Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 47, September 2003
WORLD WAR II: 22111 HAROLD EDWIN BEILBY
SERGEANT 2ND NZEF
By Len Beilby
On 3 September 1939 war was declared against Germany and four months later, on 6 January 1940, the 1st Echelon of around 6,000 troops sailed from Wellington. Recruitment then commenced for 6,500 volunteers for the 2nd Echelon and on 11 January 1940, Harold Edwin Beilby, then aged 20 years, signed up at Paeroa. The minimum age for acceptance was 21 years but he overcame the problem by stating his birth date as one year earlier.
On 19 January 1940, Harold entered Papakura Military Camp and was posted to the 21st Rifle Battalion, otherwise known as 21st Auckland Battalion. After about three months training and on completion of final leave, he proceeded to Wellington for embarkation on a troopship for Egypt on 2 May. The convoy was made up of the Empress of Britain, Empress of Japan, Aquitania and Andes, along with the naval escort cruisers, Canberra, Australia and Leander. A few days later, off the Australian coast, they met up with the Queen Mary, Mauretaina and Empress of Canada. After calling at Fremantle, the convoy altered course for South Africa, with Britain as the new destination. German military successes in Europe had raised fears of an invasion of England and the presence of New Zealand and Australian troops would be welcome.
Harold enjoyed four days leave in Cape Town and after a brief call at Georgetown, Sierra Leone, the convoy headed to Britain and up the Irish Channel to Gourouk, on the Firth of Clyde, Scotland. Before disembarkation on 16 June 1940, a speech of welcome broadcast by the Mayor of Glasgow, was met with loud cheers, when he announced that whisky would be free to all New Zealanders during their stay in Glasgow. What the troops did not know, but he did, was that they would not be going to Glasgow, but straight onto trains that were waiting on the quay to take them south.
For much of the time in England, the Second Echelon was accommodated in a tent camp at Mytchett, Surrey, not far from Aldershot and Farnborough and about 50 kilometres southwest of London. Soon after their arrival, King George V1 and later Winston Churchill visited them. In September, with invasion still a possibility, units of the Battalion were sent as back-up forces for defensive positions on the Kent and Sussex coasts. It was around that time that Harold became friendly with an American girl, prompting his Battalion friends to re-name him "Hank", a name that was to stick with him for the rest of his life, even within his family.
In Britain, army rations were barely adequate to sustain the appetites of fit young soldiers and Harold, in one of his letters home, explained that just occasionally, "foraging" in the countryside for extra food in the way of fruit, poultry, eggs, etc., (usually at night) became a survival technique, rather than theft.
With the end of the Battle of Britain on 31 October 1940, the immediate threat of invasion passed and in the first week of November, Hank returned to Mytchett.
On 3 January 1941, the Second Echelon travelled to Liverpool and boarded the troopships, Duchess of Bedford and Athlone Castle, which later joined up with a large convoy sailing for Egypt via Cape Town. Nine weeks later, on 6 March, they landed at Taufig (or Tewfik), an Egyptian port situated at the Red Sea end of the Suez Canal and were then transported to the New Zealand base camp at Maadi, Cairo. A fortnight or so later, Hank boarded a ship at Alexandria bound for Greece, where he landed at Piraeus, the port of Athens. Like Gallipoli in World War 1, the Greek campaign was doomed to failure. Untested troops, insufficient in numbers, poorly equipped and with little or no air support, were pitted against the superior strength of the highly organised German divisions.
The German invasion of Greece commenced on 6 April 1941 and by 13 April the Allied withdrawal had commenced. Hank's battalion was stationed on the seaward side of Mt Olympus and managed to hold back the Bavarian Alpine troops near Platamon for two days, enabling the main force to vacate the town of Larissa. They then withdrew to the Pineos Gorge where they were involved in another fierce battle until outflanked by the Germans. It seems that Hank and a small group then became separated from their battalion and in order to make their escape, it was necessary to cross about half a mile of open country while under heavy enemy fire. He described the bullets as "sounding like bees" and claimed that he broke all records in his sprint across the gap.
Next morning, discovering that their officer with one or two others had left them to it sometime during the night, it became a case of every man for himself. They broke up into small groups to head south, while Hank with two companions decided to follow the coast. That evening they captured a sheep for food and found shelter in a small derelict stone hut. Later, to their surprise, their officer reappeared and after being reminded of his earlier departure, he left.
One or two days later and further down the coast, they met an elderly Greek gentleman who became very excited when he discovered they were New Zealanders. Incredibly, he had once owned a fish shop in Greys Avenue, Auckland. One of Hank's companions had had sailing experience and with the help of their Greek friend, they obtained a small sail boat in which they set out for Turkey, some 200 miles away. Rumour had it that they would not be interned there but instead, be passed on through to the Middle East. Their course took them to the Greek Islands of Skiathos, Skopelos, Skiros and ultimately to Chios, about 20 miles from the Turkish coast.
On Chios, an American who had been gassed in France in World War 1, befriended them and put them in touch with another small group of New Zealanders who had arrived about the same time. As some uncertainty had arisen about entry to Turkey, Crete was then voted as the alternative. A Greek fisherman was willing to take them and they soon set sail. At an early stage however, it was noticed that they were headed, not for Crete, but in the direction of Greece and because there had been some talk of the Germans promising payment for the handover of enemy troops, they seized control of the boat and set their own course. The Greek was placed in a dinghy and towed for the 200 miles to Crete whereupon his boat was returned to him when they landed at Candia.
Back in New Zealand, the family had been officially notified by telegram that Hank was posted missing on 18 May 1941. Understandably, Army personnel records were not up to date at that time and about two weeks later, a letter received by the family of one of Hank's army friends, contained the news that early in May, a party of New Zealanders had landed on Crete in a small boat and that Hank was among them. Official notification that he had been 'reported safe', was not received until 7 June 1941, after he had returned to Egypt.
