Chapter 1: The First Echelon
AT dawn on 1 September 1939 the Luftwaffe attacked the Polish airfields and the Wehrmacht crossed the Polish border. That day, and again on 3 September, the British Government asked Germany for immediate assurances that her aggressive action would be suspended and her troops withdrawn from Polish territory. Unless this was done Britain would, without hesitation, fulfil her obligations to Poland. At the same time the Dominions, warned that Britain was preparing for war, were asked to co-operate and to take precautionary measures.
This was a necessary procedure. In 1914 it had been natural to think that because Britain was at war the rest of the Empire was at war. In 1939 the Dominions, as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, ‘in no way subordinate one to another’, were free to act as they individually thought fit.1 In New Zealand’s case the Government entirely concurred with, and warmly endorsed, what was virtually the issue of an ultimatum.
Some precautionary measures had already been taken. On 30 August No. 1 Platoon, A Company, a small detachment of two officers and thirty other ranks from the Regular Force, had been sent in HMS Leander to garrison Fanning Island, a coral atoll 3° 54′ north of the Equator and an important trans-Pacific cable station. The Government now went further. All Regular reservists and some of the Special Reserve (Class 2)2 were mobilised, the coastal defences were manned and vital points placed under guard.
When no reply was received from Germany it was announced in a New Zealand Gazette Extraordinary that ‘a state of war ... existed from 9.30 p.m. New Zealand Standard Time on the third day of September 1939.’ This made the Dominion’s proclamation simultaneous with that of the United Kingdom. It was forwarded to the German Government by the United States Ambassador in Berlin.3
The despatch to London stated that
His Majesty’s Government in New Zealand desire immediately to associate themselves with His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom in honouring their pledged word. They entirely concur with the action taken, which they regard as inevitably forced upon the British Commonwealth if the cause of justice, freedom and democracy is to endure in this world. ... The New Zealand Government wish to offer to the British Government the fullest assurance of all possible support. They are convinced that the step that has been taken will meet with the approval of the people of this Dominion, and they will in due course give the fullest consideration to any suggestion of the British Government as to the method, or methods, by which this Dominion can best assist in the common cause.4
So far as land forces were concerned, the first step was the decision by Cabinet on 6 September to mobilise 6600 men, a Special Force for service within and without New Zealand. This was the first echelon of what from 12 December 1939 was known as 2 New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Enlistment would be entirely voluntary and would be restricted according to age. Other ranks and non-commissioned officers had to be between the ages of 21 and 35 years, subalterns under 30, captains under 35, majors under 40 and lieutenant-colonels under 45 years.
The forces from which these recruits could be drawn were not relatively as strong as those which were available in 1914 when there was a system of compulsory training. There were the Regular Force and the Territorial Force, both under the control of the Army Board.5 But in actual practice the former was only a small instructional and administrative staff of 100 officers and 478 other ranks. The latter, though it was organised to protect the main ports and to provide a field force that could be expanded in time of war, was not based upon any system of compulsory training. The compulsory clauses of the Defence Act 1909 had been suspended in 1930, and the Territorial Force when re-established in 1932 had been based upon a system of voluntary enlistment. In 1930 there had been 17,500 trainees; in 1939 under the voluntary scheme there were on 31 March only 778 officers and 9586 other ranks. This was disappointing, but the system did at least provide the essentials for a scheme of training, even if its successful application was dependent upon the patriotic services of a small number of officers
and non-commissioned officers, many of whom had served in the First World War. Without them there would have been no Territorial Force; without the Territorial Force it would have been impossible to organise the Expeditionary Force in any reasonable length of time.
There was one other training cadre, the Territorial Special Reserve which had been formed in 1937. Single men between the ages of 18 and 30 had the opportunity of enlisting for five months’ military training, during which time facilities would also be provided for vocational training. They were afterwards given the opportunity to join the Regular Force or be posted to Territorial units. In 1939, however, there were only 374 other ranks in this unit.
These groups with their different standards of training were allowed for when more detailed plans were prepared. Army Headquarters gave preference to single men in the following order: serving members of the Territorial Force; members of the infantry section of the Special Reserve; members of Class I6 of the National Military Reserve; other single men with or without military experience. The period of training was to be for a maximum of three months in special camps. If their services were not required at the end of this period, all ranks would be granted leave without pay and allowed to return to their civil occupations until called up again. Enlistment would be for the duration of the war and twelve months thereafter or until lawfully discharged.
At 9 a.m. on Tuesday 12 September the recruiting offices were opened, and when the doors closed that night 5419 men had enlisted. Thereafter the figures were rather disappointing, no doubt because of uncertainty as to the role of the Special Force, but by 5 October, when the First Echelon was assembling, the total was 14,983. Even so, it was difficult to bring the new units up to strength and quite unnecessary to have any system of priority, for the somewhat high medical standards had already caused many rejections. Consequently on 11 April 1940 the age limit for other ranks was raised to 40 years and by May the justice of conscription7 was being hotly debated throughout the country.
To prevent these enlistments from upsetting the economic structure of the Dominion, the National Service Department was established with a Manpower Committee of the Department of Industries and Commerce. It drew up a Schedule of Reserved Occupations, which was afterwards replaced by the Schedule of Important Occupations. The Social Security Department compiled
a register of every male resident in the Dominion over the age of sixteen, and the placement officers of the Department of Labour scrutinised the lists of volunteers and recommended that the military service of certain essential workers be postponed. Married men with more than two children, men engaged in primary industries, and those who were essential in secondary industries were withdrawn from the Special Force. In this way it was intended that the manpower of the Dominion should be conserved and directed into those industries essential for the successful prosecution of the war.
