The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945
Chapter Four — 28th Heavy aa Regiment
28th Heavy aa Regiment
'Almost' would serve as the motto of the 28th Heavy Antiaircraft Regiment, the first regiment of its kind that New Zealand has sent overseas. There were several occasions when it seemed that the `moment had at last arrived when we should have our share in battering at the Jap. But to the disgust and disappointment of all the regiment never fired a shot in anger. Although it has no battle honours, and it is now only a memory, the heavy AA played its part in those dangerous days of not so long ago and was one of the first units flung into the breach at a time when it seemed that nothing could stop the southward push of the Japanese. So urgent was the need for airfield defence at that time that we left for New Caledonia without our final leave. Incidentally we sailed past the ship taking the South Island draft on its leave. That really hurt.
In the middle of August 1942 advanced parties from Auckland and Wellington entered Pahautanui Camp, a little over 20 miles from Wellington. Here they spent the next few days cleaning up the camp and, as far as possible, making it ready for the influx of trainees. The nucleus of the new regiment was supplied from the two heavy AA regiments then in existence in Auckland and Wellington. To this were added recruits from field artillery, engineer, infantry and ASC units throughout both islands of New Zealand. So the AA units could justifiably claim to be fully representative of the Dominion. Any doubt of this was settled by a glance at destination rolls. After a short stay at Pahautanui, the translation of which we were told meant 'a place of winds,' and no one doubted that for a moment, we moved to Judgeford and here set up a regimental camp. Not page 91before, however, an unofficial route march had taken place. No one regretted our move and if Judgeford left much to be desired, in comparison with such camps as Papakura or Burnham, it was at least an improvement. Here we settled down to our training with determination, broken only by a spell of special leave, which the majority shrewdly suspected was final leave. Here also we had added to us a workshops section and at the last moment, out of the blue, a signal section led by a large lieutenant of genial habits and unquenchable thirst. And so inoculated, tabulated, card-indexed and photographed the 28th Heavy AA Regiment was ready for whatever lay ahead. After a short period during which everyone's hopes about final leave were roused and dashed alternately, the CRA visited the regiment and grimly warned us that we might have to fight our way ashore and wished us luck. So we said good-bye to Judgeford, which had become quite a familiar spot, good-bye to the YM and the canteen, still only having suspicions about who did get away with that barrel of beer, and entrained at Plimmerton, leaving our guns to follow.
From the wharf the ship looked quite large and then small as we got closer; finally, as we all got on board, most of us were prepared to swear she had rubber sides to carry what she did. On official documents she appeared as T49 and that letter and number figures prominently on all the gear we took aboard. Her 'society' name was the US army transport Maui and she had been the pride of the San Francisco-Honolulu run, a long time ago. On 5 November at a little before midday we left Wellington, quite a fair crowd on the wharf seeing us off. Three days later, after an uneventful trip up the east coast and a short, and for many, tantalising stay in Auckland, we finally left New Zealand with a destroyer escort. Our destination was still a matter of conjecture for most of the troops. Fatigues of all varieties, PT, lounging on the decks and, most of all, standing in line for meals of which there were only two a day for other ranks filled each day. As we got further north, lookouts were increased and American and New Zealand gun crews were on their toes for submarines. Eventually, as a certain officer said on a festive occasion,' thanks to the skill in navigation of our gallant cousins and allies and the vigilance of a senior officer with a rifle,' we passed safely through sub-infested waters and dropped anchor in Noumea, the chief port and capital city of New Caledonia, on page 9211th November. Armistice day was celebrated throughout the ship.
