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The Pacific

III: Norfolk Island

III: Norfolk Island

Although Norfolk Island is administered by the Commonwealth of Australia, the task of maintaining a garrison there from October 1942 until February 1944 fell to New Zealand. This small and isolated island of 8528 acres, the only land on the direct air route between New Zealand and New Caledonia, carries a link in the submarine cable across the Pacific, just as Fanning Island does many miles to the north. Australia, however, was not unduly concerned with its defence or its strategical value in the Pacific defence scheme.

Soon after the outbreak of war with Japan, a small Australian detachment of 57 all ranks was despatched to Norfolk to reinforce the island's own detachment and prevent sabotage of the cable station and its equipment, but in reply to a query by the New Zealand Government regarding Australia's assistance with the defence of New Caledonia, and in which reference was made to Norfolk, the Australian Government replied that the defence of Norfolk Island was primarily a naval responsibility and that any aerodrome constructed on it would be more of a liability than an asset. Ghormley, however, thought otherwise when he was page 301 drafting his early strategic defence of the South Pacific area. Because of its unique position, almost equidistant from New Caledonia, New Zealand and Australia, he saw that Norfolk had undoubted advantages of which he desired to make use. Although the island possessed no good harbours or reliably sheltered anchorages, he viewed it as a kind of stationary aircraft carrier, as so many other islands in the Pacific were to become as the battle moved north. A site for an aerodrome was readily available, and as soon as this was constructed it could become a base for anti-submarine patrols, a refuge for aircraft in distress, and a staging depot for land-based aircraft moving on the long hop over water between New Zealand, Australia and New Caledonia, and the battlefront in the Solomons farther north. For this last reason it was strongly supported by Air Commodore R. V. Goddard, Chief of the Air Staff in New Zealand at that time.

An adequate garrison, however, was necessary for its defence and to deny it to possible enemy raiding parties. The South Pacific Command immediately set about its plans for the construction of an aerodrome, and early in September 1942 despatched 4400 tons of construction equipment and supervising engineers to the island. In the same month 200 workmen of the Australian Commonwealth Main Road Department reached the island to begin preliminary work.

For defence and protection Ghormley requested from New Zealand a minimum garrison force of one infantry battalion, three batteries of anti-aircraft artillery, hospital and other services and, when the airfield was complete, one flight each of fighter and dive-bomber aircraft. The only units suitable and ready were those from 3 Division (or the Kiwi forces as they were known), at that time being reorganised and trained in preparation for further service in the Pacific under Barrowclough.

On 29 September 1942 that New Zealand War Cabinet approved the despatch of the necessary garrison force for Norfolk, though Army Headquarters pointed out to the South Pacific Command that in supplying garrisons for both Norfolk and Tonga the preparation and departure of the Kiwi force, then requested by Ghormley, would be delayed. Calls on the Dominion's dwindling manpower reserves were then creating a problem which was soon to curtail any further expansion. However, a small force known as N Force, consisting of 1488 all ranks under Lieutenant-Colonel J. W. Barry, commander of 36 Battalion, was assembled and despatched. It consisted of Barry's own battalion, with detachments of engineers, ASC, and Ordnance, and a strong supporting group of artillery made up of four 155-millimetre guns of 152 Heavy page 302 Battery, commanded by Major G. L. Falck, four 3.7-inch anti-aircraft and eight 40-millimetre guns of 215 Composite Anti-Aircraft Battery under Major J. M. Ewen, and a field troop of 25-pounder guns under Captain C. S. Dickson. Later the members of the Australian detachment domiciled on the island became part of N Force, the remainder returning to the Australian mainland. An advanced party, consisting of the commander and representative officers with C Company and the carrier platoon, landed on 26 September through rough seas which were indicative of future shipping problems. After conferring with the island administrator, Major-General Sir Charles Rosenthal, camp areas were selected in readiness for the arrival of the main body, which came in two flights on 9 and 14 October in the troopship Wahine, escorted by HMS Monowai and the United States destroyer Clark.

By the time N Force reached the island, work had been started on preparing the land for the aerodrome, and most of the garrison saw the mile-long avenue of 100-foot-high Norfolk pines before it was sacrificed to the remorseless dictates of war, much to the grief of the islanders, most of them descendants of the historical ship Bounty. There were about 700 of them, living an uneventful and detached life on an island where natural beauty and an equable climate combined to make it most pleasantly habitable. They found that the influx of twice their number in service personnel gave an impetus and industry to their daily round such as they had never previously known, and they were soon to be linked with the outside world, hitherto available only by infrequent visits from ships, by a regular air service.

