28 (Maori) Battalion
CHAPTER 9 — Alamein to Tripoli
For ten happy carefree days the troops stayed along a white sandy ridge only a quarter of a mile from the sea. Offshore breezes tempered the heat and the nights were cool and tranquil. There was six-day leave to Cairo and day leave to Alexandria for those who wanted it. The Kiwi Concert Party put on two shows daily and the canteens provided two bottles of beer per man per night. ‘Charlie YM’ produced endless supplies of fruit, cakes, cigarettes and chocolate.
‘To laze around doing nothing; to walk around without fear of getting blown sky high by shells; to sleep above ground in a comfortable bed; to sit at a table and eat every kind of delicious food; to drink beer by the any amount you like; to know there's not a German within fifty miles of one; all these things seem to make life almost a dream,’ wrote Second-Lieutenant Waaka in his diary.
The surf was found to be rather treacherous on account of a strong undertow so a volunteer party of strong swimmers and men skilled in life saving was excused all other duties in order to patrol the beach. Sergeant C. Wickliffe1 was in charge of it.
Perhaps the best flavour of the period can be got from the battalion war diary for 10 September:
Reveille 0700 hrs. Breakfast 0800 hrs. Inspection of all arms 0900 hrs. 0930 hrs. A 2-hour route march for all personnel. Lunch 1230 hrs. The afternoon period easy. 1830 hrs. Dinner and all ranks were to dress properly. This was the daily routine for the unit in this rest area.
Cool sea breezes, clean sands, and good food and bathing brings the day to a too speedy ending.
At night the only sounds to remind us of the war are the drone of heavy bombers and night fighters of the RAF riding the skies to their allotted tasks, and by day our fighter patrols on the alert…. Beer was made available this evening.
On 19 September the battalion embussed and headed southward into the Swordfish training area some 40 miles away. It was the usual expanse of rock and sand and scattered desert page 226 scrub, inhabited by lizards and scorpions. There were low hills to the north-west and south and it was noticed that these features were often included in training exercises.
The first few days were devoted to range-firing and toughening-up; any softness that had been acquired at Burg el Arab was soon shed by way of physical jerks, bayonet fighting, and route marches. After that, ‘L'attaque, l'attaque, toujours l'attaque’ was the theme and the troops trained in attacks by day and by night, at dawn and at dusk; and always the reorganisation took place on a ridge. Variations on the attack theme were the platoon in attack, the company in attack, the company in attack with supporting arms, the company in attack without supporting arms, the battalion in attack with all arms. Other training subjects were the battalion in desert formation at rest and on the move, advancing to attack in MT, debussing and reorganising—never a dull moment.
September the 24th saw the return of B Company and the start of a three-day divisional manœuvre. There was no ‘beg pardon’ about this show—live ammunition was fired by the artillery supplying a creeping barrage instead of the stationary concentrations to which the troops were used; sappers made tracks through real minefields and bangalore torpedoes blew holes in real wire. It was after this exercise that the CO explained the proposed technique of an attack and reorganisation on a two-brigade front to his officers, who thereupon passed the information on to the men.
The outline of a possible assault on a certain probable area had been explained to battalion commanders in strict secrecy by General Freyberg, and Colonel Baker memorised some of the map references. He then got the ‘I’ section to prepare a sandtable which, to the officers and NCOs studying it, was just a sand-table. Actions were fought each evening on the Colonel's new toy—but when the troops went into the battle line the officers found that they were not on wholly unfamiliar ground.
Training, punctuated by tabloid sports and an occasional ceremonial parade, continued until the middle of October, when the brigade returned to Burg el Arab and put in a few days' marching in the mornings and swimming in the afternoons.
By this time it was no secret that General Montgomery was going to attempt with Eighth Army what General Rommel with his Afrika Korps and attached Italians had failed to accomplish—smash a forty-mile-long system of minefields of unknown density and defended by infantry, anti-tank guns, page 227 armour, artillery, and an air force. The only things the troops did not know were how, when, and where, but the officers had been informed that the attempt was scheduled for 23 October.
Working south from the sea, the opposing armies looked at each other from tactical features—we held Tell el Eisa Ridge, and roughly four miles away the enemy line ran in front of Miteiriya Ridge, then across Ruweisat Ridge, through El Mreir, then west of the old New Zealand area southwards to the Qattara Depression.
The plan was to attack between Ruweisat Ridge and the sea on an eight-mile front with four divisions—9 Australian, 51 Highland, 2 New Zealand and 1 South African, in that order from right (north) to left (south). The assault troops were to capture the opposing outpost and main line while engineers cleared tracks through the minefields for the armour to get up in support. The main armoured strength, under cover of diversionary attacks along Ruweisat Ridge and further south, would then pass through and destroy the German tanks.
We had undoubted superiority in the air and a new tank, the Sherman, said to be more than a match for its hard-hitting opposite number. General Montgomery met commanding officers and stressed the role of each formation and each type of arm; Brigadier Kippenberger addressed his officers on similar lines; Major Hart made a reconnaissance of the brigade area with the company commanders, and on the 21st the troops were assembled and the forthcoming operation was carefully explained to them by the CO. At the conclusion of the talk the battalion had its tea, shouldered its equipment, embussed and left for the divisional assembly area at Alam el Onsol, about 15 miles behind the front line, and dug itself in. By daylight every vehicle was gone, the battalion had got all its equipment under cover and there was apparently nobody in the vicinity, with the RAF continuously overhead as a discouragement to too-inquisitive enemy planes. The troops remained hidden all day and after dark edged forward, again by MT, into the brigade assembly area in the rear of 23 Battalion, which had taken over a sector of the front a couple of days earlier. That night the troops saw flickering in the distance the familiar Aurora Borealis effect of flares and star shells. Clearly the fight was not far away. It was, in fact, very close indeed for during the next afternoon a message from General Montgomery was read to all ranks. The message ran:page 228
Personal message from the army commander
When I assumed command of the Eighth Army I said that the mandate was to destroy Rommel and his Army, and that it would be done as soon as we were ready.
We are ready now.
The battle which is now about to begin will be one of the decisive battles of history. It will be the turning point of the war. The eyes of the whole world will be on us, watching anxiously which way the battle will swing.
We can give them their answer at once, ‘It will swing our way.’
We have first-class equipment; good tanks; good anti-tank guns; plenty of artillery and plenty of ammunition; and we are backed up by the finest air striking force in the world.
All that is necessary is that each one of us, every officer and man, should enter this battle with the determination to see it through—to fight and to kill—and finally, to win.
If we all do this there can be only one result—together we will hit the enemy for ‘six’, right out of North Africa.
The sooner we win this battle, which will be the turning point of this war, the sooner we shall all get back home to our families.
Therefore, let every officer and man enter the battle with a stout heart, and with the determination to do his duty so long as he has breath in his body.
And let no man surrender so long as he is unwounded and can fight.
Let us all pray that ‘the Lord mighty in battle’ will give us the victory.
