The following is a letter written by Mr Max Gunn to Gunner W.A. Leyland's nephew, Bruce Leyland who was asking for information about his uncle. "Dear Bruce,
I have never forgotten that tragic 4th July, 1942, when your uncle, Bill, and five others of our small unit of about 40 gunners, the 1st Survey Troop, were killed by bomb blasts from a lone German Stuka.
The unit was formed in Auckland before we left, I think, in June 1940, on the 'Mauretania" for Bombay. There we transferred from that superb Atlantic liner to a fairly broken down old tub, by comparison, the "Ormonde" for the voyage to the Suez Canal. The members of the unit were selected because they had matriculated at school so that they were supposed to have a grounding of algebra and trigonometry which would enable them to grasp the principles of surveying in a short time. The purpose of the unit was to act as flash spotters for the artillery. The method was to have three units concentrating on the flashes of the enemy artillery and giving the co-ordinates of their bearings to the post at headquarters. There, the plotters sat round a map and, when three of their strings intersected, the position was relayed to our artillery to shoot them up.
The theory was sound enough. But, in practice, telephone lines were always being cut by moving vehicles and tanks and, most often in the mobile desert warfare, the hostile guns had moved on by the time our artillery had loaded up. The only time we functioned really efficiently was at the end of Rommel's retreat in 1943 when the Germans were baled up in the mountains around Tunis, and, when for a couple of weeks, conditions of static warfare prevailed.
Nevertheless we were always present, as close to the enemy as possible, in every action of the N.Z. Division. First, in Greece, where we set up posts around Mt Olympus and wherever we could during the retreat to Marathon, from where we were evacuated to Crete. There, where we were quartered at Galatos - where the main thrust of the parachute attack took place - we had a lucky reprieve on the eve of the battle. As we had no arms, not even a pistol, we spent a night at Suda Bay ... when, next morning clouds descended all round, we marched down from the hills to a Greek caique. Providentially the clouds remained all day, so the German air force, which had been coming over in ever increasing waves, was grounded and we reached Alexandria without a single attack.
It was then that the NZ Division got down to really hard training so that when we drove Rommel back past Tobruk we, like the rest of our army, had become an effective fighting force. Then came the break when the Aussies, who had held Tobruk for a year or more, were replaced by South Africans, when the Australian Division was called back to defend against the Japanese. The South Africans, under General Klopper, lost Tobruk in about two days. They were very brave when they were bullying their blacks - but not so brave when resisting the Nazis. They were very second-rate compared with the Aussies.
When Tobruk fell, we were driven back towards Egypt. A young, and rather stupid, Captain had taken command of our unit, temporarily. He followed the Artillery headquarters into a kind of valley in the desert and we were parked with a crowded jumble of transport. Most of us, looking back on that day, think that his object was to impress the Artillery commander with his eagerness to do battle. I myself, remember the ominous feeling of that traffic jumble, offering, as it did, a sitting duck target to any enemy air raider. (The Nazi air force, at that time, had not been crushed, as it was in the following year, by our numerical superiority.)
When the inevitable rumble of the Stukas came ever closer, we all dived under our Dodge trucks. Bill, two feet from me, was hit by shrapnel as was Fenton Thomas, two feet on my other side. I was not touched. I went at once to Bill who was conscious enough to ask me to get a doctor and I remember running frantically to look for the Ambulance Red Cross sign. They were already on the way but it was too late. I tried to speak words of comfort to Bill but it was all over.
Soon we had the Chaplain among us and there was a hastily improvised burial service, interrupted by more raids. I recall that the Chaplain took cover but most of us were so grief stricken that we were past caring whether we lived or died with our friends.
Friends is not really the word. When you had shared so many experiences, good and bad, with that small group of comrades you became tied, to some of the special ones, with bonds as strong as those of blood and brotherhood. Bill was one of those special comrades. A gentle, sensitive man, with a wry sense of humour, he volunteered, like most of us who knew the horrors of World War I, reluctantly, simply because of his principles of duty told him that there was no other choice.
I sometimes despair when I read of, and listen to, the newspaper and radio journalists of this generation mis-interpreting the motives of those who joined up to stop that crazy monster, Hitler. When they say that we went because we were looking for adventure - without thinking of the issues - I recall friends like Bill, who died unsung without earthly honours.
I don't think I have written at this length about the war since I left the army fifty two years ago. I, too, am sad that you were never able to know him. Perhaps, one day, if I visit Melbourne we can meet. It is not only on the 4th July each year that I think of Bill. I shall always salute him as a man of great honour. With my warmest good wishes to you, [Signed] Max Gunn"
In July 1942 the New Zealand troops were fighting in the Alamein Line in an attack on El Mreir and Ruweisat Ridge, a battle which continued for all of July and resulted in heavy losses and little gain. The day William Leyland died they were moving towards Ruweisat Ridge. The following is the description of the day in the Official History of 2nd Divisional Artillery:
'The 6th Brigade infantry withdrew as arranged, thereby increasing the proportion of guns to infantry in the rest of the Division. The gunners who welcomed this most were those of the 14th Light Ack-Ack, who were well aware that their defensive responsibilities were far greater than their resources. They could not hope to provide an umbrella of ack-ack fire wherever it was needed. Any decrease in the size of the concentrations of New Zealand vehicles was therefore all to the good.