Meanwhile, throughout September, the British and New Zealand Governments had been discussing the best means by which the land forces of the Dominion could co-operate in the common cause. They decided that New Zealand should raise a division,8 as in 1914–18, and despatch it for operations overseas wherever it could be employed most usefully. Plans were therefore made for the first echelon9 of this division to enter camp on 3 October, for the second echelon to assemble two months later, and for the third echelon to be called up another two months later. Within eight months there would be a complete division. But it was doubtful if there was in New Zealand the necessary equipment for training in mechanised warfare. And there was also the question whether troops in training should be held in the Dominion until the Division was complete, or whether they should be sent overseas as and when the echelons became available.
Any action by New Zealand was, moreover, governed by the attitude of Japan. Until that country played her first card no confident decision could be made. If she remained neutral and friendly then a force could be sent to serve in France, or perhaps to replace British troops in India, Burma or Singapore. On the other hand, if Japan maintained ‘an attitude of reserve’ towards the democratic powers it would be most unwise to send an expedition outside the Pacific area. This was the preliminary decision in September 1939. The problem could be studied again when the Division or one of its echelons had completed its training.
In the meantime the Division would be organised and trained for service overseas. The first echelon would consist of some staff for an overseas base, part of Divisional Headquarters and one infantry brigade group. The second echelon would have the rest
of Divisional Headquarters and another infantry brigade group. The third echelon would be the remaining brigade group. Each brigade was to be drawn in approximately equal proportions from the three military districts. In 4 Infantry Brigade, for example, 18 Battalion came from the Northern (Auckland), 19 Battalion from the Central (Wellington) and 20 Battalion from the Southern (South Island) Military District.
The First Echelon was assembled and organised at Ngaruawahia, Trentham and Burnham.10 On 27 September courses began for officers and non-commissioned officers. The main drafts marched in on 3 October and the battalions were organised with members of the Regular Force as adjutants, regimental sergeants-major or company sergeants-major.
The nomenclature of these units had presented an unexpected problem of army organisation and regimental tradition. The major formations had not been difficult to number. First New Zealand Division with its three infantry brigades was for home defence. The formation to go overseas would, therefore, be 2 New Zealand Division with 4, 5 and 6 Brigades.11
With the smaller units it was not so simple. The Adjutant-General, Colonel Mead,12 wished to avoid the duplication of numbers held by earlier or existing units. So with a deplorable disregard for tradition it was decided that the regimental numbers should follow on after those of the Territorial Force. As there were seventeen Territorial infantry regiments in existence or in suspension, the numbering of the Expeditionary Force battalions started with 18 Battalion; there had been a 3 Field Regiment so the new artillery units began with 4 Field Regiment; and in succession to 4 Field Company, New Zealand Engineers, came 5 Field Park Company.
At this stage, in addition to the First Echelon, units were also being organised from the Maori volunteers and from the New Zealanders in Britain. Two days after the declaration of war the Maori members of Parliament had suggested that the race should have its own unit
Burnham: 20 Bn, 27 (MG) Bn (12 LAD attached), Div Supply Column (details), 4 Res MT Coy (details), 4 Fd Amb, 4 Fd Hyg Sec.
in the Special Force, an infantry battalion rather than the pioneer and labour unit of the First World War. The Government, however, did not announce its decision until October. Thereafter, Maoris who had enrolled in the force were given the option of remaining in camp with their original units or of being transferred to 28 (Maori) Battalion, which would train at Palmerston North and leave with the Second Echelon, giving the Division ten infantry battalions instead of the nine in the current establishment. In 1914–18 conscription had been applied to the Maoris, but throughout the Second World War enlistment in the battalion was always voluntary. At this stage it was limited to single men between 21 and 35, but by the end of the war married men with two children were being accepted. Recruiting began on 9 October and by the end of the month there were 895 volunteers, from whom a selected group entered Army School, Trentham, there to be under the command of Major Dittmer, MBE, MC,13 and trained as future officers and NCOs.
Those New Zealanders who enlisted in Britain formed the nucleus of what was to be 7 Anti-Tank Regiment. As recruits they were perhaps more sophisticated than the men on the parade grounds of Burnham or Trentham. They did not belong to the four main groups of the Special Force: general and seasonal labourers; public servants; professional and white-collar workers; farmers and skilled tradesmen. Among them were artists and architects, musicians and journalists, students from Kew Gardens and, for New Zealanders, many odd specialists such as a floor manager from a Lyons Corner House, a colonial servant from North Borneo, idealists from the Spanish War and a cook from the Savoy Hotel. Aldershot absorbed them all when they marched in on 26 October to become the New Zealand Anti-Tank Battery (later 34 Battery, 7 Anti-Tank Regiment), with Major Duff14 as commanding officer.
