Frank May

Frank May

Frank May, 19th Battalion (1st Echelon) | 2NZEF | (WW2)

Frank May, 19th Battalion (1st Echelon) | 2NZEF | (WW2)

#5625 (New Plymouth) - Greece - Crete - North Africa - P.O.W

Date: 31 May 1941 Ref: DA-10636-F

New Zealand soldiers awaiting evacuation from Crete, 31 May, 1941. Photographer unidentified.

Frank was born on the 6th of December 1916 in New Plymouth, living there until he transferred to Hawera, Taranaki in 1937, to work with Hannahs Shoe Company. He attended Central Primary School then New Plymouth Boys High School. Like many of Frank’s generation, he remembers the struggles for families growing-up in Depression years, and how many missed-out on high schooling because their parents couldn’t afford to send them. 

“It was quite a pricey-effort for our parents to send us to High School in those days cause it the Depression days. Unemployment. My father was employed all the time, so I was lucky.”

Frank grew-up at a very different time; when patriotism, discipline and military-ethos were far more at the forefront of everyday life in New Zealand than they are today: 

“In New Plymouth Boys High School, that’s where we first learnt our military training because they had military training at school… They were allowed to hit you if you didn’t do what you were told… ‘bring your tennis shoe over here, bend over, bang’! “

“We learnt to shoot – we used to go out on the rifle range here in New Plymouth. We learnt the military drill. It was good. And we learnt military discipline. We used to march on ANZAC Day in the parades. You used to have to have a doctor’s certificate to say you couldn’t do it (if you wanted to be excused) We’d go down to the drill hall in New Plymouth. They had a rifle range inside the building with big wooden blocks behind the target so the bullets couldn’t go through. They used to give us .22 (calibre) bullets, and we used to practice.”

“It stood us in good stead (later during the war) when we did go into the Army. I won the under-15 shooting championship… I wasn’t a bad sort of a shot in those days. When I got to Egypt (during the war), they had a competition – the whole Brigade – several thousand men, and I got fourth equal in that – in the ‘double-snap’ (event). You had to get two shots off in ten seconds at 200 yards.”

After leaving school, Frank worked in the grocer’s/fruit shop before taking a job at Hannahs. He volunteered soon after war broke out, and went into camp initially at Trentham camp near Wellington. After 7-8 weeks there Frank and the men were taken up to Waiouru camp for exercises. It was the early days of Waiouru camp, with very few amenities built.

“There was nothing – just a few shower boxes, and that’s all. We were all in tents. Also, we were only there about a week, then they took us back to Trentham, and we went on final leave. A lot of the instructors were Regular Army blokes, and all their theory was based on First World War methods – which were totally inadequate really for the Second World War, but they didn’t know how the Second World War was going to evolve – the tactics etc. Because it (WWII) was far more mobile than the First World War, stuck in trenches. That had gone. The Second World War was one of movement. It was discipline and field craft (we learnt).”

“A lot of blokes, I wouldn’t say everyone, but the majority had gone to high school and had done a bit of military discipline. They could march, and they could shoot. It made a big difference. You knew jolly-well you had to learn whatever they could teach you – to use machine-guns, to use a rifle – most could use a rifle because we’d been to high school or Territorials, and could shoot. But none of us had fired machine guns before. We had to learn those.”

“And then we got the Tommy guns before we went to Greece. They were alright if you were in close-quarters, but they were no good for long distance shooting. You soon mastered everything. You had a go at everything. They had different sections. In each (infantry) battalion, you had the ordinary infantry, but then you had a mortar platoon – 3-inch mortars. They’d support you (infantry). The ordinary infantry (role) wasn’t hard to learn.”

“All our equipment was antiquated compared to what the Germans had. When we first went away, we still had First World War uniforms. One or two (men) packed-up physically. They couldn’t stand the pace. When we got to Egypt, some were sent back home. Not many, because the average bloke was pretty fit. When we got our inoculations, before went overseas, my arm was that sore that I went to bed that night, and on the floor next to me – we slept feet towards the centre-pole of the tent – big Jim Coole. He’s just come from the All Black training squad, straight into camp. Big 16-stone lock (forward) – he was next to me – he went to the canteen and got a skin-full of beer. We had six blankets each, and he came back and picked up his 6 to make the bed up, and he dumps them right on top of me where I’d had the injections. Little things like that happened. Jim. He was that strong, in Greece, he carried a 1,000-round box of ammunition on his shoulder up the side of the mountain.. he said, ‘I thought you jokers might be a bit short of ammo’.”

