The Grim Digs

We were never a heroic looking lot – far from it. We tended to be stocky – it was said you could spot the New Zealand Division at 600 yards in the desert.

Noel Gardiner, Freyberg’s Circus

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The Last Train

Dan Davin

He came on to the platform a little before the train pulled in. The platform was swarming, most of the crowd soldiers, and most of the soldiers New Zealanders. They leaned against the pillars, cigarettes in the corner of their mouths, hats askew or set on the backs of their heads. Or else they sat on kitbags or squatted. Many were drunk, most were tired. All were proud in their bearing, as men if not as soldiers. Typical, they lounged there in unconscious physical pride, tending to be short, but broad in the shoulder and deep-chested. Blunt men, confident in themselves and their bodies, minds extrovert and critical, practical men, aware of their worth in action...

‘How are you dig?’ A heavy, black-browed New Zealander passed him, speaking casually. Then stopped and turned back.

‘Christ, if it’s not old Tom. Got a commission while they had me in the caracol, I see. How about a loan?’

‘How much do you want, Blackie?’

‘Just pulling your leg. Still, could do with fifty ackers, if you’ve got it. Left mine down in the Berka. Pay you back next time we come to town.’

‘Why, what’s up? Going away?’ asked Tom, surrendering the note to old times rather than to any hope of return.

‘Off back to the old battalion tomorrow. I’ll tell the boys in D company I saw you. Well, well, what’s it feel like to be an officer? Remember the food strike we had on the ship?’

‘Of course I do.’

‘Christ, here comes the train. Be seeing you.’

The dense wall of bodies advanced on the train, poured through windows and doors. It was not the Diesel, and Tom managed to get on to a platform. On the floor beside him sat a drunk, his feet on the step ... The drunk produced a bottle of beer from his battledress blouse, knocked off the top against the carriage wall and passed it up to Tom. He took a sip and passed it back. The drunk gulped, swallowed and gulped again. His head began to nod, the bottle fell, hit the step and bounced on to the gravel. The moon caught its fragments in an amber shower of sparks and silvered the spray of beer. The drunk grunted and fell asleep. Tom sat down beside him to catch him if he fell...

The train drew closer to Maadi. The drunk’s cobber pushed through and awakened him to get ready for the rush to the leave buses. As the train drew up, the whole crowd poured out and across the garden to the road where the buses waited in line.

Tom cut across to the furthest bus while the scramble still went on at the first few. Soon they had worked down the line and, ignoring the protests of the conductor, they began to swarm in the windows. At last everyone was seated and like pregnant mammal fowls, the buses groaned and lurched into movement.

‘She was a real beaut.’

‘Only cost me fifty ackers.’

‘Did you see that ringtailed snorter old Shorty got hold of?’

‘So then I clocked him and we beat it up the sharia before the M.P.s came.’

Shards and fragments of the human struggle.

‘Old sexy just got out of hospital today. Remember him?’

‘The bloke that got it in the tool at Galatos?’

‘That’s the bloke. And a humdinger he had too. At short-arm inspection the M.O. used to go green with envy. Well, today, we ran into old Sexy in the Mouski buying a present for his old woman. And he says: where are you going? And we said we were going to the Berka. So he says: ‘I’ll go along with you and try her out.’ We were all pretty plastered and we got the nips on to some more beer and when he went in we sat round on our suckers scoffing the beer and playing two-up. Then out of the room comes old Shorty in his shirt-tail and the bint behind him grinning in the doorway. ‘Boys,’ he shouts, ‘boys, she’s a beaut. We’ve got the best M.O.s in the army. Give us a beer.’ So he knocks down a beer. ‘Boys,’ he says, ‘I’m going back. It might have been a fluke. I’ll try her again.’ So away he goes again. And it was no fluke. The bint could tell you that. She wasn’t fit for no more when Shorty left her. So away we went back to the boozer, and when everyone heard the news, poor old Shorty’s hand was raw from shaking and he could hardly stand for booze. So we took him back in a gharry and dumped him in the Rest Home. Hey, give us a swig out of that bottle, you hogs.’ The bottle was passed to him and the tale ended in a splutter of beer.

Vitality, rough but vitality. These were the same men and this was the same vitality he’d seen that night at Galatos when they counterattacked with the bayonet, the tracer darting and spitting from every corner, grenades bursting, a house at the head of the village in flames and the scream of wounded men. He remembered the face of a man, livid in the blaze of the house, the arm wheeling in a stiff arc as he lobbed a grenade through a window, the tigerish swiftness as he went to ground before the explosion. And another of the hundred Shorties, going down, this one in a grim wrestle with a parachutist twice his size. And his cobber spitting the German through his back with his bayonet. Shorty beneath him, shouting: ‘For Christ’s sake be careful with that pigstabber of yours. You’re tickling my belly.’