B. L. Montgomery,
Lieutenant-General, G.O.C.in-C., Eighth Army
Middle East Forces
Since the battalion had left the front after the Munassib attack a number of changes had occurred in the command of companies; Captain Awatere had been evacuated sick and Captains Keiha and Porter had been sent to Base for a rest. They had, however, smelt the battle from afar and had wangled themselves into jobs as liaison officers at Divisional Headquarters.page 229
The field return of officers before the battle began was as follows:2
CO: Lt-Col F. Baker
2 i/c: Maj I. A. Hart
Adjutant: Lt K. P. Mariu
Lt W. Vercoe (absent on course)
IO: Lt R. C. Te Punga
QM: Lt I. G. Howden
OC: Capt C. Sorensen
Signals: 2 Lt H. Mohi
Mortars: Lt P. Te H. Ornberg
Carriers: Lt T. Wirepa
Pioneers: Lt P. Taiapa
Anti-Tank: Lt H. M. Mitchell
2 Lt E. J. Ropata
2 Lt W. D. P. Wordley
Transport: 2 Lt A. E. McRae
OC: Capt J. C. Henare
2 i/c: Lt G. T. Marsden
2 Lt K. Rika
2 Lt A. J. Stephens
Lt J. G. P. Aperahama
Detailed orders had already been issued to units for the capture of Miteiriya Ridge, about four miles from the start line. The operation was to be carried out in two phases, the first objective being the outpost line behind the first enemy minefield, which would be captured by one battalion in each brigade, while the second phase, the taking of the ridge itself, was in each brigade a two-battalion job.
The original divisional start line was one and a half miles in length, widening like the ribs of a fan to two and a half miles, which meant that each company would move forward on a slightly different bearing.page 230
The New Zealand Division had 104 guns firing on its front, a concentration before unheard of in North Africa although much denser fire power was provided later in the war. In actual fact, after batteries detailed to smother known enemy positions were deducted, the actual barrage, the moving wall of fire, the steam-roller of destruction was more of a direction and pace indicator than a barrage. At Messines in 1917 the guns supplying the barrage stood wheel to wheel and in serried ranks according to the weight of their shells.
It was, then, almost a certainty that pockets of enemy would be bypassed and 28 Battalion was given the important task of mopping up behind, firstly, the one battalion of each brigade front, and then, after the other two units had passed through, of carrying on to Miteiriya Ridge. The Maoris were to ensure that the sappers clearing the vital tracks through the minefields for the passage of guns and armour were not molested by over-looked strongpoints; the engineers' job was dangerous enough as it was.
C and D Companies, assigned to the mopping up in 6 Brigade's sector, moved off at dusk and took position in rear of 24 Battalion; behind them again were 25 and 26 Battalions page 231 edging up to deploy. Similarly, A and B Companies responsible for 5 Brigade's area aligned themselves in rear of 23 Battalion, with 21 and 22 Battalions behind them. Further back, front-line vehicles began to move along their allotted axes, which were defined by shaded lights. Still further back, the armour was warming up to lock horns with the German panzers.
A watchful enemy sentry, peering into the bright moonlight at twenty minutes to ten that night, would have seen hundreds of points of light glowing like matches from Ruweisat to the sea. Before he would have realised their significance hundreds of shells would have been screaming westwards.
The Maoris, lying on the cold sand, felt the thud of the recoiling guns and smelt again the characteristic perfume of the battlefield—smoke and burning cordite. The assaulting infantry moved towards the opening line of the barrage, which was due to start rolling at twenty-three minutes past ten; fifteen minutes later the mopping-up parties followed into the mixture of moonlight, dust and smoke. A and B Companies, following 23 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel R. E. Romans), had gone about a quarter of a mile when they were caught in a counter-barrage and there were some casualties, including Captain Henare3 (A Company), before they were clear. Major Bennett took charge of both companies and worked them as one unit for the rest of the operation.
There was little employment for the moppers-up as far as the first objective for 23 Battalion missed only two small groups who offered no resistance. Near the first pause line Major Bennett's force was augmented by a platoon of 23 Battalion (Second-Lieutenant Cooper)4 which had become detached from its unit during a scuffle with a strongpost and the combined force moved on to the first objective. There were only a few 23 Battalion men there, a perturbing situation for a mopping-up party, but 24 Battalion (the leading battalion of 6 Brigade on the left) was contacted and a defensive line established. The 23rd Battalion had overshot its objective and carried on to the foot of Miteiriya Ridge.
Word was passed along that 24 Battalion was retiring and Major Bennett went to investigate. He found that C Company 24 Battalion had merely gone a couple of hundred yards forward page 232 to settle a strongpoint and was returning to its correct place. No elements of 51 Division were in the locality on his right, so Bennett pulled his own people and the oddments of 23 Battalion back to conform to 24 Battalion's line, dug in, and waited on events. The time was about midnight.
On 6 Brigade's front C and D Companies got away to a good start, but C Company was not long in touch with B Company on the left of 5 Brigade's area. Spasmodic shelling was encountered but there were no losses in C Company as far as the first objective. Only four prisoners were taken in an uneventful follow-up behind 24 Battalion.
D Company was not so lucky; the first few hundred yards were unopposed, but then an enemy battery that had escaped the counter-bombardment concentrated on the area being passed over by the troops. Casualties were also caused by S-mines, a type of anti-personnel mine that had not previously been encountered. They were held down by a spring which, when actuated, threw the mine into the air, where it exploded. An understandable desire to push as rapidly as possible out of this dangerous area was frustrated by the fact that 24 Battalion could move only as fast as the barrage in front of it.
The failure of the South Africans to keep pace with 6 Brigade meant that the left flanking company of 24 Battalion and D Company 28 Battalion behind it were exposed to enfilade fire from the open flank. The result was that 24 Battalion veered to its right and the Maoris became, in effect, assault troops.
They were nearing the first objective when they were sent to ground by a strongpoint. The company 2-inch mortars were turned on it, and after three salvoes men were seen running and the Maoris closed in. Seven machine guns and three prisoners were captured. One, wearing a stretcher-bearer's armband and a Luger pistol, was shot. The others who had left earlier were lucky, for though they were seen by 24 Battalion men they were mistaken for Maoris and permitted to depart into the smoke.
When the first objective was reached D Company was still in the front wave, but contact was established with C Company 24 Battalion and that battalion's headquarters located. The company reorganised on the first lines pending the arrival of 25 Battalion, which was to continue the assault on the left.
Back in 5 Brigade's sector Major Bennett did not have long to wait, and the troops of 21 and 22 Battalions moved to the capture of Miteiriya according to the timetable. The mystery page 233 of the whereabouts of 23 Battalion was solved when the moppers-up, after an unimpeded progress, reached the ridge and met it there. Judging by the appearance of the battlefield 23 Battalion had done a very thorough job where the opportunity had presented itself. Major Bennett halted on the near slope of Miteiriya and went forward to locate 22 Battalion. This battalion was enduring very heavy shelling but needed no assistance in cleaning up behind it; 21 Battalion, whose objective lay somewhat further forward, took longer to find but it, too, was solidly in position. The Maori assignment was over and the troops were returning when they met armour trying to negotiate a minefield at the bottom of the ridge. Bennett well knew the imperative necessity of getting tanks and anti-tank guns forward before daylight and put a part of his force to helping the engineers clear lanes for the wheeled traffic. They worked until just before daylight and then reported back to Battalion Headquarters.
