TWENTY-SECOND TO NONE
The History of the 22nd (N.Z.) Battalion
By Terence Power Mclean
4 Nov 1940 – 4 Jan 1941
Last Days in England
The move of the battalion from Hollingbourne to Camberley, completed at 1600 hours on 4 November, had several consequences. One was the inspiration of Lieut FG Oldham in penning the pregnant lines:
“Some girls had nothing on their mind,
A meagre few; the others pined
To see us leave in such a hurry
And only go as far as Surrey.”
Another was a momentous “blitz” from Brigade HQ on the state of vacated unit reserve areas at Mytchett. Thousands of pounds worth of equipment was left to waste. “I was appalled,” Brig Hargest’s order stated, “at the condition the camps were left in – with the notable exception of the 22nd Battalion.” The unit did not entirely escape censure, for some slit trenches had not been filled in, but it had not been careless with equipment and the Brigadier’s bullets for the most part were buried in other carcasses.
Though Hitler’s intentions could only be guessed, it seemed clear that the main danger of invasion in 1940 had passed. The troops had felt the sharp English frosts before leaving Hollingbourne and two great traditional bars to sea-borne landings, rough weather and General Mud, had set in. The possibilities of invasion nevertheless were not entirely discounted and the battle role assigned the battalion in the Camberley area was anti-parachutist in the NW of the Aldershot Command area. There were other tasks, too, and the constant5 route marching performed by the battalion had the objects of making the ground familiar and of combating the cold in a serviceable way.
There was a mutual sadness ion the departure from Hollingbourne and some of it was expressed by Mr Newman in the special service he preached before the unit left the village. The warmth of the battalion’s feeling did not die. At the end of 1943, the battalion flag was sent from the Sangro River in Italy to Hollingbourne and it was flown from the church staff every day until the end of the war. Prayers for the safety and health of the battalion were said at every service in the church.
The billets in Camberley were comfortable and Battalion HQ at Watchetts was in a mansion. If the troops did not become quite so much a part of the life of the town as in Hollingbourne, they at least experienced the peculiarity of existence in a town which had no been much bombed and where the everyday affairs of life in consequence still had a significant place. T might, the black-out was complete and the town was so silent that the noise of soldiers’ boots on the hard pavements had a ghostly sound. Unit life even attained such refinement that a battalion gaol or “glasshouse” was established. It was decorated for a short time by Pte Broughton, who was never known as anything other than “Hicko” and who became the most famous of the unit’s comic characters. The element of misfortune which caused Broughton, arrived happily home, to put himself into an empty water tank was substantial. His discovery of his entombment undoubtedly precipitated an attack of claustrophobia. The noise he made eclipsed, it was said, a combination of thunderstorms, bombings and the crash of falling cities. His rescue was hazardous for Broughton, though partly persuaded of burial, was alive and kicking. Ungentle hands at last subdued him and wafted him to sleep.
Borax had never been much out of the news. He had been made a member of the Tailwaggers’ Club of Great Britain and a gentleman connected with the New York World’s Fair took the trouble to enquire about him. The girls of the Hutt Valley High School in Wellington made a blanket cover for him for the English winter and Borax acknowledged its receipt with the cable, “Many thanks. Yelps. Borax.” A Camberley veterinary surgeon pronounced him fit, though worn in the tooth from too much chewing of stone, and Pte Lindsay was gratifyingly discussing the circumstances with a friend within the observation of his Coy Commander. Later, there was a good deal of explaining done about reasons for being in town without a leave pass.
Borax had come to mean a good deal to the battalion. His fate was strange and uncertain. When it became known that the unit was to go to Egypt, it was decided to leave him in England because of the unsuitability of the desert climate. On 26 Dec, he was posted to a rear party which comprised men who had been graded out of the battalion for medical reasons. Borax left the party not long afterward for the purpose, it was surmised, of finding his way back to the unit. He was not seen again.
A strange mishap was fortunately not attended by casualties during a live shoot of Lt McAra’s mortar platoon on 13 November. The first bomb fired exploded about two feet above the muzzle of the gun, deafening the crew and causing shock among its members. The wide swathe of the shrapnel saved woundings. From constant training, including self-imposed extra periods, the platoon had developed admirable efficiency and within a few minutes of the explosion the crew was shooting steadily at the target.
Route marching had been practised on so many occasions that a fast pace could be set for long stretches. On 19 Nov, the unit was taken 14 miles from barracks by MT. It marched the distance back to barracks in 220 minutes marching time, an average speed of a fraction over 3 ¾ miles an hour. Not one man fell out and the medical officer, Lt Manchester, who appeared to enjoy his nickname of “Butch”, reported that the battalion could have continued at the pace for some time without loss of efficiency. Three weeks later, on 10 December, the battalion marched 24 miles in a square one day. Col Andrew’s voice for once lost its metallic rasp as he watched the finish of the march. “Come on, boys,” he pleaded, “Hold your heads up. Don’t show them you’re beat.” “Beat be jiggered,” an unknown warrior of Battalion HQ called. “Order the double.” B Coy, too, had a humourist. As the coy marched past the colonel, he said gruffly, with passable imitative skill: “Not good enough. Do it again.”
