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The Pacific

V: Training for Combat

V: Training for Combat

Amphibious training for the whole division was completed on the island of Efate in the New Hebrides, to which it moved in three groups, each group spending five days at Vila before continuing the voyage to Guadalcanal. Almost before the green camouflage paint was dry on every article of equipment, convoys of vehicles moved south to Noumea through familiar clouds of choking dust. The little tented villages among the niaoulis disappeared almost overnight, leaving only the more sustantial bures as memorials to occupation. Fourteenth Brigade sailed on 17 August in three ships, the President Jackson, President Hayes, and President Adams; Divisional Headquarters and troops followed on 24 August in the Hunter Liggett and Fuller; and 8 Brigade on 4 September in the three President ships, which had disembarked 14 Brigade and page 117 returned. These transports were all employed in the original landing on Guadalcanal, during which the Fuller acted as guide ship for the whole convoy.

The three training groups were spaced so that one finished its exercises and departed before the next arrived. Transports were laboriously loaded from the beaches in Noumea Harbour, all equipment being ferried out to the waiting ships after being manhandled into barges. It was hot work but good practice for many such furture operations. From the day of embarkation anti-malarial precautions became compulsory, and all the futile stories of the debilitating physical effect of atebrin tablets were soon dispelled. Those little yellow pellets were taken daily, except Sunday, and when troops went ashore they wore long trousers, with canvas anklets, and long-sleeved shirts, and spread repellent oil on exposed parts of the body.

Vila, though intensely humid, was ideal for amphibious exercises. Outside the land-locked harbour, Mele Beach, washed by long, lazy rollers, curved in a golden arc of coral sand behind which a tangle of trees, vines, and bamboo thickets opened into coffee and cocoa plantations and the cultivated spaces which pass for farms in the tropics. There was little sign of war in the harbour, but at night the searchlights from Havannah Harbour, the immense naval base for servicing and repairing ships in the immediate forward area, spread their restless golden fingers across the indigo sky until down. As each convoy arrived, plans which were drawn up during the voyage were immediately put into operation. Every type of landing, made as realistic as possible by the use of aircraft and observers, was practised day and night, beginning with beach assaults, formation of defence permeters ashore, night landings beginning soon after midnight from blacked-out ships, as well as ship and net drill and boat discipline. Torrential rain added to the realism as troops waited for dawn under rat-infested cocoa trees, sheltered with only a mosquito net. Full equipment was carried, in addition to jungle rations for the period ashore.

Brigades exercised in combat teams, as they were to operate later in action, taking even their field and anti-aircraft guns ashore in small barges and manhandling them into position over the sand. Because they were the pattern of many similar landings, these exercises were invaluable in planning movement from the restricted space of crowded transports to allotted areas ashore and are worthy of record. First the transport's landing craft, small flat-bottomed boats with broad collapsible bows, are lowered into the water, coming under landing nets down which the men scramble in fours as they come up from their quarters, unit by unit. As each craft page 118 fills with its complement of men and equipment, it moves away to join others circling in disorder to avoid loss by enemy bombing. Then, at a given signal, each wave of these assault craft speeds for the beach, judging its arrival so that a given number of them simultaneously reaches the sand in a well-spaced line. Bows drop and small bodies of troops dash for cover and prepare for action. Speed and uniformity are two essentials of a synchronised landing, which is so calculated that each wave of boats withdraws to make way for the next. The reverse action of these high-powered craft enables them to retract easily from the beach. By the time the exercises were over, beach landings were as familiar as parade-ground drill.

Divisional Headquarters closed at Moindah on 15 August and opened the same day at Guadalcanal, where the area which was awaiting the division had been inspected some weeks previously by Barrowclough, Speight, Murphy, and McKay when they flew up from New Caledonia. Dove, promoted Brigadier, took over command of all New Zealand troops stationed in New Caledonia, which remained the division's base during its period in the Solomons. Over the long distances air travel became essential for the commander as the moved between components of his scattered force. He went by air to Vila to watch 14 Brigade at work, then on to Guadalcanal, returning by plane to be present when divisional troops and 8 Brigade exercised. Only one convoy was attacked during the three-day voyage in stifling blacked-out transports to Guadalcanal. Two days out from Vila a Japanese submarine, afterwards sunk by escorting destroyers, fired three torpedoes, but they passed harmlessly through the convoy carrying divisional troops, missing the Fuller by 200 yards.

