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Problems of 2 NZEF

CHAPTER 12 — Field and Base

page 181

Field and Base

IT has already been indicated in Chapter 10 that those who were serving overseas in 2 NZEF looked on themselves as superior to anybody serving in New Zealand, and were resistant to returning to New Zealand for duty. Such a feeling is only one phase of something that runs right through a force from front to rear – the feeling of superiority held by those who are near the enemy for those who are not so near. Within the Division rifle companies looked down on Headquarters Company, infantry in general on artillery and all other arms, artillery or engineers on ASC, and ASC on medical corps – and the whole Division on all those who were serving at the base. It is this last aspect which is being touched on briefly in this chapter.

Any army develops strains between that portion which is serving in the field and that portion which is serving at the base. It is a traditional feeling, and to that extent there is nothing unusual in the experience of 2 NZEF; but when the force comes from a small country where everyone knows everyone else, or knows about everyone else by not more than one remove, it is a feeling that in some ways is to be regretted.

But not in all ways; for it must be admitted that this feeling of superiority held by the fighting troops is an element in high morale, and could even for that reason be pardoned. If those in the field thought themselves superior to all those at the base, who can grudge them this opinion of themselves, earned, and justified, in the hard way on many a St. Crispin's Day.

This feeling should not be unduly magnified; but it is correct to say that those serving in the field had a mild contempt for those serving at Maadi, mixed perhaps sometimes with a slight feeling of jealousy because so and so had got himself a nice soft job there. They thought that all those serving at Maadi were doing so by their own choice, that they lived lives of ease, that they were ruled by self-interest only, that they never gave a thought to their fellows in the field, and in fact took a delight in putting it across everyone else, and that Maadi was inhabited only by a collection of dodgers. Field troops were only too ready to believe the worst about any occurrence at Maadi of which they heard.

Now some of this was just ‘big talk’, and evaporated when quieter times came or when the field men had occasion to come page 182 back to Maadi; but their beliefs ranged from pure emotion – the major part – to some small degree of sincerity; and it is this last portion that merits an answer.

How much was the feeling deserved? But before we go any further it must be said categorically that the greater part of those who served at the base were good and efficient officers and men, all trying to do their best. Many of them, on account of age or medical grading or the need for a spell, could be employed only at the base, and were glad to be continued in employment and not sent back to New Zealand. When reading what follows, the presence in the background of these good soldiers should not be forgotten.

There were three classes of officers and men in Maadi that laid themselves open to criticism. The first two, those who dodged going into the field and those who drifted back from the field for various unworthy reasons, will be with us in any war; and in this case the criticism from field troops was at least understandable. The third class, those who were sent back to Maadi because they were unwanted in the field, was of our own making. Here the criticism, even if justified, might have been avoided.

There was a belief that Maadi was full of dodgers – those who had never served in the field and had no intention of ever doing so. In 2 NZEF from the earliest days there had been a rule that all those employed at Maadi must have had field service or be medically unfit; but critics may be pardoned if they thought that the rule about field service was frequently broken. However, on two occasions the rule was put to the test. In the crisis of June-July 1942 a return was called for in Maadi to show what men had not had any field service. The number of personnel in all kinds of employment in and around Maadi, including all 2 NZEF offices and all training depots (but not the reinforcements), was roughly 2500, and it transpired that only about 100 had not seen service, and that a part of these had always been medically unfit. More authentic figures were obtained in May 1943 when the first draft to go back to New Zealand under the furlough scheme was being assembled. The order of return explicitly gave preference to those who had active field service with 2 NZ Division or non-divisional units, the term ‘active field service’ meaning service in the officially defined theatres of war during First Libya, Greece, Crete, Second Libya, Battle for Egypt, and Alamein to Tunisia. Second Echelon (i.e., Records) made a careful count so as to place men in the correct category, and found that out of 9300 members of the first three echelons who were still serving, only 400 had never seen field service, and that the greater part of these had been medically unfit for the field from an early date. This figure of just over 4 per cent page 183 bears a close relationship to the one given previously, and means that only a handful had somehow or other managed to dodge all service in the field. The periods of service were probably in many cases short ones; but the number of genuine all-time embusqués in Maadi was not as great as people thought.

black and white photograph of army camp

Main entrance to New Zealand Advanced Base, Taranto, March 1944

black and white photograph of soldiers at army base

Troops at Advanced Base wait for trucks to take them on the first stage of their journey to New Zealand

black and white photograph of welcoming party

Lady Freyberg and Brig A. S. Falconer welcome members of the first WWSA party on arrival at Port Tewfik, October 1941

black and white photograph of officer inspecting nurses

Lt-Gen Sir Bernard Freyberg (with Matron Miss I. MacKinnon) shaking hands with members of the nursing staff of 6 NZ General Hospital, Florence, during his farewell visit

black and white photograph of soldier administrators

Lowry Hut at Advanced Base, Taranto, January 1944

black and white photograph of soldiers baking bread

New Zealand Field Bakery, Italy. Fresh bread for troops in the field

black and white photograph of soldiers disembark trucks

Troops arrive for the opening of the New Zealand Forces Club, Cairo, February 1941

