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Problems of 2 NZEF



The administration of the corps of officers was handled by a Military Secretary with direct access to the GOC and not subordinate to HQ 2 NZEF. This was the normal custom in the British service but at that time was new to New Zealanders, who were accustomed to such matters being handled by the Adjutant-General's branch of the staff. To New Zealand eyes the new arrangement at first seemed strange; but there is no doubt that it was correct. The Military Secretary had no responsibility to OICA for his duties as adviser to the GOC on promotions and postings, but was nevertheless governed by the formation and disbandment of units and the war establishments promulgated by HQ 2 NZEF. The Military Secretary and OICA had to work in close association. The chance that they might not do so was the only reason for making the Military Secretary subordinate to the chief administrative officer. There was some rather indefinite discussion in mid-1941 about the relative positions of the two appointments; but in the outcome the independence of the Military Secretary was maintained, and rightly so.

Normally the selection of a staff officer is made with a view to his suitability for working with his commander, the point whether or not he suits subordinates being of lesser importance. But with the appointment of Military Secretary it is incumbent on the commander to ensure beyond any doubt that he has selected an officer who has the confidence of the corps of officers, who is approachable at all times, who can listen to grievances and at least give a sympathetic answer.

The powers of the Military Secretary for good or ill were unusually great, for he dealt with selection for OCTU, first postings, repostings from depots, appointments to the staff and to command, promotions (and decisions not to promote), discussions with Army Headquarters on the despatch of officers from New Zealand, return of officers to New Zealand on duty (or because their services were no longer required), honours and awards. Last but not least, the Military Secretary had to be sufficiently trusted by the GOC and sufficiently in his confidence to be able to give disinterested advice, whether asked for or not.

In the early discussions between Mr Fraser and the GOC in London in November 1939 the GOC suggested, and Mr Fraser concurred, that all appointments of staff officers to the Expeditionary Force should be subject to confirmation after divisional training in Egypt. This was fair enough, for it is always open to a commander to change his staff as he thinks necessary. All regimental officers, however, sailed with their ranks and appointments made substantive. When we had been in Egypt only a few weeks deficiencies page 199 became apparent in some officers. No action could be taken to reduce them in rank, with the result that we had the first examples of trying to dispose of them in base appointments, or to find jobs for them outside their units. A few of these officers were an embarrassment to us for years. Here is a nettle that should be grasped, although the process may not be easy. It is suggested that possibly ranks were made substantive too soon, and that there is something to be said for all officers, not only staff officers, holding temporary ranks until the force has been overseas for a short period, two months or thereabouts. The difficulties of this course of action are not being minimised, as it is obvious, for instance, that the position of a CO who after some months is down-graded in his regiment would be impossible; but it must be repeated that it is doubtful if the period spent in camp in New Zealand is enough to show the real capabilities of officers. An alternative would be that still greater care should be taken in New Zealand, and that if there is the slightest doubt about an officer's fitness to hold his rank, he should not be confirmed in it. The problem occurs only in the initial stages. Thereafter, all officers are under constant observation, and are not promoted unless they have shown their fitness under active service conditions.

We had no system of regular confidential reports on officers in 2 NZEF. Opinions of formation and unit commanders varied on this point; but the administrative 2 NZEF staff, including those who served as Military Secretary, thought that the omission was unfortunate. Human nature shows one of its weaknesses (a pardonable one) in not liking to tell people unpleasant truths unless driven to it. Commanding officers were often reluctant to tell junior officers outright that they were not quite up to the mark, or had certain deficiencies that might deprive them of promotion in the future. It was notable the number of times that officers claimed that the first they knew about their unfitness was when they were suddenly removed from their position or passed over for promotion, the latter being the commonest manifestation. The officers claimed that if they had been told earlier they would have tried to remedy the weakness, or at least would have known what to expect if no improvement was shown. It is questionable if in many cases prior warning would have had the desired effect, as so often the weakness is deep-seated in character and cannot be remedied; but at least the prior warning would have ensured that the officer had been treated fairly. If we had had a system of reports, senior officers willy-nilly would have had to record their opinion of their juniors; but without the compulsion of a periodic report, there was a tendency to let things drift on. A simple form of report could have been devised, to be rendered not more often than twice a year.

