Gordonton was all ready for invasion during World War II, thanks to our very own Home Guard. We republish lex Riddell’s article from the Auckland – Waikato Historical Journal of 1980.
Hard and happy days with ‘Dad’s army’
A rural company of the Home Guard in the Second World War braced itself for invasion and many another ‘emergency’
WE MAY laugh at the antics of the British Home Guard in the television show Dad’s Army, but those who remember the Second World War (1939 – 45) detect familiar notes.
A New Zealand Home Guard was formed for the defence of the country in the event of invasion, and as troops were mobilised for service overseas, every able-bodied man not in the services had to join the Home Guard or Emergency Precautions Scheme (EPS).
Severe petrol restrictions were imposed, along with coupons for clothing, butter and sugar. Tyres for cars became practically unobtainable; many people drove round with tyres worn through to the fabric, some even with the tube showing through.
‘The army requires your truck!’
Garden Place in Hamilton, then a vast area of sticky clay right back to the concrete embankment left after the hill had been removed, was turned into a maze of trenches, in which people could shelter in case of air raids. Shop windows were criss-crossed with brown paper strips to lessen the effects of flying glass. Some people were conscripted or manpowered into essential services, such as munitions factories. Some farmers found that they had to give up their trucks for the use of the army.
The other day I was reminded by Jack Riddell that one morning as they sat down to breakfast they saw a traffic officer go past the window and rap loudly at the door.
“Is that your vehicle parked out there?”
“I’m sorry, the army requires your truck.”
Jack and his father replied, “Your need is greater than ours.”
Later they were able to obtain another one, four years older, at a much greater price than the 1939 one they had to surrender.
Woodlands the army HQ
A retired captain, David Bruce, of Horsham Downs, became a colonel and formed a Home Guard company in the Waikato. Don Riddell of “Woodlands”, at Gordonton, near Hamilton, a commissioned officer, became adjutant of the Waikato battalion and formed the headquarters at Woodlands itself, before taking over the supper room of the Gordonton hall, complete with telephone and office staff.
Regimental sergeant-major Sam White, was a fairly popular chap with a fetching lilt in his voice, tall, dark and handsome. Others who held rank were William Riddell, the commanding officer, R. A. Williamson (Sam), platoon sergeant, Harold Mayall, Gordonton; platoon sergeant C. Thomas, Puketaha; and signallers corporal Bob Forsman.
Clive Mexted evidently had some rank, for I well remember him haranguing and drilling his men in the art of bayonet drill. A straw man was set up in the hall and the poor object was bayoneted to pieces by the end of the evening with commands such as “In his tummy – In! Out!” We were assured that a few inches of cold steel were enough for any man but you have to get in “first”!
Parades were weekly at night in the hall with Saturdays and sometimes Sunday devoted to practical manoeuvres. The men achieved a high standard of training and physical fitness. Regularly, some were selected and some volunteered for a two-weeks highly concentrated course of instruction at Narrow Neck (North Shore, Auckland), and came back very efficient for battle. One of the Gordonton group, Harold Manktelow, somehow found himself put into a wrong course and was trained for bomb-disposal work. On his return, he was drafted into the EPS in Hamilton and well received.
The Gordonton store keeper’s hard task
During the war, tobacco was scarce and the country storekeepers had the unenviable job of rationing it with papers and tailormade cigarettes. George Parfitt was the storekeeper at Gordonton and as he faithfully doled out the meagre ration he grew, through no fault of his, more unpopular as shortages became worse. The men were quite sure old Georgie still had some ‘under the counter.’
Week by week the tension grew until with military timing and precision the ranks persuaded their platoon sergeant to conduct a manoeuvre or two under the counter. George Parfitt’s conscience was clear; he did not even take the pipe out of his mouth as the craving mob entered the shop and advanced behind the counter. The manoeuvre proved hardly worthwhile as all the searchers found was a carton of ‘tailormades’ (cigarettes) of a brand last put out seven years before and which apparently had lost most of their flavour.
