28 (Maori) Battalion
CHAPTER 3 — The Middle East
The Middle East
Before leaving New Zealand the battalion had been in camp for approximately three months, of which at least one month had been devoted to equipping and clothing parades, dental work, inoculations, the visit to Waitangi and final leave. Little training was possible on the crowded troopship other than that designed to keep the men fit, and consequently they arrived in England having received only elementary training and some instruction in minor tactics. They left nearly fully equipped, graded ‘Fit for war’, and with as good a knowledge of infantry weapons as was possible until those weapons were used in anger.
From the point of view of discipline it was also a different battalion. Firmly guided by the CO and RSM and ably assisted by the company commanders, the unit had now reached the stage when it realised the necessity for discipline of a high order. The reputation of the battalion was now the concern of the many rather than that of the few. There were, of course, military offences but they were mostly of a minor character and of the type that occur in any unit where the men are fit, healthy, and full of spirit.
Under the conditions surrounding the selection of prospective NCOs prior to the all-too-short course at Trentham, it was to be expected that as the battalion grew in experience and efficiency some would be found wanting. There were not many and they reverted to the ranks, usually at their own request.
Colonel Dittmer spared no effort to ensure that the junior officers commissioned after the course at Trentham received the necessary guidance, training, and instruction to mould them into efficient and responsible leaders. They were repeatedly reminded that control and leadership was the only way to prevent unnecessary casualties in action. The CO was as satisfied with his junior officers as he was with the rank and file of the Maori Battalion, which was now a compact, well-trained unit that had been tactically disposed to meet an enemy, and which page 34 would have given a good account of itself if the British Navy and the Royal Air Force had not dissuaded that enemy from attempting the English Channel.
The troops thoroughly approved of the Athlone Castle. She had been a luxury liner and her decks were easy of access—a pronounced advantage after the harrowing gangway climbing of distant but obnoxious memory. The first meal under the then novel cafeteria system was also very reassuring, while the wet canteen was nicely placed and plentifully stocked.
The Athlone Castle was still at the quayside in the morning, which was a Sunday, and after church parade the Maoris found they were sharing her with 23 Battalion, 7 Field Company of the New Zealand Engineers, and a company of 5 Field Ambulance. A convoy was assembling and the Athlone Castle was not due to move for some days, but shipboard training began at once. A whole deck had been allotted to the unit, and with the prospect of battle at the end of the voyage bayonet work figured largely in the syllabus, which also provided for a route march of several miles around the deck each day. At the end of the voyage the Maoris estimated that they had really marched from England to Egypt, with the deck as a convenient medium for the performance of the marathon.
They left Liverpool on 7 January and, with several other ships and an escort, anchored in wide, deserted Colwyn Bay in North Wales for three more days. The next move was to Bangor, in the Belfast Lough, where the convoy was concentrating. Finally, on 12 January all twenty-one ships and their naval escort departed under a protective umbrella of Hurricanes and Short-Sunderland flying boats. Lifebelts were worn and steel helmets carried continuously while the convoy was within striking distance of German long-range aircraft, and a number of Bren guns were mounted as additional anti-aircraft protection. On the second day there was only one Sunderland overhead and on the third morning that had disappeared. Almost daily the naval escort dwindled until only two destroyers were left.
The influenza which had been claiming new victims daily showed no signs of abating as the ships made a wide detour around the north of Ireland and far out into the North Atlantic. It was nearly a week before overcoats were discarded and there was a full muster parade. With days growing warmer the troops took an increasing interest in the swimming baths, where the favourite pastime was to play at submarines and troopships, a page 35 game in which the good swimmers torpedoed the poorer ones, much to their discomfort.
The second acquaintance with Freetown was made on 25 January, one day short of the battalion's first anniversary; since leaving New Zealand in May 1940 the battalion had been at sea on two out of every five days. This near anniversary was marked by an interesting but disappointing experience, for as the convoy was moving into the river port the shore guns let loose at an unidentified high-flying plane. It, or another plane, often came down the river from French territory farther north, and sometimes the batteries fired at it and sometimes they didn't bother. This time they bothered; but the refusal of the plane to come within range of their Bren guns was very disappointing to the ship's anti-aircraft crew.
