28th Maori Battalion - 1939-1945
Formation and Mobilisation
When war broke out in September 1939, Māori leaders offered the services of men for both the defence of New Zealand and for overseas fighting. Politician Sir Āpirana Ngata and other leaders requested that an all-Māori unit, be formed. The 28th (Māori) Battalion was specially formed, volunteer battalion, of the 2nd New Zealand Division (2NZ), the infantry element of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF)
Over the course of the war, the battalion was attached to each of the Division’s three brigades (4th, 5th and 6th). The Battalion was organised along tribal lines. A Company came from North Auckland, B Company from Rotorua, Bay of Plenty, Taupo and Coromandel, C Company were made up of East Coast Tribes and D Company were made up a Maori from a wide area with fewer tribes including Wellington, the South Island and Taranaki. It was however, mostly white New Zealanders or ‘Pākehā’, that initially were given command roles, including battalion commander, Major George Dittmer. On 26th January 1940, the 28th (Māori) Battalion was assembled at Palmerston North.
On 2 May 1940, 680 men of the Battalion sailed from Wellington with the 2nd Echelon of 2NZEF, on the Aquitania. After being joined by other troop ships in Australia, the convoy sailed for Egypt, where it was to join New Zealand's 1st Echelon. On 15 May, ships were diverted to South Africa as a result of reports that Italy was about to declare war. During the four day stop in Cape Town, due to racial segregation and tensions in South Africa, the men of the battalion had to remain on the ship.
On 31st May 1940, the convoy left South Africa, for the United Kingdom and arrived at Gourock, Scotland on 16th June. The Māori Battalion was deployed to southern England, where the men trained and prepared defences during the Battle of Britain. After six months, the 2nd Echelon left the UK and arrived in Egypt on 3rd March 1941, along with 300 Māori reinforcements from New Zealand. Soon the The 1st Armoured Brigade, the New Zealand Division, 6th and 7th Australian Divisions and the Polish Independent Brigade were ordered to prepare for embarkation to Greece, following the German ultimatum issued to Greece and Yugoslavia. Before leaving, Freyberg, Commander of the 2NWEF, issued a special order to the troops. It concluded;
‘One last word. You will be fighting in a foreign land and the eyes of many nations will be upon honour of the New Zealand Division is in your keeping. It could not be in better hands you.’
Battles on Greece and Crete
The Battalion arrived on Greece on 27th March and camped at Katerini. The Māori Battalion were tasked with defending the entrance to Olympus Pass, ‘with its highest peaks covered in snow. Northeast across the Gulf of Thermaikos was Salonika, the second city of Greece. And barely 200 miles farther east was Gallipoli.’ The close proximity to Gallipoli was significant to the Māori Battalion as it was where the New Zealand (Māori) Pioneer Battalion had fought at Anzac Cove in July 1915.
On 15th April, the Battalion faced the enemy for the first time. During fierce fighting at Olympus Pass and four of their men were killed. In Corporal Harry Taituha's account of the fighting on 15th April, he stated;
Following the German breakthrough, the Allies fell back to defend the Thermopylae Line. On 21st April 1941, British command decided to abandon Greece. The Battalion were evacuated to Crete aboard the Glengyle on Anzac Day, leaving behind 10 dead and 81 POWs.
On 20th May 1941, German airborne forces landed on Crete. It was essential that Allies forces captured airfields and ports on the island in order to a gain air and sea superiority in the Mediterranean. Companies of the 28th Māori Battalion and 23rd Battalion of 5th Brigade were sent as reinforcements, to the hills surrounding the Malemes airfield, to gain back control of airfield, which had been secured by German forces. The men of the 28th carried out a brave bayonet charge on German forces but were soon overrun and but were forced to withdraw.
The Battalion continued to defend the island for ten days. By 27th May, the Allied forces were struggling and the depleted 5th Brigade began defending an area known as 42nd Street, near Suda Bay. As the enemy advanced, the Māori Battalion led another bayonet charge, alongside the Australian 2/7 Battalion.
