Brian Matauru Poananga was born in Palmerston North on 2 December 1924. His father, Henare Matauru Poananga, was the great-grandson of Wikiriwhi Matauru, a noted warrior of Ngati Porou, who had fought for the Crown against the Hauhau. A lawyer, Henare was a protégé of Apirana Ngata. Brian’s mother, Atareta Pareautohe Te Mataku, had been adopted at birth by the prominent Rangitane family of Tamihana Te Awe Awe, and was related to the leaders of Ngati Kauwhata, Ngati Raukawa and Ngati Porou. Brought up as a Mormon, Atareta Tamihana, or Adelaide Thompson, as she became known, gained a degree in commerce from the University of Utah. It is thought that she was called back from the United States by Ngata for the express purpose of marrying Henare.
Brian attended Bainesse School in Manawatu and Hiruharama Native School (East Cape). In 1939 he followed his elder brother, Bruce, to Palmerston North Boys’ High School, where both distinguished themselves in sport and study. Brian captained both the First XV and the First XI in his final year. Blessed with the patrician handsomeness of his parents, he had a forthright, engaging personality, coupled with a fierce determination and strong physique.
Poananga’s attempt, while a 15-year-old schoolboy, to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force on the outbreak of war in 1939 failed because of his age. Three years later, realising that he was colour-blind and not wanting to jeopardise his officer cadet training, Brian memorised, with the help of his sister Honoria, the entire set of colour plates that made up the eye test. Apirana Ngata’s call for Maori to be included in the officer cadet training scheme resulted in first Bruce (1943), then Brian (1944) enrolling at the Royal Military College of Australia at Duntroon.
At Duntroon the Poananga brothers (‘big Po’ and ‘little Po’) continued to excel at sport. Brian dominated heavyweight boxing in all three years as well as representing Duntroon in rugby, cricket and basketball. Both brothers were also selected to represent Australian Capital Territory in rugby in 1945–46. On graduation from Duntroon in 1946, Brian took up a posting as a lieutenant with Jayforce in Japan. Initially with D Squadron at Hikari under his brother Bruce, he later held staff appointments in Ozuki, Yamaguchi and Tokyo. Poananga represented the New Zealand army in rugby and cricket and was the occupation forces’ light-heavyweight boxing champion. While in Japan he met Doreen Mary Porter, a nursing sister with the British army. They married in Palmerston North, on 28 May 1949.
Brian Poananga’s first assignment back in New Zealand was as area officer in Wanganui; his eldest son was born there. After several staff and training appointments, and now with the rank of captain, he was sent to Korea as part of New Zealand’s contribution to the Commonwealth reinforcements. Serving initially as a staff officer with the First Commonwealth Division HQ, he was seconded to the Third Royal Australian Regiment in June 1952; his enthusiastic patrolling earned him a mention in dispatches.
On his return to New Zealand in March 1953 Poananga was appointed adjutant, 1st Battalion, Hauraki Regiment, based in Tauranga and shortly after was posted to the same position in the Northland Regiment in Whangarei, taking over from Bruce. In Whangarei he began his lifetime association with golf, while still playing competitive rugby and cricket. Poananga’s family by this time included another son and a daughter. Late in 1954 they accompanied him to his posting as deputy assistant adjutant and quartermaster general at the New Zealand High Commission in London.
In 1957 Poananga attended the Staff College at Camberley, having gained entrance with a scholarship that topped all other New Zealand candidates for that year. In April 1958 he was appointed chief instructor at the Tactical School, Waiouru Camp. The following year he attended an ANZUS conference in Hawaii as a guest of the United States Army. Later that year, with the rank of major, he assumed command of B Company, 2nd Battalion, New Zealand Regiment, based at Taiping, Perak State, Malaya. He led his company for months on end in some of the roughest jungle country in North Malaya, and was appointed an MBE for his services. During this time Poananga began to develop what was to become his speciality: counter-insurgency and jungle warfare. His experiments in air portability, night assaults and defensive works in jungle conditions gave B Company an enviable record. His tactical expertise and exercise writing formed the basis of counter-insurgency manuals that proved invaluable to the New Zealand Army in Borneo and, later, Vietnam.
In 1961 Poananga became a general staff officer at Army HQ, Wellington. He returned to the United Kingdom in 1964 for a brief period at the Joint Services Staff College and was then briefly stationed again at Army HQ, Wellington, as director of personnel administration, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was given command of 1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, and returned with them to Malaysia in 1965. In the anti-terrorist confrontation in Borneo and against Indonesian incursion, he put into practice the tactical skills and theories he had developed in Korea and North Malaya; he was again mentioned in dispatches.
In joint services exercises within the Commonwealth forces, the New Zealand battalion’s performance owed much to Poananga’s unorthodox use of men and machines. He delighted in outmanoeuvring his opponents (especially the British contingents) and designed elaborate schemes to foil ‘enemy’ objectives while advancing his own.
Poananga visited the Republic of Vietnam in 1966 to investigate the suitability of New Zealand infantry involvement there. The first infantry to serve in Vietnam were chosen from his battalion in 1967, and his initiative, drive, and innovation led to the contingent’s being prepared at very short notice. For his services in Borneo and Malaysia, Poananga was appointed an OBE.
On his return to New Zealand in 1968 he was appointed director of training and cadets, based at Defence HQ, Wellington. During this time he conducted a short seminar and tour on counter-subversion for SEATO. He was then appointed director of services intelligence at the Ministry of Defence. In June 1970, with the rank of full colonel, Poananga took command of the army’s largest training establishment, the Army Training Group at Waiouru. He remained in this position until the end of 1972, when he attended the Royal College of Defence Studies in London.
On his promotion to brigadier in 1974, Poananga was asked by the prime minister, Norman Kirk, to head New Zealand’s first diplomatic mission to Papua New Guinea. He succeeded in establishing New Zealand’s relations on a firm and friendly basis, and developed close working relationships and lasting friendships with many of the country’s leading figures.
On completion of his diplomatic mission in November 1976, Poananga was appointed deputy chief of the general staff and, in 1978, with the rank of major general, he became the first New Zealander of Maori descent to be appointed chief of the general staff. He guided the army through a period of major reconstruction and actively promoted a closer relationship between the regular and territorial forces and the civilian community.
Poananga retired in 1981 to his deer farm at Taupo. He served on a committee of inquiry into defence in 1985, and for a brief period was honorary colonel of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. For a time he was a serious contender for the role of governor general, but was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1988. This protracted illness ended with his death in Taupo on 5 September 1995 and he was buried with full military honours at the family cemetery at Turangarahui, near Ruatoria, East Cape. He was attended there by his wife and children, iwi representatives and a large gathering of senior military personnel. In 1997 Bruce Poananga presented the Royal Military College of Australia with a tokotoko (staff) in his brother’s honour; it is used ceremonially by the commandant when dealing with matters with a New Zealand content.