In his new book, Ake Ake Kia Kaha E!, Wira Gardiner tells the stories of the men of 28 Māori Battalion’s B Company, who fought in the Second World War. It covers their significant campaigns in Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy, as well as life before and after the war.
These edited extracts provide a background to the formation of the first Māori battalion in the First World War and the experiences of Māori servicemen when they came home. First, here’s a foreword from Robert Gillies of B Company and Lieutenant Colonel Graeme Vercoe, chair of the 28th Māori Battalion B Company History Trust.
To fight for a better tomorrow
This book is not about celebrating war. It is about remembering the men who willingly left these shores to fight for a better tomorrow. It is written as a testament to their bravery and their refusal to step back from the threats posed by the regimes of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. It is also a reminder to younger generations of the exploits of their tūpuna and the sacrifices they made to ensure we would enjoy the way of life we have today.
This book tells the story of our whakapapa: mai i Ngā Kuri a Whārei ki Tihirau (from the dogs of Whārei at Bowentown to the easternmost reaches of the Bay of Plenty at Whangaparaoa), mai i Tongariro ki Maketu (from the mountain of Tongariro to the coast at Maketu), and the many whakataukī (proverbs) that bind together the tribes of Te Arawa, Mataatua, Takitimu and Tainui.
While most members of B Company came from the Te Arawa and Mataatua confederation of tribes, men of other tribes also joined the unit. Ahakoa no whea ratou: no matter where they came from they joined for a common purpose — to fight and defeat the enemy.
This meant putting aside traditional enmities for the greater good of the kaupapa. Our willingness to fight for each other, our whānau, and our country reflected a deep-seated and abiding sense of comradeship that enabled us to overcome many challenges and obstacles.
We never needed to look over our shoulder, as we knew there was a mate there protecting us. Sadly, on so many occasions during the war, our friends and relations laid down their lives so that we would survive.
This book begins by sketching our respective tribal areas and territories and then looks briefly at the interaction between our ancestors and the Pākehā settlers who arrived in the 19th century.
In 1914, for the first time, Māori were invited to join Pākehā fighting in an overseas war against a foreign threat. The First Māori Contingent evolved into the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion in 1916, and, in 1917, became the New Zealand Māori (Pioneer) Battalion, composed almost entirely of Māori men and officers.
We explore the time between the wars and the conditions and circumstances which produced the men of B Company. We look at the call to arms in 1939, the bringing together of hundreds of Māori recruits, and their training at Trentham and Palmerston North before their departure in May 1940.
The book explores the diversion to England and the battalion’s participation in the Battle for Britain before it reached the Middle East.
In the Greece and Crete campaigns, 28 (Māori) Battalion came of age. In these campaigns, it entered te mura o te ahi (the flames of battle) and maintained the proud fighting tradition of Māori. While our men were sorely tested in both these campaigns by elite German troops, their often brutal experiences laid the foundations for future success.
In Greece and Crete, 93 men of the battalion were captured by the enemy. They included Lieutenant Tenga Te Rangi from Rotorua and many Te Arawa and Mataatua soldiers and NCOs. Second Lieutenant Ariariterangi Mitchell from Te Arawa was captured during the Libyan campaign and spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp. It is hard to imagine the loss of liberty as a POW.
Readjusting to life back home was even more cathartic for those who faced passive hostility from mates who had fought through the war and thought POWs had had it easy.
Most Māori POWs adopted a low profile in the post-war years. Some, like Sir Henare Ngata, eventually involved themselves in veterans’ affairs. As president of the 28th Māori Battalion Association, Ngata was instrumental in developing key policies, including the decision to wind up the association.
During the North African campaigns, 28 (Māori) Battalion played an important part in a number of battles. B Company had a pivotal role in the battles of Sollum, Minqar Qaim, Medenine and Takrouna.
Our men fought ferociously and neither asked for, nor gave, any quarter. Moments of sublime heroism helped them endure the tragedy and horror.
