Men of the 24th – you make me proud to be a New Zealander.”
It was a great privilege to attend the final Beating of Retreat of the NZ 24 Battalion at the Auckland War Memorial on Saturday 21 April. On a beautiful Autumn evening at the Cenotaph thousands gathered to witness an unforgettable and deeply-moving ceremony as with full military honours from the NZ Army 3rd Auckland (Countess of Ranfurly’s Own) and Northland Battalion, the band playing and saluting gunfire the last 28 veterans of the Battalion led by their commander Murray Adlington paraded for the very last time before the Governor-General His Excellency Rt. Hon. Lt. General Sir Jerry Mateparae and a large applauding crowd of Aucklanders. (I knew these were New Zealand troops because as they marched (or were wheeled) past the Governor-General, they smiled, nodded and winked at the Commander-in-Chief). The ceremony was followed by a dinner in which Murray Adlington gave a remarkable speech supported by Lt.Colonel Chris Powell. The MC Margaret Burke, as she always does at Anzac Day gave a superb performance with her commentary throughout the ceremony.
Today at the Memorial Service in the Museum Hall of Memories I was honored by the Association to give an address.
On the occasion of the final beating of the retreat NZ 24th Infantry Battalion Association
Memorial Service address by Michael Lee, Auckland Councillor on behalf of the Governing Body Auckland Council. Museum Hall of Memories Auckland. Sunday 22 April 2012.
To the President Murray Adlington and Mrs Adlington, members of the 24th Infantry Battalion Association, Patron Rangi Ryan, the Association sub committee led by Sandy Davie and Wayne McDonald, wives, widows and family, I bring the warm greetings of the Mayor, elected members and staff of the Auckland Council.
I would also like to acknowledge Lt. Colonel Chris Powell of the NZ Defence Forces and our hosts here today the Chairman of the Museum Trust Dr William Randall and Director of the Auckland Museum Roy Clare and his staff. Distinguished guests. Ladies and Gentlemen
Last evening like most people here I was privileged to witness an unforgettable and most moving ceremony of the final beating of the retreat of the 24th Infantry Battalion.
Last evening we were also fortunate to hear superb speeches recounting the history of the Battalion, its battle honours, and its personalities by the Governor-General His Excellency the Rt Hon Lt. General Jerry Mateparae, by the president of the Association Murray Adlington and by Colonel Powell.
The season of Autumn, when every year on and around ANZAC DAY we pause to reflect and solemnly remember the sacrifices of those who gave their lives for New Zealand in the World Wars of the 20th century, was a well chosen time for such a ceremony. I would like to congratulate Murray Adlington and the members of the 24 Battalion Association and the members of the Defence Forces who participated in that unforgettable, historic ceremony.
Today we acknowledge and give thanks the members of 24th NZ Infantry Battalion and their dedicated supporters – living and dead – to recognize and give thanks for their heroic contribution to New Zealand in war – and through the outstanding work of the 24th Battalion Association in peace.
And recognizing and giving thanks to the Battalion we recognize and give thanks to a whole generation, the Second World War generation, – described by American writer Stephen Ambrose as the ‘Greatest Generation’ – while we are privileged to have the last of those men and women still amongst us.
New Zealanders can be justly proud of the huge national effort the country made during both World Wars. New Zealand’s contribution in World War ll was remarkable for such a small country – as the saying goes New Zealand punched well above its weight.
As the historian W.B. Sutch wrote “Apart from the Soviet Union, NZ had a higher proportion of its citizens in the armed services than any of the other allied powers.”
Economic mobilization and a unified national spirit meant that New Zealanders on the home front gave the fullest backing to our young men fighting overseas. As a percentage of national income from 1939 to 1944, New Zealand’s war expenditure was higher than that of Australia, Canada, and the USA and only behind that of the United Kingdom and the USSR.
This economic effort on the home front especially with women stepping into the work force meant New Zealand ended the war with an overseas debt lower by £45 million than it had at the beginning.
Hard to believe now but nevertheless true – New Zealand was a net donor of war aid to both Great Britain and the United States. And after the war in 1947 the NZ government gifted £10 million sterling to assist the United Kingdom in it’s post-war balance of payment difficulties.
In terms of military achievement and economic performance the national effort of New Zealanders during World War ll has left an example our present day political leaders and economists could well reflect on.
The NZ 24th Battalion was an important formation in the New Zealand Division whose performance on the battlefield brought so much credit to this country. As we have heard the Battalion was formed in 1940 mainly from young men from the Greater Auckland Province.
Following the steps of the Roman Legions the Battalion fought in Greece, the Middle East, North Africa, and Italy. Battle honours include Elasson and Molos in Greece, Sidi Rezegh, Belhamed, Minqar Qaim, El Mreir, El Alamein, El Agheila, Tebago Gap, Enfidaville in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the Sangro, Castel Frentano, Orsogna, Monte Cassino, Arezzo, San Michelle, Rio Fontanaccia, Pisciatello, Faenza Pocket, the Senio, and Idice Bridgehead in Italy and finally in the last days of the War the seizure of Trieste.
Out of the 3500 men who marched out, 520 were killed and over 1200 wounded.
As with the New Zealand Infantry Division in the Great War, the NZ Division of the Second World War came to be considered by friends and enemies alike as an elite formation. Indeed none other than Field-Marshal Erwin Rommell considered the NZ Division, the best in the British 8th Army. It was hard won accolades like these that led the British war historian John Keagan to state “New Zealanders whose settler independence with rifle and spade would win them a reputation as the best soldiers in the world during the 20th century.”
