TWENTY-SECOND TO NONE
The History of the 22nd (N.Z.) Battalion
By Terence Power Mclean
1 September – 3 November 1940
It seemed appropriate that so distinguished a statesman as thje Right Hon Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, should make an inspection of the battalion on 3 Sep, the first anniversary of the declaration of war. The greatness of Mr Churchill’s oratory, the virulence of his hatred of the Nazis, the evidence of his determination that Britain should not be defeated, these and his many other qualities had captured the imagination of the members of the unit and they were enthralled and encouraged by the words he spoke on the parade. The soldiers in their few months in England had seen countless examples of the courage which seemed so much a birthright of the British and Mr Churchill, cigar, grim face and invincible V sign, seemed to symbolise that quality.
The wish to do well and to please him on parade was general. Mr Churchill responded as if he had stepped out of a portrait of himself. The set jaw, the bulbous forehead, the slow movement of his speech, parts of an imagined pattern, were found to be accurate. Of itself, the anniversary was a cause for sadness rather than for joy, but with Mr Churchill about there was not much melancholy.
The great man’s visit heralded changes. On 4 Sep, with the commanding officer absent on leave, preparations for a move toward the coast were ordered and the move timed to begin as 2300 hours on 5 Sep. At 1430 hours of that day, the time was advanced to 1530 hours.
The advancement came without warning and the to-do was tremendous. It was, in fact, a certifiable examples of what later came to be called “scone-doing.” “Scone-doing” was the “mucking-about” of all armies since Caesar’s at an accelerated pitch within a short period. When some responsible person began to “do his scone”, the tendency spread with the certainty of waves from a tone flung into a pond, and men rushed madly about, said harsh words to unprovocative underlings and magically made a tangle of everything they touched.
There were, of course, sound reasons for the activities which transformed Mytchett on 5 Sep from a respectable place to a mad-house. Lately there had been many reports of German assault barges massed in French ports. The air was had continued to mount. The information at battalion level was not comprehensive and what there was suggested that, in the soldiers’ phrase, “she was on”, that the invasion was under way.
The battalion moved by MT to Warren Wood, six miles from Maidstone on the trunk road from London to Dover and Folkestone. There was furious activity in digging in for the whole of the first night. At dawn, the battalion stood to. At twilight, it stood to. Night and morning, in those few hectic hours of half-darkness, the coys took up their allotted positions and night and morning nothing more remarkable than the eternal passage of airplanes disturbed the tranquillity of he countryside. Slowly the tension relaxed. By the time the march was made to Hollingbourne on 11 Sep, it seemed clear that “she” was not on, at least not this time.
For a little time, as strangers will, the battalion and Hollingbourne were reserved in their relations with each other. For a longer time, they were the closest of friends. The unit was absorbed into the village and quite naturally the men seemed to fall into and become part of the ordinary life of the population.
The treasure of the village was its church, built in the 12th century, and battalion HQ was quartered about it, at the Vicarage, in which the officers were guests of the vicar, the Rev Newman, and at the Manor House, where Katherine Howard had lived and Queen Elizabeth had stayed. Within a short time, an officer quartered at the Manor House was heard to murmur “Katherine” in his sleep, and the tale of it was soon accepted as proof that the battalion was becoming more English than the English.
For a time, A and B Coys were quartered together at Greenway Court, about a mile from the village, and with more than 200 men closely confined the situation was not good. Later, B Coy moved to three houses in Broad Street, next to C Coy, which had quarters in three houses of Brushing Farm. One of B Coy’s houses was named Charity and the wits soon made the other two Faith and Hope.
A C Coy report of the time stated that a constant distraction is its area was the firing of the AA batteries on Detling aerodrome. The Coy, however became determined clients of a local on nearly Mucking Hill - the pub was locally called the ‘Ook and ‘Atchet – and here in the evenings there was escape from the rattle of ack ack fire and the droning of airplane engines.
