28 (Maori) Battalion
CHAPTER 7 — Minqar Qaim
The battalion, with Captain Sorensen performing the triple functions of second-in-command, quartermaster and adjutant, left the Gazala area on 23 December and staged leisurely back to Baggush. En route a dust-storm scattered vehicles, but in spite of it eighty sacks of parcels and mail were delivered to the delighted addressees.
Christmas Day celebrations had necessarily been passed over but New Year's Eve, two days after the arrival at Baggush, made up for everything; blackout regulations were ignored and each company had a bonfire with refreshments on the side; bullets, shells, and assorted fireworks were exploding, whizzing, and whistling for miles around. The Maoris assisted with enemy flare pistols and light mortars; but, by the greatest of good luck, nobody was hurt.
There was a further distribution of parcels on New Year's Day and a cable sent to Colonel Dittmer from the Hon. P. K. Paikea, MP for Northern Maori and Minister representing the Maoris, was read to the troops by Lieutenant-Colonel Dyer:
On behalf of the united tribes of NZ I send a message of Xmas greetings to yourself and the Battalion. Wishing you and wounded men a speedy recovery. Aroha nui.
The combined Christmas and New Year dinner of hangi pork, eels, mutton-birds, cabbage, kumara and potatoes was served at the evening meal on New Year's Day, and a few days later the battalion moved by train and road back to Kabrit. There two months were spent in re-equipping, absorbing reinforcements, and training under naval instructors for seaborne landings.
The background to the preoccupation of 5 Brigade with combined operations was a plan to land a force in the Gulf of Sirte behind General Rommel's army while another motorised force went around his southern flank. The troops of 5 Brigade did not know that they had been selected for the landing; but the idea was dropped for several reasons, one of which was that Rommel unexpectedly returned to the attack until he was halted by the defences of the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line, where the position again became static. Fifth Brigade returned to the page 180 Western Desert and built a fortress area at El Adem, 20 miles south of Tobruk, but 28 Battalion remained at Kabrit and passed to the command of 4 Brigade.
It was during this period that ‘Ace’ Wood, now commissioned as a second-lieutenant, returned to be the battalion's adjutant, and Colonel Dittmer, who had formed and trained the battalion as well as leading it in its first three campaigns, paid a farewell visit before returning to duty in New Zealand. On behalf of the unit Padre Harawira expressed the feelings of respect and admiration of the officers and men for their departing commanding officer.
It was also during this period that Colonel Dyer received another request to hand over any enemy equipment that the battalion might still be holding. He compromised by delivering up two anti-tank guns and a number of automatics.
By this time the battalion had regained its vitality. Cairo was beginning to pall and cash was becoming very scarce. Little by little the word ‘Syria’ crept into the conversation. Yes, definitely the Division was going to Syria tomorrow, next week, soon. The troops were all in favour of moving somewhere for they were heartily fed up with having their tents blown down by the winter gales and eating their meals in sandstorms. And, wherever Syria was, it could not be any worse than where they were.
The problems of grand strategy have small place in a unit history and it is sufficient to mention that, in the Allied view, if the German penetration of south Russia made sufficient progress there was grave danger of a two-pronged thrust at Egypt—one from the Western Desert, where the enemy strength was building up again, and the other down through Syria. There were even wider possibilities, not excluding a German attack on India and a junction with our newest enemies, the Japanese, that made Syria a possible battleground.
The troops began to pack up on the last day of February and the following day the battalion vehicles, with the bulk of the unit stores, departed. For the move 4 Brigade was divided into two groups, road and rail, besides a small advance party from each unit. The road group was again divided into two convoys, A and B. The eighteen vehicles of the Maori Battalion, with Captain Sorensen in charge, moved in A Convoy. The route was first to Kantara, where the Suez Canal was crossed, then across the Sinai Desert that the New Zealand Mounted Brigade knew so well in the previous war, to Gaza, that they knew even better page 181 after fighting two major battles there. Beyond Gaza the desert gave gradual way to cultivations where Jews in modern dress worked among Arabs whose garments were still cut on a two-thousand-year-old pattern. On through Affula, near Nazareth, to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, thence north-east to Damascus, then north again through the Anti-Lebanon range to Baalbek and finally to the brigade area in the Bekaa valley.
