CHAPTER 1 — The Birth of a Unit
The Birth of a Unit
However much the outcome of future wars may depend on atom power, or some yet-to-be-discovered source of energy, there is no doubt that petrol played a vital part in World Wars I and II. In the earlier conflict, Britain and her allies ‘floated to victory on a wave of oil’—American oil; and much of the peacetime strategy which followed aimed at the control of major oil supplies. For without oil the planes, the ships, the tanks, the transport, and other components of a military machine instantly become just so much junk.
It could be expected then, that after World War I, New Zealand authorities would hail the era of the internal combustion engine and dismiss horses from the military scene. But no. In 1919 our Army Service Corps could muster only 20 motor-trucks and cars; while by 1939 this country's total was 86 military motor vehicles of all kinds.
Germany, on the other hand, though forbidden by the Versailles Treaty to rearm, lost no time in building up for her Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, based on the use of motorised arms. She amassed vast stocks of planes, tanks, mobile guns and motor transport, and accumulated large stores of rubber, high-grade aviation fuel, motor spirit, and other petroleum products. Her High Command also created the organisation needed to keep large armies supplied with POL (petrol, oil and lubricants) during a large-scale and swift-moving military adventure.
In 1930 New Zealand abolished compulsory military training, and whittled down the NZASC from 457 all ranks to 287. By 1939 this arm had dwindled to 168, mostly Territorials, split up among the three military commands. Each of these had its own ASC company—a composite one undertaking all ASC duties and still using horse transport. Thus when World War II broke out, New Zealand had no unit specially formed or trained to supply a modern fighting force with POL, or to page 2 service its vehicles—an unpromising start for that ‘Ball of Fire’ (as Churchill later dubbed the 2 NZEF) so soon to become a spearhead in great mobile battles.
There was, in short, no New Zealand Petrol Company; and that lusty ‘babe’ which, through its ASC parentage, can trace a lineage back to the Maori Wars (when a Commissariat Transport Company used canoes and bullock drays) was still unborn.
When the call came in September 1939 for volunteers to form a Special Force, for service within or beyond New Zealand, Petrol Company components were already on hand. Gordon Trevelyan,1 for example, who claims to be the first man to register at the Wellington Area Office for service in World War II, was there and in uniform when war broke out. With him were other Territorials of 2 Composite Company, NZASC, on a weekend training course. WO II Trevelyan was then the company's sergeant-major.
Also present were three Territorial officers of the Composite Company who later held commissions in the original I New Zealand Petrol Company: Ken Ramsden,2 John Hunter,3 and Alex Dickson,4 Petrol Company's first OC. There, too, was the legendary Charles Graham,5 whose bleak eye and bristling moustaches dominated the Company from the day of its inception. A regular soldier, Graham became Petrol Company's first CSM—also its terror, and its pride.
Early in the morning of 4 September, Staff-Sergeant Graham called the Territorial party together and announced that New Zealand was at war. The country needed volunteers, immediately, to run supplies to hastily mobilised Guards Vital Points. Who would offer? And so, more than a week before recruiting opened for the Special Force, about twenty citizen-soldiers of the ASC had begun their war effort. Of those who page 3 that way ‘beat the pistol’ some went, eventually, into the Petrol Company.
Others got in through a temporary vagueness over their date of birth. Age limits for the Special Force were from 21 to 35; and it is said of the Petrol Company that most of its foundation members—the original ‘thirty-niners’—were either over or under age on enlistment. Some had seen service in the 1914-18 war; among the others Second-Lieutenant McCook,6 who served throughout the 1939-45 war and afterwards in J Force, celebrated his 21st birthday a few months after arriving in Egypt. Many were among the 5419 New Zealanders who volunteered on the first day of enlistment, 12 September 1939.
One of these was Jim Greig.7 Like Trevelyan he had done long service as a Territorial—14 years, in fact—learning the game of soldiering. And now, suddenly, here it was… the real thing. He was keen to go; but would they take him? Jim gave his age as 34, and to his relief (for somewhere the Army must have had his record) he was accepted.
