Namaka. In the new barracks, the men pooled their cash and bought irons and other amenities. An ice-chest was made, and soon regular deliveries of ice and of Puhman Singh's highly coloured soft drinks helped to combat the fatigue of manhandling the increasing tonnage of heavy equipment in and out of the stores in the tropical heat. To Lieutenant Knight, later to become lieutenant-colonel, and to Lieutenant Reid, subsequently promoted to the rank of major, fell the complex task, during the next three and a half years, of controlling a large depot which was page 202to supply the many heterogeneous items of equipment used by a division in modern warfare.

In retrospect, 1941 presented a mixed scene. It had begun with the new excitement of sight-seeing, with the natural high spirits of new trainees, and with each new draft of arrivals telling the Indian vendors of tortoise-shell bracelets that 'we didn't come over here to be robbed,' (and then being 'robbed' just the same). The year had ended with a background of noises 'offstage '—the ominous crunch of Japanese bombs in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, and hints of enemy invasion fleets moving menacingly nearer to the South Pacific. By 1942 the work of ordnance had greatly increased, with all the preparations of an augmented force for imminent attack. Into tunnels, made by hard-worked engineers, poured quantities of every kind of ammunition, the handling of which later became the work of a separate ordnance section under Warrant-Officer K. F. T. Allen. In addition to the new sub-depot which distributed supplies at Namaka in the western area, ammunition for western defences was temporarily stored in the nearby pineapple cannery. The augmented B Force became a division in January 1942, and the arrival of Captain M. S. Myers early in the New Year, as deputy assistant director of ordnance services, added to the corps' activities his administrative experience.

The sports grounds of Albert Park, in Suva, and Suva's swimming baths, where the temperature of the water was often 90 degrees after a day in the hot sun, were relaxation centres for the unit's cricket, rugby and soccer players and swimmers. The more the tension of work increased, the greater was the need for recreation. In ordnance camps, as elsewhere in the division, men were thin; many suffered from skin complaints; some had been sent home sick. Heavy lifting work in the stores, long hours in sultry offices, and rush work to meet shipping needs could not be prolonged indefinitely in the constant humidity of Fiji. Suddenly, however, the cheering news was divined from various happenings that an American force was about to arrive and'relieve the division. As the jubilation subsided, the unit began in: July the prodigious job that faces an ordnance depot when a division moves, and working day and night it had taken several weeks when at last embarkation day arrived. As troop-laden trucks moved in convoy through the outskirts of Suva, native girls page 203passed wearing vivid red and yellow flowers in their dark hair. We waved and shouted soti (you're not supposed to) and they greeted the remark with cries of mirth; and waved back with hands held aloft as the convoy passed. On the wharf was a group of tall, powerfully built, bushy-haired Fijians. They were singing in perfect harmony, a little sadly, 'Isa Lei'… It was September 1942, nearly two years after the depot had commenced operations in Fiji and now, on returning to New Zealand, men eagerly planned their leave and gazed from railway carriage windows at orchards in bloom and the lush green countryside in spring. To them it had never looked better.