Barry established Force Headquarters in the house and grounds of ‘Devon’, with unit camps disposed in idyllic sites round the 23 miles of rugged coastline, which gave them glimpses of cliff and creaming reef and blue sea between the stately pines which take their name from the island. A 24-hour watch was instituted, and the task of defending the island and its installations against sudden raids from enemy submarines was begun in circumstances more pleasant than on any other Pacific island garrisoned by men of 3 Division units. Discomforts were few after the force was installed. Because of the lack of protected roadsteads, embarkation and disembarkation were at the mercy of the elements. There were stone piers at Kingston (the second oldest British settlement in the Pacific) and at Cascade—piers which dated from the grimmest page in the island's history, when it was a convict settlement with an evil reputation, but their availability depended on the weather. More often than not stores were taken ashore in whaleboats from ships lying off the shore, and on one occasion a supply ship, the page 303 Karsik, lay there for 23 days. Unfortunately rain fell soon after the arrival of the force, turning the dusty red roads into bogs and adding to the discomfort of those sleeping out of doors. Because of faulty loading, tents did not come off the supply ship Waipari for some weeks, so that many of the troops slept under improvised shelters, in deserted houses or under the pungent vaults of the pines, which they had preferred to do in the fine weather.

A natural barrier of cliffs defends most of the Norfolk coastline, so that any tactical scheme involved the defence of only certain possible landing areas. Units and guns were tactically sited to meet such eventuality, remote though it was, with mobility the underlying principle of every scheme. Coastwatchers were linked with a central operations room, but there were the usual alarms and blasphemous excursions before the arrival of any ships off the island.

As soon as defence plans had been exercised to operational efficiency, a roading and camp construction plan, invariably associated with every New Zealand project in the Pacific, was started by the engineers under Captain W. P. Hitchcock. They put a disused sawmill into operation and were soon producing 65,000 superficial feet of timber a month. They built a 20-bed hospital, metalled earth and clay roads which served the camps and others serving the aerodrome, the maintenance of which the engineers took over on 5 March. The ASC detachment under Major R. C. Aley, who was also AA and QMG of the force, extended the scope of its supply activities by embarking on the production of fresh vegetables in quantity, ultimately producing so many kumaras that they lost their popularity as army food.

In order to ensure a regular supply of fresh meat and overcome the tendency to reduce too drastically the island's limited stock of beef, a modest flock of 300 sheep reached the island on New Year's Day 1943. Only one was lost getting the flock ashore under the professional eye of one of the battalion's many farmers, Major B. H. Pringle,1 the second-in-command. This had been preceded by some excitement on Christmas Day, when ambitious arrangements were made to provide a dinner suitable for the occasion by flying from New Zealand sufficient lamb, green peas, and new potatoes for the force and dropping them by parachute on the runways, one of which was rapidly nearing completion. Some of the parachutes failed to open so that the containers burst as they struck the ground, scattering the thoughtfully shelled peas

1 Lt-Col B. H. Pringle, ED; Feilding born NZ 3 Oct 1905; stock buyer; CO 36 Bn, Dec 1943-Apr 1944.

page 304 over the runway. One of the aircraft decided to make a landing and achieved the distinction of being the first to land on the aerodrome, No. 1 runway of which occupied the site of the former avenue of pines. Two Hudson bombers landed on 28 December and three the following day, and the era of dawn-dusk patrols began from Norfolk Island.

N Force staff worked ceaselessly to prevent an epidemic of that peevish condition known as ‘browning off’, which became so prevalent in the Pacific. Route marches, sports meetings, varied training exercises and manœuvres kept the men occupied and particularly fit, and for recreation there were bathing beaches, a concert party organised by Padre K Liggett1 at his recreational centre at ‘Four Pines’, and tramps to the more historical corners of the island. The generous inhabitants, with little produce to spare, welcomed the New Zealanders and presented them periodically with an ox and quantities of fruit and vegetables. There were, of course, the usual problems resulting from the influx of double the number of inhabitants to an island remote from any regular trade routes. On 25 February 1943 the Australian Government sent a mild protest to New Zealand, stating that because soldiers bought all the milk from the farmers the butter factory on the island had ceased operations, and also that they had bought such quantities of passion fruit that the pulp factory's output had been greatly reduced. Australia had also been obliged to assist with supplies of bread, flour, and meat, though the New Zealand garrison should have been self-contained. These complaints were a legacy from the arrival of the force, when the unloading of the first supply ship was held up by bad weather. After 19 weeks on the island, only one supply ship had reached Norfolk.

At the end of March 1943, 36 Battalion and the artillery units began their move to rejoin 3 Division in New Caledonia. N Force was replaced by 2 Battalion, Wellington-West Coast Regiment, under Lieutenant-Colonel A. R. Cockerell, DSO,2 who took over command of the island defences from Barry on 9 April. Cockerell inherited an organisation which required little change. Artillery units from New Zealand under Major A. B. Chappell replaced those returning to 3 Division, and detachments of other services similarly took over.

