70 years ago this month
Reconnaissance and patrols are undertaken to ready for the Battalion's attack on the Cassino railway station. The attack saw the unit suffer over 100 casualties in less than 24 hours, the heaviest of any of the New Zealand units. Read the war diary for February 1944 here
Private Tamihana Akuhata (aka Tom Akuhata Brown), who embarked with the 6th Reinforcements. He was wounded and invalided home.
Wetini Akuhata of Gisborne, born in Te Araroa 1919, parents are Wiremu Akuhata and Kararaina McClutchie. Both parents are direct descendents on genealogy of the senior line of the common ancestor Porourangi, Hamo and my fathers mothers people are connected to the Waikato Maniapoto tribe of Ngati Maru of Coromandel. As for my mother she is closely related to the Kani and Harris, Riperata, Kahutia, Heni Materoa and many others in Gisborne. So is my father which will be entered under genealogy. Speaking of my parents I did not have much to do with them as I was bought up and adopted by Tamihana Rodgers and Huhana Ryland Rodgers of Tikitiki, East Coast. They were good parents to me, they were my real parents that bought me up to manhood, always understanding. A lot of children were raised by them in their lifetime, during the slump years of hardship in the 1930s.
As I remember it was incredible for people of that time to be close together, a communal way of life, surviving but we were a lot happier then the people of today.
My adopted parents talked to me a lot about my parents saying how they use to accommodate a lot of people in their home, and my father, as I was told, was a loving person who loved children, and he himself bought up a big family of 9 to 12 children on his own after my mother passed away in 1923. Also I was told they had a beautiful home , 14 bedrooms and a church attached to the house and stables for my mothers coach, I believe when she was alive she would take the children for a ride on Sundays.
At the age of 19 war was declared between Britain and Germany (1939) at that time I was employed at the Te Puia Hotel, my boss at the time was squadron leader Tiny White, he was a pilot from WW1 and he was called up for the Armed Forces, he tried to enlist me in the airforce at the time but they were very fussy about who enlisted and my application was denied. So instead of being left out the Maori battalion was formed. I joined the 28th Maori Battalion in June 1940, I was called up for military training in Papakura camp, to me at the time it was fun joining up until the time came close for us to depart overseas, I began to think of home, the parents I loved so dearly and all I was leaving behind.
As time went on things were getting worse in Europe, at the end of July we prepared to depart, we left Papakura camp early hours in the morning for Wellington, the troop train was packed with troops, both Maori and Pakeha, we arrived in Wellington early hours the next morning and at that time I felt very hurt inside and so many of us had the same feeling. When we arrived at Wellington wharf there were hundreds of people waiting to see the departure of their loved ones, for me I had nobody come to see me off, then at that time I think back to my parents saying something to me extracted from the scripture saying “if you are lonely or in the wilderness call Jesus for comfort” and they were right from then on I had a friend.
It was a very sad moment for all of us, the Maori boys from Ngatiporou combined with others from other districts sang a farewell song say good bye to New Zealand, it was very moving, people were crying for their loved ones, the troop ship that took us overseas was a passenger liner Aquitania a four funnel liner, departing from NZ was hard to accept, as we drifted out into the channel, its like a dream to float out to this massive volume of water the pacific ocean, it took a long time to get used to it all. After a few days at sea things started to come right.
On our arrival to the coast of Sydney, Australia we joined up with the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and HMS Sydney from there our convoy called into Fremantle, from there to Port Said, we berthed at about 4:30am and it was so hot we could hardly breath, this was the month of August.
On our arrival to Maadi Camp we were told that the 28th had just arrived a few days before we landed at Port Said. Anyway we were to meet them as soon as possible to break the news from home but when they did come to see us we were horrified to see them beyond recognition, even my own brother Hauraki who was only about 9 stone, he previously weighed about 19 stone, after the evacuation of Crete they had a rough time.
Speaking to different ones of the battalion about their experience of the evacuation from Crete they expressed their horror of the situation from then I realised that I will be experiencing the same thing that happened to them.
Before I continue, while in Egypt I studied the way of these people, there are three different classes of people the high class, second and third classes which I will expand on later in the book.
