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28 (Maori) Battalion

CHAPTER 12 — Across the Mediterranean

page 315

Across the Mediterranean

Fifth Brigade began the long trek back to Cairo on 15 May, two days after the ‘Cease Fire’ in Tunisia. Among the stream of orders regulating the departure was one to hand in all enemy vehicles that the units had acquired during the campaign. Now that their faces were turned towards safety nobody wanted spare trucks and all were handed in with the exception of one car that burst into flames and had to be abandoned. That was the story told at the car park, but it was not quite the whole story.

It will be remembered that A Company was detailed to guard a motor works in Tripoli. Among the collection of cars in the building was one eminently suitable as a company commander's runabout. An RMT sergeant looked it over and confirmed the opinion that it had been built for only one purpose—the conveyance of OC A Company about his multitudinous duties. The question of camouflage to hide its origin was being considered when an RAF guard marched up and took over the main gates of the plant. The company was to rejoin the battalion the next morning—quick action and heady staff work was indicated. A rendezvous was arranged with the RMT sergeant who was to produce a pot of paint and brushes; after dark the cooks' three-tonner was emptied and willing hands lifted the little car inside, the back cover was tied securely and the truck driven out, allegedly to bring the rations. In the morning the car, painted with fernleaf insignia and battalion serial number complete, stood in the company car park.

Before leaving Tripoli for Medenine all enemy vehicles had to be left in a special park, and OC A Company regretfully sent his runabout there in the charge of two drivers. They failed to return but reported at Medenine the next day with the little car. They had handed it in, and then had waited until dark and had stolen it back again, for they knew how attached the ‘boss’ was to his runabout. With Major Porter severely wounded at Takrouna, the car remained with B Echelon until the new order came to hand in all foreign vehicles. Clearly Ngapuhi mana would be lowered if the car fell into less worthy hands, for Major Porter had ancestry among the chiefs who led page 316 the tribe in the Ngapuhi-pakeha war in the north. Four gallons of petrol and a match ensured that nobody ever drove the Major's car again.

It is not necessary to describe the return to Egypt. It was a tedious journey. Sufficient to say that the brigade passed through Mena on 31 May and settled into what had been Base Reception Depot at Maadi. An issue of three bottles of beer per man helped the home-coming, which was also celebrated with a little Bren-gun and mortar fire.

A full muster parade was held in the morning when Colonel Keiha announced the names of 182 officers and men, practically all that was left of the original battalion, who had been selected to return to New Zealand on three months' furlough. The party, commanded by Captain Pene, was allotted separate quarters and referred to as the Ruapehu draft. The men marched out on 15 June and took with them the good wishes of the battalion. They had been away from their homes for over three years.

For the rest it was a time of complete relaxation; half the unit went on a fortnight's leave and the other half followed in due course. There was daily leave to Cairo for those who wanted it and the very minimum of camp duties for those who didn't. After six weeks of taking things very easy indeed the new training syllabus came into force; for the most part the troops were not sorry to have their comings and goings arranged for them again.

Cricket, picnics, tennis, and swimming helped relieve the boredom of the old hands going through the ‘One-stop-two’ of elementary drill and the ‘holding, aiming and firing’ exercises. With the loss of the Ruapehu draft the Maori Battalion, like all other units, had to be rebuilt form the ground up. And the foundation of all training is discipline—unquestioning obedience to orders.

The landing in Sicily of the Seventh United States Army and the Eighth British Army early in July supplied a new topic of conversation and gave more than a suggestion of the shape of things to come, for was not 2 NZ Division a foundation member of Eighth Army?

Of more immediate concern to the rank and file was the selection and training of competitors for the 5 Brigade swimming sports to be held in the Maadi Camp baths on 27 July. Seating was limited but the two hundred Maori supporters watched their champions collect 33 points, 21 Battalion 15, 23 Battalion 9, and Brigade Headquarters 3 points. More page 317 advanced training began in August; likewise the selection of NCOs and exercises by the specialist platoons. The unit failed as thoroughly at the divisional sports on 11 August, winning only the tug-of-war, as it excelled in the divisional swimming championships on the 31st, when it finished first in eight events and came second in the ninth.

September was a month of exercises conditioned to a country that included roads, hills, houses, and wooded areas in its topography; the curious coincidence did not pass unobserved that 13 Corps crossed the Strait of Messina to the mainland of Italy in the first week of September and that the Fifth United States Army had forced a landing at Salerno a week later. The Italians not only capitulated but changed sides. However, Hitler was determined to save the Italians from themselves and there was hard fighting on the new battlefields in the land of his late allies and new enemies. Such was the background to the New Zealand Division's training in operations as conducted in close country.

