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The Pacific

II: Tonga

page 292

II: Tonga

The defence of the Kingdom of Tonga, like other island defences in the Pacific, meant the creation of a fighting force from a minimum of men and material, and became a New Zealand responsibility inasmuch as Fiji became one by the Government's acceptance of defence obligations beyond her own shores. As with Fiji, New Zealand undertook to train and direct the Tongan Defence Force and to provide essential supplies and war equipment, the cost of which was originally met by the Tongan Government's provision of £20,000 a year from its slender resources, though financial changes later became necessary.

On 22 September 1939 the first 100 Tongans were attested and became the nucleus of a small defence force under the native Minister of Police. The following day the first military supplies reached the port and capital of Nukualofa in the Maui Pomare from New Zealand—a limited number of sets of web equipment and rifles with which to arm the recruits. Two instructors reached Tonga on 18 October—Captain J. S. Rennie and Sergeant-Major G. Stevens—and set about organising the small force and directing its training and duties. They were forerunners of many New Zealand officers and non-commissioned officers who moved at intervals to and from Tonga, until the United States assumed responsibility for the Kingdom's defence in 1942 at a critical period of the Pacific war.

When 8 Brigade Group moved into Fiji in October 1940, the small Tongan Defence Force came under the operational command of Cunningham, and the establishment of a New Zealand air arm in Fiji soon afterwards enabled a reasonable liaison to be maintained between headquarters at Suva and those in Tonga, since the journey could be made in four hours in one of the converted de Havillands based at Nandi. By November 1941 the Tongan force consisted of 13 New Zealand officers and non-commissioned officers and 442 Tongans, organised on a battalion basis into four small companies with a headquarters in Nukualofa. Except for coastwatchers established on the outlying islands of the group, all military activity was centered on the largest island, Tongatabu, which also contained the seat of Government, the port, and the residence of Queen Salote, constitutional monarch of the only remaining native kingdom in the Pacific. New Zealand instructors, though short of essential equipment in any quantity, did what they could to mould the raw but enthusiastic Tongans into a force to serve the needs of the moment, which at that time envisaged possible bombardment or attack by landing page 293 parties from German raiders. The force was made as mobile as possible, and concerned itself with defending port installations, guarding vital points and an aerodrome which had been constructed some miles from the town. Thirteen coastwatching stations throughout the three groups of islands, which make up the Kingdom of Tonga, relayed their information to a central station at Nukualofa for onward despatch to Suva and Wellington if of sufficient importance. Their value and their work increased with the outbreak of war with Japan.

Hostilities with Japan also increased the demand for a senior commander from New Zealand. Lieutenant-Colonel R. Bagnall, the first to be appointed by Army Headquarters, reached Nukualofa on 23 February 1941 in a ship which carried four urgently needed motor trucks and one motor ambulance. Although limited by necessity, these increased the mobility of a force which until then had moved on foot over the earth roads leading to various strategical points. Bagnall, a retired army officer who had formerly served in India, was not happy in his command. The frustration caused by isolation and lack of supplies, and the prevailing state of affairs on other Pacific islands, led to his return to New Zealand the following July. He was succeeded by his adjutant, Captain R. W. Norris,1 who held the post until the appointment on 10 January 1942 of Lieutenant-Colonel J. M. C. McLeod,2 of 37 Battalion, who took with him from Fiji his own adjutant, Captain B. Jones. Tonga was woefully short of essential equipment. Recommendations made in July 1941 by General Sir Guy Williams, after his tour of inspection, could not be fulfilled immediately, though New Zealand supplied what she could from limited resources which had also to satisfy the demands of Fiji. Two 4-inch guns from Auckland reached Tonga on 18 February and were emplaced to cover entrances through the reef at Nukualofa. They were manned by personnel under Major C. H. Gallagher,3 who had arrived in December. Other more vulnerable beaches, some of which lacked even the natural defence of a coral reef, were protected only by machine guns. For the remainder of that year New Zealand continued to supply what equipment she could, including material for tropical uniforms. During the year 1941–42 the Government of Tonga spent £23,564 on its defence programme, which was £3564 above the original estimate of £20,000 a year,

1 Maj R. W. Norris; Wellington; born Cheltenham, England, 4 Nov 1896; printer; Gloucestershire Regt, 1914–18.

2 Lt-Col J. M. C. McLeod, MC and bar; Kurow; born NZ 23 Sep 1894; sharebroker and accountant; Canterbury Regt 1916–19; OC Tonga Defence Force, 1942; CO 4 Bn, Fiji Infantry Regt, Jun 1943-Mar 1944.