For the first week we were in Egypt we had solid hard training root march, this was the order of the day, everyday, 25 miles non stop and without water, the idea was to get used to it because water is hard to get in the desert and it was hard to believe here we are going without water and back home water to waste, these were some of the sacrifices we had to go through. While in camp they selected some of our reinforcements to replace some of the battalion up in Tobruk, I missed the draft but some of my mates that went over were drafted to go, Wally Milner, Tom Piper and Bill Maurirere, and others. These 3 friends of mine were casualties in the first battle they engaged in and I was very upset to hear about it but still thinking at the time I may be next. This is what war’s all about, taking the good with the bad.
From here the word came that things didn’t look good in Europe, part of the New Zealand have to join up with the9th Army in Syria, from Cairo it took us a whole week to move up to Syria on the Lebanese Mountains, believe me the climate here is very cold indeed, snow at times, we were in high altitude. Where we camped on these mountains the peasants grew a lot of grapes on the bare rocks, and the grapes really thrived, grapes for miles along the mountains.
From Lebanon we were transferred to Beirut and it took the 2nd Brigade all day to get there, a convoy of trucks for miles climbing up the mountains to Beirut, on arrival to the top of the mountain looking down to Beirut was a long way down a winding road right to the bottom and the same thing again, grapes all the way down to the bottom of the mountain, what a beautiful sight.
On our arrival to the camp we were welcomed by the Australian division and they were glad to see the New Zealanders, we stayed there for a few weeks, during this time things in Europe were getting worse so we had to move up the desert, we were patrolling the oil pipe line from Haifa to the Turkish border, from here the word came that Tobruk had fallen to the enemy and then we were rushed back to Marsa Matruh, believe me it’s a long way to this destination, 100s of miles across the desert, we have to cross the Suez canal, the New Zealanders overnight had built a bridge across the canal but at this time rumours got around that we were coming home, instead we bypassed Cairo then onto Alexandria, then we knew that we were going up to the desert, we were travelling night and day without stopping. We reached Marsa Matruh early in the morning and the skies were hazy with Cordite smoke, I knew then that we were getting close to the battlefield.
The town of Marsa was uninhabited, not a sign of anybody, everybody had been evacuated, we settled down for a while , in the evening we were called to assemble for church service and this was the most moving time I ever experienced in all my life, to see hundreds of men assemble for mass, burial of the living person, for this reason you may not be alive again after entering the battlefield, and believe me it was a very moving moment when the whole battalion sang the hymn Au, E Ihu
Au, e Ihu, Tirohia (At me, O Jesus, look),
Arohaina iho rā (show compassion),
Whakaaetia ake au (Allow me to come),
Ki Tou uma piri ai (Within your embrace at the time of distress),
I te wā e ake ai (When these angry waves), Enei ngaru kino nei (seem to assail me),
I te wā e keri ai (When the storms),
Enei awha kaha mai (get stronger),
Tiakina mai ahau (Take care of me),
I te wā e rurea nei (when all around trembles),
Aratakakina e koe (You guide me),
Roto te marino nui (towards lasting peace),
Aua au e waiho noa (Do not forsake me),
Awhitia mai rā e Koe (would you embrace me), Hīpokina iho au (cover me),
Raro i ou parirau (beneath your wings),
Rānea tonu ana mai (There is much abundance),
Tau aroha atawhai (of your love),
Kaha ana mai ko Koe (Your strength),
Ki te muru i ngā hē (washes away all evil),
Puna o te orange (Fountain of life),
Whakahekea tenei wai (Let this water cascade forth),
Kia pupū i roto nei (and bubble from within (me),
Tae noa ki te mutunga (unto the end)
One can hear the echo across the Sahara Desert, I cried, not only me but many of us because we knew then that we may not see home again.
When night fell we moved along the coastline and we met a lot of British troops evacuating, we were told that the German troops were advancing very fast, I couldn’t understand these British troops moving backwards instead of fighting or doing something instead of running away, the Bengal Lancer Indian troops were rear guards fighting the whole German army and believe me it was a great relief to the Indian Troops when they knew we were back from Syria, nobody knew that the kiwis were back until we contacted them in the battlefield and boy were they happy when they knew it was the New Zealanders.
