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

Chapter Nine — Artillery Training Depot

page 60

Chapter Nine
Artillery Training Depot

It became necessary in June 1943 to reconstruct certain elements of the force and during this month commanding officers of certain artillery units were constantly in conference with higher authorities. This very materially seemed to spell a move of some sort or other for many of the gunners, and as a result of which conjecture had its usual run on the prospects of the future. In early July the answer to our 'hush hush' period was known, and two of the early settled artillery units in Necal were to be disbanded, namely the 28th Heavy Anti-aircraft Regiment, which had been engaged mainly on aerodrome defence, and the 33rd Heavy Regiment, which had served in a coast role in the Nouméa area. The personnel made available from this contraction would then fill gaps in the field, anti-tank and light AA units which were being brought right up to strength for what appeared to be a move. The set up was to be a training depot, where these people could be re-trained to fit into their various gunner trades of a field division and hence was born ATD. On the morning of 12 July 1943 a small advanced party selected from 33rd Heavy Regiment left Ile Nou for the Nemeara Valley— 120 miles up the main island—where the depot was to be established in the camp being vacated by the Scots Battalion.

The pioneering ability of our rugged predecessors in this area was very much in evidence and the move in of the various units was greatly simplified as a result. However, much work was still ahead to suit the camp to the full requirements of an artillery organisation. The various headquarters and batteries moved in as they were relieved of their operational positions and page 61by the end of July the camp was becoming a virtual hive of industry, and the depot staff and layout went into action under the following directions:—

Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel B. Wicksteed; Second-in-command, Major J. R. Marshall; Adjutant, Captain E. J. Manders; Quartermaster, Captain I. H. B. Dixon; CIG, Captain I. C. Young; RSM, Mr. J. Col-clough; RQMS, Sergeant-Major N. I. Ifwerson; 'A' Battery, field and anti-tank trainees commanded by Major R. Wilde-Browne; 'B' battery, light AA trainees com-manded by Major H. L. G. Macindoe.

There had been a very small artillery training centre as a 'wing' of BTD in operation, and comprising mainly ex-Norfolk personnel. This merged with us in the Nemeara Valley as part of the general plan. Naturally it took a while to sort things out but this phase passed with surprising quickness and we were functioning properly by early August.

After having lived a fairly independent life in our various and scattered operational areas, we found a little difficulty in keeping in step with the various do's and don'ts of the base area but we soon learnt their value and necessity. Whilst in operational roles we had lived very close and in hand with our revered allies. Many very fine friends and contacts had been made but now 120 miles separated us from most of them and this presented difficulties, which in many ways could only be overcome by reading our base instructions to their utmost limits. This resulted in the existence of a very 'fluid' situation for some months, bringing with it many attendant headaches. It did not take us very long to chum up with our various base relatives and we were always glad to fraternise with them in training, sport and recreation, which usually terminated with most energetic conviviality.

The task ahead was indeed a big one for all branches of the depot. Troops, camp equipment, and general stores were arriving almost daily with each draft of unit personnel. This stretched A and Q branches to their limits. On top of this the division was on the eve of departure for the forward area and this meant a possible call for trained and equipped reinforcements. The saying 'Once a gunner always a gunner' is very true, but no matter how adept he may be, it takes more than a day or two to convert page 62his thoughts from static conditions to an essentially mobile role. In addition to which the task of conversion from one equipment to another takes time.

These problems were somewhat aggravated by a lack of equipment for the training of such a large and varied group, consequently the chief instructor of gunnery, Captain Young, and his staff had their work cut out for a considerable time until a full complement of equipment arrived from New Zealand. Having been employed so long in their irksome but necessary static role of just watching and waiting, these fellows had just about given up hope, of seeing any fun, so that it can be understood that the change over to field, anti-tank and light AA gave a tremendous fillip to morale. Here was a chance of getting a crack after all, consequently everyone went to the task of learning with a will which helped the training staff immensely.

The rugged country surrounding the depot supplied ideal training areas for all branches of operations and the necessary schemes in keeping with the type of warfare to be expected were soon 'cooked up.' Perhaps the most interesting of these was the jungle range located just off the main north road, close by the base engineer organisation. This gave most realistic conditions and was something quite new in the game of gunners—the answers for once were not in the book. The procedure adopted had to be meticulously accurate and, if never before, the gunner was very much in the infanteers position—right out in front. If he did not do the right thing he had an excellent chance of shaking hands with shells from his own guns. It always seemed to rain when one of these shoots was planned and all who went into the OP will remember the thrill of being knee or waist deep in water with shells bursting just a few yards ahead.

A very keen interest was taken in our training by our opposite number, BTD, and an interchange of infantry and artillery officers proved a great boon to the respective problems of both corps. Treks and full scale field exercises were, of course, regular happenings for all three sections of the depot. The vigorous conditions up top demanded the highest possible standard of physical fitness and this was very well catered for in the base area. AH through the year, sport of all kinds was constantly to the fore. The depot contributed its full share to these activities with quite a measure of success and managed to pull off a number of the page 63base titles, in addition to which our own sports officers utilised every possible local resource to the best advantage. Perhaps the best known of these was our swimming carnivals held in the depot pool. This was a lovely spot and looked a fairyland when lit and dressed for the evening fixtures held there. The intensive way in which the conversion training had to be tackled also demanded a pleasant and yet useful change—sport filled this need in a dual way.

Casualties forward were constantly occurring and in consequence notice to move up was sometimes short. This had the desired effect on all ranks and no one wanted to miss his turn through some minor physical deficiency. On 9 November 1943 we lost our CO.. Lieutenant-Colonel Wicksteed, who left to take over the 17th NZ Field Regiment. He was replaced by Major J. R. Marshall, who was equally popular. Unfortunately he left shortly afterwards to return to New Zealand and was replaced on 30 November 1943 by Major N. W. M. Hawkins, who remained with us until the depot closed officially in May 1944.

