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Goff: Veterans Club - 21 Infantry Battalion

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Defence

24 March 2006

Speech Notes

Veterans Club: memories of 21 Infantry Battalion

Opening of an exhibition on Auckland's 21 Infantry Battalion
Auckland War Memorial Museum
10.30am, 24 March 2006

Dr Wilson, members of the 21 Battalion Association, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me to speak at this significant occasion, which I am proud to be associated with both as the Member of Parliament for Mt Roskill and as Minister of Defence.

I am mindful of the fact that this year is the Year of the Veteran, and this event is one way we can mark it locally and pay tribute to veterans from our own region.

It is now more than 60 years since 21 Battalion, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, was disbanded after six years of outstanding service to our nation.

The battalion was mainly recruited from Auckland city and Northland, but also included men from the Waikato and Hauraki districts. It became, in Lord Freyberg’s words, one of his “most battle worthy” units.

The battalion underwent its initial training at Narrow Neck and later at Papakura. 21 Battalion's farewell parade from the Domain to the wharves on 27 April 1940 was watched by a loud, enthusiastic crowd who made very clear the high regard they had for the men of their local infantry battalion.

After the parade, the men were given six hours leave to say goodbye to friends and family. Many men found that this process took rather longer than six hours and as the battalion’s official history comments, “this experiment was never repeated in subsequent farewell parades”.

The battalion, like many other New Zealand units, suffered heavily in the ill-fated campaign in Greece and Crete. More then 300 men of the battalion were captured, and they had to endure years of the miseries and frustrations that are the lot of a prisoner of war.

Some, like Sergeant James Donovan managed to escape. Following two earlier attempts, Donavan escaped from prison in Salonika and after various adventures managed to row in a stolen boat to Turkish territory. His “indomitable courage ... in the face of tremendous odds and great hardship” is a good example of the spirit displayed by 21 Battalion from the start of its active service.

In North Africa, 21 Battalion took part in all the major engagements of the New Zealand Division. During the campaign to relieve Tobruk, late in 1941, the battalion captured Major General von Ravenstein, who was carrying important confidential papers.

Von Ravenstein was the first German general taken prisoner by the Allies during the Second World War, and his capture will always be remembered as one of the most important coups carried out by the battalion during its service.

During 1942, the battalion suffered its heaviest losses of the war in the bitter fighting to defend Egypt and then drive back the Axis forces. It was then involved in the pursuit of the German and Italian armies across North Africa until their final defeat and surrender in Tunisia.

The victory in North Africa was followed by two years of hard fighting in Italy beginning on the Sangro River in November 1943, and ending at Trieste in May 1945.

One of the battalion's last actions in the war was the assault across the Senio River in April 1945. During this attack Sergeant Arthur Leech displayed "great courage, determination and leadership" for which he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

At one point in the fighting Leech and his men were engaged in a close quarters skirmish with a group of German soldiers. As the Battalion history notes, Leech’s “tommy gun jammed in the mêlée, and when he found himself covered by a machine pistol he ‘drew’ his shovel and threw it at the owner of the pistol. Exit the enemy!”

During the course of the war, 470 members of the battalion were killed or died on active service, more than 1000 were wounded and more than 500 taken prisoner. These figures give some indication of what the men of 21 Battalion went through. We today again remember and give thanks for their sacrifices.

When the veterans of 21 Battalion and other New Zealand service men and women returned home after the end of the war, the government and people of our country were determined that they should be treated much better than their counterparts were after the First World War.

The resettlement arrangements after the Second World War were on the whole both generous and effective. Nevertheless, many ex-servicemen and women found the transition from war to peace difficult. Unit associations played a major role in helping veterans and their families through this transition. They have provided support for veterans and kept alive the spirit of comradeship so evident during the war.

It is a great testament to the spirit and commitment of the 21 Battalion veterans that they maintained their association and its clubroom. The association had its clubrooms in Mt Roskill and for half a century were a notable part of the local scene.

The decision last year to wind up the association must have been very difficult one for the members, but one that the passing of the years made inevitable.

I applaud the association’s decision to donate its substantial collection of photographs, papers and other memorabilia to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. By doing so you have helped ensure that the memory of the battalion's service and spirit will live on.

This exhibition will help people who have never known war to at least partially understand the special bonds of comradeship that bind those who have shared such an ordeal.

2006 is the Year of the Veteran. It is, therefore, especially appropriate that the Auckland War Memorial Museum should take this opportunity to display some of the material so generously donated by the 21 Battalion Association in this atmospheric recreation of the association's clubroom.

I would like to end by congratulating Rose Young, the other museum staff and the 21 Battalion veterans who have worked together so successfully on this important and moving exhibition. Thank you.


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