The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945
II — We Learn of other People and Places
We Learn of other People and Places
Everyone was up early on the morning of the 7th. There in the distance was our first glimpse of New Caledonia. How many of us thought it would be like this? Away to our stern, on the horizon, were three of America's largest battleships with blinker lights flashing like so many city lights. Between us were several fussy destroyers, their bow waves rising high out of the water. There had been news of a Japanese submarine in these waters. Near at hand were the tiny coral islets forming part of the reef which entirely surrounded the island, in some places as-far as 15 miles from the shore. In contrast to the brilliant colouring of these small islands lapped by waters of the deepest blue was the dull ruggedness of this far-flung French possession, now partly obscured by low-lying clouds. As these broke we caught a glimpse of precipitous hills rising sharply from a narrow coastal belt and clad to the peak with heavy bush. It was with a sense of relief that we crept through a narrow entrance in the reef, pausing only to take a French pilot aboard from a quaint launch which had slipped off from one of these islets on which stood the lighthouse of Ile Amédée. As we passed Ile Nou and slowly swung round to our anchorage, the scene which unfolded will long be remembered. We were by this time within the harbour limits. Lying peacefully at anchor were at least a hundred ships; from aircraft carriers to battleships, from large cargo vessels to page 30oil tankers. Further in through the haze of heat could be distinguished several liberty ships disgorging their cargoes at the small wharf. All around were small naval craft dashing hither and thither from one vessel to another. High above the town itself were barrage balloons reflecting the rays of the sun with their silvery sides. Save for the lazy brown smoke curling upwards from the nickel docks the atmosphere appeared alert. To all of us, here for the first time, was definite proof of the ability to oust the Jap from the islands to the north.
All day we lay at anchor. On the morning of 8 December we went ashore in a dirty little coastal vessel. Amusement was caused by the Frenchman in charge giving his orders to a native crew by vigorously gesticulating with his arms and raising his shrill voice. It was strange, too, to see a tame pig running around the deck. As more men came aboard so the pig had to give up possession of his latest corner until finally, grunting and squeaking, he scampered below. Major Campling, who had gone across earlier, met us at the wharf. This was our first meeting with the brigade major, ack-ack. An Englishman of florid countenance with twinkling eyes and a crooked smile, here was a man we were all to like so much. He had arrived in New Zealand a few months earlier, on loan from the British Army, in order to establish and perfect the anti-aircraft defences of the country. One suspects that he agreed to come with the division to New Caledonia simply because it was one part of the world he had not seen and, if there was to be any action, well it would be good fun too. 'Actually,' as he so often used to say, he didn't move north with us, but was recalled to England to prepare further anti-aircraft units for D-day in France. Under his guidance we found ourselves at a New Zealand transit camp at Dumbea some 15 miles from Noumea. The heat was now terrific and very glad we were to find a river near by in which to wash and swim. On the other side was an American cavalry unit, but what did it matter if there were horses in the river too.
On 15 December we moved up the island by motor transport, pausing here and there while one of our vehicles was dragged back on the road after being ditched. All along there was good reason for believing the American report that already there had been some 46 fatal road accidents among their transport drivers. Once we had a fleeting glimpse of a 30-cwt truck upside down after it had gone over a bank. Later we saw one of our three-page 31tonners over on its side, its load ot motor cycles scattered near by. A stop was made at Oua Tom for lunch.
Thence to Moindah, which was to be our home for the next eight months, It was our home only because we made it such. On arrival we found nothing but niaouli trees on all sides. Here again we found ourselves alongside a typical New Caledonian stream, with crystal clear water. Here, too, were the members of the advanced party. Curly Battersby in his topee, looking as if. he had arrived from Poona, or strayed from Livingstone's party in darkest Africa. There was Ron Scott also—the 'brig's' batman—who had come over ahead of us. He told of an amusing incident involving the 'brig's' washing. For some days they had been camped near a native mission where Ron used to take the officers' laundry. There would be some washing for a major, a little for a captain and a good deal for the brigadier. Names and ranks were always given and on collecting the washing Ron always paid far less for the 'brig's' share than for either of the other two. This did not seem at all equitable to the captain, who made discreet inquiries himself, only to find that the mission, in its simplicity, was confusing brigadier with brigadier—the French for corporal!