3 Maj C. H. Gallagher, MBE; Wellington; born Auckland, 20 Aug 1880; Regular soldier.

page 294 any excess of which New Zealand had agreed to meet. However, no claim was made on New Zealand for the excess amount. Only towards the end of the war, when all danger of attack was long past, did the Tongan Government criticise defense costs.

With the advent of American forces into the Pacific and the acceptance of American responsibility for the defence of certain selected islands and island groups, Tongatabu became one of a chain of interlocking bases beginning in the New Hebrides and extending to the rear through New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa. Those bases were organised to provide each other with land, sea and air support, so that if the Japanese drove farther south from the Solomons, they would became blocks in an extended defence line and springboards for offensive action once the Allies built up sufficient strength to attack.

Although Tonga was farthest from the actual combat zone, a great quantity of vital Allied shipping passed within range of the group, which lay on the long lines of communication between the United States and the principal Pacific bases in New Zealand and Australia. A United States survey ship, the Sumner, reached Nukualofa on 3 March 1942 to chart the harbour and investigate its possibilities as a minor naval base. She was given a hostile reception by the New Zealand battery emplaced at Kologa, which put a shot across her bows when she entered the harbour through the wrong channel and failed to give the correct recognition signals. Advanced parties for the ground forces followed and Tongatabu was quickly developed into a naval fuel base, a protected anchorage, and an alternative staging depot on the South Pacific air ferry route from the United States to bases in Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, and the New Hebrides, for at that time New Zealand aircrews were ferrying aircraft from the United States. When the United States forces under Brigadier-General B. C. Lockwood took over the defence of the kingdom and established a separate island command responsible directly to South Pacific Headquarters, the Tongan Defence Force, with its New Zealanders, was absorbed into the organisation. United States aircraft also moved into the aerodrome, using it as a base from which patrols kept watch over the sea lanes in and around the group, and working in co-operation with similar air patrols based on Fiji. The American command which numbered 7500 of their own men, combined the defence of the kingdom, which has also been a British protectorate since May 1900, with training and conditioning troops before they were committed to the battle on Guadalcanal, and as such it was an admirable site:

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The time came, however, when New Zealand was called upon by South Pacific Command to replace American units withdrawn from Tonga to reinforce the forward areas. The first request came in October as Barrowclough was preparing to move 3 Division into the Waikato for its final training, and hard on the heels of a request to the New Zealand Government to provide a garrison for Norfolk Island. And, as with the Norfolk force, the battalion required for Tonga had to be drawn from 3 Division. Eyre's1 34 Battalion from 8 Brigade was selected and despatched in the US transport President Jackson, after advanced parties had been recalled from the Waikato where they were preparing to billet the battalion at Te Awamutu. On 27 October it disembarked at Nukualofa, moving first into the reserve area for a brief period before taking over the eastern sector of the island, with headquarters established at Mua. During its five months' stay on Tongatabu, 34 Battalion remained under American command and, in conformity with the American forces, each battalion was organised as a mobile striking force consisting of rifle, carrier, mortar, and machine-gun companies. Slender watch-towers, 90 feet high and rather like flimsy wireless masts with a small platform at the top, were erected by the Americans for easier observation of the beaches and far out to sea from the uniformly flat island, and the manning of them became part of the routine. Eyre, in December, was appointed executive officer of all ground forces on the island.

This battalion was the first of 3 Division to work for any length of time under American command and to become acquainted with American army food, clothing, and procedure; it was the first, also, to establish the cordiality so characteristic of the association of New Zealand and United States forces during the Pacific war. Life was not arduous. There were the usual alarms, accompanied by stand-tos at dawn and dusk. Despite a seasonal plague of fleas so merciless that despairing requests for advice on their destruction were sent to Army Headquarters, the troops enjoyed their tour of duty in Tonga, where climate and conditions were both agreeable for soldiering in a setting not too tropical.

The satisfactory progress of the battle for Guadalcanal relieved anxiety in rear bases such as Tonga, but left them only thinly held as units moved forward to replace others depleted in combat. Once more a call was made on New Zealand by South Pacific Command for both ground and air replacements of units leaving

1 Lt-Col R. J. Eyre; Christchurch; born Wellington, 30 Oct 1894; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1917–19; CO 34 Bn, Aug 1942-Dec 1943; later Commandant, Burnham Military Camp.

page 296 Tonga. On 23 October 1942 No. 15 Squadron RNZAF arrived to relieve 68 (US) Pursuit Squadron and to allow it to move forward. New Zealand was also asked in October to take over the defence of Tonga and supply further ground forces in addition to 34 Battalion, though in the opinion of South Pacific Command the battle situation was such that any such garrison could now be reduced. Halsey asked for another infantry battalion, a regimental headquarters, and artillery details. Although sorely pressed for men for 3 Division and her other service commitments, as well as for industry, the New Zealand Government agreed, but on 5 November asked that 34 Battalion be returned to 3 Division as soon as possible.

