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28 (Maori) Battalion

CHAPTER 19 — Aotea Quay

page 479

Aotea Quay

The troops returned to Palmanova late in the afternoon. The cheering crowds had dispersed; there was no enemy to be found; maybe somebody would tell the Maoris all about it soon. They went to bed.

In the morning they were on the move again, this time to Iamiano Nuovo, a small village near Monfalcone on the road to Gorizia. While they are crossing the Isonzo River, let us try to understand the position which had arisen.

The unconditional surrender of all German forces west of the Isonzo had in reality ended the war in Italy on 2 May. But the bulk of the Division was east of that river and in the border province of Istria. It had been ceded to Italy together with its seaport city of Trieste after the 1914–18 war and contained an explosive mixture of races—Italians, Austrians, and Slavs. Marshal Tito had convinced himself that both city and province rightly belonged to Yugoslavia, and the job was to convince him that he was wrong and that the disposal of Istria was a matter for the Peace Conference. He had some good arguments in his favour—four divisions and an armoured brigade, of which force two divisions were spread over Istria and the rest concentrated in and around Trieste. Our arguments consisted of the Eighth Army, a sky full of planes, and a number of warships standing off the harbour.

Tito made the first move by ordering General Freyberg to remove all New Zealand troops from Istria by the night of 5–6 May. The GOC countered by putting the Division on three hours' notice to move—forward; the Maori Battalion, on receipt of the signal ‘AUCKLAND’, would move with all speed to defensive positions already reconnoitred. The Maoris pitched their bivvies, tried to make friends with a sullen Slovene countryside and waited on events. That was the position until the night of the 7th when, as the war diary says in capital letters: NEWS RECEIVED TODAY THAT THE GERMANS HAD SURRENDERED UNCONDITIONALLY TO THE ALLIES, AT 0241 HRS 7 MAY 1945.

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Well before the first day of peace dawned the battalion was marching to the parade ground; it formed up in a hollow square and in complete silence waited the arrival of Padre Huata. The eastern sky lightened and all heads were bowed as the padre commenced—‘Kia inoi tatou’. Then, as at the end of so many campaigns, the troops sang the hymn ‘Au E Ihu’ and the first parade of remembrance was over.

While each side awaited the other's next move, two companies at a time spent three days at the beach near Monfalcone. Mussels and flat fish were abundant and were eaten in great quantities; there were even a few eels to be caught in the local streams. Kapai te kai nei. Back in the battalion lines the Maoris set about breaking down the hostility of the Slav population. The children fell first, for Te Rau Aroha, of which little has been mentioned lately but which had been close by all the time, produced unending quantities of sweets and biscuits; it was not long before the children were romping with the troops. The New Zealand Mobile Cinema Unit consolidated the gains by making local history in screening the first moving pictures shown in the district. A concert and dance on the village green, to which all and sundry were invited, breached the defences completely and thenceforth the Maoris were welcome visitors.

The climax of the argument on the occupation of Trieste drew nearer and the battalion moved up on 19 May to the steep and boulder-strewn area around Prosecco and prepared to deploy at short notice. Tito's men were digging in close by and the artillery made its preparations to blast them out if the need arose. The populace was even more sullen than at Iamiano, and in view of the tense atmosphere Brigade Headquarters ordered no more fraternisation.

Perhaps the Maori infiltration had been more successful than was realised in higher spheres, for a few days after the prohibition of entertainments a party of Yugoslavs put up a proposal that they would invite the Maoris to their functions if they, the Maoris, would reciprocate. Brigade withdrew its opposition and the battalion put on a dance every night of the week; civilians, Tito's men, and the troops were soon on the best of terms. Marshal Tito himself gradually came to the conclusion that the Peace Conference would be the right place to advance his claims, and on 9 June an agreement was signed in Belgrade to withdraw all Yugoslav troops from the disputed area east of the Isonzo River.

page 481

With the crisis past the brigade relaxed and two companies, to be followed in due course by the others, left for a fortnight's stay at the Lignano beach. Lignano was a holiday resort and the Maoris had a hotel to themselves. It was spacious and well appointed and a bare hundred yards from the sea.

∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗

Where do we go now was the question everybody was asking. Japan still had to be attended to, but many in the battalion had seen long service and were due to return home.

The policy of sending long-service men back to New Zealand and of replacing them with others drawn from industry had resulted in the return home of the First, Second, and Third Echelons and the 4th and 5th Reinforcements. Now that the war in Europe was over the 6th and 7th Reinforcements were to be withdrawn as soon as shipping became available. The 8th Reinforcements, the last of the North African veterans, were not to be involved in further fighting but the date of their return was indefinite.

In pursuance of these provisions the 6th Reinforcements, 51 all ranks, were, with suitable ceremony, farewelled on 23 May. The Sevenths, 60 all ranks, followed on 16 June, four days after the battalion had moved to the Villa Opicina area overlooking Trieste on relieving 9 Brigade. Colonel Awatere also returned with this draft and Major Henare took command of the battalion. These two officers had vowed, at the end of the African campaign, to stay with each other and the Maori Battalion while they had life in them, and it was not without a pang of disappointment that Awatere relinquished his command. In his farewell address to the troops he said that he would not rest in New Zealand until he had rejoined the unit in the Pacific.

The battalion command for service in the Pacific was:

CO: Lt-Col J. C. Henare

2 i/c: Maj H. W. Northcroft

HQ Company: Capt M. Raureti

A Company: Capt B. G. Christy

B Company: Capt J. Ransfield

C Company: Capt J. H. Waititi

D Company: Maj W. S. L. McRae

LO at Brigade HQ: 2 Lt F. Tibble

2 i/c: Capt P. A. Francis

2 i/c: 2 Lt R. Rollo

2 i/c: 2 Lt J. Hubbard

2 i/c: Lt N. Mahuika

2 i/c: Capt J. W. Mataira

Platoon commanders: Lt R. Maika, 2 Lts H. N. Job, A. Balzer and C. R. Smith. Other platoon commanders would be drawn from the training depots.

page 482

July was taken up with wharf and guard duties in Trieste, in controlling road check points, and in sporting and social activities. It was not enough to keep the Maoris busy and the adage about Satan finding mischief for idle hands to do was countered to some extent by putting all vino bars out of bounds, restricting leave for all junior officers, and by the institution of a tough training programme. Those not on duties routemarched over much of Istria.

The Division was withdrawn from the Trieste area at the end of the month and made a leisurely move to Lake Trasimene, where the Maoris were allotted an area on the western edge of the lake in sparsely settled but heavily wooded country. Here the 8th Reinforcements—19 out of an original 52—left for home.

The announcement on 15 August of the unconditional surrender of Japan solved the problem of the future of the Division and brought to an end the rumours and speculation that had been a main topic of conversation during the last few weeks. Then in early September it was announced that memorial services would be held at war cemeteries near the principal battlefields and that Crete would be visited first. Greece was not included on account of the political situation there. About one hundred all ranks who had fought on Crete, accompanied by 5 Brigade Band, a guard of honour and a choir for the consecration ceremony, would represent the Division.

There were only three Maoris who had fought on Crete—Captain W. T. Ngata, Second-Lieutenant Wahapango,1 and Private Rule2—still with the unit, but Colonel Henare was asked to detail the guard of honour, who would also act as the choir. Second-Lieutenant Wright3 and 24 other ranks from the different tribes and of the main religious denominations were selected and went into rigorous training in ceremonial rifle drill, haka, action songs and hymn singing; they emberked on HMS Ajax at Naples on 27 September and arrived at Suda Bay two days later. During the dedication ceremony, held on Sunday 30 page 483 September, Captain Ngata laid at the foot of the flagstaff a wreath from the maori Battalion with the inscription:4

he tohu aroha mo nga hoia maori i hinga ki te pae o te pakanga i runga o kirihi me kiriti

‘Kahore he aroha o tetahi i rahi ake i tenei ara kia tuku te tangata i a ia ano kia mate mo ona hoa.’ Hoani, xv. 13.

