Bardia to Enfidaville
For NZ Corps the full capture of Point 209 had never been of the first importance. It was enough to blanket it and prevent the enemy from interfering with the move of 1 Armoured Division and the later follow-up by the Corps. In the end the move forward of NZ Corps commenced before Point 209 was finally subdued, and the struggle there thus remained an isolated one between two fairly equal infantry units, one of which had great resources to support it, while the other was in effect abandoned by its parent formation and left to its fate.
During the night 26–27 March the struggle on the top of Hikurangi continued, the enemy launching repeated counter-attacks. The enemy battalion disposed two companies on and around Hikurangi, headquarters and one company on Point 209, and one company behind 209. The Maoris and the Germans on Hikurangi were only about twenty yards apart, and each time the sound of footsteps gave warning of another attack the men of 13 and 14 Platoons threw hand grenades. When the enemy once broke into 14 Platoon's sector Ngarimu moved there, killed some Germans with his Tommy gun, and scared others away by throwing stones as if they were grenades. (No. 7 Company of II/433 Regiment also used stones on occasion.) C Company's casualties gradually mounted. The hill was held, but by morning Lieutenant Jackson reported that it was doubtful if the company could hold out much longer, as only about twelve men were left, so two sections from D Company were sent up as reinforcements.page 231
The last counter-attack came while this decision was being made, 7 Company having been reinforced by two other platoons. It was watched anxiously from the foot of the hill. Ngarimu was seen waving his men on, Tommy gun in hand, and then at last was shot down on the crest of the hill. For a moment it looked as if the enemy would regain Hikurangi, and the battalion carriers were brought forward to cover the area; but this was the enemy's last effort, and they shortly afterwards withdrew to Point 209. We know today that in this last attack all the enemy platoon commanders and half the men became casualties.
D Company under Captain Matehaere was now ordered to take over the defence of Hikurangi.
The brigade commander was at this time with Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett. He had first visited 21 Battalion and then moved north to 28 Battalion. Only then, from the profile of the feature thus presented, was it realised that Point 209 proper was still in enemy hands. He telephoned the Brigade Major (Major Fairbrother1) and ordered heavy ‘stonks’2 on Point 209, saying that it was perfectly safe for 28 Battalion for they were well short of that point. The artillery complied with alacrity and with great effect. The first concentration was fired at 8.42 a.m. by two field and two medium regiments, and was repeated several times, causing devastating damage.
Brigadier Kippenberger impressed on Bennett that the offensive must be maintained, but was content to leave it to 28 Battalion as he was sure the feature must sooner or later fall by the weight of events. He then moved on to 23 Battalion, told them of the position, and gave orders for help to be given to 28 Battalion if asked for.
Meanwhile Matehaere's company relieved the remnants of C Company. There was considerable enemy activity on the Corps' right flank, but despite one or two indications, including the movement of tanks, no counter-attack developed and the impression gained ground that the enemy was withdrawing—but not yet from Point 209.
The first signs of weakness came at 10 a.m. when two Germans tried to surrender, but not making this obvious enough they were shot down. Then about 11 a.m. four Germans, a doctor and three page 232 medical orderlies, came over under a Red Cross flag. The doctor asked in fluent English for assistance for ninety badly wounded men, as they had run out of medical supplies. With the permission of Brigade Headquarters it was arranged that the wounded should be brought to 28 Battalion Regimental Aid Post, stretchers being lent for the purpose.
At midday the doctor was back again with a long column of wounded and with twenty others who had come to surrender. From interrogation it was clear that the enemy could not resist much longer, and Bennett decided that the time had come to deliver a final blow. D Company was warned to be ready to attack at 3 p.m. Bennett then made local arrangements with a nearby British field regiment (unidentified) for a concentration on the top of Point 209 at 3 p.m., and also arranged for the 23 Battalion mortars to fire concentrations on the reverse slopes.
As it happened the artillery concentration was of no use, as the fire came down not on Point 209 but away to the north on B Company, 28 Battalion, and even on A Company, 23 Battalion. The guns were stopped, and Matehaere asked whether or not he was to go on. He was ordered to proceed, and D Company advanced over the top of Hikurangi and as far as the foot of Point 209, but was then forced to ground by machine-gun fire.
This was the critical moment of the attack, but the CO detailed two carriers mounting heavy machine guns to go forward, and at the same time arranged supporting fire from two machine-gun platoons. The carriers moved in on Point 209, one from north and one from south, and the 23 Battalion mortars fired steadily. At the right moment Matehaere and his company rose and charged up the hill. Many men of the Maori Battalion were now standing on Hikurangi urging the attackers on with cheers and hakas—and the enemy collapsed and surrendered. By 5 p.m. the surrender was complete. A total of 231 Germans, including the commander, Major Meissner, his adjutant and three company commanders, were rounded up. They had put up a stout defence and their CO attributed their capture to their lack of transport. The culminating point for the enemy, the adjutant claimed, had been the appearance of the carriers, which were mistaken for tanks.
A report by a company commander, however, makes it clear that the battalion commander had decided to surrender soon after midday and that the period thereafter had been spent preparing for page 233 this. The company commander would not accept the order to surrender, and in the end succeeded in getting some forty-two men from the battalion through to Gabes. Despite this achievement it seems certain that the battalion was in fact at its last gasp, having neither ammunition nor transport, with large numbers of wounded, and with no hope of relief.
The 28 Battalion casualties on 26 and 27 March were 22 killed and 77 wounded—again a proportion of killed to wounded slightly higher than normal.
For his outstanding service in this operation, Second-Lieutenant Ngarimu was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
1 Brig M. C. Fairbrother, CBE, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Carterton, 21 Sep 1907; accountant; BM 5 Bde Jun 1942–Apr 1943; comd in turn 21, 23, and 28 (Maori) Bns, Apr–Dec 1943; GSO II 2 NZ Div Jun–Oct 1944; CO 26 Bn Oct 1944–Sep 1945; comd Adv Base 2 NZEF, Sep 1945–Feb 1946; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories.
2 A ‘stonk’ was a quick concentration, with fixed dimensions at this time of 1200 yards by 300 yards. The only information required by the artillery was the centre point of the target and the bearing of the short sides of the rectangle. If required, a ‘stonk’ could be put down in a matter of minutes.