‘When the war started I joined the British Army. They sent me to an OCTU, and I got a commission ... After that I transferred to the Div.
‘Well in the British Army I would have been the cleverest man in the platoon. Embarrassing isolation. In ours, you know that if you’re wrong, one of the blokes is sure to point it out.’
Dan Davin, For the Rest of Our Lives
The Smell of Cordite
After training at Maadi and attending courses, I was finally posted to 28 Maori Battalion, achieving a long felt desire and goal. There I was standing with considerable awe before the CO, Colonel Dittmer, whose reputation as a soldier, a disciplinarian and a commander was well known. His first comment was ‘You are carrying too much weight, I will see that you lose some of it.’ The second was, ‘Call yourself a soldier? You are not a soldier till you have smelt cordite in battle.’ In addition to the CO’s comments, I realized that the majority of my platoon had been in action in Greece, Crete and the desert. I had to fight back a feeling of inferiority and a genuine desire to experience battle as soon as possible for my peace of mind.
After a spell in the Levant and Lebanon with the Battalion and a stint at a Middle East Company Commanders’ course we were back in the desert to experience my first smell of cordite in battle at Mersa Matruh and Minquar Qaim. Kaponga Box, El Myreia, Munassib, Ruweisat. Forever, so it seemed, on the run. As a platoon commander I did not know what was happening and where we were going to. It was one disaster after another. The situation appeared hopeless. Finally, El Alamein. Dig in, move, attack, and patrol. Thus far no further. Every man will stand and fight to the last. This was the order from the new Eighth Army’s Commander General Montgomery.
On the 23rd October on the day of the battle of Alamein I shared with thousands of other soldiers the proud honour of standing on the crossroad of history. That night I was wounded so I thought to myself, well Dad your debt to Ngapuhi is well and truly paid with my blood.
April 1984, The Battalion Remembers
New to Battle
Just on dusk [Italy, 27 November] the Company Commander assembled his Platoon Commanders and indicated the various company objectives ... The Company Commander, a regular soldier, was seated at the table, his tranquil features outlined in the light of a hurricane lamp, with the subalterns seated around, intently marking the surface of their map cases. Most of the Platoon Commanders were new to battle conditions, but what they lacked in experience they made up for in their determination to do their job well. I was the only sergeant present, taking the place of my worthy Platoon Commander who had been wounded during patrol activity, and I was to be relieved before the attack went in by an Officer due up with the rations truck.
Suddenly, with a terrific crash, a mortar bomb exploded on the roof of the building. Map cases and pencils were scattered in all directions as the group flattened out on the floor. The CO smiled wryly from the table where he was seated, in the direction of where I was still perched on a fruit box, and with the slightest touch of acid in his tone said, ‘Take up your maps and pencils gentlemen, and we will resume our conference.’
Rather shamefacedly they duly scrambled to their feet. Had they stayed long enough (they were nearly all killed or wounded before the week was out) they would have realised that those who were fortunate enough to become experienced soldiers understood and sympathised with their initial trepidation. Even as we dispersed one of them was badly wounded going to the aid of one of his men who had been hit by a piece of shrapnel.
1995, A Soldier’s Story
The arrogant, well-spoken young bank clerk
is now Captain X. He has a
batman to clean his boots, make his bed,
fetch his shaving water; an officer’s
mess fatigue to pass him the marmalade
and bring him drinks.
He has access to the best clubs, restaurants, cabarets
and private houses; two nights a week at base he busily
seduces available young women.
But I’m not the least bit envious
of the arrogant Captain X.
When inquisitive shell splinters
whisper above my slit trench,
telling me flesh and blood and bone haven’t
a chance, a chance...
Captain X must be cheerful and unperturbed.
Captain X, when his bowels are watering,
must never be afraid.
1989, Poems from a War
Our Greatest Soldier?
Can anyone think of a better soldier than the battle-hardened NCO, carrying responsibility not only for himself and his own conduct but for the men he lived with and who were his friends. Yet from these splendid soldiers emerged another class, survivors of many fights and selected for commissions.
By 1942 we were sending no one to OCTU who had not been in at least six actions, sufficient test of any nerves. They spent several months in safety at OCTU and came back as infantry platoon commanders, and their chances were poor. Yet nearly all went on, one attack after another, long days and nights in the line. Responsibility lay heavily on them and they knew the men whose lives were in their care, but they seldom failed.
