The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945
Chapter One — Fiji
At the outbreak of war in 1939, at the urgent request of the Fiji Government, New Zealand sent a few Royal New Zealand artillerymen to Fiji to assist in the emplacement of coastal batteries for the defence of Suva Harbour, and the organisation and instruction of the Fiji Artillery. From this small beginning grew a very real contribution of artillerymen, in numbers ever-increasing from 1939 to 1942, to the ranks of the Fiji Artillery, a very efficient regiment of garrison artillery which finally consisted of five heavy batteries with their attendant searchlights and complementary defences, officered and instructed mainly by New Zealanders, manned by a majority of native Fijians with a strong leavening of New Zealand NCOs and men. Their commanding officer, Major B. Wicksteed, RNZA, had every reason to be proud of his very fine unit. But seconded to the Fiji Defence Force, their story is their own and should take its place in the history when written of that Force. Most of them left Fiji in September 1942 on return to New Zealand, where they became part of 33 New Zealand Heavy Regiment, and enter this volume in the story of that unit.
The first New Zealand artillery unit to go to Fiji was 35 Battery, which was formed at Papakura Military Camp on 1 September 1940 from artillery personnel remaining after the Third Echelon had left for the Middle East. Placed under the command of Major (then Captain) C. H. Loughnan, MC, with Captain J. F. G. Stark as his battery captain, the unit had a special establishment of its own as an eight-gun 18 pounder battery with reinforcements. Of its guns six were designed for horse-drawn carriage, and for all we know those six are still the page 10same to-day, resting their aged bones in peace. The other two did not appear for over a year, but when they did they had pneumatic tyres and we gazed wide-eyed at the wonders of modern science. The members were all volunteers. With a promise that they would have only six months' tropic service and then go on to the Middle East, and a haunting fear that some careless fool would extinguish the real war before they caught up with it, they sailed in three groups, one on the auxiliary cruiser Monowai, arriving at Suva on 1 November 1940, and the other two on successive trips of the transport Rangatira, arriving respectively at Lautoka on 14 November and at Suva on 22 November 1940.
By the end of December the greater part of the battery concentrated at Momi Bay with the duty of covering the Navula Passage through the reef to Lautoka. Had it known what fearsome engines of destruction jealously watched it in, and regretfully watched it out, many an ocean tramp would have sighed with relief at escaping unscathed. Life was not civilised at Momi, where it could be so blisteringly hot and windless that the wonder is that so many holes were dug and profanely completed. Not that mere holes are by now matters of moment, for the travels of the artillery in the Pacific may be followed by a trail of never-ceasing holes dug and refilled with ever-recurring blasphemy. But these were different. They were our first in a foreign field. Watched with pity by the poor benighted heathen, with suspicion by the Colonial Sugar Company, a few of whose loose chattels were disappearing, and with disapproving tolerance by the Colonial Office, we drove holes ever-deeper into knolls and hills which to this day with their titles of 'Loughnan's Hill' and 'Stark's Hill' commemorate the first gunner officers there.
One section only remained on the Suva side. It was camped in the Suvavou area at Larni Point, proudly placing its two pieces in position to cover the Great Passage and strengthen the defences of Suva Harbour. According to the Momi men these were the lucky ones, for on high days and holidays they could get into Suva, and they were the first to blaze the trail to the 'Garrick,' which from then was always the 'Gunners pub.' Many a 'Garrick' glass handle travelled with the Second Division through the desert and Italy or with the Third Division through the Solomons and now finds a chipped and honoured resting place in the middle of 'mum's' best crystal back home again in New Zealand.page 11 page 12
But did we say Momi was windless? Yet on 20 February 1941 the war diary records that all tents save three went down in the path of the great hurricane which left a trail of damage and destruction on both sides of the island. Many times afterwards we were to have hurricane warnings and be on the fringe of powerful winds, but this time we were right in it, and we didn't like it. Those on the Suva side for weeks afterwards were assisting local residents to repair damage and restore communications and essential services. But on the Momi front there were few local residents and no essential services anyway.
We had read of tropical downpours, but it is doubtful if any of us really comprehended what was meant by this until the month of April 1941 when, on the Suva side, we had 45 inches of rain in 18 days. This is quite wet really, and it effectively blocked many roads and made our gun-positions look very sick indeed.
On 23 May the promised relief arrived by the Monowai and 105 very 'relieved' officers and other ranks sailed on the Rangatira for New Zealand, en route to the Middle East. The Pacific saw them no more. In that month Momi was vacated and all guns and the battery concentrated on the Suva side.
