Peace to War

We were sitting on some dry fern eating our lunch this day. The sun was shining; the skylarks were whistling ... I looked towards the hills on the skyline at the pale sheep grazing. It was very peaceful and I thought what a grand country New Zealand was. Eric rinsed his mug with what was left in the billy and said, ‘I heard on the radio this morning that there’s a war somewhere – didn’t catch much because of the static so I can’t tell you a lot.’

Ian our other mate who was working with us, asked, ‘Would you fellers go if war broke out?’ No one answered ... The months that followed were marred by talk of war. We young men were constantly asked if we were going to enlist. Some said they would and some said they didn’t know, but such talk put a damper on social evenings.

1993, Travers Watt, No Butter on my Crust

At 9.30p.m. on 3 September 1939, New Zealand declared war on Germany; responding to cabled news from London that Great Britain had declared war. The following Sunday morning, Prime Minister Michael Savage broadcast from his sickbed to reinforce that ‘a state of war exists between New Zealand and Germany’, adding, ‘we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go. Where she stands, we stand.’

The next day the New Zealand Cabinet announced the establishment of a 6600-strong special force to be drawn from men aged 21 to 35, which, as was later explained, was for volunteers only. There were plenty. By the end of the first day of enlistment, 12 September, nearly 5500 had enlisted. Within three weeks there were nearly 15,000.

On 13 October, the next step towards forming New Zealand’s largest fighting force was a cabled offer to the British government of a fully trained division to go to an overseas battle zone, agreed upon by both countries. Just days later, Major-General Bernard Freyberg VC offered his services to New Zealand; his appointment as our army’s commander overseas was confirmed two months later. The first drafts of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2 NZEF) entered camp on 3 October, just a month after the declaration of war. The creation of what would soon be called ‘The Div’ was well under way, with a typical Kiwi blend of a spirit of adventure and a sense of duty.

From Civilian to Soldier

Travers Watt

Finally it was announced that war had been declared. Eric told us that he’d trained as a cadet in the Territorials so if he didn’t enlist he’d be called up anyway, and he’d sooner volunteer than be a conscript. He turned to me and said, ‘What about you?’

‘I haven’t made my mind up yet,’ I told him, but from then on everything and everyone seemed to be getting at me, till one fine day I said to Eric, ‘When are you going to enlist?’

‘Next Thursday.’

‘Well, I’m coming too.’

So on Thursday we went to Whakatane to enlist.

After a week or two OHMS letters arrived. We were to report for a ‘medical’. I was beginning to feel quite excited. I’d never been to a doctor before and I felt very strange. Firstly there was the smell, and it occurred to me that people usually came here only when they were sick. When Sally our old house cow got sick we called the vet. He gave her medicine and the next day she was dead. There was a strange smell then, just like this. I hoped the doctor wouldn’t give me any medicine. Perhaps he didn’t know that I wasn’t sick. My thoughts ran riot, country bumpkin that I was.

The doctor opened the surgery door and said, ‘Next please.’ I stood up and my legs began to shake so much that I was lucky to make it into the room.

‘Sit up here,’ the doctor said and I climbed up onto a large sort of chair. Then he said to me, ‘Name?’

I replied, ‘Watt.’

‘Your name!’ he repeated, and again I said ‘Watt.’

‘Are you deaf?’ He raised his voice.

‘No. I can hear very well what you are saying.’

So once more he asked me my name and my reply was the same as before but this time I spelt it for him. I caught a bit of a grin on his face.

‘Your age?’



‘I haven’t anything like that.’

‘What church do you go to?’ He was getting annoyed with me, I could tell.

‘Don’t go to any.’

‘Then you’re just a damn savage,’ he barked. ‘Take your clothes off.’


‘Because I want to have a good look at your savage body.’

I was very indignant at this. ‘Taking clothes off in public isn’t done in our neck of the woods you know,’ I said.

‘Get on with it! You’re not in your neck of the woods now.’

I was standing as naked as the day I was born when he came at me with something dangling from his ears and holding something in his hand. He pushed the contraption he had in his hand up under my armpit.

‘Hell, that’s cold, you could have warmed it up a bit.’

He said nothing, just pushed it up under the other armpit. Testing my chest wasn’t so bad but when he kept on banging my back with his knuckles I felt like punching him in return. Then, to cap the whole thing, he said, ‘Bend over.’ I did. He squeezed the cheeks of my bottom and looked up my backside. What he was looking for I‘ll never know. Some time later, reminiscing with a few of the men, I mentioned this about the doctor.

‘What would he be looking up my backside for?’ I asked.

One of the wags of the camp said, ‘He was looking to see if your hat was on straight!’ That really broke us up.

The doctor did unexpected things with my private parts, twisting, turning and examining. By this time I was wishing I hadn’t enlisted for the damned army. I was flinching just like my old horse did when I was clipping him for the show...

‘That will do, put your clothes back on. What do you do for a living?’

‘Farm worker.’

