Story: Ngā pakanga ki tāwāhi – Māori and overseas wars

Page 5. The 28th (Māori) Battalion

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Forming the battalion

In October 1939 the government agreed to establish an all-Māori unit, the 28th (Māori) Battalion. Māori were eager to prove their equality with their Pākehā comrades as warriors and to earn the full benefits and privileges of citizenship. Even in 1939, the Māori sense of being accepted as equals within New Zealand was marginal.

The Māori Battalion was organised on tribal lines under tribal leaders. Overall command initially went to George Dittmer, a Pākehā professional soldier and First World War veteran. At first there was some resentment towards a European commander, but this was rapidly overcome by Dittmer’s professional competence and strict discipline. Later in the war the battalion was commanded by a number of Māori officers, including Lieutenant Colonels Tiwi Love, Fred Baker, Charles Bennett, Reta Keiha, Peta Awatere and James Hēnare.

The battalion trained for three months at the Palmerston North showgrounds. On 1 May 1940 approximately 780 members of the Māori Battalion left for Egypt as part of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force’s 2nd Echelon. It would be followed by 12 contingents of reinforcements and remain on active service for almost six years. The battalion was diverted to the United Kingdom for the rest of 1940, to help defend southern England.

Ake, ake, kia kaha e!

The Māori Battalion marching song became enormously popular with Māori and Pākehā audiences during the Second World War. It was composed in late 1939 by Corporal Anania (Nan) Amohau of Te Arawa. The tune was from an American university tune of the early 1900s, the Washington and Lee Swing. The song soon spread from Te Arawa to become the marching song for the whole battalion.

Into battle: Greece, Crete and North Africa

In 1941 the battalion departed from England for North Africa. From Egypt it embarked on its baptism of fire – the defence of Greece. After its first battle at Olympus Pass, the battalion made an exhausting withdrawal, evacuating to the island of Crete. In the Battle of Crete the Māori soldiers developed a reputation as feared opponents in close-quarters combat.

The battalion fought through the North African campaigns of 1941–43. It was involved in taking Sollum and Gazala in Libya, the breakout at Minqar Qaim in Egypt and the Battle of Alamein. Against great odds it captured the key features at Tebaga Gap and the Takrouna pinnacle in Tunisia. Second Lieutenant Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage at Tebaga Gap. The battalion’s hard fighting was reflected in its casualty rate: 270 dead and 815 wounded. Of its seven commanders during this period two were killed, and three wounded.

Victoria Cross controversy

In April 1943 Sergeant Haane Te Rauawa Manahi and a small group of Māori soldiers captured an enemy stronghold on the Takrouna pinnacle. Following the action Manahi was recommended for a Victoria Cross for his bravery. For reasons that remain mysterious, Manahi’s recommendation was downgraded and he was awarded the lesser decoration of the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Manahi died in 1986, but the case for his receiving the Victoria Cross was reopened by his tribe, Te Arawa, and the Returned and Services Association (RSA) in 2005. Manahi was eventually honoured in March 2007, when Prince Andrew presented Te Arawa with an altar cloth, a ceremonial sword and a letter from the Queen.

Fighting in Italy, 1943–45

The Māori Battalion’s first two battles in Italy were sobering. Its attack at Orsogna in December 1943 was rebuffed with more than 50 casualties. At Cassino two of its companies sustained horrendous casualties during a failed attack on the railway station in February 1944. Of the 200 men who started out, 128 were killed, wounded or captured. The advance on Florence came next, followed by fighting around Faenza in December, before the battalion took part in the final race to Trieste. With the exception of 270 men who were deployed to Japan as part of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, the battalion returned to New Zealand in January 1946.

The record of the Māori Battalion

Throughout the war 15,744 Māori volunteered for the armed forces, serving with distinction both at home and abroad. The total Māori population at the time was just under 100,000. More than 3,600 men, all volunteers, served with the Māori Battalion. The battalion suffered 2,628 casualties (649 killed, 1,712 wounded and 267 taken prisoner or missing), almost 50% more than the New Zealand average. The unit received 99 honours and awards, the highest number among New Zealand infantry battalions.

Read more about the battalion on the 28th Māori Battalion website.

How to cite this page:

Monty Soutar, 'Ngā pakanga ki tāwāhi – Māori and overseas wars - The 28th (Māori) Battalion', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/nga-pakanga-ki-tawahi-maori-and-overseas-wars/page-5 (accessed 20 October 2019)

Story by Monty Soutar, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 May 2016