A perusal of the war diary shows the following colourless entry for 25 December:—'Christmas Day celebrated in traditional manner. Officers and senior NCO's served the men at dinner. Major-General Barrowclough visited the men and wished them seasonal greetings. Officers dined at 1900 hours and had as guests seven members of the staff of the 25th US Evacuation Hospital. Major-General Barrowclough visited the mess during the evening accompanied by Colonel Woods and Lieutenant-Colonel Taber, of US Army. Captain Fowke, Captain Cooke, Captain Horrocks and Captain Crawley and three other ranks suffering from slight attacks of dysentery.' Apparently the intelligence officer was security conscious in not referring to the 'seven members' as 'seven nurses.' In an appreciation of the situation the 'G' staff had sited our camp only some five miles away from a large American hospital. On the approach of Christmas one politically minded officer thought that the entente cordiale could be brought up to date by issuing an invitation for seven of the nurses to have dinner in the officers' mess on Christmas Day.
The men's dinner was at midday. The sergeants had been busy all the morning decorating the men's mess which, at that page 32time, was only a salvaged pyramidal tent. Green foliage had been liberally used and the quartermaster had generously provided sheets as table cloths. On the tables were a few of those things which go so far towards maintaining morale, such as cigarettes, candy, raisins and chocolate. Each, man had a quart bottle of beer. Turkey came from American sources and was the personal responsibility of Bombardier Stone. The arrival of American turkeys at Christmas and on Thanksgiving Days, no matter where we were, was always a source of wonderment and gratitude.
Newspaper men missed a scoop that day in not getting a photo of the brigadier carving. Although a stern disciplinarian in a rather democratic division, he was able to unbend at the right moment. Officers waited on the men and did all the orderly duties. Christmas Day in the army is a day we will always remember. For a few brief moments the unavoidable barrier which divides officers and men is down and there is a cordial atmosphere of good fellowship. There was also some good fellowship in the officers' mess that evening. The nurses had already had their Christmas dinner at midday, but let it be recorded that, no doubt at some great personal discomfort, they did full justice to the excellent meal prepared by Stone and Shepherd. As a memento of the occasion each girl was presented with an ash tray from the base of a 25-pounder cartridge case. Major Campling and Captain Horrocks had also some amusement in providing each with a small bouquet of flowers. These had been prepared by a Madame Hardi of Poya. Madame was the native wife of a Frenchman. She was fat, coarse and very dark, but withal there was a naughty twinkle in her eye. On asking for some petites bouquettes it was explained that they were for une occasion speciale. In fact, nous avons des femmes, whereupon the old lady burst out with a rascally smile, Oh, la la, and if those nurses could have seen the grin on madame's face it is doubtful whether they would have come at all. The evening was a huge success. You Are My Sunshine was sung to New Zealanders for the first time, and when the hour came for taking the nurses home there was still liquor available. Lest the above incidents may now cause some to think that the original cryptic entry in the war diary be wholly fictitious, let it here be confirmed that those mentioned were, in fact, suffering from a distressing complaint but only of a momentary nature as it was, save for Captain page 33Crawley, who was confined to his bed for the evening. To him the whole party seemed unnecessary.
As the days went by the whole camp took on an air of permanency and everyone became more acclimatised—that is, all except the office clerks, who used to work under very trying conditions. Office fittings had been built into a three-ton truck before we left New Zealand. After use on the New Caledonian roads it could be seen that every divisional vehicle should have a front wheel drive, and so the fittings were transferred to a 30-cwt. The same canvas awning was adapted. With the strong sun beating down on it, added to which the truck was all metal, the heat inside was terrific. On walking up a few steps to get inside one felt as if one were entering a boiler room. In those early days of exhausting heat what a blessing was the Moindah River. 'In the cool of the evening,' as the 'brig' used to say, men could be seen washing all down its left bank, as it passed the divisional area. By the judicious use of fallen trees and large stones, a sizeable dam had been built byj the men, enabling them to swim. Each flood, and there were many, would wash it away, but, like the beaver, fellows would set to work again and repair the damage.
