Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Pacific

II: Move to New Caledonia

II: Move to New Caledonia

Through November, December, and January the division moved overseas, though not before its carefully planned departure schedules were upset by changes in shipping and escorts. The Maui, carrying 1960 all ranks, mostly artillery units urgently required by the American command, reached Noumea on Armistice Day, the commemoration ceremony for which was attended by representative New Zealanders. The Brastigi, with 917 men made up from Divisional Signals, 20 Field Company Engineers and 16 ASC Company, disembarked at the small coastal port of Nepoui page 88 on 30 November, and was the first ship to use it; the Weltevreden, with 25, and the President Monroe, carrying 1796, mostly artillery, 30 Battalion and Base units, reached Noumea together on 6 December; the West Point, taking the main body numbering 7158, reached Noumea on 31 December; the Mormacport, with 249 members of rear parties, berthed at Nepoui on 6 January, and the Talamanca, with 226 more rear details, reached Noumea on the 11th. By the end of February another 1052 details, including the usual collection of absentees without leave, had reached New Caledonia.

The movement of these 13,383 soldiers, together with a vast amount of stores and equipment, was made without mishap or excitement and was a lesson in American transport methods by which every available inch of space on large transport vessels was occupied. On large ships such as the West Point only two meals a day were served, which those returning from Fiji in the President Coolidge had already experienced and found the intervals between meals rather tiresome. Bunks, only two feet six inches apart, were in tiers four high in holds accommodating between 600 and 700 men. Meals and recreation periods on deck were taken in rotation, but the voyage was too short to be anything other than an interlude, pleasant or unpleasant according to individual preference. The President Monroe provided an interesting comment on war for the historically minded. Named after the president whose dominant motive was the prevention of European interference in American affairs, the ship was now transporting New Zealand soldiers to a French possession to assist in a war against Japan which had its origin in the German invasion of Poland. Monroe's portrait still adorned the ship's lounge.

New Caledonia, where during nine months of garrison duty 3 Division fitted itself for the Solomons campaign and established its base for those operations, lies 1000 miles north of New Zealand and 700 miles east of Australia, with its southern tip just over the Tropic of Capricorn. This French colonial possession, 248 miles long, never more than 31 miles wide, and shaped like a huge bread roll, is the world's richest island as a source of minerals. In 1938, with the exchange rate at 200 francs to the £, New Caledonia exported 19½ million francs worth of nickel, 21½ millions worth of chrome, and 12 millions worth of coffee, most of the minerals going to Germany and Japan, the only countries which wanted them. Until 1894 France made use of the island as a penal settlement, 40,000 prisoners passing through the convict barracks on Ile Nou, the largest island in Noumea Harbour, before such traffic ceased, after which various colonisation schemes were attempted with little page 89 success. Despite infrequent hurricanes, New Caledonia enjoys a magnificent climate for nine months of the year, half the annual 40 inches of rain falling in January, February, and March. Like most Pacific islands it has its wet and dry sides, but in both there is an abundance of freshwater streams, fed from a central chain of mountains.

Life moved indolently in picturesque Noumea, the principal town, port, and seat of Government, until war suddenly transformed it into the largest forward Allied base in the Pacific, where its magnificent land-locked harbour, the entrance to which is guarded by a coral reef and a lighthouse presented by Napoleon III, sheltered every type of warship and transport. As the division's convoys reached the harbour they found it massed with ships, ranging from destroyers and landing craft to imposing aircraft carriers and battleships, several of them being repaired after disastrous engagements in and around Guadalcanal. Little space was available at the inadequate wharves, so that troops disembarked in the stream and were ferried ashore. Transports waited for weeks before they could berth and unload stores and heavy equipment.

Worse congestion was evident ashore, where headquarters of the South Pacific Command was established with all the subsidiary naval, military, and air headquarters and their staffs required for the conduct of an involved and widely dispersed campaign. Every vacant hillside and open space in and around the town was covered with hutted and tented camps. Vast dumps of war materials dotted the landscape for miles; aeroplanes linking New Caledonia with the battle zone and the network of Pacific bases extending to New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and beyond, were never absent from the sky, and ceaseless streams of motor traffic moved in dusty procession to and from the camps and aerodromes far in the country. Relations between the American command and French administration were strained, mostly because of the peremptory demands of war, but from the influx of thousands of servicemen flushed with money the local tradesmen and shopkeepers reaped their traditional wartime harvest.