It was a fine, sunny morning, Jim remembers—one of Wellington's best—and a crowd of chaps in civvies were milling round at Buckle Street, all eager, as he was, to enlist. A voice from a microphone called them to order.
‘Would the gentlemen please keep quiet and form a queue?’
Gentlemen? Gentlemen? What was this? They had no right to call him, and other old soldiers, ‘gentlemen’.
Then, later, with meaningful emphasis, the Voice intoned: ‘Would the gentleman who took a fountain-pen from the office table return it immediately—please!!’
They continued to be ‘gentlemen’ until they reached Trentham, where the fathers of some of them had trained years before. Thereafter they were called many things … but never, never gentlemen! At first it was ‘Hey, soldier!’ or ‘You there!’, a useful anonymity which vanished when faces, figures and personalities became known to those in authority.page 4
Some made an impression quite early—a bad thing in a regime of guards and fatigues, when ‘volunteers’ were selected by the time-honoured method of pointing the finger, with a ritual chanting of ‘You—and you—and you’. To be conspicuous then just didn't pay. Nor did it pay to ‘lip’ an NCO, or even to think your thoughts at him. These things and many more (few of them in the little red books) were soon learnt by Petrol Company types in those early days. They were, in fact, ‘old soldiers’ from the word go.
Nicknames came early and stayed late—until long after the war, in fact—and the Company's characters were soon sorted up, both then and as the ‘show’ developed.
‘Why do they call me Atlas?’ asked one worried corporal, with the cares of the world resting obviously on his shoulders. There was ‘Mailbag’ Morgan,8 always expecting letters (not the only one in those war days) and ‘Two-ton Tony’, ‘Hurricane’ Harrison,9 ‘Stuka’ Livett10 —not all foundation members of the Company, but all very popular, and conspicuous in its annals. Among them were ‘Doc’ Donaldson,11 L. D. (‘Light Duty’) Jones,12 ‘Half-akker’ Neill,13 and ‘Boundary Bill’ Davis,14 last seen well after the war riding the range on his Taranaki cow-ranch; while ‘Cocko’ Howell15 … ah, yes … ‘Cocko’ … !
Like many another, ‘Cocko’ had been celebrating his introduction to soldiering, and he arrived at Trentham station feeling rather playful. On hand to meet the draft was Petrol Company's Ken Ramsden, with two bright stars shining on each shoulder. To 6000 Private Howell, F. W., they didn't mean a thing.page 5
‘Hey, Cocko’, he called. ‘Give us a hand with these b— bags will yer?’
And the good-natured lieutenant hoisted one battered suitcase while ‘Cocko’ struggled with another—the first and last time a Petrol Company other rank ever found an officer to act as his batman.
With ‘Cocko’ came Petrol Company recruits of every shape and size, in every variety of civilian garb, and at all stages of sobriety. Most were from Wellington city and district, and practically all had had experience in handling mechanical transport. Many had been car or truck drivers by occupation; others were skilled mechanics, fitters, panel-beaters. These last were creamed off by Lieutenant McDonagh16 to form his D (Workshops) Section.
Adapting the frame to army clothing, and the feet to army boots, was only one of the many adjustments which recruits had to make at this stage. Their quarters—bell-tents, packed with other bodies and their dunnage—were cramped and uncomfortable. There was crowding at showers and ablutions, incessant queues, irritating orders and counter-orders, endless, and sometimes senseless, restrictions on personal liberty. Most men found this irksome at first; but before long they had all shaken down to the new way of life, and to a training programme aimed at ‘producing through hardship a tough physical fitness’.
Army rations, also, took some facing up to. But meals improved as the cooks got into their stride. On the whole, Charlie Kavanagh,17 Wally Batt18 and Frank Briggs19 did a good job for Petrol Company in its early days, and there were few complaints. The ‘babbling brooks’ had their difficulties, too. Sometimes, through lack of proper facilities, food prepared overnight was ‘on the nose’ by morning, and had to be thrown out—followed by much scurrying around to get something page 6 else ready in time for the men's breakfast. At that stage there was no refrigeration in the unit cookhouse, and foods such as meat, milk, and jellies had to be kept in the butcher's shop, which was cool and well ventilated.