In 6 Brigade's sector C Company's luck continued. The 26th Battalion arrived on the start line a little late but in good shape and C Company followed through to its objective, which had been laid down as the foot of Miteiriya. The company had only two casualties and took four prisoners.
At 1 a.m. there was no sign of 25 Battalion on the left flank and a runner sent to 24 Battalion brought back word that HQ 24 Battalion had not seen it either. Captain Logan waited for an hour, during which time engineers passed through clearing tracks, and then decided to go forward and cover them. D Company had gone forward for nearly a mile when fire came in from the South African sector and the company faced in that direction to meet a possible attack. The firing ceased and the troops pushed on, still thinking that they were the front line. They were supported in this impression when they overran a strongpoint and collected four more prisoners and were very surprised to find 25 Battalion at the foot of the objective ridge. Headquarters 25 Battalion could not be located but an officer of that unit assured Captain Logan that the battalion was where it should be, so when the first armour came up through the engineers' track the company returned home.
The Maori Battalion's losses in this attack were 6 killed (1 officer and 5 other ranks), 53 wounded (3 officers and 50 other ranks), and 3 other ranks missing. The general situation at dawn on 24 October was that 9 Australian Division had its right brigade on the objective but was otherwise half a mile page 234 short; 51 Highland Division was up only on the extreme left (in contact with 21 Battalion) and the extreme right, but was otherwise well back; the New Zealand Division had 5 Brigade wholly on the objective, while 6 Brigade had 26 Battalion up and 25 Battalion half a mile short; 1 South African Division had its left brigade solidly on the objective but its right was also half a mile short. The tanks under the New Zealand Division's command were in defensive positions but the main strength of the armoured corps had not been able to break out.
The battle raged while the battalion reorganised and endured odd air raids, though nearly all the planes in the air were Boston and Mitchell bombers, with fighter escort, flying westwards.
Captain Pene went to A Company, vice Captain Henare, wounded, and Padre Wanoa5 marched in. Colonel Baker was warned that the Maoris would relieve 21 Battalion the next evening (the 26th).
A surprise air raid caught the unit forming up at dusk and caused three casualties, one fatal; otherwise the take-over from 21 Battalion was uninterrupted. The rest of the night, however, was very much interrupted by fierce artillery duels and enemy small-arms fire directed against covering parties supplied by the battalion for sappers laying minefields. There was nothing inspiring about the view at first light: silent field pieces and derelict tanks immediately in front and, further away, more tanks and guns that were anything but silent. Behind the troops was the fold of Miteiriya Ridge, and away in front El Wishka Ridge. The Maoris called it ‘Hell's Whiskers’ and wished it wasn't there or that somebody would capture it and stop the shells coming from that direction. Something more dynamic than wishing could be done about the machine guns searching over the area and the supporting machine-gunners replied with longer and better bursts. More armour had got through the minefields and a tank battle was in progress to the north-east of the Maori area. The day passed under an assorted rain of shells, mortar bombs and bullets with consequent casualties, among whom was Sergeant Pitama, who had been awarded an MM for gallantry in the recent attack at Munassib. The move into the line was only a dispositional shuffle and the unit was relieved after dark on 27 October by a South African Royal Natal Carbineer battalion. The whole division was, in page 235 fact, pulling out in conformity with a resolution to regroup for another thrust, which explains why, after travelling the greater part of the night, most of the time at a snail's pace, the Maoris found themselves back in the Alam el Onsol area. Three days were spent swimming and relaxing while other divisions carried on the fight.
Brigadier Kippenberger inspected the unit on the last day of October and in an address to the troops said that he thought the brigade would stay where it was until a gap had been punched in the enemy line, whereupon the New Zealanders would board their trucks and help to chase Rommel out of Egypt. It was an alluring prospect. Battalion Headquarters extended itself and turned on afternoon tea for the Brigadier, and the troops made plans for the morrow; even the toughest fighters can bear to miss a battle occasionally.
At midnight the CO was wakened. He was to report urgently to Brigade Headquarters. The orders group was warned to stand by and a fast trip was made to Brigadier Kippenberger's headquarters; would Colonel Baker please wait until the Brigadier returned from a conference at Division?
The Brigadier, together with the other senior officers, including the commanders of British formations which had been placed under 2 NZ Division's command, was getting information and instructions from General Freyberg. Briefly, the position was that 9 Australian Division in the northern sector had, after a hard fight, swung towards the coast and was a serious threat to the enemy jammed for room against the seashore. It was proposed to attack westwards from the Australian area with fresh troops and so provide the gap for which the main armour was still waiting.
The key to the breakout was the high ground in the Tell el Aqqaqir locality, about two miles behind the enemy line—unfamiliar country, strongly defended and covered by uncharted minefields. To increase the hazards, time was short and the two assaulting brigades which were coming under the Division's command for the operation had never trained together.
The brigadiers were told that nothing the enemy could do was to stop the advance—if tanks were encountered before the armour got up they were to be bypassed; if the infantry lost the barrage the tanks were to push on without them. The breach must be made this time, come what may.page 236
Methods to obtain tactical surprise included ostentatious digging-in by 51 Division, whereby it was hoped to indicate a static intention at the exact place from which the assault was to go in, and also a diversionary Australian attack with the object of holding enemy reserve armour in their area.
The rest was up to the English and Scottish infantry of 151 and 152 Brigades, supported by as many guns as could be brought to bear. The plan was for an attack on a two-brigade front, 151 Brigade (50 Division) right and 152 Brigade (51 Highland Division) left, both supported by the tanks of 23 Armoured Brigade, with 9 Armoured Brigade to carry on past the infantry's final objective to Tell el Aqqaqir; the whole operation was to be under command of 2 NZ Division, but the New Zealand infantry was being held in reserve as a break-through force.
But a last-minute adjustment to the plan was necessary. The direction of the thrust was towards a desert track running inland from Sidi Abd el Rahman, and there was a locality which, if it continued to be defended, could enfilade the advance of 151 Brigade. The Maoris had therefore been detailed as an additional battalion to supply protection on this flank and had been placed under command of 151 Brigade for the operation. Such was the gist of the information passed on to Colonel Baker, and with all dreams of a further spell dissipated he drove rapidly back to his waiting O Group.
After a very early breakfast all senior officers drove to HQ 151 Brigade, located near the original start line of the Highlanders on the night 23–24 October, and here Colonel Baker, attending a brigade conference, rapidly realised that 151 Brigade had never trained with the New Zealand Division.
‘This conference was the most unsatisfactory Bde or other conference I have ever attended,’ he wrote later. ‘There was no orderly presentation (as we had been used to) of either information or of the job that had to be done … or who was to do what. My recollection of the conference was that it commenced with a discussion of whether hot tea should be supplied to the men at the start line, recognition signals, success signals and a password (finally resolved by adopting the word “Joss” which we were given to understand was the Bde Comd's name).