And from them rose the group, in my opinion, entitled to be called our best soldiers – the long service battalion and company commanders, and especially those who came up through the ranks. Completely dependable, brave by definition, there were no better soldiers. They did not fare particularly well for decorations, they recommended other people.
Sometime in the small hours they must have been afraid, with the fear that comes from experience often repeated and the knowledge that the pitcher can go too often to the well. But there were men commanding battalions or companies in 1918 who had been in the ranks on Gallipoli, and in 1945 who had been riflemen in Greece. Their nerves were still good, at least under firm control; they bore the burden of command, in the presence of death, until the very end.
Those men, the battalion and company commanders who came up through the ranks, were, to my mind, our greatest soldiers. Sometimes, in these days, I meet them, many still serving, and I look at them with great respect. Incidentally, Upham qualifies for membership of this very select class.
Howard K. Kippenberger
1978, Soldier Country [letter to ‘Unofficial History’]
The signals were commanded by Lieutenant Bruce (‘the Boss’). A tall man, slightly grey, moustached, and older than most junior officers ... He had a remarkable personality; he was a fine man in the best sense of the word. A wonderful mentor and guide ... we were all young and our brief time in man’s estate had been entirely spent in the army. Unlike the older and married men, with fixed hopes and ambitions, we had known no other life in our maturity. He was able to show us in his quiet way, that this was not the life we had been born to, that this was a direct contradiction to the dreams of those who had loved us and brought us up, that this was but an interlude in our evolution. It seemed to be a necessary evolution for our generation, but not one that should dominate our whole lives ... His sense of responsibility was great, and I heard him disagree, and disagree successfully, with superior officers on our behalf, when he thought it justified.
Mr Bruce’s outlook was rare among the officers I served under. He was an enthusiast, as they all were, but he strove with all his might for peace. Most of the officers, particularly at senior level, fought with one goal in their minds – victory. Their ambitions were deeply wrapped up in the army. Most had been Territorials before the war, and their whole outlook, all their energies, their very job in life was dominated by their army careers. They were probably right, as in time of war the single-minded purpose of a purely military man is a potent asset. But Mr Bruce could give other things to young soldiers with half-formed ideas: dreams of gentle things; delight in simple joys, knowledge that a roaring bash in Cairo was not the ultimate criterion of happiness.
Other officers did not talk to us about such things. Captain John Suter, whom I was to serve under later, and was the finest company and battalion commander of my experience, could not have cared less. He was there to fight, and fight he did. He used the material given him with great tactical efficiency, was clever in conserving lives, and untiring in his devotion to the welfare of his troops. We loved John, but it would never have occurred to him that there was any other life apart from the army, or that any of us had any thoughts not concerned with the company or battalion. He would have been shocked or disappointed in anyone who suggested such a thing to him, and might even have doubted their loyalty to him. Not that Captain Suter lacked gentleness. The loss of any of his men was a fresh blow to him every time it happened. His sympathy was always ready to be extended to the nearest friends, and I never saw him drink a toast to ‘fallen comrades’ without the tears streaming down his face. He and Mr Bruce were a direct contradiction in the interpretation of their ideals but both were fine men, great soldiers, and wonderful leaders.
2000, Up the Blue
Chas. M. Wheeler
Lieutenant-Colonel George Clifton was one of the most notable figures of the 2nd N.Z.E.F. A Regular Army man and a product of Duntroon Staff College in England, he rocketed from the rank of Captain when he left New Zealand with the second contingent in mid 1940, to that of Brigadier late in 1941, when he returned to the 5th Brigade as its commander. He held the position of C.R.E to New Zealand Division through the early activities in the desert, and right through the Greek and Crete campaigns.
When the New Zealanders were denied a part in the early desert fighting George Clifton took advantage of his roving commission amongst maintenance services to involve himself in the thick of every scrap that was going. Thus it is said that when the Aussies made their final charge at Bardia, he was seen clinging to the side of one of the supporting British tanks, gaily adding to the din of battle with a borrowed tommy gun.