Even there the stuff was not safe, Bill Ambrose20 recalls, since it was liable to contamination by smuts from the cookhouse chimney. All Petrol Company's kitchen utensils were several sizes too large. This meant that potatoes and other vegetables had to be shifted off the coal-fuelled ranges as soon as they came to the boil; for if the top layers were allowed to cook through, those on the bottom would become mash!
At this time, Bill, who later became Petrol Company's sergeant cook, was struggling to qualify as a regimental ‘spud-barber’. They sent him, he says, to Army School, where he learnt the ration scale and nothing more, then back to camp to cook for an officers' mess. In their brand-new cookhouse Bill was on velvet. He knew his pots and pans—he had done a bit of cooking on civvy street. But he had the devil's own job, he remembers, getting his 2s. 6d. a day extra-duty pay, and eventually had to go back to Army School to qualify. Another cookhouse character was the popular Charlie Hatchard,21 whose skill at marching out of step got him off the parade ground and into the kitchen as a permanent fatigue. He, like most of Petrol Company, became a front-line soldier on Crete and gave a good account of himself in the fighting at Galatas.
Washing-up facilities in Trentham were poor, and a constant source of complaint. They consisted usually of two dixies containing a thick slush that had once been water, one hot, one cold. The men, after meals, approached these in queues, dipping their mugs, mess-tins and ‘eating-irons’ first into one and then into the other. Tail-enders in the queue usually found it better to skip this ritual and rinse their gear by stealth at the ablution-stand taps.
Equally deplorable was the sanitation ‘system’. At first this was on the bucket plan, each tin being fitted with a hinged lid page 7 liable to damage the user. Except for a while in the mornings these offices stank. The cans were emptied at night by convict gangs from the nearby gaol. Prisoners also removed the cookhouse swill, which had to be kept ‘clean’ and free from tins and tea leaves.
Gradually these primitive arrangements were replaced as public works contractors laboured day and night, installing hot showers, water-closets, and other amenities. They built huts and recreation halls, made roads, cleared rough land in the occupied areas, so that other drafts of the Special Force (later called the 2 NZEF) camped in comparative luxury.
But Petrol Company's first echelon had no such luck. Their lines were set on stony ground between those of Divisional Signals and 4 RMT, with 19 Battalion in the same area but on the farther flank of RMT. This layout gave rise to some lively inter-unit rivalries, with Petrol Company challenging strongly for the distinction of being the toughest unit in camp. Nor did its men hesitate to proclaim themselves the senior ASC company.
In those early training days in the spring of 1939 CSM Graham ruled the roost, skilfully scarifying both officers and men. And the troops, though they trembled, loved it.
‘Have you a sense of humour, man?’ he would bellow, face pink and moustaches bristling. ‘For by the (something-something) you'll need it before I'm finished with you!’
‘Private So-and-so!’ he once demanded. ‘What d'yer mean by coming on parade with a button undone?’ Then, as the luckless recruit looked down at the offending item: ‘That's right—call me a liar! Won't take my word for it, huh?’
On another occasion one soldier so far forgot himself as to call the Sar'nt-Major ‘Charlie’.
‘Good God, man!’ he thundered. ‘I'm pretty democratic, but I'm not that damned democratic. Call me Sir!!’
Came the day when Earle Pickering22 wanted leave to get married, with Fred Davey23 lined up as best man. Anxiously page 8 Fred approached the Orderly Room (also ruled by CSM Graham) and lodged the request. This was granted. But when routine orders were posted they showed leave allowed for the best man, but not for the bridegroom!
Approached again by Fred, who mentioned the inconvenience of a wedding without a groom, the CSM guffawed: ‘Huh! Huh! Huh! If you had any guts you'd stand in for him!’
Himself a first-class soldier (and a man among men) Graham spared no effort to turn the recruits—raw and unpromising though some of them must have seemed—into soldiers also. And in a very few weeks he had succeeded. Their parade- ground work became as good as any in the 2 NZEF, and was often watched by groups of admiring onlookers from other units who happened to be off duty, excused duty, or just not caught up with.