At this stage our companions on the voyage, the 29th Light AA and 33rd Heavy Coastal Regiments left us to follow their own destinies. For us remained the job of unloading the ship. F Troop, 204th Battery (there never was another troop) went ashore and moved to Camp Stevens at Anse Vata, acting as shore party; the bulk of the regiment went to a staging camp at Dumbea, and the residue stayed on the ship. Most of the unloading" was done in the harbour, cargo being transferred by winch to flat barges which were then towed to a wharf for unloading. Apart from some anxious moments with a 6-inch coastal gun and mounting, and a barge which didn't quite make the wharf, resulting in a Bofors barrel and several boxes of ammunition going to the bottom and a box containing a typewriter floating gently on the water, the unloading proceeded, as the navy says, without incident. Those on the ship had one interesting experience. After unloading in the harbour for over a week, the Maui was able to come alongside the wharf to complete her unloading. To this end she up-anchored and went out through the boom, sailing round the outside of He Nou. Just inside the boom were anchored units of the American Navy which had been engaged with the enemy. Very few were without some signs of battle and some, as was easily seen, had taken some heavy knocks. This was our first contact with war, and it was very real; the enemy also shoots, we noticed.
From time to time odd, dust-stained and weary figures would come to Noumea and visit the ship. They told frightening stories of the heat, of strenuous bayonet practice with the temperature of 1,000 degrees centigrade, of mosquitoes, and chile con carne. Later they spoke of dysentery, of which there was an outbreak at Dumbea. One officer managed to have it sufficiently badly to go to hospital and here (it was an American hospital), he was a centre of interest, being the first live, well nearly alive, 'Noo Zealander' to fall into their hands. He later escaped. At this juncture we were not allowed to say in letters home where we had landed and many and varied were the means by which the wily other rank attempted to convey the news to those at home. When the unloading of T49 was completed, those left on the ship caught up with the regiment at Dumbea, and F troop came under command of the 33rd Heavy Regiment. They augmented page 93the AA defenses of Nouméa and for this purpose were linked operationally to the American 30th Coast Artillery (AA) Regiment and conformed to their procedure for alarms, alerts and all other pleasantries.
So on 23 November, with no regrets, RHQ, 203rd Battery and 208th Battery of the 29th Light AA Regiment, who now came under command of the 28th Regiment, quitted Dumbéa and set sail for the deployment area. After a sweaty, dusty journey in trucks and blazing heat we reached the Oua Tom area and established a temporary camp, just off the main road. Although we did not know it at the time, the regiment was fated never to be together again as it had been in Judgeford. Each battery from then on 'dre'ed its own weird.' The 204th basked on tropic beaches close to the bright lights of the busy metropolis, the 202nd in the far north at Plaine des Gaiacs became somewhat of a social centre with the visits it received from celebrities, political and military, and established a reputation for variegated eccentricity among all ranks. Regimental Headquarters and the 203rd Battery went quietly crazy amongst the niaoulis, those gnarled, forlorn looking trees which formed the omnipresent and only landscape in the west of New Caledonia, and collected fearsome yarns about voracious mosquitoes, all of which were true, incidentally. The report that two mosquitoes were seen dragging a screaming gunner into the bush at Oua Tom with intent to devour him is somewhat exaggerated; there were at least six mosquitoes. The close of November saw camps established and gun positions chosen. The 202nd Battery moved from Dumbea to Plaine des Gaiacs and F Troop lightered its guns across to Ile Nou. As the guns were of the static type and had to be placed on trailers, this was a ticklish job but was accomplished without mishap. The piano given to the regiment by our good friend, Captain Murray, skipper of the Maui, also arrived at RHQ in good condition and was first used at a church service at Oua Tom on the last Sunday of the month.
There was a wealth of quiet fun in the routine orders of those days. We were told that our pay would be in dollars and that the rate of exchange was in our favour; that our dress was slack (it never did reach the desired degree of impeccability and there were quite regular periodic blasts about it); that we could not send PX goods back to New Zealand; thus dashing the hopes of many; junior officers were given a slap on the wrist for page 94approaching American officers direct, with intent to scrounge or win things of all kinds. All ranks were warned that the local brandy contained 30 per cent kerosene (shades of Hokonui) and that a certain distressing complaint was prevalent in Necal.