For a senior officer and a Staff College product he was the most informal character imaginable. One’s Colonel is treated with considerable respect, but my smartest morning salute had never elicited a more regimental response than an easy wave of the hand and a friendly ‘Morning, Chas.’ He knew half the sappers by their nicknames and each one of them would have gone to hell for him.
The Huns had an awful lot of fun catching him. At Rusweisat he was in the bag, slipped off his insignia of rank, and unobtrusively did as he was told until the time was right to organise an escape party. But his luck couldn’t outrun his daring indefinitely, and around the time of Alamein he called it once too often.
Even after months of barbed wire in Italy he wasn’t beaten. The collapse of the Mussolini regime gave him his chance, and with Brigadiers Miles and Hargest he made a brilliant and apparently well-organised dash for the Swiss frontier. The last stage was actually made by taxi, and proved his undoing. At the border the other two moved on ahead, leaving George settling up with the driver. Whether he became involved in an argument which attracted the attention of the guards, is a matter of speculation, but his two companions escaped and he was recaptured. Even then he was not through. Shortly afterwards the members of his camp were shifted to Germany. They were threatened with death on sight for any man who attempted to escape. At the first opportunity George Clifton made another bold bid for liberty. He was seen and the train stopped immediately. Crouching in a culvert he was discovered by a German guard, who at once raised his pistol and fired point-blank. The Brigadier was seriously wounded in the leg or groin, and my last word of him was from a sapper prisoner who had had a visit from him on crutches.
1946, Kalimera Kiwi
We were rumbling through Athens in a huge army Service Corps lorry driven by a loquacious Tommy ... ‘The only Kiwi I’ve seen around ’ere were a big lad wi’ a moustache and staff blokes all around ’im. Somebody said ’e were ‘Tiny’. Would that be your General?’
We agreed it would be.
‘Bloody whopper, ain’t ’e?’ was Thomas Atkins’ sole comment on Major-General B.C. Freyberg, V.C.
Chas. M. Wheeler, Kalimera Kiwi
A difficult cuss at times, but we’d do anything for him.
New Zealand officer, Freyberg’s War
Food fascinated Freyberg ... he can be seen clearly behind three noble unsung units, the Pie Bakery and Ice Cream Factory at Maadi, and the Field Bakery. Formed in December 1942 with a devout staff of thirty-seven, the flying bakers were to follow hard on and feed the fighting men fresh bread instead of the customary stale loaves or madness-hard Army biscuits, doubly dismal for an army vibrant with dental plates.
Bludgers Hill never became reconciled with the Field Bakery, a curious animosity, branding it ‘The Last Straw’ unit, and gravely displeased at its formation. Freyberg was told that if this went on he’d have nobody up front to actually fight the war (thereby endangering The Hill, which already had seemed poised for flight into the Holy Land or Syria before Alamein solidified).
Why was the staff of life the last straw to the paper people?
Jim Henderson, Soldier Country
Just after the Battle of Alamein I heard that he had added one or two small administrative units to the Division, including a field bakery to bake bread closer to the troops. This was most laudable; but the truth was that the overall manpower situation was bad, for we had no reinforcements for more than a year – and keeping a watch on manpower was one of my principal duties. So I went forward to see him and told him that if he went on like this there would shortly be nothing left but administrative units and nobody to do any of the fighting. He was shaken for a moment and then grinned and said: ‘So you think I’m over doing it?’ I agreed heartily. He kept the units of course; but for many days afterwards I was amused to hear my own words repeated by him to various fighting officers in the Division. Right up to the end of the war Stan Crump, the ASC chief to whose corps the bakery belonged, used to enjoy taking me to the unit and giving me a nice hot crisp bread roll.
Once towards the end of 1943 I was visiting Divisional Headquarters on the River Sangro in Italy. A new Corps Commander, General Dempsey, was visiting HQ, and after breakfast my General called to me across the sea of mud from where he was talking to the visitor. As I got near he said to Dempsey, ‘I particularly want you to meet this officer. This is the officer who tells me all the things I can’t do.’ Everyone laughed, and my affection for such a leader was further increased.
W.G. Stevens, Freyberg, V.C.: The Man
1943 The Soldier
The silence wakes me early. We’re winning our war.
Under desert sky, blue-pink and pale as a shell,
tents and tanks seem welded to their shadows.
It’s more like Genesis than the Gates of Hell.
