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

Chapter Twenty-Nine — Movement Control

page 243

Chapter Twenty-Nine
Movement Control

The movement control unit which the Third Division took with it to the Pacific was one of the smallest on its establishment, but is not to be dismissed summarily from consideration on that account. Like every other wheel in the army machine, movement control had its time to turn, and was one of the first of the division's wheels to commence turning and the last to stop. Mem-bers of the unit flattered themselves that, despite its size, it was an important one in that it was one of the main cogs of the division's line of supply. The many people who went to Fiji, Necal, and the Solomons and arrived back without even hearing of movement control or what it did, will be impatient to discover these things. Briefly it could be described as the 'Divisional Shipping Company' because it attended, overseas, to the things which, in civilian life, you would normally see a travel agency or a shipping company about, except of course that the range of trips provided was not very wide and the trippers had no option but to accept the accommodation arranged for them. In the case of NZEF IP, movement control work amounted extensively to liaison duties with the American authorities who controlled all the port organizations and facilities, and who provided also the bottoms in which were transported New Zealand troops and equipment. The function of the unit was essentially non-operational as will be seen later. Thus the field covered by our work was broad, and as time went on increased until we were operating with representatives in Nouméa, Népoui, Santos the Hebrides, and Guadalcanal, and making our concern anything that happens near ships or wharves or on the harbour as well as the routine arrangements for troop movements by sea and air, and the receipt and dispatch of mail and cargo. Actually during our period in New Caledonia we handled a total of 476 ships, an page 244average of 20 a week. It will be appreciated that this was a full-time assignment for a staff which consisted of never more than 17 men and whose numbers frequently fell considerably lower, bearing in mind too, that this number included the launch crews as well as officers, clerks, drivers, and the rest.

This record is primarily one concerning the section which went to Necal in October 1942, but it is worthy of note here that the nucleus of the unit was formed in Fiji under Captain D. R. Mansfield who was also the first movement control officer in New Caledonia. His staff in Fiji was composed of Lieutenant Hayden (then a sergeant), Alan Ritchie and Bert Walmsley—the latter being left there when the rest of the troops came home, and as we have seen his name on advice notes as recently as a couple of months since this was written, we presume that he is still carry-ing on the good work. It was after the return of the Fiji veterans that three more worthies were gathered into the transport shipping officer's staff in Wellington to keep a motherly eye on the Third Division stores being assembled there for shipment. As these stores were shipped so also was the movement control staff, the first being Lieutenant Hayden and Sergeant Ted Rigg, followed closely by Sandy McNab. Staff-Sergeant Jimmy Brown brought up the rear in dignified fashion in January 1943. Meantime, however, changes had been taking place in Necal. As early as the end of the first month overseas again Captain Mansfield had broken down in health and was replaced early in December by Captain W. G. Wright. An increase in numbers had taken place also, to meet the demands of the extra work on that side of the water. But our share of 'receiving' the division had been going steadily all the while in the capable hands of Lieutenant Hayden and Ted Rigg. Conditions at that stage were as unfavourable as possible for large troop movements and at every turn new obstacles had to be faced and mastered. The heat and the mosquitoes would have been enough for a start but the mud and dirt and stench of the grand dock at Nouméa, added to the difficulties attaching to landing a force the size of the division in the midst of the ceaseless activity of the enormous US organisation (which at that advanced stage had not achieved the smoothness and efficiency which characterises it to-day) were a severe trial to every New Zealander who worked there later in 1942.

Local harbour facilities were nil and, as the New Zealand army does not specialise in such items, we were dependent on page 245the few overworked facilities that the US forces had by then assembled. Our propensity for acquiring sundry articles of gear as opportunity offered stood us in good stead then, as it did later, and many otherwise unprocurable but indispensable items appeared on the scene and were put into use without questions being asked. The neatest example of this doubtful skill was the acquisition of two reels of wire cable, each over three tons, which were 'lifted' with the unwitting assistance of their owners. In those days four ships only could dock, the majority being worked with wooden barges of many nondescript types, none of which were self-propelling. Ships worked thus were often as far as eight miles from the barge dock. These barges not infrequently sank under their cargo and we used large quantities of cigarettes to bribe the Kanakas to dive to retrieve what they could. Working of ships in the harbour was invariably the occasion of much coming and going by launch and barge so that the inconvenient lack of New Zealand water transport was felt acutely. Only one crane was available for all heavy lifts so that frequent delay was also caused by ships arriving with these lifts stowed on the hatch cover, often above priority cargo. Such were the conditions prevailing in Nouméa before Christmas 1942 when ships carrying the advanced parties were being handled.

