Leslie Wilton Andrew
In a fierce assault to retake the village of La Basseville, Passchendaele, this Kiwi corporal charged & captured multiple enemy machine gun positions
This Kiwi took multiple machine gun nests
Corporal ‘Les’ Andrew commanded a force of 15 men, ordered to take out a machine gun nest on the northern edge of the village of La Basseville in support of the main assault to take the village. This attack launched at 3.50am on 31 July 1917 and was immediately halted by another hidden machine gun nest, which opened up on the front platoon. From his position in support of the main assault, Andrew realised that if the attack were to succeed, he would need to take out the new machine gun nest first, before advancing on his original objective.
Leslie Andrew was one of 16 New Zealanders to receive the Victoria Cross during WWI – aged 20, he was the youngest Kiwi recipient. Born in the Wanganui region of the North Island, he attended one of the country’s most prestigious schools, Wanganui Collegiate. He had been a sergeant in the Cadets and Territorials and volunteered in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in October 1915, shipping out to Egypt in May 1916. He put his age down as 20 to ensure he would be accepted, although he was already 18. When he shipped out, he reverted to private in order to join B Company of the 2nd Battalion, Wellington Infantry Regiment. The regiment sailed for England in July. By August he was serving on the Somme, where he was wounded in September.
In January 1917 he was promoted to corporal, and he participated in the Battle of Messines in June 1917. It was as a corporal that Andrew was given command of a small detachment to neutralise the machine gun nest that dominated La Basseville, Belgium.
The Battle of Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, in Flanders, raged from July to November 1917 and was fought for control of the commanding, 80-metre (260-feet) high ridges that ran south and east from the Belgian city of Ypres. These ridges bulged into the Germans lines, creating a salient, and capturing them would prove advantageous. The trench lines of both sides had changed little since the Second Battle of Ypres in April and May 1915. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig’s plan was controversial (and remains so), opposed by the French as well as British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. It is debated whether Haig should have awaited the arrival of American forces before launching his assault. Approval was only received on 25 July for the plan to go ahead, but Haig had already ordered a preparatory bombardment for his assault, which began on 11 July.
In the early stages of the Battle of Passchendaele, the New Zealanders were tasked with capturing the village of La Basseville, southwest of the Messines Ridge, on the extreme right of Haig’s grand offensive. The Kiwis captured the village on 26 July but were repulsed by a German counterattack, which retook the village the following day.
Reinforcements were called up, consisting of the 336 men and officers of the 2nd Battalion, Wellington Infantry Regiment. The ground was studded with wire and machine gun emplacements. The most dominant defensive position was a machine gun nest located on the second floor of a two-storey building at the northern end of the village. The task of capturing this nest was given to two sections of the 2nd Wellingtons – 15 men in total – commanded by Corporal Leslie Andrew. They were instructed to advance separately from the main attack in order to neutralise the threat. A creeping barrage would provide cover, and Andrew and his men were to follow closely behind it. The main attack, supported by mortar and machine gun fire, went in at 3.50am and immediately became suppressed by another machine gun nest, hidden in a fence-line.
While the leading platoon took shelter, Andrew, seeing this new threat, diverted his party and charged the second machine gun emplacement from the flank, killing the crew and capturing the gun.
Confusion arises at this point in records of the battle. According to war correspondent Malcolm Ross, 11 of Andrew’s 15-man team were wounded or killed in this initial action. Andrew then continued the mission himself with three remaining men, rushing to catch up with the creeping barrage. The regiment diarist does not record any casualties in Andrew’s sections, however, nor does the official historian. Another account gives credit to Lieutenant Bliss (leading the foremost platoon of the main attack) for capturing the first machine gun, while another account gives all the credit to Corporal Andrew. The London Gazette also gives the credit to Andrew, although it too gives no account of his group sustaining any casualties.
Andrew continued on to his original mission of the machine gun in the two-storey house but discovered that a frontal assault would be pointless. Malcom Ross reported that, “Cooly sizing up the situation, he led his little party round for a quarter of a mile on their stomachs through some thistles and attacked the German position from the rear.” They threw bombs and dislodged the second machine gun crew, capturing that gun as well. All members of the party were slightly wounded during the operation, according to Ross. Although the London Gazette entry for his gallantry ends there, Ross recorded that Corporal Andrew continued to press his attack, capturing yet another machine gun and even going forward from there to reconnoitre the German positions.
The assault to retake La Basseville had been a success and had lasted little over half an hour. Andrew’s further actions may have alerted the New Zealanders to a German counterattack at 5.00am, which was thwarted by a welldirected artillery barrage. Other German assaults were to follow, and at the end of the day, the 2nd Wellingtons had suffered 40 per cent casualties (134 out of the 336 who went in, with 37 killed). Many years later, Andrew recounted that he personally had killed eight enemy soldiers that day, six with his bayonet.
The actions of the Wellingtons that day garnered 14 Military Medals, three Distinguished Conduct Medals, four Military Crosses and Andrew’s Victoria Cross. One of the machine guns captured by Andrew (it is unclear which) was sent back to New Zealand as a trophy. It is housed today in the Wanganui Museum.
The following day, on 1 August, Andrew was promoted to sergeant and talk of his heroic conduct became widespread. His action was gazetted on 4 September, and he was invested with his Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace on 31 October that year. Andrew was then sent for officer training and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in Mach 1918. He was training members of the NZEF in Britain when the war ended.