Smiling, he tapped me on the shoulder and said I was extremely fit and healthy and would receive a notice in a few days. Still smiling we shook hands and he wished me luck ... I had an awful suspicion that he’d really enjoyed putting me through that ordeal.

Eric was waiting. ‘How did you get on?’ he asked.

‘The doctor didn’t say much, just that I was a fit chap ... he told me that I’d get a notice in the near future.’

Eric said, ‘Seems to me you’d better pack your bags. They won’t give you much time when that notice arrives.’

It hadn’t entered my head that I’d have to sell all my gear – my horses, dogs, saddles, my car and odds and ends, all I’d worked so hard over 15 years of scraping and saving to buy. Now I’d have to get rid of it all. I felt sick in my stomach ... I gave my horse, ‘Socks’, to some children to ride to school. ‘Big Grey’, my wonder horse, was turned out on a friend’s back farm and my dogs were sold for seventeen pounds each.

1993, No Butter on my Crust

Join Up

Nelson Bray

I was 24 years old and in Christchurch’s Colombo St at about eight-o-clock in the evening, and a newspaper stand had a notice up with one word on it ‘WAR’. It was 3 September 1939. Hitler had been taking over countries in Europe, so I had thought already about what I would do if war was declared. As I passed by the newspaper stand I thought ‘King, Country and Freedom.’ I enlisted at the King Edward Barracks in Cashel St as soon as they called for volunteers.

Soon after enlisting I was given a medical. I was one of many to be examined and we had to strip to our birthday suits and make our way down a line of doctors, there was 10 or more, each examined different parts of the body, and if things were all OK, we got a number and we were in. My number was 9413; it ended with a ‘13’, and I went into camp at Burnham on a 13th, and landed in Egypt on a 13th, and came home – just luck of the draw – so 13 must have been my lucky number.

A week or so later I got a letter telling me to report to King Edward Barracks. The other new recruits and I were paraded there; then we marched over the Bridge of Remembrance, down to the railway station, boarded a train and went to Burnham. We marched to the camp and were allotted to different units. I asked for Army Service Corps (ASC); this was granted and I was drafted to the ASC attached to 4th Field Ambulance.

There were some 6600 men in all in the 1st Echelon, all volunteers. We were known as ‘39ers’, because we were the only ones to join up in 1939. We were sometimes known as wife beaters, debt dodgers, and one jump head of the police. Because our ID numbers had four figures we were also known as four-figure men, as later chaps had five, six or seven figures in their numbers ... There were some very fine men in the 1st Echelon: men that would do anything to help their cobbers. And I must admit there were others too.

The army was run down in the depression of the 1930s. When we first went into camp there were no huts, trucks were very few. And everything had to be built up, made, tried out, etc – we were the ‘Guinea Pigs’ ... It was straight into army life: drill, march, and so on.

1996, A 39er’s Story

Down to the Drill Hall

John Johnston

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One by one my friends went down to the drill hall and joined up. I was 20 years old when the war started; a few months later I turned 21. I followed my friends and I too went down to the local drill hall...

Most of us had never lived away from our homes before, enjoying a comfortable and protected life. We had peaceful homes, slept between clean sheets in a soft bed, we always sat down to a table covered with a white cloth and [had] eaten home-cooked meals off china plates. All our lives we had been protected and looked after by caring and loving parents. But all this was about to change. And what a traumatic experience it turned out to be.

For me it started the very first day I marched into camp. After being given ill-fitting clothing, the quartermaster handed me what looked like a large sack.

‘You’ll find a pile a straw around the back,’ he said. Stuff some o’ that into this.’

‘Somewhat bewildered I asked innocently, ‘But what’s it for?’

‘It’s what you’ll be sleepin’ on, stupid!’

2006, We Didn’t Have a Choice

Into Khaki

Martyn Uren

On the 4th of October 1939 the First Echelon went into camp, while we waited eagerly to receive them. We wore our new stripes and were allotted tents. Both Alan and I were ‘Tent commanders,’ in fact all the bombardiers were given tents to live in and be in charge of.

In my tent was a porter, a farm hand, a shepherd, a foreman labourer, a tourist bureau clerk, a surveyor, a sailmaker, and myself, a law clerk. The characters that interested me the most were Dick, a capable, steady strong young clerk with an absolutely irrepressible spirit. Peter was a huge Irishman who had worked with his strength and his hands all his life. A foreman for Fletcher’s Construction Company, his strength and energy became a byword in the Regiment [4th Field Artillery]. Adam and Raine came in together from the heather and the scrub, and were a little more bewildered and green than the rest of us ... I took Adam and Raine to the quartermaster‘s store a little while after their arrival to get some gear. I was called away and told them to wait a minute. I happened to pass some three hours later, and there they were, still waiting...

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Once or twice the tent would decide to go out to Hamilton for a tangi. I can recall one night on which Peter picked up all the weighing machines and street signs in Hamilton and put them down in the centre of the main street. Later a policeman enquired of Peter whether he had seen anyone about who had done such a thing, but Peter said he could not imagine anything so silly.

