Journey Towards Christmas
Chapter 1 — Design For A Unit
Design For A Unit
The main body of the Divisional Ammunition Company went into camp on 6 October 1939, ten days after the advanced party.1 We came from every walk of life—every walk, crawl, shuffle, and stampede. Most of us had our homes in Auckland or in the Auckland district, and after breakfast we assembled sixty-five strong at the Drill Hall, Rutland Street. The hall was cavernous and depressing and it smelt of damp mackintoshes. There was a good deal of shouting, and presently we were shepherded into a corner where there was a man with a Bible. He told us to place our hands on the Book, cut out the shoving, and repeat what he said. He read quickly from a small card and there was room on the Book for only a few hands, so most of us had to be content with gesturing towards it and moving our lips.
Scon we were marching down Queen Street in a blur of rain, a sergeant in uniform leading us. His name, we learned later, was Michael.2 It had been raining off and on since early morning and some of us had neither mackintoshes nor overcoats. Not everyone was quite sober and our civilian clothes hung damply about us. Most of us had sugar sacks on our backs and bottles in our pockets, and as we marched, heading for the railway station, we linked arms with girls, called out to friends, and took other steps to demonstrate our amateur status.
By the time they reached Hopuhopu some members of the party were in a mood to treat everything as a gigantic joke and the sight of a group of officers in front of an endless prospect of greyish-white bell tents, the former as smart and polished as the latter were dirty and dilapidated, did nothing to damp their spirits. When the page 2 roll-call started they answered their names as loudly, cheerfully, and incorrectly as possible. ‘Hallo! Hallo! Hallo!’ ‘That's me!’ ‘Right here, Colonel!’ A minority—either they had served in the Territorial Army or they were already ambitious for stripes—came smartly to attention and snapped ‘Sir!’ Most of us, though, said ‘Here’ or ‘Yes’, and let it go at that. There were some—perhaps there were many—who had been made so miserable by recent leave-takings, the dreariness of the day, and the general beastliness of what they seemed to have let themselves in for, that when their names were called they just grunted.
On the whole, Captain W. A. T. McGuire, who was now officer commanding the company,3 was justified in his opinion. ‘You looked like a lot of tramps,’ he told us long afterwards. ‘My heart sank when I saw you.’
In the afternoon fifty-two others joined us, bringing our strength to about 156.
When you volunteer for the Army you make, as it were, a pact with the Devil. You surrender not quite your immortal soul but at least your immediate hopes and ambitions, your independence and freedom, and the kindly and familiar ways of home. But the Devil is notoriously a gentleman and he grants you something in return. He frees you from the trouble of earning a living and the responsibility of thinking for yourself. Not a very good bargain perhaps, but something. The new recruit feels as though he has gone back to school, or back even further than that—back to the nursery.
Most of us, if we search our memories, will find that we were happy at Hopuhopu in spite of the continual rain, the leaky tents, the monotonous parades, the appalling food. The meals, everyone will agree, descended to a level of greasy sogginess that was seldom touched at any other time in our Army life. The food itself was page 3 fairly good except in a few instances—an issue of fish is still spoken of with respect, and from what barren and scrubby fields our potatoes were wrested we should have been interested to discover—nor were the cooks, most of whom were learners, much to blame. Crowded cookhouses and lack of equipment were the cause of the trouble. The midday meal, though, was excellent: plenty of bread, jam, cheese, and good New Zealand butter. Most of us filled up on this, and in the evenings visited the canteen, to practise patience, to develop self-assertion and, on occasions, to make a purchase.
It rained steadily at first and we spent a great deal of time in our tents. Daily our civilian clothes became damper and more disreputable and it was a relief when we were issued with serge uniforms and felt hats. By this time we had rifles and webbing as well, and the cleaning and laying-out of our kit (a performance that was subject to all the bewildering and terrifying taboos attendant on priestly ritual) presented us with an almost insoluble time problem between breakfast and company parade; but the old Army lore, much of which, no doubt, came down to us direct from the Peninsular campaigns, gained rapid currency, and after a few days it was seldom that anyone was unduly late for a parade or conspicuously badly turned-out, though the officers always found something to criticise. Once used to wearing uniform, we dropped quite swiftly into Army ways. It was easier to drill, easier to double when ordered to, and less of an affront to our native independence to stand to attention when addressing an officer, salute him, and call him ‘Sir’.