In New Zealand, by this time, the First Echelon had been in camp for several weeks. The new recruit was being trained, clothed and equipped; he was being made dentally fit; he had received his paybook and had been inoculated against many diseases. He may have spent many hours on the parade ground, enchanted by the spell of orderly movement, but he was just as likely to have
spent them in a queue waiting to receive issues of clothing that neither matched nor fitted. And very probably he had suffered in the influenza epidemic that had disrupted the organisation of all four camps in late October and early November. Nevertheless, the camps were expanding rapidly, wet canteens had been established in November and there were encouraging signs of possible service overseas.
The majority of the senior officers in camp, those with the First Echelon and those waiting for appointments with the Second Echelon, were civilians who had served in 1914–18 and had been members of the Territorial Army during that depressing period between the wars when it was fashionable to decry any interest in military affairs. They may have lacked some of the qualifications of the trained professional soldier, but they had actually held commands, which few Regulars had done, and they were still young enough to train the raw recruits and to command the battalions in the field. In some cases their civilian occupations had indirectly prepared them for this new adventure. To quote General Freyberg: ‘Our Medical Corps and Engineers, for example, are drawn entirely from civilian life with civilians occupying all the senior appointments. Their outlook is different from that of their military counterparts in the British Army. They are more original in thought and more experienced in practice, with the result that many new ideas have developed which have proved of benefit to the whole Army.’15
The brigade commander, Colonel Puttick, DSO,16 was a Regular officer who had commanded a battalion of the Rifle Brigade in 1917–18. He was to show that he had administrative ability, a very high standard of soldierly conduct and the useful gift of knowing, apparently instinctively, what was going on throughout his brigade. It went into action for the first time in Greece in April 1941, a well-disciplined and well-trained formation, a credit to his efficiency and common sense.
19 Battalion, enlisted from Wellington, Taranaki and Hawke’s Bay, by Lieutenant-Colonel Varnham, MC,19 a company manager from New Plymouth; and 20 (South Island) Battalion by Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger,20 who had been a lawyer at Rangiora. Lieutenant-Colonel Pierce, MC,21 a farmer, commanded the Divisional Cavalry Regiment and Lieutenant-Colonel Inglis, MC,22 a Timaru lawyer, commanded 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion. Varnham, Pierce and Inglis had all been commissioned in 1914–18 and had served with distinction; Kippenberger had been an infantry private. All were commanding or had recently been commanding Territorial units, Inglis a Territorial brigade.
Fourth Field Regiment was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson,23 a Regular officer who had served as a gunner officer in France. Few of the civilian specialists had as yet appeared, so 5 Field Park Company was commanded by Captain Sanders,24 a Regular officer, and 6 Field Company by Major Rudd,25 another Auckland lawyer. Fourth Field Ambulance, however, was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Will,26 a medical practitioner from
Auckland, 4 Field Hygiene Section by Major Wyn Irwin,27 the Medical Officer of Health for Wellington. The standard of the junior medical officers with 4 Field Ambulance was high; five were afterwards to command field ambulances and one was to be Assistant Director of Medical Services of 2 New Zealand Division in Italy.
Under the command of these officers the units of the First Echelon began their elementary training. In November 18 Battalion moved from its bell tents at Hopu Hopu, near Ngaruawahia, to the incomplete but relatively palatial camp at Papakura, where there were wooden huts and bitumen roads, hot water and electric lights. The other units spent several weeks in the field. Nineteenth Battalion, the Divisional Cavalry and 4 Field Regiment went to Waiouru; 20 Battalion and 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion enjoyed an idyllic existence at Cave but trained very seriously. The exercises may have been too advanced but the men were enthusiastic, even if there was a shortage of such modern equipment as mortars, anti-tank rifles, Bren carriers and transport.
In November 1939 while the echelon was doing this training, the deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. P. Fraser, was in London attending a conference of Commonwealth ministers and discussing with the British authorities the future movements of the Expeditionary Force. They decided that the international situation and the attitude of Japan in particular justified the despatch of a complete division. In organisation it would be similar to a British infantry division with an additional battalion, though New Zealand had no objection to its conversion into a motorised formation after its arrival overseas. In the first instance its destination would be Egypt, on account of the training facilities in that country and because of its strategic importance in the Middle East. The First Echelon would leave in January 1940. It was thought that the early despatch of Dominion troops might possibly have a good effect upon world opinion and would most certainly alleviate New Zealand’s problem of equipment and accommodation. The Division was to be complete by the beginning of August and fully trained by the end of September; the first section28 of the reinforcements would arrive in July 1940.
These decisions had not been easy to make, nor had they been just a matter for discussion between the representatives of Great Britain and New Zealand. In many cases the respective interests
of Australia and New Zealand had to be considered. There had been no difference of opinion about their forces being sent to the Middle East. Much would have been gained, ‘particularly from the psychological point of view’, by sending the Australian and New Zealand troops to Britain. But they would have arrived in winter to occupy unprepared quarters and, at this juncture, it was essential to build up a strategic reserve in the Middle East. This was the deciding factor, important at the moment and still more important in the future history of the Dominion.