black and white photograph of military club library

In the Club library

black and white photograph of military club

Hotel Danieli, Venice, a New Zealand Forces Club in 1945

black and white photograph of mobile library

Education and Rehabilitation Service library in Italy

black and white photograph of military HQ

Headquarters 2 NZEF, Santo Spirito, May 1944

black and white photograph of military HQ

Headquarters 2 NZEF, Senigallia

black and white photograph of army officer

Rt. Hon. P. Fraser is greeted by Brigadier Stevens on arriving in Italy to visit New Zealand troops, May 1944

black and white photograph of group of army officers

At Santo Spirito, May 1944. From left: Brig H. S. Kenrick, Lt-Col R. B. Schulze, Col T. D. M. Stout, Rev. J. W. McKenzie, Brig W. G. Stevens, Col J. R. Boyd, Lt-Col J. F. Fuller, Lt-Col H. E. Crosse, Lt-Col A. V. Knapp, Lt-Col L. F. Rudd, Hon. Lt-Col H. C. Steere and Capt N. R. Flavell

black and white photograph of war memorial

2 NZEF Memorial, Maadi

There will always be ‘fainthearts’ in any army – they that have ‘no stomach to this fight’ – and such men will always find their way out of the field to safer employment farther back. They will gradually pile up in the base camp until there is an accumulation there of useless specimens, either in some easy employment or just hanging about in depots and dodging reinforcement drafts. The majority can produce some convincing reason, generally a medical one, why they should stay at the base. While there are few cases of self-inflicted injuries, there are more of self-induced illnesses. Part of this collection was really useless, and caused us much thought, until in 1942 we had a special board appointed in Maadi to look them over from time to time. From the end of 1942 onwards we find that periodically a collection of misfits was sent back to New Zealand – a conclusion no doubt satisfactory to them, although poor consolation for those who were sticking it. These people will always exist; and all that can be said in defence of their being at Maadi is that they can do less harm there and cannot endanger men's lives. There were more of this type than of the 100 per cent dodgers.

There was a third class of officer and man at Maadi, either employed there or waiting for some employment – the ‘unwanteds’ from the field, i.e., those who had definitely been sent back by their units for having failed in some way to measure up to the necessary standards. This class merits closer attention.

In March 1941 the Military Secretary addressed a memorandum to all formation and unit commanders. It read as follows:

I am directed by the GOC 2 NZEF to write to set out the policy with regard to the interchange of officers and NCOs between NZ Div and 2 NZEF Base.

In order to maintain the efficiency of the Force as a whole it is not desirable that officers and NCOs should be retained at the Base for indefinite periods. Those with experience completely up to date are required at the Base for training purposes, and no one is to be allowed to remain there for too long a period. For this reason there must be a constant flow backwards and forwards between the Division and the Base.

For all but COs of units, the maximum period at the Base will be six months, and this will be reduced to three whenever possible. As regards COs, whenever a vacancy occurs in a unit in the field, as a rule the CO of the corresponding training unit at the Base will be sent forward to take his place, and COs in the field may also be sent back to the Base on interchange with a training unit when considered desirable from time to time.

The only exception will be in the case of officers and NCOs who are Grade II, who may be retained at the Base indefinitely in work of an page 184 administrative nature, so long as they are efficient.

No officer or NCO will be employed at the Base who is unsuited by character or efficiency for service in the field. Those who are found inefficient on coming to the Base, will be returned to their units immediately. Officers and NCOs who are subject to adverse reports, will be reported on in their own units, and will be returned to New Zealand in the case of officers, or reduced in the case of NCOs where necessary.

The above policy is considered essential to maintain the continued efficiency of the Force, and the co-operation of all commanders is needed to make it effective.

Brave words! But how far from ever being put into effect! As far as employment at either HQ 2 NZEF or HQ Maadi Camp was concerned, we tried hard throughout the war to prevent the unwanted and inefficient from being employed there; but as far as employment at depots and elsewhere in the camp was concerned, it was a losing struggle. Hardly once did OICA visit the Division without some formation or unit commander saying to him, ‘Look here, so and so is no good to me. Can't you find him a job at Maadi?’ One could not resist a phalanx of senior officers all getting rid of their unwanteds in this way.

Those who were truly unfit for service in the field were not numerous enough to fill all vacancies, and there was room and to spare for fit officers and other ranks. The chances are that no good officer or NCO will volunteer for a spell at the base; but many would not be averse to being detailed for duty there, and it may even be for the good of the unit that some personnel should be sent back for a spell without the option. Naturally, the efficiency of the field unit must come first; but this does not mean that occasionally a thoroughly fit and efficient officer and NCO cannot be spared for a few months to serve in a training depot or elsewhere at the base. A tour of duty at Maadi was not a disgrace although some officers, senior ones, too, seemed to think otherwise. The atmosphere of base units, in common with all units, is a reflection of their officers; and if the atmosphere is poor, and the unit poor also, the fault will lie in part with the custom that allows indifferent officers to serve there when they have been rejected from the field.