Essentially because of the battlefield performance of the NZ Division and the decision by the NZ government to keep it fighting in the North African/European theatre – New Zealand and its Prime Minister Peter Fraser earned the respect and personal friendship of the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the US President Franklin Roosevelt. And because of this New Zealand was given a critical role in the post-war formation of the United Nations.
John Mulgan was one of this country’s leading young intellectuals of the 1930s. Like most of the men of the 24th he was an Aucklander. After graduating from Auckland University he went on to Oxford where he wrote the famous depression-era classic Man Alone. Upon the outbreak of war in 1939 he joined the British Army rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Mulgan was to make his name fighting with special forces behind the lines in occupied Greece but before this he served in a British regiment in the 8th Army at El Alamein.
Here after many years absence from New Zealand he was reunited with his countrymen, including friends in the 24th Battalion. He wrote in his book Report on Experience:
“Afterwards, a long time afterwards, I met the New Zealanders again, in the desert below Ruweisat ridge, the summer of 1942. It was like coming home. They carried New Zealand with them across the sands of Libya. This was the division that had saved the campaign of 1941 at Sidi Rezegh. The next year, when Rommel came into Egypt, the same division drove down from Syria and up along the coast road against the tide of a retreating army to meet him, and waited for him near Mersah Matruh. They held there for three days. By the evening of the third day, the whole Afrika Korps, had lapped round them and was closing in. Ordered to come out, the New Zealanders attacked by night, led out their transport through the gaps they cleared, boarded it, and drove back to Alamein. Through all the days of a hot and panic-stricken July they fought Rommel to a standstill in a series of attacks along Ruweisat ridge. They helped save Egypt, and led the break through at Alamein to turn the war.”
“They were mature men, these New Zealanders of the desert, quiet and shrewd and sceptical. They had none of the tired patience of the Englishman, nor that automatic discipline that never questions orders to see if they make sense. Moving in a body, detached from their homeland, they remained quiet and aloof and self-contained. They had confidence in themselves, such as New Zealanders rarely have, knowing themselves as good as the best the world could bring against them, like a football team in a more deadly game, coherent, practical, successful. “
“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 perhaps to have produced these men for this one time would be New Zealand’s destiny. Everything that was good from that small, remote country had gone into them – sunshine and strength, good sense, patience, the versatility of practical men. And they marched into history.”
John Mulgan did not survive the war. Before his death he wrote of the New Zealand he hoped would emerge from its sacrifices.
“If the old world ends now with this war, as well it may, I have had visions and dreamed dreams of another New Zealand that might grow into the future on the foundations of the old. This country would have more people to share it. There would be more children in the sands and sunshine, more small farms, gardens and cottages. Girls would wear bright dresses, men would talk quietly together. Few would be rich, none would be poor. They would fill the land and make it a nation.”
“In this country in a dreamed-of future, men will remember names of desert places that have been dignified by fighting, battle honours of a small country, of that New Zealand of the past, and they will share these things as part of a history that will be dear to them. ‘All earth has witnessed that they answered as befitted their ancestry; they endured as the strong influences about their youth taught them to endure’.”
I believe the New Zealand of the 21st century could well take more time to meditate upon the sacrifices of those of the World War 2 generation, men like those of the 24th Battalion and to reflect upon the hopes and aspirations, the spirit of national unity, resolution and national purpose of New Zealanders of those times – and the high price for nationhood that they paid for all of us.
As we have heard the 24th Battalion Association was founded in 1947 and in its dedication to comradeship and compassionate mutual aid it exemplified in its modest and practical way John Mulgan’s dream to make sense of the pain and suffering of war by trying creating a better world – trying to make a better New Zealand.
In thanking the members of the 24 Battalion Association I will close with the words of veteran Alf Hartnell who summing up the Association’s noble objectives in 1986 in the book Citizenship and Remembrance – A History of the 24th Infantry Association by Gabrielle Fortune and Mara Bebich. He wrote.
“The song of the hurrying bullet and the whine of the destroying shell could be forgotten. But how do you forget the years of comradeship fired in the smoking crucible of bloody conflict?
How to close your mind to the needs of those unable to cope with the transition to civilian life? How to forget that among the dangers and discomfort there were times of hilarious comedy and riotous enjoyment? Together we grew from boys into men. Together we explored fabled cities of which age-old legends are told. Together we wrote a new definition of the word ‘comrade’. How to forget?
Some there were, the far-sighted and wise among us who asked not only how but why? Need the nobility of sacrificial friendship be buried with the tragedy of human conflict?
The answer came just two years and some months from the day the Battalion was disbanded in Florence. Immediately, this infant Association established a new concept. It would have as a main purpose the creation of a fund that would allow it to extend into post war life the same caring concern for each that marked the wartime experience, with a special commitment to helping the disadvantaged and troubled. Yet it would have no annual subscription. A decision that reflected a firm faith and trust that these soldiers of the Battalion having experienced so much together, would not fail to care for each other now.”
So it now comes to an end – sadly as all things must – and it leaves me to express on behalf of the people of the Auckland region our eternal gratitude to the members 24th Infantry Battalion Association. I am sure that I speak for everyone here today when I say: “Men of the 24th – you make me proud to be a New Zealander.”