It was also during this period that the battalion acquired another pakeha commanding officer, for with the evacuation to hospital of Lieutenant-Colonel Keiha the Maoris had run out of officers sufficiently senior and sufficiently experienced. Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother, the new CO, was an original of 20 Battalion and had commanded other units of 5 Brigade. Previous to that he had been Brigade Major 5 Brigade for most of the 1942–43 North African campaign and consequently knew a great deal about the battalion. Major Young, another pakeha, had already marched in as second-in-command, replacing Captain Pene. Major Young had been taken prisoner with the rest of 22 Battalion at Ruweisat Ridge in July 1942 but had escaped, the only one to do so, by first mixing in with the rank and file, then by hiding behind a pile of stores until dark, whereupon he departed south into the desert. He did a 65-mile trek in four nights, hiding up by day and eventually, a walking scarecrow, passed through the Italian lines by mumbling, when challenged, what he hoped might be taken for German.

The troops said goodbye to Maadi on 19 September and marched to Burg el Arab; marched, not moved by RMT, a hundred miles from the lights, cafés, smells and noise of Cairo. More brigade training exercises were carried out. These manoeuvres were made as real as possible by way of battle inoculation for the reinforcements and were not without loss. In a night exercise a short-ranged gun firing a barrage wounded page 318 seven men and killed four. It must be remembered, poor consolation, that a large number of gunners were also learning their trade.

Early October was a time of inoculation parades, swimming, outfitting with battle dress, the enjoyment of scratch games of football and the curse of seasonal dust-storms. On the 10th the CO announced what everybody was expecting—the battalion would shortly move to a transit camp preparatory to taking ship to an officially unknown destination.

The move was to be made in three groups or flights and each group was to contain one platoon from each company—a precaution against a whole company being lost in one ship by enemy action. Nominal rolls were compiled, tents were struck, and the battalion moved to Ikingi Maryut. On the 17th the three groups were taken by MT to the Alexandria docks and went aboard the transports Llangibby Castle, Nieuw Holland, and Letitia.

The following officers, including a number of attachments, landed in Italy with the battalion:

CO: Lt-Col M. C. Fairbrother

2 i/c: Maj R. R. T. Young

Capt A. Awatere (HQ Coy)

Capt J. C. Henare (A Coy)

Maj C. Sorensen (B Coy)

Capt T. Wirepa (C Coy)

Capt P. F. Te H. Ornberg (D Coy)

Capt J. C. Reedy

Capt S. F. Jackson

Capt M. P. Swainson

Capt H. C. A. Lambert

Capt M. Wikiriwhi

Capt R. Tutaki (Adjutant)

Capt K. P. Mariu

Capt C. N. D'Arcy (RMO)

Rev W. T. Huata (Padre)

Lt G. Katene

Lt G. McDonald

Lt W. D. P. Wordley

Lt W. H. Prescott (QM)

2 Lt H. N. Tawhai

page 319

2 Lt H. W. Northcroft

2 Lt C. J. Balzer

2 Lt T. A. Pile

2 Lt P. S. Munro

2 Lt M. Raureti

2 Lt L. Paul

2 Lt K. T. Hetet

2 Lt W. P. Anaru

2 Lt R. Smith

2 Lt G. Tamahori

2 Lt Te M. R. Tomoana

2 Lt S. R. Urlich

2 Lt B. G. Christy

2 Lt J. S. Baker

2 Lt W. E. Jones

2 Lt N. Mahuika

2 Lt M. Searancke

While the troops spend four crowded and uneventful days crossing the Mediterranean let us consider how well the Division was equipped to fight on the conventional battlefields of Europe. On paper it was terrifically strong in fire power and probably, given room and roads, the most mobile division in the British Army. The infantry had been strengthened by the issue as platoon weapons of Piats (projector, infantry, anti-tank). They were very useful weapons which could, at close quarters, knock out any but the heaviest tank and would have been a Godsend in the desert. Platoons had also been provided for the first time with a wireless set, No. 38, which permitted the infantry to talk direct to supporting tanks and to get quick assistance from the artillery.

