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The Pacific

I: New Zealand's Responsibility

page 19

I: New Zealand's Responsibility

INFLUENCED to some degree by the Jellicoe report of 1919, New Zealand acknowledged Fiji as her immediate outpost in the Pacific, but without specifying any particular or possible aggressor. This was reiterated in every appreciation of the defence situation and in every recommendation of her Chiefs of Staff through the pre-war years, though little was done except to commit those recommendations to paper. Any fortification of Fiji by Great Britain was hampered by the provisions of the Washington Conference of 1921, which applied equally to the American base of Pago Pago in Eastern Samoa, though before the outbreak of war in 1939 certain action had been planned to meet a situation which involved New Zealand in her first conflict in the Pacific.

In 1936, when the British Overseas Defence Committee considered schemes of defence in the Pacific, it was presumed that New Zealand would provide the necessary military force for Fiji, since that Crown Colony was obviously unable to defend itself. As the rising tide of German power became more ominous in Europe and the Japanese menace created apprehension in the East, more attention was devoted to Fiji and the possible aggressor was named. In their comment to the New Zealand Government on the deliberations of the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1938, the New Zealand Chiefs of Staff—Major-General J. E. Duigan,1 Commodore H. E. Horan, RN,2 and Group Captain H. W. L. Saunders—expressed the opinion that Fiji, and not New Guinea or the Solomons, would be the more likely objective should the Japanese press an attack in the South Pacific. ‘We feel that in the past insufficient attention has been paid to these islands,’ they noted in a memorandum to the Organisation for National Security, outlining defence

1 Maj-Gen Sir John Duigan, KBE, CB, DSO, m.i.d.; born NZ 30 Mar 1882; served South Africa, 1900–1; 1 NZEF 1915–18; Chief of General Staff, NZ Military Forces, 1937–41; died 9 Jan 1950.

2 Rear-Admiral H. E. Horan, CB, DSC; born Ireland, 12 Aug 1890; served First World War, 1914–18 (DSC, Aug 1914); Chief of NZ Naval Staff, 1938–40; captain HMS Leander, 1940; Combined Operations Headquaters, 1941–43; Rear-Admiral (retd.) commanding Combined Operations Bases (Western Approaches), 1943–46.

page 20 measures for Fiji and Tonga. An early precautionary measure was an air survey in November 1938 by a Royal New Zealand Air Force expedition which visited outlying island groups north of Fiji. Alighting areas for seaplanes were buoyed on the lagoons of Fanning, Christmas, Hull and Gardner Islands in the Line and Phœnix Groups, and airfield and building sites were pegged out on the last three islands. This was all part of a scheme in which a series of landing fields radiated from Fiji through the Pacific, so that aircraft could be flown to any desired area should the necessity arise, as it did later. Four routes were planned: A, through the Gilbert Group; B, through the Phœnix Group; C, to Samoa, the Northern Cook and the Line Groups; and D, through Tonga and the Cook Islands.

Concrete plans for the defence of Fiji were resolved at the Defence Conference held in Wellington in April 1939, when conditions in Europe were rapidly deteriorating. These followed the recommendations of the Chiefs of Staff in 1938 and were approved by the New Zealand Government the following June. Heads of all three fighting services recognised Fiji as the key to the South West Pacific, as Jellicoe had visualised it earlier. They appreciated that an enemy force, strongly established in the group, could subdue and contain Auckland and most of the North Island by air, and that surface craft and submarines stationed at Suva could sever the Australian – New Zealand – American shipping lanes. Communication by submarine cable between the American continent and New Zealand and Australia would also be lost. As a result of this conference New Zealand undertook to maintain aerial reconnaissance along the line New HebridesFijiTonga; establish and man an air base in Fiji; provide material and key men for the Fiji Defence Force; despatch an infantry brigade group to the colony when it was required and arrange for the construction of two landing fields—one at Nandi, on the west of the island of Viti Levu, and the other at Nandali, near Nausori, 15 miles from Suva on the Rewa River. The proposed capital expenditure for these projects suggests that New Zealand was acutely conscious of her responsibilities; future events confirmed it. Financial responsibility for the defences of Fiji was arranged on a pool basis—the Fiji administration contributing £500,000 a year, half of which was advanced on loan by the United Kingdom Government. New Zealand was to meet any expenditure over and above that amount.

