New book tells untold stories of New Zealanders experiences in World War II

Warning: Graphic content

Renee Hollis isn’t a military historian.

When she had the idea to edit a book on New Zealanders’ experiences of the deadliest war in history, Hollis didn’t want the resulting work, Voices of World War II: New Zealanders share their stories, limited to the stories of soldiers.

“I wanted to capture the human side of war”, Nelson-based Hollis says.

“To understand what it was like to be at war, or at home. What was like for a child going to school in wartime? What was it like for women left here with children, not knowing when they were going to see their husbands again?”

The result is almost 300 pages of stories about life during wartime, at home and school, as a conscientious objector, land girl or newly-arrived refugee, in a faraway prisoner of war camp or in the air, sea and land battlefields of Asia, the Pacific, Europe and North Africa.

Stories come mostly from more than 100 diaries, letters and photos lent to Hollis by Kiwi families, as well as a small number of interviews with wartime Kiwis.

She wanted to hear and read untold stories, or different angles on well-traversed events, Hollis says.

“I don’t want people to look at the book and go, ‘Oh, I know that. I’ve already read that’.”

Edited excerpts from Voices of World War II are below. Cherie Howie reports.

The first volunteer: Jack Reeves of Pakuranga

There are no words from Jack Reeves in Voices of WWII, no anecdotes in diaries or words of comfort in letters sent home from the farmer-turned-decorated-officer.

And he wasn’t among the few remaining soldiers Hollis interviewed – a tank commander, Reeves was killed in action in the Western Desert in December 1942, aged 35.

A lieutenant when he died, Reeves had nine months earlier been awarded the Military Cross when, after putting down a smokescreen, he walked into small-arms fire to put up dummy tanks designed to divert the enemy.

It was his enlistment-day photo that captured Hollis’ attention.

A grinning Reeves was photographed after he became the first of almost 60,000 New Zealand men to volunteer for military service in the opening 10 months of World War II.

“That photo, his face is full of optimism and pride”, Hollis says.

“[And] at 5am. Why was he the first one in the line?”

The prisoner of war: David Thomson of Winton

We were taken back to a town in Crete and put into a barbed wire compound.

You could creep under the wire, we used to do this when it was dark and raid the orchards and pinch grapes because there was very little food. Even the Germans were hard up for food.

Seven of us were given a tin of bully beef to share. I dropped a piece in the sand but ate it, sand and all, I was so hungry.

We were sent to Lamsdorf Prison, which is getting up towards Russia.

We were put on a train in wintertime, in cattle trucks so there was no shelter and for two or three days we travelled in freezing conditions.

There were no toilet stops, you just had to go out the side. We did manage to find a bit of canvas to rig up so the urine from the chaps up front wouldn’t blow back on to us.

At one station there was a pile of turnips on the platform and a barrel of water, so they all got stuck into that.

Eventually I ended up in Stalag 8B where I was to spend the next three years.

You could go on work parties. If you did there was always the chance of finding food from somewhere.

I worked in a paper mill. The Polish forced labourers went on a go-slow at the mill. They wanted more food and shorter hours.

The next thing, a truck came roaring into the yard, the Germans dragged out half a dozen of these workers who were then put up against a wall and shot.

After that no one complained.

We were working long hours and then had to walk back to camp.

But there was always a chance that, when the guards weren’t looking, you could rip some carrots out of someone’s garden to supplement your food.

We were hungry all the time.

Towards the end of my time in Stalag 8B, Red Cross parcels started to trickle through.

The German guards were very short of soap. You could trade a bit of that, maybe for a potato.

Because I could understand German, I was allowed to listen to a secret radio in the camp. The German news was always biased, but it did give us an idea what might be happening.

One day we heard a rumble in the west and realised it was artillery. It was the Russian advance.

We were all put in a huge column and with armed guards we headed east to Germany, where we were going to be put in factories again.

We walked and walked, in the snow, under terrible conditions, carrying as much as we could.

In the column of prisoners there was a Jewish man.

He was terrified of being found out by the Germans, but they had enough British or New Zealand gear to kit this man out to make him look like a New Zealander and he marched all the way with them.

The Americans in tanks saved us, and one pulled out a loaf of bread and threw it down.

