The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945
II — Life in New Caledonia
Life in New Caledonia
During our very early days in New Caledonia some parts of the regiment were thrown into close contact with United States forces on the island. Immediately after landing the regiment went to a US naval camp at Dumbéa, a few miles north of Noumea, where we had the luxury of a cold shower bath, open-air style, and there we met the culicene mosquito and the niaouli tree—the two best established permanent residents of the country.
From this camp the initial deployment of the regiment, which was closely linked for this purpose with the 28th Heavy Antiaircraft Regiment, was carried out. The 207th and 208th Batteries were allotted operational roles in aerodrome defence, the former going to the Plaine des Gaiacs aerodrome, some 170 miles from Noumea on the west coast, and the latter setting up at Oua Tom, about 65 miles from Noumea. RHQ, together with the workshops and signals sections, moved to Plaine des Gaiacs also and assumed responsibility for the entire anti-aircraft defences of that area, to which had also been posted the 202nd Battery of the 28th Regiment. This battery was under the operational control of the 29th Regiment and made use of its workshops and signals sections in exchange for the 208th Battery receiving similar facilities from the 28th Regiment at Oua Tom.
The 214th Battery was left in the Nouméa area, where it was fully occupied in unloading stores and equipment now arriv-page 105ing in increasing quantities from New Zealand. Early in December the 209th Battery arrived, together with a handful of stragglers from other batteries who had, for various reasons, failed to embark on the Maui. The 209th then took over its share of the working parties at Noumea while the 214th moved north to the Nepoui Valley, just below Plaine des Gaiacs, to find that another port in that district was busy taking cargo ashore with the assistance of soldier labour, so here again the 214th Battery did its share. At the very end of December the 209th Battery travelled north and set up camp at Taom River. Consequently the beginning of 1943 found the regiment widely distributed over New Caledonia. Everybody had had a remarkably good Christmas, considering the novelty of the surroundings; in most instances a turkey dinner and a certain amount of bottled cheer had been available.
At this stage some explanation of the differences between life in the aerodrome defence batteries and the mobile batteries is called for. For the first six months in New Caledonia the 207th and 208th Batteries were the static units and, although 209th and 214th later alternated with them in providing aerodrome defence, the two original batteries bore the brunt of preparing gun pits and setting up communications and the other necessary organisation to carry out the task. Appearances notwithstanding, life on the airfields was by no means a picnic. Both batteries were fully operational, which meant that they had to observe stand-to periods at dawn and dusk and in addition were liable to be (and in fact sometimes were) alerted at any hour of day or night to meet a threat of enemy air attack. In normal conditions all except perhaps two or three men from each gun detachment had always to be within shouting distance of the gun in order to ensure a full crew in case of emergency. Bearing in mind that the manning requirements were suspended only in exceptional cases, as for example where men were needed for urgent fatigue duties or a gun was being overhauled; that a full training programme was carried out as well and that much hard work was necessary to establish guns, ammunition and equipment in their positions, to provide reasonable living conditions for the men and later, to reconstruct gun pits which did not stand the test of appalling weather, it will be appreciated that the static batteries were quite as fully occupied as any soldiers in the division. The fact that the 207th and 208th Batteries were very page 106short handed until April 1943, when reinforcements from the Norfolk Island force brought them up to strength, added to the burden carried by their personnel. The static batteries, however, had some definite advantages. They were generally within reach of cinema entertainments and canteens and had recreational facilities which were unknown to the other two batteries. They became experts at the art of living in gun detachments of perhaps a dozen men, each gathered around its own gun and perhaps half a mile away from the next. This could be a very happy and independent style of living, save in the few cases where one or two misfits disturbed the serenity of an entire crew. It was to become the universal system of living in the forward areas and by that time enough shuffling had been done to ensure that most detachments worked harmoniously together.