Not a man in sight. I award myself a shower
in a box rigged for the General. I’m soaked and shiny
when he comes up in a towel. This is a nightmare–
one ballocky soldier face to face with Tiny
in his own shower. The big man waits till I’m done,
nods, and says nothing. They say that when Monty complained
that we didn’t salute, he replied we were fighting men.
‘Just give them a wave,’ he said, ‘and they’ll return it.’
As I dry myself I watch the tracks of water
down those hard white ridges of his battle scars.
[Freyberg] told whinging Tuis (a section of the War Service Auxiliary) New Zealand soldiers were the best in the world, if some did get drunk sometimes that was no business of the Tuis, who would be returned to New Zealand if they didn’t work for their soldiers with glad hearts and no complaints.
A favourite story General Freyberg liked to tell was about Lady Freyberg’s personal maid, Miss Muriel Tolley, who was a ‘Tui’. Miss T. was wearing her brand new Africa Star ribbon as she served tea to the boys in the New Zealand Forces Club in Cairo. A Maori, pointing to the ribbon said, ‘What’s that?’
‘Why, it’s the Africa Star, of course.’
‘And you got one issued to you?’
‘Yes, of course.’
The Maori took his tea and as he turned on his heel was heard to mutter, ‘Stone the crows – they’ll be giving it to the bloody donkeys next!’
Soldier Country, Joyce Colyton
And thinking it rude
To appear in the Nude
He put on his Africa Star
23 October 1944, NZEF Times
A New Zealand soldier told Lady Freyberg he’d been ‘Shot in the arse’.
‘Rectum’, said her ladyship, primly.
‘Wrecked him!’ said the soldier, ‘it bloody near killed him.’
24 May 1943, NZEF Times, Anon.
Young Mick, ‘posted to see people didn’t run over our lines on manoeuvres’, raced out, boots and web gear in one hand, rifle in the other, shouting: ‘Stop you bastard!’ when a dusty staff car sped close. They heard, and stopped pronto. Who was in it, eh Mick?
‘Only old Tiny. He asked what I was up to, then said: “Good boy, Carry on”.’
‘Just think – it could have been the Regimental Sergeant Major!’
Soldier Country, Dinkum, Raumati
There was a famous occasion in the desert when a senior [Allied] commander had tried to impose a regulation that troops should not go about in the sun stripped to the waist. Too much sun, he argued, had rotted the morale of the Italians. This, to troops who had drunk in the sun since childhood, was unreal in the extreme. The rule never applied to the New Zealand Division. ‘We’d have to turn half the division into military police to enforce it,’ was the General’s comment...
The General had always insisted on getting good hotels in Italy to make into leave clubs for men from the division. He fought a major administrative battle to keep the Danieli in Venice for this purpose, struggling against senior administrators who thought that it should become either a headquarters or a hotel for senior Allied officers only. They played their highest cards. What would happen if Field Marshal Alexandra wanted to stay in Venice, they asked? ‘Tell him we’d be delighted to have him as our guest any time,’ Freyberg replied. ‘We’ll give him the best suite.’
‘You can’t treat a man like a butler and expect him to fight like a gladiator,’ the General would say, and he would point to our own very small desertion and A.W.L. list as proof.
The Race to Trieste, Geoffrey Cox
During Lord Freyberg’s inaugural tour of New Zealand as Governor General, about two hours from the town where he was due for a mid-morning civic reception, the Vice-Regal car, pennant fluttering, drove onto one of those one-way bridges that distinguish South Island main highways from modern roads. Simultaneously a battered truck drove on at the other end.
The vehicles halted face to face, and the Vice-Regal chauffer sounded his horn imperiously. But the truck stayed put, its load of empty cream cans dancing a noisy jig to the tune of the ancient motor. Next the aide-de-camp jumped out to deliver a crisp message on lèse majesté.
The truck driver cut him short.
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I took orders from Tiny for five bloody years and I’m not taking any more.’
Whereupon the gracious representative of his Gracious Majesty, who had heard and understood, gave an unaccustomed order: smilingly he signalled his worried aide to retreat.
Soldier Country, 30977, Hastings
The meek, they say, shall inherit the earth,
So, what I’d like to know,
Is just where all the sergeants and officers will go.
27 November 1944, NZEF Times, O.W.W.