During this settling in period special reference should be made to the arduous duties of the sanitary NCO. Gus Herkt was a high-pressure salesman in civil life, and he certainly carried his talents into the army. The high standard he set was such as was never seen in any other unit. He gave to the work a certain artistic touch and maintained throughout an energetic keenness tempered only by a decent sense of proportion. His dignity was preserved to the last. He left us at Guadalcanal through fracturing his skull, caused by playing water-polo. As a result of his efforts, the unit was at all times impressed with the necessity for good sanitation, and the fellows who followed Gus all performed their duties well. Of good performance, too, was old Wellington, a four-wheel-drive Marmon Herrington. History does not relate how it came to be in the possession of the advanced party, although it has been suggested that the truck, along with two others, was simply a gift to the 17th Field Regiment, those quietly efficient acquirers, from the Americans, who in turn got it from the Australian contingent when it left New Caledonia. Hard work had worn the truck down to a back tray, a steering wheel and seat, together with the usual bonnet and radiator. There were also two badly battered front mudguards and four page 34wheels still symmetrically rounded. Buried in this wreckage was a superb engine which never failed. One of the primary uses Wellington was put to was the pulling out or pushing over of niaouli trees. These trees are very shallow rooted and Wellington would be stood off a few yards and then charged at a particular tree. If not successful the first time, the operation was repeated. Ultimately the tree was dragged away by being hooked on at the rear of the truck. Then, too, Wellington carried metal for paths, delivered water, took away rubbish, in fact did everything that was asked of it save once when it ran down a sharp incline and finished up in Dave Vorback's drain. Now, Vorback's drain was something to be proud of. It wasn't just an ordinary drain, but was commenced certainly in the usual way the staff captain had of giving orders by saying, 'I wonder if you would dig a drain.' Dave Vorback happened to be the recipient of this veiled command and at once applied his practical senses. The need for the drain was obvious whenever it rained, as a miniature lake was caused near the officers' mess. This in turn had the effect of virtually separating one half of the camp from the other. One fine day Dave got his gang together and the drain was dug some four feet wide and three feet deep. Our immediate neighbours were personnel from ASC headquarters. Some of them thought the artillery were becoming infantry-minded and had begun constructing earthworks; others thought it might be a tank obstacle. Those still in doubt had their queries answered the next time it rained, for Sergeant Vorback's drain acted perfectly and discharged all the flood water from the camp site on to the ASC area. It is understood that the ASC then began to dig hurriedly in order to pass the water on to signals, but by this time division came to hear of it and co-ordination was then used in the shape of the D and E platoon, who extended the drain into channels where it could cause no friction between units.
Friction needs lubrication and for lubrication we must go to Hotel de Vorback. This history would not be complete without a dissertation on the good times had by those who were privileged to eat there. Whether one got any lubrication depended on the mood of the occupants, for Hotel de Vorback was the large native type bure which comprised the officers' mess and anteroom. Adjoining the mess was a large cookhouse with concrete floor, at the far end of which, and slightly raised, was the stove which had come from Tirau. The bure was erected by head-page 35quarters with the assistance of native labour. The staff used to get many a laugh out of listening to Dave Vorback, in the loudest of voices, giving long instructions in frequently profane English to the natives, who spoke only French and their own native tongue. They looked puzzled, but somehow Dave would make them understand. As a housewarming the officers had asked some New Zealand nurses to come to dinner and, as the day approached, it could be seen that all help and the weather too would be needed to finish the bure. It was finished in time. Dave saw to that. Hence, at the brigadier's suggestion, was born Hotel de Vorback with its large painted sign over the entrance. Dave even assisted in wheeling into position the artillery trailer which was to be used as a bar and bar-cupboard. This trailer had, in reality, been found in the bush and was adapted by taking out the ammunition trays and substituting thin steel plates so that the bottles could stand upright on them. The two doors were fastened by means of a short length of strong steel chain. The ends of the chain were passed through the handles of the two doors and then padlocked tightly together. It was the practice of officers at artillery headquarters to pool all supplies of liquor and these were always placed in the trailer. It should be added that few officers ever came to Hotel de Vorback without being offered a drink. Although only a small mess, the staff continued this practice all through the Solomons except for a brief period in Vella Lavella, when supplies were non-existent.