After further training at Trentham, then a week’s final leave, Frank sailed aboard the Strathaird ship from Wellington.

“I was lucky. Some of the chaps were in hammocks below in the hold. I was in a two-berth cabin. I was only a private! The officers and nurses were all up on the top decks. You had physical training, exercises etc. You might have to march around the deck 30 or 40 times, and all that sort of stuff, to try and keep fit. You couldn’t wear your Army (hobnail) boots; you had to have your tennis (gym) shoes on. We got ashore in Perth, Western Australia for one or two night. They paid us all in Australian pounds. Of course, as soon as you all hit the first pub, they skimmed all the change out – the banks were all closed because it was early evening. So they couldn’t give you any change, and so they closed the bar in the finish. They wouldn’t sell you any beer. That was in Fremantle, so we went up to Perth, and there was a bit more change around up there.”

After stopovers in Ceylon and Aden, the men reached Tufik and encamped at Maadi near Cairo, Egypt. After a period of training and acclimatising, as well as waiting for the 2nd Echelon who had been diverted to the UK, to arrive, Frank and the men sailed for Greece. 

After the Division’s retreat and evacuation from there, Frank found himself on the island of Crete – based around the Galatas sector. He was one of the lucky ones there too, being evacuated with some of his units to the Middle East. As it did for many Kiwis, Frank’s luck finally ran out during the early battles of the Crusader campaign. He was captured when the British armour failed to show up as scheduled, leaving the infantrymen hopelessly exposed to a powerful force of German tanks.

“We went in on a night attack. We went seven miles through the enemy lines. They said the tanks would be up and support you at daylight. Well, the tanks never came up, and Gerry (the Germans) waited to see if it was a trap. And when he could see it wasn’t a trap, he just brought his tanks in. Well, we had no show against the tanks just with rifles. Not a show! Rifles and machine guns are no good against tanks. So our officers surrendered us. One of them had a white towel in his bag, and he waved it and surrendered the whole lot.”

“It was awful. I was absolutely flabbergasted. We sort of did not realise what had happened until your brain started to function again – it was a total shock. Because you knew you’d been sold down the track by the (British) ‘tankies’ you see. You held a grudge against the tankies for a long time. Afterwards, though, you realised that is what ‘Gerry’ wanted – to suck in those tanks and destroy them, then he had us you see. But there was a fair bit of friction there between the New Zealanders and the British there for a while. However, it did not affect the whole (desert) war – they knew they dare not risk the jolly tanks. Because they (Allies) weren’t ready to fight the tanks. Not until Alamein. The Germans had better tanks; they had bigger tanks. And they had what they called the ‘half-tracks’ which were tracks on the back of the vehicle, and wheels on the front. And they could go a hell of a lot faster than the tanks. And they had better tanks guns than us – they had the .88 (mm gun). That was far better than anything we had.”

Frank went into captivity as a POW, being handed to the Italians, who interned the men in the infamous POW camp at Benghazi before transporting them to Italy by ship, then into POW camps there. After the Italian surrender, Frank was taken into German captivity and transported by cattle wagon to a POW camp in Germany. He was liberated at the end of the war, returning to NZ.Frank retired in New Plymouth.

 (With thanks to Frank’s family for assistance with this story)

Bill Wakeling

Bill Wakeling

Bill Wakeling, 19th (Armoured) Regt, 4th Armoured Brigade | 2NZEF (WWII)

Bill Wakeling, 19th (Armoured) Regt, 4th Armoured Brigade | 2NZEF (WWII)

(Palmerston North)

Date: [ca 4 Aug 1944] By: Kaye, George Frederick, 1914-2004
Ref: DA-06510-F
Caption on file print reads: ‘This NZ Sherman tank was knocked out by the German Tiger [tank], which was destroyed in turn by a ‘stonk’ from the guns of NZ Div Arty.’ Photograph taken circa 4 August 1944 by George Frederick Kaye.

Bill Wakeling was born on the 20th of August 1922 in Wanganui, where he grew up and spent the first eighteen years of his life. His father had a small block near the town; a leased a further 60-acres further out; milking cows and rearing pigs. ‘We were milking 60 cows and raising 200 pigs.

’‘Families were tighter in those days. All you’re spare time was spent helping out… I think we were fortunate, being on a little farm. There was so much to occupy our time.’