The fight at 42nd Street, as well as in other key areas, served as rear-guard action, that slowed the advance of German force, allowing the allies to withdraw, over the mountainous terrain, to the southern coast of Crete, from where they were to be evacuated to Alexandria in Egypt. The Allied campaign on Crete had failed.
It was decided that the for the evacuation there would only be destroyers that could each take 250 men, due to the risk of air attacks. This meant that many of the allied troops, including members of 5th Brigade and the Maori Battalion, were left behind on the island.
By 31st May, more than 16,000 Allied soldiers had been evacuated. The failed campaign on Crete had caused heavy losses. Some 74 men of the Battalion were killed on Crete and 71 Māori troops were among the 12,000 Allied soldiers, that were left to become POWs
Battles in North Africa
For the next two years the men of the 28th Māori Battalion would remain in North Africa. After arrival in Egypt, they continued to be reinforced, continued training and were issued with summer uniforms. Sport played a huge part in keeping up morale for the Maori troops while station in Egypt. They excelled in military competitions including swimming, rugby and boxing. They also entertained troops with the Haka and played instruments such as ukuleles and mandolins. In Late August the battalion were moved 20 miles west of El Alamein where there they began digging roads. The Battalion also had it's own mobile canteen, named Te Rau Aroha, which followed the troops throughout the war, that had been funded by donations from Māori schoolchildren. The canteen supplied the troops with news updates as well as food and item such as fruit, cakes, cigarettes, chocolate and shellfish.
In November 1941, the NZ Division were moved to Libya to take part in Operation Crusader. This was the British 8th Army's push bypass German defences on the Egypt-Libyan border and relieve the enemy siege of Tobruk. On 15th November, the battalion war diary notes;
‘'Battalion moves in conjunction with 5 Brigade and NZ Division. This marks the first division move on a brigade front with 5 Brigade leading and convoy in desert formation. Being a daylight move things run smoothly. C Company and D Company were forward with C Company on right. A & B Companies in rear with A Company on right flank. HQ Company & Bn Hqrs were across the centre – five vehicles abreast between the two forward and two rear companies. The Battalion’s left flank was protected by a screen of three Bren Carriers. The Brigade group plus all attached troops moved in formation – 21 & 22 Battalions in front, 23 & 28 Battalions in rear, the latter battalion on the left flank.’
The 5th Brigade, including the Māori Battalion were sent to capture the barracks of Sollum, from Italian forces. They were successful and took back the barracks on 23rd November. The command of the Battalion had been handed over to Capt. Love, the first Māori commander, who has been wounded by shrapnel. Despite the success, 18 men of the battalion were killed and 33 wounded, including Lt-Col Dittmer.
While the Battalion were stationed at Sollum Barracks in Libya, 23 Battalion, holding the area between Musaid and Capuzzo, were expecting the enemy in the south to attempt to breakthrough to join its own forces at Bardia. B Company were sent from the barracks to strengthen the area around Musaid and support the 23 Battalion. Here, the 28th faced their first tank attack, on 26th November. Following the capture of Sollum, the Battalion faced action, and achieved further success, at Bardia and Gazala. Rommel's Panzers overran the Brigade's HQ and attaked the 4th and 6th Brigades at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. Soon however, Rommel withdrew to the west.
In February 1942, the 28th Battalion were sent back to Egypt where they continued training exercises. In march, the 2NZ Division and the 28th Battalion were sent to Syria (to the town of Arsal) as a result of the threat of German invasion via Turkey and the Soviet Union. The 28th spent their time here, training and building defences. After the German invasion failed to materialise the 2NZ Division was ordered back to Egypt, following the renewed German offensive and the capture of Tobruk.