Different kinds of gates
Daytime drill parades often produced unexpected humour. I remember watching a platoon being put through paces in a paddock on Williamsons’ farm. Sergeant-major Jim Blackhall was in charge – the classical sergeant-major, well built, stocky with ‘a mou’ and a very good voice, and behind the stern exterior a good sense of humour. As he drilled his men up and down, about to turn, left turn, forward march, he ventured to try a platoon left wheel. They didn’t manage it very well; it seemed like a dog’s hind leg; in fact, worse. His voice conveyed some notes of annoyance, but there was no improvement from the raw bunch of cow cockies, till at last in exasperation he shouted “Come round like a WAIKATO gate not a TARANAKI gate!” I think they got the idea after that.
On another occasion, when the men were probably wishing the day would finish so they could get back to their cows, they were adjusting their lineup in platoon formation on the command of ‘right dress’. Sergeant-major Blackhall marched briskly up to cast his good straight eye along the line. The front line was good, but the middle line was hopeless. There was a fellow about the third along who must have weighed well over 22 stone.
“Move back that man. – Move up that man. – Move back.”
The poor fellow was out of line wherever he stood. After a few more commands the ice was broken and the platoon dissolved into uncontrolled laughter. Sergeant-major Blackhall was a leader who knew the value of humour for good morale.
In the event of an invasion, it was well understood that the Home Guard could only delay the advance and make the situation as awkward as possible for the enemy. Even with the army, we could have been dependent on American help to match the highly mechanised Japanese forces. Our military strategists reasoned that the attack on Gordonton would probably be launched from the Whitikahu bridge over the Komakorau stream and the Piako road bridge were important; so the Gordonton boys devised a plan for the defence of the two bridges.
The plan was, when signals were received of an enemy approach, that two large bluegum logs were to be pushed across the approach of the bridge to act as tank traps. Trenches were dug at the top of the higher ground to provide covering fire. Just to the side of the roadway, almost 15 metres away, was a camouflaged trench to contain men with grenades (if they had any); failing that some special homemade ‘molotov cocktails’.
When the tanks halted at the bridge to try to remove the blocks, the grenade boys would crawl through a tunnel and come out beside the tank but out of vision of the tank crew and wait for the door to be pushed up. Then a Molotov cocktail would be thrown in to cause confusion, followed by a hand grenade. If any of the enemy escaped the resulting inferno, they would be given a short despatch by the chaps in the trenches on higher ground.
I remember that the scheme and layout were not discussed as we were warned of ‘fifth column activity’ which could result in information about our defences being passed on to the enemy. Posters read, “Our talk could cost your friend’s life,” or “Be like Dad, keep Mum.”
Gordonton foxholes pretty good
The foxholes behind the trenches were very well camouflaged with fescue bushes. A pompous officer was sent to inspect the Gordonton lot and report. He strutted around; his beady eyes found much to criticise about their efforts at camouflage, forgetting that he had had to be told where the trenches were, anyway; then suddenly he found himself without ground and down he went into a foxhole. They hauled him out; with his military dignity a little tarnished, he proceeded once more to harangue the troops for their ineptitude, when down he went again. This time there were not so many to assist him, these boys knew their stuff.
An important unit belonging to the Gordonton company was the signallers stationed on Bob Forsman’s hill. Lieutenant of signals was Leo Drummond. There was Sergeant Bob Forsman and Corporal Bill Sharp; other members of the unit were L. Riddell, Les Letford, John Boggust, Tom Handyside, and for a short while S. Sainsbury.
Time spent in dugouts
In stationing ourselves on the hill our first job was to construct a well-camouflaged dugout so placed that we would be able to receive and transmit visual signals by lights to Mount Misery at Morrinsville, Eureka, Whatawhata, Waihu hill, Taupiri, and the old water tower at Hamilton.
