Māori Battalion diary - May 1941


On Anzac Day 1941 over 500 members of the Māori Battalion were among 16,000 troops who reached Crete after the Allies’ failed campaign in Greece. Crete was intended to be a staging post for evacuated troops en route to Egypt. Orders changed and Crete was soon garrisoned by 42,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, Palestinian and Greek soldiers – their task, to defend Crete from the greatest airborne invasion ever attempted. The invasion commenced on 20 May and lasted 12 days. On the third day, after 5 Brigade’s unsuccessful attempt to retake the Maleme airfield, the Māori Battalion fought a gradual withdrawal all the way to the evacuation beach at Sphakia. 71 men from the Māori Battalion were among the 12,254 Allied troops left on the island to be taken prisoners. Fewer than 400 members of the unit made it back to Egypt.

Crete is an important marker in the history of the Māori Battalion. It was the place where Māori soldiers developed a reputation as feared opponents in close-quarter combat. [1] The bayonet charges at 42nd Street and Maleme showed that they were more than a match for their German counterparts and ensured that the enemy would remember and respect them. After Crete the unit received high praise from their commanders and earned the admiration of the other units who had seen the Māori in action. Witness this quote from a letter written by Private Westbrook of 18 (Auckland) Battalion: “The name Māori [was] almost a byword with the Tommies . . . their continual bayonet charges and the havoc they caused among the Jerries with cold steel earned them the name of the ‘Knife Men’.” [2]  Read about the strategic importance of Crete.