After initially being moved to Mersa Matrah, to the west of Cairo, the NZ Division were moved to Minqar Quim. Within days, the 21st Panzer Division had cut off NZ forces from the rest of the Allies. A breakout attempt began. The 28th Maori Battalion, again, fixed bayonets and the division succeeded in getting 13,000 men, under the cover of darkness, through a mile-wide gap in the German defence back to the Alamein line. The Māori battalion remained, for the next three months, in reserve at Kaponga, avoiding being part of the heavy casualty numbers that were suffered by the 4th and 5th Brigades at Ruweisat Ridge, where Lt-Col Love was killed, and El Mreir Ridge. They did however, sufferer loses once they were moved back to the Alamein line, with other Divisions of 8th Army, from 8th July.
Following the loss of Lt-Col Love, another Māori commander Lt-Col Fred Baker, took command of the Battalion. At the beginning of August, the 28th marched to El Mreir, where they were positioned only a few hundred metres from Italian trenches.
Rommel’s forces, who despite suffering from supply shortages, launched a new offensive on the 30th August. General Montgomery’s quick response to the offensive meant that Rommel called off the advance but Montgomery decided to attack the withdrawal route. The plan known as Operation Beresford, was given to the 2NZ Division and British 132nd Brigade of the 44th Division. The 5th brigade and the Māori Battalion made a successful attack on German forces at Munassib on 3rd September, despite losing 100 men.
After their success, the Battalion were moved to Burg El Arab to recuperate and continue training and 107 reinforcements also arrived, taking the Battalion to 32 Officers and 717 OR.
On 22nd October, the NZ Division and the 28th Māori Battalion were sent to El Alamein, alongside British, French, Polish and Greek troops, as part of 8th Army’s offensive against Axis forces. In what was to become the Second Battle of El Alamein, they were supported by the largest artillery barrage that had been seen in the desert, including over 1,00 tanks, 1,400 anti-tank guns and 900 artillery pieces. The Māori Battalion War diary from October 1942, notes :-
‘'2135 hrs attack commenced amid the din of the hundreds of field guns which opened up from the coast to the area some miles south of us. The barrage was colossal and continued without diminishing its intensity till 0200 hrs. The whole area behind Battalion HQ was filled with transport, artillery and tanks waiting to go forward when the enemy line had been breached. 1000hrs word was received that 23 Battalion was on its objective. The attack was successful.’
The following day British infantry and engineers began Operation Lightfoot, process of creating two channels in the minefields, through which the armoured forces were to advance. Although Axis forces were struggling, Allied forces were soon halted when the channels in the minefields became congested.
On 2nd November, General Montgomery launched Operation Supercharge, further south. The initial ‘break out’ was left to the 2NZ Division and the 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions. The infantry brigades forged a path for the Armoured Divisions and breached the Axis Positions. Both Axis and Allied forces suffered heavy losses but soon Rommel’s Afrika Corps was forced to withdraw. The 28th Māori Battalion suffered 100 casualties on 2nd November, including Lt-Col Fred Baker, who was severely wounded, and his second-in-command Major Irvine Hart, who was killed. Command was given to another Māori , Major Charles Bennett of Te Arawa.
By the 4th November, Rommel’s forces were in full retreat and there
were large number of Italian POW captured. The Second Battle of El Alamein would become the most decisive battle in North Africa.
Once British and American forces landed in Algeria and Morocco in November, Axis forces entered Tunisia. Axis forces, now under the command of General Hans-Jugen Von Arnim, were now fighting on two fronts. On 23rd January 1943, the Battalion (and the 2NZ Division) entered Tripoli.
On 1st March 1943, the Māori Battalion played a defensive role against the Germans counter-attack at Medenine in Tunsia. The 2NZ Division then played an offensive role at Tebaga Gap between 26-27 April.