The turn for the rest of the battalion came three days later. The night 2–3 March was spent in the open as all tentage had been struck and loaded on the baggage train during the day. page 182 After breakfast the troops were moved by MT to Geneifa and then by train by way of Kantara to El Kehir, eight miles south of Haifa, which was reached early the next morning. The desert had gone past in the night and the transit camp at At Tira, in the dusty grey shelter of olive trees an hour's march from the station, was a delight to the old hands and a pleasant new experience for the new ones.
Because of transport difficulties the men spent that and the following two days at At Tira route-marching through green and cultivated country by day and telling by night tales of other olive trees that had had no comfortable tents under their branches.
At mid-morning on the 7th the battalion piled into a fleet of civilian buses, leaned back in the unfamiliar luxury of comfortable seats, and admired the scenery with its varied biblical associations. At first there were farm settlements, then the wooded hills around Nazareth, glimpses of the Sea of Galilee, the rugged foothills of Mount Hermon with, wonder of wonders, a snow-capped peak in the distance, and finally about dusk the Damascus transit camp.
An early start in the morning dashed any hopes of exploring Damascus—Im el Dineh, mother of the world to the Damascenes. The last leg of the journey was in the more familiar transport of army lorries supplied by the RASC, and a after a winding route through the southern end of the Anti-Lebanon range, then north through the Bekaa valley dividing the Anti-Lebanon and the Lebanon ranges, the troops debussed at a hutment camp at Zabboud, near Djedeide, on the western side of the valley. The troops settled in and surveyed their surroundings. They were in a valley about five miles wide and sixty-five miles long, with the higher peaks of the containing ranges covered in snow. Below the snow the foothills were rocky and rough, with scanty herbage and a soil too poor to grow scrub.
In the morning Colonel Dyer lectured the battalion on the complicated military and political situation in Syria, with a potted history of the country at a rate of approximately five hundred years per minute. He told the men that the Lebanon, where they were, and Syria east of the ranges were militarily one country divided into two republics lately subject to France but now nominally independent. There had been fighting between the Vichy forces and British, Australian, and Free French troops prior to the establishment of the republics, while in the mountain regions the Lebanese and Syrians, with a long page 183 history of banditry behind them, thieved arms from either side with complete impartiality. The mountain folk were no Wog rabble but tough types whose favourite pastime was ‘knocking off’ any disliked person be he Arab, Syrian, French, or any other nationality. Less apparent, but definitely out of sympathy with the occupying Ninth Army, were the adherents to Vichy France, also numerous enemy agents actively working to overthrow the new regime.
Militarily there was no enemy nearer than Bulgaria and the Grecian islands, but Turkey was an unknown quantity and an enemy thrust either through that country or through the Caucasus between the Black and Caspian Seas would have to occupy Syria or, alternatively, make a wide detour through Iran and Iraq, with supply problems and with an active enemy entrenched on its flank. The battalion spent a few days masticating this mass of history, strategy and geography, while preparations were completed for moving into the designated battalion area.
The move was done by route march by companies, but by the 17th the whole battalion was pitching the last tents on the rough spurs of the Anti-Lebanon range, where its job was to construct part of a fortress area which would bar the path of an enemy thrust through Turkey and Syria towards Palestine and the Canal.
The job was tackled on different lines from previous assignments of a like nature—in England the troops had gone through the motions without knowing what might be expected; in Greece and Crete, strictly according to the book as interpreted by company and platoon commanders; but this time the officers and sergeants knew just what they were doing and why—they had learnt by experience in three campaigns.
However, before the work had got properly going the last blizzard of the season burst on them; heavy rain was followed by heavier gales that blew down ill-secured tents; finally, on 22 March, four inches of snow driven by a howling gale completed everybody's misery.
After the storm it was springtime in the Lebanese hills and the troops enjoyed the hard work, the plentiful rations, and the new surroundings. ‘Charlie YM’ put up his tent and opened for business; engineers brought compressors and explosives to deal with the adamantine rock; supporting arms moved in and Syrian guides were hired to conduct reconnaissance parties through the mountains to locate tracks and water-holes. The hardy mountaineers took a fancy to the Maoris and showed page 184 them secret tracks they had used themselves in their several revolts against the French.