In June and July considerable reconnaissance was carried out for gun positions to give as wide a dispersal and coverage as possible to meet any hostile landing near Suva Peninsula. All this was looked on with grave suspicion by the gunners and we were right, for in July we had to prepare gun-pits near the gaol and near Buckhurst's residence. Now gun-pits on the Suva side are no mean feat, for the Suva Peninsula, underneath a mere sprinkling of topsoil, consists of pure soapstone which is not readily 'pitted' with pick and shovel, our only implements. In August the position at Lami Point was closed down and gun-pits, which were truly magnificent, prepared at Suva Point. A little, larger and we could have staged our own regatta in them at high tide. On 21 August the second relief arrived and the unrelieved portion of the battery embarked for New Zealand to follow the May draft to the Middle East.
Major Loughnan, the battery commander, was now the only remaining member of the original 35th Battery. In September pits were prepared at Nasese and in October near the race course. This completed our digging for a time and provided sufficient alternative positions for quick occupation to give fire support to page 13troops opposing any landing in the immediate vicinity of Suva Peninsula. Meantime the battery lived at Samabula camp and in its leisure hours enjoyed such pleasures as were available in Suva before the war became grimly near with the entry of Japan into hostilities.
With 7 December came Pearl Harbour, the news of which was received while the battery was on manoeuvre and occupying battle stations trying feverishly to think up intelligent signals to send to brigade headquarters. (We were then part of the 8th Brigade Group, the title of the 2 NZEF in Fiji at that time.) One artillery subaltern, fraternising with a local short-wave fan, received first news of Japan's act, and the battery gave brigade headquarters its first information that the war in the Pacific was becoming real. At this time a large scale expansion of the artillery with the force had been decided upon, and for a time it was planned to supplement our ranks with native Fijians. This would have brought its problems, and the idea was abandoned in favour of reinforcement from New Zealand. On 9 December the remaining two 18 pounders and four 4.5 howitzers arrived at Lautoka. They were fearsomely modern pieces with real pneumatic tyres and the battery split up once more, sending sufficient officers and men to the western area to form the skeleton organisation of three troops there, E troop with 18 pounders and F and G troopss with the howitzers. On Suva side was formed the skeleton organisation of A troop with 18 pounders, B troop with 4.5 howitzers, and C troop with 3.7 howitzers (newly arrived from New Zealand). D troop was left vacant, to be filled a month later with the arrival from New Zealand of a 25 pounder troop, complete with equipment and nearly all personnel except a troop commander and sergeant-major. On 11 December started the 'magnum opus' of the battery, the system of ammunition tunnels driven by 'blood, toil, sweat and tears' into the soap-stone under Levy's house on Waimanu Road.
Regardless of rank everyone toiled like navvies at this work. The real shift boss was more often a miner than an officer. A three-shift 24-hour working day was carried out and we counted ourselves lucky to strike a night shift and occasionally emerge to gulp a few breaths of cooler air. On 19 December arrived eight guns and 13 officers, and the skeleton organisation began to put on flesh. Training of potential NCOs on the 'new' equipment gave all the old hands who could make the grade a chance of pro-page 14motion in the new organisation of a seven-troop battery, probably unique in the British or any other Empire. The arrival of Captain W. A. Bryden and other officers and 143 other ranks on 6 January 1942 completed the corporate body then still known as 35th Battery. With four troops on the Suva side it was not possible to house them all in the spare space available at Samabula Camp and so dispersion began. The troops finally found their field station homes as follows:—A troop on Princes Road near Corbett's home, B troop in the middle of an Indian housing area (one will never forget their quaint notions of sanitation), C troop in palatial quarters to which they tenaciously clung in the internees' barracks near the Suva gaol, and D troop on Princes Road near the Tamavua hospital. From these areas they dug, blasted, picked and cursed out gun pits and observation posts to provide for 360 degree arcs of fire, a procedure which transcended all the book rules for field artillery and caused feverish preparation of position correction and concentration tables like mighty doubles charts. If all the arguments so produced were laid on top of each other, the Tower of Babel would be the merest dog-kennel. Out of this welter of mathematics was born the 'Gronoscope Mark I,' an ingenious application on plywood and talc, by one Bob Grono, of sundry simple formulæ. The resultant gadget, if properly used, would do almost anything except cook the breakfast, and was certainly most useful in co-ordinating the fire of all troops, though widely dispersed. It was later succeeded by further improved pattern gronoscopes of increasing ingenuity as they took in problems of moving targets with varying course and speed.
