The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945
Chapter Thirteen — Norfolk
Early in October 1942, a very select band of warriors was gathered together and set sail for an unknown destination. This force, officially known as 'Nuts 'Force (possibly out of deference to the genius who planned it) consisted of a battalion of infantry, three artillery units, and detachments of ordnance, ASC and engineers. In short, the force was fairly complete and self-supporting. The Third New Zealand Division suffered a real loss when the force left the shores of the Dominion but this was subsequently adjusted when, in April 1943, the bulk of the force rejoined the division in Necal.
As this narrative is particularly concerned with the artillery units it might be as well if a little further light were thrown on the units concerned. They were as follows: 215th Composite Anti-aircraft Battery, commanded by Major J. M. Ewen, consisting of a troop of heavy AA equipped with four static 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns and two troops of light AA equipped with eight 40 mm QF guns; the 152nd Heavy Battery, commanded by Major G. L. Falck, armed with four 155 mm guns; and finally a field troop of 25-pounders under the command of Captain C. S. Dickson.
A fortnight before this force sailed a reconnaissance party consisting of five officers and one other rank packed their bags and disappeared into the blue; and when we arrived at Norfolk Island—the secret is out and also the reason for 'nuts'—we found everything ready for us except the erection of camps. At least areas had been allotted to all the various units. N Force was moved from New Zealand in two flights, the first flight leaving from Auckland on the HMS Monowai and the TSS Wahine. page 278The convoy arrived at Norfolk on 9 October 1942, and after cruising around the island the troops were eventually landed at Kingston. This was indeed a red letter day for the island. Never before had so much shipping been seen there. There was the American freighter Roseville discharging equipment for the aeerodrome, our supply vessel the SS Waipori, two troopships, two corvettes and an American destroyer.
Now a word in passing about the shipping facilities at Norfolk. There aren't any. The island possesses no harbours and all cargo has to be lightered ashore. This is a long and tedious job. Our equipment and stores were not unloaded for six weeks. Again, we were very fortunate in having the use of American equipment to supplement what little there was on the island. The weather was at its best when the first flight disembarked and the island was viewed with eager anticipation by hundreds of curious New Zealanders. Closer acquaintance with the island and its hospitable residents did not belie our first impressions. It certainly was a delightful spot and is very aptly called the 'Paradise of the Pacific' The island itself is approximately five miles by three and is noted for its extremely rugged coastline and high forbidding cliffs. Generally speaking the island took the form of. a plateau about two to three hundred feet above sea level, rising near the centre to a peak, known as Mt Pitt, which is just over 1,000 feet high. A wonderful panoramic view of the island could be obtained from the top of Mt Pitt and the coast and AA batteries quickly took advantage of this in establishing lookout points there. The island was well roaded in quantity but not in quality, and we soon found to our cost that with wet weather the roads were practically impassable to ordinary vehicles unless fitted with chains on all wheels.
With the arrival of the second flight on 14 October came the bad weather; rain fell more or less continuously for a week. Transport was almost immobilised, and as up to this stage no tents had come to hand, conditions became rather grim. Many were the ingeniously constructed shelters erected by the less fortunate ones who were not billetted in empty houses around the island. A week later, however, tents began to arrive and very soon our camps took shape. Rationing was a problem and the cooks were hard put to it to make the food at all appetising. Our first batch of army bread did not appear until five weeks after our landing and until then we subsisted mainly on bully beef and page 279biscuits. Nevertheless we survived and our meagre rations were helped out in no small measure by extras bought and scrounged from the residents. We must pay a tribute to the generosity of the 'locals.' They took us to their hearts completely and succeeded in giving us a royal time despite the many restrictions imposed by the Administration—mainly, of course, in the interests of the residents themselves. Without those necessary restrictions we would have quickly eaten them out of house and home. The island, with its population of approximately 700 residents, could not possibly, at that stage, support an additional 1,500 hungry troops.