Most members of the regiment have florid memories of mosquitoes and mud on the airfields. Several of the gun posts were as badly infested by mosquitoes as anywhere on the island and on some of them protective covering was needed all day as well as at night. Some gun sites had actually to be abandoned for this reason. Wet weather, distressingly common in New Caledonia during the summer, was also a bugbear at the airfields. The only means of reaching some of the guns with water and rations was by dirt track through the bush. Transport without four-wheel drive was quite inadequate in wet weather and in the worst places the only remedy was to use the Bedford gun tractors, which laboriously winched themselves along from tree to tree. Training on the airfields, although sometimes dull by comparison with the lot of the mobile batteries, was good preparation for the conditions found later in the Solomons. Gun drill was persisted in until every gunner was fully accustomed to every position of the gun. Special air co-operation was occasionally provided by American fighter planes, but the layers found most of their 'targets' in the streams of aircraft that were constantly using the fields. Another task of the gun crews was the maintenance of watches and the reporting of unusual incidents. This function proved useful in one or two cases where friendly aircraft came to grief and it also started a long trail of investigation at Plaine des Gaiacs when a mysterious series of lights appeared off the coast. By this time, the 'hot loop,' the telephone link between all guns, troop and battery headquarters and gun operations room, had been introduced to the regiment. Later, as its page 107possibilities were more clearly seen, this chain of contact far outstripped its original function of providing an operational and administrative link with each gun. News, rumour and anecdote (rising to a peak after each mail day) and full, frank and often luridly abusive discussions of personalities, gun detachments and rival troops made for brisk traffic at any hour of day or night; subject always to a stentorian 'Clear the line' from battery headquarters when any instruction or alert was to be announced.
In May 1943 anti-aircraft defence at Oua Tom was discontinued and the 208th Battery, together with the 203rd Battery of the 28th Regiment, took over from the Americans at Ton-touta, some 30 miles nearer Noumea. Regional command at Tontouta was assumed by Major H. G. St. V. Beechey, battery commander of the 203rd Battery. In contrast with the other two batteries the 209th and 214th had much movement. The 214th Battery had been originally cast for a mobile role and although it never had a full muster of vehicles at Pahautanui its transport was brought up to strength shortly after the battery arrived in New Caledonia. The 209th Battery was formed later and was not given mobile status until it arrived in New Caledonia. Its vehicles were somewhat late in arriving and consequently the drivers had to pick up their knowledge as they went along. That both batteries eventually succeeded in reaching high efficiency was shown by the fact that their road convoy work in brigade manceuvres and elsewhere became almost a model.
Life in the mobile batteries differed considerably from that on the airfields. The 209th and 214th were camped in battery areas and troops kept their individuality by occupying smaller sub-areas and organising their own messes. In both batteries change of location was the order of the day. Training took anything from a troop to the whole battery perambulating around the countryside for periods ranging from a day to a week and there were several changes which involved the erection of completely new camps. In March 1943 the 209th Battery, less a small party left behind to guard stores and equipment, moved en bloc from Taom River to Noumea, where it was employed for about a month dock labouring. On completion of its tour of duty at Noumea the battery returned to Taom, gathering en route G troop, which had been detached from it for over three months to undergo mobile training with the 214th Battery. The reunited battery again settled down to a further spell of manceuvres, page 108based at Taom, until the end of May, when it exchanged positions and transport with the 207th Battery and embarked on the period of alternate spells of aerodrome defence and mobile exercises which lasted for the rest of the time in New Caledonia. The 214th Battery also had its changes. The danger of flooding caused abandonment of its first camp site (but not of its liquid reserves) in the Népoui Valley, when a good deal of work had been done on the camp. The battery then moved to higher ground on the north side of the valley, where it hacked new living quarters out of unattractive scrubby country. Although the construction of a further new camp was involved there were few complaints when orders came in April to move south to the 8th Brigade area, where the battery camped near the Ouenghi River until the middle of June before proceeding to Tontouta to relieve the 208th Battery in much the same sort of change over scheme as had been put into operation by the 209th and 207th Batteries at Plaine des Gaiacs.
The mobile life was also a strenuous one. It started as soon as the regiment reached New Caledonia in the sense that it was necessary to move all the component parts of the regiment by road to their sundry destinations. As the scale of transport was never sufficient to move the whole regiment and its impedimenta at once the job had to be done piecemeal with what vehicles were available. Drivers were in very constant employment at the start and, by the time they had delivered the batteries and RHQ to their destinations, carted numerous working parties and assisted other units who were relatively less well equipped with trucks, many of them had seen most of the length of the island's one and only main highway, Route Coloniale No. 1, in all its many moods. It was not long before they were to get off the highway, for mobile work in New Caledonia meant large doses of cross country travel by day and night with guns in tow and trucks laden with heavy equipment.
