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The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945

VI — The Treasuries Landing

page 121

The Treasuries Landing

The attack on the Treasury Island carried out by the 8th Brigade group and attached American forces was designed to occupy the islands and establish there air and sea bases to support further operations in the Northern Solomons, notably the landing at Empress Augusta Bay, which took place five days later. Sea transport for the operation was provided by the US Navy and a substantial part of the air cover by RNZAF All antiaircraft forces engaged in the landing were under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel McKinnon, and the first echelon, in addition to RHQ, the 208th and 214th Batteries, included four 90 mm guns, a radar and some administrative personnel of the 198th Coast Artillery (Anti-aircraft) Regiment of the American Army. The remainder of that regiment, with further 90 mm and 37 mm guns and searchlights followed in subsequent waves.

The voyage from Guadalcanal was made in landing craft, including two LSTs, each carrying Bofors guns on deck, and a number of LCIs and APDs with an escort of destroyers. As the APDs left Guadalcanal on 26 October they were crossed by a large flight of Liberators returning from Bougainville, where they had been destroying Japanese runways. As the convoy neared the Treasuries before dawn on 27 October all ranks pulled on their jungle suits, gulped breakfast in the dark and wondered how the first opposed landing of New Zealand troops since Gallipoli would fare. All ranks had been briefed with the plan of action and had some idea of what to expect when they got ashore.

Just as dawn was breaking the reconnaissance personnel of RHQ and the two batteries transhipped from the APDs to small barges and followed the first wave of infantry in after an interval of ten minutes. By the time the barges were under way the supporting naval bombardment had started and although it turned out later that the fire had done little damage, its moral effect was good. The parties walked ashore just west of Falamai Point on Mono Island to find that the infantry had pushed ahead into the jungle, leaving the beach apparently quiet and deserted No sooner, however, had the regimental and battery report centres been set up than a hail of fire ranging up and down the beaches page 122drove all ranks to ground at the double. The first wave of infantry left a few isolated enemy strong-points near Falamai and one of these caused some trouble to the reconnaissance parties of E and H troops of the 208th Battery when they landed from the LCIs. The two troop commanders, Lieutenants H. W. Milne and J. Lendrum, promptly organised a bayonet charge and Gunner M. J. Compton, showing great initiative, shot at least three of the Japs and earned for himself the Military Medal— the only decoration for bravery won by the regiment. Even after the charge some of the enemy held out and Gunner Compton tried again to get at them with grenades. They were very well sheltered, however, and it took a bulldozer to crush the nest and put it out of action.

About an hour later LST 399, with the 208th Battery guns aboard, had nosed into Orange 1 beach, a sandy strip forming the west side of Falamai peninsula, while LST 485, with the 214th Battery guns, faced a rocky shore about half a mile further west. The 208th Battery was to be deployed near Falamai village and the landing beaches, while the 214th guns were to provide supplementary protection until they could be ferried across the harbour to Wilson and Stirling Islands. Meanwhile patrols from the 34th Battalion were searching Stirling (which was found to be free of Japs) and troop reconnaissance parties from the 214th Battery were following them up and selecting sites for their guns and battery HQ. A party from RHQ under Major Morris was also on Stirling siting the gun operations room and headquarters.

The LSTs had not been beached and most of the guns were still aboard when both were attacked by mortar and light artillery fire coming from an enemy vantage point on the bush-clad slopes overlooking the beach. Some direct hits were scored on both vessels and the 208th Battery lost a gun from F troop, the detachment commander, Sergeant L. J. Rickard, and five of his crew being killed. Many others were wounded, including several members of the 214th Battery on the other LST. There were also casualties on the beaches, where two or three men were killed by flying splinters and several others, including Lieutenants J. Lendrum and K. W. Jeffrey of the 208th Battery, were injured. The attacks continued spasmodically throughout the morning until a party from the 36th Battalion captured the enemy weapons and disposed of their crews. Captain R. Telford, battery captain page 123of the 208th Battery, had to get LST 399 unloaded and, although injured early in the action by a mortar fragment which caused his temporary collapse, he rose again to overcome one difficulty after another and was an inspiration to his men. In addition to the wrecked gun and casualties on board he had to cope with many unexpected interruptions, as when the LST had to pull out from the shore to avoid explosions from a burning ammunition dump nearby. On the other LST Captain I. G. Scott, performing a similar function for 214 Battery, was also slightly injured in the mortar attack and had damage, casualties and severe delay to contend with. He also did a most creditable job and his efforts were officially commended by the American naval authorities. Although most of the wounded on board the ships were attended to on the spot and evacuated to Guadalcanal without going ashore at all, the medical officer, Captain Clark and his staff had a busy-day on Mono looking after casualties.