But the battery was always ingenious. We have forgotten to mention that in December 1941, at the time of Pearl Harbour, when there was not one anti-aircraft gun in Fiji, and while the battery still had only six 18 pounder field-guns of antique pattern, it provided for the first anti-aircraft protection of Suva by placing them at Vatuwaqa. Here they had their trails dug deep in miry pits. With a false setting on their 'TP 80' fuzes and a false angle of sight they were prepared to provide a barrage from 4,000 feet down to 500 feet over King's Wharf and other important objectives. Now with our Bofors and our heavy AA you may smile with disdain at that, but it would at least have been a deterrent, and had considerable merit for ingenuity and making the best possible use of the only available weapons. It would page 15have been interesting technically to test this barrage out against air attack, but fortunately Fiji was spared this experience.
On 15 January 1942 arrived our first CRA, Lieutenant-Colonel Wilding. A small artillery headquarters was set up at Divisional Headquarters at Borrin's house. The force had now become a two-brigade division, with the 8th Brigade on the Suva side and the 14th in the western area around Nadi aerodrome and Namaka. Lieutenant-Colonel Wilding had only a short stay as he was required in New Zealand for coastal artillery work. On 6 February he was relieved by Lieutenant-Colonel J. P. Joyce, RNZA, who remained our CRA until our return to New Zealand later that year. In the course of going round the various gun-positions in the hand-over the two CRAs walked into a hornet's nest and in precipitous retreat Colonel Wilding dropped his precious pipe. His swoop to recover it lost him his hat, and the hornets descended on his bald pate with such venom that his retreat was as unsoldierly as his language unseemly. The hornets of Fiji are a power to be reckoned with and go looking for fight in the same way as the Fijians later did on Bougainville, to the discomfort of the Japanese.
January 1942 was a month of alarms and frequent stand-to's, bivouacking on battle stations; the whole Pacific was a-jitter and a-twitter as the Japanese moved rapidly south. It must have been obvious that our small forces could not have hoped completely to repel a Japanese landing of size if made with determination and overwhelming force. This thought of course is rather a grim background for training and preparation, but it is fair to say that on no occasion did anyone appear really daunted at the thought. If he did, he concealed it.
It was also a time of cut wires and communications. The poor signallers had an annoying time and patrolled their wire with rifles and dark suspicions. They shot no one but challenged many and startled quite a few whose purpose was probably more lusty than hostile. In the month of March all four troops on the Suva side had training shoots on the same day, culminating in a joint effort in the reef entrance at the Grand Passage. This, we felt, inspired the infantry with a little more respect for our potentialities and the conventional ribald jeers became mere jokes as they thought they might need us and use us. At this time also began the curfew restrictions which must have been a curb to the more amorous, and a curse to the late drinkers. Creeping quietly home page 16in the black-out after the curfew hours was an eerie experience. One heard the shuffle of bare feet slowly coming nearer; one wondered whether some Indian, late-astir, had ideas of avenging the wrongs of Mother India; one felt the cool tenseness through rivulets of perspiration trickling down; one glanced fearfully over one's shoulder, only to see the gleam of white teeth and hear the bula of the Fijian's happy greeting. Bula vinaka burst from one in riotous relief. A race of happy children, with easy-going ways, the Fijians were wonderful parade-ground soldiers. They turned everything into an action drill which must have made many a Colonel Blimp burgeon with pride. But in the jungle they harked back 90 years and their savage ferocity and jungle-craft made them the terror of the Bougainville Japanese. But we must not let our love for the Fijians drown the note of our own trumpet. Also in this month of March the 8th Brigade, with attached artillery, held such a realistic brigade alarm and exercise that many of the local Indians took to the hills with all their wives and other impedimenta, while the Fijians trooped into town to see the fun. The resultant congestion was considerable and educational.
Meantime round in the western area 'things artillery' had been moving at a rapid tempo. The troops of 35 battery there were weaned from their mother unit and became 37 Battery, under the command of Major Bryden. Also under his command was a medium battery with six-inch howitzers, 60-pounder guns, and four American 155 mm guns manned by New Zealanders. Major Bryden's command was spread over Namaka, Vuda, Esivo and Momi. What with preparing their camps, their gun-pits and battle stations, calibrating so many different types of ordnance, the gunner's lot was not a happy one. Their war diary for this period is laconic, and does not solve for us the burning question of who landed that 'short' on Nadi aerodrome during the visit of many notables, including the Governor, Sir Harry Luke. The story (as we in Suva had it) that it bounced off Sir Harry's lap is almost certainly apocryphal, but it did land very close to many Indian labourers, and the visitors did not unduly prolong their visit of inspection.