The division concentrated on Guadalcanal as the convoys arrived on schedule from the New Hebrides—14 Brigade on 27 August; Divisional Headquarters and troops on 3 September (the day on which the Allies landed in the south of Italy); 8 Brigade on 14 September—and occupied areas vacated by American units extending 4000 yards on either side of the Matanikau River and inland to a depth of 5–6000 yards. Before the transports ceased to move, 500 yards from the shore in Sealark Channel, troops were ready to disembark over the side. Soon the beach between Point Cruz and the mouth of the river was a scene of strenuous activity as disorderly piles of equipment and stores grew higher with the arrival of succeeding waves of landing craft, and trucks, guns, and carriers lumbered ashore. Stripped to the waist and shining with sweat, chains of men handled crates and boxes without mechanical aid, even assisting trucks and guns when they stuck fast in the sand, page 119 in an atmosphere compared with which a New Zealand summer is almost chilly

By nightfall the most urgently required equipment was far from the beaches, and tents or shelters erected on the ridges to the rear where, when the sea breeze fell away with the setting sun, the stifling heat came down like an enveloping pall. Working at the rate of 119 tons an hour against a previous 104½ tons, 14 Brigade established a record in unloading a ship in the stream; not to be outdone, 8 Brigade went one better when it arrived and reduced the time still further, proving that esprit de corps could survive even the sweltering heat of Guadalcanal.1 Such an expeditious turn-round of ships brought a letter of praise and congratulation from Harmon. ‘This excellent effort augurs well for the success of future operations and reflects the high state of morale, discipline, and training attained by all ranks,’ he wrote to Barrowclough after 14 Brigade's effort had been brought to his notice. Proof of ship discipline was contained in this farewell message from the commander of the transport Fuller: ‘The ship wishes to thank all New Zealand troops for their unusual fine co-operation in keeping their parts of the ship in a constant state of cleanliness and order and for establishing a very high standard which will be hard for subsequent embarked units to maintain.’

Guadalcanal is one of the largest of the Solomon Islands which, before they became a battlefield, were the least known and least developed of any island group in the British Commonwealth. Land could be rented for threepence an acre for five years, but the prevalence of the malarial mosquito, an exhausting climate where sleep refreshes neither mind nor body, and the unfriendly attitude of the natives did little to encourage development, except the cultivation of coconut palms for the production of copra in plantations along the coastal areas. Rainfall averages 164 inches a year, with temperatures at sea level ranging without seasonal change from 86 degrees by day to 73 degrees by night. Dense forest clothes almost every island, even coral atolls, to the water's edge. Mendana,

1 An artillery officer, in imitation of the travel agency brochures, produced a satirical description of the attractions of Guadalcanal, part of which read: ‘Come to romancedrenched Guadalcanal, you who wish to put the cares of civilisation behind you and seek (rapid) release from this world. Here no sound disturbs the serene stillness except the night-long yelps, squeals, squawks and groans of the happy denizens of the jungle. Come and bask on its sunlit sands, lulled by the soothing murmur of a golden nimbus of blood-sucking insects muscled like bull gorillas. Bathe in its ultramarine waters and sport with the festive sharks, long surfeited on the carcases of defunct samurai. Or would you taste the night-life of this delectable spot. Then come with me to a native village for experiences vouchasafed only to those who get off the beaten track. Share with the simple savages their tasty jungle meal of spam and K rations…. And as you wend your way home through the A/A spangled night you can look forward to a long sleep undisturbed by anything more than a 250 lb. bomb. Yes, come to lovely Guadalcanal—and bring your strait-jacket with you, you dim-witted clod.’

page 120 a Spanish explorer, discovered the Solomons in 1568, but although exaggerated stories of their hidden wealth excited the adventurous, they were lost to the world for 200 years, until two French explorers, Bougainville and Jean François de Surville, passed through the group in 1768–69, but the mystery of the Solomons was not solved until Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, in 1792, recognised the islands from Mendana's records. French missionaries arrived in 1845, but their prompt despatch by aggressive natives only added to the grim reputation of the Solomons. White traders began limited activities in 1860, increasing when Great Britain took over the southern Solomons in 1893. Germany held the northern islands until 1900, when they were ceded to Great Britain in exchange for Western Samoa. Except for a change of attitude by the natives and the establishment of widely scattered Government, trading, and mission stations, and still fewer private plantation homes, civilisation had little effect on the Solomons until war's rampant violence brought it in the wake of such destruction and amenities as the islanders had never known. Soon thousands of men occupied the dim aisles of plantation and jungle which had previously known only the occasional presence of bare-footed natives.

When formations of 3 Division moved into Guadalcanal, the Japanese had been pushed back to the New Georgia Group, 200 miles to the north, and the island had become an immense forward base to support the American forces in action—navy, army, and air. Beneath the shelter of coconut plantations, hospitals and camps and vast dumps of stores, petrol, vehicles, and ammunition were established for a distance of 40 miles along the northern coastal region facing Florida Island. This was the only occupied area and centred round Henderson Airfield, named in honour of an American airman Major Lofton Henderson, lost at Midway, and three others, Koli, Kukum, and Carney fields, created after the American occupation. Sloping up from the plantation and flat coastal belt, broad ridges of dead coral covered with coarse kunai grass extended some miles inland until they met dense, forest-clad mountains rising to 8000 feet, over which billowing rain clouds piled like ice-cream cones. Forest trees growing ridge-high gave this landscape a deceptive uniformity, but roads and trails, born of the tracks made during battle, led through it to camp sites. Here the division spread for some miles, dispersing its tents over the treeless ridges, scene of bitter fighting, and still bearing such evidence of the conflict that any doubtful ammunition and discarded equipment were avoided.