Some civilian clothing still appeared in the ranks (a few figures proved too obstinate even for Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Robin Hood4 and his assistant, neither of whom was exactly fussy about the fit of another man's coat), and ‘Titch’ Maybury’s5 green trilby continued for many days to be a joy to all. He wore it jauntily on ceremonial occasions as though it were freedom's flag streaming gallantly among khaki waves.
Our officers were all enthusiasts and within the limits of the little training manuals they carried about in their pockets they did their best to make things interesting for us. We were bossed about page 4 and continually interfered with (‘You're in the Army now!’), but we were not driven and we were seldom shouted at individually except by Staff-Sergeant Wally Colton,6 who was now our Company Sergeant-Major. Oddly enough he was popular. It was that kind of remote popularity tinged with hero-worship—a tribute to omnipotence, perhaps—that is bestowed on any absolute monarch or successful headmaster who is not always tyrannical and oppressive. We held him in far greater awe than we did any of the officers.
No, we were not driven. Some of the NCOs, being new to authority, may have been guilty of minor pin-pricking, but on the whole the relation between the officers and NCOs and the common herd was one of friendliness tempered with caution. When was dignity endangered? At what point did cheerful obedience become servility? It was too early for people to feel quite certain of their position. Only the OC, with his kindly, unassuming smile, was at ease on Olympus, remote and awful.
The company was divided into its service components on 13 November, which gave us the nucleus of Company headquarters and Workshops Section and one complete transport section (A Section), and two days later all temporary and acting ranks were relinquished and appointments were made according to trade and other qualifications. As yet we had no transport of our own, and in spite of one or two lectures about ammunition points and the care of vehicles we had only the vaguest notion of what our real work would be. Some of us, no doubt, had schoolday memories of sumpter-mules at Hastings, of waggon trains loaded with luggage and laughing doxies at Waterloo, and of scarlet London Generals rumbling through the darkness towards Delville Wood and Bapaume; and of course we all knew that ASC stood for ‘All Safe and Comfortable’, but of the part played by transport in a modern war we could gather little except that you were not allowed to climb into your cab until the officer in charge of the convoy made a mounting gesture or start your engine until he made a winding one.
What else did we learn at this time? Little, one fears, that was of much practical use to us afterwards. No one showed us the page 5 quickest way to change a spring or the best way to make a Benghazi burner. No one showed us a Bren gun or a sub-machine gun. This is not to suggest that the work of our officers and instructors was wasted. To them and to the exemplary patience with which we suffered them (at times they could be wearisome beyond words) we owed the difference between a company parade after six weeks' training and our exhibition on the day of the first roll-call. To them and to the life we were leading we owed our improved looks. Most young men are careless about getting teeth stopped and about finding boots and shoes that fit comfortably. The difference a month in the Army can make to a man's appearance and to the way he feels is quite wonderful.
Between reveille and tea-time we had scarcely a moment to ourselves. There were parades and lectures (hachures and re-entrants went round and round in our heads in company with charger guides and Section 40 of the Army Act), and there were route marches and fatigues. Each day's work ended with half an hour's physical training under Captain Bracegirdle7 and it was the pleasantest period of all. This was when Bob Ward8 (‘Snake Gully’) came into his own. Daily he provided us with one of the most warming spectacles imaginable: a fat man laughing at his own undignified convolutions. Even in those days ‘Snake’ was well on the way to becoming a Divisional character. On roll-calls he would answer his name with a hearty ‘Hallo! Hallo! Hallo!’ To him anyone below the rank of Major was ‘mate’; majors and above were ‘boss’. There is a story of his meeting General Freyberg later in the war. The General was wearing mufti. ‘Cigarette, mate?’ said ‘Snake’, and then, jerking his thumb towards the NAAFI9 building, ‘You work here, don't yer?’ ‘Snake’ was no respecter of persons but he knew as much about carburettors as any man in the Division.