We just ripped it to pieces and ate it. It tasted just like cake.

We were all taken to a big American camp. Their medical guy told us not to gorge ourselves on food … or we’d get awful pains and throw up.

Because there was no accommodation, the Americans told us to go into the village and just choose any house and stay in it. The residents weren’t too happy but there wasn’t much they could do.

Then we were flown back to England and freedom.

The land girl: Sadie May Lietze (nee Stuart)

In June 1942 I had an interview for the New Zealand Women’s Land Service and then a letter came in the mail with instructions to go to Sydney David Taylor at Tara Hills Station at Ōmarama.

I caught a train in Dunedin, then a bus to Waimate, then a mail car to Ōmarama.

It was quite a thing for a town girl who had never travelled much to do this journey alone, with my suitcase in my hand. Mr Taylor met me in Ōmarama.

I slept in a little hut, along from the house and there was a long-drop nearby. I would bathe on Saturday.

There was no electricity and I wore layers of clothes to keep warm. It snowed there about 10 inches (25cm) and it froze.

On my first day I was taught how to milk a cow. I had to milk the cows, have breakfast and then catch and get the ponies ready for the children to ride to school.

We trapped rabbits, gutted them and put them out for the rabbit truck. We’d eat lunch with our bloody hands, or wipe our hands on an old sack.

The rabbits were frozen for food for England. We also cooked them up with onion, they were nice.

My boss was a hard man and expected me to do my bit. We also broke in wild horses together. I enjoyed it immensely.

He left me to drive a tractor and said, “You will soon learn”, and I did.

I also helped with mustering on my horse. I was always grateful I never had to kill sheep, other land girls had to kill sheep and their home life was harsher.

I would go out to a plantation and cut huge branches off willow trees. I used a big, heavy crosscut saw all by myself, filled the dray and carted it back to the homestead.

I got to see people at church once a month.

It was over a year and I hadn’t had any leave. My mother told me I had to come home for my 21st.

After two years of working hard I decided to get a transfer, it was hard work and no recreation. I felt like I needed to live a bit.

The alpine troops that never were

In 1942 elements of the New Zealand Division joined the British, Australians and French in Palestine and Syria, mostly recuperating from the war in North Africa.

Neighbouring Lebanon with its snowy mountains was selected as the site for the Ninth Army Ski School, based at the Hotel des Cedars, 2000m above sea level.

The unoccupied building was unfurnished and none of the utilities worked.

The ski school eventually grew to more than 100 instructors, able to teach more than 2000 students at a time, with the intention of their being alpine troops in Europe.

More than 20,000 men of various nationalities passed through the school.

While the Māori Battalion was posted to Syria in 1942, 16 of its non-commissioned officers were selected to undergo two months of ski training.

The course was extremely physically demanding and required the highest level of fitness.

There were no ski lifts so every foot of downhill skiing required the equivalent climb, often carrying heavy loads.

At first it was assumed fully fit soldiers could go straight into a full training programme of more than seven hours a day on skis, but this was found to be counterproductive.

The students became exhausted and progressed slowly with a high dropout rate.

The instructors realised they had to start more gently in order to allow acclimatisation and build up fitness.

To complete the course, recruits had to be able to walk to the top of a mountain in their skis and ski down with a full pack, rifle and other gear, Dunedin woman Nalda Hinkley, whose husband Les Hinkley was chosen for the ski school, says in Voices of World War II.

“They had three weeks to train. Some of them passed, including Les.”

New Zealanders in the Italian campaign

Tens of thousands of New Zealanders fought their way through Italy from late 1943 to mid-1945 as part of a multi-national force.

The Italian Government surrendered following the Allied invasion in September 1943, but their former German allies quickly occupied most of the peninsula and defended it vigorously for the next 18 months.

The Italian campaign was New Zealand’s primary combat contribution to the war following the hard-won victory over Axis forces in North Africa.

Almost all the New Zealanders who served in Italy did so as members of the Second New Zealand Division – affectionately known as the “Div”, and with the 28th (Māori) Battalion an integral part of the campaign.

More than 2100 New Zealanders were killed and 6700 wounded during the liberation of Italy; place names like Orsogna, Cassino and Faenza are etched into New Zealanders’ memory.

