Forty Years On

This article appeared in the April 1984 The Battalion Remembers booklet. 

Forty Years On

Forty years on, when afar and asunder, you look back and see What you were like in your war, and your play. Follow up. Follow Up . .. Follow up. Till the fields ring again and again, With the sound of marching feet Echoing along the highways of Kent.

Yes, t'was Tumatauenga who trudged along those unyielding macadam roads of Southern England, singing their own marching song Maori Battalion as they moved along the roads which led them to the coast where the enemy threatened to invade. The version quoted is not quite what Earnest Bowen wrote about the men of Harrow, but with the passage of time one is tempted to borrow phrases steeped in nostalgia reminiscent of those far off years.

We were a happy battalion then even though the dark cloud of war hung over Britain. Our role was to patrol the south coast of England and repel the Germans wherever they attempted to make a landing. Once the air raids increased we would wait expectantly for enemy planes to fly overhead and watch our own planes soar into the sky to intercept the invaders. The skies were criss-crossed with vapor trails sketched by fighter planes as they met in combat, while below them the bombers droned ominously as they made their way through the barrage of exploding shells hurled into the sky by anti-aircraft guns. All we could do was to gaze helplessly at the scene which unfolded above us in that vast blue panorama.

At every reunion tales are retold about the valiant deeds of men and the not-so-brave episodes are subject to jest. We would hear the wag say, "Hey, remember the time the quartermaster made a run for his slit trench and a bullet ripped through his rear-end before he made the leap? 'What were some of the highlights in the platoon during those early years? One remembers the skill and courage of despatch riders during night maneuvers when vehicle lights were prohibited as they wove in and out of vehicle columns to keep contact. In fact, our first casualty in the battalion was a soldier named [Tokena] Pokai. He was from Ngati Porou and he lies in the Maidstone cemetery. Private Pokai was killed while carrying out this kind of work when a vehicle ran over him.

With increased numbers of Canadians arriving in Britain towards the end of 1940, we prepared for our next destination which was to be Egypt. We traveled on the Athlone Castle accompanied by several other ships all carrying troops and equipment destined for the desert. Our ship became the flagship for the convoy, and much to our surprise four of us were selected from the 'sigs' platoon to help Merchant Navy signallers maintain communications between the ships sailing in that great fleet.

Apart from Abe Waaka who was a trained telegraphist, Bill Lambert and Boyce Merriman were, like myself, much slower readers of morse signals. This was a fact which soon became evident to the signallers on the escort cruisers. From Liverpool to Tewfik the southern port of Egypt only lamps and flags were used at sea. Radio silence had to be observed. Messages relayed to the ships of the fleet were strung between the masts of the flagship until every vessel hoisted an answering pennant.

The voyage ended at Tewfik on the afternoon of March 3, but it wasn't until the next day we stepped ashore. People and children were dressed in what looked like nightshirts, most wearing brimless hats and many clamouring to sell us their wares. As the battalion men formed their respective platoons and companies, we were shocked to see one individual from the 'gibbet baksheesh lot' pull down his trousers and squat in full view of everyone. This almost broke the parade up as it prepared to move away from the waters edge where we had assembled. There was much derision as cries of you 'pokohohua' pierced the air after the men recovered from the disbelief of what they had just seen.

Our attention and thoughts drifted to other things. Where were all the Arab sheiks? We were aware that Egypt was an ancient land of deserts, pyramids, camels and strange buildings. Perhaps a small pyramid stood just over those barren hills beyond the town? In due course we sampled the delights and probed the mysteries of that intriguing land without straying too far away from the precints of Cairo itself. Even the camels lived near the city so that vistors would not be deprived of a ride to the pyramids on one of these 'ships of the desert', or just to have a photograph taken with one alongside the huge pyramid of Cheops. Our introduction to Egypt on that first day was exciting enough with wharf entertainers and their bags of tricks, vendors selling Egyptian cigarettes and all manners of goods, "Orangee very nice" and "Eggs-a-cook, very cheap". We continued to move, Garawi to Helwan, to Amiriya, then onto Greece.