In January, Rommel had withdrawn to the Mareth Line on the border of Tunisia and Libya. A passage through the desert and the Matmata Hills was created, which was then used to loop part of the Allied forces behind the Line in a ‘left hook’. The ‘left hook’ was left to 2nd NZ Division including the Māori Battalion, alongside 6000 British and 6000 Free French. By 19 March, they had reached Tebaga Gap, a 10-km-wide valley through which a road connected Matmata with El Hamma and Gabes. Here, Montgomery hoped the New Zealand Corps would fall on the German–Italian army’s rear and launch Operation Supercharge II.
The 28th Māori Battalion relieved 26th Battalion's position on 25th March. The Divisions objectives were Point 209 and a foothill a named Hikurangi, by the Maori troops. C Company, led by Captain Arapete Awatere, captured the foothill and held positions during the night, despite Panzer-Grenadier attacks. The following morning the Battalion captured Point 209. The battle had been fierce and costly. The Māori Battalion suffered 100 casualties including 22 killed. Here, they also lost 2nd Lieutenant Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu, who was later awarded a posthumous Victoria cross. (See profile below).
By early April, German forces had withdrawn from the Mareth Line. After rest a short rest period, the battalion was reinforced by the Eighth Māori Reinforcements. By 7th April, Allied forces had begun closing in on the Axis forces. The Eighth Army was to attack the defences near the village of Enfidaville to draw the enemy’s attention away from the Allies’ main target of Tunis. Here, the 5th Brigade and the Māori Battalion faced the 200m high rock fortress called Takrouna, which was held by enemy force. B Company, led by Sergeant Haane Manahi, scaled the eastern base of the fortress to reach the summit, with C Company on their right. A Company would follow further to the right. D Company was to follow the forward companies until they reached the Enfidaville–Zaghouan road, where they were then to turn and make an assult on the fortress from the rear. After three days of intense fighting, the battalion took the fortress and 300 POWs.
Lt-Col Bennett was wounded by a mine and command was given to Manahi, Sergant Haane Manahi was later recommended for a Victoria Cross for his bravery and leadership but he was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal. The battalion reported that 12 of the 17 officers that fought at Takrouna were killed, wounded or missing, along with 104 of the 302 other men that attacked the fortress.
On 13 May 1943, the Axis forces in North Africa collapsed, resulting in the surrender of 238,000 German and Italian troops. The New Zealand Division began the 3000-km march back to Egypt to Maadi Camp. In eighteen months of desert warfare the Māori Battalion had become one of the Divisions finest infantry units but their efforts had resulted in 270 men killed and 815 wounded.
Before leaving Egypt, the 2nd NZ Division were reorganised, gained armoured reinforcements and joined the British 8th Army, which they had been associated with in North Africa. Some 6000 men, including Māori troops, were furloughed back home, which caused much controversy.
Profile - Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu -VC
Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu was born into Te Aitanga-a-Mate of Ngāti Porou at Whareponga, on the East Coast, on 7 April 1919, the son of Hāmuera Meketū Ngārimu, and his wife Maraea. He later attended Te Aute College, where he was outstanding at rugby and them on the family farm and was a member of the Hikurangi Choir. Ngārimu signed up for the army at Ruatōria on 11 February 1940 and left with 2 NZEF’s Second Echelon in May 1940. He was commissioned in April 1942 and became a platoon commander with C Company. On 26 March 1943, he led an attack on Point 209, at Tebaga Gap in Tunisia. He was given the task of attacking the hill in order to destroy German machine-gun posts and repel any enemy counter-attack. His platoon was then involved in heavy close-quarter fighting overnight and Ngarimu resorted to throwing stones in hand-to-hand combat. In the morning, during another attack, Ngarimu killed. The London Gazette, reported on 4th June 1943,
‘He was killed on his feet defiantly facing the enemy with his tommy-gun at his hip. As he fell, he came to rest almost on the top of those of the enemy who had fallen, the number of whom testified to his outstanding courage’.
Ngarimu became the first Māori to win the Victoria Cross (VC) while serving with New Zealand forces. He was awarded the VC posthumously at an official ceremony at Ruatoria in October 1943. Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu is buried in the Sfax War Cemetery in Tunisia.
