Over there, Tony Simpson

New Zealand and the Second World War 
Ian McGibbon
Hodder Moa Beckett, $40.00,
ISBN 1869589548

A Fair Sort of Battering: New Zealanders remember the Italian Campaign
ed Megan Hutching
HarperCollins, $40.00,
ISBN 1869505050

The Desert Railway 
Brendan Judd
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0143019155

Brothers at War: A Kiwi Family’s Story 
Jim Rolfe
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0143010074

Spreading Their Wings: New Zealand WAAFS in Wartime
Bee Dawson
Penguin, $35.00,
ISBN 0143019120

The Anzac Experience 
Christopher Pugsley
Reed, $50.00,
ISBN 0790009412

My father, an older family man and in a reserved occupation, never went to WWII, but there was no ignoring the fact when I was growing up that I lived in a society which had. Many of my relations had done so, including Colonel Dittmer, the first commander of 28 Battalion. Family gatherings for whatever purpose would quickly turn to wartime reminiscence, to which I was often a silent but enthralled witness. The distinctive badge of the RSA must have been one of the first New Zealand public symbols of which I became aware.

All of us were schooled in a mythology of the New Zealand soldier, a man (women were almost never mentioned) encapsulated in a much quoted passage from John Mulgan’s Report on Experience of the moment he encountered the New Zealand Division in the North African desert:

They carried New Zealand with them across the sands of Libya . . . Moving in a body, detached from their homeland, they remained quiet and aloof and self contained . . . It seemed to me, meeting them again, friends grown a little older, more self assured, hearing again those soft inflected voices, the repetitions of slow drawling slang, that to have perhaps produced these men for this one time would be New Zealand’s destiny.

 

But as we grew to adulthood this adulation soured for us. We were the generation of the Vietnam War during which the public statements of many returned servicemen became increasingly rabid in their support. I still have a clear visual recollection of the then mayor of Christchurch contemptuously kicking from the local cenotaph a wreath dedicated to the dead of all sides in Vietnam. I recall with equal clarity the sense of shock I felt at the lack of tolerance and respect implied by this gesture, although I now understand better the provocation to which he saw himself responding. The RSA seems, in retrospect, to have been continually railing about any changes heralded by the 60s. What none of us realised at the time was that we were about to go through an enormous transition of which these were the harbingers, and that this would change for ever the meanings we imputed to our historical experience and what it meant to be a New Zealander.

2

In the meantime I had gone out into the world to earn my living and there had the extraordinary experience of encountering, for the first time as an adult and close up, one of New Zealand’s best known war veterans, the writer and broadcaster Jim Henderson, with whom I shared an office for three years in what was then the NZBC. Under his gentle tutelage I came to have a much more subtle understanding of the experience of war. Henderson, an anarchist by temperament, and forthright opponent of both New Zealand’s engagement in South East Asia and the apartheid regime in South Africa, nevertheless had a fierce regard for the ordinary soldiers of the New Zealand Division, with whom he had experienced battle, capture, and the amputation of a leg. This made him unassailable in his forays against the official RSA line of the day; his delight was to collect stories and anecdotes of incidents entailing both insubordination and the triumph of the underdog in war, and publishing and broadcasting these. He was fond of saying that the RSA should be a welfare officer, not a recruiting sergeant. I recall very vividly, too, his account of how, following his return to New Zealand in 1945 he had addressed many on-the-left groups on his wartime experience and tried to explain the sense of camaraderie this entailed, and how they had looked at him askance as if he were some sort of fascist. To me all this was a revelation.

Eventually, with Henderson’s encouragement, and while living in England in the 70s, I researched and wrote a book on the battle for Crete (Operation Mercury, 1981). This both broadened and strengthened my respect for New Zealand’s citizen soldiers to the extent that when I returned to New Zealand in 1980 I began attending the dawn service on ANZAC Day. I’m not quite sure I could say why precisely but it’s a habit I retain. And as the years passed I picked up on a phenomenon which has now been widely remarked. Many other people of my generation are doing the same and they bring their own children with them. The latter, to whom the experience of war must be for the most part utterly remote, are now also approaching or in their adulthood but their attendance at these ceremonies shows no sign of abating. On the contrary.