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It is questionable whether we should not have had our own Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) throughout. In late 1940 we had arranged for this, and a commanding officer and staff were selected; but then British Headquarters in Egypt made the suggestion that we should make use of its facilities, attaching a small staff for special New Zealand duties, and we agreed. Thereafter we continued to use British OCTUs, first in Egypt and then in Palestine, and even sent cadets to OCTUs in England and India. It was not until late 1944 that we had our own unit.

The plea for making use of British OCTUs is that it is better for cadets to associate with men from other countries, that it is good for future liaison, that it broadens their views and so on. There is something in this, but not much. Men are being trained as platoon leaders only, will have to handle their own men only, and may never come in contact with troops from other countries. The plea is of great force for senior officer schools or for staff colleges, but has small application to OCTUs. New Zealanders of the type selected for commissions are of high intelligence and learn quickly. It is possible to give them concentrated instruction; and if their training as embryo officers is under our own control, it can be directed towards the things we think most important in time of war, and can dispense with the excessive amount of ‘spit and polish’ that British OCTUs retained even in wartime. We were satisfied that our own ideas on the subject were just as good as those of British Headquarters, and better than theirs for New Zealanders.

Not all our officers reached us through OCTU, for with every reinforcement draft from New Zealand there came a number of junior officers. The case for and against this has already been argued in Chapter 10.

Promotion for officers was within the arm or corps as a whole. With some corps there were no special troubles, e.g., artillery, signals, ASC, medical. With others there were a few complications. The Divisional Cavalry started as a corps on its own, but in late 1942 was amalgamated with the regiments of the old 4 Infantry Brigade to form the Armoured Corps. It then ended the war as an infantry unit, but for a few months only.

For as long as we had the large number of non-divisional engineers we had minor difficulties over the promotion of engineer officers. In theory there was one corps of engineers; but in practice the divisional engineers formed a corps of their own, and each group of the non-divisional engineers did likewise. The transfers from group to group were rare.

The infantry were the most complicated of all. There were five corps, Northern Infantry, Central Infantry, Southern Infantry, page 201 Machine-gunners, and Maori. Promotion might be within the corps (Northern, Central, etc.) with occasional transfers of a major, selected for future command, from one corps to another. There was no commander of the infantry in 2 NZEF, the GOC in effect filling the role himself.

The corps of Northern, Central, and Southern Infantry had complications of their own, as their linked battalions (18, 21, and 24 for Northern, etc.) were not in one brigade but were spread over three, so that there was not even the advantage of one infantry brigade commander to command the corps. The poor Military Secretary had to consult three brigade commanders and three COs when considering promotions in the corps and before approaching the GOC. The position was eased slightly when 4 Infantry Brigade took its three battalions into the Armoured Corps, and the linked battalions were reduced to two; but they were still in separate brigades.

For ease of administration it would have been better for the linked battalions to be in one brigade; and it is interesting to note that this was the reason for a reorganisation of infantry brigades in the New Zealand Division in 1917. It is realised that the processes of mobilisation may not permit of this being done at the beginning, as it may be necessary to send the force overseas in waves (‘echelons’), each wave representing a fair cross-section of the country as a whole. No attempt is made here to find a conclusive answer; but it would seem that there is a lot to be said for having definitely one single corps of infantry. It would be the biggest corps, but not so big as to be unwieldy.

Once or twice during the war we had troubles over temporary ranks, because officers holding such rank were reluctant to give it up. The rank had been given the officer while performing some additional duty, and in principle should have been given up when the duty ceased. We had already been generous in allowing the rank to continue for a period after an officer had been wounded or while at courses of instruction and so on, but had to resist the agitation that the rank should be held throughout a period of furlough. It must be said, however, that sometimes the officer had justification for a sense of grievance, for in some cases officers had been left with temporary rank when, with justice, they should have received substantive promotion. The rules should be clear and should be strictly applied, and temporary rank should be temporary and not semi-permanent.