At the beginning of December 1942 a diversion of ships carrying 3 Div cargo was made to Népoui. This was because the division was to be situated in that area anyway and the great strain on our MT would be lessened by this decentralisation of shipping. It also made possible a quicker discharge of these vessels because Nouméa at that stage was a bottleneck of shipping and vessels frequently had to wait there for months before discharge. So two movement control personnel were thenceforward stationed at Népoui to be reinforced at Christmas with two more. Lieutenant Hayden and Sandy McNab were our advanced a la brousse which thus became Movement Control No. 2. Conditions there were hectic and pressure of work for all concerned the order of the days and weeks that followed. Ships followed each other so quickly that a staff of four soon proved insufficient to cope with the round-the-clock shifts there. However, the establishment would not permit of an increase and Movement Control No. 1 could not relieve the situation because it was in a similar position. The method of handling ships at Népoui differed from page 246that at Nouméa in that, whereas at the latter port the US forces had established a large port organisation, at the former they had nothing at all beyond a representative to watch their interests. Therefore the complete supervision of discharge came within the domain of the movement control officer. The operation was therefore much more speedy than at Nouméa because the organisation was so much less cumbersome. At Népoui it was never possible to work more than one vessel at a time—only half a vessel actually, because the forward holds had to be worked first, and the ship shifted ahead to bring the after holds alongside, or vice versa. The process was straightforward, however, and a workable system was soon evolved.

The months following were occupied by adapting the unit to' local conditions, consolidating the system, and clearing up the several difficulties which had arisen during the preliminary rush. Opportunity was also taken to familiarise each member with con-ditions at each port so that, when later it became necessary to withdraw some personnel for the Solomons section, others were already conversant with the work they had to take over. After the arrival of the main body, which was apportioned between both ports with the aid of a shuttle-ship, the port of Népoui handled all the large shipments from New Zealand with the exception of about three consignments of vehicles which arrived at Nouméea. The first of these caused Frank Sharp many premature grey hairs while the other two were the subject of a eulogistic article in the New Zealand press which was an embarrassment to other members of the staff. The Nouméa section were chiefly occupied with such things as reinforcement drafts, notably from Norfolk and Tonga, drafts for New Zealand, and sundry smaller shipments of cargo. The flow of cargo to New Zealand was on a small scale only but increased appreciably each month. The foundations laid during this period were responsible for the ability of the unit to handle smoothly and efficiently much greater numbers of troops and to move much larger quantities of cargo when the division shifted north. About the end of March the launch Roa arrived from New Zealand and solved our current difficulties in the matter of water transport on the harbour, among the greatest of which was the necessity for providing almost daily a barge for the 33rd Heavy Regiment at Ile Nou. No delays in the meeting of ships or the delivery of our parcel mail occurred after her page 247arrival, for she was a sturdy mussel-boat capable of over 500 bags mail and/or 70 troops. In May 1943 the movement control section became a separate and self-accounting unit.

When the division moved to Guadalcanal in August 1943 Lieutenant Hayden and Alan Ritchie were our representatives who first went north to establish the section there, but it was soon necessary to reinforce them with Sandy McNab, Les Bee, and Alan Turnbull. The change from New Caledonia to the Solomons involved a slight reconstruction of our ideas concerning movement control work in the islands because, although the organisation and control of a port were still basically the same, the manner of working ships was quite new and conditions were for the first time what could strictly be called 'active service.' Ships here were worked on an open coast by barge and amphibious truck to dumps along the beach. Frequent interruptions could be expected from Jap air raids. And here again the lack of our own water transport made for much difficulty in boarding ships. Two extra launches were ordered from New Zealand for this section but unfortunately they were not received till months later when they were too late to be useful. Movement control in Guadalcanal soon settled down to the immense task of discharging ships over 30 miles of coast More frequent losses of cargo occurred here, especially of pillageable items such as canteen and Patriotic Fund stores. This was because of the inability of the small staff to cover properly the widely separated dumps and the irregularity of the shipping movements occasioned by enemy action. Another difficulty that could not be easily overcome was the fact that cargo came forward from Nouméa frequently in many small lots rather than in bulk shipments. This was unavoidable as it was necessary for the Nouméa section to avail itself of whatever space offered. Third Division cargo was often used to fill up after a ship had completely loaded with American cargo. The section at Guadalcanal was reorganised under Lieutenant Ben Stuart and reinforced by officers who had previously been given some training in Nouméa. In this manner an ease on the previous strain was effected. Lieutenant Jenkins took over the office and did a fine job there while Lieutenant McDonald and Lieutenant Murphy assisted the rest of the outside staff.

At Nouméa, meantime, the staff had been further reduced by the decision of the brigadier to send Frank Sharp to Espiritu page 248Santos to look after NZEF IP interests in the sphere of airborne cargo, but he also took care of air passages through the Hebrides and handled odd transhipments of mail and cargo which took place there. Much NZEF IP cargo which had by-passed New Caledonia en route to the forward area had been laid up at Santos because we had no representative there, but thencefor-ward all cargo was moved expeditiously through this channel.