Four days were spent off shore at Freetown taking on water and fuel, and when the troops tired of watching the barges they turned to the fleet of canoes keeping a respectable distance from the ship's hoses. The battalion had been warned against trading, and with the memory of deficiency fines for kit shortages after their previous call the troops did very little. However, the antics of a black diver whom the men remembered provided endless amusement, and they discovered striking resemblances between ‘Charlie Blackout’, as he was christened, and some of their officers. Yells of ‘How are you Mangu?’ and ‘Hello Whetu’ invariably produced appreciative laughter from the men lining the rails.
The tropical heat was aggravated at night by the necessity for closing all portholes because of malarial mosquitoes; sleeping on deck was forbidden for the same reason and there were no regrets at leaving Freetown. Before it left the malarial African coast A Company lost its mascot, a little dog the men had managed to smuggle aboard at Liverpool. How they got it on the ship undetected is a Ngapuhi secret, but the ship's authorities sportingly permitted its retention under conditions that included frequent washing, airing, and exercising. Company Headquarters went further and provided for its mascot a history sheet and a file like any other member of the company. Offers to exchange the mascot for a monkey were indignantly spurned—not all the monkeys in Africa could buy that small dog. However, somebody on the ship didn't like dogs. When the loss was discovered the descendants of Hongi Hika were definitely on the warpath but the culprit was never found.page 36
Ten uneventful days at sea saw the troops over the Equator, out of dangerous waters and in sight of Capetown's Table Mountain. Part of the convoy went on to Durban while the rest, including the Athlone Castle, berthed in Capetown. The Maoris, remembering their last visit, reminded themselves of what they had forgotten in England—that they had omitted the precaution of being born Europeans. Brigadier Hargest, officer commanding New Zealand troops, immediately got in touch with the local civic authorities and asked what restrictions would be imposed on the Maori Battalion. He was informed that the battalion would be treated in exactly the same manner as any other British soldiers.
The Maoris were paid in South African currency, given leave, and went ashore in an uncertain state of mind, half defiant and half fearful of their reception. It was soon apparent that their apprehensions were unnecessary, for the hotels, restaurants, and shops not only did not discriminate but made them civilly welcome. The Maoris on their side were polite to all who spoke to them and treated the coloured people as they would have treated anyone else. There are, after all, grades of society in every country, and those coloured people who looked respectable and made a proper approach were received at face value. Hospitality was extended by and accepted from all sections of the South African community, but the announcement that the Maori Battalion was, with official approval, to be the guest at a ball given by the coloured people of Capetown put the whole colour question in proper perspective and the event was eagerly awaited.
It was the only time the Maoris were entertained by a coloured people and it was the first (and possibly the last) time the Capetown coloureds were permitted to mix with British troops. In the event it was a very happy affair; the Maoris were fussed over as never before, and, with stiffness and formality a thing of the past, they almost felt they were back home again. In the morning they had been taken on a sightseeing trip by train, so by and large it was a full day.
The troops left Capetown with pleasant memories and a large supply of water-melons and corn-cobs. It had been a common sight to see a man struggling up the gangway with a huge water-melon under each arm. The largest cost a shilling and the men were robbed at the price, but the flavour made the cost appear negligible. Less prominently displayed but illustrating page 37 the Maori liking for kaimoana1 were the dozens of crayfish taken aboard and, in some cases, kept alive for days in baths filled with salt water.
The voyage up the east coast of Africa was hot, uncomfortable, and without incident. The Gulf of Aden was entered on 25 February and the convoy passed through the Red Sea. Two short ceremonies on 2 March marked the virtual end of nearly eight weeks at sea. The first was a presentation by the Maori Battalion of carved paddles to Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Hill, Commodore of the convoy, and to Commander A. Alderton, master of the Athlone Castle; the carving had been done on the trip by Second-Lieutenant Toka and the presentation was made by Captain Royal. The second ceremony was the presentation by Colonel J. S. Hughes, OC Troopship, of trophies won in a sports meeting held while ploughing through the Indian Ocean. Unlike on the first voyage, the Maoris did not make much of a showing.
