11 February 2020

CMT - Compulsory Military Training - New Zealand

When I turned 18 I was expected to register for and attend the, then, compulsory military training scheme. Jim Wilson, who was one of my climbing mates, and I attended the same basic training course, the 18th intake, at Burnham Military Camp. We had just completed a three-week trans-alpine climbing trip and were in great condition for the course. Surprisingly, we quite enjoyed the experience and in later years I remember Enoch Powell saying that military training was one of the more satisfying periods of his life. There was something secure about the military organisation. We were gathered from all walks of life from all over New Zealand and lodged in long reasonably comfortable huts.

The first few weeks were basic drilling to accustom us to military command and discipline. Repetition and precision seemed to be the main order of those early weeks. We would march up and down, run confidence courses where individually or in groups we would fling ourselves through a series of obstacles. Jim and I managed well as we had arrived relatively fit. Some were not so fit and one unfortunate guy, Dave, had to contend with an inborn lack of co-ordination. During the confidence courses Dave would fling himself at walls with a sickening thud and just sink to the ground. He never gave up and we shuddered each time he ran at the wall and imagined how quickly he might succumb to machine gun fire in a real war. In the end we would help him over the walls. I think Dave also had a great sense of humour. On one occasion he saluted, in his uncoordinated manner, an officer as he was cycling around a corner. Officers were expected to return the salute on a bicycle by stiffing to attention. This didn’t work very well for the officer concerned and he fell off his bike. The story spread like wildfire about the camp – to everyone’s amusement.

We had lots of rifle drill - on the range - and the worst I remember was an assault exercise where an officer stood outside a building we were passing through, throwing 'thunder-flashes' into it to make it seem more real and hasten us on our way.

Hut Cleaning Day - CMT Burnham 1956 (left Henry Zelas, right Jim Wilson, third from right BLS)

Part way through our basic training we were allowed a night in Christchurch but with instructions to be back on the returning troop train. Jim and I were attending to our affairs of the heart and of course missed our train but were on parade the next morning – we had biked back to Burnham, and stashed our bikes in the end of our huts. They were useful for all sorts of activities until the army found out about them and we were ordered to take them away on the next train.

Jim and I (because of our mountaineering trip fitness) did well in the intercompany sports events. At this stage we had joined the Medical Corps for our special training and it was not really expected that a bunch of 'first aid poofs' would do well against the tough infantry companies. At the intake concert there was a big surprise. Out onto the stage came this amazing Polynesian hula dancer who set the place on fire. There were very strict rules about women in camp and everyone was perplexed. It turned out that the dancer was Trevor Rupe from the other end of our hut. He became well known later as Carmen and I met him a few years later in Kings Cross, and had contact with him much later when he turned sixty.

Carmen - Trevor Rupe

On our final night at Burnham there was a bit of noise in the hut next door. So I put on my boots, and lemon squeezer and grabbed a strong torch. I clumped into the hut shining my torch into as many eyes as I could, at the same time informing them of the rules about ‘lights out’. In my loudest RSM voice from my time in school cadets I ordered them out of bed, into their gear and onto the parade ground. Half of them were lining up on the parade ground when I couldn’t stand the suspense or risk anymore and fled into the night. But it showed how they had been brainwashed to obey orders. In the showers the next morning I shivered in fear as I heard dire threats planned at the unknown perpetrator of the previous night’s antics.

Our intake ended with a field exercise on Birdling’s Flat. We enjoyed this too but the army wouldn’t agree to our request to leave early to start University so we missed out on our first week or two of lectures. Our unit was disbanded the following year so we never had to attend the annual two-week camps.

But I often reflect on the CMT experience. It was a great coming together of NZ youth from all walks of life. All people of my similar age remember the experience fondly and I often think of it as something that could have some value in present day society - not necessarily with any military purpose - but with social and environmental aims. Discipline might be a problem.

1 comment:

  1. My longest bike ride ever was accompanying my big brother's "affaire de coeur" to visitors day and trying to make myself scarce ... too young and inexperienced and shy to make the most of all the pheremones in the air....