When Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage declared at 9.30pm on September 3, 1939, we were at war with Germany, there was a mixture of relief and foreboding.
Newspapers of the previous weeks had told of the growing tensions in Europe, of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's attempt to keep "peace in our time" and the gradual slide to war in Europe with the occupation of its neighbouring countries by armed forces of Nazi Germany.
In response to Savage's statement "where Britain goes we go" two echelons of soldiers, each of 7000 men left New Zealand for Egypt and Scotland and training of further troops was soon underway.
The sinking of ships in New Zealand waters and the laying of mines about the approaches to many ports prompted a call for a citizen force to defend the country.
The New Zealand Parliament passed a bill conscripting all men between the ages of 18 and 46 and on August 2, 1940, the Home Guard was established as an official body, which validated the action of those eager volunteers who had already signed up two months earlier.
With the news the Battle of Britain had been waged and won, averting the imminent invasion of the Mother Country, the fervour for the Home Guard subsided somewhat. But 2568 men still signed up in Hawera and about the same number in New Plymouth, but there were no rifles and no instructors so the parades were badly attended.
A lot was left to the initiative of local units. Waverley men practised throwing hand grenades with stones of similar size, route marching was used to lift physical fitness and rifle drill was conducted using wooden rifles.
Bill Hall was a member of Hawera's A Company 2 Platoon and was employed at the Egmont Box Company in Hawera. With others he produced wooden replicas of the standard SMLE rifle. Little wonder his son John still chuckles about his father serving in the "Broomstick Brigade".
The lack of appropriate clothing was another problem, as many men had emerged from the Depression years with shoes and trousers not up to the rigours of scrambling around scrub covered hills and rocky beaches.
The lack of real weapons to train with aside, much good work was done stringing barbed wire on beaches and preparing log traps to impede advancing troops in trucks and tanks. Huge boulders were set up to roll on to bridge approaches and camouflaged concrete machine gun posts were built on headlands, such as the one that overlooks the Kaupokonui estuary.
There was a lack of maps for planning purposes, so county engineers drew and produced them. Mines triggered by rat traps and fishing line were devised all with a host of other ingenious devices.
John Hall and Fergie Strange grew up in Hawera and remember their fathers often went on parades at night and at breakfast didn't say where they had been. John's sister Pauline remembers making a midnight "lunch" and filling a bottle with cold tea for her father before he went to parade wearing his Home Guard armband Their mother waved him off saying, 'Going to the beach, are we?'
Not talking about Home Guard affairs was usual and posters in shops and halls constantly reminded those at home that "Loose Lips Sink Ships" and that enemy spies might be anywhere.
By April 1942 parades became compulsory and army boots began to filter through, although supplies still fell short of demand in some areas. Foxton's Home Guard of 100 men received only 80 pairs.
By Easter 1942 Home Guard units were responsible for manning defence posts and watching over oil depots, railway stations and bridges. Specialist groups were formed. A bomb disposal unit was called upon to get rid of a German mine that had drifted into the New Plymouth foreshore; they were able to tow it away to a secluded beach where it was dealt with.
By October the Home Guard had grown to 119, 000 men who were finally in uniform, armed with rifles and light machine guns and were properly kitted out and trained.
The Home Guard units produced men for full army service, while others were redirected to carry out essential work.
John Smith, already in the army, was sent home to Eltham to the Box Factory to machine timber for the military camps and hospitals. Fergie Strange's father, a pharmacist, was drafted to grease heavy trucks in Leece's Garage. Other Home Guardsmen were drafted into dairy factories and freezing works. Three army divisions overseas had drained the country's labour force.
The arrival of the several thousand American marines in Wellington aboard the troopship USS Wakefield in June 1942 en route to the Solomon Islands and the sinking of Japanese warships in the Coral Sea, shifted the need from protection to production of food for the thousands of marines who spent time in the country.
From December 1943 the Home Guard units were gradually disbanded, the equipment and uniforms returned to the quarter- master's stores all save the boots that served well in the vegetable gardens of the nation.
Before being disbanded, Bill Hall's platoon, A Company Hawera Home Guard, sat for their formal picture. They are retailers, clerks and tradesmen, all men who were the leaders in their community.
A medal engraved on one side with the head of King George VI and on the other For Service to New Zealand 1939-45 above a fern leaf suspended on a black and white ribbon, was later issued to all men who had six months or more service in the Home Guard.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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