Of the pleasant evenings spent in Hotel de Vorback, little enjoyment could have been had without the co-operation of Ken Shepherd, who was a most willing cook. He spent many weary hours preparing special meals for the mess, and it is not easy to cook in the tropics. There were several dinners given for commanding officers; there were a few given for New Zealand nurses and one for American nurses. Many evenings can be recalled generally, but the detail has vanished for any particular dinner to be described in full. There was the occasion when an American nurse announced to the brigadier, 'Say, I've been dated by majors and colonels but you're my first brigadier.' And what of the impromptu party held by some of the staff when Captain Fowke suddenly astounded the others by saying he was a railway engine and proceeded to demonstrate all around the ante-room. Other incidents could be recorded, but some officers may think page 36they are being libelled. A warning is now issued, though, lest they be mentioned by Sergeant Miller.
Karl Miller was the hardworking sergeant under the control of the intelligence officer. He was an excellent draughtsman with a keen eye for detail. His capacity for learning was almost unlimited and many times was he to be seen typing voluminous sheets of information gleaned from this magazine and that. A schoolmaster in civil life, in Karl Miller the British Empire had a zealous champion. Yet withal he had a certain bitterness. He had little praise for either political party. He saw no good in the army. On one occasion someone saw him with a nasty glint in his eye and learnt that he was typing some more pages for his book. The whole ghastly secret then came out, for it was his avowed intention to show the army to the people in its proper light. Its blunders, its inconsistencies, its incompetency, its waste, were all being set down in writing by Karl Miller in order that a foolish public might believe. In moments of minor confusion many times was this warning jokingly repeated at headquarters: 'You'd better be careful or you'll be in Sergeant Miller's book.'
There was nearly confusion one day at a heavy AA battery. It all began so innocently too. The brigadier just happened to call in and was so pleased to find law and order prevailing that he had one of his 'hunches.' This 'hunch' was that Major —— had not thought out a plan to move his guns to alternative positions. On being asked the direct question, Major —— said of course he had a plan, whereupon the 'brig' began to tap his fly-switch against his leg. This should have warned the energetic major. Then the 'brig' said, 'How long will it take?' 'About three hours,' came the prompt reply. But the reply was too prompt, for had the major paused to think, he would have realised that the 'brig' would consider that far too long to carry out such a simple movement. The 'brig' went on tapping his leg with his fly-switch. When the major, very red in the face, said it would take about an hour, the 'brig' said once again, 'And you have a plan.' 'Yes, sir,' said the major. 'All you need then is the word to go,' mocked the 'brig.' Yes, sir,' said the major, and so he was trapped. For the 'brig' went on tapping his leg with his fly-switch and said 'Go.' The major laughed and when he did so he would shake all over. Then he suddenly stopped laughing and said, 'You don't mean that, do you, sir?' 'I do,' replied the 'brig.' And with great presence of mind the major turned, and page 37there, coming towards him, was Lieutenant ——. 'Prepare to move to alternative positions, he barked at him. To his everlasting credit Lieutenant —— simply called for a sergeant, although, as he turned away, he could be heard softly singing, 'Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.' And it was a very hot day. A sergeant soon appeared and was ordered by the lieutenant, 'Prepare to move to alternative positions.' Now the poor sergeant was simply magnificent and called out for his gunners, but before he' could pass on such a command to them the 'brig' stopped what was obviously going to be a most complicated manoeuvre. 'You haven't much of a plan,' he said to the major, who was an honest man and agreed.