Yes, the same men and you couldn’t have the wild dash of the Galatos counterattack or, after it, the grim steadiness of that ferocious withdrawal over Crete’s spine without this same discharge of vigour in the backstreets of Cairo where pimps prospered and the gutters stank of piss.

1947, For the Rest of Our Lives

‘In your opinion, which has been the easiest of the campaigns over here?’ I asked.

‘Wavell’s, 1940,’ said Old Timer, ‘I missed it.’

14 June 1943, NZEF Times, Old Timer

‘Morning Cocky’

Stuart Kidd

Snake was a happy-go-lucky bloke who could naively talk himself out of most predicaments. Following his return to Maadi from Crete he was detailed to drive a truck into Cairo, leaving camp around 6a.m. every morning and, daily, passed a bareheaded gent dressed in shirt, shorts and sandshoes walking towards camp.

Snake always waved out as he passed with a good-natured ‘Mornin’ Cocky,’ and this was always acknowledged with a ‘Good morning soldier’ and a wave in reply. If Snake didn’t happen to know the person he was addressing he invariably used his own expression – ‘Cocky’. This daily greeting went on for some time until curiosity got the better of Snake and he pulled up one morning to solve the issue.

‘Mornin’ Cocky,’ he called out as the walker stopped on the opposite side of the road. ‘I’ve been wondering what you do around here, are you working at the bloody NAAFI?’

‘Not at the NAAFI soldier,’ was the reply, ‘but I do work here,’ and with that he waved and walked on.

The next morning an officer who was riding in the cab with Snake was able to satisfy his curiosity. He tactfully suggested to Snake that on any further encounters with this early morning walker he not call out ‘Mornin’ Cocky’ as this was not the way to address General Freyberg.

1977, The Return of the Anzacs

Aye, Chum

‘There’s one name, at least, that the average Kiwi won’t stand for.’

Writer in a New Zealand daily

Call him many naughty names,

And he may smile and stay quite dumb;

But how he’ll set the place in flames

If someone simply calls him ‘Chum’.

8 May 1944, NZEF Times


J.T. Burrows

My former batman, Brennan, had been taken to a field hospital in Crete after he was wounded. The ship in which he was to have been evacuated was sunk and he ended up in Germany. I hoped his wounds weren’t too bad but apart from that I felt certain old Brennan was in for hard time because wherever he went trouble followed, as night the day. I heard a soldier from B Company say ‘I believe old Shorty Brennan is a prisoner – never thought I’d feel sorry for the Jerries.’

A Southlander, Brennan joined me at Burnham to lighten my trials and tribulations – I was never sure which. He was older than I, stood only five feet, was clad most of the time in a grubby singlet and even grubbier sandshoes and, generally speaking, was as scruffy an individual as could be found in the whole division. He was sharp-tongued, had no friends, was a critic of all authority and delivered his best tirades when squatting on his heels like an Indian snake charmer. He placed much value on certain possessions – an old black billy, some chipped mugs and a primus – and these he put to good use every day. Luxuries, to add tone, were no doubt acquired from army stores or from the officers’ mess. Ownership of property meant little to him, but I am certain he stole nothing from me.

I first became aware of his unusual talents when on a training exercise in South Canterbury. One morning a fried trout appeared on my plate at breakfast, and the same day there was consternation in one of the company stores over a missing hand-grenade.

After we arrived in Egypt, some small article would always find its way into my children’s parcels. Once when his stocks were low he put in an envelope of sand labelled ‘Grass from our front lawn’. My family became almost as important to him as to me. And at each established ‘camp’ a box covered by a mysteriously acquired lace mat would be set up with my family photos.

When I attended the senior officers’ course at Abbassia and read my joining instructions, I wondered idly what would be Brennan’s reaction to batting for several British officers as well as myself. After one day I was left in no doubt. I returned to my quarters to find an angry little figure squatting on the floor,

‘He called me a servant,’ he said.

Special ‘smartening up’ drill for batmen, an hour each morning under the camp sergeant-major, was the last straw as far as Brennan was concerned. From this time on he showed an acute dislike of anything in the uniform of a British warrant officer...

Sometime later in Greece, when we moved from Riakia to the sleet and snow in Servia Pass, I noticed a smothered glow from a groundsheet cover. I looked in and saw an amazing sight – Brennan tossing a pair of my socks in a frying pan over a primus. I thought for a moment that the strain had been too much for him, but no, shortly afterwards I was able to change to the luxury of dry socks. Our hurried departure from Greece forced him to part with his primus, fry pan and other precious belongings, a blow which hit him very hard.