But training in transport work did not follow so readily. To begin with, Petrol Company had scarcely a vehicle … though Jim Greig remembers one awkward articulated six- whecler—impressed from heaven knows where—which he was detailed to drive to the station for a load of baggage. Secretly, by night, Sergeant Greig spent hours learning to tame this unwieldy crate, at no small risk to huts and tentage.
Then one day the OC sent a party of drivers to Palmerston North to pick up transport. This, Petrol Company's first convoy, turned out to be a mixed bag of butchers' vans, brewery wagons, and the like, plus one Diamond-T truck, an Indiana 5-ton flat-top, and a couple of Morrises. Corporals Brown24 and Ginders25 helped to usher in this scratch outfit, crude forerunner of the efficient fleets the Company drove and maintained in battle areas.
Still, hopeless though the collection was by comparison, it was better than nothing, and it enabled some sort of MT training to be given. Before that, men could be seen tearing madly round at Trentham, checking the tyres, fuel and water page 9 of non-existent vehicles; obeying orders and signals to mount, dismount, advance in column to the right, deploy to the left, and so on, when there was exactly nothing to mount and dismount, or to drive and deploy. The signals were given with much vigour and arm-waving, the hands no doubt holding imaginary sabres.
The arrival of this transport also sparked the interest of Workshops (D Section) which was languishing for want of equipment, stores, spare parts, and a place to do business— also something to do business on. Their rough palms itched for the feel of spanner and grease-gun; and although there were few tools except privately-owned ones which some of the men had brought into camp with them, now at last they could be reasonably happy, probing the innards of engines, checking systems and assemblies, and generally comporting themselves in the manner proper to Workshops personnel.
Previously they had engaged in the ‘general’ or ‘basic’ training; and they still did their share of it. This was on infantry lines, and consisted of route marches (with and without respirators, rifles, packs, etc.), ‘bull-ring’, weapon training, rifle drill and PT. There was saluting to the right, the left, the front—with rifles, and without—but never, never!—without a hat. And so practised did they become at this martial exercise— saluting—that Petrol Company considered themselves not only the toughest, but the politest, unit in Trentham. But only on parade of course. In town, and around camp, they were all sadly afflicted with officer-blindness.
On 23 November came the announcement that the first contingent of the Special Force (or the First Echelon, as it was soon to be called) would shortly go overseas with Major-General Bernard Freyberg26 in command. This heartened the trainees, and put a stop to rumours that the Special Force was scheduled to go on leave without pay, and return to their jobs in ‘civvy street’; or—even worse—that they would remain as a more or less permanent garrison in New Zealand base camps.page 10
No destination was disclosed. The question depended on the attitude of Japan. But as her friendliness at that time seemed beyond doubt, the acting Prime Minister (the Hon. Peter Fraser), who was then in London, was able to advise Cabinet on 7 November that Egypt was the most suitable place for our troops. On 3 December the GOC, who was also in London after a period with the BEF in France, requested that an advance party of 50 other ranks be sent immediately to Egypt, to prepare for the arrival of the main body.
This advance party included Petrol Company's CQMS (Cecil Broomfield27), Sergeant Macphail28 and Driver Cassin.29 On 11 December it left Wellington for Sydney in TSS Awatea, and eventually reached Suez on 7 January. Meanwhile the rest of the Company carried on, with ‘the mixture as before’— square-bashing, route marches, guards and fatigues, queues and reviews, inspections, injections, and objections. Woven into the pattern were such minor disasters as an epidemic of'flu which curtailed leave, a howling southerly that blew down all the tents, and an OC addicted to bagpipes.
Captain Dickson (known variously as ‘Sandy’, ‘A.C.D.’, or ‘Granny’) made a meticulous company commander and showed keen interest in the welfare of his men. He had served in the First World War, and then for many years as a Territorial officer. Lieutenants Hunter and Ramsden took over A and C Sections respectively; Second-Lieutenant McCook was Adjutant, Lieutenant McDonagh (another World War I veteran) Workshops Officer. Sergeants for A, C, and D Sections were W. F. Browne,30 Les Cowen,31 and Jim Greig, with Harry Barnett32 as Mechanist Sergeant in D Section, and page 11 Alec Rusden33 as orderly-room sergeant. B Section then existed only on paper; it was to be comprised of Second Echelon men.