There was a difference of opinion between the two Dominions as to the date on which the forces should be sent to the Middle East. The Australian Government could see no reason why Dominion troops should be transferred to the unruffled battle front in France, nor could it understand how transports and naval convoys could be found when there was a shortage of shipping for Australian exports. More important still, it was not convinced that Japan would remain neutral and that the Admiralty could maintain the security of Singapore. For these reasons the Government with a continent to defend did not wish to make any hasty decision. New Zealand, on the other hand, wished to send her First Echelon overseas as soon as its elementary training was completed. This would enable the Second Echelon to enter camp and the First Echelon to train overseas with the modern equipment which did not exist in New Zealand. The opinion of the Government was ‘that the retention of our voluntary system of recruiting is to some extent dependent on the knowledge and the fact that the men will serve overseas.’29 Therefore New Zealand on 20 November, without consulting Australia, informed Great Britain that the First Echelon would be sent to the Middle East in January 1940.
The following day the Australian Government suggested that ‘we should watch developments of the next three or four weeks before committing ourselves to the despatch of our division overseas.’ The New Zealand Government, having assumed that the question was one of ‘common arrangement’ with their respective ministers in London, now regretted that there was no longer time to discuss the question. Arrangements had already been made by the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. M. J. Savage, on 23 November to announce that the Division would be sent overseas. The Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Menzies, made a similar announcement on 29 November. His hand may have been forced by the New Zealand announcement and he may have been embarrassed
politically,30 though at the conference in London Australia had made it quite clear that she had every intention of sending a force overseas. The important lesson for the future was his gentle reminder to New Zealand that the two Dominions had, at her suggestion,31 agreed in 1938 to exchange opinions about defence policy, and in time of war to supply each other with the fullest possible information.
An equally important subject was the appointment of a commander for the Expeditionary Force. So much depended upon this decision that Mr Fraser had been considering the subject ever since he landed in Britain. In 1914 it had been perfectly natural that the commander and senior staff officers should come from the British Army. Sir Andrew Russell, a Hawke’s Bay sheep-farmer of ‘very remarkable and outstanding qualities’,32 had certainly commanded 1 New Zealand Division in 1916–18, but he was an ex-regular and the Expeditionary Force as a whole had been commanded throughout the war by a British officer, Sir Alexander Godley.
But Gallipoli and the long campaigns in France, Flanders and Palestine, the Balfour Report and the Statute of Westminster33 had changed the status of the Dominion. The Division in 1939 would be more than a component of the British Army; it would be the national army of New Zealand. This meant that Fraser had to do more than recommend an officer who could command the Division in action. He had to select an able administrator who could conduct the affairs of an independent army and carry out the policy of the Dominion Government.
At any other time it might have been difficult to find such a commander, but fortunately there was a New Zealander with all these qualifications. He was Major-General Bernard Freyberg, VC, CB, CMG, DSO, LLD,34 who had offered his services to the Dominion and expressed the hope that he might serve with his compatriots. At the moment he was commanding the Salisbury Plain Area, but General Sir William Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, intended in the very near future to give him the
command of a British division. If the New Zealand Government was to utilise his services, the most suitable position for him would be that of commander of the Expeditionary Force. The organisation and training of the units in New Zealand would be the responsibility of Major-General Duigan,35 then Chief of the General Staff.
General Freyberg’s contemporaries did what one’s contemporaries do not always do – they spoke highly of him. And Mr Fraser was impressed by the importance the General attached to the welfare and health of his soldiers. His offer was accepted and, on 23 November, Mr Savage announced that the force would be sent overseas to an undisclosed destination under the command of General Freyberg. From Britain Fraser afterwards said, ‘Indeed, I think it proper to say that I have heard no criticism of the appointment and nothing but praise, and that I am entirely satisfied that the right thing has been done.’
The soldier who won such respect from the prudent Mr Fraser was born in Surrey in 1889 and brought to New Zealand at the age of two. As Bernard Cyril Freyberg – Freyberg Tertius – he attended Wellington College, where he was prominent as a natural athlete, a magnificent swimmer. Since then he had moved in many different worlds and played too many distinctive parts for him to be described as a typical New Zealander.
In 1912 he had left for North America and did not reappear until 1914, when he became an officer in the Hood battalion of the Royal Naval Division. With that formation he took part in the expedition to Antwerp and won the Distinguished Service Order at Gallipoli for an individual exploit ‘as gallant as it was picturesque.’36 On the night of 25–26 April he had swum ashore to a beach in the Gulf of Xeros and lit oil flares to divert the attention of the Turks from the landings made elsewhere on the peninsula. This was typical of his service throughout the war, at the end of which he was 29 years of age and an acting Major-General in command of 29 Division.
He had won the Victoria Cross for most gallant conduct at Beaucourt in 1916, been awarded two bars to his DSO, been mentioned in despatches six times and wounded nine times. In 1916–18 he had commanded a battalion or a brigade in almost all the great battles on the Western Front: on the Somme, at Arras and Bullecourt, at Third Ypres, on Passchendaele, in the German offensive in Flanders in 1918. And on the morning of Armistice Day he had
been leading the pursuit, just as he was to be doing in Venezia Giulia when the fighting in Europe ended in 1945.
Having found the profession to which he was perfectly adapted, it was natural that he should join the Regular Army, this time as an officer in the Grenadier Guards. He rose to command 1 Battalion, The Manchester Regiment, from 1929 to 1931, to be Assistant Quartermaster-General, Southern Command, 1931–33, and General Staff Officer, 1st Grade, at the War Office, 1933–34. In July 1934 he was promoted major-general, the youngest to hold that rank in the British Army.