The period of the division's stay in the forward area was a busy one for the section of the unit left in New Caledonia as many reinforcements and much replacement equipment for the division was being constantly sent north. The amount of shipping had increased even more abruptly than the staff had decreased and vessels were coming and going both north and south with our 3 Div personnel and cargo. Jimmy Brown reigned for some months in undisputed and very lonely authority at Népoui before being given Ernie Beswarick to help him out. Some large shipments of ammunition and vehicles were loaded at Népoui so that the position was by no means a sinecure. A factor in favour of the Nouméa section was the enormous improvement in dock facilities. New docks had been built and the old ones surfaced so that now ten ships could be worked alongside comfortably and conveniently. The decrease in shipping in this area which followed upon the establishment of more forward bases meant that little delay now occurred and ships were loaded or discharged almost immediately after their arrival in port. The return of the division from the forward area illustrates clearly the non-operational role of this unit. Whereas the original move north was an operational one and embarkation, which was in combat order, was under the control of Div HQ, the return was in the normal process of disembarkation and discharge and therefore for the attention of the movement control officer.

The expedition with which these movements took place was the natural result of continued experience of their necessities. On several occasions thousands of troops were disembarked and despatched to their destinations in under three hours. Discharge of equipment in no case took longer than 36 hours and in most cases when the ship came alongside it was accomplished in less than 12. The condition of this cargo caused many stirs, not the least of which took place when a box of detonators, cargo normally stowed in special lockers, was found thrown carelessly among page 249hot and steaming tentage. The section from Guadalcanal was completely returned from the Solomons to New Caledonia by the middle of July but by that time some of the section left behind there were already on their way home. Lieutenant Stuart followed Captain Hewin as movement control officer after the latter's very-brief tenure of the position during June and July when Captain Wright left us. Sandy McNab was sent back to Népoui to replace Jimmy Brown and Frank was back from Santos. Almost immediately came the decision to withdraw from New Caledonia and so at last came the most enjoyable, even if one of the biggest, tasks the unit had tackled. This was accomplished in two months and by the first week of October the movement control section which had been among the first to say Hello to New Caledonia could finally, with the last of the division, say Adieu in the real French fashion.

A factor which played a major part in the smooth working of the unit which we have not yet mentioned was the co-operation which we received at all times from the units of the division and the American organisations with whom we worked. Chief among our own units were the Base Supply Depot No. 1 and the wharf operating company. We called BSD out at some odd and awkward times to get cargo away but although these fellows said plenty to us about it the stuff was always put on the road as quickly as we could supply trucks for it. The wharf operating company supplied us with winchmen, hatchmen, and tally-clerks who were a fine lot of chaps and always worked well for us. Our many friends among the US organisations, chiefly the ATS office, the port director's office, and the personnel office at Comseron, did all possible to relieve our troubles as they arose and to assist in any way they could. In the early days especially, as well as the usual services, they kept us provided with harbour transport and barges, but when our own launches arrived their kind attentions did not cease. Often we used as many US trucks to roll cargo in the Nouméa area as New Zealand ones and on occasion we borrowed as many as 30 at one time.

But our unit was most fortunate in the fellows who composed it. Looking back on them now one can say without hesitation that they were a great 'gang' with whom one could always be proud to work or play. Captain Wright was the 'skipper' for 19 months. He gave us always a free hand but we knew that page 250work was first in consideration and what to expect if we did not act accordingly. Lieutenant Berny Hayden was a tower of strength in the early days in New Caledonia. Ted Rigg was the 'Sar-Major' and knew what he was about in any branch of the work. He could argue with conviction that black was white if he found it necessary to do so. And be it known here and now that old Ted really did have one haircut over there. Next came James Britton Brown, most noted for his conscientiousness and his pipe. He was also Chef des Loups when he could get away from being port director at Népoui. Sandy McNab, with two 'b's' if you like, was famous for his rendering of Gilbert and Sullivan and Alouette but only if certain essentials were present. Les Bee and Alan Turnbull stayed with Lieutenant Hayden when he went north. None of us will forget the hectic Sunday afternoon' that Sandy and Les and Alan left for the Solomons. The quiet worker of the unit was Frank Sharp. Sharpie would submerge himself under manifests and schedules and be happy for hours. Buzz Beswarick was known about the place as Loup-Loup. He maintained that did all the spadework for us and he could at least demonstrate the use of a broom nicely. With Keith Duggan, Gordon Lynch and Hughie Mitchell as drivers we could always depend on getting there. The whole countryside knew Keith's number was 64253 (that's me—K.L.D.). Both Gordon and Hughie were quiet workers too. Gordon's quiet work earned him the name of 'The Lone Wolf of Transit' before he left us.' The launch crew was under 'Sar-Major' Aussie Stewart who came from some backwoods called Sydney and was actually proud of it. With Ron Keen at the engines and Harry Nevin and Scotty and after them Jim McKeich, Doug Mills, and George Barre, the launches were kept in fine order and we were always in safe hands despite the dirtiest of weather on the harbour. These are most of the chaps who were with us for any length of time. Others came and went after a short while. All, I think, enjoyed their stay because we were a fairly contented crew; as contented as one can be in the army and in the islands. Everyone of us formed some fine friendships throughout association with the movement control unit. Now the order has come for us to 'cast off and carry out our orders' we have all set different courses, but these associations will last long after the duration when we have tied up for good.