The Burnham Adventure
By Mike Subritzky
161 Battery RNZA
"Be bloody careful of drunk Fijians who want to indulge in pugilism, they tend to swing it from their ankles, and if it connects...it will rip your bloody head off!" ............. Captain Red Atkin RNZIR. (advice given to us once prior to a deployment to Fiji).
Back in the early 1970's, young soldiers "signed up" for a set period of years, and no matter how good or bad they were, it was basically a marriage to the NZ Army until the date of discharge, and so if any particular Army Unit had a number of hard cases in it, these men remained in the Army until such time as their contract had expired. Most of the members of 161 Battery at this time in the Battery's history, had either served in Vietnam, or had enlisted to serve in Vietnam, and were simply waiting until their contract had run its' course. It was against this 'culture' that the following Burnham Adventure took place. I daresay that if it happened in today's modern Army, "Questions would be raised in the House". I have been pressured to put this yarn on paper by virtually every Gunner who took part in this moment in the unofficial history of 161 Battery, and so I have written this as I remember.
In about 1974, 161 Battery was deployed to the South Island to take part in Exercise "Pacific Coaster", the Battery Commander at the time was Graeme Birch MBE, and we sent the guns down to Burnham by NZ Railways. Also taking part in this very large Exercise were various other Units of the New Zealand Army, Australians, Americans, Brits from Hong Kong, and about a Platoon of Fijian soldiers from the FMF (Fiji Military Forces).
When we arrived in Burnham we had a couple of lay-over days and these were spent doing sight tests, stores checks, and attending various lectures, prior to a very large deployment to the West Coast of the South Island in Troop Trains. The evenings were free for us to go and attend the Camp's wet canteen and Messes. The Baggies Bar did a roaring trade during the period and was absolutely jam packed with troops from all of the participating nations. (remember this was prior to our unceremonious exit from ANZUS).
On the second to last evening, all of the Gunners (and Junior NCO's) went into the Baggies Bar, and Ray Ogilvy took along his guitar for a jolly good 'sing song'. The bar was due to close at 2200, and at about 2100, an American soldier from the Tropic Lightening Division, stood on a table and stopped the singing and made a speech to everyone present. This was followed by an Australian speech, Fijian speech, Brit speech and a very short reply by a Kiwi Infantryman. Frank Hohaia was by this time playing the guitar, and we were becoming concerned as to the amount of good drinking time that had been wasted by the "speechifying". At about 2130 a drunk Fijian soldier stood on a table and called for hush, but as we were fast loosing party time, he was told to sit down by some-one and the partying continued. Having lost face, the Fijian soldier did the decent thing, uplifted a chair and proceeded towards the rear of Frank Hohaia and was about to silence Frank's guitar playing with the chair when Joe Subritzky, Walley Ireland and Snow Berkett intervened and took the chair off him. A couple of blows were traded with the Fijian looking the worse for wear.
Immediately the front door burst open and in stormed the Orderly Officer and about a dozen MP's. Both the Fijians and the Gunners were then ordered to leave the bar and as all of our Bombardiers (including myself) were in the bar, we very quietly left and made our way back to Ipoh Barracks, which were just a short distance away from the bar and opened onto the 1RNZIR Battalion parade ground.
We got back to the barracks and were sitting around bullshitting each other, when next moment about a dozen Fijian soldiers burst into our midst and began punching anything that moved. This was broken up, and as we pushed them out of our barracks, Gunner Jim Tawhara, Guy Timu and Nick "Haggis" Murray were knocked out in the ensuing struggle, and had to be hospitalised (Haggis unfortunately was actually knocked out by our own Sergeant Heta Tobin who yelled to him to duck, but Haggis being very deaf actually turned instead of ducking...resulting in an "own goal").
The Orderly Officer and MP's arrived at the barracks and after removing the Fijians, they actually wrapped a chain around the outside door and then locked it, effectively separating the Fijians from us. Up until now, we hadn't taken the whole thing seriously and were actually laughing at the close shave that the dozen Fijians had gotten, as there were about 80 Gunners in two separate dormitories which they obviously hadn't realised.