During these months there were several changes in the staff. In March, Captain Cooke was replaced by Captain Swan as staff captain (field and anti-tank). In May, Major Hawkins left for a special course in New Zealand and his place was taken temporarily by Captain Fowke, whose appointment as IO was filled by Lieutenant Chrystall. Captain Crawley, who had gone to staff college in May, handed over to Lieutenant Duignan. Major Spragg became brigade major in July when Captain Fowke went as second-in-command of 54 Anti-Tank Battery. In July, as the move north necessitated a reversion to normal practice, the AA and CD appointments were abolished. At this time Lieutenant Duignan handed over to Captain Swan and, on the division moving north, departed to New Zealand to complete a course at staff college. He did not join headquarters again until January 1944, when he arrived at Guadalcanal. In August Lieutenant R. C. Owen joined headquarters from the 38th Field Regiment to act as a liaison officer. Later, at Green Island, he became camp commandant. Another change was Lieutenant A. N. King, who came as a liaison officer from 29 Light AA Regiment. Lieutenant Conlon, NZAOC, also joined the headquarters as OME. The only other change worth recording is that Captain Horrocks got a new batman, Percy James. In the months to follow Percy was a great asset, not only to his boss, but also to the unit as a whole. He had what was almost a complete disregard for higher authority and something more than the average 'New Zealander's cheek.' His rather sullen expression was instanty broken by his smile, which took the corners of his mouth almost around to his ears. It was that rascally smile that saved Percy many a rebuff. His chief aim in life appeared to be the 'doing' of citizens of page 38the USA and there were many opportunities. It is strongly suspected that, on drawing his issue of beer, he sold it to the Americans for a dollar or even two dollars a bottle.
Relaxation in New Caledonia was catered for in many ways. The brigadier authorised the use of a truck occasionally to take men out for the day. There would be a picnic to Houailou or Bourail Beach. There were two race meetings up in the 14th Brigade area and then there were hot baths. Who first thought of the idea is not known. An oil drum was cut in halt lengthwise and thoroughly cleaned out. In order to have a hot bath one had only to heat water and put it in the half drum. It was so simple. Yet it is just the ordinary simple things of life that appear such a luxury in the islands. Captain Swan and Captain Horrocks even used to take it in turns having the first use of the hot water. Then there were movies at the nearby American hospital. Morale is an important factor in the life of a soldier and, at the risk of making what may prove to be a controversial statement, the US authorities appear to cater for it far more than does our own branch of the service. What our existence would have been like during our first sojourn in New Caledonia without the good nature of our American allies is not difficult to imagine, and our everlasting gratitude has been won by their welfare services.
Although only some 40 strong in personnel, artillery headquarters took a keen interest in all forms of sport. On first arriving in New Caledonia there were no playing fields and little time for improving grounds to make them suitable for cricket and football. It was natural, therefore, that our attention should turn to deck tennis, which provided a strenuous form of exercise with little effort involved in preparing the sites. Each evening both officers and men could be seen playing. They were always stripped to the waist and everyone carried his towel to wipe off the perspiration. In February, grounds in the divisional area became available for cricket and baseball. As the rainy season progressed they became suitable for football. They were not the type we were accustomed to in New Zealand. The grass was of a tussock variety and difficult to cut. For a while artillery headquarters fielded a cricket team each week. Much success was achieved. A practice net was even set up in our camp area. As seems inevitable in army life, keenness in time faded, and baseball then became popular. We played our first game on Saturday, 6 February, against Divisional Ordnance Workshops. We were page 39successful. A team was then entered in the competition and won the first round. Three players were chosen for a representative game. The most spectacular games were played against the A team of DOW and against Div Sigs. In the match against DOW the seventh innings opened with the score 34 to 26 in favour of the opposition. With luck on our side we finally won by a margin of one run, having knocked up nine runs, including two 'homers,' before our third man went out. The first game against Div Sigs was played in pouring rain. Boots were of no use so everyone played in bare feet. After an exciting game we were beaten by two runs. The return match was played on 3 April and was the final game of the first round of the competition. The final score of 14 to 13 in our favour proves what a struggle the Sigs put up. Later in the month we were able to field two teams for baseball and these continued the success of the original team in that out of four games played each team, lost only once. Seven players were chosen for representative games on Saturday, 17 July, when a team from Plaine des Gaiacs airfield visited Moindah sports ground. Two games were played, the Moindah team being successful on both occasions.