Three months after the relief moved in, however, the strength of N Force was reduced. All Grade I men, of whom there were

1 Rev. K. Liggett; Cambridge; born England, 29 Apr 1905; Anglican minister; SCF 2 NZEF IP, Apr 1943-Apr 1944.

2 Lt-Col A. R. Cockerell, DSO, m.i.d.; Invercargill; born Macraes Flat, Otago, 21 Nov 1891; Regular soldier; Otago Regt 1914–19; 2 NZEF, Egypt, 1940–41; CO 2 Bn WWC Regt; CO N Force, 1943.

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Black and White Photograph of troops and equipment on shore

Ready to leave Stirling Island, treasury Group, for return to New Caledonia

Black and White Photograph of troops at mess

34 NZ Infantry Battallion Mess, Outpost 13, Tonga

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Black and White Photograph of cunningham

Major General W. H. Cunningham, First Commander in Fiji

Black and White Photograph of officers

Brigadier R. A. Row, commander of 8 brigade, and Sir cyril Newall, Governor-General of New Zealand, on an inspection tour in the Treasury Group

Black and White Photograph of officers

Lieutenant-Colonel F. C. Cornwall, Brigadier L. Potter, Commander of 14 Brigade, and Lieutenant-Colonel J.F. Moffat on Nissan Island

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Black and White Photograph of officers on ship

On a transport at Noumea Harbour, New Caledonia
(from left to right) Major-General Rush B. Lincoln, Brigadier L. G. Goss, Brigadier C. S. J. Duff, Major-General H. E. Barrowclough, Colonel J. M. Twhigg, captain of the transport(name unknown), Colonel J. I. Brooke, Hon. F. Jones, Minister of Defence

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Black and White Photograph of soldiers

2 NZEF in Japan
22 NZ Battallion controlling the Japanese repatiration centre at Senzaki

Black and White Photograph of soldiers watching farming

New Zealanders watch Japanese farm labourers plant the new season's rice

page 305 600 with the force, 338 of them between the ages of 19 and 37, were recalled to New Zealand in July. By September the strategical situation was such that, in the opinion of the South Pacific Command, a garrison was no longer necessary, except to operate and maintain the airfield. Cabinet approved the withdrawal of the force on 15 November, and on 8 December 478 members of the garrison embarked for Auckland. A small rear party remained until 11 February 1944, on which day command passed to the officer commanding the RNZAF station at the aerodrome, and Norfolk became an Air Force responsibility until the end of hostilities. A message of congratulation from Mr. John Curtin, Prime Minister of Australia, in which he paid generous tribute to the behaviour and co-operation of the New Zealanders, farewelled the military garrison.

One of the more important aspects of the value of Norfolk Island was its use as a navigation aid to aircraft passing along the air route New Zealand-New Caledonia-Fiji. A radar station established on the island by the RNZAF in May 1943 remained in operation there until the end of hostilities and saved both lives and aircraft. One example of its work is sufficient. A Flying Fortress, which developed engine trouble at the height of a storm, was flying in circles 90 miles south of the island when it was picked up on the screen and brought to a safe landing on the airfield when visibility was at tree-top level.

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Before the United States assumed responsibility for the protection of the Society Group in 1942, New Zealand had given considerable assistance to the French administration there. After the outbreak of war in Europe, Australia undertook to defend the French possession of New Caledonia, and New Zealand undertook a similar responsibility for Tahiti. On 6 September 1940 HMS Achilles, commanded by Captain W. E. Parry, RN, was despatched to Papeete with Mr. C. A. Berendsen, head of the Prime Minister's Department, who held discussions with the administration authorities, after which a New Zealand representative was sent to take up temporary residence there. New Zealand was primarily concerned for the protection of the valuable phosphate works on Makatea, one of the smaller of the Society Islands, where several Japanese were employed until their country entered the war. The French community of Tahiti was split by political strife and intrigue between the de Gaulle and Vichy factions; the defences of the group were outmoded and quite useless, and the New Zealand Government requested that de Gaulle be so informed.

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New Zealand's assistance included the supply of 24 Thompson sub-machine guns, 24,000 rounds of ammunition, web equipment, and drill cloth for uniforms. Her Government also established a credit of £7000 to tide the French administration over the early war period and the collapse of France. As soon as a contingent of residents from the Society Group was ready to move overseas to join the Free French forces in Africa, HMS Monowai and the Canadian ship Prince Rupert were sent in April 1941 to transport 300 of them of Noumea. In June that year, at the request of the Governor of New Caledonia, New Zealand sent Major J. W. Barry to examine and report on the defences of the Society Group, which he did very fully, confirming earlier reports of their inefficiency and uselessness. Then, in January 1942, United States forces secretly moved into Bora Bora, where they established a naval station and air bases which were operating by April of that year. The French administration bargained for some months on reparations, but the Americans were by then firmly established and remained until the end of the war. No New Zealand land forces were ever sent to the group, though a request was made by the authorities early in the war to provide at least 200 ground troops as the nucleus of a defence force.