Making things work

Last updated 05:00 25/04/2009
JOHN HAWKINS/139985

VITAL PART: War veteran Jack Pritchard, of Riverton, modified and revolutionised field telephones during World War 2.

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Southerners at War

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Jack Pritchard is not the classic war hero, yet his modification to the field telephone was adopted by most Allied forces in North Africa as they tried to outwit German Field Marshall Rommel in one of the most prolonged theatres of World War 22. JARED MORGAN spoke to the Riverton man and found heroes often go unsung.

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HIS is a story of classic Kiwi No 8 wire ingenuity.

Yet 64 years since the end of World War 2, Jack Pritchard remains unrecognised.

Just don't call him a hero.

"Others gave their life I don't feel like that."

Lasting from 1940 to 1943, North Africa was the longest and most important land campaign fought by New Zealanders during World War 2.

Forces from the United Kingdom and the British Empire, together with contingents from enemy-occupied European states and, in the later stages the United States, battled against those of Italy and Germany.

War is often thought of as constant action, but many who served were not in frontline units.

The physical challenge of the desert was immense. Nights could be cold but daytime temperatures soared, especially in summer.

Sandstorms were a trial and fine dust stirred up by vehicles and shellfire got in everywhere, including in communications equipment.

It was here that Lieutenant Corporal Pritchard came into his own.

"I was involved in the maintenance of field telephone exchanges six and 10-line exchanges and radio senders and receivers," he says.

"We had a lot of trouble with the six and 10-line exchanges with sand in the contacts."

As he tells it, the solution was simple.

"I modified the circuit. It sorted out the trouble the calls then got through."

Pritchard's first war experience was a baptism of fire.

The brief Greek campaign was the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force's first major operation in the war.

Troops were sent to Greece in 1941. The line was quickly outflanked by German forces and the Allies were forced into retreat.

The final act in the battle for Greece took place on the island of Crete and again the tide turned the German way.

By early 1941 the division was assembled in Egypt after re-forming in the Nile Delta and was ready for action.

Pritchard was stationed looking after signals equipment at the 5th and 6th New Zealand Brigade headquarters at Maadi, near Cairo, but moved throughout North Africa.

His role was to help maintain communication as the battle against the Italians and a German expeditionary force, the Deutsches Afrika Korps commanded by "Desert Fox" Major-General Erwin Rommel, raged across the North African desert.

That communication was vital, he says.

More importantly, Pritchard made it work, yet no recognition was forthcoming in the field.

After the war he pushed the issue with army hierarchy and in 1947 received a letter from the British War Office's London-based Ministry of Supply committee on awards to inventors. He was to get 5.

His bosses testified to his work in letters to the ministry, letters Pritchard still holds.

In 1948, Major John Shirley wrote:

"From May 1941 until August 1945 I was a signals officer with the second NZ division ... I therefore feel very qualified to discuss the claim of Lieutenant Corporal Pritchard from both an operational and technical viewpoint."

He lists the uses of six and 10-line exchanges, before saying: "The fact that operations in the Middle East during the period 1941-42 were very closely fought and often lost made speed of action vital ... The unmodified six and 10-line exchanges fell down under these conditions. Dust particles and, to a lesser extent, pitting of the jack contacts prevented the lights coming up indicating a call had been originated ... It was to meet this situation Pritchard proposed his modification."

His commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Laurie Agar also supported his cause.

An excerpt from his letter says: "I am confident that Pritchard was first in the Middle East to think of these modifications. I trust this will assist in determining the credit due to Pritchard for a very worthy effort."

Technical maintenance officer Captain Gabriel also weighed in: "The modifications outlined by Pritchard are exactly those which he proposed to me in October 1941, when the Division was concentrated at Baqqush, Egypt, just before the 1942 Libyan Campaign."

He goes on to say the modification was later widely adopted by forces throughout the Middle East.

In 1949, more recognition came when the Ministry of Supply committee on awards to inventors notified him he was to receive an additional 50.

While it was wad of cash in those days, that was where recognition ended for Pritchard, despite him doing more to improve army field telephone equipment than anyone in the Allied forces.

After the war, he juggled work in telephone exchanges with other inventions.

He holds the patents for the Pritchard flutter valve teat, the most widely used teat for hand-rearing lambs and kids.

His distinctive red rubber teat, which can be cut to adjust the feeding rate, with yellow plastic base is used in every agricultural nation in the Western world and is still considered the best.

Another invention for which he holds patents is a gate designed to draft sheep from behind.

- The Southland Times

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