‘On matters of more concern to Unit Comds the orders were very indefinite and the only definite information given, viz., the means of getting to the Bde start line proved later to be inaccurate. At the end of the conference, by question and page 237 answer the following information as it affected the 28 NZ Bn was elicited:
The 28 NZ Bn was to be on the northern flank of the attack. The attack was to be due west which meant that the right flank of the Bn was to be open.
The artillery barrage was to be continuous over the front of the 151 Bde proper but was to cover half of our front only.
In view of the varying distances between the Bde start line and the enemy F.D.L.'s the 28 Bn start time was, I think, 10 mins ahead of the other units.
The Bn front was one Km wide and the distance to the objective approximately 3.5 kms.
On reaching the objective the Bn was to re-organise and prepare a defensive position and would have the support of two A/T troops and one Sq of tanks.'
After an unsuccessful attempt by the CO to obtain more satisfactory artillery cover the company commanders were given their orders and went back to their men, who by this time were en route to the designated rendezvous near Tell el Eisa railway station, where the whole battalion had assembled by the afternoon. Colonel Baker reported to Brigadier W. J. Windeyer, commanding the Australian infantry brigade in whose area the start line was situated, only to find that the Brigadier had received no information regarding the attack nor was he aware that his front-line trenches were to be evacuated before the barrage was to commence.
Much more disquieting was the fact that, according to the location of the several features given at the 151 Brigade conference as landmarks, the whole brigade would have lined up at least two kilometres south of where it should have been. At dusk on 1 November the ‘I’ section put down the start-line tapes on the correct place and Colonel Baker located and, after considerable discussion, induced the other battalion commanders, who had followed the brigade orders without question, to move north into their correct areas so that at least the Maoris would not be fighting a separate action.
The Australians pulled back from their forward positions at midnight (1–2 November) and within the hour the troops were in position and disposed with C Company (Captain Awarau) right and D Company (Captain Logan) left; B Company (Major Bennett) was to mop up 600 yards in rear, Battalion Headquarters was behind B Company, and A Company (Captain Matehaere) was in reserve behind Battalion Headquarters.page 238
The barrage opened at five minutes after 1 a.m. and the assault troops moved off into the gloom. Colonel Baker6 was seriously wounded about half a mile forward of the start line.
C Company advanced about a quarter of a mile before it was fired on, then machine guns and mortars opened at close range and the Ngatiporou went at them with levelled bayonets. The enemy were Germans and, in the words of General Montgomery, it was a real killing match as the company stabbed, grenaded, and tommy-gunned its way through an area thick with machine and anti-tank guns.
Cohesion in the company was lost in the fight and its members fought singly and in sections; Lieutenant Haig7 reached the objective with ten men and then had to go another 200 yards to silence more machine guns; Lieutenant Jackson, after dealing with strongposts that had been missed by the first wave, got to his objective with five men; Captain Awarau and Lieutenant Rangiuia8 were both wounded.
D Company, with both its flanks covered by C Company, right, and 6 Battalion Durham Light Infantry on the left, had little trouble until passing a derelict tank. It had been booby-trapped and it exploded, causing several casualties. Captain Logan, concluding after an hour's steady advance that he was near his objective, sent patrols to locate his flanking troops and consolidated.
B Company (Major Bennett) started fifteen minutes after the first wave. ‘Although to all intents and purposes we were the mopping up Coy, in effect we were front line troops throughout,’ he wrote. ‘I don't know what happened to C and D ahead of me but we lost contact with them almost from the start line and hardly saw them again. We had to fight almost every inch of the way. We were never far behind the barrage which gave us good protection and did some damage too…. At one spot we were opposed by a wall of enemy firing at us with all they had. We all broke into the haka “Ka mate! ka mate!” and charged straight in with the bayonet…. It was the most spirited attack that I myself had taken part in.’page 239
When the estimated distance had been covered Bennett halted his men and scouted around for the front wave. He found D Company just in front of him but could not locate either A or C Companies or Battalion Headquarters. His wireless was working but the only one to come in on the air was the A Company operator; but he was lost and did not know where his people were. Bennett decided to dig in and wait on events.
Captain Logan was already digging in facing west so B Company was swung to face north, from which direction a lot of fire was coming in and which was the most likely place for a counter-attack to originate. While the Arawas were getting below ground both Haig and Jackson located them and were fitted in with their men, also facing north.
A Company kept Battalion Headquarters in sight for almost a mile before it lost contact. Later the company overtook the Adjutant (Lieutenant Mariu)9 and RSM Wikiriwhi10 looking for Battalion Headquarters. They had stayed back when Colonel Baker had been wounded and had waited until his jeep had come up across the minefields and evacuated him to the RAP, near where Major Hart was waiting with the fighting transport. The CO was unable to speak but by written notes advised the Major of the situation as he knew it and handed over command of the battalion. In the meantime Captain Matehaere had been wounded. Major Hart arrived in time to attend to his wound while Lieutenant Aperahama led the company against fierce opposition. They passed Lieutenant Rangiuia and several of his platoon who had been wounded trying to take the position, and cleaned up four strongposts. Aperahama was really facing his right flank although he was under the impression that he was attacking frontally, and, fearing to penetrate too deeply and thereby run the risk of being cut off, he ordered the platoons to consolidate.
The writer is unable to give a clear account, through the death in action of the officers concerned, of the support-arms position, but the battalion 3-inch mortars and a platoon of machine-gunners were dug in near Battalion Headquarters before dawn while L Troop 244 Anti-Tank Battery, RA, making a belated appearance, had only two guns dug in before daylight. The remaining guns were shot up and the troop commander page 240 killed. It is quite clear, however, that there was no communication between the different sections of the battalion. This is how Major Bennett saw the situation at dawn:
I was very fearful for the forward troops' welfare. As far as I could see nothing was on our right and nothing on our left and where we were dug in the enemy was immediately in front of me and also covered me from the left. It was quite unsafe to poke your head out above ground level and the same of course applied to the enemy in front of us. We were like a little finger poked out into the enemy positions and likely to be nipped off with ease. I was not apprehensive of enemy troops but I was of his tanks. Without anti-tank defences I knew I was absolutely at the mercy of tanks should they have attacked.
No news came to us from behind. I got no orders and so decided to stay put. Even if it was possible to get back (and this was virtually impossible in the hours of daylight) it wasn't the kind of situation that one would have liked to have left his men in on their own.
The expected counter-attack did not eventuate for Field-Marshal Rommel had his hands much too full in other directions, particularly with the penetration in the vital Tell el Aqqaqir sector. The troops lay under fire all that day; the large gap between the Maoris and the Australians was still full of enemy although the carriers did manage to quieten it some-what.