Fatigues. Burnt porridge to be scraped from dixies, congealed fat from baking pans. Great drums of slops to be carried gingerly towards the latrines first thing in the morning. Parades. Your page 6 collar biting into your neck and your jacket cutting you under the arms and Captain McGuire walking slowly between the ranks and remarking with deceptive gentleness, ‘Growing a beard, soldier?’ Route marches….
By the middle of November we were beginning to behave and look like soldiers. ‘Titch’ Maybury's green hat was only a delightful memory and it was unusual for an officer to be addressed (unless, of course, by ‘Snake Gully’) by any title except ‘Sir’. The influenza epidemic, which had filled the camp hospital and converted some of our tents into sick-bays, had abated, and so had the grey rain. The sun came out and dried the mud and the acres of wet canvas. It sparkled on burnished buttons; it hinted at far, hot lands half the world away. ‘Perhaps we shall go to India,’ we said. ‘Or maybe Egypt.’ The pessimists answered: ‘No. We'll never leave New Zealand.’ Usually the thought that this might be true was enough to fill us with anticipatory disappointment, but at other times, on dull evenings or on grey afternoons, some of us would feel secretly in our hearts: ‘Well, I've made the gesture anyway. Hell, it would be nice back home!’
After six weeks at Hopuhopu we moved to the newly-constructed camp at Papakura. Here we were far more comfortable. There were proper beds instead of bed-boards and straw palliasses, and we had a watertight roof over us.
The weather was fine and we made rapid progress with our training and really rapid progress in friendships. We knew now that we should be going overseas as soon as shipping was available and the knowledge made everything, friendship included, twice as important. Previously we had been at liberty to regard our relation with the Army as a military liaison—a chaise longue affair. Now we realised that we were committed to a proper marriage, a marriage that had every chance of being consummated on the battlefield. It was a relief to know where we stood, and our morale bounded.
There had been comparatively little skylarking at Hopuhopu—we had been too busy for one thing and for another tents make indifferent playgrounds—but at Papakura soaring spirits found an outlet in physical exuberance. Tremendous battles were fought page 7 between rival huts, with a great upsetting of beds and scattering of equipment, and nightly the sergeants had to leave their cubicles to restore order.
The days hurried by to the slap and creak of marching files and the eternally reiterated three drum beats (one—pause—two: one—pause—two) to which we were learning to subdue the rhythm of our working hours; the evenings went by to the tune of ‘South of the Border’ and a churning babble from the newly-opened wet canteen, the nights to the stealthy pacing of sentries and a grumble of soft snores from the long, darkened dormitories. December came and early in the month Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Robin Hood, Sergeant Athol Buckleigh,10 and Corporal Sam Mellows11 vanished mysteriously (they were our advanced party), and on the 14th we were placed on active service and solemnly warned that sins that had been venial once were now inexcusable. As we saw it, the drama of our situation was doubled. On the same day final leave began.
Surrounded by mounds of gear—kitbags, sea kits, overcoats, packs, rifles, everything—we sat in a meadow outside Papakura Camp and waited. It was 4 January and we had been waiting since two in the afternoon. Now it was nearly six.
Company Sergeant-Major Colton stood talking to a group of officers. Without his peaked cap, tailored uniform, and Sam Browne he looked smaller, less impressive, more approachable. Like the rest of us he was wearing light khaki drill and a New Zealand felt hat. The officers seemed more approachable too. Their manner suggested a readiness to laugh, crack jokes, hand around cigarettes.
It was one of those pale, indeterminate summer evenings, neither bright nor dull, and the talk and laughter, after rising and falling in the still air hour after hour, had subsided to a low growl. Most of us were drained of energy, for the past three weeks had been extremely strenuous. First there had been final leave, then the wrench of leaving home again. New Year's Night for some of us—self-respect demanded it—had meant sneaking out of camp to page 8 take part in the celebrations. A ceremonial parade for General Freyberg had been followed by a rush of packing and a farewell parade in the Auckland Domain. The day had been very hot and we had sweated freely on the march to the railway station, but the people had cheered and cheered, and, on the whole, the majority of us had minded it a great deal less than we were prepared to admit. That evening the camp had been thrown open to the public and the final goodbyes said. Mothers, wives, sisters, and sweethearts had worn their prettiest and gayest dresses. They sat on our beds and strolled in bright groups between the severe buildings, laughing and talking. But some of the laughter seemed forced and much of the talk was rather wide of the point. Indeed the occasion was something of an emotional strain and in a way it was a relief when the time came for the visitors to go home, in silence, and with sad hearts.