  • 1 May: Strengthening positions. System of lighting beacons adopted to reveal enemy attacks.
  • 2 May: Lt-Col George Dittmer and coy reps recce approaches to Maleme aerodrome to enable quick dispatch of troops to that area when needed.
  • 3 May: Move to occupy area at Platanias recently vacated by 23 Battalion. See map. Brigadier Hargest visited the unit in the morning.
  • 4 May: 1045 hrs Maj-Gen Freyberg (GOC) visits Battalion area and speaks to all officers and NCOs about their performance in Greece and the task that confronts them in the defence of Crete.
  • 5 May: Coys settling in and strengthening defences. 1330 hrs Lt-Col Dittmer holds conference with officers where he discusses new tasks of Battalion: a) to prevent an enemy advance eastwards, b) to assist in the defence of the aerodrome, c) to prevent a landing on beaches in its area.
  • 6 May: Lt-Col Dittmer and coy reps recce approaches to Maleme aerodrome. 1000 hrs a General Field Court Marshall under the presidency of Major Leggat of 22 Battalion sits in Battalion area.
  • 7 May: Further coy representatives conducted over the routes to the aerodrome. Companies digging in.
  • 8 May: Light training, route marches and swimming. COs' conference at Brigade HQ discusses tactics and general training. In afternoon Lt-Col Dittmer and other unit commanders attend social function at Forces HQ at Canea given by GOC in honour of the Greek officers.
  • 9 May: Strengthening positions. 10% of unit given leave.
  • 10 May: Refresher course for prospective NCOs. RSM Ace Wood chief instructor.
  • 11 May: Church services in Coy areas. Swimming one platoon per coy at a time.
  • 12 – 13 May: Training as per new syllabus. More intensive.
  • 14 May: General Field Court Marshall with Maj Humphrey Dyer as president is held at Battalion Headquarters. Training continues.
  • 15 May: Training continues.
  • 16 May: 1700 hrs Lt-Col Dittmer (CO) attends conference at Brigade Headquarters. German plan for the invasion of Crete is revealed. Counter measures detailed. Invasion expected by air 25,000 and sea 10,000. 1900 hrs Lt-Col Dittmer conveys information to his officers and instructs them to ensure all men are armed with a 100 rounds and have a slit trench in which to take cover in case of air raids.
  • 17May: Training suspended and all companies on alert for pending invasion.
  • 18 May: Padre Capt. Kahi Harawira visits coy areas and holds church services. Men on alert.
  • 19 May: 0625 hrs low level attack on Maleme aerodrome by enemy fighters. 1200 hrs, 1205 hrs, 1625 hrs, 1912 hrs, 1929 hrs further bombing raids on aerodrome.
  • 20 May: Invasion day. 0620 hrs air raids begin. Intense activity on and in the vicinity of the aerodrome. 0800 hrs it appears invasion is about to launched. The area around the aerodrome is being most intensely bombed and machine-gunned by countless planes of all kinds. Clouds of dust are rising high into the sky turning the whole area into a real inferno of flying dust and metal and visibility is reduced almost to zero. 0830 hrs in the midst of all this pandemonium paratroops are dropped. 0915 hrs we estimate between 800 – 1000 troops have landed around the aerodrome with about the same number dropped in the Aghya Valley. 1030 hrs one troop carrying plane effects a landing opposite D Coy lines and is set on fire. These enormous black troop carrier planes are circling round and round the beach and above the aerodrome seeking landing places. 1130 hrs glider lands 200 yards ahead of burning plane. Parachutists making for house near beach. Evidently this had previously been decided upon as some sort of HQ as those parachutists who are landing in the area all seem to make for it. Artillery fire is directed on the house and several direct hits are scored. 1430 hrs 13 Platoon C Coy led by 2/Lt Arnold Reedy and 17 Platoon D Coy led by 2/Lt Rangi Logan, all under direction of Capt. Fred Baker, move out to mop up enemy activity in vicinity of beach house. 1740 hrs some of men from Capt Baker’s patrol report back at D Coy area with prisoners – two officers & eight other ranks. 1800 hrs rest of patrol returns and reports success with approximately 12 enemy killed while patrol had two wounded – Pte Pomare Kutia slightly and Pte Karu (Fred) Crawford shot in the leg. Both men are from Tolaga Bay. Read an account of the patrol.  1700 hrs B Coy under Capt. Rangi Royal go to assist 22 Battalion at aerodrome. They travel astride the main road.
  • 21 May: 0100 hrs B Coy reach aerodrome but find 22 Battalion appear to have withdrawn from their original position so they return to Platanias. 0600 hrs B Coy returns to its own Battalion area. Capt.Royal estimates 50 enemy killed while two B Coy wounded including Pte Arthur Midwood of Rotorua.  Air attacks continue. 0950 hrs D Coy report parachutists landing in Aghya Valley. 1200 hrs a Greek civilian was blown up by one of D Coys anti-personnel mines. 1230 hrs 9 Platoon of A Coy sent out under Capt. Harding Leaf to patrol Aghya Valley. 1320 hrs Capt. Baker with 17 Platoon and a section of 18 Platoon under Sgt Jerry Smith, again sent to clear area around another house at beach. Read Baker's account.  1540 hrs parachutists dropped in Battalion area for the first time. 1600 hrs men sent into the valley to assist D Coy and to mop up the area under the following plan: RSM Wood and Battalion Headquarters personnel followed by two sections of C Coy under 2/Lt Reedy who in turn are followed by the reserve platoon of B Coy under 2/Lt Horton Stewart went down into the creek bed and swept down the valley and up onto the rise that formed the right flank of the NZ Engineers area. 1630 More paratroops were dropped along the NZ Engineers front. Our men could be seen making their way down the valley and across to help. 1825 hrs observed the adjutant - Capt. Paul Te Punga and Headquarters Coy men advancing along creek. 1850 hrs most of the paratroops dropped in D Coy area have been wiped out but our men are still searching around in the creek area. 1945 hrs when returning some men are wounded by undetected enemy machine gun post in D Coy area. Patrol out searching for this post. 2200 hrs Lt-Col Dittmer attends conference at Brigade Headquarters. Plans for counter attack on Maleme aerodrome laid out: 28 Battalion and 20 Battalion to leave at 0100 hrs to retake aerodrome. 2300 hrs Capt. Royal leads B Coy to clear Platanias River bed and secures high feature in NZ Engineers area while rest of Battalion moves to start line. B Coy to hold this feature till rest of Battalion returns from aerodrome. 2330 hrs heavy firing at sea as naval action takes place.