In April 1943, the outstanding courage and leadership of Sergeant Johnny Rogers, Lance Sergeant Haane Manahi, Private Hinga Grant, and others of B Company, accomplished the almost impossible. Just ten men attacked the imposing heights of Takrouna, described by historians as “unstormable”. Over two days, they demonstrated qualities which even hardened veterans of 2 NZ Division found awe-inspiring.
After the North African campaign, 28 (Māori) Battalion was redeployed in November 1943 with 2 NZ Division to Italy, where it spent the next 18 months fighting against determined German resistance.
Notable for B Company were the battles at Orsogna and Cassino, where it was given the difficult objective of the railway station. The losses at Cassino were high, and there were many examples of outstanding leadership and bravery — not least, Monty Wikiriwhi’s epic struggle to return to the battalion’s lines after he was severely wounded.
The book acknowledges the impact of war on whānau, some of whom gave all or most of the next generation to war. Nine “sons” of the Hohua whānau of Ngāi Tūhoe joined the battalion. Four Stewarts from Ngāti Awa served, three of them in the battalion. Four Bennetts served, and so did four Rollestons. What impact did this have on the whānau? Who carried out the myriad tasks around the home, such as milking the cows? These and many other issues faced whānau as they adjusted to life without their menfolk.
Letters from, and memories of, loved ones helped keep up the morale of the men at war.
We acknowledge the whānau who kept the home fires burning. Many returned men took a long time to readjust to civilian life. Some never fully did and posed enormous challenges for wives, girlfriends and children.
We are pleased that this aspect of the war is covered in this book, as often the role of women and whānau is overlooked.
We give our blessing to this project and this book, and in doing, so we remember our comrades-in-arms: those buried in foreign fields, and those who came home and are no longer with us.
I te hekenga atu o te ra, tae noa ki te aranga mai o te ata, ka mauhara tonu tatou ki a ratou. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.
Robert Gillies, Graeme Vercoe
Effects of Colonisation
Though fighting prowess was traditionally esteemed by Māori, events following colonisation meant that Māori participation in the world wars was far from assured. In the decades after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 by chiefs of many — but not all — iwi, thousands of British settlers arrived in New Zealand. Their hunger for land could be satisfied only if large tracts of Māori land were acquired by the Crown. The Kīngitanga movement was created in the 1850s to resist the loss of land.
War broke out in Taranaki over a disputed land sale in 1860 and later spread to Waikato and Bay of Plenty. British troops supported by local militia had more men and better weapons than their Māori opponents. Yet the campaigns were far from one-sided, as Māori developed artillery-proof fortifications and made effective use of the terrain.
In B Company’s area, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Awa, Te Whakatohea, Ngāti Manawa, Ngāti Whare and Ngāti Ranginui were branded as rebels. The Te Arawa tribes, which generally sided with the British, were dubbed kupapa (those who collaborate or collude).
The 1863 New Zealand Settlements Act allowed the Crown to confiscate the land of tribes deemed to be “in rebellion”, and large areas were taken in Waikato and Taranaki. The Mataatua tribes also lost land for acts that included the hanging of Anglican missionary — and government informer — Carl Sylvius Volkner outside his church in Opotiki.
In January 1866, Governor Sir George Grey confiscated 448,000 acres in the eastern Bay of Plenty, more than half from Ngāti Awa and the rest from Ngāi Tūhoe and Te Whakatohea. Eventually 78,000 acres was arbitrarily returned to individual ‘surrendered natives’.
Subsequently the Bay of Plenty tribes sought justice for the wrongful confiscation of their lands and the wrongful arrest of their chiefs. In the early 21st century the grievances of Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Whare and Ngāti Manawa were at last addressed by the Crown and settled.
The loss of land blighted Māori society for more than a century. Yet only four decades after the end of the New Zealand Wars, some of the tribes that had been most harshly treated encouraged their men to fight for the Crown in the First World War. Taranaki and Waikato, however, dissuaded their men from signing up. When the Second World War broke out 25 years later, even these tribes relented and many of their menfolk enlisted.
The First World War
Te Arawa actually offered the Empire fighting men two days before Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914. Following the proclamation, other iwi responded quickly. Within four days, Prime Minister William Massey announced that “the natives had offered to raise 15,000 men. He hoped they would get the opportunity, because the Maori was a fighter”.