There was a warm welcome for us in Athens. Flowers and kisses were thrown in friendly gesture as we marched to our camp at Hymettus. The Acropolis was not far away. After a brief stop we travelled on the oddest train to Katerini near Mt Olympus. The toilet facilities at the railway station at Katerini amused us as there appeared to be no seating accommodation provided, only holes sunk into a concrete pad which formed a kind of tray. One had to be alert when straddling these holes.

Around our billet at Katerini were green crops and orchards, but westwards we faced the Olympus range with its high peaks covered with snow, knowing that soon we would be heading in that direction. The country was wild and mountainous with poor roads leading to scattered villages. Our signallers had to cut tracks through mountain shrubs and trees to carry telephone wires to company headquarters. The most isolated was to a village occupied D Company at a place called Haduladhika, and noted in my record book is the following: "Laid D line. Difficult work, 11 cables used. Completed line 8.30 p.m." Dated April 4, 1941. The village became known to the Maori as "How do you like her'.

On one occasion when I had to traverse the track to check a cable fault, the chap ahead of me disturbed a snake which hurtled itself down a leaf covered forest floor towards me. With a neat side-step carried out in quick time a collision was averted but if ever there was an eyeball-to-eyeball encounter that certainly was one. In that split second when the snake slid past I comprehended the hypnotic gaze of the reptile and marvelled at the speed it was able to reach in its haste to evade me.

I shall always remember the Mavroneri Gorge with its river, ravines, wild flowers and the shepherd I met. This man of the hills who tended his flock in the mountains, often for days, wore a great heavy cape with hood which he could use as a kind of tent to protect himself from the cold wind and snow. The green lizard, dreaded by many Maoris, inhabited the ravines but because they were seen frequently the old superstitions were overlooked. Then the Germans arrived. We had been issued with two old telescopes of First World War vintage, and through these we had been able to pick up enemy movements in the valley below which fanned out near Katerini. Apart from sighting a German pilot whose plane had been hit and was trying to land in a field in the South of England, this was the first time we had an opportunity to seeing the enemy.

As vehicles moved about and troop formations became visible I felt for the first time a sense of impending danger. I refocused the telescope I held in my hands as I strove to get closer to those ant-like figures swarming in the valley below us. I wanted to see what they looked like. I knew they would soon be making their way towards the range where we waited. Spotter planes appeared and it was not long before artillery opened up.

April 16 dawned with a fairly heavy mist shrouding the mountains. Shells exploded in the forest leaving behind them a pall of acrid smoke. Young trees were scarred by shrapnel. D Coy who had moved into a position previously held by battalion headquarters was engaging the foe. We knew we would have to move quickly or end up in the hinaki as indicated by the urgent messages wirelessed in by Lieutenant Bennett. The messages were relayed in Maori. This was the first time this was done to my knowledge. None of those men who took part in the withdrawal was to forget the grim ordeal.

Both RSM Ace Wood and Lieutenant Ruhi Pene wrote in the offical history of the battalion their impressions of that terrible night. Miraculously we salvaged most of our signal equipment in the retreat from Greece because each man had clung tenaciously to whatever piece of equipment he brought out as though his life depended on it. And indeed this was proved to be to our advantage as later in Crete we were able to use some of the gear again. However, it nearly broke our hearts there to have brigade take most of the gear away for their own use as communication equipment was so scarce on the island. It was during that unforgettable night in Greece when the order was given for us to ditch our valises, greatcoats and anything which would have hindered our: progress to reach the main road. With our valises went our little treasures and worldly possessions. It seemed so bad because it was the first time such a thing had happened, but later to lose possessions we valued didn't hurt as much.