But in spite of this record he was no conventional soldier. As the friend of Sir James Barrie37 he was familiar with the world of authors and playwrights; he had made two determined attempts to swim the Channel; as a Conservative candidate he had fought an unsuccessful election campaign; and he had written ‘A Study in Unit Administration’ for the guidance of regimental officers.
In this manual the author showed that he had common sense, an interest in administration and the ability to write a readable treatise on what could have been a dull subject. He argued that ‘The running of an army unit is really the same as carrying on any business. There is a definite objective in business, i.e., to make money. In the Army administration it is to feed, clothe and keep the man fit and as happy as possible. And to hand over to him at the pay table each week his pay intact.’ With due care this could be done. Mess accounts for a complete year should be studied to ensure a uniform standard of living, irrespective of fluctuations in the cost of food and the expense of extra meals during training periods. The NAAFI38 should be supported, not only because of its rebates but because its books could be used to see how the men spent their money. If they spent it on foodstuffs then something was wrong. His theory was that a high incidence of crime in a unit was due to the financial problems created for the rank and file by faulty administration.
In 1937, however, it looked as if General Freyberg would no longer be free to apply these theories. For medical reasons which now seem incredible he was placed on the retired list when Mr Hore-Belisha was making his changes in the War Office. From then until he was recalled to the Army at the outbreak of war he was free to play a part in the world of business. The value of this experience was seen when he visited France in 1939 and had the following comments to make about the defence system:
During my year as a civilian I had been working as a director of a large combine of companies in the Midlands which had expanded very quickly and built a large number of new factories. I had worked on these in a minor way with business men and had learned what was the cheapest and best method of excavating and moving large quantities of earth and building in ferro concrete. I also learned the value of machine power tools and how they should be used – bulldozers, angle dozers, steam navvys, Decauville railways and the like. My feelings at seeing the British Army trying to build an area of ferro concrete pill-boxes, involving the handling of hundreds of tons of material, without light railways and power-driven concrete mixers must be experienced to be understood. It made me unhappy to see the men trying in many cases to do with shovels and wheelbarrows what was plainly a job for machinery. ... The trouble about military engineering is that in this class of work we are all amateurs in the Army, and there is a rooted objection to being taught by civilians.39
In his own case this was not correct. His foray into the industrial world of the Midlands had left him with the greatest respect for the civilian experience of his engineers, signallers and medical officers.
He had, moreover, been observing, learning and readjusting his life ever since he left New Zealand in 1912. This long apprenticeship had given him the knowledge and the experience which were essential if he was to be the successful commander of 2 NZEF. He understood New Zealanders and they, in turn, admired him for his courage, respected him for his integrity and were grateful for the unremitting care with which he watched over their welfare. He was familiar with the ways of the War Office, an invaluable qualification for the commander of a semi-independent army.
Shortly after this appointment the Army Board selected the staff of Divisional Headquarters. The majority of them were Regular officers with records that usually began with training at Duntroon Military College in Australia and went on to service in the First World War; that over, it was service in New Zealand and, in some cases, a staff course in England. Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart40 was GSO I and Major Gentry41 GSO II. Lieutenant-Colonel Stevens,42
who had been Secretary of the Defence Council in New Zealand and of the Organisation for National Security, was Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General.
The Commander Royal Artillery was Colonel Miles, DSO, MC,43 a very able artilleryman and a highly trained Regular officer who was to enforce rigid discipline. The foundations he laid were largely responsible for the high standard of support which the infantry always received from the New Zealand artillery. Lieutenant-Colonel Crump, OBE,44 who had commanded the New Zealand Army Service Corps in Egypt in 1918, was to command it throughout the whole of the war in the Middle East and Italy. Major S. F. Allen,45 with experience on the North-West Frontier, commanded Divisional Signals and the Commander Royal Engineers for a short period was Major Clifton, MC,46 a graduate of Duntroon Military College, who had been in India in 1919–20. The only civilian in the group, as yet, was Lieutenant-Colonel MacCormick, DSO,47 the Assistant Director of Medical Services, an Auckland surgeon who had served on Gallipoli and in France. The others were appointed shortly afterwards from the ranks of the senior Territorial officers. Lieutenant-Colonel Falla, CMG, DSO,48 manager of the Union Steam Ship Company and commander of 2 (Army) New Zealand Field Artillery Brigade in 1918, was appointed Commandant, New Zealand Overseas Base; Colonel Sir Stephen Allen, KBE, CMG, DSO,49 a lawyer who had commanded 2 Battalion, Auckland
Regiment, in 1918 and had been Administrator of Western Samoa, became Military Secretary.
Another problem of this period was the sailing date of the First Echelon. It was to have been 20 January 1940 but the War Office, because of shipping problems and the provision of escorts, had either to advance the sailing date three weeks or postpone it for six. The Government chose the earlier date because it meant training in Egypt with more modern equipment, a possible stimulus to recruiting in New Zealand and accommodation in the camps for the Second Echelon. The one concession it asked for was a week’s delay in order to give General Freyberg at least ten days in New Zealand before the troops left the country. This meant that the sailing date had to be 6 January.
The only escort for the convoy would have been HMS Leander had not Mr Fraser persuaded Mr Churchill to provide more substantial protection. The first addition was HMAS Canberra, and when Fraser suggested that the Admiralty could do better still, HMS Ramillies was added to the escort. As he explained to Mr Churchill, no battleship had ever visited New Zealand and this was a splendid opportunity of ‘intensifying the already high morale of the New Zealand people.’