1943, Kiwi Saga

The Recruit

J.T. Burrows

When I arrived at Burnham Camp I had no idea what appointment I would be given in the battalion or even if I would retain my rank as captain. I scanned the appointments list with some anxiety to learn my fate and was startled, but gratified, to see I was to be a company commander and particularly interested to note I had been given the Southland Company [B]. I suppose I should have spent some time worrying about the possible reaction of the Southlanders at having a Canterbury man appointed over them, but it did not seem to be necessary. All the other officers, of course, were from Southland and if they resented the presence of an outsider, they hid it remarkably well.

We had a week to prepare for the arrival of the men, a useful period in which to get to know one another and to make some preparations for the task ahead. Unfortunately preparations were incomplete within the camp itself. Planks, wires and pipes were left lying about by carpenters, plumbers and electricians and made many traps for the unwary. There were also unfilled holes dug for drainage just waiting for people to fall into them.

Then the men arrived. The Southlanders had been in the train since early morning and before leaving Invercargill had taken all precautions to ensure it was not going to be a wasted day. Even so, we got them fed and bedded down without too much trouble.

The platoon commanders and I had just completed a final round of the huts and were walking back along the lines when we heard a voice calling for help. We searched and found a man in one of the drainage holes. He was not greatly perturbed but was clearly unable to get out by himself. We helped him out and he thanked us courteously with that delightful Southland burr in his voice – and then he turned round and stepped straight into the hole again. He was enjoying a quiet weep as we helped him out the second time.

Judging by the appearance of the Southlanders in their first parade the next morning, I could have believed they had all fallen into holes during the night and that most had decided to sleep there. Within two days civilian clothes were a thing of the past. Every man had been issued with a uniform from World War I, a suit of denims, web equipment (1908 pattern) and a rifle and bayonet. Training equipment – what there was of it – was also of World War I vintage, including the obsolete Lewis gun ... but other factors were working in our favour. The battalion comprised a thousand or so men who had come into camp of their own free will. They were tough and hard with some bad among the good but they took pride in being the originals, the pathfinders, and as such were prepared to face whatever lay ahead. This attitude of ‘we can take it’ was a characteristic they never lost.

1974, Pathway Among Men


Arch Sott

We enjoyed our initiation into the army at Papakura Camp. They kept us busy – more than just ‘occupied’. At times we even felt we were being hard worked. Our instructors were first class, many of them First World War soldiers – quite demanding of us but always human in the best sense. It seemed as though they thought that with a bit of discipline we young blokes might turn out to be as good as they had been as soldiers but that we needed a shake-up occasionally to help us the right direction. And no doubt they were quite right. There was one Staff Instructor in particular with whom I developed a very friendly animosity. He deplored the sight of me, especially on the first parade of the day, ‘Looking like death warmed up,’ as he used to put it. Nor did he ever hesitate to tell me so, and would check on every trip or slip I made. One morning on first parade, after I’d had a heavy night with my cobbers, which had ended only two or three hours before, he thrust his face at mine and said ‘Ha! No shave this morning!’

Looking straight ahead I instantly shot back, ‘Sorry Staff, but when I got up this morning I knew that I had to do two things and they both began with sh ... so I had a shower and a sh ... Aw, now I realise that the other one should have been a shave.’ The expected roar from him didn’t eventuate. It must have hit his funny [bone] and he just had to walk away, almost exploding.

1985, Dark of the Moon


Peter McIntyre

On the Monday morning after the Sunday morning that the war had become a reality I set about joining up. At the Slade School I had vaguely noticed a recruiting poster for the Artists Rifles. I phoned them, and a secretary answered.

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ she said, ‘but we have vacancies for a few fully-trained officers only.’ In Tottenham Court Road I saw a platoon of marching soldiers so I followed them to their barracks in a warehouse. They were The Queen’s Own Westminsters. There was a sergeant at the door and I told him I wanted to join up.

‘Sorry, sir,’ he said. ‘We’re full up.’

In a cafe I got to talking to a man in uniform, feeling somehow I was approaching a member of an exclusive club. He was sympathetic, however, and when he heard I was a New Zealander he told me that a member of his regiment had applied for a transfer to a New Zealand unit being formed in London. I hot-footed it down to New Zealand House in the Strand.

Thus I came to join the New Zealand 34th Anti-tank battery. Of 500 applicants they chose 150 of us. It was the only Dominion unit being formed as we had applicants from Canada, Australia, South Africa and Ireland. We even had some English. Most of them, however, failed the test which required us to name some of the streets of Wellington and spell Taumarunui. I almost failed it myself ... Finally we were ordered to report to barracks at Aldershot. I sat in the train with deep misgivings ... Opposite me was a chap in a raincoat. His hair was cut short above the ears, his long face had deep lines from his nose down the sides of his mouth and he looked as if he had been looking into the sun for a long time. A New Zealander. He caught my eye and nodded with a sideways and down nod and a wink. ‘Gidday,’ he said, and after nine long years of exile I felt I was home again in New Zealand.

