A "Q.M." Looks Back

This article appeared in the April 1984 The Battalion Remembers booklet.

A "Q.M." Looks Back

On a hot September afternoon in 1943 I was dodging the heat with a few other types in an "EPIP" tent, when the roar of a motorcylce heralded the arrival of a messenger from "The Hill", who handed me the message "Report Earliest to Military Secretary".

Not being one to argue, I hot-footed to the tented office of that high-ranking officer to learn what he, or fate, held in store for me. I threw him a salute which I thought was superb, but which he chose to ignore, merely waving me to a canvas chair, and "Sit down". Perhaps it was just as well I was sitting down - I don't think I could have taken the shock standing up, as he said "You're going to the Maori Battalion, Prescott - as Quarter-Master".

"Sir", I snivelled, "I don't qualify - I'm a pakeha, and I don't know anything about the "Q" side".

"I know you're a pakeha," he snorted. "And as for the "Q" side, you'll learn. Report to the Battalion for duty tomorrow at 1100 hours". And then as an after-thought, "It should be a great experience for you". And so it was, as it turned out! The greatest!

I reported next day to Battalion H.Q's promptly, and was greeted by the adjutant - none other than Rangi Tutaki, who I remembered from his Christ's College days in Christchurch. Cheerful as ever, the smiling "Tu" took me over to the mess where I met most of the officers, had lunch, and then hung about wondering what I was in for. It was then that genial Matt Swainson (Captain & "Q.M."), whom I was replacing, took me in tow to the "Q" sector, where I was presented to the chaps under his command. He then told them that I knew "damn all" about "Q" duties and administration, but Pat Priestly, the R.Q.M.S, rose to the occasion saying "Don't worry, Sir, we'll teach you". Words of comfort indeed!

Looking back, I recall with affection those delightful characters, Hubba Facorey (later to replace Pat Priestly), Bill Ruru, "Porky Joe" Thomson, Ned Epu, Rangi Simeon, Anthony Sherwood, Hiku Campbell, Joe Poata, and that humorous soldier, "Tawhaie", who, if memory serves me right doubled as butcher and boot repairer! If I have left anyone out, blame the march of time. After all, forty years have rolled.

Came the next day when my friend Tutaki mentioned that I would need a batman, and suggested that I should see Peter Ornberg, who had a likely "Young bloke" who might be suitable. He joined me the day after - young indeed not yet sixteen years old, by name Joe Taputora, admittedly not the perfect batman, but a damn good trier.

A month later we sailed for Italy. The Battalion was split over several ships, on the principle, of not putting all your eggs in one basket! Torpedos were about, and the loss of a whole battalion would be distinctly undesirable.

My group sailed on the "Letitia", under command of Captain Jim Henare "(Now Sir James)". She was of the Donaldson Shipping Line and a sister ship to the "Athenia", the first British ship to be sunk in the war - on September 3rd. The "Letitia", I am told was later rechristened "Captain Cook", and became a familiar sight in New Zealand waters as an immigrant carrier from Britain.

The Battalion, after the Italian landing, finally regrouped among the Olive groves of Southern Italy on a soaking autumn morning. Order was restored, records brought up-to-date or very nearly so. And then the "Q" side really swung into action. Winter was nearly on us, and we were preparing for our first action in La Bella Italia - the Sangro River.

It was at this stage that I really had to come to grips with the grim realities of the "Q" side under war conditions, and had it not been for Pat Priestly and the team I'd have been really groping - and in trouble. Life was real - life was earnest!

Vast stocks of winter clothing were collected and distributed. Each day the "Q" trucks beat a path to the RSC supply points, and indents for "Controlled Stores" such as weapons, compasses, binoculars etc, were presented to Ordnance.

Then came our first action, the crossing of the "Sangro" - and the aftermath. The replacement of equipment lost in action - all types, down to blankets. That was when I had my first real experience of how the whole job of Quartermastering really worked. And how my chaps worked! They really rallied when the whips were cracking. I, in my inexperience and ignorance surely needed the guidance of Pat and his team, and this they provided in full measure. In fact the whole "Sangro" operation, from start to finish, went without a hitch and gave me a little more confidence, which I badly needed.

And so it went on - into action - out of action, equipping, re-equipping - and always at the end of each month was that infernal "Census of Warlike Stores" (Code Number G 1098), that had to be filled in. Mama Mia! How I hated it - and what it involved - collating returns from companies of weapons, all types, binoculars, compasses etc, to name but a few, all of which had to be checked and collated in a Battalion return, which we sometimes made to balance with the figures from the companies. As the end of each month drew nigh I usually had a slight attack of anxiety neurosis at the thought of yet another grapple with this accursed census. How much we "wrote off' as "lost in action", I'll never know, but anyone who could really get a true balance for this damn census would have to be either a genius or a nut case! I usually put it together, while Bill Ruru did the final filling in with his impeccable penmanship. Bill's handwriting was perfection - I have never seen better -and I'm happy to say that I still see it on my Christmas card from. Wairoa each year.