That had occurred yesterday evening, and now, surrounded by our belongings, we waited for the word to move.
‘Up on your feet,’ ordered the sergeant-major, and soon we were marching towards Papakura station, juggling feverishly with our too-heavy loads while the camp band played an encouraging quick-step.
We were exhausted when we reached the station and more exhausted after we had battled to find seats next to our friends and card partners. There was a small crowd of women and girls on the platform and when the engine gave three snorts and started to move they waved and called out to us. As soon as we felt the movement we settled down, after the immemorial custom of soldiers at the beginning of a long train journey, to empty our water bottles and eat all our rations.
We played poker, sang ‘South of the Border’, and, later in the night, tried to sleep. But the carriages were cold and uncomfortable and there was room on the floor for only a few people at a time. The train rushed through the flying darkness, saying South of the Border, South of the Border, South of the Border, South of the Border, South of the Border. Some of the soldiers were very young, and their faces, streaked with smuts, were childish and weary under the dim lights.
A night journey by rail is the perfect agency for removing page 9 military polish and it would be interesting to equate one train-hour with its capacity for cancelling out drill periods. By the time we reached Wellington, which we did at noon on the 5th, our sergeant-major must have been consumed with a desire to set to work on us then and there. We were unshaven and crumpled and this alone encouraged us to be more than outspoken when, as we neared the wharves, NCOs were posted at the carriage doors and all the windows shut.
The train came to a halt alongside SS Orion. From then on events moved so quickly that by the time we had finished lunch—and an excellent lunch it was—our ship was anchored in the stream.
When we saw our quarters for the first time we jumped to the conclusion that a mistake had been made and we waited for it to be rectified with much shouting and recrimination and a vast shifting of gear. But nothing happened and we remained in our beautifully-appointed cabins, some of which contained only two berths. All were furnished with electric fires, fans, hot and cold water, white sheets, and fluffy blankets. It was a far cry from the austerities of Hopuhopu, and a slight tendency on the part of some of the officers to behave as though they had arranged the matter with the Orient Line was pardonable under the circumstances.
The Orion was the Commodore's ship, and at seven the next morning, followed by the Strathaird, the Empress of Canada, the Rangitata, and HMS Ramillies, she led the way out of the harbour. In Cook Strait we were joined by HMS Leander and the South Island contingent in the Dunera and the Sobieski. By nightfall the convoy was well out in the Tasman.
With almost empty decks the Orion trembled through the windy darkness, swishing and humming softly. She seemed barely to be whispering, but the loudest noises from below were quenched and smothered by that whisper. No sound, no chink of light, told of the quick traffic, the bright teeming city, enclosed and hidden. Nothing spoke of it but the currents of warm air that streamed from ventilators and tainted the salt wind with an odour of engine oil, warm bodies, hot pipes, cabbage water. Below the Plimsoll line a frilly whiteness bordered the ship's sides and her sharp forefoot divided the water into twin plumes. Otherwise she was part of the night, though once or twice she gave a sly wink. None of the page 10 ships with her made any sign. They steamed in silence, going humbly through the long darkness.
There were 1428 troops in the Orion and of these 166 were members of the Ammunition Company: eight officers,12 one warrant officer, eight sergeants, and 149 other ranks.
