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Petrol Company

CHAPTER 2 — At Sea

page 15

At Sea

In their snug quarters on ‘C’ deck Petrol Company's 165 other ranks soon shook down to shipboard life. From Cabin 15, Sergeant Greig wrote in his diary:

2nd Day Out, Sunday, 7/1/40

Lifebelt and trousers handy to bed, ready for all hands in case of emergency.

Oil and flannelette issue for rifles.

Lectures by Lt McDonagh, Sgt Barnett, Pte Ross1 and Pte Williams, L. J.2

Beautiful and calm today. 14 hours out from Wgtn. Troops settling down. Slight swell last night caused a spot of seasickness…. Church parade 1100 hrs a great success. Deck quoits and tennis good sport.

3rd Day Out, Monday, 8/1/40

Orderly Sergeant today. Very quiet. The heat down below on ‘F’ deck where O/Room is situated became rather oppressive and I was inclined to feel the motion of the ship somewhat. However, was not sick—pictures on tonight—looked in for few minutes but atmosphere was stifling so did not stay. Harry Barnett and myself had to go out on deck to inspect covering over Vauxhall chassis. Owing to black-out it was very hard to find one's way about. We could just discern the silhouette of the accompanying vessels.

Saw school of porpoises at dusk—they follow one another and are great to watch.

page 16

4th Day Out, Tuesday, 9/1/40

Still another fine day. Woke up feeling much refreshed after good sleep.

Despite white-caps our ship rides well–must be getting used to the motion now as today I have not felt it in the least.

Meals are great—our waiter, George, is a wizard at his job. This morning, Empress of Canada left her position behind our ship and tore past over the horizon with Ramillies and Canberra as escort.

Reported she has gone to Sydney for oil. Also that she has Gen. Freyberg aboard.*

Vaccination today.

5th Day Out, Wednesday, 10/1/40

Saw a whale this afternoon, and some of the boys report seeing sharks.

A great day again. Weather marvellous, and sea very calm this morning. We notice the heat of the sun increasing as we near Australia.

Owing to vaccinations we are not allowed to wet the vaccinated part of our left arm–it is amusing to watch the chaps walking about in the swimming-pool holding one arm out of the water all the time.

Empress of Canada rejoined us this morning. Coast of Australia is visible on the horizon and we are supposed to be near Sydney. Aeroplanes have flown over the convoy today. The first batch of Aussie ships joined us at 2 p.m.—four large troopships, reported to be Orcades, Strathmore [Strathnaver], Orford and another, together with escorting cruisers. We are now proceeding towards Melbourne to pick up some more. Steve just came in with Special Force Badges —the first out.

6th Day Out, Thursday, 11/1/40

Fine weather continues. We are not far from the Australian Coast and are all wondering where we are going. General opinion favours Fremantle as definite port of call, but as usual nobody knows.

All allotted boat stations today, and from now on parade twice daily at boat stations. Good idea, and after a few days of it all of us should find our way to boat stations in the dark.

black and white photograph of tents

Spick and span—Petrol Company lines ready for inspection

black and white photograph of parade

March past

black and white photograph of group of soldiers

D (Workshops) Section, Trenthaim, December 1939

black and white photograph of parade

Trentham Camp, October 1939

black and white photograph of soldiers getting on ship

Petrol Company about to embark on the Orion at Wellington

black and white photograph of group of soldiers

Workshops Section with the Vauxhall chassis which was used for lectures en route to the Middle East

black and white photograph of soldiers reading letters

The first mail arrives at Maadi Camp

page 17

Kit inspection today. Several aeroplanes observed again. Am thoroughly used to motion of ship now and would like to see a bit of rough weather (but not too rough!). Convoy now comprises 10 troopships and escorts. A great gathering of mercantile tonnage— what a chance for the enemy! ‘D’ Section had best kit inspection today. Deck tennis with Charley, Ben Cooper3 and Les Cowen. All good sports.

* * * * *

And so the time slipped by, pleasantly enough, on a crisp sunny crossing of the Tasman. The Orion rode easily on a rising swell, and only the most squeamish were affected. At six o'clock each morning, 18 Battalion's bugler played a persistent reveille, Petrol Company responded reluctantly, and the day's business began. First came PT, taken with the infantry, and usually including much joyful horseplay with the battalion's medicine ball. Showers followed, then breakfast. All mess parades were compulsory, whether one ate or not.