On 7 December an alert was declared at Oua Tom. The US authorities were expecting a Japanese air attack, and the new planes then at Oua Tom airfield were kept at full readiness. Nothing happened, however, and four days later the 203rd Battery guns arrived. From the American infantry regiment camped in the Oua Tom area it was reported on the 13th that three men had landed in a rubber dinghy from a submarine just south of the Oua Toma airfield. A state of full alert was immediately proclaimed and working parties carried their arms with them wherever they went. The alert lasted for three days but no. sign of the three men ever came to light. It was while listening to an account from his battery commander of a short personal armed reconnaissance he had made during this period that the career of a promising young officer was almost cut short—a bullet of 38 calibre winging its way gaily past him. The battery commander to this day, it is said, has never found the catch. Only four days prior to Christmas another full alert was ordered at Oua Tom. For a brief while it looked as though there was going to be a real picnic. The adjutant said that ten thousand Japs had landed on the beach and returns must be sent to brigade in triplicate. The quartermaster said quadruplicate. The IO at last saw himself with something worthwhile to write in the war diary and a few hundred gunners wondered what the devil had happened. What the light of the following dawn revealed was an inoffensive little coastal steamer that had anchored inside the reef for the night and quietly went on its way in the daylight.
This was unknown then to the American and New Zealand defenders of the area and after Oua Tom had discovered that there were no flares to hand, Tontouta sent up two bombers to identify the strange craft. D troop of the heavy battery was instructed to fire at the flares if the identification was unsatisfactory. Just to keep the ball rolling, C troop were ordered to fire at the flashes of D troop's shells. As nothing could be seen of the coast from C troop's gun position, the troop commander climbed to the top of the local mountain, Mie Pin, and spent the night there with a telephone and, as soon as they found him, several million mosquitoes. However, although the US bombers page 95could not identify the ship, they advised against firing, wisely as it turned out. By this time affairs were somewhat tense and the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel W. S. McKinnon, delivered himself to the American base commandant of the Oua Tom airfield, Major T. Bowers, of the immortal words, 'I'll sink it or shift it, I'm standing by,' words it may be said that were acclaimed with gusto and repeated at many a smoko, formal or otherwise. However, in the morning the innocent cause of the 'flap' steamed brightly out of the bay where she had anchored and proceeded. The CO, not to be baulked of his share of the fun, ordered D troop to fire off several rounds at a small island off the coast that had never said a word the whole time.
Late in December the main body of the Third New Zealand Division passed through Oua Tom on its way to the divisional area, centred round Moindah. They paused for a halt and a meal at Hyde Park, a large open space on the side of the main road opposite RHQ, where the AA, heavy and light, staged all sorts of functions at all sorts of times; football matches, bonfires, drill and cricket. Our first Christmas overseas was very much like other days. By this time the regiment had settled to the routine of watches, gun drill and stand-to. However, the appearance of meat (to our uneducated palates the American rations were mostly slop and slush), and a beer issue, distinguished the day. We were to find with increasing intensity in the days ahead that as operational units we were very strictly tied to our gun sites. Jollifications had to be taken a bit at a time.
A little previous to this a convoy of guns and vehicles for the 202nd Heavy Battery had passed through and, seeing them at their bivouac area, the CRA, Brigadier C. S. J. Duff, DSO, RNZA, had them paraded before him. What he saw was obviously not to his liking, and he said so—very loud and clear, and followed it up by a memo to the CO in which he referred to the gallant band as a 'down-at-heel gypsy camp.' In spite of it all, the regiment lived. One factor which made it difficult for men to appear smartly dressed was the rate at which shirts wore out. The sweat rotted the material and in a short while shirts would split across the shoulders or down the back. Unfortunately, there were no supplies for a long time with which the derelict shirts could be replaced.