In February 1943 Captain W. A. White, RA, who had been introduced to the regiment at Pahautanui, arrived in New Caledonia to instruct in mobile tactics. He spent a week with the 209th Battery, followed by a month with the 214th. The use of light anti-aircraft equipment in conditions such as we met in New Caledonia necessitated several changes from normal text-took practice and 'Chalky's Conferences,' in which the whole battery took part and submitted suggestions, wise and otherwise. page 109Mobile training started off with troop tasks, in which the guns of a troop were deployed to guard a vital point or a road convoy,. and, as the training progressed, schemes involving two troops or the whole battery were carried out, sometimes in conjunction with an infantry battalion. Later both the 209th and 214th Batteries took part in large scale brigade manoeuvres.
All these exercises called for a vast amount of work in all sorts of conditions. The men became accustomed to constant packing and unpacking of equipment, often at short notice, and much manhandling of guns. Although most of the guns on issue to the regiment were not equipped with the best type of mounting for mobile work they were repeatedly hauled, winched or pushed by brute force into all sorts of places and the unwieldy rire control instruments were lugged in with them. The nature of the work called for resourcefulness and improvisation—many problems had to be met by a common sense decision on the spot. In some of the manoeuvres the weather was kind, but in others, notably 'Bula,' the mud will never be forgotten by some of the participants—particularly by those whose transport even with chains and 4-wheel drive engaged was bogged down for hours at a stretch. The handling of guns and equipment did not complete the job. The gunners had to dig in, and if time allowed, prepare pits and alternative positions and look to their all round defence. This was sometimes done with great thoroughness, as witness the case of a battery commander on a tour of inspection of his guns during a brigade exercise who vanished up to his neck in a deeply dug and well camouflaged weapon pit. However, the manoeuvres had their compensations. They gave the mobile batteries constant changes of scenery and opportunities to fraternise with the French inhabitants and sample the local fruits. The trips which were made by all batteries to the American antiaircraft training school at Mt. Dore, south of Noumea, for live shell practice shoots were invariably most popular outings. The setting was a most pleasant one, a white sandy beach fringed with palms, and the Americans were co-operative and often generous in supplying a few extra boxes of ammunition to supplement the rather meagre New Zealand scale of issue. There-was a hundred yards of beach front thickly studded with antiaircraft guns of all sorts which threw up great volumes of tracer when the target came within range. The sight of such lavish expenditure of ammunition was almost too much for some of us, page 110and more astounding was the fact that nobody seemed to worry about gathering up the empty shell cases or the neat metal ammunition boxes, many of which travelled back to our camp as souvenirs.
The regular turns about in aerodrome defence and mobile work undoubtedly assisted the growth of regimental solidarity. The mobile batteries had often been inclined to picture the static batteries as 'Sitting on their backsides on the aerodrome doing nothing' while the static batteries fondly imagined that the 209th and 214th were the original 'Playboys of the Pacific.' Experience of the other way of life gave everybody a change and nearly everybody welcomed it. It may be mentioned that a reorganisation of all batteries from three troops of four guns each to four troops of three guns each was carried out early in 1943. The troops were relettered in alphabetical order commencing with the 207th Battery and following on through 208th, 209th and 214th. Tn order to avoid confusion with the letter 'I' there was no J troop in the 209th Battery, and the last troop of the 214th Battery, although originally allocated the letter 'Q,' was later changed to R troop, following a request from a somewhat worried troop commander who said that his men were developing high-pitched voices. Meanwhile RHQ, somewhat like a hen with a brood of wandering chicks, plugged along at Plaine des Gaiacs, often in a sea of mud and handicapped by the patent difficulty of administering four widely dispersed batteries. The signals section did good work in establishing radio links between RHQ and the outlying batteries, but contact by these means was limited to fixed hours and conditions sometimes made it impossible.
In May 1943 it was decided that RHQ should leave Plaine des Gaiacs and move to a site just north of Bourail, which was more centrally placed for contact with the batteries and incidentally much more attractive to RHQ personnel, who could now spend their week-ends in a more populous and interesting area and enjoy the surf at Bourail beach or the sights at Houailou, one of the chief points of interest on the east coast of the island. Just before this change of location (which evoked some mild amusement in the 209th and the 214th Batteries at the thought of RHQ 'going mobile') Lieutenant-Colonel Yendell relinquished command of the regiment after having steered it safely through a difficult formative period. He was succeeded by Lieutenant-Colonel W. S. McKinnon, who came from command of the 28th page 111Regiment. The regiment had now been brought up to full strength for the first time by reinforcements from the Norfolk Island force, including many members of the two troops which had been detached from the 207th and the 208th at Pahautanui.