Brigadier C. S. J. Duff, DSO, who was CRA of the Third Division from August 1942 until August 1944. Before joining the Third Division he saw service with the Second Division in the Middle East. Below: Lieutenant-Colonel H. G. Wilding, DSO, first CRA of the force in Fiji. He was succeeded by Lieutenant-Colonel J. P. Joyce, DCM (right) who became CRA when the original B Force was increased to the strength of a division in 1942
Part of the divisional artillery camp on Guadalcanal where units were spaced out over ridges high above the sea. Below: Guns of the 17th Field Regiment being dragged ashore from landing craft on Vella Lavella. This was exhausting work
During the months of March, April and May conditions were hard-working enough for the artillery in Suva, but they did not provide the diverting incidents which, the western area gunners experienced. They opened the month of April with the establishment of 155 mm sections at Esivo and Momi. A fortnight later they had a fire in the sector ammunition reserve pits by night, with the loss of 251 rounds. This gave timorous onlookers all the fun and fireworks of a Fifth of November show, with the spice of personal peril tossed in. They ended the month by nearly losing Lieutenant-Colonel Joyce and Major Bryden, who ran aground in a launch on an outlying reef island because of engine trouble, and were not heard of for many hours of agonized signals and search.
In the month of May the field gunners, in anticipation of the main route around the island being cut by coastal landings, reconnoitred overland routes to Singatoka, to Momi and to Nandi. Recorded baldly on paper in that way it sounds like a run along the main highway on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the family limousine. It was anything but that. Such reconnaissance meant hours and days of back-breaking toil in blistering heat, winching trucks through jungle-clad gullies and up rocky dongas, teetering perilously on narrow tracks, and finally winning through, but having their private doubts about whether they would like to do it again with guns and full equipment. But to those of us who didn't go, it was a scalp in their belts, a notch in their gun-butts and something to brag about, which they did not cease to do for many days and nights.
While all this was going on in the western area, the monotony of artillery life on the Suva peninsula was disturbed only by the ingenuity of Major Loughnan. This time he had embarked on an attempt to improve the mobility and quickness into action of his steel-and-wood wheeled 18 pounders and 3.7 inch howitzers. He page 18devised methods of mounting them on trucks and firing them from trucks, so that the gunner could go stalking his game like. a hunter and, when he had found it, turn round and deal with it with one quick squirt and then go on in search of further prey. It was interesting and effective and would have been very-useful, had there been hostile landings, in bringing maximum and effective fire to bear at short range at given points, after which it could have been transferred rapidly wherever required.
With May 1942 the rumours of relief became thicker and more frequent and, as usually happens, the tales that emanated from the dockworkers, the cooks and the sanitary fatigues, were proved by events to be far more reliable than the official pronouncements of the time. 'The Yanks are coming' was on everyone's lips. Everyone was agog and hoped for relief and return to New Zealand, with its prospect of further service or, at any rate, something more interesting than digging holes in Fiji and then sitting in them. And at the beginning of June arrived the advanced parties for the 37th American Division, a national Guard division from Ohio. By the end of June large bodies of American troops were installed everywhere and taking over the defences. We were not sorry to hand them over. It was interesting to see how the soldiers of another nation comported themselves, the way they went about things, and the equipment they had! We marvelled at and coveted their equipment; we rapidly acquired a taste for their cigarettes, which they certainly fostered with a generosity which knew no bounds. It was almost embarrassing. But we manfully stified our embarrassment and helped them out with any surpluses.
On 14 June All Nations Day at Suva was celebrated with a parade representing all allied forces in Fiji at that time. The units paraded near Government buildings before a large flagpole, from the yardarm of which flew the flags of seven nations. As they marched to the place of parade through lined streets, the various units received a great reception and looked bronzed and fit, with bands in front and bands throughout the column. Alone and small, even uninvited, for no one knew their ship would be there, marched a little detachment from the Free French Navy. A tiny French sloop had put into Suva that day. France might be down and nearly out, but these gallant hearts would not leave her unrepresented in this concourse of freedom-loving nations. And so a little band of about a dozen marched along at the rear page 19until they were ushered into a place of honour before the mast. There they followed the procedure and drill throughout. It mattered not a whit that their English was not sufficient to follow the various commands for salutes and 'presents.' Their officer waited for the first movement, guessed the rest and gave his own orders to his tiny handful, who gravely executed the drill. It was a moving sight and it was spirit such as this, as much as arms and munitions, which brought final victory to the Allied arms. At that time victory looked a long way off. Singapore and the Philippines had fallen; Guadalcanal had not yet seen the American landing. We were going backwards everywhere, but we could still hope. The end of June brought more American troops on the United States Army transport President Coolidge, which left for New Zealand at the beginning of July with a large part of the 14th Brigade and all 37 Battery and the Medium Group and an advanced party from 35 Battery. The President Coolidge was shuttling United States troops to Fiji and New Zealand troops back to New Zealand. She returned from Auckland and embarked the rest of us on 17 July, sailing from Suva on 20 July, and some of us thought that our finest view of Suva was over the back rail of the outward-bound ship. HMNZS Leander sailed with us, bearing Sir Harry Luke, who was also leaving Fiji at the conclusion of his term of office.