Training programmes took up most of the morning and afternoon, while during each forenoon the ship was inspected by its Commander, the OC Troops, and others. Lunch was served in the ship's dining room at noon, dinner at 5 p.m.; lights out was at 10.30 p.m. For training there were lectures by unit officers and NCOs, rifles to be cleaned and inspected, sand-tray demonstrations of tactics. Even route marches were achieved, by dint of much dodging around deck gear and fittings. The cut-down Vauxhall chassis mentioned in Sergeant Greig's diary was used for instruction in the principles of the internal combustion engine.

And if any man imagined that embarkation meant the end of pickets and fatigues he was soon disillusioned. Each day the unit for duty supplied a ship's guard consisting of three officers, a sergeant, a corporal, and six other ranks, to protect the ship's armoury and keep troops away from out-of-bounds areas. Besides this there were lifeboat guards, ship's police, pickets; fatigues for the bakehouse, the butchery, the galleys. Petrol Company supplied its own mess orderlies, took turns at scrubbing decks, cleaning latrines, mopping out shower rooms. With all this went the endless ‘Do's’ and ‘Don'ts’ of routine page 18 orders, all manner of checks and inspections, and every so often another jab from the MO's needle. So one way and another the voyage was no Cook's Tour, despite the rosy versions that appeared in some home papers.

In two-hour watches throughout the day submarine lookouts scanned the water within a mile of the ship, seeking torpedoes or periscopes. Also manned during hours of daylight were machine-gun posts for protection against attack by low-flying aircraft. Gunners were forbidden to fire, however, without specific orders from a ship's officer on the bridge.

In their off-duty hours the troops did not lack amusement. Like soldiers everywhere they gambled at cards and dice, despite official vetoes and occasional swoops by the Military Police. Needless to say, these measures were generally foiled by the watchfulness of the soldiery; so poker, pontoon, crown-and- anchor and the like continued to flourish, along with housie-housie. This had official sanction and was heavily patronised, some schools numbering well over a hundred.

Deck-games and sports contests also had their vogue, while there were swimming carnivals, ‘race meetings’ (complete with totalisator), concerts, films, community singing. For the quieter types there were books to read, letters to write; long yarns with cronies on a lee deck, or over a pot of ale; hours spent watching the swirl of wake and waters, endlessly fascinating at night, when a phosphorescent fire lit the surface; while close by crept those faint ghosts, the other vessels, with no light showing in the whole vast silent convoy.

Friday, 12 January, brought a ripple of excitement. Early risers saw land, and a lighthouse, only a few chains off. For many, this view of Wilson's Promontory, south-east of Melbourne, was their first sight of another country, and they gazed enthralled. Others took one look at the now-heaving waters and returned in haste to their bunks. Australia could wait… or sink, if it liked! During the night a wind had risen. The day broke cold and boisterous, and continued that way. On the starboard bow HMS Ramillies slashed her way through mounting waves in a slather of foam, a magnificent sight. At midday the Empress of Japan nosed out from Port Phillip Bay and joined the convoy.

page 19

Next day the wind abated. The ships cleared Bass Strait and entered the Australian Bight. Though still cool the weather was pleasant, especially in the sun on a lee side; and sun- bathers crowded the upper decks. But the fine spell was short- lived. Sunday the 14th was the roughest day out, with high seas and a howling wind. All parades except boat-drill were cancelled. Attendances at mess reached an all-time low. That day Petrol Company received their white ASC shoulder flashes. Badges also were issued—of good design, but poor material, one driver records. Sergeant Greig continues:

10th Day Out, Monday, 15/1/40

Sea moderating somewhat. Feel better again, thank Heaven! Quite a few chaps were down to it yesterday and last night. Thank goodness we have decent quarters; it would not be so good in an old-fashioned troopship! ! !

Petrol Company for duty today. Relieved Harry [Barnett] as Guard Sgt for a few hours to allow him to lecture. Very quiet day on the whole.

Quite a few porpoises about.

Boat drill parade 8.40 p.m. Was not quite dark but anticipate we will be having an emergency call one night before long. The clocks go back another hour tonight—this puts us four hours behind New Zealand time now.

11th Day Out, Tuesday, 16/1/40

Rather a rough sort of night. We were broadside on to the weather for some hours last night, and one damned near rolled out of bed. The ship groaned and creaked, doors were slamming all night and I could not sleep after 4 a.m. However, I was not sick, and feel O.K. this morning. At the same time I have just realised that I have cut out smoking!

We had a mock aeroplane attack this morning and all had to keep below decks.

Many of us are feeling sick—not from seasickness but possibly after-effects of vaccination.

