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

Chapter Three — Base Reception Depot

page 20

Chapter Three
Base Reception Depot

Even now when the Third NZ Division, as such, is but a memory, doubt exists in the minds of many as to just what the functions of a base reception depot really are. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that at some stage or other during the period from September 1942 until October 1944, some 90 per cent of the actual division's strength either stayed at BRD or passed through its portals. Contrary to what appeared to be the general belief it wasn't just another opportunity of a 'cushy' job at base, nor was it intended as a refined form of torture comparable to the Spanish inquisition and devised mainly to ensure that if the soldier was fortunate enough to arrive at base without having been 'mucked about' BRD would rectify this oversight and chuckle at the prospect of another boarder for the adjacent detention barracks if the soldier took umbrage at the treatment meted out.

It is not possible in this brief chronicle to outline in detail the actual allotted tasks of BRD, but in the main they consisted of

1.Keeping an up-to-date record of, and dealing with all personnel marching in to or out of the division.
2.Dealing with all personnel evacuated beyond the unit RAP, including the posting and ultimate disposal of all those graded lower than one.
3.Supervising the weapon training of all base units other than the base and artillery training depots.
4.Under command the following raits in addition to BRD:—Bourail Camp; Nouméa Transit Camp; Base Provost Section; NZEF IP Detention Barracks; Kit page 21Store; Base MT Pool; plus all personnel posted to units but remaining temporarily in BRD.
5.Maintaining, and responsible for the camp organisation and discipline of:—Base Records; Pay and Audit; Divisional Band; Graves Registration and Stationery; and No. 1 NZ Camp Dental Units.

The foregoing is quite an imposing list, and has not been entered as justification for any of the so-called 'incidents' that occur in every organisation big or small, or to ease the pain of any corns that may unwittingly have been trodden on by the BRD staff. It is intended, though, to draw attention to the long hours of organisation and hard work necessarily performed by each and every member of the BRD staff and to show that their jobs were no sinecure. In point of fact the secret of success in any walk of life is discipline in its many forms and, like any other soldiers, the BRD staff had to do as they were told. It was not possible, in many instances, to grant the men their wish and transfer them to combatant units. They grumbled certainly, but this is a soldier's privilege, and no tribute this humble pen may write can adequately describe the bond that existed between all ranks or the excellent job of work they performed; this in spite of the fact that the exigencies of war, ill-health and other causes were responsible for constant changes in the staff.

When the depot was re-organised in September 1942 to cope with the rapid expansion of the division, a staff of 60 was assembled at Papakura Military Camp to deal with the large numbers of territorial and other reinforcements being marched into the division from all parts of New Zealand and later, when the force moved to dispersal areas in the Waikato, the depot operated at Rugby Park in Hamilton. Shortly after moving to the Waikato the advanced guard proceeded overseas, and on 28 December 1942 the main body embarked in the West Point for New Caledonia. The original staff of 60 was then divided into three groups and formed the nucleus of BRD, Bourail, and Nouméa transit camp staffs. Many of these men had outstanding ability, but it is not proposed to individualise, suffice to say that any success obtained was due to team work.

Of the many difficulties that confronted all units on arrival in New Caledonia only passing mention will be made. The Kiwi has proved himself to be adaptable and resourceful and camps page 22were quickly established, and determined efforts made to combat the mosquito menace. The rains of March 1943 were a definite setback, and in Téné Valley at Bourail, where Base Reception Depot was located, it rained continuously for 28 days. During this period, when the camp was completely isolated on three occasions, the only bright spot in an otherwise drab existence was the entertainment of the band, and tunes we will always associate with this period are 'The Strip Polka' and' The Jersey Bounce.'

It was in March, too, that the first group of what we at BRD nicknamed 'zombies' (walking dead or wraith-like spirits) marched into our camp, All personnel graded lower than one were our particular responsibility, until such time as they were either reposted to units or transferred to the New Zealand roll, but to recount faithfully all the humorous and not so humorous incidents associated with this regime would require another and longer article. Cases such as the forceps, swab, button, pyjama-sleeve, and forkhandle swallowing bandsman, and others, read like an article in the 'Truth is stranger than fiction' series, and at times would appear to exceed the bounds of credulity.