As soon as it was dark enough Major Bennett left Lieutenant Waaka in command of B Company and made his way back to Battalion Headquarters, only to find that the CO had been wounded and that Major Hart, also, had been mortally wounded. Bennett thereupon assumed command of the battalion.11
Major Bennett reported his situation to Headquarters 6 Brigade, under whose command the battalion had passed after the attack, and was given two more platoons of machine guns and another troop of six-pounder anti-tank guns to strengthen his rather precarious position. It was on his return from this journey that he found that the location of A Company had been page 241 established and he got his command together. Casualties had been heavy, nearly one hundred in an already depleted battalion; 22 killed, 72 wounded, including 8 officers (one of whom, Major Hart, died of wounds), and 4 missing.
Companies were reorganised with Lieutenant Aperahama as OC A Company,12 vice Captain Matehaere, wounded; Captain Pene, B Company, replacing Major Bennett; and Lieutenant Taiapa, C Company, vice Captain Awarau, wounded. Captain Logan still commanded D Company and Captain Sorensen Headquarters Company.
Major Bennett resited the battalion to present a stronger front towards the north. Contact was established with the Australians on the right and with 24 Battalion, which had come up during the night. By first light all arms were dug in and the battalion prepared for any eventuality except the one that happened. As Major Bennett wrote in his report on the action: ‘Unfortunately the morning arrived only to find that the enemy had evacuated during the night.’
The battle was in fact over, with the enemy moving westwards.
A battalion is not a very big cog in the military machine and it was not until that night that Major Bennett received information which enabled him to tell his officers that the enemy was on the run and that 28 Battalion, as part of 5 Brigade, was going to chase him. No. 1 Platoon 4 RMT reported at ten o'clock the next morning; the troops were given a hot meal and were on the way to the rendezvous within the hour; by 3 p.m. on 4 November 5 Brigade was shouldering its way through the gap which had been made, south-west into the desert, its destination the Fuka escarpment. It was hoped to deny the road to the departing Germans (the majority of the Italian force, stripped of transport by its ally, was already as good as in the bag) in the same manner as they had incommoded the Matruh garrison when the New Zealand Division was galloping back from Minqar Qaim.
The plan did not come off. The route, marked by the Divisional Provost Company with the familiar diamond signs on iron pickets with shaded lights, was south-west of Tell el Aqqaqir then north-west, but by the time the Division had wriggled through the minefields and got itself into formation it was within two hours of dawn.page 242
While 5 Brigade was waiting for the rest of the Division to concentrate, an escaping fragment of the enemy bumped the rear of the column and there was some confused firing and fighting before it was driven off. The 23rd Battalion got the worst of it with 26 casualties, but A Company 28 Battalion lost its latest commander. Lieutenant Marsden's pick-up was riddled and he was seriously wounded. Lieutenant Aperahama again took command, with Lieutenant Stephens his only other officer.
During this time the enemy was not standing on the order of his going along the good tarsealed coast road, even though the unceasing attentions of the Desert Air Force did not assist his retreat.
The Division was on the move after breakfast (5 November) and, with the armour ranging ahead, struck across a stricken field for Fuka, where a steep escarpment crossed by only one road and a railway track offered a chance of cutting off at least a part of the enemy rearguard. Italian formations whose transport had been appropriated by the Germans did not seem unduly cast down. Lieutenant Waaka wrote:
Very noticeable that only prisoners after the break through are Italians. They march back in orderly parties 6 deep singing and laughing and calling out as we pass, ‘Multo bone Campo Cairo.’ The Wops! Marked contrast to the average Jerry prisoner who hardly says a word and is obviously terribly hurt at having been captured and if, which is seldom, he speaks at all, it is with the arrogant assurance that they will win and that the term of imprisonment is but temporary.
However, with minefields (real and dummy) to cross and armoured engagements to wait upon, the road was still ten miles away at nightfall. Baggush landing ground, urgently needed by the Air Force, was the following day's objective, but here fate or what lawyers call ‘an act of God’ intervened. The sky opened and rain, at first intermittent, fell in torrents; the dusty desert changed into a morass and the trucks sank to the running boards. The pursuit was over for the time being.
A change in duties took place within the battalion. Second-Lieutenant M. Wikiriwhi relieved Lieutenant Te Punga as IO and Te Punga became Adjutant in place of Lieutenant Mariu, who went to liaison officer duties at HQ 5 Brigade. Two days of crouching under groundsheets and tarpaulins had passed before the unit was mobile again and the chase resumed. Matruh, Minqar Qaim—all the old names came back into the vocabulary. page break page 243 Major Keiha and Captain Awatere rejoined the battalion as second-in-command and OC C Company respectively. By midnight 10–11 November 28 Battalion was 12 miles from Sollum at the rear of the brigade column.
The position was curiously similar to that at the opening of the 1941 campaign—the enemy was holding the escarpment with British armour coming up behind from the direction of the Omars. But the similarity ceased there for the top of Halfaya Pass was no nest of panzers but the temporary abode of an Italian rearguard. The forward armour was worrying at them and it was thought they would not stay long. In the event they proved more stubborn than was expected and 21 Battalion was sent to expedite their departure. This was effected before daylight and the Maori Battalion was directed to ascend the escarpment via the Sollum road it knew so well. It was, however, so thoroughly demolished that the battalion was redirected to the Halfaya Pass, and after some delay on account of congestion finally halted in the vicinity of Sidi Azeiz. bardia had been evacuated without a fight and the last enemy soldier who was free to move was out of Egypt. General Montgomery issued another message to be read to all men in the Eighth Army:
When we began the battle of Egypt on 23 October I said that together we would hit the Germans and Italians for six right out of North Africa.
We have made a very good start and to-day, 12 Nov., there are no German and Italian soldiers on Egyptian territory except prisoners.
In three weeks we have completely smashed the German and Italian Army, and pushed the fleeing remnants out of Egypt, having advanced ourselves nearly 300 miles up to and beyond the frontier.
The following enemy formations have ceased to exist as effective fighting formations:
The prisoners captured number 30,000 including nine Generals.
The amount of tanks, artillery, anti-tank guns, transport, aircraft, etc., destroyed or captured is so great that the enemy is completely crippled.
This is a very fine performance and I want, first, to thank you all for the way you responded to my call and rallied to the task. I feel that our great victory was brought about by the good fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire rather than by anything I may have been able to do myself.
Secondly, I know you will all realise how greatly we were helped in our task by the R.A.F. We could not have done it without their splendid help and co-operation. I have thanked the R.A.F. warmly on your behalf.
Our task is not finished yet; the Germans are out of Egypt but there are still some left in North Africa. There is some good hunting to be had further to the west, in Libya; and our leading troops are now in Libya ready to begin. And this time, having reached Benghasi and beyond, we shall not come back.
On with the task, and good hunting to you all. As in all pursuits some have to remain behind to start with; but we shall all be in it before the finish.
The New Zealand Division's part in assisting the enemy's departure was over for the time being; other formations attended him along the North African coastline past Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, Agedabia, to his lair at El Agheila in the Gulf of Sirte. To the troops left hundreds of miles behind the battle line the situation was supremely satisfactory, but there were others who remembered that Panzerarmee had been driven back to the same place twice before and had returned, refitted and refreshed, almost to the gates of Cairo. But this time the landing in North Africa of a new British-American Army on 8 November was a new factor.
