Book launch at Parliament: Hell or High Water: New Zealand Merchant Seafarers Remember the War

  • Helen Clark
Prime Minister

It’s a great pleasure for me to launch Hell or High Water: New Zealand Seafarers Remember the War.

Since 2000, historians in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage have been interviewing New Zealanders who served in World War Two. These interviews are being published in a series of oral histories which give us a very clear picture of what it was like to be caught up in those momentous events of sixty years ago.

This oral history project originated back in 2000 when I returned from the 85th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings.

Thanks to Maurice Shadbolt and documentary film makers, some of the memories of Gallipoli veterans had been recorded; but we have very little oral history of those who served in France, Belgium, and other theatres in World War One.

It seemed to me that it was imperative to make a big effort to record the memories of our World War Two veterans – the youngest of whom by then were already in their mid seventies.

Five years later, we’ve already released four books of interviews, with veterans from the campaigns in Crete, Italy, and North Africa, and also with former prisoners of war. And we’ve now embarked on the ‘From Memory’ programme. This oral history project enables us to collect more of our stories from the Second World War, and other conflicts in which New Zealand has been involved. The ‘From Memory’ programme also assists people in the community to record their own interviews with war veterans. I understand that the first of the interviews from the community has been completed and will soon be taken into the From Memory collection that will be housed in the Oral History Centre at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

The book I am launching today tells us the stories of another group of people who served in the war. Hell or High Water: New Zealand Merchant Seafarers Remember the War takes us into the world of fifteen New Zealand merchant seafarers, and I am particularly delighted to see so many of them here today.

Several thousand New Zealanders served in the Merchant Navy during the war. Their work was so essential to the Allies’ war effort that the Merchant Navy was effectively regarded as the ‘fourth service’ alongside the army, navy and air force.

Merchant seafarers sailed ships delivering military equipment, and taking troops to and from the battlefields. They ferried vital cargoes of food, fuel, and raw materials across vast oceans. The 12,000 mile lifeline between New Zealand and the United Kingdom kept our economy going, and it helped feed our British allies too: during the war, we sent 2 million tons of meat, 1.3 million tons of butter and cheese, and 4 million bales of wool.

No other group of New Zealand civilians faced the risks our merchant seafarers faced during wartime. All of these men were civilians, not soldiers. Just by doing their jobs, the seafarers often found themselves in the front lines of the war at sea. Their ships were torpedoed or bombed; and survivors could spend days or weeks in lifeboats awaiting a rescue. Over 130 seafarers lost their lives and at least 128 were taken prisoner, including Bill Hall, whose story is in the book.

Some of these seafarers were just boys at the time. One of those who features in the book, Lou Barron, went to sea in 1940 — as a 14-year-old. The youngest New Zealanders who lost their lives during the Second World War were merchant seafarers — two 15-year-old deck boys from Lower Hutt, who went down with a British ship torpedoed off West Africa in 1942. As a civilian industry, the crews of merchant ships normally included such young boys, as well as men well into their 70s.

Our merchant seafarers went from the freezing Russian Arctic to the searing heat of the Persian Gulf. John Gregson, here with us today, sailed in that most famous of the convoys to Malta, Operation Pedestal, when nine out of 14 ships were sunk, including John’s own vessel. For saving the life of an injured shipmate, John, then 18, was awarded the Albert Medal, which is now regarded as the George Cross.

These men were also caught up in the convoy battles of the North Atlantic where the threat from German U-boats was constant. Les Watson describes his ‘four nights and four days of hell’ crossing the Atlantic in March 1943, facing a Force 10 storm as well as attacks by U-boats that sank 12 ships from his convoy. This was one of the most important campaigns of the war, and one of the longest: 2074 days, from the day war was declared, until Germany surrendered. In New Zealand, as in Britain and other Commonwealth countries, 3 September is commemorated as ‘Merchant Navy Day’, marking the sinking in 1939 of the first British merchant ship just nine hours after war was declared.

Life at sea was full of adventure, as well as danger, and seafarers saw places few New Zealanders ever visited or knew much about in those days. John Montgomery recalls leaving New Zealand as a 17-year-old in 1941: ‘My first port of call was Colombo, which was a big change from Island Bay.’

The stories in this book show those special relationships forged when people are put into hugely difficult and dangerous circumstances. As Thor Larsen explains, your shipmates ‘looked after you like a long-lost brother, no matter who you were … The unwritten law was that no matter what happened, everyone stuck together.’

The experiences of these men, and many others like them, help us come to a greater understanding of our history, making us who we are today as a people and as a nation. There is a great deal of interest in our culture and heritage. New Zealanders want to know about the people and events which shaped our nation. As Prime Minister, I’ve been pleased to launch a number of books which add so much to our knowledge of the history of our country.

I congratulate the Ministry for Culture and Heritage on the production of another fine book in our World War Two oral history series, especially Neill Atkinson who compiled this volume. I thank publisher HarperCollins for continuing to publish the series. Most of all, I want to pay special tribute to those men who so generously shared their experiences of those memorable and dangerous times serving our country more than 60 years ago.

All the interviews done for this book will be kept for posterity in the Oral History Centre at the Alexander Turnbull Library, and, where consent has been given, they will be made available to other researchers.

It gives me great pleasure now to launch Hell or High Water: New Zealand Merchant Seafarers Remember the War.

As well I also present tapes of the interviews done for the book to Hon Marian Hobbs, Minister Responsible For the National Library.