Shipping and transport were problems, and as a consequence up to 200 men (mostly very bitter), were congregated at our camp where a high ridge was partially cleared of niaouli trees and reserved for the 're-boards.' This feature was dubbed 'Zombie Ridge' although it was sign-posted later by some sympathetic soul with a sense of humour as 'Beverley Hills.' As an explanatory note it is desired to point out that the term 'zombie' was never intended as a personal affront or to belittle the misfortunes of our less fortunate comrades, but was mainly used as a term defining the category of a section of our 'boarders.' Many of these men were in a bad way and the state of their nerves was such that they required very tactful and sympathetic handling. The sights one witnessed and the many and varied experiences associated with the disposal of the 'zombies' have left an indelible imprint on the minds of us all, and to appreciate fully the magnitude of the task it should be remembered that a considerable proportion of the BRD staff were themselves downgraded men.

Because of the mobility of opposing factions in present day warfare, plus the stepped-up tempo of air operations, base is not always the quiet rest-home it is sometimes referred to by the men of the line. Therefore, in order to be prepared for any pos-page 23sible emergency, all members of the depot, in addition to their many other tasks, carried out all forms of infantry training, and were forced (this is the only word that really fits) to do physical training every morning, excluding Sundays, at 0615 hours. At this time more than any other, the legitimacy of the camp commandant was seriously doubted, but the imposed exertion and subsequent plunge in a nearby river had the desired effect, as was evidenced by the general good health of camp personnel. The medical history of all 'zombies' was also checked over with the medical authorities, and much to their chagrin quite a few were also detailed to attend the PT parade.

Sport, always dear to the average New Zealander, played a most important part during our sojourn overseas, and to the 'base wallah' active participation in some form of sport was of paramount importance as, apart from the eagerly awaited mail from home, it was the only antidote to counteract the boredom and monotony of his existence. Most of the base units, it must be remembered, languished unhonoured and unsung in New Caledonia for two years. To put it mildly this wasn't funny.

Our national game was, of course, the most popular pastime, and although base units were not eligible to compete for the Barrowclough Cup, we 'played in our own back-yards' for two handsome trophies, presented by the base commandant, for rugby and soccer competitions. In all due modesty it is recorded that the BRD teams, composed of course of all units resident in BRD camp, annexed the rugby cup, and tied for first place with 144 Battery for the soccer honours. No one will gainsay the fact that the standard was high, and as the depot teams were composed in the main of players in the sere and yellow class, or designated as definite 'zombies,' the wins were all the more meritorious.

Cricket, baseball, basketball, athletics and swimming all had their following, as also did the NZEF IP Surf Life-Saving Club at Bourail Beach. This movement, which was fostered and controlled by BRD, eventually mustered eight six-man teams, all well equipped, and with 31 rescues entered in their logbook they have a record of which they may justifiably feel proud.

Listed under the heading outdoor sports is the shooting of a steer and a heifer by the camp commandant. These beasts were the property of a local farmer in the Téné Valley; and as they page 24both had broken legs it was necessary to destroy them. This sounds easy, but to those of us who know the gaunt, garrulous, be-whiskered wearer of three-quarter pants who owned the kine, and the fact that he wouldn't kill them or permit anyone else to do so until the local gendarme had taken statements, there is no mystery in the fact that it took 24 hours on each occasion, after the animal had been injured, before it was mercifully shot. Reference to this incident was made in a camp publication styled Pay Parade where, under the heading 'Camp Commandant claims his first war victims,' a request was made that anyone finding a bullet in his beef was to return same to the orderly room.

Then there were our church parades. All units have these parades, and after a time even the most hardened 'haver of something else to do' on Sunday mornings is run to earth by the sergeant-major, and resignedly takes his place in the parade. Although the spirit may not be willing the body is present and correct, and that is the main consideration. One church parade worthy of mention was the occasion of the 1943 Joan of Arc ceremony in Bourail. The good news went forth from the 'Oica-age' stating that all RCs (termed by those in the know as right-footers) in the Bourail area would represent 3 NZ Division at a ceremony to be held at the Bourail church. The great day arrived and when the troops had assembled at the cross near the 'Fromage' factory, it was found that quite a proportion of those present had even forgotten how to slope or order arms. This ranks very high in the bad moments in history, as for such an auspicious occasion nothing less than a 'present' was expected. However, a very smart run through was carried out, and as no one was impaled on a bayonet we took the risk and marched to the church to the strains of 'We are the boys from way down under' played by the band.