All ranks are looking forward to getting into Fremantle—even though we probably won't get leave it will be good to see shore life once again from the distance.

Excitement mounted as Z4 approached Fremantle. Men crammed the rails, and those with binoculars scanned the horizon. Late in the morning of 18 January land was sighted. page 20 By 5 p.m. the Orion had berthed; and the news soon spread round: ‘Shore leave for all, until midnight’. Then—trust the Army—there was a hold-up, over pay. Petrol Company, like the rest, were broke. Must they go ashore like that? It seemed so. Then, at last, the happy word came: ‘Pay in the Orderly Room at 2000 hours.’ Each other rank drew one pound Australian and was debited 16s. in his paybook, his ‘earnings’ having been put on a sterling basis from the time he left New Zealand.

Fortunately for the troops, hotels and business places stayed open late; so in both Perth and Fremantle the men saw ‘beer and soldiers everywhere’. Military brass-hats took a tolerant view of any exuberant horseplay, while the citizens were amused and happy to watch the antics of this first contingent— the forerunner of many—to arrive from ‘the other side’. Magnificently they played Australia's traditional role of Big Brother to the New Zealanders, helping rather than hindering the high jinks, and contriving to keep the visitors out of trouble, if not out of mischief. While most soldiers were pretty well behaved, many were ‘jobs’ by the time leave ceased at midnight; and with the Company rostered as unit for duty, some went on guard straight away… a poor preparation for next day's ‘star turn’.

This was the now-famous march from Fremantle to Perth by all troops from Z4. Before they left the ship the men were given the option of marching to Perth or staying on board. It was a chance to get extra leave ashore and most chose to march, even though they would be marching in army boots for the first time after a fortnight in deck shoes—to say nothing of their capers the night before.

Zero hour was 10 a.m., on a crisp, sunny morning. Headed by a band, the troops set off in fine fettle. It was good to be on land again—to be soldiers again, and not ruddy seamen. Good to be hailed and cheered by cooee-ing Aussies, who lined the roadway along the whole 14-mile route, handing out fruit, soft drinks, chewing gum, beer, offering lifts in their cars and taxis. Good to see arid smell the bluegums, to see the girls in their summer dresses. Everything was absolutely good—at first!

page 21

Then, as mile gave way to weary mile, joy faded out. The sun climbed, and so did the temperature, to up around 95 degrees. Sweat ran from every pore; but the men trudged on, eyes fixed doggedly on the back of the man ahead. Or on his heels. ‘Boots, boots, boots, boots, moving up and down again.’ Even Trentham had never been like this; and Kipling's lines came back to many with a new significance. For some the ordeal was heightened by sore arms and throbbing heads after the recent vaccination. But all of Petrol Company stuck it out and marched, with head erect and arms swinging, into the centre of Perth city just three hours forty minutes after leaving the ship's side.

Then, for half an hour or so, the good burghers of Perth witnessed a scene never before or since enacted there: both sides of Swan Street—the city's main thoroughfare—were lined with barefooted soldiers, sitting on the sidewalk clutching handles of beer, while they bathed their naked feet in the cool running water of the gutters.

Recovery was quick and complete. In no time the Kiwis had again ‘taken’ the city and made it their playground. The citizens looked on, tolerant or amused, while New Zealanders drove trams, directed traffic, swiped policemen's helmets, or manoeuvred motor-cars into impossible positions. As one Petrol Company driver remarked: ‘No one offered us the freedom of the city. We just took it.’

Perth opened its heart and its homes to all. Hotels ‘turned it on’, with counter-lunch and hot baths on the side. Every family, almost, took in soldiers for rest and refreshment, afterwards treating them to drives and excursions, picnics and parties. Some men went exploring on their own; and Petrol Company's Pat Rumney4 eventually found himself with a couple of cobbers amid pleasant parklands on the outskirts. They rested on smooth lawns, cooled themselves under water-sprinklers, slept in the shade of leafy trees. Then they rubbed their eyes. A servant-girl was bringing them afternoon tea, on a tray. They had wandered into the grounds of the Governor of Western Australia.

page 22

The convoy cleared Fremantle next afternoon. On board the Orion, Petrol Company's Peter Winter5 and Joe Stratford,6 with Private Hirsch7 of 18 Battalion, got down to the business of producing a ship's magazine. First issue of their ‘N.Z. Abroad’, illustrated with some clever black-and-white sketches by Frank Ritchie8 (also of Petrol Company) came out on 26 January. The forerunner of many service periodicals, this was a notable production. It led off with a message and introduction by Lieutenant-Colonel Crump, OBE,9 Commander of the NZASC, and OC Troops on Transport Z4:

I sincerely appreciate the privilege of being allowed the opportunity of contributing the introduction to this magazine particularly because we have created a record, in that this vessel carries the greatest number of soldiers that has ever left New Zealand in one ship. This superlative also applies to the ship, its officers, and crew.