But the men of the division saw relatively little of Noumea, except on brief visits. Temporary Base Headquarters was established in Rue d’Alma, in the middle of the town, with staging camps at Dumbea, some miles away, to which troops were moved in an antiquated train only slightly better than the Colonial Sugar Refining Company's modest system in Fiji, and at Nepoui Valley, 160 miles north and a few miles inland from the port of that name, where clouds of choking red dust coated the scrubby trees page 90 in the neighbourhood and departing aircraft on the nearby aerodrome were followed by mountainous dust-storms of their own making. Troops for Nepoui disembarked in Noumea Harbour and were staged up the coast in smaller craft to avoid the long haul by motor transport, which was never sufficient to meet the demand. These camps served their purpose as the division moved in and assembled, after which a transit camp was established by Base in Noumea to handle all through traffic while the New Zealanders remained in New Caledonia.

Immediately on arrival the division occupied an area on the dry side of the island stretching for more than one hundred miles from Moindou, where its southern boundary joined 43 American Division's territory, to the far north and included the Plaine des Gaiacs aerodrome, other airfields in the north, and the port of Nepoui. It consisted of gently undulating country covered for the most part with niaouli trees and rank grasses, rolling down to the coast from the central mountain divide and watered by numerous streams and rivers, all of which were subject to swift flooding.

Only two main roads served the whole area. One, Route Colonial No. 1, coiled its way from north to south and was the main arterial route. Despite the lethargic efforts of a few workmen using barrows and shovels to fill in the holes with soil from nearby pits, this soon broke under a constant stream of cars, trucks, and jeeps, each leading its individual cloud of dust. Narrow bridges, none too secure, crossed the larger streams; concreted fords to prevent erosion served the smaller courses, and in the far north, at Tamala, all traffic crossed the river by ferry. The other road crossed the island from Bourail through the mountains to join an inferior route at Houailou serving the wet and more verdant east coast, where most of the rivers were crossed by old-fashioned ferries controlled by hand winches. All subsidiary roads were unmetalled and soon churned to mud after rain.

The whole of the public services and amenities of New Caledonia were little better than those existing in New Zealand in the pioneering days and were typical of a neglect born of isolation, but the dry rolling country was excellent for camp sites and manœuvres. There were few distractions. Villages were few and far between along the main roads and all of them rather blistered by time, with large cattle runs, bounded by rivers, coast and mountain, sub-dividing the rest of this sparsely populated country and supporting their independent and thrifty owners. Mosquitoes, of the non-malarial variety, were a constant source of irritation, particularly in the marshy country near the coast and in river valleys, where they page 91 were unspeakably bad, but there were areas comparatively free from these pestilential insects. The only ports of any size and all the aerodromes were in the western side of New Caledonia, and round them the principal defences were concentrated.

On arrival Barrowclough's force became a component of First Island Command, under Lieutenant-General Rush B. Lincoln, and, as such, a part of Vice-Admiral Halsey's South Pacific forces. Barrowclough assumed command of the northern sector of the island on 17 December, with the tactical role of defending the aerodromes, radar stations along the coast, and the beaches, several of which were vulnerable and widely separated. From temporary headquarters established on 23 November at Nemeara, on the Houailou road, he moved to a site among the niaoulis on terraces between the Moindah River and the main road and opened permanent headquarters there on 12 December. It was 160 miles north of Noumea and twelve miles from Poya, the nearest village, but the mosquitoes were few and space was unlimited.

Mobility was the key to the division's role in New Caledonia, where amphibious landings were possible almost anywhere along the coast, but the central mountain range could be crossed only by large formations, guns, and vehicles along the Houailou-Bourail road, so that the east coast required little attention. The southern route to Noumea was narrow and tortuous, allowing only one-way traffic where it ran through the hills from the division's southern boundary to Bouloupari. This problem could be solved by using Nepoui as a port and establishing dumps north of Moindou in the event of enemy action. Natives in the area round Hienghene, a village on the north-east coast, were suspected of Japanese sympathies, and unconfirmed reports of enemy submarines off reef passages there lent some support to this suspicion, but the majority of the natives were friendly and displayed the liveliest interest in the men of the Division.