If all went according to plan the troops would be taken to a training area in Egypt, the theatre of operations would be in western Europe, and the permanent base for the Division would be in the United Kingdom. In preparation for this General Freyberg had already approached the War Office. He wanted good modern barracks, a train service with cheap fares to London, and a site within which he could group all hospitals and base organisations. The reply was that Aldershot had already been allotted to the Canadians, otherwise 2 NZEF could have any base that it desired. The authorities would open any area for it ‘on the same principle that room in the garage is always found for the guest’s car’.50 General Freyberg chose Colchester because it had modern barracks and was reasonably close to London.
Then, after a short visit to France to see conditions for himself, he left on 4 December for a hurried flight out to New Zealand and back to the Middle East. On the way he selected in Egypt the sites of the temporary camps in which the echelons were to assemble, be equipped and trained as a complete division. With suitability for health, training and recreation as the important factors he chose Maadi and Helwan. They were comparatively free from mosquitoes, had suitable training space and were within easy
range of Cairo. Arrangements were made for their preparation and the General continued on his flight, now travelling with the Australian delegation headed by Mr Casey and the New Zealand delegation led by Mr Fraser.
In Australia there was time for him to discuss past problems with General Sir Brudenell White,51 who had been Chief of Staff with General Birdwood in 1914–18, and to study the latest variations of them with General Blamey and the Australian Military Council. They agreed, for instance, that Dominion troops should accept British rations provided that their commanders had the authority to increase them when necessary. The General then sailed from Sydney, reaching Wellington on Christmas Day.
His first duty was to meet the Minister for Defence, the Hon. F. Jones, and describe the work that had already been done in Britain and the Middle East. He then tabled some of the questions which would have to be discussed when he met the full Cabinet after the New Year.
He suggested that the Government should always have direct access to his opinion, that the administration, discipline, promotion and pay of officers should be completely under its control, that the force must be adequately equipped and always employed as a complete formation, never split up and used piecemeal. He agreed that whenever possible it should be built up with New Zealand officers and emphasised the necessity of its having a permanent base in England.
General Freyberg brought up one other very important subject. The New Zealand Division would in many ways be an army within an army. To avoid possible friction with the Higher Command, it would be wise to define very clearly the powers which the Government should reserve to itself and the special powers with which it should invest its GOC. He himself desired such administrative and financial powers as the right to vary the ration scale and to incur unforeseen expenses for the protection of the health of his troops. In a state of emergency – and he must be the sole judge of what was such a state – he must be able to use the Division as he thought fit and then to communicate his decisions direct to the Government.
The final decision could not be given at this stage. For the next few days there were public receptions and a visit to the Prime Minister, Mr Savage, staff conferences and the inspection of troops of the First Echelon at their camps. It was not until 5 January that he met the full Cabinet to discuss the future of 2 NZEF.
The fundamental fact was that the Dominion had come of age. The Expeditionary Force was not an integral part of the British Army. In time it would be ‘a citizen force with its own complete freedom of administration, its own training establishment, its own hospitals and medical services staffed by New Zealand doctors, dentists, sisters and VADs and its own welfare workers.’52
No common policy to meet such a situation had been drawn up by the Dominions, but it was understood that their respective forces would operate as national units. Nevertheless, there were to be interesting variations in procedure. Canadian troops operated under British command in Britain or for raids across the Channel, but their participation in major operations had to have the approval of the Canadian Government, and that depended upon negotiations between Churchill and Mackenzie King. South Africa followed much the same line. Her troops were under British command, but their spheres of operation depended upon the close association which soon developed between Smuts and Churchill. Australia, on the other hand, decided that her commander must have a charter53 defining his powers, giving him the right of direct communication with his government and stating that no part of the Force was to be ‘detached or employed apart from the Force without his consent’.
The New Zealand Government was of much the same opinion. The conditions of service were therefore based upon an agreement between the British and New Zealand Governments. All major decisions, such as the employment of the force, were to be made by the New Zealand War Cabinet, and the force would be under the command of an Allied Commander-in-Chief for operational purposes only, but not for training, organisation, administration or discipline. In other words, General Freyberg was to take his instructions from the general under whose command he was serving, but his actions were subject to the wishes of the New Zealand Government. The Government in its turn had the right to discuss with the British Government all questions of policy and, if necessary, the right to consult General Freyberg when any question was being discussed with the War Office.