As our equipment came to hand from the ship, the artillery units began to dig gun pits, and many hours of heart-breaking and back-breaking toil went into this. The coast battery dragged two of its 'Long Toms' up to the top of Mt Pitt, the remaining two being sited on the rise overlooking Kingston. These were later moved and the whole battery concentrated on Mt Pitt. The field troop occupied a bivouac area in Collins Head Road, from which practically all the island could be covered. This area was, to all intents and purposes, at the centre of the island and the troop could be deployed quickly to any threatened part. Nobbs's Pad-dock, a large flat area, was the site chosen for the heavy troop of the AA battery. This paddock was situated near the centre of the island and was just clear of the end of No. 2 runway of the air-field. One light troop of four guns was deployed at Anson Bay as AA defence for the cable station there; the other troop was situated at Kingston and afforded protection for the administrative buildings and the GL section of the battery, which was also sited there. Several months later two of the heavy AA guns were moved to Headstone, and as the airfield took shape and became operational, the Bofors were withdrawn from their former positions and were deployed around the two strips. In addition to this the Bofors also supplied AA protection at the anchorages while shipping was lying there.
On arrival at the island we took over the garrison duties from Australians who were somewhere in the vicinity of company strength and under the command of Major Farlow. There was also the DMR (Department of Main Roads) from Australia and these people were responsible for the aerodrome construction. It is interesting to note that they also built the strip at Magenta, in New Caledonia. They did a magnificent job at Norfolk and are reminiscent of the Seabees, for whom later we all had such high page 280regard. One of the beauty spots on Norfolk Island was the remarkable Pine Avenue. This avenue, a mile long, was a straight road bordered on both sides by stately and beautiful Norfolk pines. These trees were all well over 100 feet in height, and much to the sorrow of the residents, particularly the older ones, they were all uprooted to make way for the No. 1 runway. Such is the march of progress. Most of us were fortunate enough to see this famous avenue before it was despoiled.
Life soon settled down to the monotony so characteristic of garrison duty and many and loud were the murmurs of 'When are we going to get some mail?' Our hopes were raised on Saturday 7 November when one of the Tasman Airways flying boats paid the island a visit. It flew very low over the island and was seen to drop something. This proved to be several Auckland morning papers and a short note of greeting to the force commander, Lieutenant-Colonel J. W. Barry, from Major-General Barrowclough who, with several of his senior officers, was flying up to New Caledonia. On the same day the AA battery proofed its heavy guns and from then on became fully operational. Armistice Day was observed in the usual manner, each unit laying a wreath on the Cenotaph, where a short service was conducted. The two minutes' silence was marked by the firing of a gun at the commencement and end of the period. The answer to the mail problem came soon after this, when on 17 November we received another visit from the flying boat. This time it dropped seven bags of mail. After waiting six weeks for mail we received three deliveries in the one week. Several days later a surface mail, consisting of 302 bags, arrived by corvette, and again several days later, more mail was dropped from the flying boat. This had a great uplifting effect on morale.
As the pioneering work decreased we found that we had much more leisure time on our hands and thoughts turned in the direction of sport and entertainment. Enthusiastic committees were quickly formed and an ambitious and strenuous programme of sports was commenced. This embraced all tastes and included football, both rugby and association, cricket, baseball, swimming, tennis and bowls. Wednesday afternoons were set aside as com-pulsory sports days and every member of the force took part in some kind of sport. Inter-unit competition games were held on Saturday afternoons and many a strenuous and exciting match was fought out. As the weather grew warmer and grounds be-page 281came harder, football was dropped and its place taken by route marches. It is questionable which was the more strenuous of the two; however we noticed a remarkable falling off of attendances at the RAP. Infantry units achieved up to 22 miles in eight hours and other units had to cover 11 miles in four hours. To many of us, this was our first effort in that direction under almost tropical conditions and we found that 11 miles was quite far enough.
The force was very fortunate in having such a live wire chaplain as Padre K. Liggett, and under his capable guidance a force concert party was formed and gave many splendid performances to the troops and the local residents. The early shows were staged on the back of a lorry, but later a fine stage was erected in Bailey's Paddock. This was a natural amphitheatre and audiences of over 1,000 were catered for with ease. Towards the end of our sojourn at Norfolk the officers of the force decided to put on their own show and in view of the fact that there were only 66 officers in the force, their performance was very creditable. Who will ever forget the antics of a certain battery commander on that memorable night!
The Norfolk Island administration very kindly loaned a complete set of band instruments to the force and within a very short time our band practices were in full swing. The band was under the baton of Bombardier Norm Peez and he did a good job. This musical combination did much towards brightening up the various functions which were held on the island. They also gave strong backing to the force concert party and added variety to the concerts with instrumental duets, trios and solos. Shortly before Christmas it was decided to attempt, by some means, to repay the hospitality showered on the force as a whole by the residents, and accordingly on Sunday 13 December an 'At Home' was held at 'Devon,' the home of N Force Headquarters. The function took the form of a display of all types of weapons and ammunition, including a bren carrier and a 25-pounder gun. This was followed by afternoon tea and the odd noggin. There were also several sideshows and much amusement was caused by the appearance of a very Oriental-looking fortune teller, who proceeded to do 'her' stuff mid great hilarity. Altogether it was a very pleasant afternoon.