The majority of the unwanted officers were not sent back, however, for any specific duty, and their subsequent employment at Maadi was on account of the shortage of good officers, and the shortage was often due to the reluctance of field commanders to detail suitable officers.

The question may well be asked what is to become of these inefficients. They obviously cannot stay with their units, and there are objections to employing them at the base. The Military Secretary's memorandum is clear – if inefficient with their unit in the field they are to be reported on adversely and returned to New Zealand. This is drastic action, so drastic that there was a natural page 185 reluctance among commanders to make use of it, and so condemn someone beyond reprieve; and we are then back where we were – that the inefficient find their level either in base employment, or in hanging about waiting for employment.

The term ‘beyond reprieve’ has been used; but it can only be taken to apply to service with the Expeditionary Force. The idea that an officer will carry this stigma into civil life is surely an exploded one. Memories are short, and in a few years everyone except the few who were closely associated with the incident at the time will have forgotten it – and the chances are that the civilian community never knew the circumstances.

It is, of course, stupid to run one's head against a brick wall; and commonsense tells us that no matter how hard we try, some ‘unwanteds’ must be found employment at the base, and may even do well there, for not everyone is a commander of men. However, the policy should remain that the field is the first source of supply for personnel to be employed at the base; and only if suitable officers cannot be found from there – and the policy should be to put pressure on field commanders to find them – then the post must be given to someone who cannot be employed in the field. In such circumstances it is surely unreasonable of field commanders to criticise the base because of the poor type of officer employed there.

It is then considered that freer use should be made of the rule that inefficient officers should go back to New Zealand, for nothing can be said in favour of keeping such officers in base employment indefinitely. Even under these rather rackety arrangements, there should be a turnover of officers, and those who have served for six months or so should be replaced by someone else.

However, opinions will differ on the solution to this problem, and perusal of this chapter may even lead to a revival of wartime emotional beliefs about the base. It will be sufficient to say that the problem exists, and needs firm measures to find any solution at all.

Disposal of unwanted NCOs should not be so difficult, for the machinery existed for reducing them, the GOC having been given powers in statutory regulations. Periodically Headquarters used to draw the attention of COs to these powers; but again there was a reluctance to make use of the machinery, with the result that depots always had a sprinkling of unwanteds. The chances were that in due course these NCOs would be sent forward again with a draft, and there would follow a minor storm from the unit, which would make it clear that it never wanted to see them again. Freer use of the GOC's powers would have solved this problem.

To return to the views on Maadi held by the troops in the field. It was true that troops in Maadi lived in comfort and worked to regular hours; but surely nothing would have been gained by page 186 making the clerks of Second Echelon live in slit trenches, and the hours of work were long and steady and were often extended when the need arose. At least everyone lived in Maadi Camp instead of in the more comfortable accommodation available in Cairo. Within those limits, there is everything to be said for being as comfortable as possible, and not reducing everyone in the force to an equality of misery. Incidentally, it was only human nature that caused the amenities of Maadi to be steadily increased as the years went on.

There was a lot of talk in the field in the crisis of 1942 about the ‘flap’ that was going on in Cairo and Maadi. If by ‘flap’ is meant a lot of work being carried out at frantic speed, the destruction of any papers that might be of value to the enemy or were not of the first importance, the hurried evacuation of civilian wives, the combing out of depots, etc., to find men for the field, the preparation of plans for the evacuation of women's services, for the defence of the area, and for a steady withdrawal if the worst happened, then it is true that there was a ‘flap’. Is it too much to suggest that mutatis mutandis there was then a ‘flap’ of a fairly extensive order going on in the Western Desert? The difference was only one of form and not of principle, for both field and base in their differing ways were trying to counter unexpected disaster.

Those in authority at Maadi always had special difficulties with the discipline of troops back from the Division, at least when the troops were in small parties and not with their own units. Release from the tension of the field tended to produce a semi-hysterical bravado, and a belief, often loudly voiced, that they were not to be bound by the normal rules applicable to a standing camp. All this could be understood, and the line of least resistance was to let the men have their way and to turn a blind eye to violations of routine, but on the other hand men could not be allowed to go into Cairo looking like pirates, and somehow or other it had to be impressed on them that a modicum of tidiness and adherence to routine was inescapable. Men back from the field, where dress was of little importance and where routine was governed by operational necessities, did not take kindly to checks for unbuttoned jackets, or to having to get up or go to bed at an arbitrary hour. Such men required very tactful handling.

The policy at HQ 2 NZEF or HQ Maadi Camp was to grin and bear the criticism from the field, and never to retaliate. It was amusing to those naughty people with cynical minds to note that the severest critics of some divisional administrative activity were senior officers from the Division – good senior officers – who came back to Maadi or Advanced Base for a spell of duty. On several occasions they had to be restrained from retaliating to some divisional misdemeanour.

page 187

Some of the criticism of the base made by field troops then was justified, but no more or no less justified than in any army in any age. Some of it was unjustified. Some of it could have been avoided if there had been a steady stream of first-class officers and NCOs coming back to the base for a few months' duty, having been specially selected on account of definite suitability for employment there.