We made our own lights, powered by dry-cell batteries flashing through about a six-inch diameter by one foot long tube, so constructed that anyone closer than six miles or so could not detect them, unless the light was directly beamed on to them. Our dugout was well blended into the landscape and could not really be spotted from the air, even in daylight, when the grass grew on top. Our lights were so placed to shine through narrow slits about ground level.
We had a serious drainage problem; the dugout practically filled with water during the wet season, so we obtained a post hole borer and tried boring into the dugout from down the slope. It was quite a feat to bore horizontally for 30 feet, not knowing whether we would hit our target or not. There was much guessing, speculation and measuring before we eventually achieved a satisfactory result and the water rushed out. Many long nights and days were spent in the confines of that dugout.
Hot cakes and stories
We even managed to construct a fireplace to warm the place and barbecue the odd sausage or two. Mrs Forsman (Gwen) would take pity on us sometimes and bring over some hot cakes. Many a yarn was spun, especially by Bob Forsman. I still remember the spine-chilling stories he told.
As far as uniforms were concerned, we were practically naked at first! They issued an armband; then came boots, and uniforms bit by bit. The first uniforms had been an issue in the First World War, and had been in mothballs for 20 years. But towards the end of our war the signallers actually received battledress. The signallers were never issued with rifles, not even for protection. I asked why? My superior simply said, “Signallers don’t have them.”
The truth was there were not enough rifles to go round; all we had was a skinning knife or two and a scout knife to open tins of food. We were instructed to provide our own rations of biscuits and to keep them handy in case of invasion. The situation was grim! As signallers we had no means of fighting back and one well-placed hand grenade would have fixed the lot of us. Our greatest defence was simply camouflage and to operate unobserved.
Inspection at Woodlands
Soon after the formation of the Home Guard an army officer came to inspect the Waikato battalion headquarters at “Woodlands”. Adjutant Riddell, RSM Blackhall, Colonel David Bruce and others were there to receive him and took the opportunity to lodge a long list of requisitions over a cup of tea. They argued strenuously the need for more support and encouragement from the army for the continuing mobilisation and training of the civilian population. The officer remained unconvinced, insisting that it would be a waste of limited army resources to deploy their equipment and supplies any further.
“Why?” asked Don. “Any moment the Japs could land; think of it, Sir, it would be suicide if they came through the trees right now!” Hardly had the words left his lips when there was an unmistakable sound of rifle fire on the veranda, as if in answer to the question. The arguing ceased, and the men, feeling a strong urge to take cover, took a furtive look around the door just in time to see a rifle being lowered by the lady of the house and a rabbit weakly kicking among the begonias it had been nibbling.
“There’s your answer, if a woman can do that what can the men do?”
The army officer took the point and left without the last word, and thanks to “Aunty Rene” (Mrs Don Riddell) and the rabbit, the supplies and assistance were increased.
Piako had all the boots…
Charlie Seddon who farmed up Piako road was a very efficient quartermaster who kept records of clothing and equipment issued carefully and accurately for the Gordonton company – not like some who tested the patience of Jim Blackhall, part of whose job was to check and prevent unnecessary wastage right through the battalion. Jim tells of one QM who had issued 150 pairs of boots when, in fact, he had only 20 pairs given to him by the army for distribution.
“Where did you get all those boots from?” queried Blackhall, “You didn’t get them from Santa Claus, you didn’t get them from the enemy; the men have each signed for them; just where did you get them?”
They both leaned over the records again – one man appeared to have signed for ten, a few for nine each, and quite a number for eight.
“Why do many to each man?” bellowed Blackhall. “Are they centipedes?”
They looked again at the issue cards and there it was, the ‘size of pairs’ had been entered in the ‘pairs issued’ column. Sergeant-major Blackhall left after giving some very clear instructions on how to right the matter before charges were made.
He had strong blistering Scottish words for the company which had a mock manoeuvre involving a neighbouring company capturing all their issue of rifles and certain other equipment, while pressuring them to return them. They protested. “What sort of an army is this, that the spoils of ‘war’ have to be returned with apologies?”