The QMS's of the five companies were good capable characters, and when the Battalion returned from the "Sharp end" they lost no time in submitting their requirements to me for replacement of weapons, clothing, blankets, boots etc. And if they erred on the side of generosity at times, well I think you'll agree on the old saying "Better too much than too little."

It seems appropriate to point out at this stage, that as QM, I was only near the front on very rare occasions; and was in no real danger from shot and shell, but these indents which I had to collate and present to "Ordnance" brought me under some heavy verbal bombardments from certain Senior officers there. The fact that I was careful to explain that all my requirements, excessive as they seemed, were essential to the well-being and fighting fitness of the Battalion, were, I feel largely discounted. I certainly stopped my share of "flak", but, in the end, I usually managed by a mixture of pleading, arguing and a little portion of some imaginative lying to get what I came after. After which I would return to the Battalion well pleased with my visit, but "scary" at the thought of having to go through the ordeal again in the near future - and again - until the war came to an end, or I did.

Actually the OR's in the Ordnance Depot were nice generous chaps who occasionally "Slipped" me the odd pair of socks, or a spare set of underwear. Small wonder that I "Slipped" them a few Mutton birds and pauas, as they came to hand from NZ. The executive "Brass" however, did not share these delicacies - I saw to that - especially when their usual greeting was "Oh Hell! Not you again". And so my love-hate affair with the Unit dragged on. Then came the day when I was summoned to an interview by the ADOS (Assistant Director of Ordnance Services). I sensed trouble ahead, and I was absolutely right. Rangi Simeon drove me down to meet the great man, and having dropped me at the right caravan, moved off to while away the time until I emerged. His parting comment "Better you than me, Sir", did nothing for my morale. To be frank I didn't have much morale left after that irate Colonel had finished with me.

Quite obviously, some super-efficient officer of the staff had collected all the indents over a nine month period which pertained to the Maori Battalion, and I must admit, that when their respective totals were collated, they came to a sizeable figure - very sizeable - especially the boots, which he saved for a final onslaught. "How do you explain these figures" he thundered. "Good God, are you QM to a battalion of bloody centipedes?" (Sniggers from a 2/Lieutenant and a Staff Sergeant - but not from me). "But, Sir", I pleaded. "Each man must have two pair". "Yes" he answered, "and it won't be your fault, if he doesn't have three - will it"? He was right of course, Colonels always are, especially when armed with evidence. Having been grilled to his satisfaction, I was admonished, warned, and dismissed. Out I went into the bright light of day, and back to the security and friendliness of "28", where I sought out the cheerful Tutaki to whom I confided the details of my ordeal. Far from oozing with sympathy for my shattering experience, he exploded into laughter, saying, "No doubt about it Bill, you're a hell of a good Maori QM". One of the nicest remarks to ever come my way, and a great morale restorer.

Life became good again. I called the CQMS's together and told them about my "Trial by Ordnance". Indents assumed more reasonable proportions - and everyone was happy, especially Ordnance officers.

Conversely, our relationship with the Supply Column from whom we drew out rations, and the Division Pet. [Petrol] Coy, were in complete harmony, during my term as QM. Never, to my knowledge, was there a complaint from any of these units about our indents, which I think, was a good and sufficient reason for keeping them on our list for the odd Hangi and Christmas dinners.

The days flew past and we wended our ways up the Italian Peninsula at a cracking pace. Everyone knew the end was insight. Jerry's Air Force was practically nonexistent an prisoners were pouring down the roads to the POW camps.

Everything looked rosy - until the day when I was summoned to Bn HQ's and shown a signal from Div HQ, which informed me that I was to report there on the following day for an interview with the DAQMG, with a view to my being appointed to the Div HQ staff.

I was horrified - or perhaps "shattered" may be a better word. In the twenty months since I joined the battalion, I'd become part of it. I loved it. I knew damn near every man in it, and I had a rapport with them, as a QM, which must have been unique. By the time I returned to Battalion after my interview at Div HQ, I knew that my new job was Staff Captain "Q" working under the DAQMG (Depty Adjutant and Quartermaster General). I was to replace the previous holder of this appointment who had recently been killed. So there it was! The grand finale! My life in the Battalion prematurely ended, and no hope now of sailing home with the Officers & OR's who had given me their friendship, and in many cases, there trust and confidence, and all because the Military Secretary had unearthed my personal file, which clearly stated that I had graduated from the Combined Services Staff College, prior to joining "28".

There's little more to tell. I finally left the Battalion after a series of parties, a particularly good Hangi, and a gift or two. I was saddened at the parting, and adjustment to a new life as an officer of the General's staff took time. I missed the camaraderie and spirit of the chaps, and the freer, untrammelled life in a fighting unit.

Those are some of my memories, put on paper after almost forty years. Memories of a great experience which I wouldn't have missed - for which I'll always be grateful - and proud.

by W.H. (BILL) PRESCOTT "Q.M." September 1943 - April 1945

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