We walked up Gun Hill to the bleak barracks where, with others, we were herded like sheep about to be dipped, amidst a smell of dust and disinfectant, while a British Regular Army sergeant-major and his sergeants eyed us like sheepdogs ready for muster. I swear we very nearly broke and ran. We trained for six months in Aldershot, sometimes in deep snow. Long icicles hung from the barrack windows and, frankly, I was bored. We were grown men, many of us well educated, and for the first month or two eager to learn something of the art of war, but we were taught to salute to the right, salute to the left.

The only relief was occasional leave in London. Our lemon-squeezer hats made people think that the whole New Zealand Army had arrived. In pubs the drinks lined up in front of us, even our bus fares were paid...

We were issued with the old-fashioned uniform, which buttoned right up to the neck with brass buttons. Our trousers had tin buttons and the braces had no stretch, so that if you bent down at all the buttons would fly off and hit the opposite wall. We soon learnt to wear a belt and keep the braces for kit inspection only. I remember the sergeant-major inspecting the kit of a man who, just down from Oxford, was still trying to apply logic to the army. His braces were missing.

‘What have you done with your braces?’ boomed the sergeant major.

‘I’ve thrown them away, sir. Absolutely useless, sir.’

That absolutely stumped the sergeant-major. He looked like a man who had put a coin in a slot machine and got nothing out. I also remember the look on the various regular Army sergeants’ faces when, on the first morning, the entire battery appeared for ablutions in dressing gowns and slippers.

We were supposed to be an anti-tank battery but we had no anti-tank guns. Then the Press discovered us and whenever they came we stopped saluting to the right, changed hastily from overalls to uniform, and were marched over to a neighbouring battery where we borrowed two guns and did gun drill while we were photographed. Then we were marched back, donned overalls and began saluting to the right again. We appeared in the papers under titles like ‘The Dominion Breed’ and Rallying to the Empire’s Cause’. Neighbouring regiments called us ‘The Hollywood Battery’.

It came as a blessed relief when we were shipped out to join the First Echelon in Egypt, crossing the channel in an old ferry and landing in France early in 1940. In Cherbourg, waiting for a night train to take us across France to Marseilles, we were confined to the station, but someone found a way out through the back door of a buffet. To a man we were out and into the cafes of Cherbourg.

The day that followed was a memorable one. Cherbourg and the battery embraced. As the day wore on the Military Police searched for us and the good citizens of Cherbourg hid us. In the back rooms of cafes, in kitchens and in boudoirs, with the ghosts of 1914–1918 at our elbows, we drank free champagne disastrously. Gradually the MPs closed in, one hideout after another fell, and by midnight the scene at the railway station resembled the roll call at Balaclava. I awoke sometime in the night on a train rolling across France.

1981, Peter McIntyre: War Artist

Onward, Christian Soldiers

Jim Henderson

I am lying in bed soaking up enough energy to rise for breakfast, when in comes six-year-old David. He sits down warmly somewhere near my feet and says:

‘Are you getting into your uniform this morning, Uncle Jim?’

‘Yes David.’

‘Oh, goody! We will play with the train all morning.’

‘I can’t play with your train, David, because I’m flying back in the Lockheed to Papakura at twelve o’clock.’

‘Oh. Why do you have to go back to camp?’

‘Final leave ends today, you see.’

‘But why can’t you stay?’

‘Soldiers have to go away to the war, David.’

‘Will there be no more soldiers left in New Zealand?’

‘Oh yes – they’re being trained all the time you know.’

‘Are you going away, Uncle Jim?’

‘Yes, David.’

‘Will you ever come back, Uncle Jim?’

In a very small voice I say, ‘Yes David.’

‘Will you be old when you come back?’

‘No, David. Twenty-five or twenty-seven, maybe.’

‘Oh, goody! How old are you now?’



1945, Gunner Inglorious

Final Leave

Martyn Uren

For me, final leave was a period of two weeks carefully spent to ensure the utmost enjoyment of the company of my parents and my fiancée (at that stage still an unofficial engagement). I went to only two parties, played very little golf, and went three or four times to the beach. Apart from that entertainment, my pleasure consisted of the happy companionship of my loved ones...

I will not dwell on the last day or two of leave – its poignancy, the farewells. I will pass quickly over the farewell parade in the Auckland Domain ... suffice to say, that those camped near Auckland paraded there in the first day or two of January. It was a tiring parade for us, an impressive one for some, and to all I think that the march from the Domain, down Queen Street and into the station was a very moving spectacle. On the march I passed my mother and father, and I saw my lady-love twice. She, like many of the lasses, dodged down a side street to get a second look.

That afternoon was visitors’ day at the camp, and it was the last time I saw my parents. It was farewell, or au revoir, for all of us.

1943, Kiwi Saga

My Father’s Wish

James Henare

There were all sorts of reasons why young men of our generation enlisted for active service. In my case not only was it a desire to serve my country, but an opportunity to fulfil my fathers’ dying wish, that I should pay to the Ngapuhi people with my blood, what he regarded as a debt of honour. If I had to pay the supreme price, so be it.