In the first week of the New Year a party of NZANS, 56 of them in fact, stopped in the Oua Tom area for lunch on their page 96way through to Bourail. They had travelled in open trucks, and when the dust and grime of their journey was removed, and powder puffs had been wielded, it was seen that they were real New Zealand girls, fresh from our native land and with all the latest news. A few days after that Oua Tom got a warning that a tornado or a hurricane or something of that unpleasant nature was on its way. So the powers that be decided to anticipate this visitor and staged one of their own. Tents were lowered, kit bags packed and men instructed in what to do; the workshops section cooked their breakfast for the next day, put it in hot boxes and then pulled down the kitchen. These measures were so effective that the hurricane, realising it could hardly improve on what had already been done, did not bother to appear. About this time a regimental band was formed, under the enthusiastic and able leadership of Sergeant W. Gosper, and sundry afternoons at RHQ resounded with the strains of music.
Militarily speaking, the following four months were devoid of incident. All, in fact, was quiet on the Necal front. But to the gunner digging latrines and gonophone pits, building huts and storehouses, cleaning guns, training in all the parts of his job that would fit him to meet the enemy, life was anything but quiet. There were those interminable stand-tos at dawn and dusk, waiting, watching for the enemy that never came; the alerts which each time brought a feeling that here at last might be something that would justify our existence, and always petered out into nothing. Looking back on it, a six month's spell seems short by contrast with the whole span of life, but to those on the spot, doing this job in the heat and the sweat with no respite, it seemed to them that their task was hopeless and almost useless. They were plagued, some of them, almost to the breaking point with mosquitoes, and sometimes water was inadequate, as for one battery whose nearest river supply was seven miles away. They fretted when mail from home brought news of the exploits of the Second Division. They grumbled fiercely at the food, which was as monotonous as the niaoulis; (the advertisements for spam and sausages Vienna style made everyone of us who read them murderous) but they stuck it out. Articles in certain New Zealand periodicals which prated of movies, ice cream and surfing almost made them claw the air and profanely demand the blood of the man who wrote such. It just was not true. They were there and they knew it.page break
Above: A gun crew of the 29th Light Anti-aircraft Regiment on Nissan Island. Right: Memorial to men of 209 Light Anti-aircraft Battery who were killed on Vella Lavella. First AA gun ashore, Pokonian, Nissan Island
Later, as the American forces arrived in greater numbers on the island and Noumea became a vast base and other secondary-points in the island also grew, conditions improved. Movies made their appearance and no one in the unit had fewer than two shows a week. Some had more a night. For the 204th Battery, once the work of establishing the gun position and the camp was finished, there was wonderful swimming and regular leave in Noumea. And ever and anon one of the barrage balloons broke loose. Unfortunately by the time the 204th Battery had secured permission to fire the balloon had always drifted out of range. Any suspicions that a gunner was bribed to turn a couple of balloons adrift are unfounded. In the first week of February Major E. M. Luxford, battery commander 202nd, and Captain B. S. Cole, battery commander 204th, visited RHQ, and as this was the first time that there had been anything in the nature of a regimental get-together, the occasion was not allowed to go unheeded. A sucking pig was consumed, many speeches of a ribald character were made, and the proceedings terminated with some hilarity.
The Rt. Hon. J. G. Coates, a member of the Cabinet, and the GOC, Major-General H. E. Barrowclough, CB, DSO, MC, paid RHQ a visit on 26 February. On the 28th the CO and Lieutenant J. Humphrey attended at the American Forces cemetery, Noumea, the funeral of Gunner J. E. Moore of the 204th Battery, who had died in a US hospital in Noumea after a short illness.