The Maoris soon discovered that although their reputation as scroungers was high and not undeserved they were in reality mere beginners in that profession. Thieving was more of a religion than a pastime with the hill people and they gave early demonstrations of their prowess. After a hundredweight of gelignite and detonators was lifted from a truck in which men were sleeping, the story that you were likely to lose the nails out of your boots while you were wearing them did not seem so far-fetched. After that it became the usual practice to set a booby trap concocted from an Italian grenade and a trip-wire under anything movable, and odd fingers lying about in the morning suggested that the contest was not altogether one-sided.
The fact that the local inhabitants understood the Maori anxiety to retain their supplies and bore no ill will towards the setters of lethal booby traps was evidenced by a ceremonial dinner given by the Muktar of the nearby village. Nine officers representing the battalion sat down to a slight repast that began with coffee and three pheasants, followed by the complete hindquarters of a sheep. The next course was the side of a sheep garnished with entrails, and accompanied by two huge dishes of rice and four dishes of boiled greens. Dozens of rounds of bread, honey, curd, and olives were followed by a garlic salad and two cups of tea. More bread and coffee concluded a memorable effort to uphold the mana of the Maori people.
No man can do more than his best, and it was a thoroughly cowed party that learnt through the interpreter that, according to Arab custom, unless a party ate a lot they were not regarded as friendly. They had, in their hosts' opinion, done very badly, but as it was understood the English were poor eaters and matter would be overlooked. The only officer exempt from the reprimand was Lieutenant Logan who had performed gastronomic miracles. He had, through a friendship with Ali, the Muktar's nephew and interpreter, been well groomed in the etiquette of eating according to the local rules. Ali was a school-teacher, affected modern dress and spoke French, and Logan was also something of a French linguist. He alone knew that the correct way to eat rice was to take a handful, massage it gently with the fingers, then force the mass until there was sufficient showing above the first finger to flick with the thumb neatly into the open mouth. He also knew the correct thing to do from time page 185 to time was to catch the Muktar's eye, bow gravely then belch heartily, bow again and continue eating.
The upshot was that the Muktar called the village together and announced that Lieutenant Logan was as dear to him as his own son and that henceforth nothing was to be stolen from D Company area. The Muktar went on to make it clear that it was, of course, all right to theive as usual from the rest of the battalion.
Another facet of Syrian character was seen when Colonel Dyer persuaded Divisional Headquarters that a road suitable for carriers should be constructed up a steep valley into the centre of the position. The battalion supplied the labour, 5 Field Company engineers the supervision, and 700 Lebanese the material. Whole families turned out to collect the easy money and filled in the time happily rolling stones down the hillsides into the dry water course that was to carry the road. High above them were small stone sangars from which, no doubt, the mountaineers knocked off their enemies in the good old days of free tribal enterprise.
By the end of April the work was practically completed, temperatures of over 100 degrees were being recorded, and summer kit and timetable came into force. So did smartening-up drill.
The CO issued a directive concerning training, opening with an opinion that the work the battalion had been doing had not been conducive to discipline, which had deteriorated considerably. His prescription was a period of intense smartening-up drill. The troops grinned appreciatively, composed a song entitled ‘We're going to jack things up and swing the Palmerston way’, and prepared themselves for some barrack-square bashing. With Second-Lieutenant Wood as master of ceremonies and Colonel Dyer, no mean disciplinarian, both on the job, their expectations were amply fulfilled.
It was about this period that Colonel Dyer attended his first conference in 4 Brigade, where among other things battalion commanders were asked to submit a confidential report of any enemy equipment still in possession of their units. Lists of astonishing length and variety were turned in by the companies, with the transport drivers heading the field. Their trucks were rolling arsenals, for they remembered Capuzzo and had taken steps to deal with such a situation should it again become necessary. In due course a demand for the instant handing in of the equipment was received from Divisional Headquarters. Colonel page 186 Dyer demurred, feeling that there had been a breach of trust, and finally asked to be relieved of his command before being required to carry out the order. He was, in consequence, marched out to base duty at Maadi and on 13 May Major Love, the second-in-command, was appointed to command the battalion. Major F. Baker again became second-in-command.
