Sons of the Bishop: Charles Moihi Bennett

This article appeared in the April 1992 NZ 28 Maori Battalion Reunion booklet.    

Charles Moihi BENNETT

Born Rotorua, 27 July 1913

When Charles Bennett entered Trentham Military School he was as well prepared as any civilian could be for the roles he subsequently filled. He was 26 years of age, a graduate of both Christchurch Teachers College and Canterbury University College and a professional radio announcer - a product of Te Aute College and ipso facto a very competent Rugby man.

In January 1940 2/Lt Charles, along with his elder brother 2/Lt Tiwha and cousin 2/Lt George, became a founding member of 28 N.Z. (Maori) Battalion which was assembling at the Palmerston North Show Grounds.

Posted to his tribal company B, he participated in their intensive training programme and sailed with them to the UK and returned with them to Egypt and then on to Greece. At this stage of his career Charles was the Battalion I.O. (Intelligence Officer), and was one of those who established the practice of using Maori as a means of communication rather than laborious code procedures.

During the battle for Crete, because there was so much coming and going of units, the 'I' Section was much in demand and the I.O's responsibilities particularly onerous. The section coped admirably. Back in Egypt, as a consequence of the reorganisation necessitated by casualties, Charles Bennett was promoted to Captain and assumed the duties of Quartermaster, but not for long.

The Oct/Nov Campaign saw rather many casualties among Senior officers so Bennett was appointed Acting O.C., C. Company - the beginning of his career as a commander.

The N.Z. Division, or perhaps more correctly the British Army in the Middle East, under went a period of reassessment of the roles of its various components, or that's how it seemed to us in the most lowly positions of command, the outcome of which was that we all ended up in Syria ostensibly to thwart the Axis Forces' approach to the Suez Canal from that direction - after the fall of Stalingrad.

Stalingrad held out and the Axis Forces, so swift was their advance across the Western Desert, were now virtually within a few hours drive from Alexandria.

After a luxurious week's leave near Beirut, the Maori Battalion, the first, and as it turned out the only N.Z. unit to be so coddled, was hurrying helter skelter back to the western Desert. The N.Z. Division was back in the fray. Our 2nd C.O., Humphrey Dyer, the original commander of D. Coy who had been called back to base in Maadi, had been succeeded by Tiwi Love. The Battalion was soon back in action with a Maori in command.

Charles Bennett was at this time off on a Staff Course to further prepare him for the position he was destined to occupy. Within a fortnight of the Battalion's first action back in the Western Desert Colonel Love was killed, then Colonel Baker, who succeeded him, lasted 2 1/2 months including the battle of Alamein, before he too was evacuated wounded.

The 2 I/C of the Battalion was Major Hart who had been seconded from a sister Battalion some 3 months earlier. Although when he was wounded Baker had handed the command of the Battalion to Hart, within hours of that happening Hart was mortally wounded.

Baker was wounded Nov 2, and Hart was killed the same day. For the next 5 1/2 months the Battalion was to be commanded by Charles Bennett who had served his apprenticeship and now had the opportunity to put into effect the sum total of his training both civilian and military as C.O. of the Maori Battalion.

Bennett had taken over the command of the Battalion at a time when things were very much in a state of flux. After Alamein, though the Battalion's role had not been particularly difficult the enemy had not withdrawn as fast as Monty had predicted. There had been quite serious skirmishes which resulted in casualties, too often of key personnel. However, when the Germans did go they went and left thousands of their Italian 'friends' to be rounded up by the Allies.

Our chase westward was accelerated to keep up with what was by now an ignominious rout, the extent of which was plain to see in the masses and masses of equipment abandoned on both sides of the bitumen road. Every conceivable item of human existence was strewn along the verges of the road: immobilised tanks and trucks and motorcycles seemingly intact but out of fuel; scores of similar vehicles smashed to smithereens and scarcely recognisable; office equipment presumably the contents of an orderly room, uncharacteristically scattered untidily about. Such was the plight of the scuttling foe.