By this time we had experienced tropical rain and knew how quickly the rivers of New Caledonia flooded, and also how quickly they emptied. We had become accustomed to the erratic and pathetically inadequate supplies of beer, and never ceased to grumble at the onerous conditions of sale. We were forbidden to cut the sleeves from American shirts with which we had been issued, and bidden to wear trunks when bathing within sight of the road. Competing in the 8th Brigade sports meeting held at Ouenghi on 6 March, the regimental team was placed third. This was a very creditable performance considering how difficult it was to assemble members of the team with the regiment scattered over a couple of hundred miles and stand-tos having priority over training. Two days after that there was another hurricane warning but no hurricane. This time, however, one must admit there was torrential rain. This, after all, was the rainv season, and we had to learn to put up with it. One effect page 98of the rain was to cause the black widow spiders to seek a dry spot for self-protection. The whimsical little creatures mostly selected lavatory seats. Convinced that forewarned is forearmed, routine orders published a drawing of a black widow spider, so there would be no mistake, and gave details of treatment to be given to any unfortunate victim. This was on the lines of snakebite treatment and mentioned one-inch cuts and razor blades and sucking the wound to extract the venom. It was unfortunate that the author of that particular routine order had not followed up the clue of the spiders' resting places. The first victim received a bite in a portion of his anatomy which made the suggested treatment impossible and caused ill-bred folk to make, hilariously, the most ribald suggestions. Later it was learned that a senior officer had found the right defence to this below-the-belt attack, as it were, and countered the coy widow by enveloping the vulnerable parts in the flap of his shirt.
Towards the the middle of March Captain H. H. Craig left to take over the 214th Light AA Battery and Major G. F. J. Hall marched into the regiment as administrative officer. Rugby football began and a committee was formed and decided to enter the 8th Brigade competition. Later in the month the 204th Battery had the doubtful pleasure of seeing five New Zealand Kitty-hawks force-landed in and around Noumea harbour. All pilots were safe, however. April opened with a return visit from the 8th Brigade conceit party and on the 10th of the month Captain R. H. Stevenson and 20 reinforcements arrived from Norfolk Island. They were part of the composite battery which, under the leadership of Major J. M. Ewen, had left New Zealand some weeks before the regiment and became part of N Force. We were glad to see the wandering boys but within 24 hours those of us who had never seen Norfolk Island were heartily sick of the place. All the ex-Norfolk personnel were loud, long and enthusiastic in praise of the island.
Captain T. Scott and Lieutenant H. H. Grey, then on a tour of duty at the information centre in Nouméa, caught dengue fever. An outbreak of dengue fever spread and both Nouméa and Bourail were out of bounds to those not on duty there. The GOC visited B troop at Plaine des Gaiacs and the Third Division band visited Oua Tom. Leave to the transit camp in Vallee des Colons, Nouméa, was started; RHQ conducted jungle exercises (without casualties too) and a sports meeting was held at page 99Moindah on Anzac Day to select a team to represent the artillery at the divisional sports then in the offing. April glided into May. Mr Wardlaw arrived in the Oua Tom area as YMCA secretary and proved a real acquisition; the divisional sports were held at Moindah on 8 May and Gunner Middleton of the 203rd Battery assisted the artillery to score its 16 points with a first in the hop, step and jump and second in the high jump.
Although not even the majority of the officers in the Oua Tom area knew it at the time, the stay of RHQ and the 203rd Heavy Battery was now almost ended. On 14 May the advanced parties from the 202nd Battery HQ and the 203rd Battery HQ were ordered to move to the 29 Light AA Regimental HQ and the 28th Heavy AA Regimental HQ respectively by the 16th of the month. This was under way when the anti-aircraft defences of Oua Tom were ordered to pull out and move to Tontouta. At the same time Lieutenant-Colonel McKinnon left the heavy regiment to take over command of the 29 Light AA Regiment. In his place came Lieutenant-Colonel C. D. B. Campling, who had previously served as brigade major to the AA Brigade. RHQ then set out for Moindah where, after a brisk period of toil, it established what many considered the most pleasant camp in Necal, and certainly one with the best swimming pool in the island. The 202nd Heavy Battery, its HQ now where the old 29th Light AA Regimental HQ was, became regional command HQ for the Plaine des Gaiacs area and had alternately the 207th and 209th Light AA Batteries attached to it. The 203rd Heavy Battery, led by Major H. G. St. V. Beechey, ambled down to Tontouta and, after having been moved out of several paddocks by some American officers, finally discovered one in which it could rest undisturbed. Here the regional command was fortunate enough to secure a private house, complete with outdoor plunge bath, for its headquarters. The routine of setting up gun positions and camps was soon in full swing. Life at Tontouta was a great change and a welcome one from Oua Tom. There were three well-stocked post exchanges; there was a beer garden at the Red Cross centre which dispensed good ale, and all the time planes were coming and going; there was a bustle and an air of purpose about the whole area which was stimulating after the almost funereal atmosphere of Oua Tom. Incidentally, Noumea was not far away, and if you went for a walk to one or other of the PXs, who was to know if vou thumbed a lift page 100from one of the stream of trucks constantly going in that direction and went for a brief, and enjoyable because illicit, tour of the capital.