Crete brought a brief period of glory to him when Colonel Kippenberger was promoted to a brigade command and I took over the battalion. There are always good pickings for the commanding officer’s batman and all went well until he was sent to the village to buy some oil. The first shop with some local vino for sale proved his undoing. He disappeared for three days. This time I was really angry but with a German attack imminent all I could do was dock his pay book.

I know there was a story in the battalion that I used to pay all his many fines; on this occasion, I am afraid, it was true. He looked such a miserable little wretch.

He was with me at Maleme and, though this was not his line of country at all, he stood up to it very well. At the time he was wounded he was offering me a hardboiled sweet, which no doubt he had picked up during his rampage in the village, and the mortar bomb which burst behind him inflicted the wounds which most certainly would have been mine. He was conscious when we carried him to the aid post but with his three days’ absence in mind he said, ‘Boss, if you’d given me twenty-eight days I wouldn’t have got this. It was nearly three years before I saw him again.

One day [March 1944] I heard that a hospital ship carrying repatriated prisoners [of war] was to berth for a day at Taranto. Hoping some 20 Battalion men might be on the ship I went to Taranto ... Here I found my old batman, Brennan, who had been wounded and taken prisoner in Crete. He was thin and ill and alone, and when he saw me he broke down and cried.

I stayed with him as long as I could and then sent an airmail letter to my wife, with the result that some six weeks later she and my two children were at Christchurch Railway Station when a hospital train arrived from Lyttleton. This was the first shipload of repatriated men to be sent home and at the station there were tears and scenes of joyful welcome – but no Brennan. Suddenly my wife heard a voice, ‘Looking for someone?’ And there he was, with a pound of tea ‘...in case you were short’.

1974, Pathway among Men


Leslie Hobbs

Most New Zealanders never took to saluting. They had not liked it in base camps in New Zealand, and all the lectures ever read to them about how it was the King’s Commission, and not the man, who was being honoured were mostly received with snorts, some inward, some outwardly derisive.

They had liked it even less in Cairo, full of British subalterns and even senior officers who seemed to the jaundiced Kiwi eye to be strolling up and down the street for the sole purpose of forcing the rude Colonial troops to salute them. (One patrol did just that. The officer was Military Police Corps and only a few yards behind him walked two redcaps ready to pounce on anyone who fell into the trap.)

By the time they got to Italy, saluting was almost a thing of the past, except on ceremonial parades. No one was asked or expected to do it in the field, and no infantryman or gunner, or anyone else on leave in a big city, could see any remote reason why he should salute the officer whom in the field he talked to on Christian-name terms – or, for that matter, salute any officer of any allied unit.

General Freyberg sometimes commented on the failure of his troops to salute British officers. Once, when he had other things on his mind and was tackled by a regimentally-minded War Office type, the General replied: ‘Well, just try waving at them. They’ll wave back,’ and so most of them would have.

Probably more bad feeling was generated over saluting than any other army regulation, and after a month or two in Italy the New Zealand Army quietly forgot about it – although it could still mean trouble with officers from other Commonwealth countries.

One New Zealander after a spell in Italy was in Egypt waiting for a ship home. In Cairo on leave he came out of a shop and came towards a major of the British Army walking with a New Zealand W.A.A.C. The Major’s arms were full of parcels and the New Zealander did not salute, even though the major had gone out of his way to catch his eye, in effect, demanding a salute.

The New Zealander sauntered past. The major came rushing back, furious, and with the New Zealand girl standing a few feet away lectured the Kiwi on his duties and on his enormity at failing to salute. ‘But your arms were full of parcels, it seemed a stupid thing to do,’ said the Kiwi, in the reasonable sort of tones one might use to a half-wit.

‘Never mind that, you salute,’ the officer said.

The Kiwi did, and then insisted that the salute be returned, which the major had to do. And then, caution gone to the winds, and the resentment of months in uniform breaking out, the Kiwi (full private) drew the major aside and speaking quietly so the girl could not hear, told the Englishman just what he could do.

The Englishman followed him down the street, waited till he found a redcap, and had the New Zealander’s name taken. The charge sheet came back to Maadi Camp. The Major had remembered every word of abuse and, according to the Kiwi, accused the non-saluter of a few additional expressions that would bleach the ink on a charge sheet.

It could have been awkward, not a black mark against him through a long army career, and this to happen on his way home – and against a major who was obviously determined to make the most of it. But he remembered a friend of his who was working in one of the august offices right at the top of the hill at Maadi Headquarters. The friend was full of advice.