Shortly after this, to wit, the morning of 21 December, the 'Japanese' decided to make life a little more interesting for us and launched a terrific assault on the island. Finally, after a page 282very strenuous morning, they were driven off with great loss. This exercise, if it did nothing else, gave the force signal section a very busy time. Of course the artillery played a big part in the defence of the island, and if their word could be accepted, succeeded in sinking several enemy ships. Much interest was added to our training by the inclusion of several live shell shoots. The coast battery conducted a shoot with the Kingston guns and later the guns at Mt Pitt had their turn. In March the field troop had its shoot which was brought to a successful conclusion by a night bombardment of Phillips Island. This tiny island, lying off the coast, suffered terrific punishment during all the artillery shoots. It is a well-known fact that gunners delight in firing their guns, and the more noise and smoke the better they like it. This was exemplified when the AA battery had its night shoot. On the night of 6 March a siren wailed and suddenly four heavies and five Bofors opened up with all they had, shattering the peaceful calm of the island. As very few people, either residents or troops, had any prior knowledge of this practice, a veil will be discreetly drawn over the rest of the proceedings. A day shoot was also held, but because of the lack of aerial targets, the gunners had to fire at their own shell bursts.
Christmas Day 1942 was another day of moment in the island history. Advice had been received that two RNZAF Lockheed Hudsons were flying over from New Zealand carrying a cargo of lamb, potatoes and green peas. These supplies, constituting our Christmas dinner, were to be dropped by parachute. One of the pilots, however, could not resist the temptation to set his machine down on the No. 1 runway, which had just been completed, and thus he had the distinction of landing the first aeroplane on Norfolk Island. This event caused a great deal of excitement and the' drome was crowded with sightseers—both army and local. The addition of the fresh meat and vegetables to our diet was unexpected and proved most acceptable to the force. Christmas pay was celebrated in the usual army fashion and most units had succeeded, by fair means or foul, in procuring those small delicacies which make all the difference between dinner and Christmas dinner.
The force sports committee had drawn up elaborate plans for an athletic sports meeting on Boxing Day. Prior to this event, units had held their own meetings with a view to sorting out their representatives and each unit entered a team to compete. page 283Boxing Day dawned bright and clear and with the force band in. attendance the meeting went off with a swing. This form of entertainment proved most popular with the local residents, as was evidenced by the large crowd who attended. All the events proved interesting, and mid great excitement, the AA battery managed to snatch victory by a very close margin from the 36th Battalion, which was a close second. A tribute must be paid here to the members of the force sports committee who organised and conducted the meeting. Theirs was a very fine effort and much appreciated by all. Beer, as usual, was in short supply on the "island and recourse was often made to the local home brew. This potent concoction, known as suppe, was popularly thought to contain the following ingredients—methylated spirits, kerosene, Brasso and boot polish. Apparently the desired effects were obtained from this beverage and it was, on occasions, responsible for outbursts of expected brightness among members of the force. The Norfolk islanders frequently used their own patois and some of their quaint phrases began to colour our speech. This peculiar tongue was purely a spoken one and phrases such as 'What away you' and the reply, 'Cushu' or 'I guid' soon became common-place. This was almost the universal greeting on the island. We quickly learned, also, that the word 'native' was absolutely taboo, one being either an 'islander' or a 'mainlander,' according to one's origin.
The first official landing on the aerodrome took place on 29 December 1942, when two RNZAF Lockheed Hudsons set their wheels down on No. 1 runway. This event was well advertised and consequently there was a large crowd of sightseers on the strip. This marked the beginning of a more or less continual stream of aircraft, and to the islanders the novelty soon wore off. A fortnight later another event took place, though this was not an occasion for rejoicing. The force commander carried out a very thorough and searching inspection of all units in the force. In retrospect there were several amusing incidents, but at the time the humour was not so apparent.
