39159 Private Charles Shelford

This article appeared in the April 1984 The Battalion Remembers booklet.  The original article wrongly gave his service number as '38159'.    

39159 Private Charles Shelford

Forty years before Shelford became a big name in Auckland and New Zealand Rugby, one of the family had become famous with the Maori Battalion - Charlie Shelford has been a man for all occasions. He never rose above the rank of Private, but he was one of the Battalion's best known and best liked characters. Some of his deeds and escapades are recounted here by Rangi Logan and Harry Lambert.

A tallish lean chap, quiet, certainly not talkative and friendly, in fact almost inclined to be surly. However, on occasions he was quite the humorist. At an impromptu concert at Palmerston North one Sunday, Charlie's tap-dancing was superb. However at a C. Company parade shortly afterwards Shelford's appearance was such that RSM Ace Wood nearly blew his top (These two instances typified to a large extent Charlie's approach to life in those days.)

At Helwan Charlie arrived with a number of other C. Coy men as a reinforcement for D. Coy which was short. He protested. He wanted to be in his proper Company. He was told that C. Coy didn't want him. Charlie was visibly shocked at this news but on my assurance that we were happy to have him in D. Coy he seemed to recover. He became a loyal member of D. Coy - 18 Platoon.

During the Second Libyan Campaign Nov/Dec 1941 Charlie manned the road-block at Menastir with Jim Matehaere, his platoon commander and did a sterling job and at Gazala he was marvellous as his citation recounts. I actually recommended Charlie for the Victoria Cross. He was awarded an immediate Distinguished Conduct Medal instead.

Some time after this decoration came through, I received a note from Bn HQ for Shelford to report to C. Coy. They had claimed him. I was somewhat upset by this directive, so I went along to talk to the Adjutant. It seemed that the officers and men of C. Coy had talked the matter over and had decided that as Shelford was rightly a C. Coy man he should be with them. I argued that as they had rejected him once, they had forfeited all claim to him - however, I agreed to let Charlie made his own decision. I wasted no time informing him. I said, "Pack your things Charlie. You're moving." "Where to," he asked. "Back to C. Coy. They have asked for you." I needn't have been concerned. Charlie's retort was, "D. Coy is my company. They wouldn't have me. I'm staying right here." So that was that!

Because his legs were worrying him, I arranged for Charlie to join Transport and so he got his first truck. There was no thanks. I expected none. He had done his job well for so long and he had earned this chance to take things a bit easier.

I move now to the night of 1/2 Nov 1942. The Alamein attack had been in progress for several days, and now 8th Army was about to break the enemy resistance. We were moving forward keeping up with the creeping barrage and as my custom was, I was constantly moving from side to side of my company front - keeping in touch with the platoons - when I spotted this shadowy figure that was somehow familiar. I went up to it, and sure enough it was Charlie Shelford. "What are you doing here?" I asked. "When this is over we'll get leave and I want to get some loot to sell to the Wogs in Cairo," was his reply. "Where's your truck?" was my next question. Charlie's answer was the wave of the arm in an easterly direction. There was nothing more I could do or say, so I went on with my war and left Charlie to his.

Finally there is the story about Charlie taking a 30 ton truck up onto and along a ridge where other drivers weren't able to get a jeep, in the vicinity of Orsogna. The irate CO of a neighbouring unit was "doing his scone" because a lunatic Maori was driving along the skyline bringing artillery fire down on his troops. As far as Charlie was concerned the supplies had to go through to 28.

As the passing years creep up on me, the memory of such deeds and happenings that I have recounted bring a glint once more to my eyes and I am 40 years younger. Charlie, you were never much good at saluting me, but this time I salute you.

Harry Lambert

When I reached Maadi with the 7th Reinforcements the old hands were full of stories about Crete and the deeds of various of our boys who had performed so well - one of these was Charlie Shelford. As I remember it, he was credited with helping Hulme win his VC. After a stint of guard duty at Tel El Kabir in the canal zone we returned to Maadi to hear more stories of Charlie. He should have got a VC at Gazala and so on.

Be that as it may, he was awarded an immediate DCM - which is pretty good for a private. At the time of his investiture Charlie was a "guest" at "Rock College" and much to the consternation of his Tommy "hosts" he had to be granted special leave (incidentally DCM implies distinguished conduct).  

