Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Otago Mounted Rifles Training Camps 1941 - 1942

The Otago Mounted Rifles "Regimental Guidon",
listing 11 battle honours, now preserved and on
view in the First Church of Otago, Dunedin.
[Source : Wikipedia Commons]

The Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment is of special interest to me in that my Father served as a Trooper in this force from April 1941 to October 1942.

But its origins go back to 1864 when the "Otago Cavalry" was formed before variously changing its name to "The Otago Light Horse" (1864), "The 5th Otago Hussars" (circa 1885), and "The Otago Mounted Rifles" (1900). Various regiments were thereafter formed under the overall banner of the Otago Mounted Rifles. During The Second Boer War the Mounted Regiment served in South Africa (1899 to 1902) and during World War One served fully at Gallipoli and then on the Western Front in France.

The Badges of the 5th Mounted Regiment of the
Otago Hussars, issued to my Father in Feb 1942

[From my own collection]

At the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 the Regiment, which then amounted to only "one squadron - horsed" was returned to full regimental strength. But during 1942 the Regiment was renamed "The Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment (Armoured)" and remained in this form until the end of the war. It was thus during this latter period that the emphasis finally moved from a horse mounted regiment to that of a fully armoured regiment, my father taking his part in this fundamental shift in focus.

My Father, taken while in training
at Burnham Military Camp, 1941
[From my own collection]

His longer period of service with the Regiment within New Zealand was due to the fact that he was already 39 years of age when called up, he was required for seasonal work on the family farm or at the direction of the "Manpower Committee", and was therefore classed as only fit for "Home Service" (rather than active service overseas).

A 1940's aerial view of the large Burnham Military Camp
located south of Christchurch
[From my own collection]

Burnham and Riccarton Camps, Apr to July 1941

After receiving his "Mobilisation Order", my Father, classed as a "Trooper" entered Burnham Military Camp south of Christchurch to commence army training with the then mounted regiment in April 1941.

Troops of the Otago Mounted Rifles, 1941.
My father is at far right.
[From my own collection]

The above group photo taken at Trentham Camp in 1941 shows the generally older age of the men. As the war progressed older men were being called up for military service and training.

A horse column in formation, taken whilst training
at Burnham Military Camp, 1941. My Father appears
in this image along with my Mother's first husband, Trooper
William Thomson Wilson who died in 1943
[From my own collection]

My Father was in fact ideally suited for service with the regiment, with existing horsemanship and equine husbandry skills and considerable experience with rifles and sharpshooting from many years of deer stalking and rabbit shooting. Thus he saw through the final year of this historic 78 year old Horse Mounted Regiment before it fundamentally changed its focus to that of an armoured regiment in 1942.

An exercise in horsemanship, taken at
Burnham Military Camp, 1941
[From my own collection]

This was no holiday camp, more of a boot camp, and probably proved a bit of a shock to some not accustomed to this. I do not believe my Father found it exceedingly gruelling as he was used to hard physical work. The camaraderie between those in camp was what my Father most remembered. We know from military records that his training, which was obviously very thorough, included physical training, drill, rifle training, bayonet training, grenade training, Hotchkiss light machine gun training, anti-gas training, marching, fieldcraft, night work, lectures on military law, discipline, regimental history and pay, "interior economy" [bed, hut and camp housekeeping], fatigues [clothing], horsemanship, organisation, guard duty, and recreation.

A line up of men of the Otago Mounted Rifles and their horses,
Taken at Burnham Camp, 1941
[From my own collection]

After two months at Burnham Military Camp he moved in July 1941 to the temporary camp at Riccarton in Christchurch where basic training was completed before being discharged for the year and sent back to the family farm in Southland.

Wingatui Camp, Jan to July 1942

He was next called to attend the Camp set up at the Wingatui Racecourse near Dunedin in January 1942, While some accommodation was arranged round the racecouse at least two squadrons slept between the seats in the open grandstand in all weathers. I do not recall if my father ever mentioned if he was among this unlucky group.