Below their vantage point spread the panorama of Savo and Florida Islands and the moving pageant of shipping in Sealark page 121 Channel and Lunga roadstead, where destroyers moved alertly beyond ships unloading men and stores, and flotillas of small craft hurried between ship and shore or departed in convoy to the north battle zone. Warships sheltered behind submarine nets in a naval base established in the bay round Tulagi and Gavutu, with the blue mass of Florida immediately behind them where the seaplane base at Halavo was sited. Henderson Field was restless and noisy with the ceaseless activity of aircraft, most of them going to or returning from missions to the north as they bombed Japanese installations and airfields on Kolombangara, Bougainville, the Shortlands, and islands round New Georgia, or watched for submarines in the immediate sea lanes. They were comforting proof of Allied air superiority. Dust from the streams of traffic on the two-way road linking camps along the coast rose above the palms like gentle mist suspended in the heavy air. All along the curving beaches as far north as Cape Esperance, where men bathed in the sticky warm water, lay the relics of war—tanks and landing craft, disintegrating wrecks of ships and aircraft, backed by mutilated palms and trees, torn by shellfire, not yet healed despite the swift growth of tropical vegetation.

Guadalcanal was still within range of Japanese aircraft when the division arrived. They came from Kahili, Ballale, Buins and Rekata, usually on moonlight nights, dropping their bombs on dumps, shipping, and airfields. Sirens, linked with a net of radar stations, gave adequate warning, and lights flicked out leaving only vague shapes of tents and buildings on a landscape formerly peppered with the stars of candles and lamps. From foxholes laboriously gouged in the resisting coral, more as a protection against falling shrapnel than bombs, men watched the spectacle of weaving searchlights and bursting shells, and cheered on one notable occasion the valour of an American pilot who, disregarding his own anti-aircraft shells, sent down two Japanese planes in glowing spirals. The enemy occasionally sank transports and supply ships in the roadstead, eluding observation by following closely behind returning formations at dusk, and their haphazardly-strewn bombs sometimes found dumps among the palms which burned explosively for days, as one did soon after the arrival of the divisional convoy. But as pressure was maintained on the northern bases, enemy raids became fewer.

There can be no connected story of 3 Division's activities in the Solomons. Not once did the brigades co-operate in joint action. Each was employed on an island far from the other and linked only by wireless, aircraft, and landing craft. Barrowclough commanded page 122 from the particular island on which he had established his headquarters, finally 500 miles north of Guadalcanal and 1500 miles from his base in New Caledonia. The transport of men, stores, and equipment over such long distances with only a minimum of means was one of the recurring problems of this island campaign.

By the time the division arrived to take part with American forces in this campaign, which was designed to isolate and finally destroy Rabaul, the strategy of by-passing had been evolved. Briefly such strategy was to outflank enemy bases, forcing him to surrender or evacuate by cutting his supply lines and smashing his airfields and naval bases. In the Solomons this was achieved by capturing an island far ahead of an enemy stronghold and establishing there with the greatest possible speed airfields, naval bases, supply dumps, and radar stations to support the next move forward, most of these sites requiring the removal of virgin jungle. Such strategy requires the use of aircraft in strength to provide cover for landings, patrols and preparatory bombing; swift and powerful motor torpedo boats working at night to disrupt enemy barge traffic (hidden during the day) transporting men and supplies to his beleaguered garrisons; landing craft of all types to ferry men and materials to the beaches at the point of attack, and naval vessels to protect them during transit and as supporting artillery before landing. This meant the closest co-operation between all three services, planning in meticulous detail involved loading and landing timetables by Navy, Army, and Air Force representatives working as one committee. But most important of all was the saving in human life, by the avoidance of frontal beach attacks against strongly defended areas.

While waiting to move forward, units lost no time in becoming familiar with the jungle, in which they exercised for better efficiency when they were not engaged in moving heavy stores from the beaches, where parties from battalions laboured day and night as required. Because of stray marauding Japanese still hiding in the hinterland, beaches and ration dumps were patrolled from dusk to dawn, though indiscriminate shooting was discouraged. Guns of 29 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment were linked in with the island defences and went into action soon after their arrival. Engineers, as they were to do for months afterwards, immediately began improving access roads, water points and wells, bridges and accommodation, as well as a programme which included bomb and ammunnition disposal and the erection of semi-permanent buildings, all of which were necessary for units remaining on the island.