This magazine will be held and valued by us as a token of a very enjoyable trip, during which was born that cameraderie such as develops in no other sphere of life.

We set out on this great adventure not knowing what is before us, but we do know that our greatest job is to get fit and keep fit so that we can fulfil the task before us.

Enough said! Let's pull up the curtain.

Then followed congratulations to that same officer on the anniversary of his birthday (25 January), with the observation that the poet Burns was born on the same day. Following which comes the sly quotation:

O wa'd some po'er the giftie gie us
Tae see oorsel's as ithers see us

The magazine also contained side-kicks in verse and prose at page 23 prominent personalities; aspersions on shipboard and army life; and the following satire, redolent of an era now past, on German propaganda reports:

(Per Latrinogram)

One of the heaviest air attacks in the present war was launched on a German port by the Allies yesterday. According to a German radio station, no fewer than 50 British planes took part in the attack. On the approach of the enemy, two German fighter planes intercepted the British squadrons and successfully drove off the invaders, twelve of which were shot down and 19 were seen to disappear over the horizon in flames. The German machines both returned to their base undamaged. The Iron Cross was not awarded to the German airmen as such victories have now become an everyday occurrence.

Also in the magazine were references to ‘cheese, which certain persons inserted in the vitals of Capt. Dickson's bagpipes on New Year's Eve’; a ‘public denial’ by ‘one Charles Graham of the Div Pet Coy’ that he was in the habit of using Hood's Healthful Hair Restorer ‘or any other stimulant’ to encourage the growth on his upper lip; and a verdict on the ship's grog that ‘it looks like beer, it smells like beer, but it tastes like—’. Regarding the march to Perth it comments: ‘We made a triumphal entry, the band at our head. Our feet were blistered, our limbs were stiff, our thoughts were quite unspeakable….’ Again concerning Perth: ‘Army's procedure of lining up for everything from pay to patches becomes a habit. A number of soldiers were observed in a certain popular street recently trying to arrange themselves in alphabetical order’.

From the second number of ‘N.Z. Abroad’ come the following bright splinters: ‘The submarine lookout peered intently through his binoculars, never shifting his eyes from the ocean. Something had crossed his line of vision. Yes, there it was again … now he was certain … excitedly he turned to his fellow lookout, and shouted: “These bloody flying-fish do flap their wings!”’

And, again with Charlie Graham ‘in the gun’:

page 24


There were upturned whiskers on the face,
Of a strangely ginger hue,
And a horrid look of grim distaste,
That made me feel quite blue.
Before my face it reared its head,
A head that turned quite pink,
And a voice from through the whiskers said,
‘Your denims simply stink!’

1 1S/Sgt W. B. Ross, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Dunedin, 24 Sep 1909; auto-electrician; wounded 27 May 1941.

2 2WO II L. J. Williams; Hastings; born Wellington, 19 Jun 1912; motor engineer; wounded 20 May 1941.

3 3Capt A. B. Cooper; Wellington; born NZ 14 Jan 1914; Regular soldier.

4 4Dvr H. P. Rumney; Palmerston North; born Wanganui, 1 Oct 1918; clerk; wounded 20 May 1941; p.w. 28 May 1941; repatriated Jan 1945.

5 5Sgt P. L. Winter; born NZ 28 Jan 1918; journalist; p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

6 6Dvr J. J. Stratford; Lower Hutt; born Wellington, 30 Jan 1916; agent; p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

7 7Capt J. C. Hirsch; South Africa; born South Africa, 7 Nov 1914; journalist; wounded and p.w. 22 Sep 1942.

8 8Cpl C. D. F. Ritchie; born NZ 2 Oct 1916; labourer.

9 9 Brig S. H.Crump, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born Wellington, 25 Jan 1889; Regular soldier; NZASC 1915-19; Commander NZASC, 2NZ Div, 1940-45; comd 2 NZEF, Japan, Jun-Sep 1947; on staff HQ BCOF and NZ repve on Disposals Board in Japan, 1948-49.

* Subsequent information proved this statement correct for once! Gen. F. flew to Egypt from Sydney. Empress anchored near Sydney Bridge for 3 hours only and then left to rejoin convoy.