An East Coaster who made the army his career

This article appeared in the April 1986 The Battalion Remembers II booklet.

An East Coaster Who Made the Army His Career - T. Babbington

On being asked to put some of my experiences on paper, my immediate reaction was to be noncommittal and negative. What experiences? I thought. Then the years began unfolding and the wonder that so much of one's life could be remembered and yet other things just as important were difficult to recall.

The recent television documentary on Cassino would have provoked much discussion among the men who were there and also their families and friends. So much has been written and said about the wars and emergencies that men and women from this country have been committed to. The wonder is that so many of those people who served in the savage confrontations of Greece, Crete and the Western Desert, Italy and the Pacific, came home and were able to pick up again the threads of life and carryon with normal living. For many the adjustment to normal living was a struggle, some sadly never made it.

For me, as one who rejoined the army after the war and served until my retirement in November of 1972, many of the battles of WWII were fought over and over on Sandmodel, in TEWT's (Tactical Exercise Without Troops) and field exercises. It would have been interesting indeed for the participants in those battles to listen in to syndicate comments and solutions. To hear and see for themselves why they should never have won when they did and that perhaps success may have been achieved this way or that way! Ah, the exuberance and naivety of inexperience. Very fine in the peaceful and pleasant conditions of a lecture room in Waiouru in the middle of winter. The reality perhaps may have frightened the daylights out of some of them, more especially if the final decisions were theirs to make. However, the young and the unbelieving have to learn from the successes and failures of those before them.

The years immediately after WWII saw the start of the communist insurgency in Singapore and throughout the Malayan Peninsula. Although we were not committed at this stage, events in that part of the world were to eventually draw this country in as a participant.

The early fifties saw the confrontation between the Government and the wharf unions, where the three armed services were involved in manning the wharves. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, the country had to be kept moving. The introduction of CMT (Compulsory Military Training) put considerable strain on all services. Men who had lost themselves in area offices and depots were rediscovered and just in time, because some of the guys were so out of touch with things military it was quite hilarious. Some high speed restoration work was done and by the time the first trainees arrived they were able to cope without frightening anyone. It was a close run thing. I was involved with this training until the end of basic training for the fourth intake at which stage I was seconded to the Fiji Military Forces. During the latter months of 1951 the people of Fiji raised a Battalion of Infantry to fight against the communist terrorists in Malaya. After a programme of intensive training, the Battalion embarked at Suva and sailed for Singapore. The Battalion disembarked and moved into Nee Soon Camp to settle in and carryon training. The Battalion was commanded by a New Zealand Regular Officer in Lt Col. R. Tinker, who served in WWII as an Infantry man winning an MM and being commissioned. He also served with LRDG. His 21C was Major Edward Cacobau who served with the Fiji Forces against the Japanese. Ratu Edward received some of his education here in New Zealand. All Company Commanders and 21C's of Rifle Companies were WWII veterans as were many of the WO's and NCO's and private soldiers. New Zealanders were seconded from both the regular and territorial forces to serve in jobs such as Coy Commanders, administration and training appointments. One who will be well known to many RSA members was Sam Gilhooly our Chief Clerk at Bn HQ. A future Chief of General Staff of the New Zealand Army was a subaltern, one Lt R. Williams. Brigadier Hargests' son was an officer in HQ Coy and was tragically killed. Tony Mataira and Joe Brosnahan of Hawkes Bay were young officers with us. Capt McDonald was with 28 Bn as well as myself. There were young NCO's such as Nick Baker and George Nepia, both from Waimatatini, Toko Samuels from the Hauraki Plains and others, Kiwis and British. George Nepia lost his life in Malaya, a tragedy as there was so much ahead of him. Nick Baker and Toko Samuels were exceptional linguists and spoke Fijian fluently in a very short space of time. Toko had exceptional talents in Russian and a couple of Chinese dialects and Malay. He served with Military Intelligence on returning to New Zealand. Tragically Toko died some years ago of cancer.

When it was considered that the men had acclimatised, training was intensified and officers and NCO's were sent to the Jungle Training Centre at Kota Tingi in the State of Johore, Malaya. The School was run by veterans of the War against Japan and had learnt their lessons the hard way. Their demonstration squads were drawn from Gurkha Battalions that had already spent some years fighting the communists. For the Fijian the jungle held no mysteries except those imposed by the enemy. For us Kiwis and Brits the picture was a bit different. However, for those who chose to adapt and accept the challenges of a demanding environment, the transition from open warfare to jungle fighting became a lot easier. The standard of professional excellence shown by the school staff was something to admire and aspire to. While this training was going on, the Bn had moved from Nee Soon to the school training area. The stage was now set for the new found skills and battle drills to be handed on. The men were keen to learn and the training went along very well. Platoon training under way to be followed by company and then Battalion exercises. The Battalion was now ready for operations against the communists. We moved to the State of Negri Sembilan with BHQ and H Coy based at Bahau and the four Rifle Coys spread over a pretty large area of the State. The Bn was kept hard at work with patrolling and ambushing areas on information received from special branch and other intelligence gathering agencies. The work was hard and monotonous with the rugged and hill terrain, the humid climate and tiny local residents of the creeping, crawling and flying variety, all adding to the difficulties of heavily laden troops. Once Base Camps were set up in the Jungle, Patrols carried only light order and were able to move a lot more freely. Some considerable success was achieved by the Bn in the months that it was stationed in Negri Sembilan. However, orders came to move to the State of Johore with BHQ and HQ Coy based at Batu Pahat and Coys based at and around the notorious town of "Yong Peng".