The Māori Battalion arrived in Italy in October 1943, and were stationed in Taranto, following the Italian surrender in September. It would be until 1945, that German forces would occupy Italy. The Battalion was now commanded by Pākehā officer, Lt-Col Monty Fairbrother, following the hospitalisation and leave of Lieutenant-Colonel Keiha.
In November, the allies attempted to penetrate the Gustav Line, a chain of fortifications that stretched across Italy. The 2NZ Division, including the Māori Battalion were sent to attack the hills and land above the Sangro River in the eastern section of the line. By early December, the Division had crossed the icy river and were ready to make an attempt to capture the stronghold of Orsonga, on 7th December. This would be the Battalion’s first action in Italy.
The Battalion war diary notes the plan of action for the attack on Orsonga :-
(a) 24 Battalion on left to assault Orsogna and clear road for tanks, (b) 28 Battalion centre: Objectives rd 240028 to 247035 and exploit to railway and beyond on forward slopes, (c) 23 Battalion to make assault on feature Sfasciata 264035 to 280044 and thus protect right flank and possibly exploit to road 250038 and to make contact with 28 Battalion right flank. Support Weapons: Air (a) 148 Kitty bombers to strafe and bomb Orsogna-Poggiofiorito road and give support, Artillery (b) To stonk whole enemy area for 1 hr, then creeping barrage in front of advance, Anti-Tank (c) Anti-Tank gun positions along feature Felice (25 and 24 Battalions existing front) and fire onto road, MMGs (d) to take up positions along feature Felice and give covering fire, Mortars (e) all 4.2 mortars under Command Mortar Officer, 21 Battalion positioned at approximately 265024 to give assistance in advance, 25 Battalion (f) from existing front to give support as far as possible with fire.
The fighting was fierce, including hand-to-hand combat, and despite causing havoc on the Gustav Line, the German forces deployed armoured reinforcements. By Christmas Day 1944, the town of Orsonga remained in German hands. On 25th December, the Battalion war diary notes:-
'Our present fighting strength and casualties: - A Company 54, B Company 57 ,C Company 67, D Company 56 Battalion HQ 58 , HQ Company 94 Total 386 men: Casualties:- Killed in Action 10, wounded 44 including 4 Officers, unaccounted for 7.'
In mid-January 1944, the Division were withdrawn from the front. 1600 men of the 2nd NZ Division were killed or wounded between November and January. The 28th Battalion were now under the command of ‘Pākehā’ Major Russell Young.
Between February and April 1944, the Maori Battalion took part in their, and the 2nd NZ Divisions, most costly battle of the war. With German resistance strong on the Gustav Line, the Allies turned their attention to the Liri Valley and the road to Rome. The most prominent feature was the, heavily defended, 500m high Monte Cassino, standing above the Rapido River and the town of Cassino. Several Allied attacks had failed before the 2nd New Zealanders had arrived.
On the night of 17/18 February 1944, the Māori Battalion attacked the town’s, well-defended, railway station. Battalion War Diary noted;
‘On the initial attacks very heavy opposition was met from Spandau and mortars. Wireless communication with Coys from the outset. B Coy in constant touch with Battalion HQ. 2230 hrs Both Coys reported that they were held up by wire strung along the whole front. The wire cutters were located after a short time and these were found on the wounded members of the Coys. Up to this stage both Coys in contact with Battalion. 2315 hrs B Coy reported having moved around the wire obstacle via right flank and continued the attack. More fierce fighting continued. 2400 hrs B Coy reported having attained its first objective (locality immediately around the rly station) and pushed onto the secondary objective, further block of houses on Rd at 857203.’
After reaching the station, fierce fighting began and resulted in the loss of over 100 Māori men is less than twenty-four hours. Armoured support was unable to get through to the town and left the Māori troops cut off. By the afternoon of the 18th, German tanks had arrived to support their infantry and the Battalion were forced to withdraw.