In June personnel from HMS Victorious paid a visit to regional command at Tontouta. There was a beer issue on the day of their visit, a Sunday, a cricket match—which the AA won —and a soccer match at which the sailors soon ran rings round the AA team. Later the 203rd Battery played a team from an American paratrooper unit at rugby football. Battery won 11-5 but the marines were good and gave the battery a real run for its money. A Kiwi concert party at the Red Cross centre at Tontouta provided a welcome entertainment for the troops in the area, and at Moindah, regimental HQ attended a USO show given at Div Ordnance Workshops. The first week of July saw the first shoot by the regiment since landing in Necal. Nearly 400 rounds were fired, all troops participating. B troop shot down a drogue. At regimental HQ the divisional band gave a concert and on 17 July the regimental team tied with a team from the 29th Light AA Regiment at rugby football, score five all. This was a worthwhile achievement as the 29th team was runner-up in the Barrowclough Cup competition, in which the 28th Regiment could not compete.
On 25 July an unidentified aircraft was over Noumea. It was illuminated for a short time but was lost because of cloudy conditions. The Ile Nou gunners swore it was a Jap and bewailed their missed opportunity. The battery at Tontouta was also on its toes but the aircraft was never within range. It was the nearest the regiment came to going to war, but not near enough. Towards the end of the month, the RNZAF selection committee came round the regiment and latrinograms flew round thick and fast. In spite of a vigorous letter from the CO in which he trenchantly condemned rumour mongers and bade them to put the rumours in unbelievable places, the belief persisted that our days as a regiment were numbered. It was known then that the Div was going forward and a few of the officers nursed a faint hope that at least one battery of the heavies might go with it. On 11 August, however, a definite blow came. Orders were received that the 202nd and 204th batteries were to be relieved of operational duties on 15th August and personnel marched into ATD. That put an end to all hopes and ended all rumours. It was fact. And so, four days later, these two bat-page 101teries heard the order 'Cease Firing.' The same day personnel from the regiment for the RNZAF left on their way to New Zealand. Reinforcements for the 29th Light AA Regiment were taken from 202nd Battery and from then until the end of September, when all guns were out of action and the bulk of the personnel at ATD, the story is one of ever more rapid disintegration. Infantry, field artillery, ASC and medical corps staked their claims and batches of men were quickly transferred. The wheel had come full circle and to a large extent personnel returned whence they had come. On 7 October RHQ quietly and unostentatiously died, and except for guards at Plaine des Gaiacs and Tontouta, personnel were all in ATD. The 28th Heavy AA Regiment had ceased to exist—twelve months after it had been called into being.
And that is the end of the story. No glory, no romance! Instead, a record of unremitting; vigilance and toil under conditions the reverse of pleasant. Monotony was our enemy rather than the Japanese. Mosquitoes and niaoulis will bulk largely in the memories of all ranks, but such memories should not obscure the finer ones. That we were ready at all times, that we never gave in to our difficulties and hardships; these things also should be remembered. And if ever a heavy AA regiment should be reconstituted, it could take as its motto, springing from the story of the old regiment: 'There when wanted.'