Massey was alluding to a major obstacle to active service by Māori: the British government’s determination that “coloured” contingents would not fight in a war between European powers.
The four Māori electorate MPs pressed the government to create a Māori unit to serve overseas. They were a formidable team: Apirana Ngata represented Eastern Māori, Maui Pomare Western Māori, Taare Parata Southern Māori and Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck) Northern Māori. Pomare and Te Rangi Hiroa were medical doctors, Ngata a lawyer and Parata a landholder. They were joined in the Māori Contingent Committee by Sir James Carroll, a long-serving MP who represented the general electorate of Gisborne.
Shortly after war was declared, the British government accepted the service of Indian troops. When the matter was raised in the House of Representatives, Ngata said that there was “undoubtedly a desire on the part of the Māori people to stand shoulder to shoulder with their British fellow citizens”.
In fact, “Te Arawa has already offered 200 men and if volunteers are called for there will be enough men to fill a troop ship”.
On 3 September the Governor, Lord Liverpool, asked the British Secretary of State for the Colonies for formal permission to establish a Māori contingent.
Three days later, the Army Council in Britain advised that a contingent of 200 Māori soldiers had been approved. The New Zealand government asked for an increase to 500 so Māori soldiers could be sent to Sāmoa to relieve Pākehā soldiers occupying the former German colony, who would then join the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) in the Northern Hemisphere.
On 19 September, Massey announced that the British government had accepted the services of a Māori contingent for Egypt. Major-General Sir Alexander Godley, commanding the NZEF, proposed using them as garrison troops. Five hundred Māori would be recruited, with 250 going to Egypt and 250 to Sāmoa.
Māori communities were galvanised. Pomare, the chairman of the Māori Contingent Committee, was reported as saying: ‘more applications for enrolment in the force are being received than can possibly be dealt with’. The Māori MPs were responsible for reaching the recruiting targets in their electorates: Northern Māori, 100 men; Eastern Māori, 180; Western Māori, 180; Southern Māori, 40.
The members of the Māori Contingent Committee considered whether the contingent should be set up on a tribal basis. Parata and Pomare felt that mixing the recruits would ultimately improve the cohesion of the contingent, but Ngata’s contrary view prevailed with the support of Carroll and Buck.
The Māori Contingent would comprise two companies of four platoons organised on tribal lines. Bay of Plenty men served in both companies. Tuwharetoa recruits combined with men from Tauranga and Hauraki in 2 Platoon of A Company. In B Company, Te Arawa populated 5 Platoon, while 6 Platoon was recruited from Mataatua and Ngāti Porou.
The return home was complicated by a devastating influenza pandemic which killed tens of millions around the world. Māori, like all demobilised soldiers, faced uncertainties about finding employment, re-establishing relationships with their families, and overcoming wounds and/or psychological damage.
Successful readjustment depended on the ‘ability to find or resume employment, good health, family support, and financial support. For those who did not [readjust successfully], one or more of these factors was often missing’.
After life-altering experiences, Māori soldiers came back to a society that seemed little-changed. Most Māori lived in the country, where men had land to farm or work on as labourers, sheltered to some extent from the attitudes and behaviours of urban Pākehā. That did not mean that their reintegration was seamless. Callow young men who had left isolated villages returned to them as seasoned warriors with experience of sophisticated western society.
They must have found the peacefulness of rural New Zealand surreal. While overseas, their alcohol consumption had been limited only by their own judgement and by military discipline.
Yet the Licensing Amendment Act 1904 prohibited Māori from buying take-away alcohol in much of the North Island. The police enforced this law enthusiastically.
At Christmas 1922, for example, a midnight raid on the kainga at Torere, 15 miles east of Opotiki, “found a pakeha and some Maoris making merry with four bottles of whisky, one of which was almost empty. The police seized the whisky and brought it into town. The pakeha, . . . James Clegg, will appear before the magistrate at the next sitting of the Court”, charged with illicitly supplying alcohol to Māori.
Not until 1948 would many of the restrictions on Māori access to alcohol be removed.
