Vic Henderson

Vic Henderson

Vic Henderson, 25th/22nd Battalion | 2NZEF (WWII)

Vic Henderson, 25th/22nd Battalion | 2NZEF (WWII)

(Featherston, Wairarapa) - Desert - Italy

Vic Henderson was born in Featherston in 1919, and grew-up in Wairaparapa on a little farm.

“It was a little town. It had a dairy factory just out of town. A stop on the railway link. But not much more.”

His house bordered the Taharanikau racecourse where the local territorials used to camp and train periodically, and Vic remembers this giving him an early interest in the soldiering and the military. Later, in his teens he could see a war coming, so tried to get what instruction in military training he could, particularly in rifle handling.

“I was a member of a miniature rifle club. We used to travel around shooting at targets and things. As a young guy, I could imagine Hitler in the middle of every one of them (the targets). So it was no surprise when it did happen; when the war did start.”

After finishing school, Vic took a job working at Land & Income Tax Dept in Wellington.

“I always thought, when I grew up enough to think about it, that this was unfinished business from the First World War. I was quite sure the war was coming. Somebody was going to have to get in there and finished it off from the first one So I suppose being a young guy; there was a little bit of ‘it is going to be an adventure going overseas.’ I was going to put Hitler in my sights and free Europe of that bloke. From the age of 16 onwards, I was ready to have a go. 21 was the official age, bit many chaps got away with false papers earlier than that.”I joined the Public Service with a view of the war that was coming. I thought it was a good place to join if I was going to come back with one arm or one leg missing. I knew friends and relatives, ‘rejects’ – disabled from the First World War, who had taken up various jobs in offices that they could do. I knew very well with one arm missing; I would never be a farmer, for example. That was my reason for joining the Public Service in the first place. I knew I could not get away until I was 21 because the benefits that the Public Service were going to give me like continuing superannuation and guaranteed employment when I got back again, and all those sorts of things were very valuable in those days.”The radio and the newspapers had the Europe story pretty well covered. We knew what was going on. Once I did join the Army, one of the blokes was a Czech guy, a tailor. He was very bitter about what Hitler had done in Czechoslovakia, and would have ‘cut Hitler’s throat for tuppence at any point of the clock’. He probably did more to educate the rest of us about what went on in Europe than we knew before we went away.”

Recalling the war breaking out:

“My mother was born in England. It was very much as our Prime Minister said, ‘Where England goes we go.’ It was very much that feeling. There was no question that I should not go. Before the movies at the cinema, it was always ‘God Save The King’. There was respect for the royalty all the way through. I have done my share of lining up at the roadside with British flags to cheer the royal visitors. We felt we were still part of Britain to that extent.”I knew I could not get away until I was 21, so the moment I turned 21 in 1940, I enlisted, and eventually went away with the 4th Reinforcements.”

Vic was assigned to 25th Battalion at Maadi Camp, just outside Cairo, which was the home of the NZ Division in the Middle East. After a period of acclimatising and training, Vic’s unit went ‘up the blue’ – the desert.

“After Minqa Qaim, where 4th Brigade got really chopped-up, 6th Brigade coming down from Syria went to Kaponga Box fortress, and we established ourselves there for a day or two. So that was the formation of the Alamein line, from that point on. There was much fighting backwards and forward with Rommel getting in around the edges of it. Until it was finally established as a very heavily defended line on both sides – the German side and our side.”


Haddon Donald

Haddon Donald

Haddon Donald, 22nd Battalion (2nd Ech) | 2NZEF (WWII)

Haddon Donald, 22nd Battalion (2nd Ech) | 2NZEF (WWII)

#6011 (Masterton) - Greece - Crete - Desert - Italy-C/O of 22 Battalion in Italy

Haddon was born in the Wairarapa on March 20 1917 and did his high-schooling at Nelson College.

“Leaving school in 1934, at the height of the Depression, it was not possible to begin a planned law degree, so I worked in the family business. Shooting was a particular passion, and I spent every summer Saturday afternoon at the Masterton-Opaki Rifle Range, competing at the national championships for the first time in 1935. I loved duck shooting, hare drives and fishing, and my father taught me all he knew. A great many ducks and hares paid the ultimate price as I honed my sharpshooting skills.”

