My father's war

by Bill Ralston / 05 September, 2009
Bill Ralston sifts through the myths and truths of his father's wartime experiences in Africa and Europe and realises how lucky "Rooker" Ralston was to come home.

These days, for all but the oldest of us, the closest we personally came to World War II was watching the ever-depleting ranks of beribboned elderly men, with their freshly polished medals, marching to the local war memorial each Anzac Day. For most of us, the images of those distant events 70 years ago have come from photographs, newsclips and grainy images on the ­History Channel.

Yet for my father, the war remained recent and vivid for the rest of his life, especially when he wove an erratic course home after one of his army reunions. The official war history of his beloved artillery talked poignantly of men like Dad who got together after the war.

"When they do, their memories revive the drama of the parachute landings in Crete, or Bofors fire on diving Stukas at Alam Nayil, or the tense vividness of an anti-tank action - the all-consuming concentration of effort when every shot must count. Their memories paint cameos of men in various postures serving the guns by night as the streaking flashes exposed them. They reawaken the lightning and thunder of the Alamein barrage, the echoing and re-echoing of guns going off and shells exploding in the shadow of Olympus or Monte Cassino, and the deafening, earth-shaking hours of the great bombardments on the way to the Po. Peacetime seems quieter to gunners than it does to other people."

My father, Jack, never talked much of the ugly side of the war that consumed five years of his life, in some of the toughest theatres where the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force fought. We heard only the jokes and tall tales of the good times. The last line of that quote could have explained his deaf response to questions about what it was really like. Although occasionally, after those 6th Field Regiment reunions for instance, he might bellow the order "Take posts!" and call in an imaginary barrage on the fowl house at the bottom of the garden where Rommel the rooster and the rest of the chooks had dug in for the night.

His language, peppered with words like "buckshee" and "bint", also gave clues of an exotic military past in places like Egypt. For him, it was a long war, through Greece, from one side of North Africa to the other (and back again), and a long slog up through Italy that took in the gruelling sights at places like Cassino. Even at the very end of the war in May 1945 - when he and the rest of New Zealand Division reached Trieste, the German forces in the area surrendered and the rest of Europe celebrated VE Day - the New Zealanders stood by their guns for several weeks more in a tense face-off with Tito's partisans who were intent on seizing the city for Yugoslavia.

A product of the hard Depression years, my father had become a Post & Telegraph linesman by the time war was declared, and like so many of his friends from the small semi-rural borough of Northcote on Auckland's North Shore, he joined up. With his background, he got the job of running and repairing phone lines from his artillery battery to forward observation posts.

A couple of weeks before his 25th birthday in 1940, he arrived at Hopuhopu military camp near Ngaruawahia, then the formation point for the new 6th Field Regiment and their 25-pounder guns.

I'm not sure how well he took to military discipline. His upbringing on the family's strawberry farm had, I suspect, been somewhat feral. Like his father he was also known, oddly, by the nickname "Rooker". Years ago, while browsing a book that contained a collection of anecdotes from soldiers of the period, I noticed a story by one gunner who talked of those early days training at Hopuhopu.

An officer was giving the recruits a lecture when he spotted a young gunner named Rooker staring bored into the middle distance. The instructor promptly demanded to know how he would recognise a Mark IV Panzer tank? "By its attitude, sir" was the indelibly recognisable response of a man that could only have been Dad.

A few months later the regiment moved to Papakura camp for more training, which was abruptly cut short, and they found themselves on the troopship Mauretania headed for the Middle East. The ship docked briefly in Fremantle and my father exhibited an excellent sense of strategic planning by immediately taking the nearest tram with some of his mates to its furthest stop in Perth, where they made for a pub. As opposed to the bars around the docks crowded with men in their distinctive lemon-squeezer hats, in this far-flung suburb of the city the Kiwi soldiers were a novelty. "We never bought a beer all night," he said contentedly.

Right from the beginning, it seems the New Zealand soldier was not one to suffer the stupidities of military discipline lightly. In Bombay, India, the men were transferred to another ship, the Ormonde. Conditions on board were poor and the meat tainted, so the Kiwis promptly mutinied until something was done to rectify the situation.

I doubt Jack played any part in that minor rebellion. Thirsty in the heat of the docks at Bombay, he had drunk water from a nearby 44-gallon drum and soon collapsed with a terrible fever that left him stricken for weeks.