To understand my father’s wish, he was the Member of Parliament for Northern Maori from 1913 to 1938. During the First World War he, in conjunction with Sir Apirana Ngata, Sir Maui Pomare, and Sir James Carroll formed the Maori Recruiting Board and Regimental Committee. As spokesman for Ngapuhi he authorised them to go to war. Many did not come home. His own family was too young. For these reasons then, on that historic and fateful day, the 3rd of September 1939, when it was announced that New Zealand was at war with Germany, he, my father, with great emotion, being critically ill, said to me, ‘Son I want you to enlist tomorrow and carry out my wish.’ He did not live to see me enter Narrow Neck Camp early in 1940. Thus began the tortuous road to completing a mission...

During final leave the elders of Ngapuhi gathered at my home Marae of Motatau to wish me Godspeed and to prepare me for battle. The ceremony of the ‘Tohi o Karakawhati’ and the anointing, a well known Ngapuhi ritual, was performed by an octogenarian, Hare Te Rangi, a grandson of Kaiteke or Te Kemara, the famous Ngapuhi tohunga, who always accompanied Hongi Hika and his armies.

Early in 1941 we embarked with the 5th Reinforcements on the Mauretania. Standing alone on the after deck, I saw the sun set and the land of my birth disappear over the horizon for the last time till my return in 1946. With a tear or two and a lump in the throat I turned to other pressing duties.

April 1984, The Battalion Remembers

Troop ship

John Male

Yesterday the troop train and the march to the gangway;

today the flat horizon

charts our voyage to a war.

The ship crept out of harbour

while half the city was sleeping

and the siren blasted the hills like a blunt knife.

A thousand miles out

here and now cease to matter;

who cares whether or not we cross the International Date Line?

And where is the final harbouring,

the homeplace?

1989, Poems from a War

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I was in Mount Crawford Gaol for war resistance when the 2nd Echelon sailed from Wellington ... The great ships passed immediately below the prison garden. Some 25 years before I had been with the cheering transports that swung out from Mudros to the beaches of Gallipoli where the gallant companies were torn to bloody shreds by the bursting shrapnel and the hail of machine-gun fire.

In my mind’s eye I could see the battles that were to come and how the strong and exultant young men who crowded those decks would be broken under the barrages. I found it very moving, as one always must when one senses the willingness of men to suffer and to die for a cause that seems right to them. So, standing in the garden in my prison dress of field grey, I gave the general salute with my long-handled shovel—very reverently.

Ormond Burton, foreword to Gunner Inglorious

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Tale of a ‘Q’ Ship


When New Zealand was safely tucked away in a blanket of mist, not a few sighs of satisfaction were released. We were actually away – at least one rumour had come true. So be it, we went to our hammocks; bless ’em.

There was a great deal of sea about for the next few days and we looked at it when we had the time. For the most part, however, we stood in queues. I know how this happened. Whenever an officer felt bored with lounging in the lounge with other loungers, he would realise he was neglecting the men. How best to entertain them? ‘I know chaps,’ he would say in his rough soldierly fashion, ‘let’s put the men in a queue – a nice big one.’ The others would clap their hands, a coin would be flipped to decide the reason for the queue, and then we would spend a rousing couple of hours shifting from one foot to another or, at times, shuffling. All good clean fun. Now I know why certain ships in the last war were called Q-ships ... Excuse me while I join a queue.

1941, Convoice

First Private: ‘The boys are going to chuck the R.S.M. overboard.’

Second Private: ‘They can’t do that, what about the sharks?’

First Private: ‘Why worry about them? They can take a chance the same as we did.’

1941, Convoice

Trials of a Ship’s Runner


Hey you, come here, at the double

Or you’ll find yourself in trouble.

Take this note to Lt Bowes

And find out what the – he knows.

I don’t where he can be seen

You’d better try cabin eighteen.

Ha, back at last, see this roster

Send it up to Mr Foster

You’ll find him up on Troop Deck Six,

Then double back I’m in a fix.

Take this book to the R.A.P.

And bring ten paybooks back to me.

Hurry up there, you blasted fool,

You work for me, I’ll keep you cool.

Go down to ‘E’ deck, find the Guards,

And take them down this pack of cards.

What’s this? So you want your dinner,

Run my lad, you’ll keep much slimmer

And get back here by half past two,

For half an hour should do for you.

Ha! Back at last you lazy sod

You’d better say your prayers by God.

Take this card to Major Currie,

Don’t forget you’ll have to hurry.

Now go and get me Pte. Grip

You’ll find him somewhere on the ship

So search this boat from stem to stern

From keel to funnel. You must learn

That duty always must come first.

And even if you die of thirst,

Before you die, remember, run

Hurry up until it is done.

There’s nothing more to do today

But don’t run off, you cannot play

You don’t knock off till half past ten

When you can go to bed. But then

Don’t you get up to any tricks

You have to start at half past six.