Came a sobering moment when members of the Wellington Law Society arrived in camp to help soldiers make their wills, free of charge. About the same time Petrol Company got their ‘meat tickets’—identification discs stamped with name, regimental number, religion and blood-group.
Some of the ‘hard shots’ began to play up, on the principle of ‘roosters today, feather dusters tomorrow’; and Fred Davey got three days' pack-drill for back-chatting the CSM. On the first day, conveniently ‘forgetting’ this sentence, Fred hailed himself, after training, to the wet canteen. But CSM Graham had not forgotten; in such matters his memory was infallible. Fred was hauled off under escort, to shoulder a large pack filled with sand, and thus saddled to pound the bull-ring. Next night Fred didn't wait for an escort. He got to the bull-ring early. There he emptied the troublesome pack and refilled it with paper, sprinkling a little sand on top.
Other martial exploits involving the Company about this time were the silencing of one camp bugler's instrument by stuffing it with paper and the choking of the OC's chanter with cheese. This was done with due regard for medical ethics by the RMO, Lieutenant Lomas.34 Of more sanguinary character were the occasional skirmishes with the neighbouring infantry; while proceedings were also enlivened by a spot of mutiny when a band of revellers set out to ‘crown’ Sergeant Greig with a latrine can.
Less easily dealt with were the night operations of a pocket of banshees. These employed nuisance tactics after lights out by emitting blood-curdling howls and wolf-calls. Chief casualties were the peace of mind of certain officers, and of the orderly sergeant detailed to deal with the situation. The methods of the infiltrators were simple enough: from somewhere down the line of darkened tents a solitary yowl would arise—to be answered by another and then another, until the whole area was at it.page 12
Urged on by his superiors, the maddened NCO would pounce, swiftly raise a tent-flap, and shine his torch on the faces of the men—only to find them all snoring peacefully! In time the powers-that-were learned sense; they forbore to take the matter seriously, and so the operation gradually fizzled out.
Meanwhile brows were puckering and lights were burning late in Trentham orderly rooms as the final touches were put to plans for embarkation. On 14 December—while HMS Achilles was pursuing the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee somewhere off the mouth of the River Plate—the First Echelon was placed on active service. The men were given a fortnight's final leave, free travel warrants to their home or place of enlistment, and were paid a £3 gratuity. The war was now a distinct step nearer.
In their home towns the men were feted, given parties, receptions, farewells. Many received gifts; while it was clear from the speeches that most people now realised that this war, despite some phoney aspects, did have its more serious side. Not in the same street, of course, with World War I; but serious enough to involve New Zealand lives, to affect New Zealand homes and ways of life. The recruits themselves were far from dismayed. They enjoyed the fun-and-games, went on the ‘scoot’, and were happy to spend Christmas at home— the last for years for most of them; for others, the last ever.
By New Year, 1940, Petrol Company and the rest were back on the old beat at Trentham, but with a difference. Tents and tucker were much the same; new buildings had gone up; there were freshly-tarred roads between the lines. But the big change was in the men themselves. They were maturer now, more self-assured. They had assumed the mantle of the Anzacs; and they walked with brisk step and chin held high, as though they realised that on them, and their like, hung the fate of civilisation.
But that did not damp their ebullience. As ‘Y’ Day approached—the date for embarkation—Petrol Company personnel showed increased signs of mounting spirits and a disposition to ‘kick over the traces’ … to have a last fling (or a whole series of them) before plunging into the hazards of war. And despite the vigilance of NCOs and pickets, many took page 13 unofficial leave in the city, some staying overnight, but invariably showing up in time for the morning muster.
