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The Pacific

III: Life Among the Niaoulis

III: Life Among the Niaoulis

Everyone trained in New Caledonia. There was no option, since it was an instruction that all ranks of every branch and headquarters, even the less conspicuous elements such as cooks and batment, must undergo a fitness campaign and march certain distances. In a review of the state of training at the end of January, Barrowclough issued an instruction which included that: ‘It is essential that the whole division be trained in jungle warfare types of shooting. Artillery, signals, ASC, and ordnance must be trained with the rifle, Thompson sub-machine gun, and light machine gun to combat Japanese infiltration.’ He also suggested to Army Headquarters that the supply of grenades, which were ‘particularly suitable for jungle fighting because they did not locate the thrower’ be increased to 200,000. No time was lost in beginning a schedule of training for which the country is so perfectly suited, despite the mosquitoes, and where the soft warm nights are not attended with discomfort when sleeping out, though reconnaissance parties which explored tracks through the mountains rarely moved without their mosquito nets. These insects were at their worst in 8 Brigade areas in and around Bouloupari, where head-nets were often worn and office desks and signal equipments covered in an effort to overcome their agonising attentions.

Jungle training began on a platoon and company basis, using live ammunition, mortars and machine guns, over courses designed as a preliminary to manœuvres on a larger scale employing battalions and finally brigades. Small parties made four- and six-day trips page 99 through the mountains and along the beaches, investigating the state of routes, their availability for movement, checking supplies of food and water, and testing the value of certain specified rations over stated periods. Inaccurate maps gave little indication of the acutal state of the country, but this only stimulated interest and encouraged initiative, for training in New Caledonia was never monotonous, despite its tests of stamina and endurance. As training progressed, every form of exercise was undertaken by battalions, from beach landings, using Higgins boats, to attacks on objectives over specially prepared tracts of country, using concealed targets and supporting arms. This went on for months, always with an eye to combat in the Solomons.

Some of the more spectacular exploits involved operations with American forces, such as an 8 Brigade exercise in February using 29 and 1 Scottish Battalions, which co-operated with elements of 43 US Division and United States aircraft. Another 8 Brigade exercise in April stressed communication problems in close country, the use of four-wheeled vehicles over tracks through the bush, and the reduction of the load carried by the individual soldier. Throughout May and June this brigade embarked on its most strenuous exercises, the first of which, from 4 to 7 May, took place over rugged bush and mountain country in the Ouenghi-Tontouta region with units divided into New Zealand and enemy forces. This was followed on 14 May by a still more exhausting exercise designed for the capture of a high hill feature, culminating in a five-day manœuvre which involved carrying mortars and machine guns and other combat equipment up steep, bush-clad slopes and crossing rivers in assault boats and on floating rafts. Further exercises over long periods in June included attacks on La Foa and Moindou villages, for which sand models were used during discussions on problems and in lectures to the men to stimulate their interest, and for which they were invaluable. A recreational period at Thio, an attractive village on the east coast, was well earned by the whole brigade in the only respite it ever enjoyed from months of training.

In the dry, open country in the north, 14 Brigade had been equally busy, practising over an assault course, testing jungle rations during a beach landing on the Gomen Peninsula in April, and in defence and attack schemes which kept the units far from their camps. As a preliminary to the most thorough exercise undertaken by the brigade and involving all arms of the service, Divisional Headquarters held a tactical exercise without troops for brigade commanders, followed by another for unit commanders. Then, for three days and nights, all units of the brigade were employed in a night river crossing, followed by an attack on the village of page 100 Pouembout. For this exercise the opposite bank of the Pouembout River was presumed to be in enemy hands, a bridgehead had to be established in darkness, and a force with anti-tank guns pushed over in readiness for the main attack next morning. Engineers used assault boats and box girder bridging to cross the river, the ambulance set up its hospital and treated several accidental injuries, signals tested the efficiency of communications, both line and radio, supporting artillery played its role, and the ASC fed and maintained the force. There were several visitors to witness this most realistic and exacting exercise, including two senior American generals, Harmon and Lincoln.

Fifteenth Brigade, while carrying out its various exercise, proved the value of its training during a three-day manœuvre when not a man fell out. This brigade also tested the efficiency of various rations, and came to the conclusion that some of them would do little more than sustain men in action, leaving them no reserve for fighting. One of these was the American K ration, which was neatly enclosed in a cardboard package for easy carriage and contained ¼ lb. of cheese or meat in an airtight tin, eight small biscuits wrapped in cellophane, sixteen glucose tablets, three lumps of loaf sugar, powdered fruit juice for two drinks, one stick of chewing gum, and one carton of four cigarettes. Other similar rations contained soup cubes. These were all designed for use during assault landings, each man carrying three packages made up as three separate meals, and sufficient to last him for 24 hours. All of them were disliked after the novelty wore off, but they were efficient for their purpose.