1941, Convoice

The Holding Pen

James Henare

Apart from one or two submarine scares the voyage was uneventful. The heat in the tropics was almost unbearable, the food excellent, supplemented by some crayfish obtained alive and put in the bathtub by Pine Taiapa. This was the holding pen. Whenever we felt like eating a leg or two it was dispatched with due ceremony and the appropriate chant was recited to thank and appease Tangaroa or Neptune and then to the galley.

One incident though should be related. Just before we reached Colombo, two of our Maori soldiers played up. They were duly charged and pleaded guilty. Punishment for them was shore leave withdrawn. Jim Matehaere and I went down to the mess deck to see our boys. In front of the other Maori troops the two offenders challenged us to a fist fight. If they won they were to be allowed shore leave. If we won they would accept our punishment. Immediately there were cheers, and ‘Come on Officers don’t be yellow’. Imagine then our predicament. We held a council of war and decided to accept the challenge. We all stripped to the waist. To cut a long story short we emerged the victors. We suspected that from then on our mana and authority was respected. Unorthodox, I suppose so.

April 1984, The Battalion Remembers


Geoffrey Cox

The long voyage [Britain to Egypt with 5 Brigade] reabsorbed me into the life of the New Zealand I had left nine years before, and gave me my first contact with the segment of my fellow countrymen who formed these first cadres of the remarkable force which was the 2nd New Zealand Division – The Div to all who served in it. These early enlisters were all in the army of their own free will, drawn to the recruiting offices when war broke out for reasons that were as varied as were their backgrounds. Some were hard-bitten characters, their faces lined by years of arduous work on farms or in forests or on the waterfront or in the relief camps...

Amongst them were those classed, sardonically, as the One Jumpers – those who had got to the recruiting office just one step of the police – or the Wife Dodgers. One man in my platoon I had seen twelve years earlier, when he had stood in the dock in the criminal court in Dunedin charged with the murder of a Chinese prospector in the Central Otago goldfields. Now, his sentence completed, the man stood tall and gaunt, as the right flanker in my platoon. Another man had served with the Spanish Foreign Legion, and we exchanged experiences about battles in the Civil War, which I had reported from the Republican side.

But most of those on the Duchess of Bedford, whether they were fresh-faced boys or seasoned peacetime Territorials, had joined up out of a sense of responsibility blended in varying ways with a sense of adventure. These were times before travel became commonplace. On the train taking the first volunteers from Dunedin and Invercargill in September 1939 more than eighty per cent of the men had never been out New Zealand’s South Island, and well over half had never been out of their home province.

Tough self-reliance, and a sense of humour, wry, sardonic, but in no way malign, were two of their strongest characteristics. This showed in a mass form, when we gathered for our boat drill on our first day of putting out from Newport. The ship was terribly crowded, and units became tangled and muddled as they tried to find their way to the boat stations allocated to them. The decks became a seething mass of men, like a mob of sheep struggling through a gateway. It was a similarity not lost on this force of country-dwellers. Some wit started baaing like a sheep. Others joined in, whilst others started barking like sheep-dogs, or whistled like shepherds. Had one closed one’s eyes it would have been easy to imagine oneself outside a New Zealand country saleyard on a busy day. The effect was to turn resentment against an administrative cock-up into laughter, without blunting the protest against inefficiency.

Another example of this bantering comment was to occur when we landed at Suez early in March [1941]. It was a day of intense, humid heat. The canteen on the boat had been broken into the night before, and many of the men had terrible hangovers. We were landed by lighter first at the wrong point, and had to be re-embarked and shipped to another quay. By the time we were ranged on the platform of a railway siding, waiting for the train which would take us to camp, everyone, officers included, was drenched with sweat and there was a restiveness and muttering in the ranks which boded ill.

At that moment there loomed into view a figure calculated to precipitate trouble. An elegant British staff officer, the transport officer in charge of the station, appeared on the platform. He was in the garb which the Two Types cartoons were to make famous – a khaki shirt bleached almost white, with polka dot scarf at the neck, elegantly cut gabardine trousers, and suede shoes. And he carried something we had never seen before, a fly whisk of white horsehair, which he brandished from time to time. He was the embodiment of a languid English superiority deeply resented by antipodeans of the day.

Image 5

Oblivious to the effect he was causing, he strolled slowly past the staring troops. My sergeant muttered, ‘This looks like trouble’ and moved closer to where two of our toughest characters were in line. But a single question from a soldier saved the day. A sharp New Zealand voice rang out. ‘Hey!’ it called to the officer. ‘Hey’, in terms half of command, half of query. The officer paused, annoyed but wary, as if he knew that Australian and New Zealand troops had to be handled with care. ‘Hey’ the voice continued. ‘What have you done with the rest of the horse?’ The laughter which followed made even the officer grin, and the moment was saved.

1987, A Tale of Two Battles

Company Commander

J.T. Burrows

On March 8 we set out on a trek of twenty-one miles to a bivouac area south of Helwan. This was by no means a long day for trained soldiers, but we were still in winter clothing and the weather suddenly decided to give us a taste of Egypt’s heat. A wind we came to know very well, the khamsin, was in the offing. This was a dry, hot wind, much like the Canterbury nor’wester, and even more enervating in its effect on the human frame.

