TWENTY-SECOND TO NONE
The History of the 22nd (N.Z.) Battalion
By Terence Power Mclean
17 Jun – 31 Aug 1940
Training in England
It became a joke in the Division later on – the notion that the tour of duty of the Fifth Brigade in England in 1940 had been nothing but a Cook’s tour. The Fourth and Sixth Brigades sweated in the sands of the Egyptian desert for up to a year before the Fifth joined then early in 1941, and theirs, they always afterwards maintained had been the real war.
That tour, it must be confessed, was twice blessed in being performed among English-speaking people who amounted, in fact, to kinfolk. It was true, too, that the men who experienced it often thought of it in times of battle in the Western Desert, or in Greek and Italian hovels. But the tour for all that was scarcely of the sort provided by the enterprising Thos Cook. It had a little too much reality about it. The battalion trained hard as a member of the force designed to counter the invasion which seemed so natural a consequence of the wreck of France. For many months of the tour, the enemy battalions were massed about the French channel ports awaiting the word. Meantime, the air war of Marshal Goering’s Luftwaffe was built up by day and night and from Dover to Penzance, on the beaches and above the cliffs, the English and their kin waited.
The welcome given the men of the battalion by the British was memorable in its sincerity. Even Borax was nobly entertained upon Gourock station by a Scottish dog and from Gourock to Aldershot, in the journey which began on 19 June, the way was lined with sandwiches, pies, cakes, and cups of coffee, offered as a tangible demonstration of friendly feeling.
The journey ended at North Camp station, near Aldershot, and from there the battalion marched to Mychett, a wooded area with a lake nearly. To eyes tired of the always-bounding main, the countryside seemed wonderful, full of leafy lanes and ordered pleasantness, and though the copses and bosky dells seemed almost a cliché, the first impression of them as beautiful never altered.
In the early hours of the first night, after a day spent in pitching tents and arranging cookhouses and paraphernalia, an air raid alarm sounded, and at first light slit trenches enough for everyone were dug with noble enthusiasm. Nor was there much need, then or later, for insistence upon blackout precautions. Only the fools lit matches or showed lights and they were in the minority.
The High Commissioner for New Zealand Mr W J Jordan, inspected and welcomed the battalion on 21 June and on that day there appeared in Routine Orders the promotion to lance-corporal of PTE Keith Elliott. He would appear again in Routine Orders, on a greater occasion. On the following day, there was a route march and on 23 June 48 hours’ general disembarkation leave was granted. Men of the battalion were spread over England, Scotland and Wales, but fore most London called and men sped like arrows to its heart. The city by repute was cold to the stranger, but after their first experience none of the Kiwis could understand why. It was not easy for them even to buy a glass of beer in the public houses and in these, the democratic clubs of England, and in other places the reception was affectionate.
With the return from leave, it was evident that the sea voyage, with its rich food and genial surroundings, had had an enervating effect upon the spirit of the battalion. The quality and quantity of food in the camp, after a first, splendid, welcoming meal, had deteriorated and there were many complaints. There was criticism that the NAAFI outside the camp sold a better meal than could be obtained inside. Much plain speaking, more than one unfortunate incident, and some acts of thoughtlessness show clearly that the spirit of the unit was not yet mature.
Colonel Andrew set himself fiercely at the task of rekindling unit pride. He was a believer in route marching and the countryside about Mytchett became sorely familiar. Discipline which had not been soft became severe. There were agonised yelps from junior officers who were set upon and, chains of army command being well established, more yelps from the rank and file when the word had been passed down.
The battalion remained at Mytchett for two and a half months and in that time training was directed at its incorporation, in a suitable role, in the counter-attack force of the south of England and particularly about the area “Hell's Kitchen” near Dover. Equipment, in spite of the spur of Dunkirk was not readily available. The battalion had its first practices at enbussing and debussing without benefit of motor transport and mortar men of the headquarters company platoon grew adept at pantomime while they waited for weeks for their guns. This was indeed the period of crisis for Britain.
It was a relief that motorcycles were easily obtainable. Half the fun of life for the men would have disappeared if the cycles had not been available for the coaching and riding of officers and senior NCOs. Lieutenant JL Macduff, sitting in the saddle while chatting idly to a friend, as idly released the clutch and bounded at a stone wall. Lieutenant T Thornton, the quartermaster, spread alarm and despondency with a wild charge at tents, trucks and soldiers. There were many scenes of comedy, the merit of which was improved according to the proximity to the spectator of a tall, stalwart tree.