With 1943 drawing to a close, thoughts turned to the matter of festive celebrations and all that they mean to a fellow when he is separated from his home. For quite a number, forced absence from home at such a time had become just the general order of things, but it never detracted one bit from a desire to eat, drink and be merry. An energetic committee was formed and plans were immediately hatched for a real 'blockbuster.' Regimental funds received a nasty jolt, on top of which the regular ration was considerably augmented and all messes were dressed with a resplendence of greenery, while the main brace was well and truly spliced.

It was the gunner's day out and in true fashion he was waited on by the depot officers and sergeants and for once in his life exercised his prerogative to the full. Along with all the other units in the base we had a visit from the base commandant on Christmas Day. Again the boys seized their opportunity and perhaps for the first time in his life the brigadier nearly had a charge of 'failure to comply' on his file. He was greeted most enthusiastically in 'B' battery mess and was offered a drink by one of our 'clay bird' friends. This he very politely refused, the reason being fairly obvious as the road in front was still a long one. However, 'No' was apparently not the correct answer page 64and our 'clay bird' in most definite terms made it an order. 'Have a —— drink, "brig,"' and the 'brig' had one. It was such incidents as this that made one feel the full value of our democracy.

Sport and purely physical training, although most essential, has to be tempered with a certain measure of social activity and in this respect we were particularly well catered for. The amphitheatre which the Scots had constructed gave a good foundation to this side of our life and many bright and enjoyable evenings were filled in attending picture programmes and outdoor concerts. In addition to which the splendid YMCA bure was extensively used when weather precluded an outdoor performance-It was perhaps natural to expect an enthusiastic response to any social activity produced, but we were fortunate in the number of people who were always willing to give their time and thought to all manner of entertainment. To go into details of personalities in this short narrative is impossible but to recall a few of the outstanding ones—Election Night, 25 September 1943, when the 'Y' bloke, Len Piper, did such a good job—the all day sports meeting under the direction of Lieutenant Cleal on 23 October 1943. That well-kept secret, 'The New Year Honours,' held in the YMCA on the night of 3 January 1944. This was hatched with such secrecy and mystery that it has never been possible to trace its founders, but on pure assumption the following people could have had something to do with its production, Padre Murray, Lieutenant Bill Harvey, Sergeants Dick Lord, Baldy Walton and Doc Bennett—this performance was really a classic. Then, on 12 March 1944, an enthusiastic team from the sergeants' mess organised and ran the autumn meeting of the Néméara Jockey Club. This proved a huge success and swelled the regimental funds purse again after the severe attack made on it for our Christmas and New Year celebrations. Wherever it was possible we always made sure that the feminine touch was in evidence, and at most of our entertainments and mess life, parties of nursing sisters and WAACs were present; their uniforms and charm always just topping off our best efforts.

The degree to which this can be accurately measured is confirmed beyond doubt in the two service weddings of which the depot was very proud. That of Staff-Sergeant M. A. Iggulden and Private Betty Findlay, WAAC: on 5 February 1944; and page 65Lieutenant W. Cox and Sister Janet Middleton, NZANS, on 22 April 1944. In addition, Sergeant C. Coates further cemented allied relations when he married Miss Héléne Berger, a French lass-, in. Nouméa on 27 November 1943.

With the New Year training in particular was able to proceed on much more elaborate lines as the necessary equipment became available and some very heavy exercises were undertaken, and despite the fact that demands for reinforcements had not been as great as anticipated, enthusiasm was still high. The division had been away quite a considerable time and in April came talk of their return to base for a spell. Our greatest hopes were realised when we were instructed to conduct a reconnaissance of the area surrounding the depot, as the divisional artillery were to settle around us. This task was readily tackled with a will as it meant a real gunners get-together, the first in the history of the force, and apart from that we wanted to give them all that was possible in comfort after their sojourn further north. Following closely on the heels of this great piece of news came our equally great blow in the form of the New Zealand manpower requirements. All sorts of conjecture arose as to how and when it would operate, all of which had a most unsettling effect on life generally. The first move came very quickly when the first draft for return was selected from personnel already in the base. This had the effect of taking about two-thirds of our strength, which in turn meant closing a large part of the depot area. This task was a disheartening one—virtually undoing the good work of so many people who had taken a pride in their efforts—but there it was. Those of us who were left were still looking forward to that great reunion when the division returned and our now depleted strength got on with the task of preparing all our stores and equipment for return to ordnance. Towards the end of April the division's move back commenced and we were able to put into effect our home-coming plans. No effort was spared in welcoming these follows after their arduous life 'up top' and the depot took on a new lease of life again as the work of unit advanced parties proceeded in preparation for the main drafts as they arrived. By early June the place was again a hive of industry and it was good to see the YMCA and the canteen going flat out. The hillsides were again restored to something of their page 66old condition—tent lamps glowed through the niaouli trees and a general air of conviviality was about.

The function of the depot had now been completed and the then small residue of personnel were posted to divisional artillery units. It had always endeavoured to maintain its purpose as the gunners' 'home.' Many had been disappointed in not getting a crack at the enemy in the forward area but all were agreed that so far as conditions would permit, all had been done to fit all ranks for whatever task lay ahead. This short narrative would not be complete without a word of thanks to the base commandant and his staff for their keen interest in our problems and efforts. At all times there was an attentive ear to any difficulties and the utmost co-operation in our many training and recreational functions. There were much worse places to spend a tour of duty than under the care of 3rd NZ Div Base, Bourail.