From my notes dated April 25, 1941, the following appears: "Left Greece 4.30 a.m. Disembarked at Crete. Bombed while crossing, two raiders brought down. Marched Late this evening then slept on the side of the road." The next morning as we moved through partly cultivated areas where orange trees grew, we couldn't resist picking and eating the fruit. They were not only the sweetest we had tasted but they also helped to quench our thirst and supplement our diet. We finally reached Platanias where we settled into position. After preparing our trenches we would watch people working in cultivations seemingly unaware that disaster was about to strike. They were mostly women and in many ways they reminded us of our own women as they toiled in their kumara patch at home. I heard comments from our boys: "Rite tonu hoki ki a tatou wahine, ki nga kuia o te kainga."

In the evening a trumpeter would play. The haunting sound would fill the valleys until every ear would be tuned to his melody. We wondered at the quality of sound. Would it be as sweet and beautiful tomorrow?

What we were expecting finally came on the morning of May 20. Our eyes and minds boggled with what we saw and heard. The blue waters that lapped the sandy shore were blackened by approaching planes of all shapes and sizes, some towing others until they seemed to fill the whole horizon. As they droned overhead we watched in awe as men spilled out through the doors of aircraft and floated to the ground. I had been visiting an OP and was making my way through a vineyard on my journey back to headquarters, when the main wave of Jerries came.

From this vantage point I saw and experienced the most astounding sight I have ever seen. The lumbering dark bellied formations of German planes released their deadly cargo as they flew westward towards Maleme, the nearest landing place. The air was filled with billowing parachutes of various colours, white, red, green and brown. Cannisters were hanging from some of the parachutes, while airborne troops swayed in most of the others. The foliage of the young grape bushes forming a green belt to the very edge of the airfield suddenly became dotted with colours. Almost like instant mushrooms cast from the heavens.

The collapse of Maleme airfield heralded the end for us in Crete, and yet we came so near to victory in that memorable Battle. Some men are remembered: Minarapa manning a sigs station above Platanias, Tua Sullivan killed in the famous bayonet charge at 42nd Street, Tamehana who disappeared while escorting a prisoner to brigade (I was to meet him again 30 years later). Three men drawing straws at Sfakia - Lambert, Waaka, and Mohi. I lost and became one of the so-called 'suicide squad' which had to wait for another 24 hours to be taken off the island. Major Dyer was in charge of our group, and that day as we remembered it, seemed the longest day in our lives. It was tough and go, but the good old navy came up trumps.

Nearly 9000 men were left on the island, many of them at the beach-head. We stood with fixed bayonets at Sfakia that afternoon and well into the night. Men had tears in their eyes, some cried as they pleaded to be allowed into the boarding area. They knew that this was the last night for the main evacuation. They saw the outline of the boats which were waiting to take the men to the ships and freedom. After walking all those miles over the White Mountains with little or no food they realised that they would never board those ships waiting out at sea. Discipline had to be maintained otherwise boats would have been swamped in the scramble to reach them. That was another battle we had lost.

After a rest and a spell of duty in Syria it was the western desert for the battalion. We recall Sollum, Capuzzo, Musaid, and Menastir. I will mention Menastir because it was there that Captain Love, our first Maori commander, proved his tactical ability. Love deployed the companies for all round defence and in the ambush of a German column D Coy was in the thick of it. Lieutenant Porter, who had A Coy, did some reconnaissance work before retiring to their assigned position. Maori was again used to convey messages back on radio sets as there was little likelihood that any German would understand our messages. It worked very well. The entire column was practically annihilated. the camouflage employed by the Maoris was superb. Communication was good and the total support given by other units all contributed to the success of the exercise. Private Elkington one of our signallers attached to D Coy rode around on a captured motorcycle delivering ammunition.

We each recall incidents in places like Gazala, Kaponga Box, Ruweisat Ridge, the Alamein front, and the vast desert itself but our intention was just to take a peep into the past and add a little of our unofficial history of the 28th NZ Maori Battalion. I bowed out of the fray at El Alamein knowing we had at last tasted victory after so many defeats. The tide had turned which was to take our boys to Trieste and final victory.

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