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
Story of the 28th
Read through the following topics to find out more about the 28th Māori Battalion, from its formation in 1939 to its eventual disbandment in 1946.
The 28th (Māori) Battalion was part of the 2nd New Zealand Division, the fighting arm of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF) during the Second World War (1939-45). A frontline infantry unit made up entirely of volunteers, the Battalion usually contained 700-750 men, divided into five companies.
Many Māori were quick to answer the call to arms when war broke out in September 1939. In October, in response to calls from Sir Āpirana Ngata and the other Māori MPs for an all-Māori unit, the government agreed to the formation of the 28th (Māori) Battalion. After training in Palmerston North, the main body of the Battalion sailed for war in May 1940.
It was a baptism of fire in the ancient lands of the Mediterranean.The Allied defence of Greece and Crete against German attack in April and May 1941 was to end in crushing defeat. The New Zealanders suffered heavy losses, but in ferocious hand-to-hand fighting at Maleme and 42nd Street, the legend of the Māori Battalion was born.
The ordeal of Greece and Crete was followed by a lengthy period of reorganisation, training and reinforcement in Egypt. From late 1941 to early 1943 the Māori Battalion would confront Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps and Italian forces in the vast North African desert - a harsh environment of extreme temperatures, ferocious sandstorms and swarming flies.
The Māori Battalion and other New Zealand troops would spend the last two years of the war fighting the Germans in Italy. Gone was the arid, sparsely populated desert, well suited to tank battles and mobile warfare. Instead, the Māori troops would encounter mud and snow, mountains and rivers, a deeply entrenched enemy - and the warm-hearted Italian people.
Soldiers often say the reality of war is months of boredom interspersed with brief moments of terror. Much of a soldier’s time is spent behind the lines, training, ‘square-bashing’, and carrying out the many mundane tasks of camp life. Sport and entertainment kept the troops occupied, while periods of leave offered welcome opportunities for recreation and sightseeing.
Throughout the war Māori back home played an active role on the ‘home front’, serving in the Home Guard, growing food, working in essential industries and raising funds to support the war effort. Many Māori came to the cities for the first time to work in munitions and other factories, beginning the pattern of urban migration that would accelerate after the war.
The Second World War was an important event in Māori-Pākehā relations. The efforts and reputation of the Māori Battalion was a source of great pride to the wider New Zealand community. Āpirana Ngata had argued that Māori participation in the First World War was the ‘price of citizenship’ – after the Second World War it was clear that Māori had paid in full.
Each month we'll be adding a detailed account of what the 28 Māori Battalion was doing seventy years ago. These entries are based on the war diaries of the unit held at Archives New Zealand in Wellington.
Official and unofficial correspondence relating to 28th Māori Battalion