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The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945

I — Early Days

page 152

Early Days

The 38th Field Regiment was perhaps as good an example as any of the differences between this war and other wars. There was no romance in its formation, it did a job, and when that was done it passed out of existence with the same lack of ceremony. But that was in keeping with the spirit of its men; they were realists. They had no time for the jingoistic flapdoodle which misguided propagandists have held to be essential for bolstering up morale. The spur to effort was the fact that a thing needed doing, not mock heroics, appeals to the glory of war, waving banners, impassioned speeches and similar hokum. They had grasped, in fact, the essential point that as citizens who had been prepared to take what a country offered in peace, they must do what it asked of them in war.

So they went where none of them wanted to go, and their vindication is that they did everything that was ever asked of them. That is all that can be said of any unit, however illustrious its history. The rest is opportunity, which may lead to fame. But, stripped of the fanfare of publicity, no unit can say more than that it did its job and did it well. The 38th could say that.

The 38th Field Regiment, with a section of Divisional Signals and 42nd LAD attached, was formed some months after the rest page 153of the Third Division had left for New Caledonia—a sort of afterthought. There are those who maintain it was always an afterthought when anything was being handed out, but that by the way. Actually it and the ill-fated 37th were formed to create the standard three 25-pounder field regiments in a division, until then represented in the Third Division only by the 17th Regiment.

Its members assembled at Papakura Camp on 12 April 1943 and comprised as choice a collection of ill-assorted soldiers as the army at its wierdest could produce. They came from 35 different units and within a few days that had arisen to 45. Only 39 per cent had even a brief experience of field gunnery and 41 per cent had never been in any type of artillery unit. The largest group of these 'foreigners' came from armoured units—24 per cent. They were bright boys all the same, these 'tin can soldiers,' and their driving ability proved valuable to the regiment throughout its career. Also they provided an evergreen subject for argument. If the man-hours spent on the subject of tanks versus guns were laid end to end they'd make a whale of a good furlough. The argument remained unsolved to the finish and the tank men retained their never-failing formula to meet any conceivable circumstance—' What else can you expect from the bloody artillery.' Farmers comprised the largest occupational class, a circumstance which proved very handy when it came to the odd spot of bush carpentry. Anyone who has tried to build a camp with a unit of city clerks knows how helpless they can be at this sort of job. There was a larger proportion of older men with wives and families, businesses or farms of their own, or similar responsibilities, than in most units, which is natural enough in a unit formed late in the day. There were, however, plenty of men just over 21, and others of all ages who had been held back from earlier drafts as essential to their units.

Their conglomerate origin was, indeed, counter-balanced by their quality. Except for a very few officers and NCOs they did not have the experience of tropical service which stood other units in good stead, but on the other hand they had not suffered the chastening experience of others in Fiji and other parts of the Pacific and consequently were less 'browned off.' It must be admitted that they picked this up as quickly as they learned the parts of a 25-pounder, but at least the other units had a start. More than half the original personnel came from the South page 154Island and most of the remainder from the Central Military District. A leavening of Aucklanders was later transferred from the 37th.

The regiment retained many happy memories of its first commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel G. R. Powles, and enjoyed meeting him again on numerous occasions overseas. The second-in-command, Major A. D. Morris, and battery commander of the 49th Battery, Major D. O. Watson, both had previous experience in the Third Division, while the remaining two battery commanders, Major S. Menzies (50th Battery) and Major R. F. Spragg (52nd Battery) were among the few original members of the unit from Auckland Province. It was just as well that regimental headquarters at this initial stage had a sense of humour, or the recurrent flaps that were inflicted on it at increasingly short intervals would have rapidly induced a state of nervous prostration. However, Major Morris, the adjutant, Captain H. M. James, and intelligence officer, Lieutenant B. de C. Thomson, proved imperturbable flap-handlers and even seemed to thrive on it.

Efforts to teach the unit something about artillery nevertheless had a rough spin. Equipment trickled in at any old time. Even before the guns could be calibrated orders were received to prepare 150 men of 49th Battery for embarkation and they left a day later, 27 May. Then no fewer than 95 personnel posted to the unit were found to be ineligible for overseas for various reasons and had to be replaced. The 50th Battery was practically on its way to Muriwai to complete calibration when embarkation orders arrived and 170 of them left on 13 June. The 52nd Battery did get in a shoot, but in weather not again encountered until the Solomons. Equipment had to be packed (naturally there were no cases), sent to Wellington and loaded, though the men were leaving from Auckland.

The 'snafu' or rather climatic series of 'snafus,' reached an all-time high early in July when simultaneously a large number of men was drafted out to the air force; orders were given to send the whole unit on furlough; the 37th Field Regiment, which had been training in the adjacent block at Papakura, was disbanded, making many experienced gunners available; the commanding officer of the 37th, Lieutenant-Colonel W. A. Bryden, took over from Lieutenant-Colonel Powles, and orders were received for embarkation of the remaining personnel. Last days page 155in New Zealand are a blurred memory of frantic telegrams recalling men, selection and drafting of personnel from the 37th, preparation and repreparation of rolls, orders and counter-orders until finally cancellations were arriving before the original instructions. Eventually 254 personnel left by three different ships on 13 July, leaving 180, most of whom could not be got back from furlough in time, to come on by another boat on 26 July. Including parties which travelled with the equipment, the regiment finally went to the war in eight different vessels over a period of two months.