D Coy had quarters in Eyhorne Street, in the village, and its members made so much of a mark on village life that the street soon was called, in both jest and earnest, Taranaki Street.
Maidstone was a popular place for leave and buses were hired as needed for the trip into town. At week-ends, bus trips could be made for half a crown a head to such places as Canterbury, Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Chatham and Gravesend. In off-duty hours, the cultivation of friendship with th people of Hollingbourne was the good fortune of many.
On 14 Sep, after a recce by coy comds, “I” and other selected personnel took part in a skeleton attack in the Dover-Folkestone area, and on the following day, a Saturday, after the battalion first eleven had defeated Hollingbourne in a match, a full-scale, mock attack was made in the darkness to NNW of Dover. The exercise ended at 2330 hours.
A good deal of sport was now being played and competition for places in the battalion Rugby team was extremely keen. It was pursued in spite of the constant air traffic which by now, with variations, had become a normal part of life. On 27 Sep there was a variation with a vengeance when an ME 109 of the notorious Yellow Nose squadron crash-landed in C Coy’s area. The injured pilot was captured and became the first of the battalion’s prisoners of war.
On 1 October, an attack was made as a manoeuvre on the ridges running west to Dover. The basis of the exercise was infantry in support of tanks, the tanks being represented by men carrying flags. This needed imagination, but there was nothing fantastic about the route march which followed the exercise. It was a stout 21-miler, performed in 9 ½ hours. The exercise was subsequently discussed by Brigadier Hargest, Brigadier Miles and the commanders of the three infantry battalions, Cols Macky (21 Battalion), Andrew and Leckie (23). Brigadier Miles made particular mention of fifty column activities and cited the occurrence on 30 Sep to show how easily such activities could be pursued. A soldier dressed in Canadian overcoat and with the story that he was of the First London Division was most kindly treated by officers and rank and file during an exercise of the Seventh Imperial Brigade. He was given valuable information about both the exercise and the personnel of other units and though from time to time he conscientiously dropped messages in German from his pockets these were politely returned to him. He was not arrested until a young corporal became suspicious and even then, in the search of him, two Mills bombs in his pockets were overlooked.
There was a strange sequel to this sad tale of espionage. When the prisoner returned to New Zealand Brigade Headquarters, some members of the staff became persuaded that the spy was not entitled to inverted commas. Symptoms of “scone-doing” were beginning to appear when Pte B. Dowthwaite, who had been in the 22nd, strolled along. “Hello Tom”, he said. “What the hell are you doing here?” Thereupon he and Pte A M de Lisle, of A Coy, engaged in friendly talk about spying and other matters and the basis of the jape was revealed. But the ease with which de Lisle had obtained information was not a joke.
Lt Hawthorn, newly appointed as Intelligence Officer, contributed to another of the battalion’s stories with his reaction to the lugubrious account of Cpl J Hagen of why the respirator presented for inspection was of civilian and not military pattern. This account included London, leave and a large measure of human deceitfulness. Lt Hawthorn could stand no more. “Corporal!” he said heavily. “My interest is NOT in the morality of man – merely in the efficiency of respirators.”
The merits of village life had not destroyed Col Andrew’s faith in route marching and the lanes and byways about Hollingbourne were regularly tramped by platoons and companies. No one was more popular on these marches and in battle exercises than Mrs G Chapman, a daughter of Mr T H Lowry, of Hawke’s Bay. Mr Lowry had donated £10,000 to troop comforts and Mrs Chapman had obtained permission to expend part of the fund in the operation of a mobile canteen. She had travelled from New Zealand in the Empress of Britain and on arrival in England had secured permission from General Freyberg to operate the canteen among the units of the Brigade.