The landing on Mono Island provided many useful targets for artillery batteries

The landing on Mono Island provided many useful targets for artillery batteries

There was no further ground opposition by the enemy during the day and guns and heavy equipment came off the ships page 124smoothly once the space for them had been cleared ashore. The first enemy plane was seen during the afternoon crossing Stirling Island at great speed. Although guns of both batteries engaged, the target was scarcely within range and the chase had to be left to friendly fighters. By nightfall all guns of the 208th Battery were ready for action in provisional positions along the beach and the 214th Battery had three guns on Wilson Island, eight on Stirling and one was left overnight on Mono. The radar was not yet operating and no early warning was available for the raids that disturbed the first night. Although many feet were itching to get to the firing pedals when the bombers came in low the targets were invisible and fire orders at the time prohibited the engagement of unseen targets. There were no fireworks except for an occasional flare-up when a bomb struck something inflammable. Some technical equipment, ammunition and tools were destroyed in these raids but no, gun positions were hit. During the night Gunner D. Austin, of the 208th Battery, earned for himself a well-deserved Mention in Despatches by taking prompt action to put out a flare which was threatening to ignite a petrol, dump.

Apart from the raids the knowledge that the enemy was close made the night an anxious one for everybody on Mono, Many stories were told of the Japs who had filtered through our lines, sneaked past our guns and made weird clacking noises in the darkness. Each man dug or scraped himself a hole in the coral and made himself as comfortable as possible until it was his turn to watch, but it was a noisy night and not many slept. During the following day the deployment of the guns was completed. Work started at once on the construction of gunpits and foxholes and the clearing of vegetation to provide a field of fire. The guns of the 208th Battery on Mono were generally accessible by tracks, but most of the 214th guns on Stirling were delivered by barge direct to their positions, and until roads were made, were dependent on the barges for supply. The same applied to the guns on Watson and Wilson Islands during their stay in the Treasuries. Communications within 214th Battery in particular assumed quite a nautical flavour and a barge was allotted to the battery to make a grand tour of the gun sites daily with passengers, rations, water and other supplies. A barge master was appointed in the person of Gunner C. W. Catlow, who rapidly became known as 'The Admiral.' He handled much cargo with-page 125out loss or hitch and gained such a reputation with the US naval barge operating personnel that he was sometimes able to get a boat to meet an emergency when all the usual and proper methods had been tried and failed. On the second night the bombers returned soon after dark. It was decided to fire concentrations at the sound of the enemy planes and these tactics, though expensive, had some success. The 208th Battery opened its score by destroying a plane whose glowing exhaust attracted such a stream of fire that it was impossible to say which gun, if any, played the decisive part. Credit for the success was therefore given to the battery.

After the first two or three days the radar was linked up with gun operations room and 'hot loops' for all batteries were getting into operation. Line communications were very troublesome for many weeks as the links across Blanche Harbour proved unsatisfactory and land lines were constantly being broken by bulldozers and falling trees. The signallers were among the busiest men in both batteries and the signals section attached to RHQ (' Dyson's Dead-end Kids') also did work of the highest order. The early warning system was hampered by non-co-operation from friendly pilots who, despite constant warnings, often failed to identify themselves. The Japs dropped metallic 'phantoms' to distract the radar operators but this trick was soon discovered, and apart from one or two bad lapses, the radar warnings were fairly reliable. The performance of the searchlights, however, was most disappointing. Daylight targets were almost unheard of, and as orders generally prohibited shooting at night unless targets were illuminated, the work of the searchlights was important. They were never able to do more than 'flick' an enemy plane during a raid, much to the disgust of the gunners, who were anxious to spray any bombers which sounded within range.

