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

Chapter Four — Records Section

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Chapter Four
Records Section

One of the few things on which all soldiers can be induced to agree is the irksomeness of the 'paper war.' That it is an evil they will all admit, but they will not always so readily concede that it is a necessary evil. However, be that as it may, it is a notorious fact that there is very little a soldier can do, or have done to him, without someone, somewhere, filling in a form about it.

To deal with the multitudes of forms and records concerning New Zealand troops in the Pacific the Records Office, in an embryo form, came into being in November 1940, when a staff under the command of Lieutenant G. A. R. Johnstone, sailed for Fiji as records office of the original 8th Brigade Group. The establishment of New Zealand troops in Fiji had just been embarked upon and for some weeks accommodation and working arrangements were rather makeshift, the office being established in the Government Buildings basement (bearing a marked resemblance to the humble fowlhouse) in Suva, while the staff lived at the Fijian camp at Nasese, some two miles out, and later in the Boys' Grammar School. In January 1941 the Group HQ camp at Tamavua was completed and the office settled down in comparatively permanent living and working quarters in which, despite a serious attempt at dislodgment by a hurricane shortly after the move, it remained until returning to New Zealand in July 1942.

The period in New Zealand from July to December 1942 was one of considerable difficulty and activity. The movement from Fiji, the reorganisation of the division, and simultaneous inward and outward movements of troops on a large scale occasioned a great deal of work, and despite a considerable increase of staff page 28by 'borrowing,' and the magnificent assistance rendered by the local woman's volunteer service at Hamilton, a great deal of midnight oil was burnt before the records were brought into a satisfactory state. Those who were on the staff at that time will long remember that hectic period.

Borrowed staff worked in scattered borrowed premises; a move of the whole box and dice from Papakura to Hamilton, with disconcerting complication; weeks on end of work through Saturdays and Sundays and until midnight on week days; embarkation rolls and files constantly demanding urgent attention; frantic wires to and from all areas asking for the whereabouts of men and files—all these would have been enough to daunt a less stout-hearted team. On this was piled—in the earliest stages at least—the crowning humiliation for a records office, of having to tell the very 'Highest Quarters' that we did not know whether men for whom enquiry was made were in the division or not, or where they might be found. Fortunately, however, this desperate stage of our difficulties did not last very long, and by the time the main body of the division embarked for New Caledonia at the end of December 1942 the situation was well in hand. Meantime advanced parties of the office had left for New Caledonia and, in view of the increasing work, staff, and responsibilities, Second-Lieutenant Hayward was commissioned and assumed charge at the New Zealand end, bringing to New Caledonia the remaining staff and equipment with the main body of the division.

This was our first experience—indeed probably the first in the New Zealand Army—of a records staff and its records closing down with the departure of the troops with whom it dealt and proceeding en bloc, with its records, simultaneously with the troops. In such circumstances the preparation and running amendment of embarkation rolls (with corresponding re-arrangement of files) and the movement of personnel and equipment as a going concern, while at the same time maintaining the essentials of normal service, is a problem of some magnitude. There were very long hours and much hard work. A number of army regulations pertaining to movements may have been slightly bent; the staff's Christmas dinner was sacrificed to the good cause, but the job was done with no material hitches and, we believe, with the minimum of headaches for the New Zealand authorities responsible for the 'washing up.'

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Meantime the advanced party in New Caledonia was operating in temporary quarters in Nouméa, working in a dilapidated shop in the town and living on an old cemetery in the 'Red Light' quarter of the suburbs. Life in Nouméa had its disadvantages, but it was never devoid of interest and moments of excitement, both official and otherwise, effectively prevented boredom. After a few weeks in the Paris of the Pacific, however, authority said 'move' and the advanced party and its equipment set out in five trucks on the long, dusty, bumpy road to Bourail, where Records, Pay, and DAG's office shared the tenancy of the Town Hall which, supplemented by tents, accommodated the complete office and staff when the remainder arrived. Here we carried on for some weeks; ploughing through the great volume of work attendant on the arrival of the troops, and finding time, after much discussion and argument of hypothetical cases, to introduce the system of war accounting for personnel.

The hotel de vllle, however, was some distance from our living quarters, no artificial lighting was provided, and there were other drawbacks, so we were not sorry in February 1943 to move to more permanent quarters in the base camp at Bourail racecourse. Here we worked for some five months in eight large IP tents with earth floors and conditions which were initially very primitive, However, these gradually improved with the provision of electric lighting, paths, and other amenities until in July we occupied our permanent working quarters, comprising a large fire-proof hut, a native style grass hut, a wooden sectional hut, and a small hut for the storage of effects. As this move coincided approximately with the forward move of the division, and the greatest development of the office in scope and size, it may be appropriate at this stage to review our work and organisation.

