Close to 16,000 Maori registered for service and served with distinction both at home and abroad. Most served in areas such as home defence, artillery, engineering and service corps, but it is the 20% that served in the famous 28th (Maori) Battalion that is perhaps best remembered. These men established a formidable reputation as one of New Zealand’s finest fighting forces. This was highlighted by the actions of men such as Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu, Haane Manahi and Charlie Shelford, among others.
Born at Whareponga on the East Coast in 1919 into Te Aitanga-a-Mate hapu of Ngati Porou, Ngarimu was educated at Te Aute College.
He volunteered for the 28th (Maori) Battalion and left with 2 NZEF’s Second Echelon in May 1940. He was commissioned in April 1942 and became a platoon commander with C Company. On 26 March 1943 he led an attack on Point 209, at Tebaga Gap in Tunisia, destroying German machine-gun posts and repelling a fierce counter-attack. His much reduced platoon was then involved in heavy close-quarter fighting overnight; at one point Ngarimu resorted to stones as back-up to his machine gun. In the morning, as another attack on his platoon was launched, Ngarimu stood firing from his hip until killed.
Ngarimu became the first Maori to win the Victoria Cross (VC) while serving with New Zealand forces. He was awarded the VC posthumously at an official ceremony at Ruatoria in October 1943. It was an event of great significance not only for his family, hapu and iwi but for Maori as a whole.
During the Battle of Takrouna, Tunisia, in April 1943, Sergeant Haane Manahi of Te Arawa led a small band of Maori soldiers up a 300-metre-high rocky outcrop. Under mortar and machine-gun fire, they captured an enemy stronghold held by more than 300 Italian and German troops. The act was described by Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks as ‘the most gallant feat of arms I witnessed in the course of the war’. While a field marshal and three generals recommended Manahi for the VC, this recommendation was changed, and a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) was awarded instead. It is not known who made this decision and for what reasons. Read the full story about Manahi and the Victoria Cross.
Manahi was not the only member of the 28th (Maori) Battalion to be recommended unsuccessfully for a VC. Charlie Shelford’s actions at Gazala, Libya, on 14 December 1941 prompted his D Company commander, Lieutenant F.R. Logan, and platoon commander, Second Lieutenant Jim Matahaere, to recommend him for a Victoria Cross. In January 1942 Shelford was awarded the DCM instead. Logan later described Shelford as ‘our bravest’ solider, who ‘deserved recognition as such’.
While Ngarimu’s VC stands out as the ultimate achievement by Maori in battle, the Maori Battalion received 99 honours and awards (excluding ‘mentioned in dispatches’ or m.i.d.s) – the highest number among the 11 New Zealand infantry battalions, and 70% more than the New Zealand battalion average (58).
Although Maori participation is most readily identified with the 28th Battalion, many others made outstanding contributions to the war effort. A number served in the Royal New Zealand Air Force or Royal Air Force in both Europe and the Far East. Sergeant B.S. Wipiti shared the honour of shooting down the first Japanese bomber in the battle for Singapore.
Smaller numbers of Maori served in the navy or the merchant marine. Those under the legal age sometimes found the other branches of the services easier to get into. Enlistments for the army were overseen by Maori registration officers who often knew the families of those seeking to enlist and could more easily deal with under-age candidates.
Sergeant Porokoru Patapu Pohe played a part in an event that was the subject of a Hollywood blockbuster in 1963. ‘Johnny’ Pohe, of Whanganui and Ngati Tuwharetoa descent, became the first Maori pilot to arrive in England after gaining his wings in 1941. Like Ngarimu, he was a Te Aute old boy. He flew bombers over Germany before being shot down in September 1943. Imprisoned at Stalag Luft III, he was one of 76 Allied prisoners who took part in what became known as ‘The Great Escape’ in March 1944. Pohe was recaptured a few days later and executed by the Gestapo. Another 47 men met the same fate, including another New Zealander, Flight Lieutenant A.G. Christiansen.