An assortment of requisitioned trucks at the Wingatui Camp
[Source : Norman McElwee]

In January 1942 it was formally announced that the regiment would now be known as the "5th Light Armoured Fighting Vehicle Regiment (LAFV)". But at this point, as Jeff Plowman in the official regimental history so succinctly puts it, there was one essential element missing - armoured vehicles. Thus training first concentrated on "squad drill, fieldcraft and specialist training". As a result of the compulsory acquisition of lorries and trucks (my father's family begrudgingly had to give up their own farm truck), a driving school was established for those without driving qualifications or experience.

"Authority to Drive Army Vehicles", 1st Class, Feb 1942
This was later extended to light armoured Bren Gun
Carriers. Oddly he could legally drive and had
experience with tractors, trailers and motor cycles.
[From my own collection]

Having learnt to drive on the family farm during the early years of the First World War, examinations for Driver's Licences were in rural areas practically non-existent or at the very least very lax. Thus my Father explained, when licences became necessary he had been given an "open" licence which enabled him to drive almost anything barring perhaps a passenger carrying bus. This meant that he was then given the job of driving Army transport vehicles.

A Bren Gun Carrier. The driver and machine gunner
sat in the front behind the armoured plate while an
additional person could sit up the back in a more
exposed position.
[Source : http://www.nzu.org.nz/]

Specially built light armoured tracked vehicles began to arrive from February 1942. These were known as Bren Gun Carriers, being manufactured by the 'Ford' Motor Company at Petone and were essentially light tracked vehicles fitted with armour plate and of course a 'Bren' light machine gun. The driver and machine gunner sat up the front at a low position behind an armoured plate with viewing holes which completely protected them from open view and with the engine bay behind them. Another two gunners could sit up the back beside the engine. While this area was also surrounded by armour plate this was not to the same height and thus left them in somewhat of an exposed position.

A convoy of 'Beaverette' Armoured cars,
taken at Waiwera South in 1942
[Source : Molly Middlemiss]

Through 1942 the Regiment also obtained "Beaverette Armoured Cars", being essentially 'Ford' one ton trucks fitted with armour plating. These "cumbersome" vehicles apparently proved rather "useless".

During the Wingatui Camp period between January 1942 to June 1942 a number of tactical exercises were carried out in the Mosgiel and Outram area in which my father would have been fully involved.

The location of the Waiwera Military Camp
at Waiwera South in South Otago
[Source : "Dr Hocken's Laptop Guide to the South"]
Waiwera South Camp, Jun to Oct 1942 

Between the 9th and 17th June 1942 the Regiment moved en-masse from Wingatui to an exposed and "bleak" 154 hectare "strategically located" site at Waiwera South. Covering an area of "rolling downs" about 20 kilometers north of Balclutha. The lack of tree shelter, badly constructed camp roads, muddy conditions, ponding water, and a lack of electricity at the camp all caused considerable difficulties. The men generally encountered "bitterly cold and wet winter weather".

The layout of the Waiwera South Camp showing
how the men's huts were distanced from each other.
[Source : Norman McElwee]

Due to the muddy conditions on a layer of impervious pug clay which did not drain effectively army vehicles, particularly including the 'Beaverettes', were unable to move off formed roads until designated areas were formed for parking. Even then they were still apt to become stuck in mud up to their axles. And at times hay had to be laid on the parade ground due to the muddy conditions, or the men had to wear gumboots. Work on improving the site continued into July but drainage work still apparently proved rather ineffectual. The camp huts were prefabricated and spaced out on the site so that possibly damage from a Japanese air raid would be minimised.