This area had long been a thorn in the fight against communism. The more radical elements seemed to be concentrated here and with the town sitting astride a main route between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, they were in the box seat as it were. The men seemed to relish the fight ahead of them and after months of hard slog we were able to release men to work further a field. Parit Sulong was an area of terrible anguish for Australians. In the war against Japan the Aussies stood and fought here to the death. There was nowhere to go, with a single road through huge swamplands. The type of swamps that consume those who don't know the few safe ways through. Even for those who didn't know its terrible history, you kept looking over your shoulder.

It was during operations here that Lt Col. Tinker handed over command of the Bn to Ratu Edward Cacobau and a New Zealander, Major Lowe became 2IC. There was also a change of RSM's and RSM Kilmore returned to New Zealand and yours truly took over. The next 16 months were busy ones, the Bn enjoying success and also paying for it. There would also be a change of command with Major Lowe taking over from Ratu Edward and Ratu Penaia Ganilau becoming 21C. Colonel Tom Campbell had become Comd FMF and independence for Fiji was getting nearer. It was during this period that events in Indo China were reaching a climax. We had found time to send a rugby team to Saigon to play the French services. It was aired that perhaps "Advisors" could be sent to Indo to assist and advise the French. Time was running out, and indeed the general opinion of the observant was that it was too late. A one armed General by the name of Bourne had made his mark as director of operations and gone home and been replaced by a General Templer. His powers were those of a Supremo and things began to move quickly indeed. Families were being reunited, as Government had granted permission for a certain number to be found homes in Batu Pahat. More "White" areas were being declared and people were able to move around more freely. But the hard core Communists were still persistent and the war went on. I returned to New Zealand in October of 1954 and was posted to Linton Camp where CMT was still in full swing. I remained there until 1956 when I was posted to Gisborne as Cadre for the Hawkes Bay Regt. In 1957, Government decided that a Bn of Infantry was to go to Malaysia to assist a New Nation in its fight against communism. The Bn was centered on Taiping and it was there that I joined it. Our CO was Lt Col. K. Morrison, one of the real characters of our army. A WWII man and a fine soldier. On my return to NZ at the end of 1959 I was posted to Burnham Camp until late 1960 when I was sent to the School of Infantry at Waiouru. At the end of 1963 I was posted to Wanganui where I joined the Wellington West Coast and Taranaki Regt. Those were good years indeed as I was able to live in the Community with my family and be part of it. From Wanganui it was up to Papakura Camp. Papakura Camp held many memories as it was from here that I left for the war. I had never been back until that day in 1966. I spent over six years here and retired from the service in 1972. There is so much more that has surfaced since starting these reflections. So much forgotten about, both good and bad. In the good, the opportunity of having served with so many fine men of so many races. Of seeing young men grow in stature and character and give of their best. The courtesy and loyalty of the Fijian soldier is something to cherish. The Gurkha with his incredible discipline. The fine young men in this country. We read so much of the negative about troublesome people that we forget that they are only a small part of our nation. The good ones are out there in their thousands. I know as I have trained and served with them.

Yours in friendship 34289 ExRSM RNZ Infantry

Submitted by mbadmin on

Takupu (1)

My father was quite typical I think of the young men who set off in search of an adventure, without realising what they were getting into. An adventure, certainly, but with a very high price which they were all prepared to pay. Today I sat and looked at his medals, including the British Empire Medal, of which I think we were always prouder of, than he was. The war took something away from most of them, and perhaps created something in them that the survivors struggled to recreate post-war, even those that rejoined the forces. While there was horror and loss, there was also the power of belonging to something, or being part of an community that was doing something important, and by the time I came along in the '60's you could see the frustrations for many of them serving in a peace-time army. They were difficult, edgy, hard men who sought other adventures, hence how often they had their hands up for Korea, Malaya and Vietnam. Dad continued to serve his country until he turned 50, and for myself, my sister and brother it gave us a wonderful upbringing and childhood, albeit like most army-brats a bit of a wandering one. We lost Dad on the 6th August 2006, aged 83. He had lived his life as well as he could, and as fully as he could. He was a person who believed in contributing, with volunteer roles in many sporting and community fields and his military funeral was a celebration of all of those aspects of life. I am forever proud of him, and am enormously proud to be his daughter.