Shortly after his return to the Composite Depot I happened to be on orderly duties and when I came to inspect the leave parade, Shelford was not wearing his DCM ribbon. I told him he was improperly dressed and that if he wanted to go on leave he'd better do something about it. Come 2400 hrs or so I'm dozing in the Orderly Room, the phone rings and an irate British Army Provost captain tells me he has one of our men in custody and that the said soldier is being a b - - - nuisance and what's more is wearing a DCM ribbon which he, the captain, can't imagine can be right (the distinguished conduct hang-up again) "What's his name?" "Shelford" "If it's Shelford he's got a DCM all right. Look in his paybook." "He hasn't got his paybook." "Well, describe him." The description fitted so I told the captain to contact the NZ Provost and they'd deliver Shelford back to us.

Next morning when I asked Charlie how he felt he didn't bother to answer. He just said "It was all your b - - - fault. You made me wear it, they didn't run the others in". Charlie had no time for red-capped military police. There was the time he asked me to be his defending officer at a court martial - a Warrant-Officer and a Lance-Corporal had interfered when he had been rummaging through some gear in a bombed-out house in no-mans-land. There were six charges in all, and as I remember it, I was able to get him off the "improperly dressed" one. After all he was only having fun when he donned the silken frock, but no amount of eloquence on my part as to his fighting qualities or divergent humour could excuse his knocking down an MP, a Sergeant Major at that.

We rode into Tripoli on a portee and during one of those unaccountable stops, Charlie proceeded to shave - dry - and then plant a fine red and blue serge forage cap complete with Royal Artillery badge on his wavey mop. It was here that I was issued with my long awaited jeep: Charlie was still my driver. He, of course, was from cowboy country. I never ever saw him astride a horse but I can imagine that horses, jeeps and trucks were all driven in much the same fashion. Lights out was at 2300 hrs when all drinking, which at this time was allowed after tea, ceased. However, Charlie had been prevailed upon by his friends to ask his tee-total boss for use of jeep with which to procure more vino - boss adamant, Charlie indignant - he threatens to take the keys off the person of Harry Lambert who though pretty fit in those days knows he'd have no chance in a scuffle with Charlie. I still consider that instance as one of my major diplomatic triumphs.

For the last two actions in North Africa I forsook Anti-Tank was posted to my tribal company D, and took over 18 Platoon. Drivers were left in B Echelon which was miles behind the front line. B Echelon personnel often turned up looking for enemy hardware after the fighting was over, but on the night of our last battle in Tunisia, as we lay on the start line being slowly soaked by the persistent drizzle, who should appear with tommy-gun nonchalantly slung over his shoulder - Yes, you've guessed - Charlie coming back to 18 Platoon of D. Coy and to the unnecessary question, "What are you doing here Charlie." The laconic reply, "I fight for my loot."

Over to Italy where Charlie continued in driving and earned himself a reputation for getting there by combining an attitude of disdain for what the Jerry could do to him and an often novel approach to physical obstacles.

After all hostilities had ceased in 1945, I came back to my little family in Auckland and Charles Shelford settled here. We saw one another from time to time at mini-reunions and other Maori occasions and the stories accumulated. This one he told about himself. Charlie worked for a drainage contractor until the time came when he reckoned he knew enough to get himself his own business. There was the matter of qualifying, getting himself a ticket. He applies to the City Council and in due course is summoned to present himself for examination. It's a written exam. The young lady supervisor hands the ten candidates the exam questions and a couple of foolscap sheets on which to write the answers. Charlie demands a lot more paper from the young woman who is somewhat disconcerted by the request. When the allotted time is up, Charlie hands in his pile of mostly diagrams. Later the candidates are notifed Charlie, the only Maori, has passed - and only one other.

In 1962 I was appointed Headmaster at what used to be Tikitiki Maori District High School and there, the most conspicuous name for me on an old school roll was Charles Shelford. So there it is, Charlie, another slice of memories we can share. You went to school at Tiki, Ida and I taught there, our girl Helen was a probationary teacher there and that's where our Tony got his School Certificate.

The last item in this schedule of Shelford life scenes is another school. When we set about building a library at Glendowie School quite a bit of drainage had to be shifted and relaid. Who has a licence to do this kind of work? He will only have to supervise for after all, there are plenty of PTA and committee men to do the digging and shovelling. Charlie was willing and very able to supervise, but after watching amateur navvies for a while he just had to take a more active part and for several weekends he was chief navvy, chief supervisory and chief humorist - in all ways chiefly and all for aroha.

These days Charlie is retired, his family are all grown up and he helps out at Te Unga-Waka Marae where as one of the Kaumatua he will be on hand to greet his old comrades-in-arms.

Rangi Logan

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