In the negotiations with South Pacific Command Headquarters, the New Zealand Government deprecated any tendency to distribute New Zealand units unnecessarily, and especially odd units in United States formations, because of the administrative problems involved. In this personal letter to Halsey, Fraser gave an indication of the Dominion's mounting difficulties:

I assure you that we are most anxious to co-operate in every possible way, and the last thing we wish is to play a passive role, especially in existing circumstances. We will make immediate inquiry as to the possibility of meeting this request, but it would be unfair to you and to us not to tell you at once our immediate reaction, which is this: This Dominion has been at war for three years during which period our resources have been seriously strained. WE are now attempting to maintain two divisions overseas in addition to substantial air force and naval units, together with the minimum forces required for the defence of this country. All told, we have withdrawn from industry for the armed services the equivalent of 11 per cent of the total population of the Dominion. We are confronted with a very serious manpower problem which it is impossible for us to solve while we are, as at present, entirely in the dark as to the situation in the zone of Pacific operations and as to future demands that may be made upon us both for men and supplies. Our first thought, therefore, is that this further request adds point and urgency to our desire for a conference with you at the earliest date upon which you can make it convenient.

That was written on 6 November 1942 when 3 Division, still on a two-brigade basis and without a clearly defined role, was beginning to move to New Caledonia, and about 5000 officers and men of New Zealand army and air force units were widely dispersed over the Pacific on Fanning Island, Fiji, Tonga and Norfolk, with individual coastwatchers doing duty on many smaller islands. Several conferences with senior officers of Halsey's headquarters did take place, but 34 Battalion remained in Tonga until March 1943, when it returned to New Caledonia via Suva and rejoined 3 Division in readiness to train for the Solomons. By that time negotiations with South Pacific Command had resolved page 297 themselves into New Zealand's acceptance of the defence of Tonga by the formation of 16 Brigade Group, using 6 Battalion, Canterbury Regiment, to replace 34 Battalion, and two battalions of Tongans, as well as New Zealand officers and non-commissioned officers for the artillery units and headquarters. In recommending to War Cabinet acceptance of this task, Puttick asked for a reduction in the strength of the force required.

By July all United States army units, ground and air, had been withdrawn, with the exception of ten men employed on the aerodrome. Although the battle situation in the Solomons put Tonga almost 2000 miles behind the combat zone, the South Pacific Command still desired some protection there against possible raiding parties from enemy submarines. By August 1943, although the enemy had been thrown out of the New Georgia Group, Japanese submarines were still operating far into the South Pacific. The steamer Young was torpedoed 40 miles south of Tonga that month but reached Nukualofa badly damaged.

Brigadier F. L. Hunt was given command of the brigade group and established his headquarters at Vaikeli, taking over the installations vacated by the Americans, with his battalions tactically disposed in the former areas. His principal staff officers and commanders, most of them from New Zealand, were:
GSO 1Lt-Col J. M. C. McLeod
GSO 2Maj H. D. Harvey
GSO 3Capt J. P. Gresson
Staff CaptainCapt H. R. Cameron
DAA & QMGMaj A. G. Gillies
Senior Medical OfficerLt-Col J. R. H. Fulton
ArtilleryLt-Col C. B. Menzies
EngineersMaj A. H. Bogle
ASCMaj A. McIntosh
SignalsMaj W. G. F. Pinkham
OrdnanceMaj F. Reid
Dental OfficerCapt E. R. Wimsett
6 Battalion, Canterbury RegimentLt-Col F. M. Mitchell
1 Battalion, Tongan Defence ForceLt-Col A. W. Reynolds
2 Battalion, Tongan Defence ForceLt-Col W. H. Fortune

The strength in armament contrasted impressively with the few rifles and machine guns possessed by the original hastily trained units of 1939–40. Included in the brigade group were one heavy and one light anti-aircraft battery and two field batteries of 18-pounders, officers and NCOs for which, as well as for the two Tongan battalions, were provided by New Zealand. Six 6-inch naval guns emplaced by the Americans for coastal defence were page 298 also manned by New Zealanders, though as many Tongans as possible were trained for employment in all arms of the service. Newly recruited Tongans, necessary to maintain a steady stream of reinforcements and to provide sufficient manpower for the second battalion, were given three weeks' training at a recruit depot before being posted to units. Unlike the Fijians, the Tongans trained without the stimulus of prospective overseas service, though before the arrival of the brigade group 28 members of the Tongan Defence Force, led by Masefield, a splendid example of the young New Zealand officer working with native troops, served with the Fijian guerrillas who were attached to 14 US Corps in the Solomons. One of them gained the Military Medal and another the American Silver Star for their bravery in the jungle.

