St Barbara might help, Les Cleveland

The Gunners: A History of New Zealand Artillery
Alan Henderson, David Green and Peter Cooke
Penguin Books, $65.00,
ISBN 9780790011417

Specialists and artillery buffs will find much in this 528-page detailed treatment of weaponry, military organisation, administrative entanglements, the problems of the New Zealand defence system and the efforts of the field artillery to carry out its tasks. About half the text deals with external military engagements, and the authors estimate that more than 20,000 gunners have served overseas and as many more have been volunteers, territorials, or conscripts within New Zealand. Artillery was of great importance in WWI, and the authors describe its use at Gallipoli, in Egypt and on the Western Front where many of the techniques of operational practice were established, especially in the support of infantry with the box barrage, the creeping barrage and the “crash barrage”. The latter was a burst of fire by all guns on a specific target. It was to evolve into the formidable “stonk” by the divisional artillery of WWII.

The work briefly describes recent policy developments that have radically changed the role of the New Zealand military, not necessarily for the better. Successive governments have reduced the armed forces to the point where they are now virtually a lightly armed police force, operating globally in other people’s troubled backyards. One cannot help wondering whether or not this change of role means that New Zealand is now committed to a de facto policy of unarmed neutrality in the event of any future shooting war. In which case, are we to assume that there is now no need at all for defence and the considerable expense it involves?

The authors of The Gunners have avoided troublesome concerns about the current politics of defence with a recognition that, though there has been a “deprioritising” of its role and a “loss of capability”, nevertheless the Royal New Zealand Artillery Regiment (RNZA) has “never lowered its standards”. Accuracy and timing may well be matters of life and death for infantry following a rolling barrage or under attack by a superior force, but such contingencies are irrelevant in the light of policy-making assumptions that we live in a peaceful region. However, the RNZA can take a longer view because it can invoke legends and traditions that reach back to antiquity. The Gunners deals rather lightly with the traditional values of the regiment. It quotes a few stiff words from the Master Gunner at St James Park, but in terms of organisational culture there is more to being in the regiment than operational experience and heritage.

According to The Gunners’ Handbook, issued to recruits, the regiment belongs to a family headed by the Queen, a captain-general, the master gunner at St James Park, colonels commandant and a director RNZA. Old gunners sometimes say: “Once a gunner, always a gunner”, meaning that:

though a Gunner may retire from the regiment or even transfer to some other arm of the service, he will always remain a Gunner at heart. He will continue to act up to the traditions of the Regiment which nurtured him, and keep alive the old spirit of comradeship we value so much.


The rank of gunner goes back some 600 years, and the badge of the RNZA bears the motto Ubique (everywhere). St Barbara was de-canonised in 1970, but she continues to confer proud legitimacy on gunners everywhere as the patron saint of fire, cannons, firearms and those who work with explosives. The Handbook explains that she can also be invoked against the thunder and lightning of Heaven because “just previous to her death Barbara prayed that whosoever should invoke her aid might receive protection against implements of war and lightning.” If the New Zealand cabinet should turn out to be wrong about the region’s peacefulness, perhaps in an emergency it could belatedly apply to St Barbara for help!

Gunners’ Day, celebrated each May 26, is a ritual observance of the anniversary of the formation of the Royal Artillery by Royal Warrant in 1716. Sergeant Mike Subritzky, a 161 Battery veteran, explained in an interview that Gunners’ Day usually began with the officers and senior NCOs serving rum and coffee to the junior ranks. At reveille, blanks were fired from various points around the camp “just to let everyone know it was Gunners’ Day”. The camp amplifier system played the 1812 Overture, then the occasion was informal until 1100 hours when there was a parade to remember the fallen of past wars. Inter-battery games of rugby or soccer would be held, followed by a battery barbecue, and sometimes in the evening there might be a ball.

The battery rank-and-file had a repertoire of songs and cadence chants that expressed their essential esprit de corps. For example, “The Gunners’ Battle Hymn” proudly declares that “I wouldn’t want to be in Tanks or Infantry,/I’d rather be a Gunner like I am;/I wouldn’t change my jungle greens for Ranger Squadron cammed-up jeans/ and I don’t want to jump out of no plane … .” Similarly an adaptation of the WWII “Dugout in Matruh” declares that “I’m just a greasy gunner in 161 I am,/and I’ve a little dugout in Vietnam … .”

The book is generously illustrated with a mixture of formal portraits of influential people and important episodes in the regiment’s history, along with a few black and white shots of gunners in bivouacs or in action in the field. Some of these are from archives, others from contributors. Unfortunately some of the black-and-white prints are so badly reproduced that the book would be better without them. A colour section has been machined by the Chinese printers in a gaudy mixture of bright yellow and sickly green that fatally afflicts the formal portraits of the top brass who augment the text. The inventors of printing may have become over-lavish with their ink. Perhaps more of the rank-and-file (better machined) and less of the chain-of-command heavies might have resulted in a more interesting book for a wider audience. The bad printing is a concern if it is a preview of what we can expect as a result of the free trade deal with China.

The RNZA does not seem to have any famous heroines of the calibre of the American Molly Pitcher who, in 1778 at the battle of Monmouth during the Revolutionary War, took over her wounded husband’s post and continued valiantly to serve his field gun, thereby symbolically anticipating the advent of militant feminism by some 200 years. The New Zealand army has traditionally been a gendered stronghold, though during WWII women served overseas as well as in the defence of the homeland: but it was not until 2000 that an embargo on their service in combat units was finally lifted. However, The Gunners cites a 2005 report to the effect that gender integration “remains a distant prospect”. This is an interesting topic that could have been pursued further, especially as the army has a serious recruitment problem and needs all the talent it can attract. The book has a few photographs of women gunners, but one is badly reproduced and another (a colour shot of a woman soldier in Afghanistan with a rocket-propelled grenade) seems unimpressive enough to deter all but the most dedicated and militant of potential recruits.


Les Cleveland is a former WWII infantry soldier.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, War
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