Parallel to this has been an immense outpouring of books about New Zealand in WWII, particularly over the last decade, of which these are some of the most recent. It was particularly apparent to me over two years as a Montana New Zealand Book Awards judge, and shows no sign of abating either. The Ministry of Culture and Heritage has a number of projects devoted to it, but it extends well beyond both the official and the sort of history of record demanded by the unit and campaign histories which followed WWII itself. How to account for it?

I suppose it’s partly a function of the growing inaccessibility of first-hand accounts as the veterans become fewer with the years. But it isn’t enough to attribute it to nostalgia, as I have noted a number of commentators have done, notwithstanding the prescient remark by 30s Times correspondent George Steer that “history is the most reputable form of nostalgia” (in Nicholas Rankin’s Telegram From Guernica, 2003). Nor is it sufficient to put it down to patriotism, or even a growing sense of nationalism. These are categorisations and characterisations not explanations, and leave too many questions begged to be of much use. I think, rather, there is something both more subtle and profound going on here.

3

One of the things which immediately strikes the reader of these and other previous books of the ilk, is the emphasis they put on human experience. Although some, such as the McGibbon, try to give an overview (and do so in his case very successfully), they are mostly, and even in his case to some extent, views from below. This is a Jim-Henderson-eye-view of New Zealanders at war, although without quite his licence for irreverence. The question being asked is not; what was the war like or about? It is instead; what did it meant to be a New Zealander and at war?

The distinction between these two questions may seem tiny, but in truth the gulf that yawns between them is immense. When I published Operation Mercury, a number of my friends were conventionally appalled. Why, they demanded to know, had I written a war book? No, I said, pointing out that at that juncture New Zealand had spent about a third of the 20th century at war with someone; this was a vital part of our historical experience, and anyone who had any pretensions at all to being a social and cultural historian was duty-bound to write about it at some point. It was a book about New Zealanders at war, and the response of a new generation to the experience of it. What emerged from that was, from my point of view, interesting, and I’ll come back to that shortly. First, the books themselves.

They cover a broad gamut: the Italian campaign from the point of view of those who saw it first hand; the western desert from the viewpoint of a highly specialised but highly successful railway construction and transport unit; a general oversight history as already noted; and accounts of the personal family experience and the experience of women in the WAAF at war.

One of their paradoxes is that they are as much books about the New Zealand we have lost as they are about war in the strict sense. The New Zealand they describe is now as remote to those New Zealanders who had their first vote in 1984 as the craters on the nether side of the moon. That it is a society for whose passing we need not necessarily feel regret is dramatised for me by two anecdotes which stuck in my mind as I read.

The first is to do with the account by Brendan Judd of the desert railwaymen. There was some debate as the desert campaign wore to its successful climax for the Allies whether or not the railwaymen, who had made a very important contribution to that success, should be sent to Italy to restore and operate the Italian railways to supply the fighting troops. Eventually it was decided, after much agonising by the New Zealand government, that the absence of the many hundreds of skilled railway workers this contribution entailed had denuded the New Zealand railway infrastructure, equally crucial to the war effort, to the point where it was no longer as efficient as it should be, and where it might break down altogether. The men were, therefore, ordered home. When they returned, they joined the RSA. Mostly they were made very welcome, but there are recollected instances of some of the WWI veterans querying the validity of these men for membership. This was despite their having been under fire from marauding aircraft, in particular, and 33 of their number having been killed in action. Another who persisted in his attempts to qualify for the rehabilitation assistance which should have been available to him was “exiled” to Ohakune Junction (widely regarded as a “punishment” posting) for his trouble. Presumably someone somewhere in the bureaucracy decided that he hadn’t been a “real” soldier. We were, and I hope we do not remain, a pinch-minded lot.