Some Māori veterans found the heavy hand of the law irksome. In March 1924, for example, six Māori males appeared in court in Whakatane on charges of playing two-up, a game of chance that had been popular with Australian and New Zealand soldiers during the war, on a section near the main street.
According to Constable Cummings, two-up “was getting a strong hold of the Natives. Even the Maori women made side bets on the game, and youths of sixteen were being taken down by their elders.” The magistrate remarked that “although the Maoris made a lot of money they often spent it foolishly.” He fined five men £15 (equivalent to more than$1400 today) and a youth £10 (nearly $1000).
Educational and Social Issues
For returned men, questions of equity were not confined to access to alcohol and the right to gamble. An Auckland public meeting in January 1920 held in conjunction with a conference of Native School teachers discussed educational, health and social issues relating to Māori.
Press reports cast some light on how bureaucrats regarded Māori at this time. Teachers in Native Schools (the public primary schools in areas with mainly Māori populations) had responsibilities to adults as well as to children.
‘[T]he day was passed when the Maori was to be treated as a child; he had come to the age of maturity. The day of the old Maori was passing, and the new health committees and councils would consist of young men, who would be under the supervision of the European health officer in the district’.
From 1923 until 1926, this system was overseen by Health Minister Maui Pomare, whose 1922 knighthood was just the second bestowed on a Māori (Carroll’s had been the first).
While many Māori customs were undesirable, “tangis would . . . be difficult to touch, owing to long usage”. For Miss L. Gibbons, they were “orgies of a most demoralising nature, which had a lowering effect on all who participated.” She suggested the imposition of heavy fines.
Auckland City Missioner Jasper Calder observed paternalistically that “while the Māori might be quite honest, he lacked entirely a sense of responsibility”. One way to instil this sense would be to make Māori responsible to an authority figure, such as a teacher.
C.F. McFarlane of Whareponga agreed on the importance of education. “It was stupid to imagine that a Maori could be transformed into a European by a Minister’s signature. The Native School teachers realised that great allowance must be made for Maori superstitions and customs.’
Young Māori nurses should not work among their own people, “because they soon heard ‘the call of the wild’, and gradually became ineffective in their work.” Aperahama Tuoro of Devonport, a war veteran, struck a discordant note when he ‘declared that the difficulty in the way of advancement of sanitation and better housing [for Māori] was lack of financial assistance from the Government.” Other speakers bewailed the continuing malign influence of tohunga and the lack of “a compulsory system of reporting Māori births and deaths”.
Pākehā administrators clearly still saw Māori as second-class citizens and thought it would take much effort even to train them for useful menial roles in society. It was such beliefs that had consigned Māori and other Polynesian soldiers to labouring tasks during the war.
These challenges and disparities were not quickly overcome. In 1930, Māori old-age pensioners were receiving £2 14s per week, 71 per cent of the £3 15s 10d paid to Pākehā. The Akarana [Auckland] Māori Association argued that there was “no logical reason for the discrimination”.
Returned Māori soldiers were not treated equitably in the allocation of farms under the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act 1915. Land was allotted by ballot mainly to Pākehā soldiers, “as Maori veterans were assumed to have tribal land already available to them”. By the mid-1920s more than 10,500 veterans had been allocated farms, while 12,000 had been helped to buy or build houses in urban centres.
The attempts that were made to settle Māori veterans on the land did not always work as intended. In early 1920, for example, the government acquired the 560-acre Hosking Estate at Ohinepanea, east of Tauranga, with the intention of settling Māori soldiers on it.
But when Minister of Lands D.H. Guthrie visited the block, he was met by a deputation of Pākehā, including the chairman of the Tauranga County Council, H. Southey, local landowners, and representatives of the Returned Soldiers’ Association (RSA).
The deputation asked the Minister to open the block to Pākehā as well as Māori veterans. The Lands Department had sent Pākehā ex-soldiers to inspect it before learning that it had been set aside for Māori. The adjoining 12,000 acres was mostly in unproductive Māori ownership, they claimed.