A letter went back to Headquarters, Cairo Command, British Troops in Egypt (the source from which all blessings in the way of charge-sheets flowed). It was on the proper notepaper, in proper terminology, even had a file number, and said in so many words that the charge-sheet had been preferred and the New Zealander pleading guilty had been dealt with summarily ... The officer whose name appeared at the foot of the letter had never seen the charge sheet, and knew nothing about the matter at all.

1963, Kiwi Down the Strada

The more our men could be controlled by our own Provost Corps the better. Outside of any nationalistic feelings there is something about the red cap of the Corps of [the British] Military Police that makes it resemble the proverbial red flag, particularly if a man has had a few drinks. The hat with the blue puggaree worn by our Provost Corps was much less offensive.

W.G. Stevens, Problems of 2 NZEF

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The Section Barber


Lofty stands six foot five and a half in his sox, is our section barber, and has a combination of Heath Robinson, Thomas Alva Edison and originality in his makeup, which at times produces surprising results.

It was his inventive genius that lifted us from the indignity of having to perch uncomfortably on a petrol tin while he plied his art; and gave us a barber’s chair of which any Cairo barber would be justly proud. A jack, of the screw type, welded to a discarded truck wheel forms the base, and to this is fitted a bucket seat. The customer takes his place, the jack handle inserted, and Lofty literally ‘jacks up trade’.

Far more spectacular is his answer to a soldier’s prayer for ‘washing without tears’. Originally a concrete mixer left behind by the Eyties in their hurried ‘advance’ westwards; in Lofty’s skilled hands it has become a washing machine ultra plus. Complete with a motor cycle gearbox and an electric motor it is now one of the showpieces of our camp.

The method of operation is simple. Throw two buckets of hot water and one of cold into the bowl, add half a bar of soap and the week’s wash. The next move requires considerable courage, especially if you have seen the machine in action. Creep up to it cautiously, on the blind side, throw the switch, and step back sharply to avoid being soaked in the resulting deluge. About ten yards away stands an upturned box. Wander quietly over to this, roll a smoke and sit down. All this time the washer is churning merrily away, and by the time your cigarette is finished, enough water has been thrown out of the machine to allow you to boldly approach it from the front. Turn off the switch and rescue the washing from the fins inside. After drying, all that remains to do is sew back the buttons, and mend the tears developed in the cleansing process.

18 September 1943, NZEF Times

Yair. I woke up in the middle of the night an’ there was something sitting on my chest. I thought it was Bill but when I switched on my torch I found it was a bed bug turning over my identity disc to have a look at my blood group.

14 June 1943, Overheard, NZEF Times

Some Individual Kiwis

Noel Gardiner

Our war threw up some incredible characters ... right from the beginning our battalion [27 Machine Gun Bn] had its share ... A giant of a man, sometimes wallowing in fat, was Nugget Hood, who had done most things and been a sideshow wrestler before he enlisted in the First Echelon. He was the typical soldier-born, waiting for a war to happen. He was slow about the paddock, as we used to say, but he locked the battalion scrum to perfection. He rose to become Provost Sergeant-Major – a position of real eminence – but nobody was surprised when he lost all seniority and came back to us as a Number One gunner. He had been nabbed running a crown-and-anchor school in the Burka.

Perhaps the most renowned personality was Reg the ‘E said’ man, who was even redder in the dummy than the celebrated Whisky Bill (Major-General Inglis) ... I had my first brush with him at Laboue in Syria, when he had contrived to get himself put in charge of the battalion canteen. For this he had a positive flair.

He held court till all hours at the back of the grog room, where I first came across him when doing my rounds as orderly officer on blackout patrol ... Light was blazing from the window through which I jumped to confront the midnight gamblers. Being pretty raw I had deep misgivings about Reg’s reaction and for a moment it did seem I had gone willy-nilly into a situation such as few junior officers would relish.

He opened up with a lurid burst of blasphemy, but calmed down when he spotted my pip and became as conciliatory as anyone could wish. Anyhow, the incident served as an introduction to this useful manipulator of markets and it was not long before I was on his list ... to be ‘on his list’ meant simply that one never need to be completely broke – a service appreciated by many junior officers.

One of our earliest chaplains was a Catholic: Spring, Father Leo Spring, who had a natural understanding of soldiers and their needs. He was renowned for his generosity and came to be regarded as the best cold bite in the battalion. He set up his EPIP [equity participation investment programme] tent near the entry to the camp lines and affixed his slitted moneybox to the pole just inside the entrance. Here the more generous askaris [Kiwi soldiers] deposited their donations – and some even repaid their debts in full. Father Spring became the source of loans and touches that were to ease the lot of many a Kiwi, or perhaps make possible a last fling at the crown or the anchor that had absorbed a private’s miserly pittance. Repayment was never sought.

