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

Chapter Twenty-Eight — Censor

page 238

Chapter Twenty-Eight

History in the making is largely a matter of chance and is seldom of immediate interest to those engaged in its manufacture, or anyone else for that matter. History in the telling, however, is largely what the historian chooses to make it. He, contrasting the prosaic present with the zestful past, tends to colour his history accordingly, and sometimes, we hope unwittingly, causes his readers and often himself, to sigh for the imaginary good old days. Such is an historian's licence. We shall, in the history of the Third NZ Division Base Censorship Unit, endeavour to exercise this license as little as possible. The base censorship unit in the beginning was a one-man show, consequently complete avoidance of the autobiographical touch will be difficult, but we will strive to disguise it as much as is humanly and egotistically possible.

Base censorship, as far as the Third Division was concerned originated, from an operative point of view, in January 1943, that is, soon after the division 'was seated' in New Caledonia. American forces, with whom the division was operating, were under very strict censorship themselves, and it was naturally essential to see that there should be no avoidable slips by the Kiwis that would render the American precautions useless, both from the point of view of security, and the welfare of allied relations. So it came to pass, on a sunny afternoon at Dumbéa, while the original Dumbéa staging camp was being dismantled, that its camp commandant, Captain C—— (censored by ex-base censor, see Administrative Order No. 21 paragraph 144 forbidding the mention of officers' names with their appointments) was told by the officer page 239in charge of administration, Brigadier D—— (censored for the same reason) that he had been elected (unopposed) to the position of base censor, and to pack his traps and move smartly to Bourail, where accommodation for his headquarters adjacent to the army post office (more of this anon) had been arranged. He was also told that as he was pioneering this department, what he did and how he did it was largely over to him, provided that the job was done and the results forthcoming. Being an individualist who liked to do things in his own way, this 'over to you' instruction was much appreciated by Captain Alan Coles. During the journey to Bourail in the front seat of a six-wheel truck over the Route Colonial (vintage January 1943) he endeavoured to keep his mind, metaphorically and literally, off that same Route Colonial by picturing to himself visions of luxurious offices, furnished with roll-top desks, and mysterious cabinets marked 'highly secret and confidential' that awaited his arrival at the end of that painful journey. Alas, upon arrival at Bourail this dream was shattered, The luxurious offices turned out to be an extremely old and dilapidated shed which had, in past ages, judging by its contents, served its various French owners as wash-house, blacksmith's shop and chicken-house. Its walls should have put to shame a Roman ruin, and its tin roof resembled the dome of Auckland's Civic theatre, except that the little spots of light that shone down from above were not stars. However, home is what you make it, and after a brisk campaign against the rats, cockroaches, and spiders, the new base censor managed to gain a foothold and proceeded to dig himself in. This office of base censorship had one distinct advantage, it was certainly handy to the post office, in fact it was right next door to the post office lavatory, but one can't have everything. The first thing to be done was to become familiar with the army postal system, and to find out all the channels, both official and unofficial, by which mail could leave the island. This was ably explained and made clear by the chief postal officer, known to all and sundry as Fred, a man who always did everything he could for everyone, and he made no exception in the case of the new base censor. The volume of outward mail from the Kiwis somewhat staggered the base censor. It frequently exceeded 75,000 letters a week, which, as our American friends would say, 'ain't hay.' The next step was to draw the technical equipment and tools of trade from the page 240DAG's office. This consisted of a roll of gummed tape, one ink pad, and one little rubber stamp, together with the rules and regulations.

