Harold Paton did what many young men did shortly after the outbreak of World War II - the 20-year-old bumped up his age and enlisted in the Army. It was 1940. Paton, who had been a cadet photographer with the Auckland Star, embarked with the third echelon of the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces.
The Army provided everything and Private Paton had no idea whether he should have taken the Super-Ikonta camera he had bought with a £20 loan from the newspaper, but doing so led to the biggest assignment of his photographic career.
A trained front-line soldier, Paton had returned to Maadi Camp in Egypt after an all-night patrol in May 1941 when he was told he was wanted up at Bludger's Hill (an affectionate term the soldiers had for the administration block). New Zealand's Prime Minister Peter Fraser was visiting the troops and they needed someone to take his picture.
Paton was immediately inducted into the New Zealand headquarters' staff as official 2NZEF war photographer and given one shilling and sixpence to buy film at the camp shop. On the first day he photographed not only Fraser but also famous British General Archibald Wavell.
The camera was later stolen in Cairo, but the Army replaced it with a Rolliecord and Paton went on to photograph New Zealanders at war throughout desert campaigns from Egypt to Tunisia, including the trek in Syria. His images, including the famous shot of General Sir Bernard Freyberg lying wounded in a slit trench after taking a shell splinter in the neck at Minqar Qaim, were starkly memorable.
Though he travelled with the 2NZEF in the public relations truck, Paton and his companions, war correspondents Bruce Hewitt, Bill Brodie and Graham Beamish, and artist Peter McIntyre, did not have any luxuries. They dug slit trenches just deep enough to shelter their prone bodies. Asps, scorpions and other creepy-crawlies roaming the desert floor were nothing compared to the threat of German bombs.
"It was a fluid war," says Paton. "We didn't know where they [the Germans] would pop up next and we tried to camouflage ourselves as much as possible." The men were rationed to one bottle of water a day and they ate hard biscuits and cheese when there was no time to cook food.
The memory of the harsh environment and sound of shellfire has stayed with Paton. So has the day he stood on top of the truck and watched the entire New Zealand division on the move to Sidi Rezegh in their first desert campaign. "It was the most spectacular sight," he said. "The first time the division had come together and there were trucks and tanks as far as the eye could see north, south, east and west."
Paton took thousands of photos, many of which were published in newspapers and magazines over the world, including Life magazine. They now form the bulk of illustrations for New Zealand's World War II history volumes.
Paton returned to New Zealand in 1943 with the first furlough draft and applied for a position as an Army cinematographer in the Pacific. There, he filmed New Zealand service personnel on Green Island, Guadalcanal and Vella Lavella. After being demobbed, he rejoined the Auckland Star before going into business, returning to the newspaper in 1953. He was appointed chief photographer in 1956 and held that position until his retirement in 1979. He now lives with his wife Olive in the Bay of Plenty.
To commemorate this Anzac Day, Paton has provided a series of images from his personal collection to stage a commemorative exhibition at the Auckland Museum. Unlike much of his published work, these photographs show the soldiers going about their personal daily routines in North Africa. They capture the soldiers relaxing, and show that not even the desert or rocky terrain could deter the Kiwis from playing rugby or cricket.
Anzac photo exhibition
Private Paton's Photos - North Africa 1941-1942
Presented by the New Zealand Herald and
From Anzac Day (April 25) until August 4, 2002
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Daily 10am-5pm (except Anzac Day noon-5pm)