We will remember them.
To my surprise and much gratitude, about a month ago my mother gave to me a WW2 service medal.
It belonged to my great uncle Vernon Lindsay Norrish (on my father’s side).
This is his story.
My Uncle’s war story starts when he joined the 4th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company
The 4th RMT Company’s story goes back to the first Tuesday in October, in the ripe spring of 1939. That was when the First Echelon marched into New Zealand’s three main camps: Ngaruawahia, Trentham, and Burnham. These men, volunteers for a Special Force, known as 2 NZEF. The new recruits wore civilian clothes and carried small suitcases or sugar–bags. The old soldiers shook their heads….
The quartermasters handed out tin plates, pannikins, and clumsy knives, forks and spoons coated against rust in a loathsome grease. Each man picked up a sacking palliasse and stuffed it with straw. For candlesticks, old triangular bayonets, salvaged from heaven knows where, turned up. Old, too, were many of the khaki serge uniforms of assorted shades and sizes, their folds filled with flakes of naphthalene, their four–starred brass buttons heavy with green. Greatcoats in two sizes (too big or too small) were mustard-coloured survivals from 1916, some with disturbing bullet holes. But the black boots and the grey blankets were good, very good.
On January 5th 1940, RMT was despatched to Egypt.
Over the widening water behind, them lay New Zealand in her pakeha centennial year. Visitors to the Exhibition in Wellington were nearing the million mark. From the top of a crazy house a model of a man laughed incessantly upon the crowds below. Bing Crosby fans sang ‘Pennies from Heaven’, and Claudette Colbert was appearing in a film, ‘It’s a Wonderful World’. The last to be seen of New Zealand was Mount Egmont, with a bit of cloud, at 6 p.m
RMT’s job was to carry riflemen about and to lend a hand with the multitude of transport tasks required by a modern army. However, hardly anybody had handled a heavy lorry in his life. In one section, for example, of 90 men only three (yes, three) had driven heavy transport vehicles in New Zealand, and only 30 had car licences. The remaining 57 had never even driven a car. For an hour or so each week drivers coached non–drivers in starting, changing gears, and steering on a hard, firm stretch of sand. The learners then passed on to more advanced instructors, and finally had to pass a gruelling test over really tough going of soft sand, rocks, and hummocks.
As it turned out, after a short time in the Western Desert, practically any driver could be sent confidently on any task, a tribute to the corporals for studying, nursing, and developing their men.
Fighting in the Western Desert was essentially a war of movement. Mobility played a decisive part. New Zealanders were ideal men for this class of warfare. They found their way by night as well as day across the unmapped featureless desert with accuracy and skill and, as it were, almost by instinct.
The 4th Reserve Motor Transport Company was in fact one of the first units of the New Zealand Division to take the field in Lord Wavell’s victorious campaign in the Western Desert in 1940. On 9 December 1940, RMT drove into its first action. The RMT is the first company of the 2 NZEF to go into action in the Second World War.
Two weeks later my Great Uncle died of wounds after an Italian Air Attack.
During the third week of December 1940, 4 RMT moved to Sollum. Snub-nosed barges from ships out in the bay were now bringing war materials into Sollum’s little port, and 4 RMT’s job was to help carry this material from the stone pier up hairpin bends to dumps scattered along the dreary escarpment. The company worked the clock round, sections taking turns with the night shifts, for with the advance in the desert supply problems had increased, especially with food, water, and petrol. Tanks alone in one action needed between 20,000 and 25,000 gallons of petrol a day. ASC drivers ‘worked against great difficulties of time and space,’ says a War Office publication, Destruction of an Army, ‘and these men, hardy, tough and enterprising, deserve to share in the triumphs of the campaign as much as the men who drove more spectacular vehicles.’
Sollum, bombed regularly by enemy aircraft, was also troubled by a big gun in Bardia, “Bardia Bill’. It paid not to waste time around that narrow wharf. Warnings came from an old mariner who would emerge from a hut and shout ‘Air raid!’ from small naval gunboats opening fire out in the bay; and from the stampede of wharf workers, Cypriots and Palestinians, heading for the caves.
On the day before Christmas 4 RMT met with its heaviest air-raid casualties in Africa. The men, all from B Section, were anxious to speed up the work and had four trucks loading at the same time. At 12.40 p.m. a flight of 17 Italian aircraft caught everyone by surprise. Bombs straddled wharf and barges. In the ruins (and among the red oranges intended for the troops on Christmas Day), lay:
- 2 Lt J. T. Wallace, m.i.d.; born USA 5 Mar 1910; machinery salesman; killed in action 24 Dec 1940
- Corporal Pussell
- Lance-Corporal Norrish L-Cpl V. L. Norrish born NZ 11 Dec 1918; clerk; died of wounds 24 Dec 1940
- Driver Ted Reynolds Dvr E. W. Reynolds; born NZ 2 May 1906; truck and service-car driver; killed in action 24 Dec 1940, and
- Dvr A. B. Hurst; born Ireland1 Oct 1904; labourer; died of wounds 25 Dec 1940
The wounded included:
- Sergeant C. J. Mulligan born NZ 18 Apr 1914; traction-engine driver;
- Maj R. K. Davis born Auckland 2 Mar 1917; clerk;
- Dvr N. A. S. Quintal, born Waihi27 Aug 1914; labourer;
- Dvr I. E. Appleton; born Wellington12 Sep 1915 clerk;
- Dvr E. W. Boosey; born Wellington25 Mar 1918; clerk;
The five deaths sent a shadow of sorrow over the first Christmas away from home, and the day passed without any celebrating by the hardworking drivers. They made up for it though when a Naafi ship came in for unloading before the New Year. Thanks to the ship’s crew, the barge men, the Cypriots and Palestinians, the wharf MPs and the RMT, much of the original cargo failed to reach the Naafi tent.
So what do I think?
Well for one, I’m not going to give my Brother Chris any more hard times about his second middle name – Vernon!
I also understand now why Christmas at my Paternal Grandparents always seemed to be so low key and reserved.
As far as I know, no one in my family has ever visited Vernon’s grave.
He’s been lying in the desert for 75 years. I now question my bravery and motivation in never travelling to Sollum, Egypt. Ten years ago I was motivated and had even made plans to go. However, marriage, Maddie, finances, all seemed convenient excuses not to go. And of course, troubles in Egypt, Libya, and the entire middle east all offer good reasons not to go.
However, I would dare say Sollum today is a far less dangerous place than in 1940.
I hope I get there soon and I will be wearing his medal at this years Anzac Day dawn parade with a great deal of pride and humbleness.
- Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force. (1941). Nominal Roll Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force No. 1 (Embarkations to 31st March, 1940). Wellington, N.Z.: Govt. Printer. AWMM WW2 1: WW2 135 AWMM
- Henderson, J. (1954). RMT: official history of the 4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies. Wellington, N.Z.: Department of Internal Affairs. AWMMD.743 Official History RMT. Page 19 F/N, page 40 text & F/N
- NZ War graves commission