Although the Canterbury battalion was under strength, by may 1943 there were 2662 New Zealand officers and men in Tonga, including coastwatchers and attached troops. Three months later the battle situation in the Solomons changed so rapidly that a reduction in the Tongan garrison was warranted and was recommended by New Zealand. South Pacific Command agreed, and the brigade group was reduced from 1948 New Zealanders and 2224 Tongans to 1018 New Zealanders and 1554 Tongans. This was done in August. The next reduction came in October, by which time the Japanese had been pushed back to Bougainville so that any danger to Tonga, even from raiding parties, was remote.

Puttick's recommendation for cutting down the force to 530 New Zealanders and 1215 Tongans was accepted by Halsey, who stated in reply that he considered the only garrison necessary should be sufficient simply for the maintenance of the existing service installations and that any reduction would be in accordance with his ‘established policy of rolling up the rear areas and bringing all South Pacific resources to bear upon the enemy in the combat zone.’ Puttick, a little over-cautious in the light of events, thought the anti-submarine defence was still necessary, so that a considerable body of New Zealanders remained on the island until the end of the year. Most of them, however, departed late in December, when the strategical and tactical role of 16 Brigade Group ended its existence of less than a year, but a number stayed until the following year to assist with the demobilisation of the Tongans and the disposal of military equipment.

Major R. B. Hardy1 took over command of a reduced Tongan

1 Maj R. B. Hardy, ED; Auckland; born Rakaia, 3 Jan 1899 schoolmaster CO Tonga Defence Force, Feb 1944–Apr 1946.

page 299 Defence Force on 15 February 1944, and remained until it was finally disbanded in 1945 with the cessation of hostilities. From 15 February, also, Tonga reverted tactically to the Fiji command, completing the circle begun in the early days of the war. One of Hardy's subsidiary appointments required him to watch the interests of the War Assets Realisation Board in disposing of surplus equipment to the Tongan Government which, by 1944, had grown a little critical of the cost and maintenance of a defence force when the kingdom was no longer in danger. Financial resources had been extended to their limit and the war had reduced revenue. In 1943 Tonga's contribution to war costs had been raised to £43,000, but this was reduced to £12,500 by February 1944, at which date Parliament suggested a reduction to £8000, the grant to cease altogether from the end of October 1944. Relations with the Tongans were close and untroubled for the most part throughout the war years. Before Hunt departed, Ata, the Premier, wrote in felicitous terms, expressing his appreciation for the lack of interference in Tonga's domestic life and the absence of friction during the garrison period. However, not all the cost of the war effort fell on Tonga. Both the United States and New Zealand forces metalled considerable lengths of roads which served the defence areas of Tongatabu, but such were the demands on the Government for their upkeep when they crumbled under the weight of constant service vehicles that New Zealand contributed £500 for their maintenance in 1944.

Not the least of New Zealand's contribution to the agriculture of Tonga was in the benefit derived from surplus stock from a farm which, with their natural aptitude for husbandry, the New Zealanders had organised on a piece of land presented by the Tongans, where they bred pigs and poultry and raised vegetables for the messes. Only one incident marred the whole occupation period. That occurred after Hardy took over command and towards the end of the garrison period, when some of the men, fatigued by long years of service, were difficult to hold. In October 1944 the Tongan non-commissioned officers and men walked out of their camp but without creating any disturbance. Queen Salote, a woman of determined character, took part in the ensuing investigations, which involved a long list of complaints about leave, the use of transport, the cigarette supply, and a rather bogus excuse that the New Zealand flag was flown at the camp instead of the Tongan flag. The discontent was traced to the unsettling effect on soldiers who had returned to their villages and the efforts of one Tongan officer who desired to make himself camp commander. During the war years the Queen used her influence page 300 to combat any disturbing influence caused by the influx of great numbers of American and New Zealand servicemen, whose outlook and ideas were so vastly different from those of the easy-going Tongans. Her advice and discretion kept in control the rather excessive nationalism of some of the individuals to which this ‘walkout’ was directly attributed, but any grievances were soon adjusted and there were no further differences during the remainder of Hardy's command of the force.

It may be appropriate here to mention that defending any Pacific island was not undertaken by New Zealand without considerable preliminary discussion and negotiation between the governments concerned. Before finality was reached on any of such agreements, the Government of the United Kingdom was kept fully informed and its approval obtained. As with Fiji, before the arrival of the United States forces and the American assumption of responsibility for defence, the governments concerned entered into long and technical agreements defining the respective liabilities, duties, and privileges of the occupying forces. Such agreements were necessary in assisting the administration and operation of the defending forces, and for the legal protection of persons and property. They are all part of the economy of war, which is not conducted without payment by friendly governments for the lands and buildings occupied.