By 1937 Haddon figured the war’s coming was ‘obvious to everyone but our government’, so he joined the local territorials as much on the rationale that he better be as ‘trained and prepared as possible to survive’ as patriotism and a desire to stand up to Hitler. In August 1939, he passed his infantry commission. At the outbreak of war, he went to the Masterton drill hall at 7.30am on the first day to sign-up, but after waiting an hour and a half for someone to turn up, he had to accept the local authorities weren’t ready.

“There was no sense of adventure in my mind when I joined up; there was certainly a dread and a loathing of war. But there was also a growing antipathy towards Hitler and his thugs. Who was this upstart who thought he could rule the world?… To hell with him – he must be stopped. I did not want him with his goose-stepping henchmen to rule roughshod over my family and my country. No, he must be stopped, and Britain had set an example which we had to support. I was 22 years old, and with my Territorial training and rifle practice I had done my best to prepare for war.”

After getting his call-up, he gathered at Trentham Camp in December 1939 for a preliminary course in anticipation of the arrival of the troops in January. They were issued with WWI uniforms and slept in WWI Bell tents that leaked badly. With plenty of discipline, route marching and physical training – the men gradually moulded into shape, and the competition between companies helped build esprit-de-corps amongst the men.

“In the months of training at Trentham, there was a competition to determine the most efficient company in the battalion and then the most efficient platoon in that company. As a reward for my platoon winning the competition, I was proud to lead 14 Platoon at the head of the 22nd Battalion in the final march through Wellington prior to embarkation. There was never another platoon like it – though some may dispute that – and I stayed with them till promotion required me to move on.”

Haddon and his unit sailed with the Hawkes Bay & West Coast (C) Company of the 22 Battalion aboard the Empress of Britain as part of the Second Echelon – 2NZEF. Soon after arriving in the UK, after a voyage via South Africa, Haddon bumped into his brother Graeme who was serving a short service commission in the RAF, at the NZ Force Club, precisely a year after they had said their goodbyes back home. They were able to catch-up several times during Haddon and the Battalion’s time in the UK.

“For most of our time in England, we were stationed at a small village in Kent called Hollingbourne where the local people adopted us. The Vernon family kept open house for our battalion officers, and we all coveted the attention of their daughter Avril, who was a charmer. We were centrally situated in Hollingbourne and transported in old London buses ready to be thrown into the fray at any point along the south coast should Jerry attempt an invasion. The Cockney drivers became very popular with our troops. We were sad to leave the good people of Hollingbourne and, when the time eventually came, we held a moving last service in the local church at which our commanding officer presented a New Zealand flag to the vicar. (It has now, with the ravages of time, been replaced twice.)”

Haddon and his unit then sailed for Egypt. Like many of the New Zealand men, Haddon has many memories of Cairo.

“Egypt was full of surprises. Compared with the lush greens of the Nile region, the train journey from Suez to Cairo gave us our first glimpse of the starkness of the desert with its bare hills and rocky plains. We met up, too, with a variety of those likeable rascals who had earned the title of WOG or ‘Wily Oriental Gentleman’. Having learned to live off their wits in a poor environment, they were as sharp as razors. Able to tell by the colour of our skin (whether it was tanned/sun-burnt or otherwise) that we were newcomers, the newspaper boys arrived on the platform by arrangement with the train driver, crying ‘Read all about it – good news – ship sunk – British ship’, just as we were pulling out very slowly. The smiling rogues would snatch the five piastres proffered by our gullible troops through the train windows. Then, still clutching the papers, they would run off down the train to find another victim before melting away into the crowd. We soon learned their tricks and appreciated their sense of humour. They were all called ‘George’, and we routinely accused them of being ‘Klefti Wallahs’ or petty thieves.”

The men did barely three months training in the desert before they were shipped off as part of the expedition to Greece to counter an expected German invasion. After arriving in Piraeus near Athens, the 22 Battalion went north to block one of the significant German routes of advance, at the foot of Mount Olympus – their baptism of fire:

“From our vantage point, we watched the Germans approaching in an endless column down the main road towards us, preceded by motorcycles with machine gun equipped side-cars. Troop vehicles, tanks and artillery could be seen in close-packed formation, but there was not a plane of our own insight. They had mostly been taken by surprise and shot up on the ground. A reconnaissance plane hovered overhead, so we did not give our positions away until the last moment. Then, as the Germans approached, our engineers fired a demolition charge in the road ahead of them, and the column came to a halt. Our artillery – mortars and machine guns – then opened up and created havoc. The Germans knew then that they had run into something solid.”