More boot tales
Then there was the fellow who belonged to a back-country unit and who, like many others, regarded his Home Guard boots as a bonus for the farm and applied for a further issue. There not being a suitable pair for replacement on hand the boots were received, stinking of cowshed and pigstys, and a promise given that a new pair would arrive by bus in time for the next parade. The bootless guardsman walked home several miles over metal roads in his socks, hoping that at least the cows and he pigs would be particular about the placement of their hooves 9in his presence for the next few days.
The frequent parades over the years, although compulsory and a tie, created a neighbourly spirit and togetherness in the district; people became very close in times of anxiety and adversity. There were occasions when it was necessary to raise money, and memorable Home Guard concerts were organised and unexpected talents revealed.
After the Home Guard had been going a while, the men thought they would put on a concert to show the girls what sort of talent lay dormant waiting to be released, and to raise money for the Patriotic Fund and the Red Cross.
Don Riddell built a cow out of parts of a skeleton: ‘Butter Gold’ was her name and somebody got inside to provide the movements. A fellow named Magan, the local factory manager, dressed up as a very buxom dairy maid to milk the cow, finished up producing one pound of butter already wrapped, rather than milk, and ended with a very torrid love scene with the farmhand. The screams and yells from the audience are still remembered; much of the dialogue was ‘ad libbed’, especially when the dairy maid’s wig dropped to reveal a bald head.
My part in the concert was dressing up as a skeleton, haunting somebody. Music was produced by Reg Burrett on the piano, Bill Sharp on the piano accordion, and Fred Knight on the violin when he managed to fasten his reading glasses around his ears and his lenses on the level. Bob Forsman sang, some played the gramophone and Sam Williamson composted a poem on activities in the hall. James T Sharp recited, with a slight Irish brogue, ‘The Old Black Cat’.
Irene Riddell – in charge
The ladies during the war years certainly did not only sit around and knit socks and balaclavas for sailors but took part in the local branch of the Red Cross. Mrs Irene Riddell was in charge.
Their activities included preparing bandages and splints and accumulating medications for first aid. They organised first aid schools and even attended large day parades of the Home Guard.
One day they were delighted to have some real casualties. Leo Drummond sprained his ankle and Gwen Forsman pulled a muscle in her side and had to be strapped up in bed for 48 hours.
Manoeuvres at night were filled with adventure. Why was it that some farmers thought it best to put their cows in the paddock the night before? Many a proud uniform was permanently stained green from fouled pastures!
One night the Gordonton company was to attack the Rototuna company somewhere near the Rototuna factory. The Gordonton platoons assembled at the bridge where Ballard road meets Boyds road and we were to advance across the peat swamp; in those days it was wide deep drains and enormous stumps. The ground had sunk so much that the stump roots were mostly above ground and sheep used to camp underneath at night.
The only light we had was a moon in a cloudy sky and if you have walked across the countryside at night you will know that the moon can play tricks. The stumps looked like silent groups of men and more than once I heard a soldier go up to the stumps and challenge them.
Within the Gordonton company a daytime manoeuvre was staged. One platoon was stationed on Forsman’s hill and told to defend it and open fire as soon as they viewed the opposing platoon advancing along the Peach road area. The opposing team assembled at the Gordonton domain, camouflaged themselves with efforts that would have inspired many a millinery decorator, and proceeded to crawl from tree to tree and along the bottom of a Peach road drain.
There was one disaster; a farmer who shall be nameless had a flair for new-fangled inventions, such as an electric fence. Some, not knowing what this single wire was, grabbed it to find for the first time how effective these new-fangled things were. Fortunately, the enemy did not hear the yells and the attackers were almost able to reach their objective before the defenders spotted them and opened fire with blanks. I am told that all were surprised at their success in camouflage and their ability to advance without being observed.
This story was published on August 3 2015 as a tribute to Lex Riddell, who passed away that year. Thank you for everything Lex.