“Yet, in spite of this, the Government proposed to put more Maoris on some of the best land in the district.” The Minister acknowledged that he had initially agreed to settle only Maori on the block. The deputation had convinced him of “the desirability of mixing soldiers in settling them on the land.” However, “he would certainly see that a block of land was secured for Maoris somewhere on the East Coast”.
The ballot for the Otamarakau Estate, as the block was now known, was gazetted on 24 June. It was 12 miles from Te Puke, with a school 1 mile away and a creamery and a post office within 3 miles.
“The East Coast Railway line passes through the settlement, which consists partly of good swamp land, most of which has been drained, and partly of undulating land of good quality. Practically the whole of the land is of a ploughable nature and easily worked”.
As was usual for soldier settlements, the land could be bought for cash or by deferred payment, or leased for renewable 33-year periods with a right to acquire the freehold. Four sections of 43–45 acres with capital values of £680–£1440 were reserved for Māori, while five sections of 76–80 acres valued at £960–£1840 were reserved for Pākehā.
This apparent compromise was not the end of the matter. When the secretary of the Western Bay of Plenty RSA protested against the allocation of four sections to Māori, Guthrie said he had promised this to Captain Vercoe.
After meeting the deputation, “I decided … in accord with the wishes of all parties to divide the settlement between the pakeha and the Maori soldiers — the natives to be allotted the small sections between the sea and the railway, the Europeans the larger sections on the opposite side of the line”. Māori veterans had been marginalised in a block initially set aside for them.
Such events may well have been replicated elsewhere as Pākehā interest groups backed by the RSA lobbied officials and ministers.
The handful of Māori members of the RSA had little influence on its leadership. It was bitterly ironic that opportunities for Māori veterans to apply for farms were opposed by men alongside whom they had fought — and who had acknowledged their loyalty and bravery.
Many of the soldiers who would serve in the Second World War were born during or soon after the First World War and entered the workforce in the 1930s. With the exception of those chosen to attend Te Aute College (Hawke’s Bay) or St Stephen’s College (Auckland), few Māori youths remained at school beyond the leaving age of fourteen.
All but a few of B Company’s enlistees gave their occupation as labourer or farmhand. Many had practised subsistence farming on small family plots that ran a couple of cows and a few pigs and hens.
In 1994, the economist Keith Rankin attempted to calculate the level of Māori unemployment at the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s. This exercise was made difficult by the lack of census data on Māori unemployment. Rankin estimated that the unemployment rate had reached 40.5 per cent for Māori men and 35.4 per cent for Māori women. The respective Pākehā rates were 13.8 per cent and 7 per cent.
In 1939, opportunities for employment for Māori in rural towns were still limited. A newspaper article in August 1939 described the situation in Hawke’s Bay, where educated Māori had difficulty finding jobs in town and so were “drifting back to the Maori settlements and agricultural pursuits the benefit of their education being lost to the race as a whole.” Mr H.S.M. Quigley told a meeting of the Hawke’s Bay Education Board that:
White people do not seem inclined to give Maoris employment in positions of responsibility which would befit the thorough education they have undergone, and without employment they drift back to Maori ways of life without the chance they deserve. It seems a great pity that after all the efforts of the schools, Maoris should be prevented from obtaining an equal status with Europeans in New Zealand life.
While there were differences of opinion amongst iwi as to the purpose of the Māori battalion, most agreed that the unit should have a combat rather than a labour role, and that its officers should be Māori. The government “reserved the right to appoint European officers and non-commissioned officers to key positions. The policy, however, would be to replace the Europeans as soon as possible”.
Tribal leaders were of the view that enough Māori officers who had fought in the First World War were available to fill the senior roles.
(Apirana) Ngata noted the opinion of Te Arawa elder H.Tai Mitchell: while Pākehā officers could fill the “key positions” of battalion commander, adjutant, quartermaster and regimental sergeant-major, Arawa alone had the capacity provide all the company commanders.
Ngata warned that while recruiting in Rotorua and Bay of Plenty had been “keen and enthusiastic”, that might change if Māori officers were not appointed. To date 208 single men, 34 married men with no dependants, 306 with one child and 81 others had enlisted in this area — “the strongest representation of any district in New Zealand. In view of the well-known patriotism of the Arawas, their objection to what might be deemed a breach of faith with them and other Maori tribes was entitled to the serious consideration of the Government.”