Then there was Frankie St Bruno, the pint-sized, prize-fighting Sydney barman and author, who seemed to live only to make others laugh; known throughout the battalion by his inevitable greeting of ‘Ah there!’ and a wave of his hand. Frankie was a cartoonist of no mean performance and his work in the NZEF Times always delighted the Grim Digs. He was also a born storyteller (and the author of several paperback thrillers) and one of his favourite anecdotes concerned Father Spring.

A well-known gambler had enjoyed an incredible run of heads at two-up. To the quiet surprise of the Man of God, this character had come to the padre’s tent to repay some of his borrowings. He went on to put something in the collection box – too late he realised that it was a twenty-acker piece. Confused, he stood there before the chaplain in a kind of trance: ‘I only meant to sling in five,’ he blurted.

Father Spring reached for his greatly overworked pocket to effect a refund. This was too much for the gambler. ‘Aw, forget it Father,’ he said, ‘I’ve given it to God – to hell with it!’

1981, Freyberg’s Circus

The Barracker

Geoffrey Cox

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Early in 1945 a fifteen from the 2nd New Zealand Division played a team from the rest of the Eighth Army at rugby. With half a dozen ex-All Blacks in the New Zealand side, it was virtually an international, and all the top brass were present in the stadium at Forli. General Freyberg’s enjoyment of the match was not enhanced by a New Zealand private who shouted ribald and raucous comments from the stand, a few rows behind where the General was seated, with the Army Commander as his guest.

I was sitting next to the Assistant Provost Marshal of the division. A quiet spoken, ex-school teacher who looked far too slight a figure for such a role. ‘I’d better deal with this,’ he muttered to me, and walked quietly to the end of the row where the barracker sat. ‘If you go on like that, you’ll find that I can shout louder than you,’ he said to the drunken private. ‘Oh can you?’ came back the slurred response. ‘And who the bloody hell are you?’ Slowly the APM replied, ‘I am the Assistant Provost Marshal.’ The shouter was not too drunk to take this in. He paused, and then replied with cheerful dignity. ‘Are you? Then you don’t even need to try.’ In a burst of laughter order was restored, the man kept silent, and the problem [was] solved without any animosity on either side.

1987, A Tale of Two Battles

39’ers Toast


Me Christmas spirit’s burnin’ dim an’ me Christmas cheque is slim

I’ve seen these Yuletides good an’ bad but never one so grim.

So jack me up a bottle, dig, an’ hear my tale of woe

How I’m the sole remainin’ one, of the gang I usta know.

You find me lonesome in a Naafi, a’drinkin’ to me sins,

A’sippin’ like a Jimmy Woodser: an’ here’s the yarn I spins:–

The last of a band that hit this land when the Sphinx was only young:

In platoon number three, of Company C, the mob I trained among.

That mob, they stuck together tight, while trainin’ for the fight,

An’ fought like hell to the final bell, when the blitz was at its height:

Then back at base, they set the pace, when bludgin’ was an art:

But some are dead, and some are gone, an’ drinkin’s lost its heart.

So now that gang has gone to hang, and days of yore are through:

I hear that Ollie’s up at OCTU, and Dusty’s in the blue:

The sun got Slim, and finished him, as far as fightin’ goes,

He yells for rum an’ they hand him milk, an’ ’e never even knows.

Then Butch is in the caracol, what comes of drinkin’ alcohol

’E picks a fight, most impolite, with a guy about a doll:

Well, butch, ’e says he’s winnin’, and I guess ’e mebbe is at that.

But, if you please, the red he sees, is on the other fellow’s hat.

Ole Bert, the cow, with the luck of a Chow, has gone home A.P.R.

He left a note, in which ’e wrote: ‘Sai’eeda, George, hurrah!’

But never a line, a word, or sign, to soften the bitter blow

Of losin’ the quid I’d kindly lent a year or more ago.

Then Blue’s along o’ Butch a’luggin’ boulders small and large,

‘T’was C to the P of M an’ D or some such horrid charge.

They sent ole Bill to Bludgers’ Hill, and jacked him up a stripe

’E now wears socks, an’ cleans his teeth, an’ even learned to type.

An’ Rommel’s wallads collected Hank for trying to pinch a tank.

Me old man’s in the E.P.S: me girl has met a Yank:

From letters I’ve had, the blackout’s bad, an’ things at home are tough.