The situation was not without precedent in military history; when commenting on the problems of the American Army in France in 1917–18, General Pershing said:
The attitude that the French assumed toward us in the World War was in marked contrast with the views held by them when their troops so generously came to America to aid us in the Revolution. The French Commander at that time received very explicit instructions from his
Government on this subject, as the following sent to Rochambeau shortly before he sailed for America will show:
It is His Majesty’s desire and He hereby commands that, so far as circumstances will permit, the Count de Rochambeau shall maintain the integrity of the French troops which His Majesty has placed under his command, and that at the proper time he shall express to General Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the forces of the Congress, under whose orders the French troops are to serve, that it is the intention of the King that these shall not be dispersed in any manner, and that they shall serve at all times as a unit and under the French generals, except in the case of a temporary detachment which shall rejoin the main body without delay.54
The British commanders, French and Haig, Plumer and Milne, when serving under Allied commanders-in-chief had been in the same position. The last-named, in Macedonia in 1916–17, had to ‘comply with the orders of the Commander-in-Chief with respect to military operations, “subject to the right of direct communication with, and reference to his own Government.”‘55
The special powers desired by and granted without limitation to General Freyberg were along similar lines, and the following memoranda in which they were stated can, therefore, be termed his charter of authority:
5 January 1940
The General Officer for the time being
Commanding the 2nd New Zealand
Expeditionary Force Overseas
The General Officer Commanding will act in accordance with the instructions he receives from the Commander-in-Chief under whose command he is serving, subject only to the requirements of His Majesty’s Government in New Zealand. He will, in addition to powers appearing in any relevant Statute or Regulations, be vested with the following powers:
(a) In the case of sufficiently grave emergency or in special circumstances, of which he must be the sole judge, to make decisions as to the employment of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and to communicate such decisions directly to the New Zealand Government, notwithstanding that in the absence of that extraordinary cause such communication would not be in accordance with the normal channels of communication indicated in the following paragraphs and which for greater clearness are also indicated in an attached diagram.56
(b) To communicate directly with the New Zealand Government and with the Army Department concerning any matter connected with the training and administration of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
(c) To communicate directly either with the New Zealand Government or with the Commander-in-Chief under whose command he is serving, in respect of all details leading up to and arising from policy decisions.
(d) In all matters pertaining to equipment, to communicate with the War Office through normal channels, and through the liaison officer of the High Commissioner’s office in London, the former to be the official channel.
(e) In matters of command, to adhere to the normal military channels between the War Office and the General Officer Commanding the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force overseas.
(f) To establish such administrative headquarters and base and line of communication units as are necessary for the functions of command, organisation [including training], and administration with which he has been invested.
(g) To organise, [train],57 change, vary, or group units and formations in such manner as he considers expedient from time to time.
(h) To fix and alter the establishment and composition of units and formations as the exigencies of service may in his opinion require from time to time.
After the Third Echelon has left New Zealand no officer above the substantive rank of captain will be sent overseas without the concurrence of the General Officer Commanding.58
M. J. Savage, Prime Minister
5 January 1940
Major-General B. C. Freyberg, General Officer Commanding, 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force Overseas, Wellington
The General Officer Commanding is hereby vested with the following powers:
(1) Authority to increase the scale of ration, if necessary.
(2) Authority to procure equipment (shown on equipment tables) that cannot be supplied through official channels. Such equipment to be bought through Ordnance channels where possible.
(3) Authority to incur expenditures which cannot be foreseen at present, and which the General Officer Commanding considers necessary, for protection of the health of the Force.
(4) Authority to incur expenditure, not exceeding £500 for any one transaction, for the recreation or other amenities of the Force.
(5) Authority to disburse, at the discretion of the General Officer Commanding, from an entertainment fund which will be provided, to an amount not exceeding £1000 per annum.
F. Jones, Minister of Defence
On the same day as this Cabinet meeting, the First Echelon was embarking on the transports59 then assembled at Lyttelton and Wellington. In spite of all precautions the public was aware of the imminent departure of the convoy. There was a huge crowd at Lyttelton on the afternoon of 5 January when HMS Leander left with the Dunera and the Sobieski; next morning a still greater number of spectators watched from the slopes overlooking Port Nicholson when HMS Ramillies and HMAS Canberra steamed out with the Empress of Canada, Strathaird, Orion and Rangitata. The groups met in Cook Strait shortly after sunrise on 6 January and late that same afternoon New Zealand faded into the haze behind them.
The next few weeks passed by without the strain and the sense of urgency felt by those who sailed in later convoys. Italy and Japan were still neutral and there was no thought of the impending collapse in northern France. The living quarters on the transports were quite luxurious. The Dunera was an army transport with all the simplicity and most of the discomforts of such ships, but the others, being converted passenger liners, provided superb quarters with many of the amenities expected by peacetime tourists. There may have been parades and inspections, fatigues and anti-aircraft duties, but there were also cabin quarters, large dining saloons and an amazing area of deck space.
The convoy, with ships from Sydney60 and another great liner from Melbourne, went on to Fremantle and Colombo and from there, with a French transport and the aircraft-carrier HMS Eagle, sailed into the Gulf of Aden. Here it divided, the Orion and the Rangitata with three of the Australian transports refuelling at Aden, the French ship going to French Somaliland and the remainder entering the Red Sea.
The first ship to anchor at Port Tewfik on the morning of 12 February was the Empress of Canada. There was an official welcome by Mr Anthony Eden on behalf of the King and the British Parliament; General Freyberg replied and soon afterwards 4 Field Regiment disembarked into the lighters. Later that morning the Dunera and Sobieski arrived, the Orion steamed in that night and the Rangitata appeared next morning.
By 15 February the disembarkation was complete and the units were establishing themselves in Maadi Camp, some 90 miles from Port Tewfik. From the crowded troop trains the men had studied the already monotonous desert, the dusty sun-soaked villages and the feluccas coming down the Nile with their cargoes of vegetables and livestock. The trains stopped at the level crossing outside the camp, and the battalions tumbled out to march in column of route behind the pipe band of the Cameron Highlanders, past General Freyberg and into Maadi Camp.