Some excitement was caused on 1 November when, just as dawn was breaking, the lookouts of several guns reported white ghostly shapes floating in the air over the western entrance of the harbour. Inspired no doubt by memories of the damage done on other fronts by parachutists, gun operations ordered fire from all guns within range and several guns got away a few rounds each before the shapes resolved themselves into barrage balloons flying above some LSTs just entering the harbour. Several days later a Japanese fighter sneaked in very fast over Stirling Island page 126just as another convoy was coming in and dropped a single bomb close to an LST. Guns of O troop, 214th Battery, on Wilson Island engaged the plane and drew smoke, which may have indicated a hit. At all events an American destroyer outside the harbour took up the attack and destroyed the enemy for certain.

Conditions for the first few days were uncomfortable and somewhat confused. The loss by enemy action of vitally necessary stores and tools was a blow, and the amount of movement and transhipping that was carried out under rushed conditions on the first day resulted in the temporary loss of much personal gear. However, it was not long before the second and third echelons arrived with tents, beds, kitbags and other trimmings that made for some comfort. Food was short at first and the difficulties of distributing it to individual gun sites intensified the problem. Major Craig earned the gratitude of the 214th Battery by his untiring work in the first two or three days distributing rations to very widely dispersed guns, many of which could be reached by sea only. Although fresh water was somewhat short, nobody could complain of lack of rain and when drums became available much rain-water was collected for washing purposes. Bathing in the sea, although popular with many, appeared to intensify most skin troubles, so most bathing was done in fresh water 'bird baths' or under improvised showers.

About three weeks after the landing a reshuffle of gun positions took N troop of the 214th Battery to Watson Island to replace G troop of the 208th, who took up new positions on Mono. There was no enforced stand-to at dawn or dusk on the Treasuries, but when the moon was up the detachments were constantly being hauled out to man their guns. There were 17 alarms on the busiest day and from four to six interruptions each night were common. Although enemy activity dropped off before Christmas it rose again when the airfield on Stirling Island was completed just before the New Year. This tempting target attracted the largest raids in the history of the regiment on the night of 12-13 January. There were three main attacks, each carried out by six or more aircraft. The 214th Battery fired over 2,200 rounds and the 208th about 1,600 during the night and even some of the light machine-guns joined in the fun. Neighbouring units, no doubt dazzled by the flow of tracer, entered into the spirit of the thing and N troop crews on Watson Island got useful assistance from members of the 36th Battalion and page 127from US naval personnel, who helped to carry and clip ammunition. Headquarters staffs also had a busy night getting the ammunition around to their guns. Most of the bombs went into the sea when the fire was at its hottest and no damage or casualties were suffered in the regiment. Another raid a week later caught the radar napping. No alert was given until the first bomb had fallen. Several bombs were dropped on Stirling Island near the 214th Battery positions and Gunner T. Crannitch received severe injuries from which he died shortly afterwards. Captain I. G. Scott was wounded in the same attack and several others were either wounded or had very narrow escapes.

Apart from the surfeit of raids, life soon settled down into much the same pattern as that of the other two batteries at Vella. Pictures started at the end of the first month and several alternative programmes were soon available each night—air-raid sirens permitting. The harbour became dotted with home-made canoes and small craft and two gala days, devoted mainly to swimming and boating, were held. Recreation and YMCA tents were also set up and under the able supervision of George Edwards they catered nobly for the respective headquarters and all gun detachments near enough to enjoy them. Unfortunately the gun crews in remote positions seldom had amenities of this kind. A special treat was provided for several RHQ personnel who were temporarily exchanged for members of gun detachments and most of them were surprised to find life on the guns so good. Their experience of air raids had been limited to diving into fox-holes or listening to a blow by blow description delivered from an observation post high up a tree and the sight of the activity in the gunpits at such times was an inspiration to them.

Early in 1944 it became known that a further operation was pending and RHQ and the signals section returned to Guadalcanal to make ready. The 207th and 209th Batteries were the original choices for the task but the other two were roped in by a change of plan and by the end of January the whole regiment was preparing to take part in the Green Island engagement. The 208th and 214th were allocated to the second echelon, and as they were the only units going from the Treasuries, it was arranged that they should take all their equipment at once instead of leaving the lower priority items to be picked up later. So on 18 and 19 February the two batteries loaded their goods on an LSI' and an APD each, and heartened by the news that page 128the first echelon had landed successfully two or three days earlier, set off on the next step to Tokyo.