Though every man was by now hard and fit, their ASC training had been hampered by lack of MT and other equipment. This was noted by the GOC, who had arrived from England on Christmas Day. The troops, he reported, would need a further period of training at their place of disembarkation, and would not be fit for war for another three months. There they would get their vehicles and other equipment, as arranged with the British War Office.
Both the destination and the date of sailing remained undisclosed, although detailed embarkation orders had been arriving at unit headquarters since 20 December. On 3 January 1940 an order marked ‘Secret’ informed the ASC that ‘Y’ Day for them was 5 January, and that when they entrained at Trentham station NCOs were to be ‘posted one at each door of each carriage to prevent unauthorised ingress or egress of personnel’. The order went on to say:
‘O.C. trains will ensure that all personnel know that owing to small clearance between railway carriages and cranes, all windows must be kept closed to ensure that no hands are put out, nor should NCOs on duty in each carriage leave the doors of carriages to look over iron gates’. Things were beginning to move at last. But either this message was mis-typed, or the authorities were more concerned about hands than heads!
Many were disappointed, no doubt, to read (in Embarkation Order No. 2) that ‘swords and scabbards will not be carried by officers, and will not be taken overseas’. Of more interest to Petrol Company was the instruction that ASC personnel would not take with them ‘frogs, web, bayonet’, though this provision did not absolve them from further dull periods of infantry training on board ship and at their destination.
On 3 January all leave for the First Echelon ceased. In the morning Petrol Company, along with the rest, took part in a ceremonial parade through Wellington. Their marching was judged fully equal to that of the infantry, though some hold that its excellence on this occasion was due to the strategic placement of a pipe band (through the influence of Captain Dickson) just in front. There was also a complaint that the page 14 officers, not carrying rifles, forgot to give orders to change arms; so some men arrived back at Trentham sore both in temper and shoulder. In the afternoon the camp was open to visitors.
Two days later Petrol Company, loaded with baggage, scrambled aboard troop-train C2 at Trentham station. By 9.20 a.m. they were waving farewell, with more of irony than real regret, to the camp that had been their home for three months. And so they set out on the long eventful Odyssey which was to lead them into many lands, and across many seas, in defence of their homeland. At 10.4 a.m. they arrived in Wellington. By noon they had embarked.
Their ship was the Orion, still equipped with the trimmings of a passenger liner. As HM (NZ) Transport Z4 she carried on that trip 1428 troops, and did it in style. Privates and corporals found unexpected comfort in their four-berth cabins—reading lamps, wash-hand basins, wardrobes. Officers and sergeants fared even better, with access to smoking-rooms and lounges. For all ranks there were swimming baths, deck games, wet and dry canteens. Little wonder that the troops showed a disposition to wallow; and Petrol Company NCOs had trouble at first getting some of their men to ‘show a leg’.
At 2 p.m. Z4 moved out into the stream, to the sound of cheering, shouting, and the hooting of sirens from on shore. For despite all efforts at secrecy, a large crowd had gathered at the wharves to watch the troops embark, while the hills overlooking the harbour were thronged with people. Other ships in the convoy were the Empress of Canada (carrying 809 all ranks), the Strathaird (1350), and the Rangitata (442), with their naval escort HMS Ramillies and HMAS Canberra.
Next day, 6 January, at 6 a.m. the fleet steamed out into Cook Strait, there to make rendezvous with the Sobieski (1145 all ranks) and the Dunera (1355) bringing troops from the South Island, under escort of HMS Leander. The ships formed up in convoy order, then steamed west toward the Tasman. Overhead, aircraft of the Royal New Zealand Air Force dipped their wings in salute, as another New Zealand Expeditionary Force—the second within a generation—set out from its homeland.
26 Lt-Gen Lord Freyberg, VC, GCMG, KCB, KBE, DSO and 3 bars, m.i.d., Order of Valour and MC (Gk); born Richmond, Surrey, 21 Mar 1889; CO Hood Bn 1914-16; comd 173 Bde, 58 Div, and 88 Bde, 29 Div, 1917-18; GOC 2 NZEF Nov 1939-Nov 1945; twice wounded; Governor-General of New Zealand Jun 1946-Aug 1952.