The Maoris left the conduct of the war to General Montgomery and set about making themselves comfortable. Summer was well past. Battle dress was issued and worn, particularly at night, with appreciation. Training in the use of the troops' tools of trade, that bugbear of the rank and file but his salvation in battle, commenced forthwith; the front-line soldier is slow page 245 to realise that while in action he is mostly standing around, lying around, or being carried around, and that physical fitness must be regained and nerves restrung before he is ready for further battles.
A trip to the beach near Bardia for a swim resulted in the discovery of a dump of American canned potatoes, some of which were smartly loaded on to the troop trucks. Colonel Bennett was very pleased with the potatoes and sent more trucks to lift the remainder of the dump. He was not so pleased with the assorted barrels of wine, cognac, and zibbib which had also been found and loaded with the potatoes. He had, in fact, a definite antipathy to mixing Maori training with Italian alcohol and took prompt measures to separate the two. The battalion was sent out on a route march and by the time it returned, expectant and thirsty, the stock of vino had been located and poured over the even thirstier desert.
About a month was spent in the locality, during which time the main activities were roadmending, route-marching, barrack-square bashing, sports meetings and football. The last was a really serious business for the divisional champion team was being sought, and General Freyberg had made it known that if the competition was not decided before the advance continued he had arranged, without consulting the enemy, to stage the finals in Tripoli.
The battalion officers also played the brigade officers, headed by the Brigadier, at softball and beat them soundly, an action which the other ranks did not consider to be very diplomatic; a 14-mile route march the next day lent point to their belief.
December opened auspiciously with a brigade sports meeting. The prize for the unit with the most points was a free day and the Maoris won handsomely. Corporal Kirk13 of the carrier platoon stripped and reassembled a Bren gun in 1 minute 32 seconds—at least 30 seconds better than average time and an astounding performance. It was also on 1 December that 28 (Maori) Battalion officially became an integral part of 5 Brigade. Since its formation the Maori unit, like the Machine Gun Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry, had been a divisional unit and had on sundry occasions been under command of every brigade in the Division. Great satisfaction was felt by all ranks at the change in status, even if it did mean the substitution of red oblong for the familiar red half-moon patches that had been worn since Palmerston North days.page 246
The free day was used to play 4 Field Regiment and 23 Battalion at Rugby and to win both matches. The holiday was nearly over. The position was that, although Tobruk harbour was working again, every pint of water, every gallon of petrol, every bullet, shell and item of replenishment had to be carried by truck across four-hundred-odd miles of desert to the troops in front of El Agheila. That fact had been mainly the reason for Rommel's double return to the attack in 1941 and mid-1942, but General Montgomery had taken steps to see that there was no third return. Supplies had been accumulated and troops were moving forward with the object of capturing the seaport city of Tripoli, a place which would do very well as a base port for the final liquidation of the Axis forces in North Africa and, of course, for the final of the Rugby competition.
The next step to the capture of Tripoli, Mussolini's ‘Jewel of Africa’, was the removal of the enemy occupying the barrier at El Agheila, and the plan to effect this was a frontal attack by 51 Division and 7 Armoured Division, with the envelopment of the inland flank by 2 NZ Division. The troops packed up on 4 December and next day set out across Cyrenaica. The desert here was no different from its Egyptian namesake and the Division travelled directly across the bulge in North Africa that is Cyrenaica and rendezvoused in the Agedabia area, with 5 Brigade at El Haseiat, 30 miles farther south.
The first leg of the approach march proper was about 30 miles due south in daylight on 11 December; then, after a day for the Division to get into formation, the real trek started. Speed, or as much speed as the difficult going permitted, was essential and 50 arduous miles, including the crossing of a six-mile-wide path through Crystal's Rift, were followed by a full day and night march north-west towards Marble Arch. Word had been received that the enemy was already moving out and the Division's route was moved further west towards Bir el Merduma to try to cut off at least the rear elements.
The men had three hours' sleep, a quick breakfast, and the trucks were away bumping, jolting, and swaying through the day. Sixth Brigade was leading the Division and was some miles in front of 5 Brigade. Over 60 miles were covered by the end of the day (the 15th) and the Division was behind the whole of the German Afrika Korps which, like 2 NZ Division at Minqar Qaim, was, in theory, in the bag.
What actually happened was that 90 Light Division held 6 Brigade up long enough during the night for 21 Panzer Division page 247 to scuttle past along the main road and then depart itself. Sixth Brigade had to deploy in the darkness over unknown ground, with the result that there was a six-mile gap between it and 5 Brigade. The 15th Panzer Division, the last of the rearguard, passed through the gap in the early morning and Afrika Korps, again like 2 NZ Division, lived to fight another day.
Left hook at El Agheila
There was nothing the Maori Battalion could do about the escaping enemy so the men had breakfast and hoped there would be no more day-night-day dashes over a wadi-strewn desert—the RMT drivers must have had sharper eyes and several more lives than a cat. The battalion stayed where it was all that day while the next enemy position at Nofilia was felt out. Fires were permitted that night for cooking, the first since the advance began, and the whole countryside glowed for a while then darkened as the troops went to bed.
In the morning (the 17th) 5 Brigade left on another turning movement around the Nofilia position where 4 Light Armoured Brigade was engaged. The route was first south then west, and finally, when about seven miles beyond the village, a right turn faced the brigade north with 23 Battalion leading in the centre, 28 Battalion, right, and 21 Battalion, left rear. The brigade advanced in this order for about three miles across the flat top page 248 of an escarpment until the sea came into view, and between the sea and the edge of the escarpment ran a road along which enemy vehicles were streaming westwards towards Sirte.
Immediately 23 Battalion came into view of the enemy shells dropped between the trucks and an immediate attack was ordered. However, 5 Brigade had bumped into a strong flank guard placed for just the situation that had developed. The 28th Battalion, keeping its position in right rear of 23 Battalion, lurched down the edge of the escarpment into treacherous soft sand covered by light scrub, and the trucks screamed along in low gear until they were in danger of bogging down, so the troops debussed and advanced on foot. The 23rd Battalion became heavily engaged and darkness fell with the enemy still in command of the road. Colonel Bennett was ordered to dig in facing east. The battalion had lost only one man, but most of the fire was directed on 23 Battalion and the Maoris had had the easier part.
After dark 21 Battalion was ordered to make a night attack; 28 Battalion was to stay where it was but was to send a company and mine the road near Nofilia. D Company was selected, and Major Logan with a party of engineers and trucks full of mines made a wide detour and cautious approach. Cars and tanks were heard and avoided by moving down a watercourse which led to a large, three-span concrete bridge. The company took up positions at each end of the bridge; the engineers' trucks were brought forward and the minelaying began. It is probable that the enemy had already mined the area for two engineers were killed by an explosion while they were working. The company returned safely and was able to report that the bridge over Wadi Schedgan was dangerous for heavy traffic. The Maoris knew the name of the bridge for it had a large signboard at each end.