Through May and June, also, the men were toughened by arduous marches, 8 Brigade beginning with 14 miles a day, increasing to 18 and finally to 40 miles over the last two days. Units of 14 Brigade marched 20 miles a day for three days, culminating in an ambitious military display in which every unit played a part, and ending during the weekend with a church parade and ceremonial march past. Later in July, 8 Brigade held a ceremonial parade and review during the visit of the Minister of Defence, the Hon. F. Jones, who inspected the men.

Although taking part in the various brigade exercises, other arms of the service continued their individual training, in spite of the distracting calls on their time for routine duty. When anti-aircraft artillery units could not obtain the assistance of aircraft for trail shoots, they improvised by using kites or balloons towed by jeeps; engineers experimented in floating jeeps across rivers, using kapok assault floats or tarpaulins, and in building bridges at night, using materials cut from the nearby bush; signals had practice enough in page 101 their work, which called for the erection and maintenance of miles of line through the roughest country, and the servicing of a radio net which extended from Noumea to Taom and a high-powered link sited at Base, which carried all traffic between the division and New Zealand.

Unlike other divisions in the field, 3 Division, the only formation other than American then in the South Pacific, was without the usual Army Corps organisation on which it ordinarily would have called. This meant that Army Headquarters and the South Pacific Command to some extent took the place of the larger formation. Its training, also, was entirely different from that laid down in the manuals, in which emphasis is placed on traditional methods used in open country such as the European mainland or the African desert.

New Zealanders of 3 Division, for the first time in history preparing for jungle and island warfare, were practically writing their own text books as their training progressed. All the months of works accomplished in New Caledonia were of immense value, and during that time the division experimented for future operations, adding to its ideas and euipment and discarding what was unnecessary. Long trousers and long-sleeved shirts were necessary because of mosquitoes; steel helmets were useless among trees and undergrowth because of the noise; gas respirators proved a hindrance in wooded country; canvas boots with barred rubber soles were superior to leather footwear in the jungle; some reduction in the amount of personal gear was essential. ‘Streamlining in the jungle is not merely a desirable appearance but is a military necessity,’ one unit reported. ‘A water-bottle and haversack hung on the sides of each soldier may well represent so many coffin nails.’ Tea proved to be the greatest stimulant for fatigued men and rice a popular food, though difficult to cook because water was often short. Troops soon tried of the American jungle rations, compact and efficient though they were.

Throughout the training period specially selected officers and men were despatched far and wide to gather the latest information on jungle fighting and amphibious warfare. Some went to amphibious training courses in the United States, returning rather too late to be of any assistance in the Solomons; others were sent to chemical warfare schools in Australia, Army School at Trentham, the AFV school of Waiouru, the tactical school at Wanganui, and staff college at Palmerston North.

Training culminated at the end of June with amphibious exercises using an American ship, the John Penn, off the beach of Ducos Peninsula in Noumea Harbour. Here a combat team of 1139 all page 102 ranks from 14 Brigade, made up of 37 Battalion and a machine-gun platoon, 35 Field Battery, 207 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, 20 Field Company, 22 Field Ambulance and 16 ASC Company, practised for some days all the complicated detail of embarkation drills, boat assignment tables, landing diagrams, beach organisation, loading and night landing, becoming so skilled in the routine that a landing craft could be filled in four minutes. Senior officers, both New Zealand and American, watched the operation, approving its speed and efficiency. So that other units might practise the essentials of embarkation and disembarkation, scaffolding was erected in some of the camps and here, on rope nets strung over the timber frames, men clambered up and down to familiarise themselves with the only method possible of going aboard or leaving a ship in shallow and unfamiliar waters.

In a summary of the strategical situation which went to every man in the division, Barrowclough, who believed in keeping his troops ‘in the picture’, emphasised the close co-operation between the three fighting services, particularly as exemplified by the battle for Guadalcanal. ‘We can see how dependent are the Navy, Army, and Air Force on one another,’ he concluded. ‘Only by the closest co-operation between all three services can island victories be won…. We shall be dependent on American sea and air forces, and we shall also rely a lot on the American divisions alongside us. With that great support we can go into action well trained and confident of victory.’

Recreation went hand in hand with training in New Caledonia and was almost as arduous. Apart from unit activities, which were given every encouragement, cricket, football, swimming, and athletics produced talent of high quality and a series of excellent contests, not the least of which was the Rugby final for the Barrowclough Cup presented to the captain of the triumphant 37 Battalion team, Private A. T. Long, by the General's wife, who flew from New Zealand for the occasion. The most spectacular recreational feature was the pride of 14 Brigade, units of which constructed a full-size racecourse at Taom where horses of doubtful pedigree, gathered from the surrounding countryside, competed at two meetings and attracted visitors from as far south as Noumea.

By the time 3 Division departed from New Caledonia it was as perfectly trained for jungle and island warfare as any force in the Pacific. Major-General C. D. Barrett, Commander of the First Marine Amphibious Corps, who was given the choice of 3 Division or any United States or Australian division for service in the Solomons, selected the New Zealanders, ‘of whose qualities he had the highest opinion’.

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