The voyage ended in Tewfik harbour at the entrance to the Suez Canal in the afternoon of 3 March. As the Athlone Castle took her station among the mass of shipping, the Maoris looked in turn at the balloon barrage overhead, the flat-roofed buildings of Egypt, and the barren hills beyond the town. They were hazily aware that Egypt was an ancient land of deserts, pyramids, camels, and Arab sheiks riding white chargers, but from the ship there were neither pyramids, camels, nor sheiks to be seen. Perhaps they were all behind those hills.
The noise of distant bombing in the night was reminiscent of Kent, but the Maoris were not prepared for the sights that were their introduction to Egypt when they stepped ashore next day from the tenders: indescribably filthy children and adults dressed in what looked like dirty white nightshirts and brimless red hats, all of them chanting ‘Gibbet baksheesh’ and fighting like mad dogs when a coin was thrown among them; wharf entertainers with their bags of assorted tricks; vendors of Egyptian cigarettes, ‘Orangee, very nice’, sticky sweets, and ‘Eggs-a-cook, very cheap’.
The troop train left at 6 p.m. after much shrieking of whistles, yelling, and waving of arms by the Egyptian guards. While they were passing through Suez the troops caught sight of minarets and mosques and smelt the sundry unwholesome odours of the East. The country varied from dreary miles of desert and dilapidated mud villages to stretches of cultivated land on which page 38 the fellahin and his oxen looked like pictures out of Sunday School books. Night falls quickly in Egypt and the troops were not sorry to detrain somewhere in the desert in the early hours of 5 March. The Maoris were met by 27 (MG) Battalion, embussed in its trucks and transported to their camp at Garawi, about three miles out of Helwan, which in turn is 20 miles from Cairo. A hot meal also prepared by the machine-gunners was waiting, and for a brief period some quartermaster's staff stayed with the battalion until it found its way around in its new surroundings.
Ordinarily the arrival of the Second Echelon would have completed the concentration of the New Zealand Division, but the situation had changed since it left England. While it was being disembarked at Suez, the rest of the Division was preparing to embark for an unknown destination at the other end of the Canal.
To the Maoris the first few days in Egypt were full of interest. There were no sheiks riding camels but the desert and the pyramids were real enough, and there were the intricacies of Egyptian coinage to be mastered, Cairo to be explored, the first mail for three months to be read, and reunions to be held with approximately 300 reinforcements who marched into the battalion from the 4th Reinforcements. After replacing the wastage from sickness and bringing the battalion strength up to the new higher establishment, the surplus men were formed into a reinforcement company under the command of Captain Baker, now back with the unit after supervising the unloading of the Athlone Castle.
Cairo was still a novelty when the battalion entrained for the transit camp at Amiriya, near Alexandria, on 18 March. Amiriya was a desolate spot with limited amenities, but obviously the troops were not to be there long and they threw themselves into the ceaseless hardening-up training. March is the season of dust-storms, and the newcomers learnt the capacity of the fine dust to penetrate anything not hermetically sealed. Their conception of a desert as a stretch of golden sand with swaying date-palms surrounding a well of cool water, and with possibly an Arab caravan in the distance, was finally shattered at Amiriya. The daily route marches revealed the Egyptian desert as rolling country with the grass and trees removed, areas of sand of varying depths, and areas of stony flats where small clumps of scrub grew, apparently without the aid of water. There was no leave to Alexandria, but the Maoris managed to page 39 entertain themselves in their own way. One of the ways was a cross-country run over the sandhills; another was an impromptu sports meeting, which included a donkey race with the company commanders as jockeys. There was no tote, which was fortunate because the donkeys did not seem to realise there was a race on, in spite of every assistance from their backers, who pushed and pulled but could not overcome their reluctance to move. Finally, in desperation, one of the steeds was lifted and carried bodily around the course.