After a day or two we felt as though she had been our home for months. The weather was cold at first but this mattered little as we had our comfortable cabins to retire to when work was finished. The training programme continued: lectures, route marches, physical training. We practised anti-aircraft drill on the promenade deck, pausing every now and then to snatch up guns and tripods and flatten ourselves against the bulkhead as marching troops lurched past to the tune of ‘Sussex by the Sea’ or ‘Roll out the Barrel’ played by the ship's band, whose repertoire, though vigorously executed, was limited. The lectures, for the most part, took place in the first class lounge. It was furnished with deep easy chairs, and in these it was almost impossible to sit and listen for any length of time to Second-Lieutenant Radford's13 extremely erudite talks on ammunition without dozing off. For the rest, we worked greasily in the galleys, did guard duty, spent weary hours searching for periscopes and torpedo tracks, visited the ship's cinema, gambled, and played housie-housie. (‘Eyes down for the foist numbah! And here she is. Sixty-six—all the sixes.’) From the canteen we bought tinned fruit, biscuits, and condensed milk, and at night we feasted in our cabins. There were wet canteens as well, and people of ordinary capacity were able to satisfy their thirst for rather less than a florin.
In the Great Australian Bight a cold wind blew and the seas tumbled. To the rattle of housie counters, the chanting of callers, the strains of ‘Sussex by the Sea’, and the now unnoticed hum and whisper from engines and rigging, we headed towards Fremantle, reaching it on 18 January. Those of us who were not on duty were given late leave.page 11
On the following morning the troops in the Orion paraded under Colonel Crump14 for a 14-mile route march to Perth. As we had been vaccinated a few days earlier the march was not compulsory, but the promise of leave at the end of it caused everyone who was not a cot-case to turn out. The column was to have left the wharf at eight in the morning, but there was an unfortunate delay, and by the time the march began the temperature had risen to more than 90 degrees.
The black bitumen stretched ahead of us in a tremor of heat, and Australian motorists, with mistaken kindness, drove up and down the column with iced drinks, which many of us—for the hospitality of the previous night had left burning thirsts—gulped at a draught. The result, of course, was stomach cramps. By the time we reached Perth about a third of us were in sorry case, though only ten men had dropped out. The people lining the streets gave us a tumultuous welcome, and when they understood that we had marched all the way from Fremantle they were loudly indignant and some began blackguarding our officers, which was all we needed to convince us that we had been badly used. They showed their sympathy by plying us with foaming glasses of Swan beer and by nightfall we were feeling fit enough to do the march all over again.
The convoy sailed the next day and shipboard life went on as before, only now we seemed to have more time on our hands: more time to lean over the rail (with the rather thrilling consciousness that if anyone fell overboard he would be likely to stay there); more time to watch the troubled marbles of the water and listen to their interminable swish-swishing against the ship's side, or to look up at night towards the Southern Cross, New Zealand's private constellation, and catch from the corner of an eye the sly progress of a comet, and wonder to see a whole world slipping from star to star as the flying-fish, all day long, had been slipping from wave to wave. And, after the custom of voyagers since the invention of ships, we spent long hours in exchanging preposterous information about dolphins and porpoises and the mysterious page 12 phosphorescence, the dancer's spangled shawl, that trailed after us through the darkness.
Colombo was our next landfall, and on 30 January we spent an afternoon in the East. It bewildered and astonished us. The whole scene was in technicolour, with lamp-black shadows everywhere, plenty of flake white in the foreground, and a background of chrome yellow, emerald, and ultramarine. There was no haze at all and all the dimensions stood out hard and square like bricks. It was so much like something out of Hollywood (Super-Colossal! Next week at the Regal!! Better than gunga din!!!) that one half-expected to see the producer's name—Darryl F. Zanuck or David O. Selznick—blazing across Heaven.
It dazzled us and it made us thirsty, but ten rupees odd (with Japanese beer at two rupees the bottle) was insufficient for serious thirst-quenching, so most of us wandered around in the hot sun and stared and stared. It was all spread out in front of us: snake charmers—glossy bullocks—money changers—boys beautiful as Mowgli—hideous old wizards with lips and teeth scarlet from chewing areca-nut—vendors of cheap cheroots and expensive ivory or ebony elephants—Somerset Maugham Englishmen—performing mongooses—scampering rickshaws. A number of these were drawn by hot and excited Kiwis who had insisted on changing places with the rickshaw boys regardless of the heat. ‘Fat’ Davison15 though, complete with cheroot, sat his rickshaw as to the manner born, and doubtless this impressive spectacle went a long way towards soothing the ruffled susceptibilities of many a sahib and memsahib.