Barrowclough decided that the most suitable plan to meet the situation was the provision of ample coastwatching detachments and the disposal of mobile formations capable of moving immediately to any threatened area, for which motor transport was now reasonably assured. The arrival of Goss with the skeleton headquarters of 15 Brigade gave the GOC three brigades of two battalions each, a most unsatisfactory organisation in the field, but the only one possible until New Zealand clarified the position regarding additional troops required to bring the division up to full strength and until his other two battalions returned from Norfolk and Tonga. As all the coast and most of the anti-aircraft artillery had, by mutual arrangement, been diverted for the page 92 page 93 defence of Noumea Harbour, one of the most vital in the Pacific at that time, and the aerodromes north of Noumea, which were equally vital in staging aircraft to Guadalcanal, the task of defending the sector was accomplished with only field, anti-tank, and two batteries of light anti-aircraft artillery. In disposing his division over vast stretches of country, the brigade group was developed and from it the battalion combat team, which is a self-contained force with an infantry battalion as a nucleus, supported by field, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft artillery, and including sections of engineers, field ambulance, and ASC.

Black and White Military Map of New Caledonia

These were the final dispositions of 3 Division units in New Caledonia. The Division arrived in New Caledonia during November and December 1942 and January 1943 and departed the following August. The base organisation remained at Bourail.

The northern sector was allotted to 14 Brigade, which established its headquarters on flat, tree-clumped country beside the Taom River near Ouaco, with 35 Battalion in the immediate vicinity and 30 Battalion some miles north at Koumac. Potter's group also included 35 Field Battery, 53 Anti-Tank Battery, 209 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, 20 Field Company Engineers, 22 Field Ambulance with a field surgical unit and a 50-bed field hospital, 16 Composite Company ASC, 37 Light Aid Detachment, and one section of the Reserve Mechanical Transport Company. His task was the defence of two airfields at Koumac, radar stations at Pam and Gomen, at that time manned by American technicians, and the beaches. All French and native home defence forces, not of any great consequence, came under his command.

Eight Brigade, with headquarters in the wooded Nepoui Valley, consisted of 29 Battalion, 1 Ruahine Battalion, the remaining units of 17 Field Regiment, 214 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, 54 Anti-Tank Battery, 37 Field Park, 7 Field Ambulance with a field surgical unit and a 50-bed hospital, 4 Composite Company ASC, 64 Light Aid Detachment, and the Divisional Mobile Workshops. Row's task was the defence of the Plaine des Gaiacs aerodrome and the port of Nepoui. The southern sector was occupied by the smaller 15 Brigade, with the task of defending the road through the mountains from Houailou. Headquarters was established at Nemeara, with 1 Scottish Battalion in the neighbouring valley and 37 Battalion on the eastern side of the mountains beside the picturesque Houailou River. Attached were 23 Field Company Engineers, 29 Composite Company ASC, one company of 7 Field Ambulance, and 144 Light (3.7-inch) Howitzer Battery.

Dove, who was both Base Commandant and Officer in Charge of Administration, established his headquarters and some smaller units in the town of Bourail, with his major concentration of Base units in Racecourse Camp, in Tene Valley, and Boguen Valley, some miles away. Sub-base remained at Noumea, 120 miles south over a dusty, pot-holed road. These dispositions were modified page 94 six weeks later when 8 Brigade moved south to Bouloupari to take over a sector vacated by 43 American Division: 14 Brigade then extended its southern boundary to include Nepoui and the Plaine des Gaiacs aerodrome. Units remained in these sectors until the division moved from New Caledonia, holding three-quarters of the island. With the exception of those anti-aircraft batteries allotted to brigades, the heavy artillery was disposed in areas outside the divisional sector. The 33rd Heavy Regiment, under American command, shared the task of defending Noumea Harbour with the 244 American Coast Artillery and a French battery. Its head-quarters were on Ile Nou, with one battery at Point Terre and its workshops in Vallee du Tir. The 28th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment had its headquarters and one battery and workshops at Oua Tom aerodrome and one troop of 204 Battery detached at Ile Nou; 29 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment was guarding the Plaine des Gaiacs aerodrome with the 208 Battery detached to 28 Regiment at Oua Tom.