The next morning the battalion was preparing for the bayonet charge, at that moment we were detailed for anti-tank personnel, I was appointed as driver for the Potae, the crew I was attached with was Sgt Riri from Opotiki and 4 others, and I was really in battle, we had to protect the infantry troops, the antitank guns we took over from the Pakehas were 21lbs and they transferred them to 61lbs. Our boys had never had training with these sorts of armaments but anyway we managed all right through this battle. Talking about battle we had a front row view of the bayonet charge by the Maori Battalion, the Germans were unaware that the kiwis were back, they thought it was the poms, they advanced forward without hesitation, we could see from out guns position that they were getting closer and closer until they were about 50 yards away from the battalion, they then realised something was wrong, the Maori Battalion opened up with the haka and gave them the works with the cold steel, no doubt in my mind these boys should’ve all got the VC. Now to continue with this history of the war zone, during this time the fighting was at its highest peak , on the second day the battalion signals picked up a message from the German signals sending a message back to Germany that the New Zealand cow spankers were in the bag, they had us surrounded but at night fall the whole division were preparing to break through about midnight, I never seen such a sight, trucks moving with out lights and bumper to bumper in close formation and the infantry paved the way through the German lines with a bayonet charge in the dark, all you could hear was the cry of the German soldiers caught asleep in there bunkers and the convoys moved in after the infantry opened the way, hundreds of trucks roared in the dark and the infantry had been told each man for himself, find your way out, the next morning after we broke through what a sight, blokes hanging on to any vehicle they could get hold of and smoke for miles, the Germans thought they had us but through the determination of the New Zealand troops and cooperation we broke through the German lines.
When we stopped to check our trucks what a mess, dents everywhere, and through that move at night we lost some of our blokes and some of the ambulances, wounded blokes on the ambulances were all killed, this was very sad.
From here we retreated back to kaponga box, this was named by the Maori Battalion, we reached there early in the morning, on our arrival there were other troops there so we dug in ready for the arrival of the enemy, this time we were on detail to go out with out Potae anti tank guns on reconnaissance work, we went through no mans land, why they called it no mans land was because no vehicle of any kind can get through only by foot. During this operation we were bombarded by the German artillery long range, we scuttled back to our lines because we had no support in long range guns, after we arrived back the battalion lines were bombarded by the Germans air force bombers and from here on nothing but action, we shifted to from here not so far away to El Alamein. This was where the big push was on. The British were really preparing for the big attack, General Montgomery, General Freyberg and many other officers of theArmy were very busy. Preparation was really on every available person was on the move, big guns were placed, howitzers were placed at the rear, they were long distance range guns and then 25lb second in row and others to follow everybody was in position ready for the word to come through for attack.
Right on the dot at 10 o’clock the barrage was on, the whole desert was lifted up, the whole ground was shaken by the bombardment and the air force came over in waves of hundreds and the navy opened up from the coast line. The battle was really on, its experience I’ll never forget in my lifetime. From here my truck potae I was driving was hit and was blown to pieces, I was wounded and was sent back to the CCS (casualty clearance station), from there I was transferred to the naval hospital in Alexandria, hundreds of miles away from the war zone, on my arrival to the hospital there were hundreds of troops, British, Greeks, Poles and Maoris and many others. It was that full they cleaned me and others up and we were distributed out to different hospitals around the Middle East region, right up to Palestine and the Suez Canal, I was transferred to Sarafan, 23rd Scottish Hospital up the Suez Canal. On my arrival I looked around to see if there were some of the boys there but to my surprise I was on my own, I felt lonely for a while until I got used to the nurses from here. I was always in trouble with the scotch sister in charge of the ward, I named her battleaxe. One day she came to see me and detail me to sweep the ward out, I pretended I couldn’t understand English, the chap next to me, an aussie, I had already told him not to let on that I could speak the lingo. Until the very last day I was due to transfer to the convalescent home I spoke to her in English she just stood there and stared at me, she did not know what to say, anyway before I left we were great friends. I told her my grandfather was a scotch and she called me the sun burnt scotch, we departed in good faith.
Now to the convalescent home, I was transferred to Cavavictum, not to far from Beirut
Photo: Nga Taonga a Nga Tama Toa Trust
Story contributed by Tamihana's granddaughter Karen Akuhata