We visited wonderful Buddhist temples, and while countless effigies of the Philosopher Prince, with crab-like arms and legs sprouting from improbable places, looked down on us from Nirvana—detached, charitable, ineffably bland—saffron-robed priests lectured us in Oxford English. Finally one would murmur, eyeing us with expectancy: ‘It is the custom…. You pay what you like….’ Our initiation, done in a very delicate and priestly way, to the system of baksheesh.
There was no leave for us the next day and we left for Aden on 1 February, reaching it on the 8th. We were allowed ashore there page 13 for a few hours but found little beyond narrow, goat-filled streets fit only for the swarming natives and desiccated white officials to whom Providence had abandoned them.
The Red Sea, too, was a disappointment. It was opaque and unctuous, its appearance suggesting that the Israelites had not only crossed it but had washed up in it after a particularly greasy meal. A hot wind followed us and for two days we sweated and gasped for breath in an atmosphere that seemed to be centrally-heated.
We had known for some time that Egypt was our destination, and as the end of the voyage drew near senior officers lectured us on the customs and geography of the country and medical officers gave grisly little talks from which their audiences, after squirming uncomfortably for twenty minutes, arose dedicated to continence.
The Orion came into the Gulf of Suez late in the afternoon on the 12th. Over us was a brassy sky, around us bare, red hills. No decent covering of farm or field or forest clothed their nakedness. It was as though part of the world's skeleton had been picked clean by vultures.
That night the Orion rode at anchor opposite Port Tewfik and we slept in her for the last time. We had finished the first stage of our long journey. The war, which no one really believed in yet, which no one understood yet, least of all the drivers of the Ammunition Company, had been going on for 162 days. It was generally thought that Hitler was half-beaten already—by blockade, by dissension within, by the time element. Many of us thought it would be over by Christmas.
How wise we had been to come early!page break page 14
1 The advanced party consisted of Capt G. S. Forbes (OC), Capt O. Bracegirdle and Lt A. G. Hood (1st Composite Company, NZASC), Lt N. C. Moon (Reserve of Officers), Lt L. W. Roberts (9th Auckland Mounted Rifles). 2 Lt L. A. Radford (ammunition officer attached, 2nd Medium Battery), S-Sgt W. E. Colton, Sgt C. M. Torbet (acting CSM), acting CQMS R. F. Hood, Sgts H. Crossley, G. P. Hallam, L. D. Jones, N. K. Michael, and J. F. Seymour, and twenty-four other ranks.
3 Capt McGuire (1st Composite Company, NZASC) had been posted to the unit three days earlier, Capt Forbes having been transferred to the Divisional Supply Column.
Lt-Col W. A. T. McGuire, ED, m.i.d.; police officer and motor engineer; Auckland; born NZ, 22 Dec 1905; OC Div Amn Coy 3 Oct 1939-3 Oct 1941; OC NZ Base ASC 20 Oct 1941–1944 (incl AA and QMG, 6 NZ Div, 9 Mar-17 May 1943); returned to NZ 18 Sep 1944.
Maj G. S. Forbes, MBE, ED; insurance clerk; Auckland; born Christ-church, 29 Jul 1908.
7 Lt-Col O. Bracegirdle, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; clerk; Auckland; born Auckland, 14 Aug 1911; 4 Inf Bde supply officer, Jan-Apr 1940; posted to HQ NZASC (Major) 16 Jun 1941; second-in-command HQ Comd NZASC 9 Nov 1943-15 Jun 1945.
12 Several changes had been made in our establishment of officers. Our OC was now a major and Capt Bracegirdle had been posted to the 4th Infantry Brigade and Lt Hood to HQ Divisional NZASC. Newcomers were 2 Lt Torbet (who had left us to gain a commission) and 2 Lt R. C. Aitken.
14 Brig S. H. Crump, CBE, DSO, m.i.d.; Regular soldier; Lower Hutt; born NZ, 25 Jan 1889; in First World War commanded NZASC in Egypt; Commander Royal Army Service Corps, 2 NZ Division, 1940-5; commanded rear party organisation in Mediterranean, 1946-7; commanded 2 NZEF (Japan) 1947; on staff of HQ BCOF and NZ representative on Disposals Board in Japan 1948-9.