Towards the end of June it became obvious that our days in New Caledonia were numbered. The detachment of A troop, 207th Battery, for special amphibious training operations with units of the 14th Brigade gave some clue to the future. Amphibious training exercises and jungle range practices for small arms, which emphasised quick recognition of targets in dense bush, were introduced. The rumour market was soon in full cry and gradually the news emerged that the division would move north to an undisclosed destination in three groups—the 14th Brigade first, closed destination in three groups—the 14th Brigade first, followed by the Divisional Headquarters group and finally lay the 8th Brigade. Only the barest minimum of transport was to be taken and in view of this the Bedford tractors were stripped of their top hamper and adapted to carry fire control instruments. Reinforcements were also received just before the move. Just at this time the 28th Regiment was being disbanded and then, as also in the future, many reinforcements were drawn from this unit. The 214th Battery was lucky in being able to absorb the 203rd Battery band together with all its instruments, and although it could not function when the battery got into action, it blew harmonious strains on Guadalcanal.
As the boxes were packed and the tents folded up for the next stage of the journey, many of the men reflected on their sojourn in New Caledonia. It is idle to deny that most of us disliked the place. The hardness of the training was probably a blessing in disguise, as there were few ways in which one could spare time to advantage, especially in the north, where a day's leave offered little amusement except inspection of the airfields or exploration of the dismal attractions of three or four derelict villages. The mud or dust and the monotony of the scenery were alike depressing. Swimming, for which facilities were generally good, often came to the rescue and many men learned to swim in the clean and refreshing rivers. Other sports, however, suffered for lack of equipment, particularly in the early stages. In this respect the regiment was badly off compared with many other units, who had acquired fair stocks of gear in Fiji and elsewhere. Rugby football was encouraged as the winter months page 112approached and the regimental team gave an excellent performance in reaching the final of the divisional championship for the Barrowclough Cup, before being beaten by the 37th Battalion-After the establishment of the New Zealand transit camp at Noumea small leave parties were billetted there for a week at a time. These were most popular, although the restricted accommodation meant that very few men could enjoy this leave. However, other schemes were introduced to provide a few day's break, notably rest camps at Pagoumene, which catered for men from the Plaine des Gaiacs region, and at Thio for the 8th Brigade area which included the 208th and 214th Batteries. Part of the attraction of leave, particularly at Noumea, was the opportunity for spending money. The New Zealand Canteen Board, although it did what it could, was a poor and erratic source of supply and the prospect of hunting through American PXs was always welcome. Civilian shops, although generally denuded of stocks, were also industriously searched for treasures. Entertainments improved as time went along and during the last few months in New Caledonia cinema shows were quite frequent and within range of all batteries. The divisional band and the Kiwi and Tui concert parties made regular tours which were well received and batteries put on their own entertainments, the 208th in particular being noted for the success of its productions.
The health of the regiment was generally good in New Caledonia, apart from a large number of mild settling-down complaints in the early stages, but most of the constitutional defects which had been overlooked in New Zealand were found out there and the victims weeded out. The remainder, once acclimatised, fared well and although the summer was severe, both in heat and humidity, the clear days and cool nights of the winter months were delightful. There were a few tropical pitfalls to overcome, including the black widow spider, a few poisonous plants and several hurricane warnings, which necessitated endless work dropping tents, making everything secure and re-erecting camp when the 'flap' had passed. On one celebrated occasion a battery quartermaster decided to use a nearby truck as an extra anchor for his large stores tent when a blow was predicted. Next morning the wind had subsided and the driver, blissfully unware that he had anything in tow, drove his truck off and pulled the tent down on a very irate staff-sergeant and his stores. Only the onlookers enjoyed the joke.page break
Loading guns from the beach in Nouméa Harbour for transhipment to the transports going north. Below: A gun crew of the 29th Light Anti-aircraft Regiment at its post overlooking the lagoon at Nissan Island. Uniforms were reduced to a minimum during the day
Summing up New Caledonia, it may be said that the batteries, especially the mobile batteries which were often isolated and almost constantly on the move, did not share the enthusiasm of the official war correspondent who painted such glowing-pictures for the benefit of the folks at home. However, despite the dull routine and the deadening influence of garrison duty, most of the regiment would agree that much of the training justified itself later.