‘Hinga atu he tetekura, ara mai he tetekura.’

Whakatauki Maori

Ne te Ope Hoia Maori o Niu Tireni.

25 o Hepetema 1945

Padre Huata then farewelled the Maori dead on behalf of the Maori people.

Similar ceremonies were later held at the Cassino and Sangro military cemeteries but the men lying in smaller plots were not forgotten. Padre Huata and a small party paid the battalion's last respects to the dead at Coriano Ridge, Faenza, Forli, Padua, Monfalcone, and Udine before the Maoris left Italy.

The battalion was to return to New Zealand as a unit, but the time of its return was uncertain and with the approach of winter a move was made to barracks in Florence, lately a British rest camp.

The question of Maori representation in the occupation force for Japan was, after some correspondence with New Zealand, settled by the inclusion of 270 all ranks as D Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry Battalion commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel MacIntyre.5 There was no lack of volunteers but the squadron was restricted to single men of the latest reinforcements. The squadron's officers were:

page 484

The Maori Battalion commenced its return to New Zealand on 6 December when it entrained at Florence en route to Bari, at which place it remained until it embarked on the Dominion Monarch at Taranto on 26 December, sailing for Egypt the same night. Eighty-six all ranks from the Maori Training Depot were picked up at Port Tewfik on the last day of the year, and when the Dominion Monarch departed into the Red Sea she carried, according to the ship's paper, the Monarch Mail, 3287 passengers, 20 permanent ship's staff, 312 crew and two cats.

Fremantle was reached on 14 January 1946, and after a three-mile route march leave trains left for Perth, where a concert arranged between the Mayor and Colonel Henare by wireless was put on by sixty Maori performers. The Perth Esplanade was packed and an appreciative audience clamoured for encores; the hakas were an electrifying novelty to the West Australians.

The Dominion Monarch sailed in the morning and the troops prepared for their homecoming. There was to be a march through Wellington, a Government welcome in the grounds of Parliament Buildings followed by Maori ceremonies at Aotea Quay, but a heavy sea made the scheduled berthing at 7.30 on the morning of 23 January too hazardous for such a huge unballasted ship. She cruised backwards and forwards until the wind abated near midday and it was possible to enter the Heads with safety. The troops lining the rails watched an endless stream of cars following them from Seatoun to Karaka Bay, past Point Halswell, and around Evans Bay to Oriental Bay.

Meanwhile the march through the city had been cancelled; the Dominion Monarch anchored in the stream and an official party headed by the acting Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. W. Nash, came aboard. There were welcoming speeches over the loudspeakers while the ship came alongside Pipitea Wharf, in almost the same berth as the Maori Battalion had departed from in the Aquitania nearly six years previously.

The troops assembled on the wharf and were met at the Aotea Quay gates with all the ceremony pertaining to the return of a war party in pre-pakeha days. Anania Amohau, a returned original member of the battalion, pranced and leapt towards Colonel Henare as between them the ancient ceremony of the wero was enacted. As this was a peaceful mission the challenge was not accepted and Amohau gave way, though he still eyed the newcomers very carefully. Then followed the women raising the mouning chant, the tangi, for the men of the race who would never return; they were garlanded with greenery and page 485 beat their breasts with green twigs. Before the men could mingle with their people they had to be cleansed from the blood of their enemies and the tapu of the warrior removed by appropriate ceremony.

Hakas and action songs by the Ngati Poneke Maori Club preceded welcoming speeches by local chiefs and former commanding officers and a fitting reply in Maori and English by Colonel Henare. Then the troops moved into the quay shed and sat down to a real Maori meal.

Trains throughout the afternoon carried the Maori soldiers to a hundred welcoming maraes. The 28th (Maori) Battalion had ceased to exist.