Andrew remained in the army following the Armistice and took up a post in the small New Zealand Permanent Army. He was promoted to captain by the age of 27 and served in India
“HIS WORK WAS VERY FINE AND HE DISPLAYED GREAT GALLANTRY AND SPLENDID LEADERSHIP… I AM PARTICULARLY PLEASED THAT IT WILL BE A WANGANUI BOY TO EARN THE COVETED DISTINCTION” Major William Cunningham, commanding officer Wellington Infantry Battalion
(attached to the 2nd Highland Light Infantry) and commanded the New Zealand contingent at the coronation of George VI in 1937. He was a major when World War II broke out, and joined the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary
Force as a lieutenant colonel in January 1940. He had a reputation as a disciplinarian, which some men under his command appreciated while others did not. Another New Zealand VC recipient, Keith Elliott, appreciated that Andrew wanted his men to be prepared so trained his men rigorously. His nickname among the New Zealanders was ‘Old February’.
Andrew took command of the 22nd
Wellington Battalion, which served in Britain in 1940, and subsequently in Greece, Crete and in North Africa. Evacuated from Greece on 25 April 1941, Andrew commanded his men in the defence of Maleme airfield on Crete in May. His position was Point 107, the hill that dominated the airfield. When the German attacks began on 20 May, he later recalled that the barrages his men were subjected to were worse than what he had experienced at Passchendaele, Messines and the Somme. He described those World War I barrages he’d endured as “mere picnics” in comparison.
Andrew requested assistance from the 23rd Battalion but was left without support for 24 hours, after which he reluctantly withdrew his men because he risked being overrun. The Germans took Point 107, and the airfield fell to them soon after. For this withdrawal Andrew was blamed for the loss of Crete, and he never again held an operational command (although he remained in command of 22nd Battalion).
Andrew’s role in the loss of Crete remains controversial, however, and others blame the commander of 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, Brigadier James Hargest, for refusing to provide the requested support. Other officers of the brigade must also share the blame.
“AS SOON AS THEY GOT CLOSE ENOUGH THE INTREPID QUARTET THREW BOMBS AT THE CREW AND RUSHED, KILLED FOUR OF THE ENEMY AND PUT THE REST TO FLIGHT, AND CAPTURED THE GUN AND THE POSITION” War Correspondent Malcolm Ross
There was an inquiry on the loss of Crete, at which both Andrew and Hargest gave evidence, but no conclusive finding was made. The commander of New Zealand forces on Crete, Major General Bernard Freyberg, did not place any blame on Andrew.
Evacuated to North Africa, Andrew again showed his qualities during Operation Crusader in November and December 1941, when, after the headquarters had been overrun and the officers captured, he commanded the remnants of the 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade for 14 days at Menastir and Bardia. Brigadier Hargest was captured on 27 November, and Andrew took command, fighting at the southeast end of the corridor to Tobruk against the Afrika Korps. During that time the brigade saw off repeated attacks by the 21st Panzer Division. Andrew was Mentioned in Dispatches and later awarded a Distinguished Service Order. He relinquished command of the brigade on 7 December, after Erwin Rommel had abandoned Tobruk.
In February 1942 Andrew relinquished command of 22nd Battalion and returned to New Zealand to oversee preparations for a potential Japanese invasion at Wellington Fortress Area. He resumed service with the regular New Zealand Army in October 1943 and was promoted to colonel. After the war he was promoted to brigadier (he used to quip that he had held every rank from private to brigadier – with the exception of quartermaster sergeant). He was appointed aide-de-camp to the governor general of New Zealand in 1946.
After retirement in 1952, Andrew resisted calls to stand as a politician. He had married his wife Bessie on 12 November 1918, the day after the Armistice, and they had five children and lived in Levin, in New Zealand. When he died in 1969, three Victoria Cross recipients attended his funeral.
In December 2007, a worker at the National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand, stole 96 medals, including nine Victoria Crosses awarded to New Zealand recipients (including Andrew’s, as well as Charles Upham’s
Victoria Cross and Bar). The crime created an international outcry and was dubbed a ‘crime against the nation’. At that time, a total of 24 Victoria Crosses had been stolen and only one (a Canadian award) had been recovered, 31 years after its theft. A huge international effort to recover the New Zealand medals was launched. A reward was posted by
Lord Michael Ashcroft and New Zealand businessman Tom Sturgess, and all of the 96 medals were recovered in February 2008, but the culprits remained at large. The smashand-grab theft had only taken four minutes, so more than one perpetrator was sought. One man was apprehended and pleaded guilty in September 2009 while another man remained at large until August 2011.
Andrew’s Victoria Cross is now once again on (much more secure) display in the National Army Museum, Waiouru.
Heroes of the Victoria Cross
A portrait of Leslie Andrew taken before he joined the 2nd Wellingtons, when he was a sergeant in the Territorials
BELOW: Aerial view of Passchendaele before and after the bombardment during the Third Battle of Ypres. This bombardment was what Andrew later described as “a picnic” compared to what his men endured in Crete A line of the troops of the New Zealand army queue up to buy stores from a field canteen near the Amiens-albert road, September 1916
A British 18-pounder is recovered from the mud of Passchendaele. Guns like this provided vital support and barrage cover for the Wellingtons’ advance