It is not proposed to detail the system adopted by a censorship office to ensure a full coverage of all units. The system is not of course infallible, but naturally tends to have more success the less people know concerning its working. At this stage the unit known as 'the Office of the Base Censor' consisted of the base censor himself and his man Friday, known to all members of Bourail Camp as Albert. Albert was a man of many parts. In addition to relieving the base censor of his domestic chores he functioned while in Bourail Camp, as a builder, cabinet maker, amateur cook, and chief steward to the officers' mess. Nothing ever stumped him. Later on the base censor's staff was increased by two additional officers, and on occasions when business prospects looked particularly bright, was augmented to as many as ten officers. That, however, was later on, and at the beginning the base censor worked single-handed. Censorship was not confined to the ordinary mails alone. The base censor was also responsible for censoring all photographs taken by units, articles and stories by soldiers for publication in New Zealand and elsewhere, recordings by the broadcasting unit, all letters in French, all green envelopes, and last, but by no means least, the Kiwi newspaper and other unit publications. In his spare time he also functioned as camp commandant to Bourail Camp, that is when he wasn't engaged on a court martial or a court of inquiry. Hence his somewhat abrupt manner when asked what he did all day No, he didn't have a jeep!

Incidents, in a job which consists of stopping people from saying the very things they want to say, were not infrequent. For instance when the base censor passed the word 'Division' in the first issue of Kiwi he found himself accused of everything short of high treason. Fortunately for him, however, he was able to point out that the forbidden word had been used by no less a personage than the GOC himself in an article specially written for publication in that paper. He was not shot at dawn, but the whole of that issue of Kitvi, including the special article, was scrapped, and a new issue printed. To be quite fair, and what historian will confess to being otherwise, it must be made clear that this misunderstanding was the only occasion that the base page 241censor found himself at variance with the powers that be on matters of security. In all his other decisions he always received full and ample backing when it was required, a fact that went a long way in making his somewhat unpleasant but necessary duties tolerable. The aforementioned tin shed, in which the base censor functioned was, needless to say, a source of considerable amusement to all and sundry. Inspecting officers held up their hands in horror and said, 'Something must be done about this.' Eventually, as soon as huts became available, or to be more accurate, plentiful, a large and spacious hut was erected for the sole use of the base censor. This happy event took place just before Christmas 1943.

Anyone who examines large quantities of soldiers' mail necessarily gains first-hand information as to what goes on in the average man's mind. When a soldier writes home to his wife or mother he is more apt to say what he really thinks of things than he is in the ordinary course of conversation—what he thinks of his food, conditions, entertainments and the state of his morale. This information was not wasted, but was passed on in the form of a report, thus enabling the authorities to remedy any cause of dissatisfaction whenever possible. One soon learned to distinguish the genuine from the imaginary grievances. As each letter is censored by an officer before it is posted, the mail, upon arrival at the base censor's office should be, like Caesar's wife, above suspicion. Unfortunately, and possibly still like Caesar's wife, this was not always the case, otherwise base censorship would have been unnecessary. However, it may here be placed on record that with noteworthy exceptions the large percentage of letters were as pure as the driven snow, that is from the security point of view.

Considerable care had to be taken on the technical side of censoring to see that each letter was replaced in its correct envelope. The boundless possibilities that could arise from mistakes in this direction can well be imagined. There were instances where the soldier had himself enclosed his letter in an apparently wrong envelope. These letters were invariably returned to the sender, because as sure as the sun rises, the censor would have received the full blast of any resultant consequences. Everyone loves to land something on to a censor, and as the last man to handle a letter he can't be too careful. You always had the funny man who delighted to make humorous and sarcastic remarks in correspon-page 242dence especially for the censor's digestion. It was a great temptation for the censor not to add a few even more humorous and sarcastic replies himself, but the ethics (and regulations) of his job forbade, unfortunately. Then there was the case of the dear young lady who approached the base censor with the request that he place his name as censoring officer on a parcel that she wished to send to New Zealand. When asked why she did not sign it herself, she replied quite naively, 'Oh it contains things that we are not allowed to send home, and if it is opened in New Zealand I would get into trouble.'

In July 1944. Captain V. Gooding relieved the base censor of his duties to enable the latter to return to New Zealand on leave. Under Captain Gooding base censorship continued until the division returned to New Zealand shortly afterwards. Looking back over the ups and downs of the base censorship landscape, the ups stand out more clearly than the downs in the mind of the writer. It is hoped, and believed, that all the victims of the base censor by this time realise that what was done had to be done in the best interests of all, and that all those people who entertained homicidal ideas in his direction will permit him to live just a little longer.