In August 1940, three New Zealand radio broadcasters set sail on a troop ship from Wellington. They were bound for Egypt, where the New Zealand armed forces were joining the Empire’s push to drive the German and Italian armies out of North Africa and the Middle East. With them was a mobile recording van, equipped to capture the voices and sounds of New Zealanders at war on lacquer discs, and send those recordings back for radio broadcasts on the other side of the world.
For the next five years, the National Broadcasting Service Mobile Unit recorded interviews and reports about the fighting and the day-to-day business of war, as well as thousands of simple messages home from servicemen – and a few women. The unit also recorded in the Italy campaign and from 1943, a second Mobile Unit travelled with New Zealanders fighting in the Pacific.
This year, thanks to funding from the Judith Binney Trust and the Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage New Zealand History Research Fund, I am researching and writing about the surviving sound recordings of the Mobile Units. (You can read more about this work on my blog World War Voices.) As well as hopefully providing insight into the content, context and significance of the recordings, I am working with Online Cenotaph to verify the identity of the hundreds of speakers who are heard on them.
Where are the women?
When talking about my research I usually refer to the men who were recorded by the Mobile Units – and most of the speakers are men, due to the limited roles for women to serve overseas in the New Zealand Division in World War II. However, there are some recordings of women; notably Army nurses and volunteers such as Tuis or WAACs working as hospital aides or in New Zealand Forces’ clubs.
On 17 May 1941, the Mobile Unit in Egypt recorded an interview with Eva Mackay, Matron of No. 1 New Zealand General Hospital. In February that year, she had led a party of nurses to set up a tent hospital for New Zealanders fighting in Greece, but as that campaign rapidly unravelled, she instead found herself helping to lead over 100 British, Australian and New Zealand nurses in a hurried evacuation away from advancing German forces.
Their journey through Greece and Crete was a dangerous and arduous one, pursued by the advancing enemy and under fire from German aircraft. In the New Zealand Nurses’ Journal she wrote “Never will I forget my few weeks in Greece. The last part will be like a nightmare for some time to come and the relief at stepping ashore in the Middle East was almost too much for me.” 1
In her interview for New Zealand radio, recorded shortly after ‘stepping ashore’, she described how the evacuating nurses’ truck convoy was bombed and strafed from the air, forcing the women to shelter for a day in an old Greek cemetery before continuing their journey in darkness.
Matron Mackay eventually became Matron-in-Chief of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service and was highly decorated for her war service, receiving the OBE and being Mentioned in Despatches. Being able to hear her account of this dramatic experience in her own voice, recorded so soon after it took place, is a valuable historical resource, but for much of the past 80 years this recording has been difficult for researchers to access.
This was partly due to the fact that until the arrival of the internet, digitisation and digital audio formats, archival sound recordings were physically hard to access. But also, the Matron was identified in the recording’s description only as “Miss E.C. McKay” – with no mention of her rank and her surname mis-spelled. She was possibly a victim of standard 1940s sexism, which saw the male broadcaster who recorded her omit her rank in favour of the generic “Miss”, but a number of other factors are also at play, which has lead to many speakers in this collection being only partially identified.
It is important to understand how these recordings were originally created using 1940s technology. This was an era before magnetic tape, and sound could only be recorded by cutting into large, 12-inch lacquer-coated discs (which look something like a vinyl LP.) The Mobile Unit recorded the men and women of the 2NZEF using either a portable disc recorder or disc cutters housed in a recording van built in Wellington and shipped to Egypt with the 3rd Echelon in August 1940.
After recording, discs were flown or shipped back to New Zealand, where they were edited and broadcast on radio, usually in the popular programme “With the Boys Overseas” which aired on Sundays and Tuesdays from February 1941 until the end of the war. The discs that were kept, were housed in the Broadcasting Service Special Library which eventually became the Radio New Zealand Sound Archives, and they are now cared for by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, New Zealand’s audio-visual archives.
Apart from an occasional hand-written title on a disc label, no contemporary record of the names of the men and women whose voices are on the discs survived in the sound archives. Previously the only way to know who was speaking, was by listening and making a ‘best guess’ at the names heard. This work was done in the early 1990s when a print catalogue of the collection was created. In a pre-internet era, there was no easy way for the cataloguer to verify the names, so without an authority to check against, sometimes names were mis-heard, mis-spelled (McKay vs. Mackay) or missed altogether. In some cases this meant a speaker’s recording could remain virtually ‘undiscoverable’ to researchers. To make this collection authoritative and accessible for the future it needs to have verified names, so I am doing this work in conjunction with Online Cenotaph as part of my research.
Naming the voices
If a speaker has an unusual surname, it is often fairly straightforward to find them and verify their identity in Online Cenotaph (once you get the spelling right!) However, speakers with names like “Bill Smith” or “Jack Wilson” are a bit trickier. In these cases there are a number of ways to narrow down the candidates:
- Check their enlistment date on Online Cenotaph (if he didn’t enlist until 1944, he won’t be in a recording made in Egypt in 1942)
- Compare next-of-kin and enlistment addresses in Online Cenotaph with names and places mentioned in the recording (usually the men greet their wives and/or parents and give a ‘shout-out’ to their home town).
- Their occupation at enlistment can be a clue. In a recording made in November 1940 about how troops in Egypt were fed, a man identified only as “Private Smith of Auckland” talks about his work as a butcher and how meat is processed at Maadi Camp. By a process of elimination, I decided he was probably Wallace George Smith of Mt Roskill, who was a butcher on enlistment, so a link to this recording is now found on his Online Cenotaph entry.
The aim of this project is to link every Mobile Unit recording in Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision’s online catalogue to each speaker’s entry in Online Cenotaph. Names which have been linked so far are available in the Online Cenotaph saved search.
Ngā Taonga is currently working on digitising the Mobile Unit discs and it is hoped they will all be available online in time. (You can read a blog about the digitisation project here.) Some of the recordings can be heard online already. The ulitmate goal is to correctly identify all of New Zealand’s voices of World War II and make them accessible for their descendants and future researchers to find and hear.
1. Eva MacKay in New Zealand Journal of Nursing 15 July 1941, cited in Anna Rogers, While You’re Away: New Zealand nurses at war 1899-1948 (AUP 2003) p223.
About the Author:
Sarah Johnston is researcher, writer and broadcaster with a passion for listening to the sounds of our past.
She has previously worked as a journalist with Radio New Zealand and Deutsche Welle and with the RNZ Sound Archives collection, which is now cared for by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision. For five years she produced and presented the popular ‘Sound Archives’ segment on RNZ’s Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan.
In 2021 she is the recipient of a Judith Binney Trust Writing Award and a New Zealand History Research Fund grant, enabling her to research and write about our World War II broadcasting history.
Cite this article
World War Voices. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 5 March 2021. Updated: 5 July 2021.