In the mobile defence scheme brigades were given alternative roles for the mutual support of each other in the event of attack, and although more optimistic reports from the Solomons suggested that any danger to New Caledonia was becoming increasingly remote as the battle moved to New Georgia, alarm practices were regularly held on receipt of flash signals from Noumea. These tested the signals link throughout the whole island and kept the forces reasonably alert, for there was still the possibility of hit-and-run raids by Japanese submarines which waited along the sea lanes between the Allied Pacific bases.

From the time of arrival, tented camp sites were established and made comfortable by that fantastic atitude of the average New Zealander to make himself a home, providing he has a few boxes and nails with which to construct crazy but functional articals of furniture. Men lived in six-man Indian pattern tents, scattered irregularly among the trees and raised high off the ground by additional poles of the useful niaouli and bamboo to give plenty of head-room and air. The floors were sanded or metalled. Because of its usefulness the niaouli is worthy of mention. It covers vast areas of the dry side of New Caledonia and grows quickly. Its sparse, grey-green foliage resembles that of the Australian eucalypt, to which it is related, and its trunk is covered with thick bark made up of many layers each as fine and soft as tissue paper. The slender trunks are much used by the natives for constructing their huts, and the bark, which is dexterously stripped off without killing the tree, is used for roofing. The timber endures for long periods in the ground.

page 95

Despite the eloquent minority who found nothing attractive in New Caledonia until they left it behind them, the camps, though isolated, were excellent. Most of them were sited within easy reach of freshwater streams or rivers, so that bathing and laundering presented only those difficulties which could be overcome by the exercise of common sense. As the months went by mess rooms, offices, store-houses, YMCAs, and recreation centres were built in the fashion of large native bures to provide additional and more comfortable accommodation. These bures, also used by the French farmers, are constructed by roofing a skeleton framework of niaouli trunks with bark and reeds, held in place with strands of fibre from the aloe, plant, and covering the walls with sections of plaited coconut fronds. Native labourers, under engineer supervision, constructed the bures, and costs were met from unit funds. In each brigade area large recreational bures were erected and became the meeting place of all troops in the vicinity. Their most appreciative patrons were the transport drivers, who left the dusty roads for a few minutes to take a cup of tea during long journeys to and from the supply depots. By the time construction was finished some of the camps resembled native villages.

The rainy season brought problems such as the flooding of access roads, when they became bogs, and added to the worries of the engineers, who were so engulfed in maintenance work that units frequently went to their aid with their own transport. Rivers rose with astonishing rapidity, forcing the removal of some camps to higher ground and disrupting traffic on the main roads, but the mud soon gave way to dust as the year ebbed into the cooler season. Relations were never anything but cordial with the American forces, whose vocabulary, both official and unofficial, was adopted with limits. The French administrative officials, farmers, and store-keepers welcomed the New Zealanders, to whom they became a race of jolies garçons, with an enthusiasm which soon overcame all language difficulties. To the Americans they were never anything but ‘Kiwis’, since that bird had become the division's distinguishing mark and every vehicle carried one.

From the time of arrival in New Caledonia the division, by arrangement between governments, was maintained from American sources, with the exception of certain specified New Zealand supplies such as canteen stores, clothing, tentage and ammunition, though later American tropical clothing was also adopted. The men were paid in dollars, £2 worth of which had been changed during the voyage, but they also used French currency for local purchases and were soon busily engaged in attempting to reconcile the New Zealand pound at 6s. 1d. to the dollar with francs at 43 to the page 96 dollar. Some of the American food was regarded with disfavour and the New Zealanders never became accustomed to spam, chile con carne, and others equally spiced, though they appreciated the fruits and juices and the liberal ration of turkey for such traditional festivals as Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day. Quantities of fresh fruit, particularly oranges, and smaller amounts of fresh vegetables were purchased from French farmers to supplement and add variety to the daily tinned ration, but fresh butter and meat in reasonable supply did not become available until refrigeration storage space was increased in Noumea. Refrigerated vans relieved the storage difficulties among units.