The Bofors were far more active on the 4th. E Troop gunners had just finished digging and were getting their guns into position when dive-bombers came over - 26 according to one account - and bombs were bursting about them by the time they managed to open fire. The target seemed to be the guns of the 64th Medium in Deir Alina, some of which were damaged. Bombs also fell among the vehicles of the 5th Field and 1 Survey Troop and several men were hit.' (Murphy, W. (1966).p. 338)
Attended Auckland Grammar School.
The other members of the Survey Troop referred to in Mr Gunn's letter were: Sergeant K.J.H. Snell (26212), Bombardier F. Thomas (23289), Gunner N.B. Mills (25690) all killed in action; Gunners R.W. Glendinning (29124) and T.P. Norton (66212) who, like William Leyland (25665),died of wounds. The following are extracts from two newspapers cuttings supplied by Mr Eltringham. Mr Eltringham was one of those who left Wellington on the Mauretania in August 1940 and transferred to the Ormonde in Bombay. The article reads (in part): Pleasant 'Ormonde' Days - Word or two of Commendation for the socalled 'mutiny ship' Ormonde at Bombay. We expected a few hardships, and a lot more to come but the more frustrating thing on Mauretania was wherever we wanted to go we were confronted with a sentry with a red and navy pugaree, saying we were out of bounds!. Worse still to meet up with Steve Weir himself, demanding in a deep booming voice "Where do you think you're going, soldier?"
We doubled smartly, and retraced our steps.Maybe this is slightly exaggerated, maybe not - we had our moments as well: I still remember the flavour of that beer "E.W.O." - brewed from bamboo shoots, we swore. Anyway to Bombay, to disembark from Mauretania, to Ormonde, where below decks appeared to have been struck by a ruddy typhoon and evacuated at a moment's notice.Leave for the afternoon was uppermost - we'd clean up later. Next morning, a gigantic spring cleaning.This done, our Company decided unanimously this was streets ahead of our accommodation on the previous, much larger, transport. We slept over a large mess-table in hammocks, surprisingly most comfy after a bit.We even had a well tuned piano!. The first meal abroad was foul, as described, and eaten by nobody.Finally, the convoy sailed, without our ugly duckling - that was the first we learned of some sort of mutiny, and the bridge being picketed. The claim was we were overloaded, insufficient life rafts, vile food.
None of us infantry was involved in the affair as far as I know, but similar to strike situations of today, we were in the same ship, and whether we sympathised or not, we were definitely included in the uprising. Personally, my days on Ormonde were most pleasant as our chaps were completely left to their own devices, roaming the ship at will.'. The second newspaper article bears out the previous report: 'Bombay Bloomers on Ormond. BOMBAY 3rd Echelon, 2NZAF - 15 September 1940: very hot and humid on 17 September all up at 0415 hours. At 0715 our Company moves from Mauretania onto a ferry ship alongside and five hours and two miles later we reach a wharf having eaten our iron rations during the trip. Temperature - 110 degrees F. Sit on wharf for three hours, then march to Ormonde near the gangway passing piles of offal sides of beef black and filthy and beasts apparently slaughtered on the spot. The ship is filthy from British troops just disembarked: Trestle tables for both eating and sleeping, blocked toilets, etc. Breakfast: boiled eggs - meat, inside, ugh! - dislike chicken served that way! Noon meal, bread, butter, jam, for tea get plate of stewed meat that bubbles, not from heat but maggots, and the smell!. Demonstrations. When convoy gets under way for Egypt, Artillery Unit, Div. Sigs, and some others of our 6 Brigade storm the bridge and prevent Ormonde sailing. Gunboat circles us, guns trained on us! Supplies of fresh meat eventually arrive and officers join with all in helping thoroughly "clean house". Ormonde had normal troop-capacity of 1400. We were 2,300! Sailing next morning 0700 hours we join convoy 1500 hours. EPILOGUE: 18 months serving with my Battalion, then - severe dysentry and posted to Bludgers Hill (2NZEF HQ) on administration side. Among files I see the OC Troops report on "The Bombay Incident". I tell you our OC Troops (Steve Weir) did his damnedest for us in all ways. His instructions to officers were to bog in, maintain discipline but also make quarters and food at least liveable for the men, without recriminations. Reading between the lines, he himself was perhaps the most concerned man on board at this Army SNAFU. In retrospect, bad as Ormonde was, there'd be much worse in days to come - but then we were toughened, seasoned, expecting real hardships.' AWMM