The tea is weak an’ so’s the beer, from Auckland to the Bluff.

Well, I ask you pal, now what the hell, it’s worth to look ahead:

Me pay-book’s sadly overdrawn, there’s bed-bugs in me bed.

So here’s a toast to a yuletide ghost, and the mob when times were good:

I wish to state, s’welp me mate – it certainly flamin’ well would!!

21 December 1942, NZEF Times

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The Wilburs

Peter McIntyre

With the North African campaign over I joined the furlough draft for New Zealand – my first visit home in 12 years. It was a mistake. I barnstormed through New Zealand with a show of war paintings raising funds for the Red Cross, but after I had been refused hotel rooms that were available to American soldiers a minute later, and had taxis avoid me in order to pick up Americans who had not waited as long as I had, I was ready to go back...

My new driver came in a jeep to pick me up. His name was Snowy – there wasn’t a unit in the New Zealand Division without a fair-haired Snowy. ‘How’s she goin’?’ he said. ‘I’ll just have a shufti at the olio [oil] and we’ll hit the strada.’ So this was the new language. Mix a bit of Arabic with a bit of Italian, add a dash of Taranaki and you’ve got it.

The Division was in front of Cassino and we came up Highway Six to join them, our jeep sandwiched in a long convoy of trucks. ‘We’re parked under Million Dollar Hill,’ Snowy told me. ‘The Wilburs threw a million’s worth of shells at it.’

‘Who are the Wilburs?’ I asked. ‘I’m a new boy round here.’

‘Aw – the Yanks. It’s ’cause every goddam one of them seems to be called Wilbur – Wilbur J. Snooks, Wilbur Boinstein, Wilbur Zilch. You’ll meet them. Between you and me they got bloody hell up there.’

The convoy had halted and the Kiwis in the truck in front were looking at something in the ditch beside the highway. One of them climbed out of the truck and clambered down into the ditch. He bent over for a moment and then straightened up with a shrug. ‘It’s only a Wilbur’s arm,’ he said.

Time and again I was to meet that ability to minimise horror, and to shrug it off with a mixture of humour and understatement. Climbing a hill above the valley a few days later we came across a headless body lying beside a bazooka – a fat-barrelled anti-tank weapon. ‘Must have looked down the wrong end,’ said Snowy.

When we moved to a hollow in the hills and camped beside a cemetery, shelling had broken some of the tombs open and the men were wandering among them. ‘Hey,’ I heard one of them call, ‘here’s one with boots on.’

‘What size?’ came the response...

Even out on the plain it was not safe. The American Air Force was not always accurate in its bombing and so at times the New Zealanders were faced with a double hazard. I remember seeing a large bomb hole in the midst of a reserve battalion’s lines. They had put up a sign beside it saying ‘American precision bombing, Cassino three miles’ with an arrow pointing at Cassino.

1981, Peter McIntyre: War Artist

Our Corporal

Guthrie Wilson

All day we have been making ourselves more comfortable. We have vied with one another in housemaid’s work, in sweeping and washing our floors, in boarding up the paneless windows so we may have light by night ... not for months have we been so clean and dry.

And then young Whisky Face came in. Harris is his name, but we call him Whisky or Whisky Joe. Wherever there is news, something worth scrounging or stealing, there you will find Harris ... ‘Parcels are here!’ he shouted.

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We stopped our labours. Hadfield sneezed. The dust was a fawn pall in the air. There were shouts of delight.

‘Just what we need to make us completely happy,’ said Hope. He is a podgy, pink and white boy who thinks too frequently of his belly.

‘How many, you lying young bastard?’ asked Hadfield.

Harris grinned. ‘Thousands.’

‘I’ll kick your arse for you if you bring sh-- house rumours in here,’ said our corporal with an aggressiveness which Harris, from close experience, knew how to evaluate. Harris merely grunted and grinned more broadly.

‘You can kiss my arse if I’m not speaking gospel,’ was his reply.

‘What a treat,’ exclaimed Hadfield. And then to us, ‘Work first, parcels later. We’ll finish this. You too, Harris, you grinning young swine. Where’s that old bastard, Burton?’

But no one knew where Burton had gone. Which was not unusual as it is impossible to keep track of Burton’s comings and goings once we are away from the line. We fell to the work with such energy that, half an hour later when we were finishing the room, which certainly looked clean, Burton returned. The door was flung open and in staggered a huge, red-brick, Italian stove heater with a pair of human legs behind it. As we gaped at it, from behind the stove came an infuriated voice.

‘Don’t stand there and stare you leering bastards! It weighs as much as a bloody tank.’ The stove dropped on our clean floor with a crash that split a tile.