Timber was more readily available from a sawmill operated by the Royal New Zealand Air Force, happily sited close beside the main highway and a supply of giant trees. The dialy dose of atebrin page 123 was increased to half a tablet, with a whole one on Sundays, the prescribed quantity for everyone in the Solomons zone. During this time, also, troops became more familiar with all types of landing craft they were to use later in operations—LSTs (landing ship, tanks), LCIs (landing craft, infantry), LCVPs (landing craft, vehicles and personnel), and APDs (army personnel, destroyers). With the exception of the APDs, which were obsolete destroyers reconditioned as troop transports, all these craft were designed with broad flat bottoms to ride up on the shelving sand or coral, men, guns, and vehicles going ashore over ramps which fell as the craft ran on the beaches or into shallow water. American naval ratings were in charge of them.

Some reorganisation of the division in readiness for action took place on Guadalcanal. On arriving there Barrowclough was confronted with a dilemma. His division was an isolated British formation in an American theatre of war which was primarily naval in operation. He was required immediately by Harmon to take over command on Vella Lavella Island and clear it of Japanese, and at a later date use another part of his division for operations in the Treasury Group. This meant that his small force was to be split into three widely separated groups, thus throwing an excessive burden on his staff and signals, though to some extent this had been anticipated by the retention of certain officers and other ranks when 15 Brigade was disbanded. Plans to meet both impending operations and the dispersal of the force began immediately after the opening of Divisional Headquarters on 4 September, at which the first important visitor was the United States Secretary of State for War, Mr. R. P. Patterson, who called the following day.

A Field Maintenance Centre,1 commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel C. E. Lees,2 ex 1 Ruahine Battalion, was established and served as a halfway house between units in the forward zones and Base, now 1000 miles to the rear, with New Zealand another 1000 miles beyond that. Immediate reinforcements and large quantities of equipment and supplies were held here until required, and all personnel going to or returning from the combat zone staged through Guadalcanal, either by sea or air. Important elements of FMC were a high-powered radio link operated by signals personnel under Lieutenant K. H. Barron, which maintained communication

1 This was an ad boc. organisation created specially to serve the requirements of the division while it was in the forward area. No war establishment was ever committed to paper in the accepted army sense. Barrowclough always referred to it as a ‘Forward Maintenance Centre’.

2 Lt-Col C. E. Lees, ED; Auckland, born Christchurch, 26 Jun 1898; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1914–18; CO 1 Bn Ruahine Regt, Apr-Jul 1943; CO Field Maintenance Centre, Guadalcanal, Aug 1943–Jul 1944.

page 124 between Base and the forward headquarters, and an advanced ordnance depot under Captain H. N. McCarthy. Much of the equipment still required reached this depot on 26 September in the James B. Francis, which brought it direct from New Zealand. This included ammunition and 15,000 each of mosquito nets and gloves; 30,000 each of drill shirts and battle-dress trousers dyed green;1 20,000 much-needed jungle knieves; 15,000 dyed linen hats and the same number of pairs of jungle boots. Additional units came by the same ship, including 26 Field Company Engineers, 24 Field Ambulance, and the Tank Squadron, this last going into camp near Lunga Point to work out jungle tactics with 8 Brigade. The 2nd Casualty Clearing Station, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel S. L. Wilson, DSO,2 who had served with 2 Division, was sited close beside the beach at Point Cruz, and remained there during the campaign.

Only a limited number of troops was taken forward to the island of Vella Lavella for the first operation, and when Advanced Divisional Headquarters was opened there Murphy commanded a Rear Headquarters on Guadalcanal. This functioned until 13 December, after which command passed to FMC and he returned to New Zealand. The remaining divisional troops then came under command of Goss who, as senior officer, was responsible for the tactical employment of all New Zealand forces on the island. This organisation provided an efficient system of control and supply of all formations over such extended lines of communication.

1 After arriving at Guadalcanal, Barrowclough on 9 Sep 1943 despatched a signal to Army Headquarters pointing out the inadequacy of arrangements New Zealand had made in supplying the division with jungle clothing. In June 1943 the Quartermaster-General accepted without question Barrowclough's request that 30,000 sets of jungle clothing should be delivered to the division in New Caledonia by 31 July. Supplies of camouflaged clothing for immediate use were obtained from American sources.

2 Lt-Col S. L. Wilson, DSO; Dunedin; born Dannevirke, 17 Apr 1905; surgeon; surgeon 2 Gen Hosp, Mobile Surgical Unit, and 1 Mob CCS, Aug 1940-Mar 1943; CO 2 CCS (Pacific) Aug 1943–Jan 1944.