At Nofilia and on the road to Tripoli, there were some expectations of enemy resistance, but such as there was did not amount to anything serious.

The Battalion's stay of some 5 weeks in the area in and around Tripoli was very pleasant, well, comparatively so. Unlimited quantities of water, fresh and non-brackish, was a welcome change from what the troops had for so long endured, clothing and hair particularly could at long last be rid of the fine dust and grit that very limited rations of water for washing had no hope of eliminating.

In every conceivable way the Battalion was able to recuperate as it were. Tripoli was not Cairo, but the countryside was so much more like home. Units were reorganised, training continued but there were other jobs too: unloading cargo; peanuts and tinned fruit; working on the breakwater and above all the resumption of Rugby.

Until now changes in organisation and appointments of personnel at whatever level had had to be made on the run as it were. Somebody became a casualty so somebody else was appointed or as often as not just took over until such time as things could be regularised according to the book.

Roy Te Punga who had been I.O. since Minquar Qaim was now Adjutant. This meant that the C.O., who at 29 was the youngest Lieutenant Colonel in the Division, had as his right-hand man a 24 year old who like himself was a graduate of the University of N.Z. Neither the Colonel nor his Adjutant had had any peacetime soldiering, but the sum total of their experience produced an exceptional combination. The C.O.'s skills for organisation and planning were now fully utilised.

After Tripoli came the model Battle of Medenine. Our Battalion's part was planned to the last yard and every man was conscious of his part, especially the need to remain as inconspicuous as possible. The destroying of the five tanks on the Battalion front was a great morale booster, and a reward as it were for sticking to the plan so meticulously conceived and executed.

Hikurangi & Point 209

The daylight attack on the hill, later to be called Hikurangi, and its neighbour Pt 209 was a momentous occasion, unique in the annals of the N.Z. Division, probably of the British Army too. It was most spectacular. Waves of Spitfires and Hurricanes strafing at low level and squadron after squadron of tanks and all of these preceding the Infantry. The P.B.I. were booked for the evening performance. It was here too that the multi-barrelled Nebel-werfer made its appearance.

When all was over and the details of the two day battle could be seen in total, it is not surprising that there were so many awards for bravery and meritorious conduct: VC, DSO, MC, DCM, MM, they were all there, including several of the last. Some sort of record surely.

The last phase of this account of the military career of Lieut. Colonel Charles Bennett is about to be enacted. The stage is the treacherously uneven ground east of Takrouna. The curtain is timed to rise at 11 p.m. It is a late-evening performance - audience and performers have interchangeable parts so let's on with the show.

As was customary before battle the Battalion Padre Tunoa Wanoa (who had not long reverted to his civilian calling of Anglican priest, after having been commissioned as a fighting man) conducted a short but none-the-less impressive and satisfying service. At the conclusion Colonel Bennett addressed his troops, who in the circumstances were very ready to be reminded, exhorted and encouraged to perform their various duties to the best of their abilities.

The Battalion was in good spirits, but nobody anticipated or realised just how detailed was Jerry's preparation of the ground over which the Battalion was to advance - mines, booby traps, fixed lines of fire, intense mortar and shell coverage of the ground. The majority of the troops defending Takrouna were as many as one to ten in favour of the Italians, but the defence preparation would most certainly have been German.

In the confusion of the attack and during an attempt to coordinate the movements of B and C Coys, the C.O. exploded a wooden box mine and was severely wounded. As a result of these wounds Charles Bennett was repatriated and hospitalised for three years.

Back in civilian life Charles distinguished himself. In the 50's he continued his education at Victoria and Oxford Universities. He retired from the Civil Service in 1971 after having served in Internal Affairs and in Maori Affairs. He was a delegate to various Asian/Pacific Conferences, he served on various educational bodies and was always deeply interested in affairs Maori. His ultimate distinction was to serve as N.Z. High Commissioner to Malaya.

For this service he was the first non Malaysian to receive a Malayan Knighthood, but even more momentous was his investiture as a Knight of the Realm. Lt Colonel Sir Charles Bennett now enjoys a life of retirement at Te Puke.

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