It was a regrettable incident for Colonel Dyer (still ‘The Major’ to D Company) had taken part in every campaign and had proved himself a gallant leader. His departure did, however, pave the way for the realisation of the ambition of the Maori people that 28 (Maori) Battalion should be commanded by a Maori.
Two days later the new commanding officer addressed the battalion and stressed the need for the unit's spirit to be maintained. He concluded by asking the co-operation of every officer and man in carrying out his responsible task.
It is not suggested that the troops were chained to the arid Syrian foothills. There was local leave to Baalbek, where Divisional Headquarters was established, but once an afternoon had been spent exploring the ruins of ancient temples there was little else to do besides sampling the local brew. All leave parties had to be transported by truck and occasional organised trips were made to Damascus, where the bazaars were extensive and expensive. Evening entertainments were by way of visits by the Kiwi Concert Party, the ENSA show, ‘Girls in Uniform’, a South African entertainment party, the Crazy Gang, the 10 Corps concert party, ‘The Aristocrats’, and the NZ YMCA mobile cinema. In addition, officers and men attended various schools of instruction and military ski-ing and commando courses. The departure of Lieutenants Logan, Ormsby and Lambert, and other ranks for instruction in the operation and tactical handling of anti-tank guns also indicated an addition to the battalion's defensive strength.
With the Djedeide fortress in a reasonably advanced state and the battalion looking less like a team of navvies, a period of exercises and manœuvres commenced and culminated in a seven-day brigade exercise in practising co-operation with infantry tanks, in rapid minelaying and lifting, and the use of direct air support. The troops were back in their unit area by the evening of 26 May and for the following week spent the time cleaning arms and equipment, listening to lectures on the lessons of the exercise, and putting the finishing touches to the wiring of company areas.page 187
The battalion's next move was for a week's vacation at a ‘Change-of-air’ camp on the coast near Beirut. Practically the whole unit was taken by MT to Rayak, thence by train to Beirut, where the men found comfortable quarters, canteens, a cinema, YMCA reading and recreation tents, and sports facilities. It was a happy, carefree week with daily leave to Beirut. Leave ended officially at midnight but no questions were asked as long as the troops reported at the daily 9 a.m. parade. There were no incidents requiring disciplinary action for the men loyally obeyed the CO's injunction to uphold the mana of the Maori people. Highlights of the vacation were a social evening tendered the officers of the battalion by the matron and sisters of 3 NZ General Hospital, which had recently arrived at Beirut, and a motor trip for 105 all ranks to Tripoli.
The battalion was back in its old area by 13 June, and on the same day Major Chesterman1 marched in as OC Headquarters Company. He was the first senior officer to join the unit since it had left New Zealand and had already made afine reputation in 20 Battalion. The long, lean, smiling pakeha soon had a grip on the rather unwieldy and loosely-knit Headquarters Company.
The following day was a Sunday. After church parade the troops were addressed by the Brigade Commander, who told them that the Division was to continue its role in Syria for at least three more months. And the next afternoon word came to move back to the desert forthwith. It's like that in the Army.
Back in North Africa the Gazala line which the Maoris had helped to capture six months before was being pierced and outflanked. The night the troops returned from Beirut the inland bastion fell and the Eighth Army began to fall back to the line Tobruk-El Adem. It was hoped to hold there while reserves were concentrated for a counter-attack. To that end the New Zealand Division was recalled from Syria.
Orders to the Division were for a secret and immediate return to Matruh. Shoulder flashes and hat badges were to be removed and all unit signs on transport painted out. After two days packing and checking arms, the Maoris left Syria on the 17th and were taken by truck to Nesher, near Haifa. The men were given a hot meal, entrained immediately, and travelled throughout the night and following day. They reached Kantara by 4 p.m., marched across the canal ferry, boarded another train, then on page 188 through Amiriya and El Alamein to Mersa Matruh, which was reached at midnight on the 19th, just in time to share in an air raid.