Sport had been a considerable interest throughout the stay in England and it was played in many forms at Camberley. In swimming at Mytchett and Hollingbourne, Lt GG Beaven and Cpl M Ashman, both of whom had competed in championships in New Zealand before the war, were particularly successful, and Pte TI Hill became the star cross-country runner of the brigade. The Rugby team suffered only one defeat, to the Fifth Field Regiment by 11 points to three, and its victories included a defeat by seven points to nil of the First London Divisional side. The team drew in a hard-fought match with the Sandhurst Royal Military College XV, Cpl R Ayres, who had represented the brigade on several occasions, being injured so severely in the match that he had to be returned to New Zealand. Sgt Fowler and his brother Pte T Fowler, Pte J Simpson, Cpl Ashman and L/Cpl Donoghue were also chosen from time to time to represent the brigade.
Cricket was played a good deal at Hollingbourne, often in the ideal form of true village cricket. Soccer activities were directed by Captain TC Campbell, second in command of B Coy, who was known as “Pongo Tom” because of his birth in England and who was a dashing player in both Soccer and Rugby. Pte Hargreaves worked indefatigably for the cause of boxing. He fought successfully against many opponents and gladly trained all-comers. In the divisional championships held at Camberley, Cpl Kettle won the welterweight title and Pte CW Gower the light-weight for the battalion.
The programme of constant training had not been interrupted by the move to Camberley. The frantic fears of August and September period had rested, but the nightly air bombardments of London and other cities were still carried out in strength and the war quite obviously was still going badly. There had been rumours that the stay of the battalion in the country would not be long, but there had been no cause for the troops to anticipate any sudden change until a battalion parade of 26 Nov. Col Andrew, in one of his famously short and sharp speeches, put a heavy rasp on the statement that the first duty of the unit was to “kill Huns.” No one doubted the truth of the statement but all were interested in its implication of a move to another place.
Orders soon followed. Transport of all kinds was to be taken to Liverpool. There was a period of great activity while the office work connected with a large move overseas was arranged. Then, for a time, there was normality – route march to Crowthorn and Finchhamstead during which a salute was given to Lord Cranborne, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the divisional boxing championships, seven days leave for five percent of the unit, and so on. From early December, there was a building up of interest in the projected move and the sombre task of saying farewell to English sweethearts and friends was faced.
On 13 Dec, an issue was made of the “New Zealand” shoulder flashes which were afterwards so greatly prized by the division. They were of value to those who had the good fortune to take their leave at the last moment in various parts of the kingdom. The titles were good for a drink in any local and they had the more permanent worth of ensuring a welcome for any New Zealand soldier in any ton or place he visited. Perhaps one small instance tells more plainly than any the kind of hospitality provided by Britishers for the members of the unit. A Scottish family deliberately arranged its Christmas dinner and attendant celebrations in the middle of December so that the member of the battalion whom it had befriended might experience the traditional feast in surroundings removed from war.
Lts D Anderson and B Clapham were chosen by the commanding officer as the officers to lead the advance party of 69 men which left the unit on 15 Dec and which sailed for Egypt in the Elizabethville on 18 Dec. With the departure of its transport, the battalion had much cause to be grateful to the commanding officer and members of the Hereford Regiment, which supplied transport as required with great courtesy.
The battalion’s first Christmas party, with officers, as tradition required, serving the men at table, was small, for only about 100 men were in camp. A host of official greetings from important personages was received, but the one which the battalion found most delightful was from, of all people and places, the mayor and citizens of Waipukurau.
All leave ended at 0100 hours on 1 January 1941. The gear and baggage which had been packed and marked on 30 Dec amounted to between 50 and 60 tons. The night was freezing hard. There had been skating, with Pickwickian casualties, on the ponds about Camberley. The old year, so full of incident, had been booted out with ceremony. No one quite knew what the new year portended, but the unit had been long enough in a military atmosphere not to worry about he future. The task now was to suffer the cold of a long journey into Wales, with icicles a foot long hanging from eaves, and to board the transport, the Duchess of Bedford, in good order and condition for the journey to Egypt.
Yet there were many regrets in departure. There had been many qualities in the stay: The romance of an old, old land; the experience of air bombardment; the kindliness of the British; the welding together ion hard work of the unit and the building up of its pride; and the discovery that the courage of he British was good cause for believing that peace would not be made at the mercy of a German tyrant. It seemed entirely possible that the battalion’s strength in battle might prove greater than anticipated because of the experience of its members of the implacable British determination not to give in.