Maintenance costs for the forces established in Fiji were met by the New Zealand Government, but a solution to financial questions concerning the defence of the Crown Colony was not reached without lenghty negotiations by Treasury officials and long despatches page 21 between the three governments concerned—the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Fiji. Separate agreements were reached on the cost of various works and installations—for example, the capital cost of the airfields was met equally by the New Zealand and United Kingdom Governments, whereas the cost of the marine airport at Lauthala Bay was met by New Zealand and Fiji. The preliminary estimates, drawn up as a result of the Wellington conference in 1939 but which afterwards required much adjustment between governments, provided for the following costs:

  • Navy £25,680—of which £20,000 was set aside for oil storage tanks.

  • Army £290,000—including £245,000 for buildings.

  • Air£692,000—including £400,000 for the purchase of new aircraft, if they could be procured.

The proposed annual expenditure was estimated at:
Navy£8750—which included £3000 for pay and rations.
Army£1,156,000—including £876,000 for pay and rations.
Air£180,000—including £60,000 for pay and rations.

A meterological organisation costing £3300 was also recommended and later approved, New Zealand to pay 50 per cent of the cost, the United Kingdom and Fiji each 20 per cent, and the Western Pacific High Commission 10 per cent. These estimates also required adjustment as the scheme matured.1

Fiji's small defence organisation, consisting of a headquarters, signal unit, and one weak Territorial battalion under the command of the Commissioner of Police, Colonel J. E. Workman, was little more than a token force, but it provided the framework for expansion on the outbreak of war in Europe when, like so many other Empire outposts, she began hurriedly to put her small military house in order. The size of it is indicated by the Governor's authority, signed in September 1939, raising the full-time officers from one to four. New Zealand began immediately to honour her commitments. Five hundred rifles and sets of web equipment were sent to arm the new recruits. At the end of September HMS Leander made a hurried dash to Suva with two heavy guns, which were unloaded and emplaced under cover of darkness. They were dummies, carried ashore by two sailors. It was part of the policy of deception forced on authority by circumstance in those first confused days of the war. Four instructors followed in November—Captain H. G. Wooller, WO I D. W. Stewart, WO I C. E. Burgess,

1 By the time the United States assumed command in Fiji in 1942, £805,237 had been spent on the defences of the Crown Colony. At the end of the war Fiji owed New Zealand a debt of £768,580 4s. 5d., but her debt of £2 millions owed to the United Kingdom Government was cancelled.

page 22 and WO II C. Turner. Stewart and Burgess afterwards became captains with the Fijian forces, and served with them in the Solomons. Then, on 5 June 1940, New Zealand decided to raise and train an infantry brigade group for Fiji, the force to consist of 2908 all ranks, increased before departure to 3053. This scheme was originally envisaged as a combined garrison and advanced training ground for reinforcements for 2 NZ Division in the Middle East, the First Echelon of which had left New Zealand on 6 January. It provided for the relief of the men after six months’ service, after which they were to return to New Zealand to become reinforcements for the force in Egypt. Later events in the Pacific required drastic modification of this scheme.

Before the arrival of the brigade in Fiji a good deal of preliminary work had been either outlined or accomplished. Early in 1940 work began on the airfields at Nandi and Nandali by New Zealand construction units. Two modest 4.7-inch naval guns from the United Kingdom replaced the dummies and were sited on Mission Hill behind Suva by Lieutenant-Colonel F. N. Nurse, Royal Australian Artillery, and two New Zealand instructors, Battery Sergeant-Major A. Wainwright and Sergeant S. Wilce, who left New Zealand in October 1939 to organise and train staff and men for this coastal battery. When Major B. Wicksteed, RNZA,1 took over command of the battery in March 1940, the guns startled Suva residents in their trial shoots, the range of 10,500 yards enabling shells to fall beyond the reef which protected the harbour. Wicksteed took ten trained New Zealand gunners with him to hold key posts and mould the native Fijians who had been selected for training. General satisfaction was expressed by the townsfolk that some defence was at last obvious, even though these guns would have been about as useful as a catapult against the heavy armour of a modern warship.

Meanwhile, a desirable martial spirit had exercised the Territorial Force, which had been increased to 31 officers and 743 other ranks, who were guarding vital points in the Suva area when they were not training; 11 officers and 286 other ranks were similarly employed and disposed over the Lautoka-Mba-Vatukoula area. Major C. W. Free, MC,2 a New Zealand officer who had been in the Indian Army, joined the headquarters in August 1939 as staff officer G, and the number of instructors from New Zealand, both infantry and artillery, was increased to sixteen by 1940. When the

1 Lt-Col B. Wicksteed; born Stratford, 29 May 1910; Regular soldier; commanded 33 Hy Regt, Sep 1942–Jul 1943; 17 Fd Regt, Nov 1943–1944; British Commonwealth Forces in Korea.