By this time El Adem had been evacuated and Tobruk invested. The battalion was the first unit of the Division to arrive at Matruh and, apart from movement control officers, nobody in the area could have cared less. The companies dispersed and dug themselves in for what was left of the night. Further west an all-out enemy attack on the key fortress of North Africa was gaining ground. In the Division even battalion commanders knew nothing of the chaos of orders and counter-orders that Divisional Headquarters was contending with, but they did know that as formations arrived they were being shuttled around from area to area until they were becoming dizzy. The Maoris arrived on a Friday night and shifted camp on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, by which time they were quartered in a portion of an Egyptian Army barracks in B sector of the Matruh fortress. It was during this period that the unbelievable happened and Panzerarmee Afrika breached the Tobruk perimeter and then captured the port with all its garrison and supplies. There was now no further question of a counter-attack for the Eighth Army was in full retreat—with the intention, it seemed, of putting as much distance as possible between pursued and pursuer. The next effort to stop the apparently invincible Rommel would be in the Matruh-El Alamein-Qattara Depression area—if formations could be reorganised and material delivered in time.
The retreat was to be arrested by mobile hard-hitting columns which could operate between the fixed defences of the fortress areas, of which Matruh was the pivot. In the New Zealand Division this necessitated leaving 6 Brigade back at Amiriya, and the proportion of infantry to artillery was further reduced by sending back to the rear one company of each remaining battalion; consequently, on the 24th D Company with other LOB personnel returned to Maadi. The Division, moving in brigade groups, but still commanded as a division, prepared to move south into the desert and join 13 Corps, while 10 Corps defended Matruh and 30 Corps organised the positions at Alamein.
Enough of the broader canvas. The Maori Battalion, still with 4 Brigade, handed over to men of 10 Indian Division and on the afternoon of the 25th marched out to the concentration area, where it bedded down for the night. During the next day page 189 the Division took up a defensive position on a long, low ridge running in an east-west direction, with its highest point at Minqar Qaim and about 25 miles south of Matruh.
It must not be thought that the Division was preparing to fight the German Panzerarmee single-handed; there were armoured columns to the north, west and south, but communications were either faulty or non-existent and in the ensuing battle each group fought independently—and unavailingly.
The main appointments in the battalion at this time were:
2 i/c: Maj F. Baker
Adjutant: Capt A. C. Wood
IO: 2 Lt R. C. Te Punga
QM: Lt I. G. Howden
HQ Company: Maj E. R. Chesterman
A Company: Capt C. Sorensen (vice Capt W. Porter, away on course)
C Company: Capt K. A. Keiha
∗Left out of battle.
The battalion was directed into a shallow re-entrant just south of Bir Abu Batta, a small well four miles east of Minqar Qaim, and proceeded to prepare a defensive position. The troops were heartened by the sight of bomber formations flying westward, an indication that the Air Force at least was functioning to some purpose. The Maoris soon had a painful reminder that no matter how many planes you have you don't dominate all the sky all the time; low-flying enemy aircraft swooped down on them and the area was full of dust, smoke, and bursting bombs. The result, luckily, was only three men wounded.
In the early hours of the following morning the battalion was moved two miles nearer Minqar Qaim and the brigade was finally disposed in an all-round defensive position. The Maori Battalion faced north, with Battalion Headquarters near Bir Abu Shayit on top of the escarpment and the companies in the order B, right, C, centre, and A, left, about a mile forward straddling a track that came down from the north.page 190
The troops set about digging themselves in, but in the rocky ground compressors would have been needed to have made any real impression; sangars were built instead. Engineers came up and laid a minefield about five hundred yards in front; that is, due north of the Maori position. The newly-armed anti-tank platoon covered the engineers while they worked, and passed the time praying for a target even if it was only a little one. At first the platoon hoped for a tank but finished the job without the sight of even a half-ton truck.
A warning that the enemy was using British guns and vehicles had been issued, so that when twelve Crusader tanks came in from the north soon after breakfast they were kept well covered until they had proved their identity and passed on. Soon after 8 a.m. machine-gun fire was heard in the north and a thick smudge in the same direction indicated moving page 191 columns, identity unknown. As the morning wore on, heat haze and dust clouds made observation almost impossible at any distance. One approaching cloud resolved itself into vehicles rolling eastwards away from the battle and a second materialised into a hostile formation which was chased away by artillery fire.