On arrival at the bivouac area the colonel told me he wanted B Company in outpost positions as protection for the battalion. We moved immediately to the ground we had to occupy and I was pleased to see the way the men set about digging their defensive positions. I moved around checking the siting of section posts and decided to move one post to what I thought was a better position. My excuse in this case was that very little digging had been done. I should have known better than to mess tired soldiers about.

Sometime later Brigadier Puttick, commander of 4 Brigade, drew up in his staff car in front of the very section post that I had shifted. The brigadier, like every infantry brigadier I have known, believed he had a special gift for siting section posts, and after a full discussion with the section commander on how and where the enemy would attack, he found a better spot still for the section to move to. So they moved and began digging yet again.

It was nearly dark when another staff car drew up in front of the section post. The staff car this time was occupied by Colonel Sam Allen, Divisional Signals, who was looking for our battalion headquarters and had stopped merely to ask the way. He was a very proper regular soldier who observed all the proprieties and insisted on everyone else doing the same. When he called out ‘Corporal’, he was understandably put out when the section commander straightened his aching back and said ‘I’ve moved twice already and I’m not moving again for anybody. Now get to hell off my ground.’

I had no trouble later in getting Colonel Kip [Kippenberger] to see what had happened, but he had much more trouble persuading Colonel Sam that there was nothing here for a court martial.

1974, Pathway Among Men

Sand Happyisms

A.B. Crawford

· The Germ in Germany is undoubtedly Hitler.

· The Nazis are discovering that Britain is not the lion of least resistance.

· With a shortage of coal and oil, Hitler is finding out that he can’t fuel all of the people all of the time.

· A good soldier is the type who works hard at any job he is unable to get out of doing.

· With so many expensive limousines about I would hate to be knocked down by one of Cairo’s old-time taxis.

22 December 1941, NZEF Times


J.T. Burrows

Image 6

Brigade exercises and manoeuvres in the desert, from the point of view of the soldier in the ranks, are dull and unprofitable. He has to sit and wait, often for hours. There is no shade and, although thirsty, he knows from bitter experience if he empties his water bottle he will be thirstier than ever before the end of the day. The only real thirst-quencher is a hot mug of tea. In normal circumstances this will be served up to him from the cookhouse, either on the spot or brought up from the rear twice a day. Sections, therefore, quickly found ways and means of brewing up for themselves.

...we carried out an exercise: one half of the division, Puttagonia, against the other half, Milesia. Before the exercise was under way our commander, Brigadier Puttick, issued an order that during the three days and nights we were to be involved in manoeuvres there were to be no naked lights of any kind and no fires. Even boiling the billy over a puddle of petrol in the sand was strictly forbidden. There must not even be the thinnest wisp of smoke to give away our positions.

When, therefore, I came round the edge of a sand ridge to find a soldier of B Company in the process of pouring lovely steaming hot tea out for his mates standing nearby, I started to speak my mind. But before I got far the company sergeant-major, who was with me, said, ‘I wouldn’t worry too much, sir. He’s been hiding his smoke from the police in the Southland bush for two years that I know about, and they haven’t caught up with him yet.’

1974, Pathway Among Men

First Round in Libya

George Clifton

For engineers in Western Desert Force the months of October and November 1940 brought never-ending tasks on battle preparation against time. Other arms, including 4th N.Z. Brigade, worked equally hard, both on defensive preparations and at the same time on intensive training for the attack. As the weeks flew past bringing no advance by Maletti [Italian general, commanding Libyan colonial troops], our hopes of getting in the first blow became higher...

Sometime in November 1940, shrouded in deepest secrecy and on the darkest night, the 7th Royal Tank Regiment took their sixty heavy Matildas off rail, where they had travelled carefully concealed under tarpaulins. Before daylight they were hidden in marquees dispersed through 19th Battalion area, and the unmistakable track marks carefully brushed out ... Within an hour, the marvellous news had reached every New Zealander. Our three battalions and our guns would co-operate with the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in the main attack. Something we had hoped for, almost prayed for. No idle rumour either. Tank officers and crews came to live in our battalion lines, discussing combined training, arranging initial demonstrations, getting to know each other. All the preliminaries for confident thorough co-operation in battle, and particularly heartening, especially to the men, who had an extra domestic satisfaction. This preparation meant that the N.Z. First Contingent units would fight first; before the Second (Glamour Boys) reached Egypt, after their globe-trotting trip to England, and before the Third Contingent just arriving from New Zealand could get into action. The troops concentrated on the special training with the enthusiasm and fanatical application of an All Black team starting on a tour.