Our next and very welcome visitor was the supply ship, this time the SS Karitane. Because of the lack of refrigerator space on the island, fresh meat could not possibly be included in our bill of fare. However, an experiment was made and 300 live sheep formed part of the cargo. The engineers built a special platform on one of the barges and the work of unloading this page 284unusual cargo commenced. Everything went to plan, and with the exception of one unfortunate sheep, the entire flock was safely set ashore. This livestock made a very welcome addition to the rations, but like all good things, came to an end far too soon. With the advent of warmer weather, flies became troublesome and very drastic measures had to be taken, under the direction of the medical officer, to keep these pests under control. Several very efficient types of flytraps were manufactured by the engineers and these helped in no small measure to do away with this menace. Unlike our 3 Div brethren, who by this time had moved to New Caledonia, we were not troubled by mosquitoes but we were destined later to be plagued by these little pests. Fleas, however, did their level best to make our lives miserable and were the cause of much annoyance and blasphemy. The accepted method of ridding blankets of these pests was to lay the blankets out in the sun and when the warmth had brought the fleas out, the harvesting started. Fifty fleas a blanket was commonplace; the record haul from one blanket was in the vicinity of 150.
Two important sporting events took place during February. A force boxing tournament was staged at Bailey's Paddock and some very good bouts were witnessed. The 36th Battalion scored a clear-cut and decisive victory in this branch of sport. Emily Bay was the scene of the swimming championships and once again the battalion was triumphant. This bay provided ideal facilities for swimming, being almost entirely landlocked and possessing a beautiful white sandy beach. It soon proved a most popular place for recreation parties and in view of this a beach patrol was established, each unit taking its turn for a spell of duty. Needless to say, this tour of duty did not evoke the usual 'niggling' associated with fatigue parties.
The last day of February 1943 heralded another distinguished visitor to our island home in the person of the late Right Honourable J. G. Coates who, accompanied by several senior army staff officers, was on his way back to New Zealand after a visit to the division in New Caledonia. He visited nearly all the units on the island and left the next day for New Zealand. It was due to a remark reputed to have been made by one of the officers that most of us received our first inkling of a projected move. Rumours spread like wild-fire and endless speculations as to our destination took place all over the island. To many of us the news of a move was not unexpected, but where? News of American naval vic-page 285tories and the successful campaign in Guadalcanal indicated that the need for a garrison such as our force at Norfolk was becoming less and less. Opinion seemed to be divided equally as to whether we were bound for further north or back home. As March drew to a close, orders for the move were promulgated, but still our destination was shrouded in secrecy. There were many sighs of relief when it was realised that all our stores and equipment were to be left behind and we were to travel with personal gear and equipment only. In the midst of all the last minute preparations for the move the first batch of New Zealand P-40 fighter planes staged at Norfolk. They were accompanied by two Lockheed Hudsons and two Douglas transports. These were the ill-fated Kittyhawks which came to grief, in bad weather, at Nouméa.
The force was to move in three flights and the artillery units, less rear parties, were moving in the first flight. Accordingly, on 29 March 1943, we made our adieu to Norfolk and embarked on the troopship Wahine, which brought our replacements from New Zealand. Embarkation conditions were made very miserable by inclement weather. Heavy rain fell nearly all day. Everybody and everything was wet through and the high wind which sprang up caused endless difficulties at the ship's side. Kitbags suffered severely from rain and sea water and several were lost. Disaster nearly overtook us as the ship pulled out. She gave a terrific roll and it seemed touch and go whether she came back on an even keel. By this time the majority of the troops realised that the ship was heading north, although there were still a few who fondly thought they were bound for home. The artillery rear parties were more fortunate in their choice of an embarkation day and had ideal conditions for their move. The second flight sailed on 7 April. That closes the chapter of N Force artillery.
In the words of the inimitable James Fitzpatrick 'And so it is with regret that we say farewell to this beautiful Pacific isle, etc, etc,' and with the majority of the force this sentiment was very true. In spite of all the hardships and monotony, our six months' stay at Norfolk was a very happy one and we are much indebted to the residents for their untiring efforts to 'send things along.' There were very few soldiers in the force who were not on visiting terms with at least one family, and who will ever forget the wonderful meals we shared. It is to be hoped that our endeavours in the way of entertainment repaid, in some small page 286measure, our debt to the 'locals.' Most of us were keen to get on with 'the war for Democracy' and welcomed the possibility of something better than garrison duty, but we will retain many happy memories of what we knew as, and still think, 'The Paradise of the Pacific'