His Father also held down a full-time job in the city, setting up petrol bowsers for Wright Stevensons and their Challenge Benzine outlets. Later, he set up his petrol and tyre business. He then bought a farm in the Waitotara Valley north-west of the city, and Bill moved there too to work on it. During the Depression years, when business was down, the large family garden on the farm helped out a lot.

“Things were pretty tight.”

When Bill left school, he initially took a wholesale grocery job and thought he might pursue the trade.
Later, after going into the Army, on final leave before going overseas, he purchased a run nearby his family farm, which he farmed himself after the war. ‘Other than my Army life, I was up there all my life, nearly. 60 years.’

“I knew I was coming back (from the War). Optimist eh. All of us over there thought we were coming back…”

At Maadi Camp just out of Cairo, Assigned to the 19th Armoured Regiment, Bill became part of NZ 4th Armoured Brigade, that had recently converted from infantry as 19th Battalion. He served through the Italian campaign.


Charlie Reed

Charlie Reed

Charlie Reed, 4th/6th Field Regt, Artillery | 2NZEF (WWII)

Charlie Reed, 4th/6th Field Regt, Artillery | 2NZEF (WWII)

(Hawkes Bay) - Greece - Desert - Italy

Ref: DA-00757-F
A group of NZ soldiers talking after arrival in Egypt from Greece. Taken possibly at Maadi military camp circa 1941 by an official photographer.

Charlie Reed was in the Territorials before the Second World War. With the outbreak of war Charlie signed-on with the 2nd New Zealand Division as an artilleryman, leaving for war with the First Echelon.

“I went away with the First Echelon. As a gunner, that is a Private Soldier, in what was called the Fourth Field Regiment. We trained at Ngaruawahia, the camp was known as Hopu Hopu. We sailed from Wellington, we had one left over Christmas, 1939, and we were back into camp. About the 2nd of January, we came down from Ngaruawahia by train and embarked on a ship, the Empress of Canada, which was a British Liner. Away we went with the rest of the First Echelon.”

In Egypt, Charlie’s unit was based at the newly established NZ camp near Maadi. Charlie was soon recommended for a commission and underwent officer training.

“They wanted more officers, and so they sent off for so many, recommendations from every unit that wanted to, well every unit I think got the chance to nominate people. The actual Officer Training Cadet course that I went to, had troops come from everywhere, the Artillery, the Infantry, the Machine Gunners, the various units’ right through to the … RMT, that was the Motor Transport, they came from everywhere.We were all trained more or less the same; we were not trained in our speciality, we were just trained as infantry really. We were lectured an awful lot. I played more sport when I was there than any other time in my service. I played nearly everything from Rugby to Cricket to Tennis. I do not think I played golf, but you know I had a good time.”

Charlie served through the Greek campaign. Trained initially as a gunnery specialist, an artillery role that worked out the firing coordinates, by this stage he was commanding two guns. At first, his guns were dug-in on several positions at Mt. Olympus, but his batteries were not called to fire on the enemy. Later, during the retreat, they did engage the enemy.

In southern Greece, Charlie was separated from most of his unit and was amongst a party of stragglers from different units who were diverted to Corinth. After missing out on evacuation by Royal Navy vessels, he managed to commandeer a local boat and successfully sail it with a small group to Crete. Arriving there, Charlie heard that the rest of 6th Brigade had returned to Egypt, and several days later he too sailed for Alexandria.

Charlie fought through the North African campaign, then refusing furlough in the first draft was sent to Italy and served throughout the early stages of the campaign, before being ordered home to NZ for rest in a furlough draft. After returning, Charlie remained with his unit until the end of the Italian campaign, by which time he was a major and 2nd-in-Command of 6th Field Regiment.

Like many New Zealand and Commonwealth gunners, Charlie thought that despite deficiencies in equipment in many areas, the standard gun the New Zealand Artillery used during the war, the British 25-pounder, was a great weapon.

“The guns we thought were jolly good, and they were still the basic field gun at the end of the war. We did not have them to train on; we were still training on the old things that they had in World War I. When we got to Egypt we got issued with these 25-pounders, and they served us very well right through the war. However, they had to be properly looked after and serviced with the proper instruction given to the gunner or they were not much good.”


