22nd Battalion 2NZEF

"Vrai et Fort"

The History of the 22nd (N.Z.) Battalion
By Terence Power Mclean

2 May – 17 June 1940
Voyage to England

The Empress of Britain pulled away from the wharf on the following morning, Thursday 2 May, and that afternoon sailed from the harbour, Thursday 2 May, and that afternoon sailed from the harbour with the other ships carrying units of the Second Echelon. The strength of the Battalion was 756 all ranks. The total included 41 officers, eight warrant officers, 44 sergeants and 663 other ranks (and one dog).

Second in command of the battalion was Major G.J. McNaught, a veteran of the first world war who had won distinction in sport as a member of the New Zealand Army Rugby team which won the King’s Cup against Empire competition at the end of the war and followed that with a tour of South Africa in 1919. The coy commands were Major S Hanton (A), Captain J Bain (B), Major J G Leggat (C), Captain xxx (D) and Major E Laws (HQ). WO1 S Purnell was the RSM, the original appointee, WO1 Douglas, a member of the Permanent Staff, having to withdraw for medical reasons.

The full convoy, including ships from Lyttleton, assembled off Wellington Harbour in Cook Strait, and included, in addition to the Empress of Britain, the Andes, the Aquitania and the Empress of Japan. The escorting cruisers were HMAS Canberra, HMAS Australia and HMS (later HMNZS) Leander. The sight of the convoy was imposing to the many hundreds of Wellingtonians who gathered near the heads of the harbour to wave a last farewell to the troops. The Empress of Britain was a delight to members of the 22nd. There had been no time to convert it to troop carrying and accommodation for officers and senior NCOs was provided in large and luxurious cabins. Cabins on the lower decks had been divided to accommodate the rank and file and bunks were provided in these, but the quarters were comfortable and the standard of comfort higher than soldiers of the later drafts were to obtain.

Boat drill began on the first day out from Wellington and fatigues, guards and other duties were soon introduced. Mess orderly duties were performed by stewards of the ship. There was some seasickness at the beginning, but it was not long before the good food was being enjoyed by everybody. In the daily programme, reveille was sounded at 0600 hours and sittings of breakfast were held at 0700 and 0800 hours. Fatigues were paraded at 0745 hours. Boat stations and ship’s inspections were staged between 0900 and 1000 hours, and the morning training for a time consisted of semaphore, knot typing and lashing and PT. Two sittings of meals were held at 1200 and 1300 hours and in the afternoon training there were periods devoted to a lecture, musketry, routine drill and, later on, route marching round and round the long promenade deck. The evening meals were served at 1700 and 1800 hours. Between 2000 and 2130 hours, a canteen service provided draught beer and cups of tea or cocoa. Lights out was at 2200 hours.

On the first day out, the ineffable Borax was the cause of trouble. “The soldier or soldiers responsible for bringing on board the dog commonly known as “Borax”, as Routine Orders phrased it, was ordered to report to unit headquarters. After wresting with his conscience for some time, Pte Booth at last confessed the hideous deed. Business with Borax it seemed, was gratifyingly brisk. Booth’s confession was the third on the list. Two sergeants had forestalled him with categoric confessions.

There was some speculation about the motives of the sergeants. On the one hand, it was believed that they were keen to become staff sergeants and sought this as an opportunity to establish they had the kind of initiative which was thought to be most necessary in a company quartermaster. On the other hand, it was believed that they were tired of their rank and sought reduction in a gentlemanly way. At any rate, plethora of confessions or not, Borax was arrested. Authority was pleased to be stern and Brutus-like in reaction to the first tentative requests for the dog’s release. Authority having been proved, there was yielding in the granite and Borax at last was freed. He roamed the ship perfectly happy after that.

On 6 May, the size of the convoy was increased off the coast of Australia by the meeting with the Queen Mary, the Mauretania and the Empress of Canada, each of which was crowded with Australian troops. Course was set across the Great Australian Bight for Freemantle.

Life aboard the ship was, on the whole, pleasant. For the training during the day, the weather was kind, and in the evenings all sorts of games were played. Some of them, like tombola, were legal, and others, like crown and anchor, two-up and chemin de fer, were highly illegal, but each had its school. An entertainment committee promoted impromptu speeches with the audience as judge and everyone except perhaps the competitors thought the occasions diverting. On 10 May a sports day was held on the ship’s tennis court and in many events the 22nd’s men performed with zeal. Cpl L Mack, aided by a ship’s nursing sister, amazed his friends with his skill in threading a needle and two of C coy’s men, Ptes G.G. Foxley and M.R. Lord, easily won the biscuit eating and whistling competition in spite of all manner of discouragements.