The day ended with a concert provided by an AIF entertainment unit and attended by all units in the neighbourhood. On 25 March the Maoris entrained for Alexandria, which was reached within the hour, and the battalion embarked on the transport Cameronia. There was not much room for the battalion was sharing her with 23 Battalion, units of artillery, engineers, medical staff, nurses attached to 1 General Hospital, and 5 Brigade Headquarters staff. She sailed with one other ship in the evening, and in the morning the troops were told officially what was already common knowledge. They were bound for Greece. A special order issued by General Freyberg at the beginning of March was read to all troops.2 It ran:
Before leaving Egypt for the battle front I had planned to say a last word to you. I find that events have moved quickly and I am prevented from doing so; I therefore send this message to you in a sealed envelope to be opened on the transport after you have started on your journey.
In the course of the next few days we may be fighting in the defence of Greece, the birthplace of culture and learning. We shall be meeting our real enemy, the Germans, who have set out with the avowed object of smashing the British Empire. It is clear therefore that wherever we fight them we shall be fighting not only for Greece, but also in defence of our own homes.
A word to you about the enemy. The German soldier is a brave fighter so do not underestimate the difficulties that face us. On the other hand, remember that this time he is fighting with difficult communications, in country where he cannot use his strong armoured forces to their full advantage. Further, you should remember that your fathers of 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force defeated the Germans during page 40 the last war wherever they met them. I am certain that in this campaign in Greece the Germans will be meeting men who are fitter, stronger, and better trained than they are. I have never seen troops that impressed me more. You can shoot and you can march long distances without fatigue. By your resolute shooting and sniping and by fierce patrolling by night you can tame any enemy you may encounter.
A further word to you, many of whom, I realise, will be facing the ordeal of battle for the first time. Do not be caught unprepared. In war conditions will always be difficult, especially in the encounter battle; time will always be against you, there will always be noise and confusion, orders may arrive late, nerves will be strained, you will be attacked from the air. All these factors and others must be expected on the field of battle. But you have been trained physically to endure long marches and fatigue and you must steel yourselves to overcome the ordeal of the modern battlefield.
One last word. You will be fighting in a foreign land and the eyes of many nations will be upon you. The honour of the New Zealand Division is in your keeping. It could not be in better hands.
|CO: Lt-Col G. Dittmer|
|2 i/c: Maj G. F. Bertrand|
|Adjutant: Cap H. P. Te Punga|
|IO: 2 Lt C. M. Bennett|
|MO: Capt C. M. Mules||Wounded, Crete|
|Chaplain: Rev K. Harawira|
|OC: Capt E. Te W. Love||Wounded, Crete. Remained with unit|
|2 Lt H. M. McDonald||PW, Crete|
|2 Lt A. Te Puni|
|2 Lt T. Rangi||PW, Greece|
|2 Lt G. R. Bennett||PW, Greece|
|2 Lt W. T. Ngata||Wounded, Crete|
|2 Lt F. T. Bennett||Wounded, Crete|
|QM: Capt G. H. Weir||page 41|
|OC: Capt L. J. Bell||Killed in action, Crete|
|Capt H. W. Leaf||Killed in action, Crete|
|2 Lt W. Porter||Wounded, Crete. Returned to unit|
|2 Lt D. Urlich|
|2 Lt H. Wiremu||PW, Greece|
|OC: Capt R. Royal|
|Capt W. H. Werohia||Evacuated Greece direct to ypt|
|2 Lt H. R. Vercoe||Killed in action, Crete|
|2 Lt R. Pene∗|
|2 Lt H. O. Stewart||Killed in action, Crete|
|OC: Capt A. T. McL. Scott|
|Capt P. Tureia||Evacuated sick, Crete|
|2 Lt H. Te O. Reedy||PW, Crete|
|2 Lt J. Tuhiwai∗|
|2 Lt K. A. Keiha|
|OC: Maj H. G. Dyer|
|2 Lt G. A. Te Kuru||Killed in action, Crete|
|2 Lt A. G. Ormond||Wounded, Crete|
|2 Lt F. R. Logan∗|
|2 Lt J. T. Gilroy||Evacuated Greece direct to Egypt|
|OC: Capt F. Baker||Wounded, Crete. Returned to unit|
|2 Lt W. Herewini||PW, Greece|
|2 Lt W. H. McKay||Died of wounds while PW, Crete|
|2 Lt H. K. Ngata||PW, Greece|
|2 Lt H. Hokianga†||PW, Greece|
|∗Commissioned in England.|
|† Ex 4th Reinforcements.|
The Maoris did not know much about the situation in Greece except that the Italians had invaded the country through Albania and were being systematically thrown back there again by the valiant but under-armed Greek forces. It is not the function of a battalion history to go very deeply into the events that led to the despatch of the New Zealand Division to Greece, but briefly this was the background.