I found the recounted experience of the WAAF June Gummer even more fascinating. June, very unusually for the time and place, had qualified as a pilot pre-war. She joined up shortly after the war commenced and eventually applied for a posting in Britain as a ferry pilot ie one of those who did not take part in aerial combat but who carried out the crucial task of flying aircraft to points of delivery, a highly skilled job which required familiarity with a wide range of planes. She was ultimately accepted and in the event performed with a high degree of merit. Bear in mind, however, that this was a time when skilled pilots were at an absolute premium, and that the Battle of Britain had almost been lost for lack of them. When June initiated her application she was told that she could come and try out if she paid her own fare to Britain. This, to me, is an extraordinary dramatisation of the way in which women were regarded as less than full citizens in New Zealand, a situation by no means improved by the war, notwithstanding the key roles many women played in the course to victory. Afterwards they were ignominiously bundled back to the kitchen for the sake of ensuring jobs for the “returned” men.

4

Many of the things these books say go far beyond the human experience of war itself, and it is in that regard that the sixth book under review is so important. Standing out like an apparent sore thumb among the rest is Christopher Pugsley’s account of the ANZAC experience in the South African war and WWI. But although it might seem to have no place in this company, it is actually the most relevant of the lot.

The “Mulgan” version of who and what our soldiers were is still broadly alive and well. It crops up, for example, in a piece in Megan Hutching’s book by Gordon Slatter (interestingly, a school master of mine in the late 50s). Slatter tells a story about a soldier dying of wounds who asks his officer to take his boots off because that way he’ll be lighter for the others to carry to the aid post, and says:

I reckon that story illustrates why the New Zealand Division was so good. An officer was concerned for his men, and the men were concerned for their mates. It was so formidable because of that feeling between the ranks and the concern for each other. Anybody who served in that division had the mark on them for the rest of their lives. It was a slice of New Zealand transplanted overseas, and the same men worked their way up through the battalion.

 

This passage was recorded, perhaps significantly, some years ago. Increasingly, over more recent times, as a stereotype it has not exactly been called into question, but interrogated and refined. As originally stated, it’s predicated on the assumption that New Zealanders, thanks to their healthy, pioneering outdoor way of life, and egalitarian approach to life, are natural soldiers. But some have always been a bit sceptical about this, with Henderson, interestingly, as the outrider. When I interviewed him for Operation Mercury he had a more sombre take on the New Zealand Division:

Lord Haw Haw called us poor, ignorant country lads, and looking back over more than thirty years he was right in many respects. We were a whole lot of well meaning amateur soldiers in 1940, but when I was repatriated from Italy and came back to Egypt in ’43 I saw an entirely different New Zealand Division. You looked at these blokes who’d been welded into this fighting unit and you felt almost afraid. Here was a terrible killing machine. It was entirely different from what we’d known in the up-guards-and-at-‘em days of ’41, which always landed up in a shambles.

 

Pugsley, our most thoughtful of military historians, has sought to explore these sorts of meanings. His conclusions may not be very welcome in some quarters but are well-founded nevertheless. Far from acceding to the stereotype, common to ourselves, the Australians and the Canadians, that New Zealanders are natural soldiers, and that this is a function of a rural existence and a democratic ethos of citizenship, Pugsley’s work underscores Henderson’s perception. We are not “the best soldiers in the world” any more than the Aussies or Canadians are; we have to learn our craft and many people get killed in the process. We need good leadership – which we have not always enjoyed – and above all we need the experience of battle. Then, perhaps, and other things being equal, we have other qualities that can contribute to our success.

Pugsley points out that the real triumph of New Zealanders in arms in WWI was in France, not at Gallipoli; Chunuk Bair, he has made clear elsewhere, was heroic but, ultimately, a futile sacrifice.

It is a sign of our increasing maturity as a nation that we want not only to share the experience of past generations of men and women at war, but to understand the nature of that experience and its meanings with a clear eye and steady gaze in three dimensions.

 

Tony Simpson is a Wellington-based social and cultural historian and senior public servant. He was a 2003/2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards judge.  

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and War
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