2 Maj C. W. Free, MC; born Reefton, 6 Feb 1893: Indian Army; GSO 1, 8 Bde Gp (Fiji) 1940–41; died Johannesburg, 18 Apr 1944.

page 23 Niagara was sunk outside Auckland on 19 June 1940, Captain G. T. Upton's1 arrival at Suva was delayed, but only long enough to enable him to replace some to his kit. He took over command of the Suva Regular Company on 13 July 1940, and remained with the Fiji Defence Force until the end of the war, ultimately commanding a battalion. But Fiji was deplorably short of equipment at that time. Gunners practised their gun drill, with some degree of reality, on two ancient three-pounder guns discarded years previously and salvaged from a Public Works store; connecting rods from a captured 1914–18 German machine gun were brought out of the museum to enable a Vickers gun to operate.

Much the same state of affairs existed with a coast watching system which had been organised by the civil administration to cover the islands of the group and report the presence of hostile shipping. Natives maintained a twenty-four hour watch at the more important vantage points, relaying their information by a variety of methods to a central station at Suva, where it was examined and the more important facts sent on to New Zealand. Efficient wireless equipment was lacking, and weather played havoc with the two-way sets then in use on only a few of the more important outlying islands, such as Kandavu. The long-distance telephone system on Viti Levu was little better than wireless and so temperamental from a variety of reasons as to be useless quite often. On many distant island stations communication was by canoe or pre-arranged smoke signal, a system much at the mercy of unpredictable elements. Breakdowns in this primitive system were frequent and inevitable, but it was the only one possible at the time and until more efficient equipment became available. Natives, often without shelter, were wonderfully loyal. Though they were unaccustomed to long and boring hours of this voluntary work in all weathers, they performed a magnificent task, reporting the movements of ships and aircraft in a queer formula devised for their use. It is not surprising that they did not pick up the German raider Orion, which cruised off the group from 19 to 23 July 1940. Communications were not satisfactorily or efficiently organised until 1941, when Mr. L. H. Steel, of the New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department, took them in hand when he was appointed Controller of Pacific Communications, with headquarters in Suva.

Deterioration of relations with Japan, and events in Europe after the fall of France, hastened the Fiji defence preparations and the departure of a force to the Colony. At the end of July the three New Zealand Chiefs of Staff, General Duigan, Commodore W. E.

1 Lt-Col G. T. Upton, DSO, Bronze Star (US); Auckland; born Auckland, 8 Oct 1912; journalist; CO 1 Bn, Fiji Infantry Regt, Dec 1943–Feb 1945.

page 24 Parry (who had replaced Horan as Chief of Naval Staff), and Air Commodore Saunders sailed for Fiji in HMS Achilles, accompanied by Colonel W. H. Cunningham, CBE, DSO,1 who had been called up from the reserve of officers to command the new brigade, and Major E. R. McKillop,2 of the Engineers. They spent four days considering troop dispositions and defence measures and conferred with the Governor, Sir Harry Luke, KCMG, before returning to Wellington, where they recommended the immediate despatch of the brigade to garrison Viti Levu and certain assistance in men and material to the Kingdom of Tonga. Cunningham and McKillop remained in Fiji selecting camp sites and drafting preliminary details of a defence scheme before returning to New Zealand in August.
On 20 September, seven days before Japan signed a military alliance with Germany and Italy, Cunningham, promoted to the rank of Brigadier, opened his headquarters at Ngaruawahia Camp. Although his command was officially designated 8 Infantry Brigade Group, it became B Force for purposes of organisation and despatch. Meanwhile, McKillop returned to Fiji to supervise and push forward the construction of camps in which to house the brigade. He was followed in August by an engineer unit originally destined for the Middle East18 Army Troops Company under Major L. A. Lincoln,3 which also acted as advanced party for the main force. By the time the engineers arrived, McKillop's small army of 500 Fijian and Indian labourers was altering a landscape which had not suffered such mutilation for centuries, as they toiled from dawn to dusk seven days a week preparing camp sites. In a region where typhoid fever and dysentery were prevalent, hutted and mosquito-proof camps were essential. Major J. R. Wells, NZMC,4 preceded the main force and prepared a voluminous report which recommended the chlorination of all drinking water, fly-proofing of food stores, mess huts, and kitchens, in addition to septic tanks and underground drainage for camp areas. These were necessary if the

1 Maj-Gen W. H. Cunningham, CBE, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Wellington, 24 Sep 1883; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1914–19; commanded 8 Bde Gp, 1940–41; GOC Fiji, 1940–41; GOC Pacific Section, 2 NZEF, 1942; Crown Prosecutor, Wellington.