The muddy conditions prevalent at the Waiwera South Camp
[Source : Norman & Joan Bresanello]

The history of the OMR, "The Troopers' Tale", notes the hospitality of the local Waiwera community, "which laid on numerous socials, concerts and dances for the troops." But it also quotes the reminiscences of Lloyd Duncan, "Of all the camps I lived in during 5½ years of service, Waiwera South was a wet miserable, freezing sea of mud in an absolute forsaken no man's land". Although my own father kept diaries for this period these were unfortunately destroyed during his lifetime.

While my father could tell (and frequently repeat!) many stories of his training with the Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment I unfortunately don't actually recall that many myself and he never wrote these down. But one recollection I remember of the Waiwera South Camp is worthy of mention.

The Battle of Waipahi, 2 Sept 1942

It was during the Waiwera Camp that my father now regularly drove the light armoured Bren Gun Carriers and presumably continued driving other Army troop vehicles as required.

During one military exercise he described driving a Bren Gun Carrier on a defensive exercise while a light plane, possibly a De Havilland Tiger Moth, attempted to drop "bombs" on them - actually bags of flour! It all sounds like something out of "Dad's Army".

A "staged" convoy of Bren Gun Carriers,
taken at Waiwera South, July 1942
[Source : "The Evening Star"]

I wonder if this was during the well known "Battle of Waipahi" where the OMR was pitched against the local Home Guard on the premise that the former had landed on the Southern Coast and were attempting to take the township of Waipahi including the Main South Railway Line which ran through the town. It was however an unequal "battle" as the Home Guard had not expected to come up against the Bren Gun Carriers and a (solitary) Stuart tank. I assume the plane to have been requisitioned by the Home Guard who had taken up defensive positions on the outskirts of town. But the defense was obviously ineffectual in the face of semi-armoured columns of armed troops. Thus victory was complete for "the enemy" [the OMR] as they encircled Waipahi and overwhelmed the Home Guard, also cutting off their means of escape.

I also assume that my Father took part in the seven day bivouac at the Gore Reacecourse in October 1942. This included a recruiting and patriotic appeal parade through Gore on the 16th October, complete with the Air Force Band and assisted by a Kittyhawk fighter making impressively noisy week long sorties down the Mataura Valley.


From November 1942 my Father was placed under the control of the Southern Military District, granted leave without pay, and thereafter returned to farming activities to put in the summer crops on the family farm with his elder brother and to shear upwards of 1,000 sheep. His file specifically states that, "This man is available in an emergency".

A candid shot of my father,
possibly taken during an open
day at Burnham Camp in 1941
[From my own collection]

Final discharge came in September 1943. Although the war did not end until 1945 his training had been completed and of course he could be still be called up again in the now unlikely event of an imminent Japanese invasion. But judging by the large amount of correspondence in his military file between himself, his brother, the family Solicitor, the Armed Forces Appeal Board, the Manpower Committee, the Department of Agriculture, and the Southern District Military Headquarters, his valued assistance was of more benefit on the family farm which had frequently been left under the sole charge of his older brother.

Feeling that he had not contributed in any positive way to the war effort, my Father never uplifted his two war medals as he would not have worn them on parade. Instead he joined the New Zealand Home Servicemen's Association. I have subsequently obtained his medals from the New Zealand Defence Department.

The misappropriated 'Burnham Handle'
[From my own collection]

While he was proud of his OMR Regimental badges, he was equally proud of his glass tankard, having been spirited out of the Burnham Camp servicemen's bar under his greatcoat at the conclusion of his time there in 1941. I still hold it.

The "5th Light Armoured Fighting Vehicle Regiment (LAFV)" ceased to exist in 1956, being then disbanded.

Copyright : Those images from my own collections may be freely copied for personal or academic use provided this site is acknowledged. Please contact me regarding any commercial or non-academic use.

Sources :

- Personal family papers and photographs
- "Dr Hocken's Lapton Guide to the South", by the Rev JG Sinclair, 2001 (from my personal collection)
- New Zealand Defence Force Archives
- "The Troopers Tale - The History of the Otago Mounted Rifles", by Don Mackay, 2014

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