Family Legend No 1

Laid semi-comatose from typhoid, cholera or whatever foul disease he had so foolishly become afflicted with, he lost all his hair. It was only because a friend spent the entire voyage to Egypt rubbing some strange emulsion on his scalp that his hair grew back. This mystical ointment, according to family folklore, accounted for the fact his hair remained jet black until he died in his late sixties. In the last few years, as I turned from salt and pepper to just plain grey, I have come to wish I knew what that mystery emulsion was.

In September 1940, the New Zealanders trained in Maadi camp, 12km south of Cairo. The 2nd New Zealand Division was under the command of Bernard "Tiny" Freyberg, a name that was always to command huge respect from my father and most of those who fought under the World War I Victoria Cross winner.

Although some New Zealand forces went into action against the Italians in a highly successful British offensive, it wasn't until March 1941 that most of the division got a real taste of action in a disastrous campaign in Greece. The Germans had invaded months before and the Kiwis, with other Allied forces, were determined to block their assault. Spread too thinly, they fought a long retreat from Mt Olympus south to the beaches for evacuation.

When my brother took up athletics in the 1960s, my father drily observed he had run the original marathon in record time. "Of course, I was helped by being chased by Stukas at the time."

What seemed to upset him most about the defeat in Greece was the loss of all his personal gear and his precious new 25-pounders. Yet the loss of those guns may have saved his life, because he and most of his regiment were shipped directly back to Egypt to rearm and retrain. Other gunners were not so lucky: they landed on Crete and served as "infantillery" when the German airborne troops landed.

Crete was a 12-day bloody struggle for control of the island, one the New Zealanders almost - but not quite - won. The fortunate made it onto the evacuation ships again and returned to camp near Cairo. Two thousand were captured, 650 died.

In the early part of the desert campaign, the division went into action in western Egypt and Libya against the Italians. My father had scant respect for the fighting abilities of the "Eyeties", as he disparagingly called them. In those early days, the dust, the sandstorms, the flies, the malarial mozzies, the heat in the day and freezing cold at nights seemed to hold the greatest horror.

That attitude abruptly changed with the arrival of the German Afrika Korps under Rommel (the general, not the rooster). By mid-year the German general had driven the Allies out of Libya and back into Egypt, leaving the city of Tobruk encircled and besieged. The Kiwis, under Freyberg, were part of Operation Crusader, designed to relieve Tobruk.

I recently dug out my father's collection of red-covered war histories and was left in awe of what happened and what those men must have suffered during what one history called "A Hard Won Victory". If that highly confused battle was a victory, then it is debatable whether the New Zealand Division could have survived many more wins like that.

Having smashed the supporting British tanks, Rommel threw the full weight of his panzers against the New Zealanders, overrunning several battalions. The name Sidi Rezegh, where part of the battle was fought, carried some heavy connotations in our house, and having read about the slaughter, I can now understand why. One section of the regimental history talks of Dad's 6th Field Regiment's "Last Stand" at nearby Belhamed - it was virtually wiped out.

In his 1945 book Gunner Inglorious, Kiwi Jim Henderson wrote of that fight, which saw him, like so many others that day, become badly wounded and a prisoner. Under heavy fire, his battery never stood a chance when the panzers charged.

"TAKE POST!" One second we're flat on the ground. Next second, each man in his place, no thoughts now. Can still hear the phit-phit ... they mean nothing. Webbo's forgotten his prayers - he's putting that little black line onto the tanks swirling out from the dust ahead. I've forgotten to blither about this woman. Out with the tray, prize up the strip, out with the shells, pass them to Ralph, back to the tray. Load and fire, load and fire.

Goodyear's stopped it. He sways away from the breech mechanism. Slowly falling, out to the right, feet still together, falling to earth just like a tree. Rigid. He's done. All this means is we move up one.

Goodyear's gone; five work the gun instead of six. That's all.

Tweet-tweet-tweet ... not a damn hit in a hundred.

I swing round farther now with the ammunition, take two paces, give it to Ralph who loads. Farmer takes Goodyear's place.

Load and fire, load and fire. Out with the shell, swing to the left, two paces forward into Ralph's

hands ...

Ralph's not there. There he is, away with bloody hands, dazed, crawling behind the limber. Ralph's smacked.

I've got to load and work the ammunition now. All according to Hoyle. Four of us left.