While the Italian venture was making some headway against the astonished Greeks, the Germans contented themselves with consolidating their position in Europe, and early in 1941 were established in Roumania. The rough handling General Wavell had given the Italians in Libya, and the mauling the Greeks were giving them on the frontier mountaintops, suggested that German help was necessary at least to create a diversion. To the British High Command that diversion appeared likely to be the occupation of Bulgaria, which did not seem averse to being forcibly aligned on the Axis side. Such a move would have been a threat to the Greek Army already fully engaged with the Italians on Greece's western frontier, and an offer was made of certain forces to counter the possibility of having German troops disposed on the Greek border with Bulgaria. The original offer of British help was declined on the ground, among others, that the forces available were insufficient and more likely to provoke than prevent a German attack; eventually the British War Cabinet decided to curtail the operations against the Italians in Libya and send the largest possible force to counter the threat of a German advance into Greece through a complacent Bulgaria.
The Greek Government accepted the offer and 1 Armoured Brigade, the New Zealand Division, 6 and 7 Australian Divisions and the Polish Independent Brigade were ordered to prepare for embarkation.3 So much for grand strategy.
The voyage from Egypt to Greece was short and uneventful. Curious eyes watched the coast and the island of Salamis a little to the left draw closer as the ships passed between the breakwaters that protect the port of Piraeus from the open seas. Greek history is not a parade-ground subject and there were no guides aboard to tell the Maoris that between Salamis and Piraeus a sea battle was fought that changed the course of history. In 480 BC the Greeks destroyed the Persian fleet at the page break page 43 battle of Salamis following the defeat of the Greek army at Thermopylae, a battleground with which the Maoris were to become familiar.
The Cameronia berthed at midday on 27 March near the three-domed church of St. Nicholas, the Grecian patron saint of seafarers. The architecture was a variation from the spires of England and the minarets of Egypt, but the Maoris had little time to discuss the peculiarities of eastern churches for they disembarked almost immediately and marched through Athens to a staging camp at Hymettus, about nine miles distant.
It was their first march on asphalt roads since leaving England, and ordinarily there would have been a big sick parade with sore feet after it—but this was no ordinary occasion. That march to the pine-clad slopes of Mount Hymettus, southeastern bastion of the ancient city state of Athens, will never be forgotten by those who took part.
This time it was no mercenary Egyptian rabble that met them but a people who smiled and waved to the stalwart Maoris swinging along as if the heavy packs they carried were weightless. Often flowers and kisses were thrown to them, and sometimes it was a verse of the latest Greek war song that greeted them. The words were sung to the air of the then-popular ‘Woodpecker Song’—it was called ‘Kereite Mussolini’—and every time the hated name was mentioned two fingers would be drawn across the throat. The Maoris have action songs of their own, and they did not have to understand Greek to catch the meaning of this one.
The battalion bivouacked at Hymettus and made plans for investigating Athens where, with the great crags of Mount Lycabettus for a background the modern city is built around the Acropolis, itself crowned with stately relics of an ancient greatness as unique in their own way as the pyramids of Egypt.