Next moment, the fire door in the corridor joining the two barracks burst open and in poured about 20 Fijians...This time there was no "Mister Nice Guy". In true Gunner form each Fijian soldier was engaged at odds of three to one, and in no time we made short work of them, knocking out several and throwing them all out the door after first, escorting each into the wall on the way out.
Next morning when we went to breakfast in the 800 man mess, Gunner Stratton started jeering at them and pointing to his own fist and the black eyes on several of the Fijians. As we had done quite a number of trips to Fiji over the years and were fluent in all of their swear words, several Gunners engaged in trading insults with them in their native tongue "Munga-Te-Namu!", "Vai! Vai!", "Viti Numa Ten!" etc, etc. Then one of the Fijians yelled back at us "OK Gunners - where's your guitar player?" and with that the Fijians started whooping and yelling at us and laughing amongst themselves. Slowly it dawned on us that one of our number was AWOL...where was Frank Hohaia? This concern was settled some few minutes later when Corporal John Gardiner, one of our Medics arrived to inform us that Gunner Hohaia had been ambushed by "person or persons unknown", last evening on his way back from a party at the housing area. Frank had received a bloody good kicking and was in the Camp Hospital, where he remained for more than a month.
If there was one thing that the Gunners of the period were experts at it was plotting revenge. However, to keep us separated from the Fijians, we were 'both' banned from the bar for the last night; however we simply took off into Christchurch and got shitfaced at the Bush Inn. The acting BSM, Jim Elliott almost swallowed his pipe when he saw the state of the Battery personnel stumbling onto the railway platform at about 2330 that night. The individual who was most, 'the worse for wear' was the new Battery Medic, Corporal Ian "Kid" Curry. Jim confronted him, and actually poked him in the chest while he was yelling at him, and the Kid fell backwards onto the concrete while standing completely to attention...his M16 clattered off in one direction, while his helmet rolled along the length or the swaying front rank. Jim gave up on us all at about that stage as there wasn't a sober Gunner amongst us, and (unknown to him), some very clever Command Post staff, Grant Hays, Pete Baker, Skin Francis, Pete the Pom Glassborow and Al Portman had even gone down to a local wine shop and replenished virtually all of the CP staff's water bottles with rough red wine and sherry for the train journey.
Presently the Troop Train arrived and we boarded it and chugged out of the station, and for the next several hours Kid Curry led the Battery in a host of singing lessons of just about every bawdy sing-song I have ever heard in my life. We eventually arrived on the West Coast and did the business that we were all being paid for, and I think from memory the exercise "Pacific Coaster" lasted for about a month. During the time we were on the Coast, the Rear Echelon 'Wallahs', back at Burnham Camp sent us progress reports and 'Sitreps' on the health of Gunner Hohaia, whilst we in the 'Ulu' plotted Gunner revenge
One the last day of the Exercise we were informed that upon our return to Burnham, there was to be a very large Bar-B-Que, to be held on the football paddock and that ALL participants involved in the exercise would be present...and that included the Fijians! We couldn't believe our luck as it would mean that all of the Fijians would be together at the same place at the same time! For the rest of the day various 'Syndicate' O Groups were held by the Gunners and sand models of Burnham Camp were constructed by Junior Ruri, Pete Mita, Ron 'Shorty' Barrett and others who had previously spent time with the Infantry, and then these were studied for a final plan using SMEAC. It was decided to 'Hit' the Fijians after the Bar-B-Que when they were inside of the Baggies Bar and out of the witnessing eyes of our Battery Officers, the MP's and the Orderly Staff. It was also decided that each Fijian soldier would be shadowed by a minimum of 3 Gunners so as to ensure that the ambush was not only swift but also decisive!...and so the plot was hatched.