When it was established in Fiji, the office was required to perform purely records work for a brigade group, and the staff totalled 16 under Lieutenant Johnstone, and Warrant-Officer E. R. Newman. It was early found that the preparation of embarkation rolls could better be done by records than by units; with the natural development of a gangway check by records of actual individuals moving. After a few months the issue by records of a prechecked and consolidated routine orders was inaugurated (it is believed for the first time in the New Zealand army) and a little later the maintenance of war establishments, page 30with a pre-check ot promotions and extra duty pay, was assumed. The work of the office continued on this basis until the increase to divisional strength in early 1942 and the return to New Zealand, but there were considerable changes in staff during this period. In May and August 1940 successive replacement drafts resulted in the return of almost all the original staff to New Zealand. In 1942, Lieutenant johnstone was boarded home, and in September of that year Sergeant-Major Newman was commissioned as officer in charge, Warrant-Officer S. P. Hayward and Warrant-Officer L. E. Orr being also commissioned in November 1942 and July 1943, respectively, as the scope of the work increased.

On the division moving to the forward area the staff totalled three officers and 64 other ranks, comprising the following main sections:—

  • Officer in charge: Lieutenant E. R. Newman.
  • Chief clerk, main roll, files, war establishments: Warrant-Officer V. D. Learning.
  • Casualties, officers, statistics, deceased effects: Second-Lieutenant L. E. Orr, Warrant-Officer A. C. E. Beams, Warrant-Officer A. M. W. Martin.
  • Corps records, movements, routine orders: Warrant-Officer O. M. Phillips.
  • Advanced 2 echelon: Second-Lieutenant S. P. Hayward, Warrant-Officer E. G. Craig.
  • Nouméa liaison: Sergeant D. F. B. Nash.
  • Tontouta airport liaison: Corporal C. L. Crowson.

As will be seen from the above, the work of the office had by this time so developed as to cover almost all aspects of Second Echelon administration.

On the decision to withdraw the division from an active role the drafting of troops to New Zealand for essential industry commenced, Mr. E. J. Hamlet, manpower liaison officer from New Zealand, was provided with staff and quarters in the office for the selection of men for this purpose. The return of the division to New Caledonia and of industrial drafts to New Zealand created a great deal of additional work, while several of the staff, including Second-Lieutenant Orr and Warrant-Officer Learning, were among those leaving for industry. Meanwhile Lieutenant Hayward and advanced Second Echelon, having com-page 31pleted their operations in the forward area, had returned to the main office and thus filled some more of the gaps; but the pressure for a time was extremely heavy, and this was maintained until the eventual return in October 1944 of the balance of the division. By this time the staff was severely depleted by further Josses to industry. Lieutenant Newman had been recalled to New Zealand for civil employment, Lieutenant Hayward had assumed control of the office from the New Zealand end, and Warrant-Officer Beams, later succeeded by Warrant-Officer Martin, directed operations of the remaining staff in New Caledonia. Indeed most of the 'operations' from Easter 1944 onward were part of the general 'winding-up' process of the NZEF IP.

With so large a staff, working under tropical conditions, fairly frequent changes in personnel were inevitable, and the total number who have from time to time been on the staff would approximate 130. We were very fortunate, however, in securing men of good calibre, and cases where men were transferred out through inability to measure up to the rather exacting requirements of the work were negligible.

Sporting and social activities were maintained as far as circumstances permitted, and the staff, in addition to taking their full share of camp enterprises of this nature, also promoted their own recreations by way of country trips, 'smokos' and lectures. These were particularly valuable during the earlier period in New Caledonia, where isolation and lack of organised recreation made life rather dull; and such activities contributed largely to the maintenance of a strong esprit de corps which was of great value when long hours of hard work had to be done under difficult conditions.

Administrative work in the base is never spectacular but it is a necessary and essential part of the organisation, and upon its performance depends the well-being and efficiency of the fighting soldier whose interests such offices as ours exist to service. It may justly and without exaggeration be said that the maintenance of a high standard of efficiency in the work was regarded by each member of the staff as his personal responsibility, and all other considerations were subordinated to this object. Now that the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Pacific has passed into history, and we who were its records office are dispersed, we look back with pleasure upon our membership of a staff who were page 32a great team to live with and to work with, and with a modest pride upon having been able in our small way to contribute towards the brief but honourable achievements of the force and the Third New Zealand Division.