Football, too, had its enthusiasts, notably Ben Smith, the ordnance warrant officer attached to headquarters. Lieutenants Duignan and Chrystall played once or twice and one of the mainstays in the scrummages was Alf Paltridge. With the move north attention was again directed to deck tennis and it is claimed that headquarters performed well. At Vella, Darry Pointon and Bob Shannon were runners up in an island competition held at Christmas. Later, at Green Island, both officers and men played all comers and had few defeats. Matches were played with other artillery units and many pleasant afternoons were spent in this strenuous form of relaxation.
In June it was decided to reorganise the Third Division for amphibious operations. Difficulties in obtaining reinforcements necessitated a reduction in the strength of formations. As at that time artillery was by far the largest formation in the division it was only natural that heavy reductions should be made. The 33rd Heavy Regiment was to be disbanded, although the brigadier did his utmost to retain a, battery of four 155 mm guns. Lack of personnel also meant the end of 28 Heavy AA Regiment. It was sad to see these fine units disbanded. Following this reorganisation Captain Swan and another officer found themselves page 40one evening in Nouméa. They were in a staff car and with the most innocent of intentions were on their way along the waterfront to a US naval hospital. Two American sailors thumbed a ride and got into the back seat. They saw at once that they were riding with New Zealanders and asked where the two officers were camped. The reply was that they were some distance up the island, miles away from the so-called civilisation of Noumea and, in fact, were surrounded everywhere by niaoulis. Conversation then dropped a moment until one of the sailors leant forward and most confidentially asked,' Say, buddy, what are the niaouli women like ?'
With August came obvious signs that the division was about to move on. There was a great deal of energy expended during the next few days. Staff Kitney had lost the emancipated look he usually wore and appeared worried over details of packing the QM store. Everything had to be in two-man loads. Up at the office files were being sorted. Lieutenant Owen left Noumea to take charge temporarily of a transit camp. By 16 August the loading of the QM and office trucks was completed and already some of the tents had been struck. Lieutenant Chrystall, who was to be the officer in charge of the ship's loading party, departed with Lieutenant King on 17 August, accompanied by 11 other ranks. By the evening all tents had been struck and everyone was sleeping in the mess huts. The next two days were spent in cleaning up. Cookhouses had to be left tidy. Gus Herkt was busy with his GS shovel and small notices. On the 20th a large fire was started to burn all rubbish. Personal packing was completed and by 2200 hours the unit was on the main road ready to proceed south to Noumea. Earlier in the evening mail had been delivered. It is recalled that during the nine months spent in New Caledonia a few officers and men had from time to time been returned to New Zealand for special courses. One officer, on opening a letter from his wife just when the convoy moved off, read after the usual fond endearments, 'Isn't it about time they sent you home for a course?' If only she could have known!
Once again on the move. What a sight it was going over Moindou Pass, headlights stretching back for miles as the convoy slowly made its way south. Trucks went over the bank; injuries to personnel; the officer driving a leading car going to sleep at the wheel; gratitude to the YMCA for its stew and cup or hot page 41tea in the early morning. Then our arrival at Nouméa with the unexpected 'Who are you ?'; that search for someone in authority to ascertain what to do; and finally to the US transport Hunter Liggett, where we climbed up rope nets. And so to our quarters, which were to prove such an inferno with the ship's laundry just above us. All these impressions rise mistily out of the past as we look back, including Gus Herkt and his half bottle of rum given to him by an officer just before embarking.