Sonny Sewell

Sonny Sewell

Sonny Sewell, B-Coy. 28th (Maori) Battalion | 2NZEF (WWII)

Sonny Sewell, B-Coy. 28th (Maori) Battalion | 2NZEF (WWII)

#39754 (Rotorua) - Greece - Crete - Desert

Sonny Sewell (2nd from right, front group), 28th (Maori Battalion), Sports Day, North Africa

Sonny was born in Rotorua on the 28th of May 1923. He was educated in Auckland.

“My parents split up before I was born. My father left the district. My mother died when I was about 18 months old, and I was brought up by my grandparents, adopted legally by them. He (grandfather) was one of the gardeners of the then Auckland City Council. I did part of my secondary education in Auckland, then he retired, and we came back here to Rotorua to live.”

He remembers growing up in the shadow of the First World War, during the time when military matters were far more top-of-mind and part of everyday life.

“We knew all about it of course. From ANZAC Day. I understand my father was a returned man from WWI. I had uncles in the First World War. When you think about it, it was only 20 years after the first one finished that the second one started. The First World War was very much on our minds. I remember at school; we made paper mache (models) of the WWI trenches.”

“English is the second language to us. In those days, at home, we spoke Maori. At school, Maori was forbidden in the school-ground. Culturally and spiritually, our Maori side of things came first… We were quite aware of the lead up to the war. With Munich (Crisis) and all it was quite obvious, there was going to be a war. And we had school cadets.”

“The Maori, he’s a martial (military) type of person. They’ve been fighting wars all their lives (history) – there were inter-tribal wars, they fought the British, you name it.”

After war broke out, Sonny enlisted aged 16 under the name Rangitepuru Waretini. His first attempt was unsuccessful, as the recruiting officer in charge knew him and the fact we were so young. But soon after, he discovered that officer was away for a while and re-enlisted successfully.

“In January (1940) we were all called-up, the ones who were waiting, and we all went into Palmerston North. That was where our training camp was. And that’s where we stayed and did all our training until we embarked for the Middle East, we thought, on May 1 1940.”

Before going overseas, the Maori Battalion men often attended farewell ceremonies at their maraes.

“When we came back on final leave, there was a ceremony for us – just like the way visiting tribes are greeted. There’s an underlying purpose – the whole emphasis was they knew we were coming home, only to go. To go away again. Going to war.”

“The old Maori, when they sent their sons to war, they said ‘we won’t see you again’. That’s a funny feeling. In other words, there was a feeling that if you come home, you haven’t done the job properly. You go there to die. Of course, this evokes a few funny feelings within oneself. What they were saying is we don’t expect you to come back, but if you do come back, well that is a blessing as far as we’re concerned. Once you go, we are prepared never to see you again, because – we Maoris knew, when you go to war, there’s no certain return ticket “

The Maori Battalion sailed with the Second (2nd) Echelon, being diverted mid-way into their voyage, to the UK to help with defence in the face of a potential German invasion.

“We went to England from NZ in June 1940 when Dunkirk had occurred, and they were bringing all their troops back. England was under siege virtually. Our training was all taken up with repelling an invasion. Fortunately for us, it didn’t happen because they couldn’t get command of the air (Battle of Britain) – they did get very close there!”

When the threat had subsided sufficiently, the 2nd Echelon were released to join the 1st and 3rd Echelons waiting in the Middle East. After a period of the training and acclimatising in the desert, Sonny found himself on route with the rest of the 28th Maori Battalion Main Body and NZ Division to Greece. After entraining to the north of the country, then rapid retreat southwards and eventually evacuation, Sonny served in the Battle for Crete.

In an interview with Monty Souter in 2001, Sonny recalled the well-known charge at 42nd Street, on Crete:

“The Germans must have been following us through the night. I think they were into the 19th Battalion on our left… on our right was C-Company… 42nd Street was an old road, about 5 or 6 metres wide – like you’d see on a farm. It was sunken with a bank on one side. About 10 o’clock, after they’d eaten breakfast, we were told to stand to, and were expecting something would be happening as we could hear firing. We couldn’t see the enemy at that point but could see the direction the gunfire was coming from. Rangi Royal, the B-Company C/O said “fix bayonets”, then blew his whistle. No one moved. It was only on the second blow that the first man, Sam O’Brien from Te Puke, started to ‘mea’ with his rifle, then everyone stirred. The whole battalion went forward, firing as they did. Seeing the bayonets, the Germans turned and ran…”

“It was all unreal until you see men getting bayoneted and shot… I tell you I couldn’t look at food for a long time after that. I’d get a bit of a nightmare. Especially when you hear these… they weren’t yelling, they were squealing. Poor buggers. I thought well we’re as good as those guys any day. You know all things being equal we can beat these guys…”

Sonny served through the desert campaign, returning to New Zealand on furlough. He lived in Rotorua.