The flank guard was gone in the morning and for the second time Rommel had made a skilfully timed withdrawal. Colonel Bennett was told that 5 Brigade would be remaining in the vicinity for a few days, and the battalion dug itself in on top of the escarpment.
The chase receded into the west and training took the place of building defences. Christmas Day was a happy occasion for the Maoris. Nothing much was expected for the supply line was now even longer than before the turning of the Agheila line and Cairo was over 1200 miles away. Further, rumour had it that a boat allegedly bringing a bottle of beer for every man for Christmas Day had been torpedoed.page 249
The day opened with a church parade at which Colonel Bennett wished the troops the compliments of the season and mentioned that money had been received from the Maori people which would be distributed equally as soon as it was possible to spend it. ‘Hangi’ pork and puha gathered from the wadis in the area was the highlight of Christmas dinner and was followed by tinned fruit, cigarettes, a gift parcel from the Patriotic Fund, and letters from home. And the boat bringing the beer had not been sunk after all.
The North African variety of puha was not a total success; Captain Pene, who was responsible for its discovery and collection, reminisces:
All dixies were commandeered to boil the stuff in (allowing for numerous returns) but, on boiling, the dam stuff smelt like hell—it simply stank. But considering that the only eatables we've had for weeks resembling ‘greens’ were dehydrated potatoes and carrot we tucked into the so called puha smell or no smell. I fully expected the troops (and myself) to have stomach complaints but we had none. Mind you, I put this down to the fact that said stomachs, having endured hard rations since Alamein were probably cast iron by Nofilia.
Life was taken very easily for a little while and the footballs were much in evidence. The 21st Battalion was soundly trounced and the unbeaten Divisional Petrol Company team met its Waterloo, 6–5. The third New Year's Eve away from home passed quietly.
The Maori camp was astir early on 1 January—bivvies were struck, slit trenches filled in, and the unit ready to move before 9 a.m. Life is like that on active service—periods of leisure punctuated by periods of intense activity, sometimes through enemy action, sometimes in preparation for a fight, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. On this occasion the Air Force needed forward landing grounds.
The distance to Tripoli was now within fighter range and our bombers needed their protection. Three days later the battalion, after battling through a hellish dust-storm, was picking up stones on an embryonic landing ground in the Hamraiet area, about 30 miles south-west of enemy-held Sirte. The whole of 5 Brigade was on the job and a very nasty one it was, in spite of the protection afforded by Bofors and a squadron of Spitfires.page 250
Enemy fighter-bombers were only a few minutes' flying time away and did their best to delay the work. You can't dig slit trenches for protection in an airstrip and the troops worked with one eye on the stones and one on a large radar outfit in a corner of the field. As soon as the radar frame began to move the men bolted for trenches on the side of the strip, but even with that warning the battalion lost seven killed and seven wounded the first day.
There was added protection the next day for the carriers were brought up and gave extra ack-ack cover, as a result of which three planes were brought down (one by fighters and two by anti-aircraft fire) for no casualties. The job was finished on the 9th when thirty-six Kittyhawks landed on the new field and the battalion, with twenty-two casualties, left thankfully to rejoin the Division. The only ones sorry to move back were 12 Platoon (Lieutenant Vercoe). They had been several miles away guarding an ammunition dump and were busily eating their way through some gazelle they had shot.
Affairs had been marching while the brigade had been detached. Sufficient supplies had been accumulated for a spring at the city seaport of Tripoli, Brilliante di Africa. Most assuredly the tables had been turned since the Maoris had taken part in the attack on Rommel's flank in the Munassib Depression only four months previously.
There was a three-hundred-mile barrier of the toughest going to be negotiated—sandy desert, rocky desert, hilly desert, terrific wadis and almost perpendicular escarpments, then the Gebel Nefusa, the bastion range of the coastal highlands. Beyond the Gebel was water, grass, trees, houses, and a very frightened Italian population.
The force was still the 51st Highlanders, 7 Armoured Division, the New Zealanders, with the Scotties on the coast and the others wide out into the desert. Opposition could be expected but every precaution to obtain surprise was to be taken—night marches, camouflaged trucks, no fires after dark, avoidance of tracks where possible, and all vehicles to be parked facing north so that the sun would not heliograph their presence off the windscreens.
The Division balanced itself, loaded up with a fortnight's rations, and began the turning movement on 15 January. Seventh Armoured Division on the right and the tanks of the Royal Scots Greys and the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry on the left led the way and conducted a running battle with page 251 opposing armour which fell back steadily; 5 Brigade in the rear had nothing to do except marvel at the nightmare country it was traversing, sometimes in open country in desert formation, sometimes through canyons in single column. By the 20th the brigade was back in the open desert again and at the head of the Division, with 28 Battalion the advance battalion. It was expected that Tarhuna at the edge of the Gebel would be defended and the Division was deploying for the attack when the place was reported empty. The road from Tarhuna over the Gebel Nefusa was traversed on the 21st, and late that night the battalion slithered down a bypass road the engineers had constructed. The Maoris were to act as local protection to the Scots Greys' tank harbour. Tripoli was only 40 miles away.
While the modern Israelites were wandering, albeit with more purpose than the tribes of Moses, through desert that would have made that leader's hair stand on end, the Highland Division was making steady progress along the coast and was also within striking distance of Tripoli. The enemy departed westwards but left a rearguard from 15 Panzer Division to see that the evacuation of the city was not interrupted.
Most of the next day (22nd) was spent in battling through soft sandy country on to the highway that led through Azizia to Tripoli, but by the amount of shelling the light armoured screen (Divisional Cavalry and 28 Battalion carriers) attracted it appeared likely that field guns and tanks would be needed to clear the way. An intercepted message indicated that the enemy did not propose to move until 7 p.m., and as nothing would be gained by trying to hurry him 5 Brigade stood by. At 8 p.m., a good hour after the suggested hour of departure, 5 Brigade, with 28 Battalion leading, began to move on Tripoli. B Company (Captain Pene) less 11 Platoon (Sergeant Kingi)14, with the carrier platoon (Captain Hayward) under command, was the advanced guard and very soon found that something had gone wrong with either the decoding of the enemy message or his movement schedule. Captain Hayward wrote:
A few yards past the 1 kilo peg the front of my carrier was struck by MMG fire which appeared to be coming from an armoured car which was moving away. We held our course down the centre of the road for a while—I can recall my first reaction to the splatter of fire striking the carrier—poor show I know—but I thought, well, if I do have to stop one to see page 252 the lights of Cairo again and rest without jumping every time a motor bike backfired I'd prefer to have it in the right shoulder instead of tummy which was in line with the MG aperture approx 12 in. × 6 in. I made the necessary adjustment—however the lights faded as we smartly ‘took to the bush’ on the right of the road. Capt Pene and I then agreed that B company would advance on the left of the road and the carriers on the right.
About a mile had been covered in good time when the noise of enemy armour moving about on the left of the advanced guard suggested caution and Pene halted the company. In the blackness ahead there were sounds of birds calling, but in New Zealand birds, with the exception of moreporks, do not make a feature of night concerts and the Maoris grinned sardonically. Captain Pene, with at least two tanks scuffling around on his flank, told CSM (Bully) Harawira15 to put up a red tracer flare, the signal that there were tanks about.