“We held them at bay… The following night the inevitable happened, and we had to withdraw as the Germans had overrun the Greeks on our left flank. For 14 Platoon this entailed a three-hour trek in the dark across the rough, unfamiliar country in the foothills of Mount Olympus. The track was marked on the map but was difficult to follow. Several times I temporarily lost my way in the dark and progress was slow when out of the gloom behind me came a voice, ‘Stick to the mud, Boss’. Withdrawing with the general retreat, they next formed a defensive position at Thermopylae Pass for about a week, before the final withdrawal to avoid being outflanked, to Porto Rafti where they were taken by Royal Navy ship to Crete. Before leaving, they sadly had to destroy much of their equipment, including their battalion bagpipes and drums which had played their unit anthem – the ancient Scottish air The Pibroch of Donuil Dhu since the unit was first formed.”

“We stepped ashore at Suda Bay lucky to be alive and determined to do our share come what may. The sun was shining, the surroundings looked interesting, the locals were friendly, the olive trees provided welcome shade, the oranges were ripe and juicy, and the wine was good – perhaps we should count our blessings.”

Haddon’s unit was positioned on the strategically important Maleme airstrip, and in the thick of the fighting after the German attack on May 20th.

“Dawn broke on May 20 and overcame the expected Stukas. We curled up in the bottom of our slit trenches and braced ourselves for the ordeal. After about an hour the onslaught eased off and my runner, Jimmy Christian, who occupied one side of our two-person slit trench, went off to collect our breakfast. While he was away, I heard a dull roar and looked out to sea to see an armada of heavy bombers coming straight at us, wave after wave of menacing monsters all heading for our position. Now we are for it, I thought; this is where it all begins and, perhaps, ends…”

“These were big bombers, and as each bomb screeched down, I curled up into the smallest possible space, knees under my chin, tin hat protecting my head and body. As each bomb zoomed in, tension built up to a crescendo of sheer terror and uncontrollable trembling for the few seconds before impact. There was no time for relief before the next bomb with my name apparently on it followed closely behind. The same process over and over again – would it never stop? Finally, my personal bomb landed five feet away on my runner’s side of our slit trench, and I passed out with a concussion. I came round to find Jimmy Christian shaking my shoulder. ‘Wake up, boss, there are paratroopers and gliders all around us’. I stood up groggily and, looked out but could not see a thing. A heavy pall of dust and smoke obliterated everything. As it slowly dispersed during the next quarter of an hour two smashed gliders and a few abandoned parachutes were revealed. My platoon position and company headquarters were carpeted with bomb craters practically touching one another. Five of my platoon had been killed and several wounded in this attack.”

Reflecting on the loss of Crete, Haddon is sceptical of some of the ‘armchair criticism’ that he encountered:

“Published records indicate a considerably greater number of Allied than German forces, but make no recognition that the invading troops were all front-line fighting troops while the majority of ours were support personnel in charge of supplies, aerodromes, parts etc. The crucial part, to my mind, was the complete domination of the air by the Germans and the fact that up until that time Hitler has been victorious in the war and would likely have been unwilling to accept a defeat. Why were we so tragically ill-equipped?”

After time in hospital in Egypt recovering from his wounds sustained on Crete, and some leave, Haddon fought with his unit through the whole Middle-East/desert campaign including; Operation Crusader, Minqa Qaim, and Alamein. He fought all the way through Italy, and took the surrender of the Germans at Trieste in the last action of the European war, as Battalion Commander of the 22nd. The New Zealanders then had to face down the former ally, the Yugoslavs under Tito, who were attempting to take Trieste as ‘war booty’ contrary to an agreement with Churchill, to give their republic an Adriatic coastal port. It was a tense situation that foretold the start of the Cold War.

After the war, Haddon returned to farming and family business interests in the Wairarapa, and keen to make up for lost time, applied and was accepted as the first New Zealander to attend Harvard Business School. On August 30, 1947, he married Ana Beetham, also from the Wairarapa, who had served as a Navy WREN during the war.

Haddon had a spell in politics as the member of parliament for the area and maintained his passion and expertise in target shooting representing NZ numerous time at the world championships in Bisley. He has lived since 1988 in retirement in Taupo and Masterton.

(Some text adapted from Haddon’s autobiography ‘In Peace and War’ (2005), Fraser Books, NZ). Video produced by Patrick Bronte)