28 (Māori) Battalion was organised largely along tribal lines.
A Company comprised men from Northland, with the majority from Ngāpuhi.
B Company comprised men from Rotorua, Bay of Plenty, Taupō and Hauraki, with about half from Te Arawa.
C Company was drawn from the East Coast tribes, including Ngāi Tai, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Porou and iwi from the Gisborne area.
D Company’s large catchment area covered Waikato, Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay, Wellington and the South Island.
At full strength, each rifle company numbered 135 men, including those attached.
Given the distinctive tribal characteristics of the companies, it was no surprise that they soon acquired nicknames reflecting the area they came from.
A Company men were the “gum diggers” (Ngā Keri Kapia); B Company men the “penny divers” (Ngā Ruku Kapa); C Company men the “cowboys” (Ngā Kaupoi); and D Company men — the leftovers — were Ngāti Walkabout. The Mataatua men of B Company were apparently not too bothered by being called penny divers — when necessary, they blamed Te Arawa arrogance for the term.
Food for the Troops
In early 1941, the children attending Native Schools around the country raised more than £900 to buy and equip a mobile canteen for 28 (Māori) Battalion. A Northland school with just over 60 pupils raised £70, and quite a few schools raised more than 5 shillings per pupil.
For Rex Mason, the Minister of Education, this effort demonstrated both “the loyalty of the Maori race” and “the keenness of the children to give every assistance to their older brothers and in many cases their fathers”.
The canteen, named Te Rau Aroha (‘A Token of Love’) reached the Māori troops at the front in North Africa in November 1941.
Financial contributions were supplemented by the gathering and preparation of food to be sent to the troops. Colleen Helbright remembered that tangi to mourn those killed in action seemed almost continuous. Whenever one ended, “the telegram man arrives on his bicycle and we would have another tangi”. As a child she lived mostly at Ohinemutu, where she recalled “The older people packing parcels and store food to send to the troops overseas”.
Nan Sewell, Sonny Sewell’s wife, remembered helping to make up parcels to send to the men of the battalion. They “Quite often got letters of thanks from the recipients”, a few of whom she met after the war.
Nan Francis, born at Ohinemutu, had met her husband-to-be Percy Francis while working in a laundry in Rotorua. They married in 1937 and Percy left for overseas service in 1941. “I looked after the kids and prepared food for our soldiers. We gathered pipis for them and dried them and sent them overseas.”
To supplement individual food parcels, tribes worked together to send large consignments of local delicacies to the troops. In April 1941, the National Patriotic Fund Board’s goods store received “seven fair-sized cases of cooked and cured eels … from the Arowhenua Maori runanga, Temuka.”
Rūnanga chairman T.H. Paiki wrote that “the whole work, from the catching of the eels and the job of preservation to packing, involved a considerable amount of community effort on the part of his people, who had been . . . eager to assist in the war effort and to provide some of the Maori foods for their kinsmen overseas”.
He added that “he was sure the fish could be shipped anywhere, even through the tropics”. The consignment comprised “approximately 2000 properly cooked and cured (sun-dried) eels”
These were not the first ‘”special delicacies” the board had sent to Māori troops overseas. Two thousand tītī (muttonbirds) bought from a Bluff firm and tinned for despatch had “arrived in good order”, as had dried crayfish sent by East Coast Māori.
Ake Ake Kia Kaha E! Forever Brave! by Wira Gardiner, was published by Bateman Books. Wira has whakapapa connections to Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Te Whakatohea, Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Pikiao. His Gardiner and Powell connections link to Ireland. Wira trained at the Royal College Duntroon and graduated into the infantry, serving in South Vietnam and holding operational and staff appointments in New Zealand. He retired from the army as a Lieutenant-Colonel. Wira was a senior public servant, servings as the founding director of the Waitangi Tribunal, the founding head of the Iwi Transition Agency, and the founding CEO of the Ministry of Māori Development (Te Puni Kokiri).
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