2 Col E. R. McKillop, CMG, OBE; Wellington; born Invercargill, 26 Jul 1895; civil engineer; 1 NZEF 1915–19; Staff Engineer, HQ B Force (Fiji) 1940–41; Deputy Commissioner, Defence Construction Council, 1941–45; Commissioner of Works, Ministry of Works, 1945–.

3 Lt-Col L. A. Lincoln, ED, m. i. d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 14 Sep 1902; civil engineer; OC 18 A Tps Coy (Fiji and Egypt) Jul 1940–Jan 1942; 7 Fd Coy NZE, Jan–Sep 1942; seconded to British Army Sep 1942; CRE No. 56 (Works) RE, Syria, Aug 1943–Nov 1944.

4 Lt-Col J. R. Wells; Ashburton; born Waihola, Otago, 28 May 1893; surgeon; Medical Officer, NZMC, 1917–19; 8 Bde Gp, Sep 1940-Mar 1941 (7 Fd Amb and OC Mil Hosp); Medical Officer 2 NZEF, Egypt, 1941–42; HS Manuganui, Dec 1942–May 1943; SMO Waiouru, Burnham, and Papakura Military Camps, 1943–45.

page 25 health of troops was to be maintained in a climate where broken skin turned to septic ulcers, and the continual bites of mosquitoes led to dengue fever and constant irritation. Because supplies of fresh meat, butter, and vegetables were almost unobtainable in Fiji and required by the civilians, most of these perishable stores were brought from New Zealand. It was some months, however, before the medical recommendations could be made fully effective.

There was much preliminary work to be done in great haste in both New Zealand and Fiji. Cunningham was unable to build up a fully trained staff, and the greater part of his brigade strength was retained from the Third Echelon, then being trained and equipped for service in the Middle East. Many of his headquarters staff and the battalion commanders had seen service in Egypt and France in 1914–18 and were referred to as ‘retreads’ by the younger generation. During organisation, also, components of the brigade were widely scattered. The 29th Battalion and 30 Battalion were trained and partly equipped at Ngaruawahia and Te Rapa. Two reinforcement companies, which by a process of evolution became the Reserve Battalion and then the 34th, 35 Field Battery, 20 Field Company, and 4 Composite Company, ASC, were all at Papakura. At Trentham 7 Field Ambulance and various details such as Pay, Records, Ordnance, Provost, and Signals were assembled for departure, so that units knew little of each other until they reached their destination. All of them were short of much essential equipment, and some of the men had been in camp only a few days before they sailed. They drew their equipment as it came to hand, some of the men visiting the quartermaster's stores as many as fifteen times. The fact that they were the first members of 2 NZEF to be issued with New Zealand made battle dress was little compensation for the long delays in obtaining equipment. Infantry units took turns in borrowing machine guns for training. Because of its distance from New Zealand and the task to which it was assigned, Cunningham's small force included units which normally were associated with a higher formation. It was equipped and maintained from New Zealand's own meagre supplies, which at that time were not sufficient even for her home defences.

Appointments to 8 Infantry Brigade Group on its arrival in Fiji in November 1940 were:
Officer CommandingBrig W. H. Cunningham, CBE, DSO
GSO 1Lt-Col C. W. Free, MC
GSO 2Maj J. H. Irving
Construction and WorksLt-Col E. R. McKilloppage 26
AA and QMGMaj G. T. Kellaway, MC
Supply OfficerCapt R. C. Aley
Intelligence OfficerLt O. A. Gillespie, MM
Transport OfficerLt C. A. Voss
Signals OfficerLt L. C. Stephens
PayCapt W. P. McGowan
RecordsLt G. A. R. Johnstone
ProvostLt A. L. Downes
Dental OfficerCapt H. A’C. Fitzgerald
29 BattalionLt-Col H. J. Thompson, MC
30 BattalionLt-Col J. B. Mawson, MC
Reserve Battalion (afterwards 34 Battalion)Maj F. W. Voelcker, MC
35 Field BatteryMaj C. H. Loughnan, MC
20 Field Company, EngineersMaj R. J. Black, MC
4 Composite Company, ASCMaj A. Craig
7 Field AmbulanceLt-Col P. C. Davie (also senior medical officer)

Early in 1941 several changes took place and the staff was slightly increased: Free returned to India and his place was taken by Lieutenant-Colonel J. G. C. Wales, MC; Lieutenant Noel Erridge arrived to become Ordnance Officer, and Matron G. L. Thwaites arrived with a small nursing service with which to staff the military hospital.