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The Pacific

I: Training a Brigade Group

page 261

I: Training a Brigade Group

THE history of the Fiji Defence Force became inseparably linked with New Zealand from the time the Dominion accepted responsibility for the defence of the Crown Colony. Officers and non-commissioned officers were despatched from Army Headquarters in Wellington to train the Fijians and to direct the activities of the organisation, and the senior command became a New Zealand appointment from 1940 when Cunningham arrived with 8 Brigade Group. When 3 New Zealand Division was relieved by American forces in June and July 1942, the remaining Fiji Defence Force came under American command, though retaining its identity as an individual organisation with a New Zealander as commander. Finally, when the danger from Japan receded in the Pacific in the last days of the war, command reverted to Fiji and the New Zealanders returned to the Dominion. Invaluable work was done during those years and provided a pattern for any similar future operation.

Although, under the principle of unity of command, responsibility for the military security of both Fiji and Tonga was vested in the United States from 1942, New Zealand continued to provide essential equipment, supplies, and personnel for both the Fijian and Tongan forces, the majority, of course, going to the Crown Colony. When 3 Division left Fiji, New Zealand also agreed to the American request for the retention of certain units and men, principally coast and anti-aircraft artillery, until their relief by American units later in the year or early in 1943. Colonel J. G. C. Wales was gazetted in his new appointment as Commandant of the Fiji Defence Force and Commander 2 NZEF Pacific Section on 18 July, at which date there were 1500 New Zealanders in Fiji, including 1035 with artillery units. He established his new headquarters at New Zealand Camp, in the village of Tamavua on the main Suva-Samambula road, taking with him a nucleus of New Zealand officers and non-commissioned officers necessary to staff and direct the various services. Throughout page 262 August and September new units were formed and the force expanded by agreement with the New Zealand Government until, on 1 November, the formation of an infantry brigade group was announced and Wales was promoted to the rank of Brigadier. At that time there were 221 New Zealand officers and 1340 other ranks with the Fiji Defence Force, which the following month changed its title to the Fiji Military Forces. From the complex organisation which then existed, all units, both New Zealand and Fijian, were regrouped to come under command of either brigade or administrative headquarters. By that time Wales had selected the following staff and commands:
Brigade MajorMaj A. J. Neil, MBE
DA and QMGMaj J. I. L. Hill
GSO 3Capt J. M. Crawford
Staff CaptainCapt E. E. McCurdy
Intelligence OfficerLt W. E. Crawford
1 Field Battery, Fiji Artillery RegimentMaj H. G. Flux
1 Field Company, Fiji Corps of EngineersMaj F. H. Stewart
1 Section, Fiji Corps of SignalsLt A. T. Fussell
Composite Company, ASCCapt F. G. Tucker
Reserve Motor Transport Company2 Lt C. Turner
36 Light Aid DetachmentLt R. W. R. Johnson
Senior Medical OfficerLt-Col W. D. Stoney Johnston
Ordnance WorkshopsCapt H. B. New
Pay SectionLt F. J. Martin
Records SectionCapt G. A. R. Johnstone
1 Bearer Company2 Lt R. D. McEwan
School of InstructionMaj E. E. Lloyd
1 Battalion, Fiji Infantry RegimentLt-Col J. B. K. Taylor
3 Battalion, Fiji Infantry RegimentLt-Col F. G. Forster
4 Battalion, Fiji Infantry RegimentLt-Col R. Fraser
Eastern Independent CommandoCapt P. G. Ellis
Southern Independent CommandoCapt C. W. H. Tripp
Northern Independent CommandoCapt N. W. Steele

Colonel J. P. Magrane, a member of the Fiji civil service (Police), was officer in charge of administration and controlled 2 Territorial Battalion, which provided officers and men for the three regular battalions. Two labour battalions and home and bridge guards also remained under Magrane's command.