In the morning the Reinforcement Company marched out to the advanced base at Voula, a holiday resort about 12 miles from Athens. There was leave in the afternoon and the troops, with strange coins in their pockets for the second time within a month, proceeded to explore the Greek capital. Next day, 29 March, they entrained for north-eastern Greece.
While the train climbed the hills that border the Athenian plain, the Maoris sang their songs and thought maybe of other hills and valleys of a newer land that had no enemy frontiers. All through the night the train rumbled, climbed, and twisted along the passes that shear the Greek mountains, and about page 44 midday stopped short of the small farming centre of Katerini. Every time the train stopped a curious crowd would gather, and although they spoke in Greek it was plain that they were puzzled about the nationality of the Maoris. Those with a little English would ask who they were, and on being told ‘New Zealanders’ would shake their heads and say: ‘You mavro, others aspro.’4 If the Maoris had understood Greek they would have considered that mavro rather overemphasised the degree of Polynesian pigmentation.
The battalion marched into Katerini and was billeted in empty buildings. All around it were green crops and orchards, and behind, stretching westwards across Greece, was the Olympus range 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, where the Maori battle cry ‘Kamate! Kamate!’ was first heard on a European battlefield. Did the toa who fell there join the shades of their ancestors who fought with mere and taiaha and wonder how their descendants would comport themselves against men armed with the strange new weapons? They were soon to know that the honour of the Maori people was in safe hands.
Forward of 5 Brigade, to which 28 (Maori) Battalion had come under command on 5 March and which was in divisional reserve, were 4 and 6 Brigades digging positions south of the Aliakmon River. The Division was for the first time concentrating and operating as a complete entity, and was holding the right of a defensive line that stretched from the Aegean Sea, east of Mount Olympus, for a hundred miles west and north to the Yugoslav frontier. On the New Zealand left 6 Australian Division was taking up positions but was not fully deployed. Further left again were Greek forces.
The line would have been difficult to break through, but it could be outflanked through Yugoslavia via the Monastir Gap, then down an easy valley to the Servia Pass, some ten miles farther west of Mount Olympus. At the time the Maoris arrived in Katerini the political situation had altered to our advantage, for a coup d'état had deposed the pro-German Yugoslav regent and it was hoped that the defence of the Monastir Gap was in competent hands. Farther west, the Albanian border was held by the Greek army, but in the east along the Bulgarian frontier only lightly manned permanent defences covered Salonika.page 45
Fifth Brigade was to prepare and occupy reserve positions covering the two passes north and east of Mount Olympus. The inland pass was the most important for over it ran the main road from the north-east provinces. It was called by several names but that used by the troops, Olympus Pass, will be used here to avoid confusion. The Olympus Pass road climbed across the shoulder of the mountain and through a deep gorge with a steep approach and wooded, precipitous sides. Within a distance of ten miles the road passed from sea level to a height of nearly 4000 feet. It was narrow, scarcely wide enough for two vehicles to pass, and there were many hairpin bends, while in wet weather the surface was greasy. There were also lengths cut along the rock face of the mountainside, with sheer cliffs on one side and a sheer drop on the other.
B Company moved out from Katerini on 1 April and took over a position partly prepared by D Company 19 Battalion in the actual Olympus Pass. The battalion transport, which had come up by road, passed B Company to a barrage of banter about their tardy progress but the drivers were not short of suitable replies. They were still relishing the taste of a vegetable they thought native to New Zealand but which was found growing in Greece. Major Bertrand describes the incident:
I took our transport by road from Athens to Katerine in company with all other 5 Brigade transport…. The journey took three days. At the midday lunch and maintenance halt I happened to be near a Greek village surrounded by fields with heavy crops of grain. In the fields I saw aged men and women weeding the crops as I thought. They were taking some sort of weed from the ground and putting it into bags which they wore slung from their waists. Upon going over to see what was what I found to my surprise that they were gathering Puha,5 which they told me was a much prized vegetable with them. So!