The pot-holed roads and the long distances over which supplies were hauled daily played havoc with transport, and many of the ASC trucks, which averaged 2000 miles a month, were soon bumped into the repair depots. Barrowclough, against the opinion of the Quartermaster-General, Brigadier H. E. Avery,1 requested full-scale transport of 3377 vehicles, which included 663 motor-cycles, 2016 cars, jeeps and trucks, and 507 tractors and carriers. By the end of June 2752 had been despatched from New Zealand. In an effort to make up the division's extensive deficiencies during its reorganisation, many of the trucks had been supplied from districts and were ill-conditioned for the harsh service required of them in New Caledonia. Thereafter Army ordered that only new vehicles be sent forward, some being obtained direct from American sources on the island. Because of pillaging, one of the nastier features of wartime shipping, all tools were removed from vehicles before they were shipped from New Zealand. Ultimately all transport reached New Caledonia, where much of it remained when the division moved into the forward area. Only one third of the division's transport was taken to Guadalcanal, and still less beyond that.

Barrowclough was continually worried by the deterioration of stores and equipment, which were inadequately housed, and by increasing problems of maintenance, which included the erection of reasonably permanent buildings and the upkeep of roads, now far beyond the limited resources and equipment of the French public works organisation. Although the division was better equipped than it had ever been in its history, shortages could not be met from American sources, which were often hard-pressed through losses at sea to meet their own requirements.

Some indication of the major difficulties was revealed in a report by Major L. C. Hardie, of Fortifications and Works Branch, Army page 97 Headquarters, who spent from 21 March to 8 April thoroughly investigating the state of the division's services. ‘At present everything is of the makeshift, inefficient, and temporary type’, he noted in a long, detailed report, which included the state of the roads and camp sites. He observed that the provision of barges for use in unloading ships was largely the result of personal relationships and friendships existing between New Zealand and American officers, rather than any definite rights to use equipment as and when required. Although engineer supplies, under an original agreement, were the responsibility of the South Pacific Command, they were not available because the command itself was short. Hardie reported that the roads in New Caledonia were bad and road maintenance had broken down, building supplies were unobtainable locally, Base details camps were in great need of prefabricated buildings, and there was a distressing shortage of timber, water, drain and culvert pipes, pumping plants, power generating plants, water heaters, chlorinating and filtering plants, general hardware and cement. If New Caledonia was to become a base, many buildings of a permanent type were required for storage. This report hastened supplies from New Zealand, particularly a quantity of prefabricated buildings for the housing of ordnance supplies.

Some of the General's administrative problems had been revealed in his letter to Army Headquarters, written on 2 February:

‘I have to decide what should be the size of my Base installations and what degree of permanence my building construction should take. This is naturally bound up with the possibilities of our returning here and the number of reinforcements which are likely to be retained at Base. At the present time these problems are almost overwhelming. We have large stocks of rations which are deteriorating through exposure to the weather. The same applies to ammunition, and in both cases our problem is accentuated by the fact that large supplies of ammunition and rations were landed here at a time when I had few troops to handle them. Even now my numerous commitments are leaving only the barest minimum of training opportunities and I am handicapped largely by shortage of engineer equipment. Some roadmaking equipment has just arrived, including some bulldozers, only one of which is a D4 tractor equipped with earth-moving plant. Another D4 tractor is without this plant, two D7 tractors have no roadmaking fittings, and my CRE advises me that even if the materials could be sent over the workshops could not fit suitable earth-moving appliances. These tractors are practically useless, and in order to keep open access to my brigades I have to employ large numbers of men roadmaking with nothing but picks and shovels.’

The delay in sending forward equipment for the division was partly caused by shortage of shipping, but this was aggravated by the method of storage in wharf sheds in New Zealand and by a system of loading which did not ensure that cargo was shipped in page 98 the order in which it was delivered. This prompted Dove, in a report on Base Headquarters organisation, to suggest that in any similar future operations a special ship should be provided so that shipments could be made in the desired order in which they were required. Any demand for shipping was made to the American authorities, but some confusion seems to have existed between the authorities, both American and New Zealand. The United States Navy, which was advised of 3 Division's requirements, had been shipping supplies only as space became available after its own requirements were satisfied. General Breene, of the South Pacific Command, considered that if he had been correctly informed of what had to be lifted both in reinforcements and supplies, he contemplated no difficulty, as he had other ships at his disposal which could be diverted. This ultimately solved the problem, though shipping space, during this period of the war, was always short in the Pacific, as elsewhere.

1 Brig H. E. Avery, CMG, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Eastbourne; born Wellington, 3 Oct 1885; company manager; NZASC 1914–19 (AA & QMG NZ Div); QMG NZ Military Forces, 1940–45; General Manager War Assets Realisation Board, 1945–48.