On the same day, the convoy arrived at Freemantle after averaging 19 knots along the Australian coast. With other units of the Brigade, the battalion entrained on the following morning for Perth and took part in a parade through the city. A compliment was paid on the march to Major-General Durrant, GOC Western Military District, and at the end of the march leave was granted until midnight.

Some day, perhaps, some permanent form of tribute will express to the people of Perth a measure of the gratitude existing among New Zealand soldiers of the Second Division for the hospitality which was invariably shown to New Zealand troops throughout the war. It was hospitality of kindliness and generosity, given without stint, and quite unforgettable in character. It was unfortunate that two members of the battalion should violate it by missing their ship when the leave had ended.

Of the multitude of humorous incidents during the day, perhaps the choicest was the insistence of Pte T Donovan that the fox terrier pup he had brought aboard should become the everlasting property of Captain laws, to whom it was given as a token of unbounded esteem and regard. Even the police were drawn into the party. A Freemantle constable willingly changed tunics with a New Zealander, who thereupon amazed the gangway guards with his military attire to the waist and his constabulary attire to the neck.

The days of arrival at, stay in and departure from Freemantle were momentous in the war’s history. On the morning of 10 May, Rotterdam was bombed and the blitzkrieg was launched upon the Western Front.

Aboard ship, with the ocean all around, a clear sky and clean air, the impact at first was dull. The mind could not readily evoke a picture of the effect of bombs and shells and high explosive. But, three days out from, Freemantle, war stretched its hand and decreed that the convoy must alter course to South Africa and then proceed to England.

Then indeed there was impact. England! To the troops, it seemed a fairy tale. To Colonel Andrew and the responsible authorities, it was war. Each day, rifles were used for loading practice with dummy rounds. Physical training with tugs of war, with medicine balls and with sparring was introduced and it was required that feet should be bathed with methylated spirits. Soft feet were of no use to the infantry soldier.

Of the many impressions created by the four days of leave, from 26 to 30 May, in Capetown, the most lasting was that the people of the city, even as the people of Perth, were perfect hosts. Drives to the beaches, expeditions to Table Mountain, lunches, dinners, drinks – many drinks – were only a part of the hospitality extended. The politeness of the South Africans was such that they even managed to smile at the extreme antics of he Anzacs. The soldiers took charge of traffic, rode on fire engines, distributed beer gratis from a lorry, removed the trousers of a traffic policeman who tried to interfere, made expeditions into District Six, a notorious native quarter, and committed a hundred and one acts of knavery, stupidity and ingenuous boyish folly. As good rivals of New Zealand in Rugby football, the South Africans were more than pleased when a team from Capetown University defeating the Second Echelon team which contained Fowler, Ashman and Donoghue from the battalion. But pleased or no, they made their city free to the troops.

As at Perth, there were exhibitions of the eccentric humour of the kiwis. One man purchased a native baby for two shillings, took it aboard ship and was distressed at his cold reception. Another gave his coy commander a bath full of snakes and was saddened by the lack of humour in his officer.

There were two incidents of particular note in the battalion. Pte R S Traynor, of A Coy, while ashore on leave, suffered head injuries from which, on 29 May, he died in the ship’s hospital. It was the first casualty of battalion history. Time did not permit fellow-members of his coy to attend the military funeral held at the naval cemetery at Simonstown.

In the darkness of 27 May, Sergeant J D Ormond, of Headquarters Coy, while on duty as sergeant of the guard answered a call of “Man Overboard” by diving from the ship into the harbour. Despite the intense blackness of the night, a heavy tide and the known presence of sharks, he swan about for more than half an hour in search of the missing soldier, a sergeant of the No.1 New Zealand General Hospital, and he did not give up the search until he was exhausted. Ormond required assistance from the water. He was later awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery and was the first person in the battalion to receive an award for services in the war.

Before departure, in a redistribution of troops made because of the assignment of the Empress of Japan to other duties the 21st Battalion was transferred to the Empress of Britain. The Mayfair lounge and the closed promenade deck were used to house the additional passengers, who were absorbed by the huge ship without loss of comfort.

On the grey morning of the last day of May, the convoy sailed on its long zigzag course to England. Away from new sights and new friends, all aboard became possessed with the fearful news of war. France was falling, the British Expeditionary Force had escaped at the eleventh hour from Dunkirk and the enemy forces rolled closer to Paris. Supplied with fragments of news by the ship’s wireless, the battalion could only wonder and worry at the future.

This background of the world tragedy, the voyage wore on. Routine Orders in time was increased in size to accommodate the penalties imposed for misdemeanours at Capetown and Pte Donovan achieved the distinction of a second “mention” while in the ship’s brig for the first. By the exercise of patience and ingenuity, he removed the screws from the detention room door and there was a great clatter at the next entry of the guard. It was good fun, but the commanding officer made him pay a pound for it.