It was also the signal for a very large number of enemy automatics and machine guns to disclose an elaborate interlocking defence system and the Maoris flattened into the sand. Captain Pene considered the position: ‘After some prolonged firing by the enemy I went into a huddle with my platoon commanders and decided to go back with runner George Lawson16 and report to CO, especially re tanks on left gradually working to rear of us. Brig Kippenberger was there and informed me that they'd sent somebody to find me to come back as the enemy in front of us was larger than at first thought.’ Fifth Brigade turned itself around and went back to its bivouac area. The enemy was gone by daylight and the road to Tripoli was open.
What was to have been a stage-managed entry of the New Zealand Division into Tripoli did not go according to plan. It will be remembered that 51 Highland Division was on the right of the New Zealanders at Alamein, three months earlier and fourteen hundred miles to the east; the Highlanders were still on the right and had taken advantage of the delay at Azizia to steal a march on their rivals. Hours before the carrier platoon leading the Maoris who were leading the brigade had reached the city gates, the Scotties were in full control of Tripoli, having themselves been preceded into the city by armoured cars of page 253 11 Hussars. The column that was to have made a triumphant entry into Tripoli halted while new arrangements were made, and then, while A Company occupied the Fiat assembly works in the city, the rest of the battalion established itself in a bivouac area on the outskirts.
For the first time in months the troops were in an area where water, cool fresh water, was plentiful and everybody drank gallons of it. There were wells, dozens of windmill-operated wells, in the vicinity and the troops were able to get rid of the alkaline desert dust from their clothes and bodies. The hair on their heads took longer to clean than their bodies for it was one clotted mass through long use of water so brackish that it curdled the tinned milk that they used in their tea.
A couple of days later the battalion moved to an area about 15 miles south of the city. It was a nice spot after the arid desert—trees, mostly eucalyptus, lined the roads and the orchards of plums, apples, and almonds were in full bloom. Smartening-up drill took the place of patrols and there was a divisional parade and march past the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Mr Winston Churchill. But from the Maori point of view the resumption of the Rugby competition, interrupted by the departure from Bardia, was the most important event of the period. The finals were played in Tripoli as General Freyberg had promised.
At one stage it looked as if the finals would be fought out by the Maori Battalion versus the Maori Battalion for it had two teams entered, but the ‘B’ team finally went down to the Machine Gun Battalion and the championship lay between the Divisional Signals and the Maoris. The deciding game was played on the divisional football ground at Castel Benito on Sunday, 14 February, and in spite of heavy rain and a strong wind was witnessed by practically the whole Division. The rain cleared before the match and the betting was slightly in favour of the Maoris. Divisional Signals won the toss and elected to play with the wind at their backs. The Maoris' team was:
Sgt H. H. Takarangi (HQ Coy)
|2 Lt. J. Smith||Cpl Taite||Cpl D. Hapi|
|(D Coy)||(HQ Coy)||(HQ Coy)|
Sgt T. Matenga (D Coy)
|Cpl H. Hohepa||L-Cpl R. Rautahi||Pte F. Henderson|
|(HQ Coy)||(HQ Coy)||(C Coy)|
|Pte Tepurei||Lt W. D. P. Wordley|
|(HQ Coy)||(HQ Coy)|
|Lt S. F. Jackson||Pte D. R. Aratema||Sgt A. Kenny|
|(C Coy)||(B Coy)||(HQ Coy)|
Referee: Rev Father J. L. Kingan
Divisional Signals had the Maoris hard-pressed nearly all the first spell and at half-time the score was 3–0 in their favour. Father Kingan was consigned by the Maori spectators to a country much warmer than Tripoli for penalising Maori offside play, and one of the consequent free kicks had gone over the bar. At the interval the Maori team changed jerseys and wore 6 Field Regiment's colours of yellow and blue—their original black and white jerseys were difficult to distinguish from the Divisional Signals' blue and white. In the second half the Divisional Signals were just as capable in defence as they had been in attack, but eventually Wordley made a break through and sent Aratema over for a try which Jackson converted—5–3. Divisional Signals came again and brought the score to 5–6 by a good goal from another infringement. The Maoris could not break the Divisional Signals' defence until, within a few minutes of time, Taite streaked away to score near the corner—8–6. The kick was not successful and, with no further score, 28 (Maori) Battalion ended an unbeaten season by becoming the champions of the Division.
Tripoli to the Maoris, unsteeped in ancient history, was just another African city since neither food nor drink could be purchased by a man with money to spend, a sand-blasted stomach and a Saharan thirst. Even if the hotels and restaurants had been in bounds the sight of a camel's head in a butcher's shop, with a donkey tethered at the door waiting his turn to go on the block, would have deterred all but the most meathungry. The esplanade along the waterfront was a pleasant place to rest while you ate the lunch you had brought with you and looked over the harbour filled with dead ships or at the modern buildings surrounded by gardens.
Another part of the city that the Maoris were to know very well was the dock area. As soon as the engineers had got the page 255 harbour working, the battalions took turn about in supplying wharf fatigues. The officers were the gang foremen and the work went on by day and by night. There were interruptions, sometimes by enemy planes but more often by unauthorised celebrations after a case containing rum had been accidentally dropped. Among the stores were hundreds of sacks of peanuts for the Indians and the troops were permitted to take home as many of them as they liked. Many bags of peanuts transformed themselves into tins of fruit by the time the working parties returned to camp. But, all the same, the ships were turned round in record time, enemy raids or no enemy raids.
2No chaplain had yet been appointed to replace Padre Rangi, evacuated sick at the beginning of September.
3Lt-Col J. C. Henare, DSO, m.i.d.; Motatau; born Motatau, 18 Nov 1911; farmer; CO 28 Bn Jun 1945-Jan 1946; wounded 23 Oct 1942.
4Capt A. F. Cooper, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 20 Oct 1919; civil servant; wounded 26 Mar 1943.
6Colonel Baker was awarded an immediate DSO in recognition of his aggressive leadership of the battalion and was later invalided home on account of his wounds.
7Capt W. Te A. Haig, m.i.d.; Ruatoria; born Waipiro Bay, Ruatoria, 14 Nov 1904; clerk.
8Lt H. P. Rangiuia; Ruatoria; born Ruatoria, 4 Jul 1914; clerk; wounded 2 Nov 1942.
9Capt K. P. Mariu; born NZ 27 Feb 1916; civil servant; killed in action 9 Jan 1944.
10WO I R. Wikiriwhi; Maketu; born Maketu, 15 Sep 1905; civil servant; wounded 23 May 1941.
11He was not long afterwards confirmed in the appointment with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, the youngest commanding officer in the Division and the first with no previous experience of peacetime soldiering. Promotion came quickly in the Maori Battalion to both officers and other ranks. It all depended on how long you kept out of the casualty lists.
12Lt G. T. Marsden, second-in-command A Company, came up from LOB and took command of A Company that night.