On Crete, Hank's battalion and others were sent to defend the Maleme Airfield and after they had been bombed and strafed for days on end, a German attack was launched on 20 May using paratroopers and troop transport gliders. An intense battle lasted for 12 days and for much of the time the defenders were without sleep and with little food. It is unnecessary to go into the variety of reasons put forward by historians for the defeat, but it seems that some bad tactical decisions were made.
The withdrawal from Crete commenced around 28 May 1941 and meant a long and difficult trek over a 2,400 metre-high mountain range to the small port of Sfakia on the south side of the island. There was no protection from aerial attack, no food and very little water. The Royal Navy suffered big losses from shore-based aircraft but remained firm and took off many thousands of troops. Those left behind were either captured, escaped into the hills, or obtained small craft and made their way back to Egypt. On 1st June, with mortar fire landing on the township, Hank boarded a Royal Navy destroyer and was taken to Alexandria. For the 55 days spent in action in Greece and Crete, New Zealand losses, killed, wounded and captured, totalled 6,320.
Following his return from Crete, Hank underwent training on new weaponry and was for a time, an instructor at the Infantry Training Depot at Maadi. He was then promoted to corporal and joined the NZ Division at Baggush near Mersa Matruh for desert warfare training. Shortly before Christmas 1941 he returned for a brief period to Maadi where he heard that brother Laurie, who was in the 24th Battalion, had arrived in the seventh reinforcements. Hank located him and later wrote that he walked up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Pardon me, but don't we know each other?" Laurie tells it a little differently, recalling that the tap on his shoulder could well have felled an ox.
Hank was involved in a number of major battles in the Egyptian and Libyan deserts and in one, thought to be Sidi Rezegh or Ruweisat Ridge, was captured by the enemy. He was searched and a pocket knife, which had been presented to him by the Paeroa Patriotic Society, was confiscated. He immediately snatched it back and made it very clear he intended to keep it. Apparently the Italian guard was unsure as to what he should do next, so he left it at that. Next day a German staff car arrived at the camp and Field Marshall Rommel stepped out. He seemed to give a lot of orders and showed that he had little regard for the Italians. After he left, the prisoners were told that he demanded they be well fed, which although considerate, meant little. Captors and prisoners alike, were already suffering the same poor diet.
The senior Italian officer was full of self-importance, but was treated as something of a joke by his New Zealand captives. He was dressed in the most elegant of uniforms and constantly waved a large silk handkerchief while giving orders. After assembling his prisoners, he led them off, giving directions, waving his handkerchief and walking backwards, until he suddenly disappeared into a slit trench. His misfortune was greeted with cheers, jeers and laughter from Hank and his companions who had seen it coming, but had said nothing. That night they decided that life as prisoners of war was not for them and believing that their battalion would still be situated not too many miles away, they escaped from the camp. A day or so later, they were back in their own lines.
After the desert battles in the first half of 1942, the 21st Battalion was sent to Syria for rest and reorganisation. When they returned to Egypt, Hank was promoted to Sergeant and posted to the 31st Northern Training Battalion. He was later sent to El Alamein but before the main battle commenced, developed a poisoned hand and was returned to Base where he was admitted to No. 2 General Hospital.
In 1943 it was decided that men from the first three echelons who had served more than three years overseas would be brought back to New Zealand for three months leave. The first contingent, made up of 6,000 officers and men, Hank included, was known as the Ruapehu Draft and arrived at Wellington on 12 July 1943. Their return to Egypt was planned for the following October but was delayed for another three months because of shipping problems. Early in the leave period, public pressure began to build for the soldiers to remain in New Zealand and when support began to spread to the newspapers, censorship restrictions were imposed. Even today, apart from John Thomson's well-researched book, "Warrior Nation", little seems to have been written about those events of sixty years ago.
Eventually the government made a concession that married men over the age of 40 years, married men with children and all Maori would be exempted from further overseas service. The others could appeal on the grounds of special skills or for medical reasons. By that time, some veterans had become engaged or married and others, like Hank, had taken jobs to supplement their somewhat meagre Army pay. They had, in fact, reverted to a civilian way of life. Also, in their view, many fit young men were avoiding the dangers of war by sheltering in so called 'essential industries' and argument developed over whether a man should go to war twice when others had not gone at all.
On 5 January 1944, Hank, like many others, ignored notification to proceed to Papakura Military Camp, while those who gathered at railway stations intending to report, were persuaded to change their minds. In due course, the Draft sailed with only 680 men, although others did sail with later reinforcements. Censorship prevented any mention of the matter in the media. Hank became one of the spokesmen for the dissenters and travelled to Wellington to present their case to military and parliamentary officials. A Hamilton solicitor who had assisted them was arrested and charged with possession of seditious documents.
In April the War Cabinet decided to dismiss all those considered to be rebels, for misconduct and subordination, making them register for employment and preventing them from obtaining any position in the public service. This also applied to members of the second Furlough Draft who had supported them.
Along with others, Hank was tried by General Court Martial on 16 February 1944 and found guilty of desertion. He was reduced to the ranks and sentenced to 112 days detention (mitigated to 90 days) with forfeiture of 21 days pay. Dismissal from the Service followed on 20 June 1944. Three months later, appeals against conviction for desertion, heard by the Court of Appeal, upheld the rebels' case. The dismissals were then cancelled and all Army rank and privileges restored. More than four years of distinguished war service were finally acknowledged.
Harold Edwin Beilby was killed in a motor accident on 5 October 1960, aged 41 years, and is buried in the Servicemens' Cemetery at Paeroa.