Of A and B Companies, 128 out of 200 men were either killed, wounded or captured. On 15th March, the Division entered Cassio for a second time and were involved in close-range fighting but the NZ Armoured support were attacked by German snipers. After 8 days, the New Zealanders were withdrawn in early April. The 2NZ Division, suffered 345 killed and 600 wounded at Monte Cassino. Cassino fell to British and Polish troops in May 1944.
July 1944- May 1945
After a period of recuperation, in July 1944, the NZ Division including the Māori Battalion, advanced to Florence, with the battalion becoming first unit to reach the outskirts of the city on 4th August. The Battalion came under Māori command, with Lt-Col Arapeta Awatere taking over from Major Young, who returned in late August and led the Māori troops in action near Rimini in September. Lt-Col Arapeta returned to lead the Battalion on their attack on Faenza in December.
Lt-Col Arapeta won a Distinguished Service Medal for his leadership at Faenza. Between January and March 1945, the Battalion took up a defensive role before being withdrawn from the front in March. On 1st April, the Battalion returned to the front along with the rest of the 5th Infantry Brigade and were involved in fighting along the Senio, Santerno, Sillaro, Gaiana and Idice rivers as the Allies pushed Germans force back towards Trieste. Here, the war came to an end for the 28th Māori Battalion. These final battles of the war had cost them 25 killed and 117 wounded.
The Return Home
It would take seven months to ship home the Battalion. Major James Hēnare became the Māori Battalion's last commander and the NZ Division moved to Lake Trasimene in central Italy. Following the Japanese surrender on 15 August, the Battalion were saved from being sent to the Pacific, although 270 reinforcements volunteered to serve in post-war Japan. On 26th December 1945, the 2th Maori Battalion left Taranto on board the Dominion.
Of the 3600 Māori who volunteered for the Battalion, 649 were killed, 1712 were wounded and 267 were taken prisoner or deemed missing, by the end of the war.
The Battalion arrived in Wellington on 23rd January, 1946.
Lieutenant-Colonel James Hēnare, dismissed his men with these words:
‘Go back to our mountains, go back to our people, go back to our marae. But this is my last command to you all - stand as Māori, stand as Māori, stand as Māori ‘
Soon after their arrival in New Zealand, the Battalion was disbanded. Politician Sir Apirana Ngata believed and hoped that Māori participation in the war would help race relations and a racially divided, New Zealand. He hoped that the Maori people would ‘gain the respect of our Pakeha brothers and the future of our race as a component and respected part of the New Zealand people will be less precarious.’ He also stated that that Māori participation in the First World War was the ‘price of citizenship’ and after the Second World War it was clear that Māori had paid in full. There was still much discrimination after the war and many Maoris felt that their sacrifice was ignored and their participation had made no difference to race-relations. Other’s felt differently, believing that they have showed their value and laid the foundations for ‘Māori cultural and economic renaissance of recent times.’
Āpirana’s son Henare Ngata, an officer in the Māori Battalion, later stated;
‘I doubt if Maori people can point to any specific benefit and advantage which can be attributed to the participation of their men in World War Two. But in a wider sense, the fact that Maori took an active part in the war produced a number of positive things. Maori have a higher profile in New Zealand life. The Treaty of Waitangi has been given a status unthought of pre-war. Maori is no longer a declining population, nor a dying race. Can it be claimed that these changes took place because Maori men went to World War Two? Probably not. But can it be said that these changes would have taken place if the Allies lost the war?’
Sources, References and further information:
Homepage | 28 Māori Battalion (28maoribattalion.org.nz)
Māori and the Second World War - Māori and the Second World War | NZHistory, New Zealand history online
Home | National Army Museum (nam.ac.uk)
Home | National Library of New Zealand (natlib.govt.nz)
New Zealand Electronic Text Collection (victoria.ac.nz)