Fourth Brigade, now back with the Division as an armoured brigade, was equipped with over 150 Sherman tanks so that the Division had a striking force of one armoured and two infantry brigades. But, and a big but, the more mechanised a formation the more road-bound it is, and the old, old lesson had to be relearned—the man with the rifle and bayonet is the only answer to hills, valleys, and mud; and there was not enough of him.

Finally, in the Maori Battalion as in most other battalions, many of the earlier reinforcements still serving had migrated to the comparative safety of Headquarters Company, so that the assault companies were composed of men who had fought in Tunisia only or who had not yet been in action.

page 320

Italy came up on the horizon early on the 22nd and gradually the blurred outline solidified into the white stone houses of Taranto. The convoy formed line to enter the harbour, lately an important Italian naval base and not so long ago the proud point of departure for the overrunning of Albania and the invasion of Greece. The water was full of wrecks, and the appearance of the buildings on the waterfront indicated that the RAF had been around.

By way of digression, 2 NZ Division was not the first armour-supported force to land at Taranto. Two thousand-odd years ago Tarentum was a Greek colony, and during a war with the Romans the Greeks brought over Pyrrhus with an army to assist its defence. He landed with 20,000 infantry with support arms—archers, slingers and cavalry, plus twenty heavily armoured Indian elephants. These four-legged tanks won four costly victories, but then chariots were brought up fitted with stoves in which stones and darts were heated and used as ‘anti-tank’ missiles. Landing on the elephants' unprotected trunks, they sent them galloping back through their own lines.

The troops arriving for the new campaign in Italy were ferried to the wharf where their packs, a stupendous load normally carried in vehicles, were stacked for later transport. A six-mile march to the concentration area near Statte village did not seem far. The Maoris were almost cross-eyed from trying to look at both sides of the streets at once and return the stares of civilians and shore-bound sailors, who doubtless were comparing them with the recently departed Germans.

At Statte the Maoris found everything except a prepared camp—there were no buildings, but lots of timber stacked on the site; no sanitary facilities, but piles of latrine seats and ablution benches. The cooks' gear had still to arrive, but 25 Battalion came to the rescue with tea and a hot meal. When the packs were delivered the men pitched their bivvies and prepared against an autumn night that promised to be cold. Civilians were soon in the lines selling grapes and the product thereof, almonds and fruit, haircuts and fancy goods. In the early evening sounds of revelry indicated that the local brew was not unpalatable.

By the end of the month the camp and amenities had been organised and the troops were adjusted to the new life in Italy. It was quickly found that the CO had definite views about men overstaying their leave and the troops settled down to rigorous training in close-country tactics.

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Fifth Brigade stayed near Taranto until 18 November when the move began to join Eighth Army, 250 miles north. The route to the first staging area at Altamura was across partly flat and partly undulating country, where white stone houses clustered around every crossroad and signs were not wanting that the Eighth Army had recently passed that way. The next leg was through Foggia, little more than a flattened heap of stones, to the Lucera area, where the battalion stayed for two days in the rain and where some useful, if unofficial, patrol work was done. Several captured pigs added variety to the evening meals.

Demolished bridges and cratered crossroads were no novelty now, but the third move took the battalion over roads reminiscent of the Grecian highlands to Furci, nearly a hundred miles nearer the fighting. It rained all day and the roads were fast becoming a greasy mess. Most of the trucks could not get off the road and the troops spent another night in the rain and a day in the sun, drying out.

From Furci to the Sinello River was only seven miles, done at an average speed of two miles an hour; the congestion of traffic was almost unbelievable, heavy rain was falling again, traffic jams developed, and it was a stiff and weary battalion that made the best of a dirty night on the banks and in the riverbed of the Sinello. At that particular moment the Sinello was hardly worthy of being called a creek, but obviously it was a raging, mountain-fed river when the winter rain and snows came.

Fifth Brigade was grouped around Atessa and 28 Battalion, in brigade reserve, moved the next day on to the low hills which formed the Sangro River valley. The troops could look down on to the river itself and to enemy-held high ground on the far side about six miles away. To the west were the foothills, row on row and rising all the time to the Apennine Mountains—the backbone of Italy; to the right they could see almost to the mouth of the Sangro, where 5 Corps was endeavouring to establish a bridgehead and from where, by day and by night, came sounds of battle; overhead the RAF, based on the Foggia airfields, passed to bomb and strafe the enemy positions opposite with pleasing frequency and intensity.

Had the war been further north or the Sangro River further south, and if the Maoris had brought rods instead of rifles, good use could have been made of them. The Sangro was fairly leaping with trout.