On 6 June, a skeleton brigade signal exercise was held upon a sand table and dispatch runners from the battalion galloped at speed about the ship. An issue of shorts and shirts for summer wear was made and on 7 Jun a stop was made at Freetown, Sierra Leone. Much amusement was obtained from the antics of natives in canoes when hung about the ship all day. The canoes bore painted signs of a religious character like “No Man Like God,” but in spite of the influence the natives were mostly godlessly intent upon barter and braved ship’s hoses for the purpose. One soldier, with a ship’s blanket, bought a monkey. Another, exasperated by the chattering, yelled: “Get away, you black bastard.” The pained native stood upright. “I am British subject same as you are,” he said. “Only colour of my skin a little different.”

The war, more and more, was filling all minds. Blackout precautions were strictly enforced. The battalion manned two of four Vickers guns on the sun deck. There was general instruction in passive air defence. Submarine lookouts were posted. Route marching was increased and innovations in the training programme of life-saving drill, resuscitation and first aid spoke grimly of the universal hatred. Two platoons from B Coy were posted with rifles on anti-aircraft duties. The aircraft carrier Hermes, unfortunately without airplanes, joined the convoy.

In the midst of such important matters the sporting activities of the battalion, particularly in boxing, had a lesser place, but there was gratification when Pte J R C Hargreaves, who had fought professionally in New Zealand, won the ship’s featherweight title and Pte C Noble narrowly lost to Gnr F Richardson, of the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment, in one of the best bouts of the tournament.

The officers had their amusements, too. A mock orderly room was arranged at a subaltern’s night in the lounge and Colonel Andrew was charged with illegally attempting to dispose of Government property. He had been heard incautiously offering the ship to a nursing sister. Lt Lovie heard the case. Col Andrew was marched in and stood for some time while Mr Lovie, head firmly down, wrote busily at a table. Then the “judge” casually lifted his head and started with surprise. “What! You here again, Andrew!” he said. From time to time during the hearing, Mr Lovie made caustic remarks which showed plainly that he was a good student. Then, at the end, he grimaced and pounded the table in a fury. “Damn it, man,” he shouted. “This isn’t a pleasure cruise! This is war!”

Once or twice, as the voyage wore on, frightening submarine alarms were sounded. Ships moved into position with the Queen Mary in the centre and the escorts dashed off at speed in the direction of the contact. Sometimes they dropped depth charges and the battalion hoped to a man that a submarine was caught in the mighty convulsions.

So, as the German armies moved towards Paris, the convoy approached the mouth of the River Clyde. Out ahead, five destroyers kept and changed station. Behind them were two cruisers, and behind the cruisers HMS Hood, the largest warship in the world. Behind the Hood, the merchant ships steamed in two lines: The stately Queen Mary and the Empress of Britain were abreast; then followed the four-funnelled Aquitania and the new Mauritania, and behind these two the Empress of Canada and the Andes. On the flanks there were more destroyers and at times an aircraft-carrier or two and behind there were three cruisers and five destroyers. On the day the convoy anchored at Gourock on the Clyde, on Sunday 17 June, Paris fell. The ships from New Zealand had steamed 17,000 miles at an average speed of 19.2 knots. No other body of troops had ever travelled so far to war.

“At Gourock a submarine net lay across the river, with shipping crowded beyond, amongst them a huge battle cruise and small naval craft,” wrote Lieutenant W McAra, the battalion mortar officer, in a letter to his wife. “One by one the miles long procession of ships, big and small, naval and mercantile, passed inside and anchored with a rumble of cables. The hills were now close on every side, and considerably higher, with a hint of Highland glens in the merging crests and ridges. Far up the river we could see hanging in the blue the tiny blobs of the balloon barrage over Glasgow, and nearby the three funnels protruding from the water of a French cruiser sunk by some internal explosion a few weeks ago. The decks of every transport were crammed with the troops basking in the sun and idly studying the busy scene, the coming and going od ships and launches, the wide reaches of windless, scintillating water reflecting the blues and whites of the summer sky. A strange Sunday afternoon scene!

“Our band came up on the sun deck and added a final touch to a general contentment and thankfulness. The afternoon wore on with the increasing beauty and peace; the movement of shipping gradually ceasing; the water at last as delicate as satin in colour and texture. On the hills, in the woods and in the gardens, the many shades of green in grass and leaf glowed still more warmly, as though the whole countryside had donned its Sunday best to welcome the boys from way down under. Late in the afternoon, some military and civilian bigwigs came aboard to make the usual speeches (we know it all backwards now). One, a Brigadier Miles, representing General Freyberg, who is still in Egypt, sketched a grimish picture of the job before us that really did us more good than all the assurances of Imperial solidarity and shoulder-to-shoulder guff the others spilled us.”

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Last updated: 21/12/2015