The position of officers non-regimentally employed often caused difficulties. Many officers, for reasons not showing any discredit, served for long periods outside their regiments. Sometimes the reasons were medical ones, sometimes due to age, sometimes due page 202 to ‘special skills’, sometimes because we had to have someone to do the work and took the best that was offering; but no matter where employed, the officer remained on the roll of his regiment, the bulk of which was serving in the field. If he then became due for promotion, his case was prejudiced because he was serving outside the field, or even because he was not known to the CO of the moment. It will have been seen already that there is a large number of posts at the base and on the lines of communication, and that there are difficulties in getting that free and frequent exchange of officers between field and base which would minimise this particular problem among others. The attitude of some field commanders was unfair in that they would neither agree to promotion of an officer serving outside the regiment nor supply a suitable officer of the higher rank. The duties have to be done, and while no one resists advancement to officers serving in the field, it is unfair to deny it all the time to officers who are not serving there. One answer would be the formation of a special corps, or a General Service list, to which such officers could be transferred, thereafter finding their advancement in the new corps and being divorced from the old.

During the war HQ 2 NZEF received many requests from officers who had served in the first war, and who for one reason or another could not get overseas, to be allowed to come out and join the Expeditionary Force for any duty that could be given them. The conducting officers of drafts, who came from this class, were forever making appeals to be taken off the transports and retained in the Middle East, a course of action that by arrangement with Army Headquarters we could not countenance. There was here, however, a source of supply that was not sufficiently tapped, the officer slightly too old for the field. Those few who did serve with 2 NZEF were invaluable, as they brought a maturity of judgment to our problems and were only too pleased to be serving anywhere, even at Maadi. It appears that use could be made of such officers from the first, in which case the suggestion of a General Service list or corps receives support, and we are spared the complications arising from trying to work a system of regimental promotion under conditions for which it is not fitted.

Regimental ranks were governed by war establishments, which basically were the same as British ones; but when it came to the ranks for officers performing NZEF, base, or line-of-communication duties, we had to combat pressure to make the ranks too high. As best we could we kept the ranks no higher than the nearest similar rank in the field. One common plea, a plausible one, was that higher rank was necessary because the officer would be dealing with senior officers at some British headquarters, and should be able to page 203 talk to them on level terms. The plea was a false one, for after all ours was a small force, and our ranks were those that were justified within the force; and our experience showed that the mere fact that the officers represented New Zealand was enough to give them extra authority.

One small embarrassment was the imminent return on occasion of senior officers who had been prisoners of war for some lengthy period. In general it was thought to be unfair that they should come back to us and displace the officers holding their posts. In at least two cases the GOC had to be most tactful and dissuade officers from rejoining. In principle this view can be controverted, for providing the returning officer is fit, there seems to be no objection to his rejoining the force, and if necessary being carried surplus to establishment until employment can be found for him; but it must now be said that all our experience went to show that escaped or repatriated prisoners of war, if their imprisonment had extended beyond a few weeks or months, definitely required a period of furlough before being truly fit. We used to do our best to persuade such officers to return to New Zealand, and later come back to us if they so wished.

The problem of officers wishing to transfer to the British service has already been dealt with in Chapter 11. It may be summarised in the words that while it was in order for an officer who had reached his limit in 2 NZEF, or had special military skills that could not be made use of in 2 NZEF, to transfer into a service where he would have more scope, it was not in order for officers to transfer who merely wanted to better themselves or who fancied the post offered more than the post they held. The 2nd NZEF had the right to get the best out of all those who joined it, and the right not to be abandoned by those whose motives were really selfish ones.

In the First Expeditionary Force there was a publication entitled ‘Regulations for the Expeditionary Force’ which covered promotions, appointments, and transfers. In the hurly-burly of early 1940 the same title was adopted for a similar publication for the Second Force. It was not a happy choice. It would be hard to say what would be meant by ‘regulations for the force’, though one can imagine a voluminous publication covering every sort of activity, but to apply that title to a publication dealing with the restricted subject of promotions was going too far. ‘Regulations for Promotion’ would have been in order; but ‘Regulations for the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force While Outside New Zealand’ it remained from first to last. The first draft was much amended during the war to keep it up to date with realities, and to ensure that, while it was not over-generous, it was fair to the personnel affected – page 204 both officers and non-commissioned officers, for regulations for the latter were included. By the end of the war our experience had resulted in the production of what we thought was an eminently fair set of rules. It was an example of the principle of having some rules and adhering to them; but later altering them if their incidence was seen to be unfair.