For the benefit of those who have not witnessed the pomp and ceremony of Joan of Arc day, it is pointed out that this anniversary is a most important one in the French calendar of important days. The local residents of the township of Bourail had congregated in force, all dressed up in their Sunday best; some of the children had been scrubbed so clean we didn't recognise them. Mass was solemnised on this occasion on the outside steps of the church, in accordance with what is evidently a time-honoured custom, and the congregation, which on this page break
Life-saving drill on Bourail Beach, with a group of interested spectators in the background. An exhibition rugby match in Nouméa. Although well watered these grounds were invariably as hard as flint and skin was torn from knees and elbows during each game

Life-saving drill on Bourail Beach, with a group of interested spectators in the background. An exhibition rugby match in Nouméa. Although well watered these grounds were invariably as hard as flint and skin was torn from knees and elbows during each game

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The staff of records grew proportionately with the increase of the 8th Brigade Group to divisional strength. Above is the staff in Fiji in 1940; below is the staff in New Caledonia, 1943

The staff of records grew proportionately with the increase of the 8th Brigade Group to divisional strength. Above is the staff in Fiji in 1940; below is the staff in New Caledonia, 1943

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The base pay office was sited among the nianulis in Téné Valley. Below is a staff group photographed against ihe framework of a bure

The base pay office was sited among the nianulis in Téné Valley. Below is a staff group photographed against ihe framework of a bure

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This practice training net was known to the troops as HMS Niaouli. Here all combat personnel overcame the novelty of embarkation and disembarkation in a hurry. At Népoui practice landings were made as realistic as possible, with bombs bursting nearby on the beach

This practice training net was known to the troops as HMS Niaouli. Here all combat personnel overcame the novelty of embarkation and disembarkation in a hurry. At Népoui practice landings were made as realistic as possible, with bombs bursting nearby on the beach

page 25particular day was made up of New Zealand and American soldiers, French civilians, Javanese, Tonkinese and Kanakas, endeavoured to find a shady spot under a palm or a flamboyant tree. At the conclusion of mass the priest knocked thrice on the massive church doors as a signal for admittance, and to the amazement of all present the dull ring of the last tap on the church door had hardly died away on the stifling morning air when a chance passer-by who had tarried to see what was doing called out in a loud voice' Open up those pearly gates.' This unrehearsed incident caused quite a stir for a moment or so, but fortunately the priest didn't understand English and the service proceeded according to plan.

After a lengthy address by the French Governor's representative, the grand parade through the township commenced with French buglers in the lead, followed by the band, New Zealand soldiers, Joan and her knights (mounted and clad in business-like armour), more equestrians and then school children from the convent. It was necessary on several occasions to halt the column, but unfortunately for a well-known major in the Dental Corps, the command 'Halt' was completely ignored by Joan's 'charger' with the result that every time the column stopped he either received a most unbecoming jolt in the small of the back, or was obliged to remain stiffly at attention while the horse playfully nuzzled the back of his neck. An appealing glance at Joan only received the haughty indifference and raised eye-brow to be expected from one representing such a dignified and famous personage.

No record of our island campaign would be complete without reference to the open-air pictures, weddings, unit anniversaries, beer-ration nights, and restful hours spent at the Bourail and Kiwi Clubs and also Anse Vata beach, Triangle Gardens, and American Red Cross Club at Nouméa. To those of us fortunate enough to draw a lucky marble in the roster and who were able to take advantage of attending these functions they will long remain in our memories as refreshing interludes in the dull monotony of our existence. Strangely enough, now that we have once more been re-united with our loved ones, be it permanently or just for a short time prior to sallying forth in quest of fresh fields to conquer, our term in New Caledonia, which was likened at the time to durance vile, seems but a memory of the distant page 26past, and even the thought of 'Lazy' and 'Crazy' serving us sweetened tepid water at 15 cents a time affects us not one whit.

Ere long the sports grounds and neat encampments on which we lavished so much thought and time will, no doubt, revert to-the guava and scrub covered areas we converted, but apart from the decaying bures, huts, and improved roading facilities which will last for some time yet, as tangible reminders of our occupation, many of our customs and mannerisms have unconsciously-been adopted by many New Caledonian families, and the New Zealand hat badges, presents bestowed, small fortunes netted by some, and the memories of happy hours and friendships firmly cemented will keep the memories of our stay ever green and many a Yuletide toast will honour 'absent friends.'