At the Bar-B-Que, it was obvious that something was very wrong and the air was electric with tension, both from our side and our Fijian cousins, and prior to its' conclusion the Battery Commander called us all together, thanked for our efforts while on the Coast, and the last thing he did was warn us "To take care of each other"...perhaps Major Birch had a premonition of what was about to unfold. After the Bar-B-Que, we were quietly slipping away in groups of two's and three's in the direction of the Baggies Bar when I was stopped by three of the Battery's Senior NCO's, Sergeant's Heta Tobin, Kevin Burnell and Bill James, all of whom were Vietnam veterans. They asked where we were going and I quietly replied that we were just going for a "drink at the Baggies Bar". I then noted that all of 161 Battery's Senior NCO's began removing stable belts, berets and brassards and fell in with the Gunners and Bombardiers making for the bar
Inside of the bar, as rehearsed, the Gunners very quickly spread and covered all of the exits, as well as removing anything identifiable as 'Artillery'. The Fijians in due course entered, as did about 800 or 1000 'neutrals' from various other nations...the bar was absolutely jam packed and then the signal was given and we closed in on the unsuspecting Fijians. The very first Fijian to take a dive was about 6 feet tall, and was carrying a wooden crate full of beer when he was engaged by Gunners Joe Subritzky, Pete Baker, Don Stratton and Snow Berkett. He went down with a thud and the very next instant the entire Burnham Camp Baggies Bar exploded like a saloon fight in a wild west movie. Apart from the Fijians and ourselves no-one else had any idea of what the hell was going on and so in a very short space of time we had beaten the snot out of the Platoon of Fijians present, although we had sustained some few casualties including myself, I was bottled in the face.
As soon as we hammered all of the Fijians and threw them outside, we then thundered out after them, which turned out to be something of a huge mistake...The Fijians were outnumbered but they were not stupid. During the period that we were away on the West Coast, they had gotten their Assault Pioneers to manufacture several dozen clubs and fence battens, and these they had secreted under the actual baggies bar and in the vegetation in the surrounding area. In no time they fell upon us and began beating the crap out of us with these, steel rubbish bin lids and also concrete "dragons teeth" tank traps which they pulled from the side of the road.
In the middle of all of this moving mass of near riot, the Orderly Officer arrived alone, driven into the centre of us while standing on the bonnet of a Land Rover...he was armed with a swagger stick! He yelled at the top of his voice for the Gunners to form up and march back to their barracks, and for the Fijians to return to theirs. Amazingly both sides complied!!!
As we stepped off with our shirts and tee shirts ripped in shreds and hanging off us, Gunner Noel Birchall began singing the Battery song and all 80 of us sang in unison "I wouldn't wanna be, in the Tanks or Infantry, I'd rather be a Gunner like I am..."
Not to be outdone, I think the Fijians stepped off to the Fiji Battalion song "Over Land or Sea or Sky, when the bullets go a'whistling by, you will know the Fiji Battalions fighting by your side!..."
We put 15 Fijians in hospital, they put a further six of us, including Bob Kimi with a serious leg fracture which resulted from him wearing a "dragons Tooth" thrown by a huge Fijian...we reckoned we won as we had the lower body count.
And so ended the "Burnham Adventure"; well not quite. The following morning there was hell to pay as the Baggies Bar resembled a war zone, and so all Gunners and Fijians in Burnham Camp were ordered to pay five dollars for the repairs to the building, both inside and out. At that time five bucks was a princely sum, enough to get a Gunner drunk on a pay night and so when the repairs were carried out, the Burnham Camp Baggies bar was one of the finest drinking establishments in the whole of Canterbury. I understand that the Camp Commandant had insisted that it was the Gunners fault, but our BC, bless his heart had said that unless it could be proved we were only half at fault. About a month later, he passed me in the RHQ and quietly asked me who had thrown the first punch and I came clean and told him that it had actually been thrown by my brother Joe. His reply was "I thought it might have been something like that", and a wry smile.
Years later I was sent to the Rhodesia as part of a Peace Keeping Operation. After the war ended, and the elections had been held we were pulled back to Salisbury Airport awaiting an aircraft to fly us back to Jo-Burg in South Africa. It was early morning and still dark, the mist was quite low and through the darkness we could hear the sound of troops marching towards us. Presently a Platoon of Fijian soldiers marched into view, halted beside us and broke off. I had many friends in the FMF over the years and I looked to see if I could recognise anyone. Directly across from me a Fijian yelled "Bulla" to me and then smiled and yelled "Burnham!". We both started laughing and shook hands like old friends, and he explained to his mates that I was a Gunner from the Burnham fight. Later, when we had gotten airborne, the same Fijian guy took his combat jacket off and I saw
that he was wearing the Military Medal. He was that very gallant Fijian soldier who had pulled the wounded out of an ambush in the early days of the Sinai Operation.
"Viti Numa Dua!"