Of the voyage home we say this, that never to that time had we travelled in a troopship so well appointed or which provided such excellent meals. It was our first experience of the American troopship habit of only two meals a day, but what meals they were. She still had a lot of her pre-Pearl Harbour tinned foods aboard, and trooping was a novelty to her. After a meal we tottered with distended diaphragms feebly to our bunks and rested for a time, then took a little exercise and more rest in readiness for the next big meal. The Cooiidge was lost some months later in the New Hebrides when she ran into a friendly mine, fortunately without loss of life, although she was crowded with American troops at the time. As we passed her graveyard about a year later we sighed with regret at the thought of all that cutlery and crockery we had left unpillaged, from some obscure motive of right and wrong, only to have it go to the bottom of the ocean a few months later. It didn't seem right somehow. Perhaps that is why, when opportunity of acquiring knocked at our door later in island warfare it didn't have to knock twice; in fact we usually met it at the gate.page 20
We arrived at Auckland on 23 July, disembarked the following day and moved out to Opaheke camp, of which the least said is soonest mended. From 28 July to 16 August we were on disembarkation leave, which was very welcome. It was a damp winter. We needed lots of woollen clothes and blankets, and still the wind bit keenly. Those who had brought back whiskey from Fiji were astounded at their popularity and their large circle of friends, for the drought had started in New Zealand and the Americans were paying fantastic prices for any kind of intoxication. We couldn't and didn't compete, but thought regretfully once more of the Garrick and the Club. On 17 August, when everyone was back from leave, all the gunners—35 Battery, 37 Battery, the Medium Group and the 8 and 14 Brigade Anti-tank troops—moved to Papakura Camp B block. (We forgot to mention the birth of these tiny units about April and their initial training on; American 37 mm guns. Suffice it to say that they were born of artillery and infantry parents, suffered training for a short period and then came home with us later to form the nucleus for the 53 and 54 Anti-tank Batteries.) There and in C block also lived, in glorious assembly, the gunners of all ranks who had been in Fiji and remained in confused but happy comradeship until 2 September 1942, when from their numbers emerged 17 Field Regiment, 53 and 54 Anti-tank Batteries, and 144 Independent Battery, who tell their own stories later in this book.
All this sounds very light-hearted and entertaining if you picture it in beautiful weather and ideal conditions, but picture it instead in wilting heat and sweaty humidity, with mosquitoes singing their high song of triumph, with rain pouring down only to rise again in billowing steam: with black thunder-clouds masking a molten sky, with sheet and fork lightning splitting the heavens, and perhaps you will understand why we didn't like it much. An electrical thunderstorm in the Pacific doesn't mean the little penny-flare we see in New Zealand; it means a full-power show with billions of volts dancing and threatening, and sometimes striking. And rain so solid that it blankets out everything; thunder so intense your little soul thinks it's the Day of Judgment and shrinks in craven fear. Heat so all-pervading that the night brings little relaxation and you lie with only a sheet over you to prevent a chill and a mosquito net to get some peace from the little devils. In the morning your canvas cot is damp with your page 21sweat, and you feel like a log till you've had a cold shower—if you can get it. Food so uninteresting that it attracts the cockroaches far more than it attracts you; septic sores and tropic ulcers that eat their way into the flesh and leave their mark for ever. Then you come home to be told that special football-ground concessions are for overseas soldiers, and somebody else calls you a coconut bomber or a pineapple fusilier, and thinks you're unduly touchv when you remark on his safe essentiality. Those were the bad moments we had from others' ignorance. The good moments can never be taken away from our memories. The blood-red and pigeon-grey sunsets over Suva Bay, the creaming surf out on the reef, the happy Fijians, the flaring flamboyant trees in Suva, all one's laundry done for 12/6 a month, Johnnie Walker Black Label for 16/- a bottle, English Craven "A" cigarettes in sealed 50's, silk stockings and beautiful materials in the shops, water melon dripping coolness, pineapples and bananas, iced beer, dinner at the Grand Pacific, the lounge at Macdonald's, the bar at the Garrick—take your choice of those memories and admit to yourself honestly that you would have been sorry had you missed any of them.