  • 22 May: 0100 hrs Counter attack delayed. Unaware of delay Capt. Leaf leaves the start line and is killed while leading some A and C Coy men forward.  Read accounts of Leaf's death.  0330 hrs 28 Battalion and 20 Battalion (less three of its coys which caught up an hour later) move in extended line astride main road towards Maleme. Good progress while dark but valuable time lost due to delay. Day breaks with heavy fighting in the village of Pirgos. Effective bayonet and grenade use. 1930hrs bayonet charge puts enemy to flight from hill overlooking Battalion’s defences. One killed during charge – B Coy’s Pte Richard Mason of Rotorua. However, over 100 Maori casualties, including 30 dead, since the counter attack began, the most in a single day during the war. Much enemy movement during the night.  Read an account of the counter-attack.
  • 23 May: 0615 Orders reach 28 Battalion that it is to provide rearguard as 5 Brigade returns to Platanias. 0630 2/Lt Charles Bennett leads Battalion back to Platanias. Major Dyer with an officer and a section from each coy forms the Battalion’s rearguard. 0830 forward elements of Battalion (part of B and C Coy) report to Brigade HQ and after receiving rations they man defences. 1100 hrs 80 men from 20 Battalion and 20 men under 2/Lt Gordon Ormond moved out under Capt. Baker to take over D Coy’s old positions. On arrival they find the enemy in possession of the area and abandoned the project. 1125 hrs Capt. Tiwi Love checked in and reported that Lt-Col Dittmer and his party were down in the valley leading up to the C Coy hill feature. 1400 hrs Lt-Col Dittmer, Major Dyer and rear party check in. Enemy activity all around Battalion positions, including shelling of A Coy area at 1522 hrs. 2230 hrs Battalion moved seven miles to rear position behind 4 Brigade.
  • 24 May: 0230 hrs arrive new area and sleep on side of road. 1000 hrs march over hills to area on high feature facing Platanos. Defences prepared with implements borrowed from the Australians. Lt Clay joins Battalion as new Medical Officer as Capt. Charlie Mules had been wounded during the attack on Maleme. Read Mule's account. Battalion area subjected to heavy air strikes all day but no casualties.
  • 25 May: 0600 hrs reconnaissance plane overhead followed by air attack at 0900 hrs. 1450 – 1525 hrs considerable air activity over Battalion area. 1930 hrs enemy reported to have broken through Galatos area and 28 Battalion to be ready to counter attack. 2130 hrs Battalion moves to 4 Brigade HQ. 2215 hrs Decided unwise to attempt counter-attack and Battalion returns to positions at Platanos.
  • 26 May: 0300 hrs arrive in old area at Platanos. 4 Brigade withdrew during the night. Defences strengthened. 19 Battalion passed 28 Battalion lines having withdrawn from their forward position. 0630 hrs strafing from planes. 0945 hrs A Coy in contact with enemy. 2000 hrs heavy interchange of fire between B Coy and enemy. 2030 hrs Spandau used by 12 Platoon B Coy wipes out enemy force but attracts enemy mortar attention for 20 minutes killing two and wounding one. 2230 hrs Battalion further withdraws through Kesimat to main Suda Bay road.
  • 27 May: 0400 hrs arrive at new area, bed down for night. 0800 hrs move back 400 meters to 42 nd Street. 0900 hrs aerial blitz begins, all types of planes being in evidence. 1030 hrs after being open fired on by enemy at close quarters forward coys (A, B and C) fix bayonets and charge with full vocal accompaniment. The Battalion’s casualties were 6 killed and 10 wounded while they claimed to have killed 80 Germans. Read accounts of the bayonet charge at 42nd Street.  1530 hrs large enemy forces seen advancing over hill to Battalion’s left, undoubtedly to cut our withdrawal off. 2030 hrs orders to withdraw to Stylos. Preparations for rearguard action by A and B Coys (strength 130 all ranks) under Capt Royal and Lt Ben Porter. 2200hrs Battalion begins withdrawal. Read Capt. Rangi Royals report.
  • 28 May: 0230 hrs Battalion column reaches Bertania and then 0330 hrs Stylos. 0630 hrs heavy firing as withdrawing troops meet resistance. 1030 hrs withdrawal continues. Short rest at Balli Inn, arrive 1515 hrs at Vryses, halt three hours. 1815 hrs gruelling march to Syn Anmoudari.
  • 29 May: 0300 hrs Arrive Syn Anmoudari. Due to no rations and the men not having eaten for some time. RSM Wood and foraging party sent to village to see what food was available. Two pigs and several fowls caught. Lt-Col Dittmer instructed party to pay for food if the owners are present. Two standing parties sent out to high feature overlooking village. 1300 hrs recce party moves by transport to view road to beach. They return with six trucks which they managed to salvage. One is loaded with weapons and ammunition. 1630 hrs Battalion together with rest of Brigade move out of area. Marched single file either side of the road. 1800 – 1930 hrs observed the village of Sphakia being bombed by formations of Stukas and Dorniers. These bombers flew low over us as we tried to take cover on the bare road. 2200 hrs reached end of tarmac road above Komitades village. Climbed hill on right and bedded down on fairly rocky surface. Read accounts of withdrawal from Crete.
  • 30 May: Early morning visit by enemy reconnaissance plane. 0730 hrs food cooked at Syn Anmoudari yesterday eaten here. It gives the boys a new lease of life. We stayed under cover all day. The sound of fire was quite audible behind us and it was noticeably nearer as the day wore on. 1700 hrs embarkation arrangements discussed at COs’ conference at Brigade HQ. 1800 hrs the 230 personnel from Battalion, selected to embark first, left for beach and took cover in deep valley below Force HQ. Approximately 150 remain as rear party under Maj. Dyer, with Capt. Royal as 2IC. 2300 hrs Battalion arrives at beach and rests. 0000 hrs 210 including Lt-Col Dittmer embark on HMS Nizam and 34 under Maj. Bertrand on HMS Napier.
  • 31 May: 0015 hrs arrived on board ships. 0315 hrs ships move out. 0900 hrs high level air attack on ships. 1900 hrs reach Alexandria, Egypt. Refreshments are provided for the men here. We are then taken by transport to Amyria where we arrive at 2030 hrs. We are allotted an area with tents which were already pitched by the Fifth Maori Reinforcements who had arrived in Egypt two weeks earlier. Read reflections of Crete.


Archives New Zealand = Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga.
Ref:  28 NZ (Maori) Battalion War Diary, WAII 1 1664 DA 68/1/17, pp 19-42


[1] Monty Soutar, Nga Tama Toa: the price of citizenship, David Bateman Ltd, Auckland, 2008, p. 134.

[2] J. E. J. Westbrook to his mother, 17 June 1941, MS-Papers-1407, ATL.

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