The first essential of the training program was fitness. Marching first and then sport accounted for this. Because of the fear of gas attack, there was much insistence upon precautions with respirators and for this and other specialist work there were many courses. Lieutenant TR Hawthorn the intelligence officer passed a gas course with Distinction and forthwith became known as “Teargas Tommy.” Disdaining the frivolity he continued to set has platoon so fast a pace on route marches that the group became known as “Hawthorn’s Harriers” and was much admired by less athletic sub-units.
Monday and Wednesday nights were spent in training. Sometimes, this consisted of a march, the digging of defensive positions and the filling in of the trenches at the end of the exercise. It seemed to the troops a highly profitless enterprise, but in its inscrutable way the Army continued to demand these things, and calculated avoidance was liable to be even more profitless. Authority was not pleased with an outbreak of ribald criticism of the Boyes anti-tank rifle soon after its first appearance and in ROs early in July there appeared a most fierce denunciation of all who denied its excellence. New ways of criticising the rifle became quite a game for a time.
Early in July, His Majesty the King inspected the unit. He lunched with the commanding officer and company commanders and later, while walking about the unit, watched the men at their normal training. A few minutes after he had left, an enemy raider dropped bombs in Aldershot nearby and caused casualties. His Majesty in a message to Colonel Andrew congratulated all ranks on their showing.
On 6 July, an issue of battledress in place of the old “giggle-suit” was begun and on 14 July the battalion shifted camp about half a mile to an area adjacent to Keogh Barracks. The training was livening up. An exercise lasting 5 days began with a move around Guildford in MT. Later, there was digging of positions near Ashdown Forest, a move to Cuckmerehaven, return to area Ashdown Forest and a march of 15 miles to finish.
After a church Parade on 28 July the companies moved to St Leonards Wood and from there to Ravenswood. A night in the open without greatcoats or blankets was spent at Nutley and it was followed by an attack at 0500 hours along the Camp Hill Ridge. “Fighting spirit” for the attack was induced was an issue of coffee laced with rum at 0400 hours and many of the soldiers made the attack in a mood of thoughtful wonderment about the rum and were it had got to in the coffee. The following day, as an end to the exercise, the battalion repeated the first half of the attack as a drill movement and then filled in the slit trenches dug by the enemy. It seemed a highly unreasonable foe.
Early in August, as a culminating act to the passive and vocal complaints about the food, A company held a sit-down strike. The company was not unanimous for about a dozen decided to parade, and in any case the retribution was swift. Col Andrew sat at table on the parade ground and the company was paraded before him. He heard a few men plead their grievance and then brusquely announced that the argument was all to pot. His sentence on the company was 14 days confined to barracks, remission being granted after 3 days. This was the last of the incidents. They had not been pleasant, but was afterwards of some satisfaction that in the worst of the battles fought by the battalion no word was ever raised about lack of food.
The elimination of the distasteful, unwilling spirit in the battalion had been steadily attacked, and the record of the unit in the Brigade 100 mile route march which was now performed gave every member a feeling of the pride which best conquered unwillingness. The start was discouraging, for every company was late upon parade, the excuse of a raid in nearly areas during the night being reasonable. In any case, the brigade start point was reached at the appointed time and the battalion marched from there to Chiddingfold, 16 miles due south, in good time. At the end of the march, the unit was transported to Pheasant Copse and it marched ten miles from there on the second day to West Grimstead Park, a beautiful estate in which herds of deer roamed and where lived Papyrus, winner of the 1924 Derby and the loser, in the famous match race against Zev, the American champion. Pte C Merrylees gained a sudden fame by the learned manner in which he demonstrated the horse’s point in short lecturettes and a company remembered the Park with affection because of the success of an expedition for the cookhouse. The side of bacon was seen in the cutting-up stage by the company commander, who had sworn death against marauders, “That looks good bacon,” he said. He turned to Pte A Bell, one of the cooks. “Is it local stuff, Bell?” he asked. Bell did not even smile. “Yes, sir,” he said. “It came from this very neighbourhood.”
The weather was hot when the battalion marched another 15 miles the next day, and in their battledress, tin hat and respirator at the alert the troops marched in some discomfort. At the end of the march, the battalion was on familiar ground, between Wych Cross and Forest Row, in the area of Ashdown Forest. On the next day, the battalion was the last of the brigade units to start and it did not cross the start line until 1040 hours, but well before the end of the 12 ½ miles it was on the heels of the unit in front after a hard, sustained pace on the march. The battalion then enbussed and the night was spent at Partridge Green, only a few miles from West Grinstead Park.