Phit-phit-phit ...

Old Jerry's going according to Hoyle, too. A damn sight better.

Load - fire - load - pause. Why no fire?

A belching groan from Webbo, and he falls from his seat on the gun, his face looking as if someone had stood back and splattered him with red paint.

Within seconds Jim Henderson was also wounded and they were overrun. By some miracle, my father's gun troop survived, broke out of the encircling tanks and retreated safely.

Eight hundred and fifty New Zealanders dead, 1700 wounded, many captive. A "hard won victory".

The Kiwis were eventually pulled out and sent to Syria to regroup. Yet, whatever danger he faced in action, my father apparently often managed to make things just as tricky for himself when he was out of the firing line.

Family Legend No 2

For years my mother thought my father had been wounded somewhere like Sidi Rezegh. He carried burn marks on his lower abdomen and thighs. Only after one of his army reunion evenings did the truth emerge.

While he was on leave with his brother and some mates, they ended up drinking in an Arab restaurant where a delicious-smelling chicken roasted on a spit in the middle of the room. Broke, they realised they couldn't afford a meal and concocted a cunning plan.

Dad's mates would stage a fight, and in the ensuing chaos he would grab the chicken and meet them in the alley outside. The plan worked to perfection, except he decided to hide the roast chicken under his uniform blouse and stick it down his baggy drill trousers.

Spit-roasted chickens are covered in hot fat. He talked of lying curled up in the alley groaning from the pain "and all I could hear was those buggers smacking their lips and eating the bloody thing".

The New Zealand Division was immediately recalled from Syria when Rommel broke through again. At a spot called Minqar Qaim, the Kiwis were once more encircled by the Germans and the infantry had to stage a breakout with a bayonet charge and fierce hand-to-hand fighting that led to the rest of the division racing out of the trap in any vehicle they could find.

Having pulled back to the Alamein line, the New Zealanders continued to take a pounding at places like Ruweisat Ridge, but the tide of the war in the Middle East was turning gradually in favour of the Allies. The second battle of Alamein in October 1942, which saw the 2nd NZ Division in the thick of the action, put Rommel on the back foot.

My father would talk in awe of the immense artillery barrage they fired at El Alamein, how the night sky was lit like day, and the deafening noise that accompanied it. After the war he gave my mother an ugly steel grey and silver ring with a brass inlay. The old romantic that he was, Jack always claimed it had been fashioned from a small piece of shrapnel that had lodged in his buttock at Alamein.

The 8th Army and the New Zealand Division ended up pursuing the Germans across the desert once more, this time into Tunisia. From my father's point of view, it was probably just as well he was putting some distance between himself and Cairo, for that place had always spelt trouble for him.

Family Legend No 3

During a lull in the fighting, Jack was told to guard a bus back in Cairo, as anti-British rioters had been attacking and burning them. It was a beautiful day and the Cairo streets were quiet. As he cruised around on the bus, he spotted a party of his mates from the regiment heading into a local bar. A quick beer wouldn't hurt. Just the one, and he'd catch the bus when it came around again.

There may have been more than "just the one". The bus never returned. He eventually found it a blazing hulk several streets away. Unsurprisingly, the military took a dim view and he found himself in the cells. Thereafter, he nursed a life-long grudge against the British Military Police. Family legend has it he was released early when his regiment went back into action.

The campaign in Tunisia was as arduous and ferocious as those early battles but, ultimately, it ended in victory and the Axis forces surrendered. In May 1943, back in camp at Maadi and Helwan, 6000 long-serving soldiers in the division learnt they could go home to New Zealand on a three-month furlough. Dad was one.

After three years abroad, the returned soldiers revelled in their time at home. But before long, many grew angry with the number of fit men they saw around them still enjoying civilian life. Why should they go back, they argued, when there were men in New Zealand who could replace them?

Public protest mounted, some of the men mutinied, and the Government and the military tried to force the furlough men to return. But in the face of mounting public pressure, they relented and those who refused to return could stay.

Five thousand three hundred had been liable to go back on active service. Just 928 returned. Again, my dad was one.

I once asked him why. He said he was a public servant and would have lost his prized job in the P&T after the war had he not gone. The scars left by the Depression and the spectre of joblessness were enough to have him risk his life to ensure he had work once the war was over.