‘What the hell is it?’ asked Hadfield, mystified.

Burton emerged from behind the stove ... he glowered at us, stocky and muscular. ‘It’s winter isn’t it? Do you want to freeze here you clods? This is a stove. I paid two Eyties twenty lire to carry it here.’

‘Where did you get it,’ I asked.

‘To hell with you all,’ he said, indignantly. ‘No eyes, any of you. Over the road there’s the Bacchi stove factory with thousands of these in it – and you leave a man old enough to be the father of all of you to carry it here.’

We now have our Bacchi stove in place. There is no lack of wood in this abandoned city [Forli]. Burton supervised its instalment. In front of the heater is a grate on which we make toast with no greater discomfort than burned eyelashes and scorched hands. The stove has stolen a little of our floor space, but there is still room for each man to spread his blankets on the tiled floor while a couple of square feet to each man is available for personal gear. This is indeed comfort...

We have collected our parcels and no man has been forgotten by his kin at home. Except, of course, Burton. But Burton has no family. In fact one can hardly conceive of Burton possessing a family, such is his uniqueness. The section box is filled with tinned foods and foot powder, while at lunch we spurned the satisfactory company food provided and gorged ourselves replete on oysters fried in batter over a Primus stove, with hot buttered (‘margarined’ is more correct) toast, and coffee to follow. So greatly sustaining was our lunch that we all rolled heavily onto our blankets after we had finished, sleeping for several hours.

It was incredibly wonderful to us, this afternoon sleep. Last night we wallowed in slumber. We touched our blankets and died there for ten hours, our exhausted bodies utterly ceasing from all functions but that of necessary respiration.

But this afternoon we slept daintily, turning luxuriously with a consciousness of tired flesh renewing its vigour. An observer regarding our tousled forms in thick army socks, battle-dress trousers and woollen jerseys, gazing upon our shaven faces, would not perhaps have considered our beds – two blankets spread on a tiled floor, a haversack or a bundle of dirty underwear for our pillows – the ultimate in luxury. But he would not know. Everything is comparative. To sleep in this pleasant unrest, to be dry, to be warm, to own a share of a fire, to be freed from duties, to have a roof, to be away from filth and death and wretched tiredness – that is luxury. That is an infantryman’s larger portion of heaven.

We were aroused for the evening meal by Hadfield, who tore our blankets from us and called us many opprobrious names. We bore it good-temperedly. A soldier is little given to respect for his fellows, but no one of us, be he ever so cynical, ever such an iconoclast, has wished to break the idol of our good corporal. He too, like Burton, is unique. When a man lives intimately an intense and perilous existence with a handful of his fellows, he will find that each of them has the quality of separateness ... No one who has fought, slept and eaten beside Hadfield for a year could place him in a group and lose him there. He is tall and thin. His face is long, lean, and comically ill proportioned. A straggling moustache covers his upper lip. In the most incongruous of situations he is amusing and capable of amusement. His humour is dry, cynical and biting. I suspect that Hadfield is not as old as he would have us believe, despite the photo of his wife and three sons which he bears with him. Nevertheless he fathers us with curses and lamentations, performing himself the most arduous duties in places of rest, in conflict the most dangerous. When he is drunk, which is not seldom, he is nearly uncontrollable.

I recall well the occasion when, during a certain Christmas celebration, with Hadfield much the worse of wine and vermouth, the battalion chaplain paused in our doorway on his round of ecclesiastical cheer. Hadfield, being multi umbriaco, waved a glass at him. ‘Here’s the bloody padre! Come in you old c—. Come in and share a drink.’ Seriously, to all of us, he added very audibly. ‘Mind your language you foul-mouthed bastards. He’s not a bad bloke, the f—padre.’ The chaplain smiled wanly and drifted away from us, while Hadfield hid his tent-pole figure at the rear of the next church parade.

Such is our corporal – a wild and riotous bacchanalian in drink, a humorist and often a clown when sober, a soldier in action. There is something sturdy in the spiritual mould of him that makes him worth following. That is all we do: follow. Not Churchill, not Roosevelt, certainly not the halo which we are asked to believe surrounds the vague word democracy. We follow Bill Hadfield. The man. Our corporal. Der Führer, Mein Gott.

1962, Brave Company

A soldier was on sentry duty for the first time. A dark figure approached.

‘Halt!’ cried the sentry. ‘Who are you?’

‘The Orderly Officer.’


The Orderly Officer advanced but before he had taken three or four paces the sentry again cried ‘Halt!’

‘This is the second time you have halted me,’ observed the officer, ‘what are you going to do next?’