The 19 miles of the march to Whiteways Lodge, at the northern gate of Arundel Park, the seat of the Duke of Norfolk, was the longest in the week. The last mile and a half was a stiff climb, to get the better of which Lieutenant G Laurence allowed his platoon to linger until there was a substantial gap between it and the platoon in front. He then took the hill at a cracking pace, the only pace, he maintained, for climbing. There was “grousing” of course, but it had the immemorial quality, and though most feet were sore and some were bleeding, every man had an ambition to be marching at the end. The fruit of the ducal orchard and the beer at the local were both of such excellence that they contributed materially to a feeling of comfort, if not of ease.
It had been rumoured that the last section into barracks would be taken in MT, but this was just another Army tale and the battalion marched 10 ½ miles to Pheasant Copse and three more long and weary miles to the embossing point for the ride back to camp.
D Coy won the marching competition held within the unit. Not a man of the company gave up. The battalion had the finest record within the brigade. Not one man failed to finish on the final day’s march and the proportion of men who marched the whole day was higher in the battalion than in the other units. The unit, in fact, had become the “Flying 22nd”, an alternative title being “Andrew’s Angels.”
The battalion was much helped by its pipes and drums. These played in front of each coy in turn from day to day and with the magic that seemed to belong peculiarly to the pipes they lifted tired feet over arduous stretches.
The march was not a true hundred miler, nor was it as severe as some performed in later days by the unit. But it had its points. The records of officers and men showed that they wished to do well by the unit. Long marches soon discovered weaknesses and strengths. The strengths were of men like LT. I. Hart, who poured the blood from his boot and put it on again to carry on, and the weaknesses were primarily of those who were constitutionally incapable of marching. The factor of possible air raids on the column was a consideration but it had no noticeable bearing.
Of the news that awaited the troops on their return, the (a href="../../war-diary/1940-diary/400802.jpg">war diary commented that “it took the sting out of the blisters, even if it did not cure them.” In addition, there was week-end leave, London leave, late leave, special dance leave and ordinary leave.
This, indeed, sounded like Thos. Cook on tour. But while a proportion of the battalion gallivanted in tall, peaked Kiwi hats all over the United Kingdom, the other and larger was still hard at work. This was the period of continuous air raid warnings. On 12 and 13 August, some of the first severe fights in the Battle of Britain were staged above Aldershot and over the Channel. At 0115 hrs on 16 August a raider bombed Mytchett and in the afternoon of the same day seven enemy planes, thought at first to be an RAF formation, dropped bombs about two miles rom the camp and machine-gunned the streets of North Camp. Captain Monk, the adjutant, was taking a shower when the planes appeared. He sped naked for a slit trench. Moments later, Pte Lawless ended a smart sprint with a flying dive into the same trench.
Soon there were stories in the unit of leave. Some were late and had to be told, somewhat haltingly, to the highly unsatisfactory audience furnished by the commanding officer. All, whether late or early, had the thread of wonderful experience. These were the days of dear old ladies who would cry as they said “Thank you, New Zealand,” to officer or man. These were the days of the English nation which could not do enough for New Zealanders on service in England. These were, in fact, the days.
Brigadier Hargest inspected the unit and the camp area on 21 August and commented favourably on the state of both. The unit the next day watched a demonstration by the tank hunting platoon formed under Lieut. Laurence. While antics with tank traps and anti tank bombs were taking place a plane passed overhead. All planes now were enemy until they proved themselves otherwise and the place so recently populous was soon bare.
Diving for cover had become a serious occupation and Borax was not least in the unit in skill. It was possible to tell where he was. Loud and lurid language told, plainly enough, that Borax was happily at work, digging for rats or snuffing about the head of a soldier. Nothing seemed to shake Borax’s belief that even the shoddiest slit trench was a place of romance.
To complete the month, there were manoeuvres in the area of West Grimstead Park and an inspection by he Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke. Sir Alan, in a later message, praised the fitness, physique and bearing of the battalion and expressed his thanks that New Zealanders, whose felt hat of the first war was so well remembered in England, were under his command.
The inspection marked the end of the training period in England. Henceforth the battalion was to be actively associated with the defence of the south coast. It had had troubles in settling down at Aldershot, but it had become fit, keen and soldierly. It awaited the invasion which seemed so certain to accompany the expanding air war with a certain amount of confidence in its ability to play a useful part.