Here the New Zealanders were eight miles from Cairo, within sight of the Pyramids across the Nile and immediately east of the Abbassia–Tura railway line. A sandy plateau was overlooked by a rock-strewn hillock61 on which were the huts and tents of Divisional Headquarters. Around this hill and below it the advance party, with British and Indian engineers supervising Egyptian labour, had laid out a camp that was in time to have hundreds of huts, miles of tarmac roads, miles of drains and miles of water pipes. The cookhouses, messrooms, canteens and shower-houses of the great encampment were still being constructed; it was, as yet, a world of small tents camouflaged to blend with the reddish-brown sand. In this mushroom town the echelon was to establish itself and begin its final training.
The Divisional Cavalry received Bren carriers and light tanks (Mark VIB) and 4 Field Regiment 18-pounders and 4.5-inch howitzers. Fourth Infantry Brigade endured route marches, sent its specialists away for courses of instruction and its senior officers to TEWTs62 in preparation for large-scale manoeuvres. The Divisional Signals, not having the equipment to operate the signals office and the telephone exchange, trained as infantrymen or attended courses. The Army Service Corps units – 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company, Ammunition Company (A Section), Petrol Company and Divisional Supply Column – were given courses in desert driving and trade tests and were allocated a proportion of the vehicles arriving from Britain. Within a few months they were providing the transport for Maadi Camp, the Base Supply Depot and the Field Bakery.
Equally important were the questions of ration allowances and well-trained cooks. For a short time the ration scale was larger than that allowed for in the field and considerably better than that of other British units. So before long General Freyberg was advising his Government that, although the troops might be used to a
different proportion of butter and meat, he could not ask for larger amounts when Europe was short of food and Allied troops were fighting alongside his Division. ‘Anyway butter is not available in such quantities and secondly it makes a rather invidious comparison which no one would welcome.’ He made arrangements to reduce this disparity and the troops, curiously enough, noticed no difference.
The success of the changeover was probably due to the improved standards of cooking. The graduates from the School of Cookery in Trentham were not qualified cooks under Middle East conditions. They had to be given instruction in the breaking down of bulk rations and in the handling of food in the field. For this there was the 2 NZEF School of Cookery modelled on that of the RASC at Aldershot. General Freyberg had consulted the manager of Lyons’ chain of restaurants, who was adviser to the War Office on army catering, and the War Office had agreed to send four non-commissioned officers as the nucleus of a staff. They were delayed when the Oronsay was attacked63 off the coast of Scotland and forced back into port, but an urgent appeal for instructors in the Middle East brought over an expert from 7 Armoured Division, a master cook, who directed the school until the regular staff arrived in December.
At the same time the medical and dental units were taking over their duties. Fourth Field Hygiene Section became responsible for the sanitation of Maadi Camp and 4 Field Ambulance established a camp hospital, though the more serious cases were sent to 2/10 British General Hospital at Helmieh, Cairo, where some of the medical staff of 4 Field Ambulance and the eighteen New Zealand nurses were responsible for the New Zealand patients. Second New Zealand General Hospital was to have taken over these cases, but other arrangements had to be made when that unit was diverted to Britain with the Second Echelon. Fourth New Zealand General Hospital, with Lieutenant-Colonel Button64 in command and Miss Brown65 as matron, was then established in the Grand Hotel at Helwan, a fashionable health resort about 18 miles up the river from Cairo. To it the patients from Maadi Camp and from 2/10 British General Hospital were transferred on 31 July.
The next step was to arrange for the movement from Britain of some members of the medical staff who had travelled with the Second Echelon. In the August convoy66 which arrived in Egypt on
15 September there were twelve members of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service, officers and staff from 1 General Hospital and 5 Field Ambulance, and 1 Convalescent Depot as a complete unit. These detached personnel joined the staff of 4 General Hospital; in October 1 Convalescent Depot took over a British establishment at Moascar, near the Suez Canal.
The dental officers were fully occupied attempting to solve the problems of a temporary dental hospital and insufficient equipment when the echelon provided as many dental cases in one month as did the two British divisions in Egypt in three months. They had to persevere until the Mobile Dental Section arrived in September with the Third Echelon.
Divisional Headquarters and the First Echelon were thus laying the foundation upon which the Division was to expand and train for the next five years. As some compensation for the monotony and discomfort of this pioneer work, every effort was made to provide the more simple amenities. In the camp itself were Shafto’s picture theatre, the NAAFI canteens, and a laundry service for all clothing. The Maadi swimming bath was built by 6 Field Company within five weeks of the camp’s being occupied; it was officially opened when General Freyberg, the most notable swimmer in 2 NZEF, took the first plunge.
Outside the camp there was, within a fortnight of the echelon’s arrival, that wonderful institution, the Maadi Recreation Tent, organised and operated for other ranks by the British women in the European suburb of Maadi. And beyond the shaded avenues of Maadi township there was always Cairo.67 Liberal leave was granted, the railcars were numerous, and the fare to Bab-el-Louk station was one piastre. Later, if one was so fortunate, there was long leave up the river to Luxor or north into Palestine.
Such were the conditions for training and recreation at the end of April 1940. By then the first exercises at brigade level had been held at El Saff and the first reinforcements had arrived – not from New Zealand but from Britain. Thirty-fourth Battery, 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, having completed its training at Aldershot, had sailed from Southampton to Cherbourg, crossed France by rail to Marseilles and from there travelled in HMT Devonshire to Egypt.