The rest of the battalion followed the next day and debussed at the entrance to the pass at the road junction to Skotina village. After a wayside lunch the troops marched by winding mule tracks to their allotted areas high up in the foothills above page 46 the Katerini plain. Ranges hedged them in on three sides, with Mount Brusti immediately behind them. B Company was moved forward a thousand yards to cover a side road from a sanatorium to the gorge, and the battalion position was then: B Company, as described, with a patrolled gap between it and 23 Battalion; A Company carried the line westwards on forward slopes facing the road to Katerini, with its right flank about a quarter of a mile from the road and its left on the steep Mavroneri Gorge; C Company was on the end of a ridge west of the Mavroneri Gorge and behind the village of Kariai, while D Company was further west behind Haduladhika village. Work had been done on both these positions by 26 Battalion. Battalion HQ was in a cherry orchard at Zazakon village between the forward troops and Skotina. The brigade area was thus held by two battalions—22 Battalion was on the Aliakmon River and 21 Battalion was still in Athens.
It was wild, mountainous country with the poorest of communications. The only motor road to D Company at Haduladhika—the Maoris called the place How-do-you-like-her—entailed a six-mile trip towards Katerini, then a three-mile detour along a road so potholed and corrugated that the maximum speed was fifteen miles an hour. There were secondary roads in A and B Company areas, but internal communications were by tracks cut through the thick undergrowth. The weather was ideal, the surroundings not unlike a New Zealand backblock farm, and the troops enjoyed themselves.
Waterfalls cascaded down the mountainsides, wild flowers grew under the trees, and there was always the sound of bells where little flocks of sheep and herds of cattle grazed in the valleys. Less welcome sights were the snakes in the bush and around the rocks and even in the creeks, but they appeared to be more frightened of the Maoris than the Maoris were of them. Green lizards, the sight of which to old-time war parties was regarded as the worst possible omen, were more than plentiful, but on account of their numbers the ancient superstition was disregarded—a new angle on the old proverb of there being safety in numbers.
While the rifle companies dug pits, carried coils of wire and boxes of ammunition up the mountainsides and erected entanglements around their positions, Headquarters Company was equally busy. The signal platoon cut tracks up and down gorges for its telephone wires, the stretcher-bearers prepared page 47 evacuation tracks for casualties, and the mortar platoon manhandled its weapons and ammunition into position. But of all the specialists perhaps the most arduous time was had by Lieutenant C. M. Bennett6 and his ‘I’ section in reconnoitring mountain tracks and stream beds. Their most important reconnaissance, although it did not seem so at the time, was the marking of a track from Battalion Headquarters in Zazakon over the Balaourea Range, along the eastern flank of Mount Brusti, and down on to the main road near Ay Dhimitrios.7 (In passing, it is interesting to note that the battalion Intelligence section, totalling one officer and seven other ranks, at that time contained a future battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett, DSO, a company commander, Captain Wikiriwhi, DSO, MC,8 an adjutant, Lieutenant Vercoe,9 and a Victoria Cross winner, the late Second-Lieutenant Ngarimu.10)
April the 5th was payday, and a ration of bottled beer of a brand known to most Aucklanders was available to those who wished to buy. A hot meal of Greek lamb, green peas, and new potatoes was issued; training for war in the Greek mountains was not unendurable. But everything was different in the morning.
3Owing to force of circumstances neither 7 Australian Division nor the Polish Independent Brigade Was sent to Greece.
4In Greek mavro is black and aspro white.
5Puha is the Maori name for sow thistle, sonchus oleraceus It is a common European plant and was first mentioned as occurring in New Zealand by Dieffenbach in 1843 and was well known to the Maoris, who used it freely. It is possible that it came to New Zealand as a stowaway in the canoes of the early migrations.—Information supplied by Dr H. H. Allan, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.
7Ay is a contraction of Ayios, meaning Saint.
102 Lt Te M. N. Ngarimu, VC; born NZ 7 Apr 1918; shepherd; killed in action 27 Mar 1943.