Among them, according to Auckland Museum’s Online Cenotaph, was Palmerston North man James A. Stubbs, who died of wounds on June 10 1944, aged 22.

The previous November Stubbs – a member of the 2nd Division, New Zealand Artillery, 6 Field Regiment – wrote in his diary about his “first taste of shelling”.

“Jerry plastered the road some 400 yards away. Luckily, he did not get on to our area but believe me it is no joke listening to them coming and watching them blow up a short way away”, his diary entry in Voices of WWII reads.

“I remember the night before doing a little shiver when being woken up by the noise of guns. I thought they were firing straight at me, but after a short while found out that I was quite safe as they were some of our own guns firing over our heads.”

Within four days, Stubbs was battle-hardened.

“Am getting quite used to the noise of shells bursting all over the countryside now”, he wrote on November 21, 1943.

“RAF bombers and fights pounded enemy territory, no doubt of air superiority. Saw a Jerry Heinkel [German fighter aircraft] coming down in smoke.”

Have leave, will travel

In a time before mass global travel, serving Kiwis on leave found themselves in places that were likely to be beyond their wildest dreams.

Italy, Egypt and Palestine were all among destinations soldiers enjoyed respite from the battlefield, riding gondolas, climbing the Pyramids, going to the beach and indulging in local hospitality.

Geoffrey Hammonds, of Taranaki, wrote home in 1942 about his leave in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.

“Dear Pop … stayed with the same lady as last year and she couldn’t do enough for us … had a lazy time and lived like kings – dined on stuffed roast pigeon and chicken. When we returned to the desert fastness we strutted like fighting cocks.

“By the way I am a Cpl [corporal] again – aren’t you proud of your baby boy.”

Another visitor to Alexandria, Greymouth’s Robert Hamilton, wrote of seeing an army brothel.

“What an eye opener! The unoccupied girls stood outside their bedroom doors and used every trick in the book to entice customers, one trick was to snatch a soldier’s hat and run into the room and then I suppose, break down his resistance.

“Some of the girls were ebony, from the Sudan we were told.”

In another letter, Hamilton wrote of being shown around a Jewish kibbutz by a woman he would later discover was future Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir.

“[Then] we hitchhiked to Te Aviv … the beaches were crowded with beautiful Jewish women but while we were there the body of a German flying officer was washed up.”

The nurse: Norma Hollis (nee Tisch)

At 21 I received a phone call asking for me to go to Japan and I didn’t hesitate.

I wasn’t frightened. When you’re 21 you haven’t got much brain.

For just over a year I worked at the New Zealand General Hospital (6NZGH) in Kiwa, a fishing village near Yokohama.

I looked after the troops. I also treated Japanese labourers and fishermen, who couldn’t afford to pay. They’d bring me an apple for looking after them.

The ones that had been in the army or navy, they were very resentful because they’d lost the war, hadn’t they?

I went to Hiroshima twice, and it was so emotional.

It was absolutely black and flattened. There were burnt trees and still vaporised imprints of bodies on the ground because of the bomb.

While I was there, I was confronted by people with horrific burns and visited a hospital laboratory, where specimens included dead Japanese babies, malformed and burnt, in jars.

The enormity of war was hammered home for me that day. You have to learn to close off or otherwise you cry your eyes out.

The 32 of us [nurses] lived in bamboo huts. It was bitterly cold in the winter. But over time the engineers built us a very comfortable new one.

In our free time, we’d swim in the ocean and attend dances. It wasn’t all doom and gloom.

We didn’t get much food. We’d go to the dances because they had lots of food.

The nurses played sport against the New Zealand troops and sport is how I met my husband Vern, a New Zealand Army driver from Matamata.

We and another couple used to sneak out at night under the boundary fence at the hospital and we’d go down and swim.

We’d take a tin of peaches and have supper down at the beach.

The phosphorus is in the water, you’d swim in it. Beautiful phosphorus. It was like silver stars were all through the water.

I didn’t want to come home, actually. When you come home you’re very restless. You remember the friendship.

War has defined my life. I’m glad I went.

Voices of WWII: New Zealanders share their stories, edited by Renee Hollis, Release date: 17 November 2021, RRP $69.99 Hardback, 296 pages, Published by Exisle Publishing (Dunedin)

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