(Interview by Patrick Bronte)

Les Williams

Les Williams

Les Williams, Div. Petrol Company/ASC (1st Ech) | 2NZEF (WWII)

Les Williams, Div. Petrol Company/ASC (1st Ech) | 2NZEF (WWII)

#4521 (Wellington) - Greece - Crete - Desert

Date: 15 May 1941 By: Kippenberger, Howard Karl (Sir), 1897-1957
Ref: DA-03727-F
Prison Valley, Crete, Greece, during World War 2. Soldiers in forground unidentified. Photograph taken 15 May, 1941, possibly by Howard Karl Kippenberger. 

Les was born, grew up and did his schooling in Wellington. He remembers the hard years of the Depression. Leaving school at fifteen, he got a job as an apprentice mechanic and worked his way up to be fully qualified.

“Pretty tough! You had to be on the ball to survive in those days. We didn’t have a lot of money. I had to take a paper round to earn a few bob, instead of going to school. I think I started work when I was sixteen I think; fifteen or sixteen, at a place called Canadian Knight Motor Company. We were agents for all the ‘c-valve’ motor engines; Willies, Willies-Knights, Thorney-Cross, Whippets; we even had an aeroplane that we were agents for. But they went broke. They went broke in about 1933, just after the big earthquake at Murchison. I picked up another job at another outfit.”

“To give you an idea how tough things were, we used to work and get paid only if the work was there. I got to the stage where I only got 7/6 (7 shillings and 6 pence) for a week’s work. It wasn’t enough to live on. My mother had died, and I was living with my father – we were living together. I had a motorbike, so I said, ‘I’m going north. I’m going to see if I can find a job.’ So I ended up in Palmerston.”

“I got a job there. Not much pay, but enough to live on. Then things were just coming out of the Depression, and I wrote to a firm in Auckland. I got a job with the Morris (British brand of cars) people in Auckland. And I went up to Auckland for a while. I didn’t like Auckland – didn’t like the weather, didn’t like the town, didn’t like anything about it. So I wrote back to the firm I was with in Palmerston, and I got my old job back, and I went back to Palmerston to work.”

“And finally I went back to Wellington and worked for the big firm Wright Stephensons. They had the Vauxhall agency. Then I went to work out at General Motors. I was in charge of the Service Dept at General Motors. My job was to service the vehicles the company owned. Any fault with the car I had to find out what was causing the fault, set time to fix the job… so they would be paid what I assessed it would take to get it done.”

Les joined-up on the first day that war was declared, going into Trentham Camp for training with the First Echelon.

“You could see it coming. It was inevitable. I left General Motors and volunteered in 1939. The day we declared war I volunteered. They asked for volunteers and we got called-up within about a week. You’ve heard that poem, ‘Breathes there the men, with soul so dead, nothing be said…’ You know – he’d serve his country — that sort of thing. And (I was) a bit restless. Prospects of life weren’t all that good, so I thought, ‘Oh well… ’ It was obvious that conscription was around the corner. And I wasn’t happy about the idea of being conscripted, so I volunteered.”

“You know, you felt that you were doing the right thing sort of business. And the old man, he was very pleased with his youngest son joining up; being a typical ‘Englishman’ you might say because he was still English at heart. So was quite proud of his youngest son. General Motors was owned by an American firm, and their attitude was ‘help’ but not in a very active way, you know. I virtually had to resign. They would say ‘well, your job will be there when you get back.”

Not having been in the Army Cadets or Territorials, Army life in camp was a bit of shock to Les, as it was for many men in a similar situation – in the military for the first time. Being a qualified mechanic, Les was assigned as a driver in one of the Army’s mechanical areas – the Divisional Petrol Company.

Sailing with the First Echelon for the Middle East via Australia, Colombo and Aden, Les was soon camped at the newly built Maadi camp just outside Cairo; Exploring the city when not doing desert exercises.

After initial fighting against the Italians, Les was involved in the campaigns in Greece and Crete. On Crete, soon after the German attack on May the 20th he was wounded by shrapnel in fighting around the Pink Hill area near Galatas.

(Interview by Patrick Bronte)

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.”