‘My orders are to call ‘halt’ three times and then shoot,’ was the reply.

NZEF Times, Pte A.E. Cox


Peter Newton

Good working dogs were non-existent in Egypt and Italy. However, a man feels a fool without a dog so I decided to do something about it. My only option was to train something, so I found a bloke called George from Timaru. George was only of medium height but he had been well reared and was a great doer. He’d be about 48 round the waist. He hadn’t been too well handled when he was young, but he had brains, plenty of noise, and was very tractable. Anyway, George really entered into the spirit of our stunt and we became widely known.

That bloke could act like a dog far better than most dogs themselves. If I treated him kindly you could almost see his tail wagging, and if I offended him, his imitation of an offended dog was beautiful. But if a stranger annoyed him, his top lip would curl and he’d snarl in a way that would put a bulldog to shame.

On one occasion while in Egypt we were joined by a batch of new recruits. Their lines were immediately adjoining ours and the day they arrived George and I put on a turn that obviously had them doubting our sanity. When I look back I’m inclined to doubt it myself. Anyway I got a little stick and took George out on to a playing area in front of the new blokes’ lines. Calling him up I let him smell the stick, gave him a pat or two, and tossed the stick a chain or two away. The way George took off after that stick, you’d have thought he was an eight-month-old pup. When he was about six feet away from the stick, he took a flying leap, landed on all fours, and picking up the stick in his mouth came trotting back to me pleased as hell. We did this several times. Every time he came back, I’d take the stick from his mouth, give him a few pats, and toss the stick away again. I’ve never forgotten the looks on those new blokes’ faces.

One day, as we were queuing up for a meal, the QM came strolling past. I pointed to him, looked at George and said: ‘Hold him!’ George rushed after him and bit him on the leg. However that sort of thing made him savage – he ripped ‘Brig’ Fergie’s strides once – and I finally decided to sell him. I took him over to one of the other companies and put him up for auction. There wasn’t much demand but I finally knocked him down to a two-pipper, Peter Edgar. Peter disputed the bid, but I undid one of his tent ropes and tied George there. About half an hour later, George arrived back at our lines with a foot or so of rope hanging from his neck – he’d chewed it through with his teeth and come home.

There was a lot of good in George but he’d never been properly broken in. If I’d got hold of him earlier I reckon I could just about have won a hunt with him.

1971, Ten Thousand Dogs


It is proposed to hold a reunion of South Island high-country musterers and those connected with South Island Dog Trials in approximately one month’s time. Would one member of each unit advise Lieut. I.T. van Asch, NZ Div Cav Regt, of the approximate number able to attend...

1944, NZEF Times

Image 65



I’ve ridden in trains, MT and planes,

Hiked up and down lots of hills,

I’ve slept out in slitties while Herman played ditties

With mortars and Spandaus and shells.

But now that’s all over, I’m sitting in clover,

A base job did fall to my lot,

I’ve ‘had’ the discomforts, the shifting and rumpus

And Hitler and Musso – the blots!

19 February 1945, NZEF Times

My Typewroter


Thos os a typewroter. Many a good army story starts that way. There’s that charming lottle tale, for example, that commences: ‘Thos os a rofle.’ But of course you’ve had that one; and anyway thos osn’t a rofle, ot’s a typewroter, as we remarked at forst.

Typewroters are handy lottle gadgets, of you know how to use ’em, but loke any other sort of machone they are apt to go wrong at tomes and develop annoyong lottle habots. Thos one, for onstance, just refuses to make the letter that comes after ‘h’. The letter’s there alroght, but the machone somply won’t pront ot.

Strangely enough ot doesn’t seem to mond prontong the capitol or large ‘I’. If I were a typewroter that’s the one I would buck at, because most people who use typewroters, especoally for wrotong thongs for the NZEF Tomes, overwork that letter shockongly. However, I don’t mean to let my typewroter get the better of me. There are far too many doctators on the world as ot os – and not all on Germany eother – for me to allow myself to be doctated to by my typewroter.

So as you see I have got over the doffoculty by usong the letter ‘o’ onstead. At fIrst I trIed usIng the capital ‘I’ lIke this, but It dIdn’t look too good wIth one letter stIcking up all the tIme lIke a flagstaff above all the others In the same word. And you couldn’t tell eIther, If a word started with an ‘I’, whether It was the beginning of a sentence or just a word In the mIddle somewhere. In fact It dIdn’t make sense at all – agaIn lIke some of these blIghters who keep wrIting for the TImes – so I just cut It out and went on usong thos other letter. Woth much better results, don’t you thonk?

21 February 1944, NZEF Times

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