Then we learned with utter dismay that New Zealanders could not fight until the full Division was assembled and ready. General Freyberg arrived back from England and did his best to soften the blow, but I’m sure neither he nor Brigadier Puttick knew the intensity of feeling which swept through all ranks at Baggush when it became known that they were ‘out of battle’. As an illustration, I quote the large signboard prepared by Colonel John Gray commanding 18th (Auckland) Battalion – may his gallant spirit know peace [killed at Alamein]. Only with great difficulty we stopped its erection on the main road bridge over that damnable anti-tank ditch at Gahrwala—‘Dug as a contribution to Victory by men of the N.Z. Labour Division. Thank God for the Free French, the Greeks and other fighting troops’. The bitterness did not disappear until Greece and Crete saw us all through the bloody mill. Even now the first Contingent feel they were badly treated by missing the first easy run through Libya, when British, Australian and Indian troops carried the war westwards (and New Zealand trucks sometimes carried them to battle).

1952, The Happy Hunted

By March 1941, 18 months after the decision to create 2 NZEF, its major component or fighting arm, 2 NZ Division, finally became a unified force. The three main contingents or echelons had left some three months apart, but the threat of German invasion had diverted the second contingent to Britain. That threat over, the Second Echelon (5th Brigade) arrived in Egypt, tagged as the ‘Glamour Boys’, a moniker that Geoffrey Cox, in A Tale of Two Battles, thought unfair. ‘We were treated as if we had opted out of a hard life in the desert in order to sample the fleshpots of Britain.’

Typical of our British connection, the Division was made up of three infantry brigades, each of three battalions, drawn from the same distinct areas, and numbered in regional order: Auckland, 18; Wellington 19, South Island 20. It was the same for 5th Brigade’s 21, 22 and 23 Battalions, and 6th Brigade’s 24, 25 and 26. Each battalion had four infantry companies – A to D – each with three platoons of around 30 men, plus a headquarters company of several platoons of specialised arms: machine gun, engineer, signals, mortar, Bren gun and medical. There was also a strong regional influence in the companies’ makeup. The South Island battalions, for example, were manned by men from Tasman/West Coast, Canterbury, Otago, and Southland. At full strength a battalion would have around 800 men. There was one other infantry battalion, 28 (Maori) Battalion.

This battalion could be attached to any one of the brigades and its presence with any particular brigade indicated that a battle was in prospect which needed a concentration of the best fighting forces in the Division.

Dan Davin, The Salamander and the Fire

Call to Arms

Wira Gardiner

It was decided, by Army Headquarters, that the 28 (Maori) Battalion would gather in Palmerston North on 26th January 1940. Some two days earlier, the officers and non-commissioned officers arrived from Trentham to prepare the camp and ready themselves for the onslaught. On the day, hundreds of Maori, raw in the skills of modern warfare, converged on Palmerston North, accompanied by relatives, tribal elders and friends; all willing to stay and help with training.

Cody [ Official History author] noted that Dittmer [the battalion’s first commander] was at the station to meet the first draft. [Cody] further observed wryly that, ‘it would be interesting to know what he thought when he saw his first recruits. Many had ukuleles, accordions and banjos and nearly all were dressed in their bright Sunday best.’ It is little wonder then that ‘the Major went a little pale’ as he contemplated the task ahead...

It had been agreed that the battalion be organised on a tribal basis. A Company comprised mainly men from North Auckland (Ngapuhi and Aupouri). B Company was made up mainly of men from the Bay of Plenty, Thames-Coromandel and Taupo areas with the bulk coming from Te Arawa. C Company was manned by men from the East Coast of the North Island, principally from the Ngati Porou tribe. D Company was a composite company with men coming from all remaining areas, including the South Island. The principal tribal component came from Ngati Kahungunu, of Hawke’s Bay-Wairarapa. Headquarters Company was similarly a composite company with men drawn from the surplus of A, B and C Companies.

The men from the gumfields of the far north were called the Gumdiggers (Nga Kiri Kapia). Te Arawa, famous for its penny divers and guided tours through the geyserlands of Whakarewarewa, were labelled Nga Rukukapa (the Penny Divers). Those unfortunate men in B Company who did not belong to Te Arawa and who belonged to the neighbouring tribes of Mataaua had to grin and bear the label.

C Company men were labelled Nga Kaupoi (the Cowboys), largely because of their regular mode of transport in the isolated areas of the East Coast. D Company, not so easy to label, were initially called Ngati D Company and also the Foreign Legion. It was only later that Ngati Walkabout was used ... Headquarters Company became the Odds & Sods.

The remaining battalion, 27 (Machine-Gun) Battalion, was manned by gunners and officers from throughout New Zealand and its companies were dispersed among the Division. So too were the remaining specialist arms, when and where necessary. The major units were the 4th, 5th and 6th Field Artillery, 7th Anti-tank and 14th Anti-aircraft Regiments, the Divisional Engineers, Divisional Cavalry, Signals Corps, and 4th, 5th and 6th Field Ambulance. In addition there were the field hospitals, the provost companies (Military Police) and various units of the Army Service Corps: transport to bakery, mail services to fuel and ammunition supplies.

By the end of February 1941 it was a united division, with a demand for its services. As always, precisely where that would be was a matter of contention and speculation.

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