Churchill heaped high praise on the New Zealand Division, saying it had "always held a shining place in the van" of the 8th Army in North Africa and urged the New Zealand Government not to return it to the Pacific theatre but let it take part in the invasion of Italy. The Labour Government agreed.

By November 1943, the old man and his regiment were back in action on the Sangro River in an attempt to breach the German Gustav Line. The attack eventually bogged down in the face of fierce resistance and so began the long, hard slog up "the boot" of Italy.

My father always gave me the impression the battle for Cassino was the worst of them all. In Greece and North Africa, even though many died and the fight was tough, the men had been fresh and the war a kind of novelty. By 1944, they were hardened but weary of death.

Cassino was certainly a slaughter. Despite a ferocious attack by the men of the 28th Maori Battalion and other Kiwi troops, the assault failed. They finally withdrew with 350 dead and many more wounded.

After a period of R&R, the New Zealand Division continued its slugging match with the Germans as it pushed north. It was just outside Faenza, on a bend in the Lamone River, that Lance-Sergeant Jack Ralston did something that, for me, knowing him only as an ordinary kindly father, sounded quite remarkable. It's recorded in the Divisional Artillery history, which Dad always kept in the bookcase by the TV in the lounge. As a kid I'd read it and look in mild disbelief at him sitting at the dining table, peering over his horn-rimmed glasses and reading the paper with a glass of beer in hand.

He had just reached his observation post when he was caught in a heavy mortar bombardment and the driver of his jeep was wounded. The war history records it simply: "Then he saw that urgent medical attention was needed and at once drove the man back along the road to an RAP, regardless of the heavy fire that was still falling. Then he returned and repaired a damaged line under fire and quickly re-established communications to the guns. For this he earned an immediate Military Medal."

My brother now has that and the other medals in pride of place at his home. I keep the old man's sergeant's stripes on a mantelpiece.

It was late in 1945 before Dad made it back to New Zealand. As the troopship made its way up the Waitemata, he looked across Northcote Point and saw the tall Norfolk pines on the ridge, where he had been born. "That was when I knew I was home and it was really over," he once told me. He never left New Zealand again.

The war had a hideous effect on men of my father's generation. They could not be exposed to that kind of carnage and hardship for so long and not have their emotions somehow blunted.

Writer Dan Davin summed it up best when he wrote after the war: "We'd never be able to make friends again the same way or drink and laugh and die the same way. We'd used up what we had and we'd spend the rest of our lives looking over our shoulders."


Inside the close-knit community that lives along the Cromwell-Tarras Rd
102505 2019-02-19 00:00:00Z Travel

Inside the close-knit community that lives along t…

by Mike White

Mike White heads up the Cromwell-Tarras road to merino and wine country.

Read more
The stars of Luther talk about their return in season five
102486 2019-02-18 13:16:40Z Television

The stars of Luther talk about their return in sea…

by The Listener

Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Hermione Norris, Wunmi Mosaku and Michael Smiley answer questions about the future of the dark and disturbing crime drama.

Read more
Vital evidence in Pike River mine disaster missing, say families
102465 2019-02-18 09:22:49Z Planet

Vital evidence in Pike River mine disaster missing…

by RNZ

Some families of Pike River mine victims suspect a piece of vital evidence may have been spirited away by the mining company and lost.

Read more
It's time to empower the mayor and make Auckland liveable again
102432 2019-02-17 00:00:00Z Politics

It's time to empower the mayor and make Auckland l…

by Bill Ralston

Making Auckland a liveable city is an unenviable task, writes Bill Ralston, but it's clear the mayor needs more power.

Read more
Knight star: Sir Hec Busby on his extraordinary life
102328 2019-02-17 00:00:00Z Profiles

Knight star: Sir Hec Busby on his extraordinary li…

by Clare de Lore

Northland kaumātua, master carver, navigator and bridge builder Hec Busby was hoping for “no fuss” when he accepted a knighthood.

Read more
Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period drama Colette
102397 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Movies

Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period dr…

by James Robins

The story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a heroine of French literature, focuses on her early struggles.

Read more
Is barbecued meat bad for your health?
102255 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Is barbecued meat bad for your health?

by Jennifer Bowden

Sizzling meat on the barbecue is the sound and smell of summer, but proceed with caution.

Read more
March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the age of the machine?
102434 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the…

by Jenny Nicholls

Complacently relying on algorithms can lead us over a cliff – literally, in the case of car navigation systems.

Read more