Under the Americans Fiji became a separate island command, commanded by Major-General C. F. Thompson, and all Fiji forces came under him for operations. American artillery ultimately took over the coastal batteries at Vunda, Momi, Bilo, and Suva from the combined New Zealand and Fijian gunners, leaving only the Flagstaff Hill battery to the Fiji command. As the Americans withdrew in February 1943 they handed back the page 263 Suva and Bilo batteries, and 1 Heavy Fiji Regiment was created to control them, with Lieutenant-Colonel P. M. B. Barclay in command of the fixed coastal defences.

The Fijian Infantry Brigade came into being with the idea of sending a force overseas to play a more active part in the war, and this no doubt affected the commitment of units to the battle in the Solomons. At a meeting of the Council of Chiefs in September 1942, they were informed by the Governor that further calls would be made for men and materials on the Fijian community. The Council agreed but expressed the wish that a detachment of Fijians should be sent overseas. Recruiting among the villages was stimulated with this as the objective, since years of garrison duty in Fiji led to ultimate boredom. Although at this date New Zealand was hard-pressed to provide sufficient men to bring 3 Division to full strength, she fulfilled the Fijian request for further key personnel—first for 58 officers and 214 noncommissioned officers, most of whom reached the Colony at the end of the year, and a further 45 officers in January 1943. Increased supplies of equipment were also sent from New Zealand, which was not always kept as fully informed of the activities of the brigade as was consistent with calls for aid. This was remarked by Puttick in March 1943, in his comment on a signal from Fiji asking for further supplies and equipment because of the immediate prospect of one battalion and one commando unit leaving for the battle area. Puttick emphasised that New Zealand had not been consulted about any departure of troops from Fiji and that there was a danger that New Zealand might be compelled, through the pressure of events, to contribute resources in replacing men and equipment without having had any voice in the prior arrangements. This emphasised, also, the difficulties of commanding a small force within the framework of a large command. Wales was responsible to the Americans for operations, to New Zealand for supplies and some of his personnel replacements, and to the Governor of Fiji for the satisfactory employment of Fijian ground forces. However, the brigade was never committed as a formation. Negotiations to incorporate it in 3 Division foundered when the Governor, Sir Philip Mitchell, who succeeded Luke in 1942, refused to allow the commitment of single battalions at different places. In a message to the New Zealand Government during these negotiations he explained that he would have to explain to the Fiji Legislative Council why the Colony had gone to great pains and expense to raise, train, and equip a brigade, only to break it up unused and scrap its ancillary services. The whole trend of the discussions between Governments and commanders which followed proposals to use page 264 the brigade with 3 Division, suggested a desire by the American command to use the Fijians as scouts and small patrols in the jungle, and this they eventually did. Two battalions, the 1st and the 3rd, and two units of commandos served in the Solomons under American command but never under their own brigade command, and the ultimate despatch of these units to the battle area suggested a political desire to keep faith with the promises made earlier to the Fijian Council of Chiefs.

In reorganising the Fiji forces Wales disbanded the commandos, which emerged as new units organised into guerrilla groups. By 31 December 1942 his force had increased to 6519 all ranks. Peak strength was reached in August 1943, when the number increased to 8513, of whom 808 were New Zealanders.1 Changes of command, both of staff and units, were frequent, and there was a constant flow of returning sick and replacements passing between New Zealand and the Colony as climate and conditions weeded out those not physically fitted for such arduous tasks. Wales insisted on hard training and placed emphasis on individuality and initiative in leadership. Indeed, one of the exercises he organised became memorable as a training exploit and indicated the excellent standard of physical endurance achieved by all members of his force. This required each battalion to march 100 miles in five days over the most rugged country and made exhausting demands on the men, who were required to climb a cliff face, cross rivers while harrassed by commandos, and traverse broken jungle tracks rising to more than 1000 feet. In February, the hottest time of the year in Fiji, 1 Battalion completed the exercise with the loss of only one man. Only a few months previously many of those men had been brought from distant villages, knowing neither the feel of boots on their feet nor the sight of rifles and accoutrements of war.

1 By this time artillery units manning fixed coastal defence guns had been withdrawn from the Colony.