Her first reception in the battalion had not been kind, for Lt D H Nancarrow, whom she encountered when about to dispense cups of tea, was brusquely dissatisfied with her credentials to be in a military zone. Mrs Chapman accordingly drove meekly away. Her later reception in the unit was more enthusiastic and she became enormously popular. Daylight driving along South of England roads was not without risk, but Mrs Chapman was both cheerful and determined and the cups of tea and biscuits she produced at timely moments substantially eased the burden of many a march. The battalion considered it an honour that Mrs Chapman, then and later, adopted it.
Within a few days of the fifth columnist incident, the New Zealand brigade, under command of 1 London Division, took part in manoeuvres and attended a demonstration by the 8th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, of tank and infantry tactics, the tanks again consisting of men with flags. On 7 Oct, a warning order to move to Camberley to Winter quarters was circulated and on the following day an advance party left for the new area. In he excitement of the intended move, an officer still had time to be outraged at the sight of Pte J Selby drinking in a local. “I thought I stopped your leave for two days, Selby?” he said. “That’s right, sir.” “Then what are you doing here?” “You did not say which days, sir.”
The second death within the battalion occurred on 11 Oct. Pte Strachan died in the Main Dressing Station at Maidstone of a cerebral haemorrhage. He was buried with honours at Maidstone.
On that day, Brigadier Hargest in an address to Coy commanders, stressed the “still present need for less confusion in the movement of our motorised troops and the vital necessity of preserving the secrecy as to future moves.” Two days later, on a Sunday, leave was stopped on reports from Brigade of increasing enemy activity. Invasion seemed possible and the move to Camberley was indefinitely postponed. On 19 and 20 Oct, officers were flown over the defensive area. There had been a great amount of work by the battalion in the area about Hollingbourne. Lt McAra in his long and informative letters home told of the hours of extra work his mortar platoon had put into training and of the use of exercises in co-operation worth the companies in the fields and woods. Col Andrew’s demands for perfection had been consistent. In spite of the sports activities, the sight-seeing bus trips, the local leaves, the dances for officers and men, the temporary means of escape from a too-solid military atmosphere, the scare of the stands-to at Warren Wood had not been forgotten. All activities had been based on the proposition that the German was likely to attempt a landing and the exercises where tanks had been represented by flags had stressed with gruesome clarity the England was not yet prepared. Brig Hargest’s sober warning re-emphasised the need of constant efforts and vigilance.
At 0407 hours on 25 Oct an order to stand to was received. It was a cold morning with heavy rain. The order was to pack, to arrange for rations and transport, and to be ready to fight. There were no explanations. As the rain streamed down and troops stirred uneasily in the cold, the moments of waiting became tense. All at first was confusion, but the plain statement, “Be ready to fight”, was a spur to effort. Within an hour, the battalion was ready. Horrible speculations about ordeal by battle were indulged. The rain fell, the dawn came unsteadily, and men waited.
The countermanding order that the signal had been given purely to test reactions and not because of an imminent attack aroused, as might have been expected, the bitterest of criticism, for soldiers, and particularly New Zealand soldiers, disliked being made to feel foolish. The popularity of Brigade HQ diminished and there were hard words about “brass hats.” But Col Andrew seized the chance to demonstrate inefficiencies and to guard against their recurrence, and however great the growling, not many soldiers in honesty could say that the occasion had been a waste of time.
The order had been a test of discipline. Another applied soon afterward. On 27 Oct, a German raider was put on fire by AA guns on Detling aerodrome. In his desperate attempt to get away, the pilot jettisoned his bomb load and the stick of bombs fell across A coy’s area. Pte ISG Holms was killed outright and three other soldiers were injured. They were the first casualties from enemy action.
“The Commanding Officer, with you, regrets the loss of a good soldier and comrade,” the unit RO stated. “He wishes to record his appreciation of the steadiness and excellent behaviour of the members of A Coy when, for the first time in the war, they were under fire from the enemy. Reports have been received from outside observers as well as from coy officers and all mention the speed and calmness with which the necessary work was carried out. Bombing from the air at night is a solid test of discipline. The CO is glad to record that the men of A Coy have stood up to this test.”