Another large concentration loomed out of the haze at mid-day, passing in a north-easterly direction but staying a while to exchange fire with our artillery. By this time visibility was so poor that Colonel Love sent Captain Tuhiwai with three carriers to investigate and patrol the battalion front. They were some four miles north of the minefield when a shell put Tuhiwai's carrier out of action and an enemy vehicle dashed forward to collect the crew. The section reserve carrier also dashed forward to collect the crew. The section reserve carrier also dashed forward to collect the crew and won the race, whereupon the patrol returned.
In mid-afternoon another enemy formation tested the brigade perimeter, this time from the north-east or, for clarity, the right flank. The enemy bumped into 20 Battalion and a fierce artillery battle raged across 4 Brigade's front for over an hour, with A Company more than interested in the conflict. It was Second-Lieutenant Marsden's2 first command in battle:
Guns (25 pounders) of 4th Field Arty were dispersed throughout Bn area. Really magnificent exhibition given by these gunners who were hopelessly outnumbered. My platoon and that of 2 Lt J. G. Aperahama3 had sangered positions in horse shoe fashion forward fifty yards of one troop of three guns in our area. All gun crews except the officer of one were wiped out or wounded. Three men from my platoon were ordered to assist this remaining gun by passing up the ammunition and loading the gun while the officer sighted and fired. The forced inactivity was telling on the men who could do nothing but try and burrow deeper into the solid rock… The most welcome interlude of the afternoon to me was the arrival of 1 Gal Jerry can of hot tea from Jim Aperahama for my platoon. I learnt later that the Arty troop near him had left them a Benghasi burner and 10 gals of water in the gear they had to abandon.
Up to this point the Maoris had lacked employment, but at approximately 6.30 p.m. a company of infantry came down page 192 the track and debussed in front of the minefield. The forward troops could not see what was going on but Colonel Love had a good view and kept the company commanders informed. He suggested that if the opportunity presented itself he would like a few prisoners, especially officers, for questioning. The enemy was sent to ground by machine-gun fire from the escarpment. Second-Lieutenant Jackson,4 who with 14 Platoon was nearest the enemy, was becoming more and more uneasy about explosions that he could hear but could not see. He thought that the enemy was lifting or exploding the mines and was wondering what to do about it when Private Ted Wanoa5 took a hand. Wanoa had spent some time in a prisoner-of-war camp on Crete before he had broken out and been picked up by a submarine, and with a number of ‘take’6 to even up he left his sangar, taking snap shots at what he hoped might be German heads and yelling ‘Come on Jerry.’
Jackson took a section forward for the dual purpose of seeing that Wanoa did not get into trouble and of having a look at the minefield. As soon as the section could see the Germans lying in the folds of the ground its fire brought the rest of the platoon forward. In no time the whole company was racing up, followed by a very irate Captain Keiha. When he arrived on the scene some of B Company had joined in the action, there were twenty-odd Germans lying shot or bayoneted, and 14 Platoon had ten prisoners. There were no officers in the bag and Colonel Love had to be satisfied with three NCOs. The enemy party was from I Battalion 104 Lorried Infantry Regiment.
From then on until the swift desert darkness fell on Minqar Qaim, there were continual artillery duels as the enemy probed for a weak spot in 4 Brigade's perimeter but found only a very determined opposition. The New Zealand infantry had not been seriously engaged but tanks had got among 5 Brigade's transport, which had scattered beyond wireless range. Over the hundreds of square miles occupied by 13 Corps some formations had been overrun, some had retired, and a few were still fighting or prepared to fight back. Early in the day 13 Corps had decided that another battle had been lost and sent a code signal, ‘Bedstead’, to General Freyberg authorising withdrawal. Divisional Headquarters decided to ‘Bedstead’ in an orderly manner page 193 by night, but shells coming in from the east and south suggested difficulties that were emphasised at dusk by flares from all points of the compass. To retire at all, let alone at a particular time, was not going to be easy with a ring of tanks waiting for the New Zealand artillery to use up its ammunition.
Colonel Love returned at midnight from a brigade conference with his orders for the Maori part in the operation. The divisional7 plan was that 4 Brigade would fight its way along the escarpment to open a clear passage, whereupon the MT would follow and, after embussing the infantry, would lead the Division very rapidly eastwards.
Flares indicated that the first Maori position by Bir Abu Batta, as well as lower ground of the Mahatt Abu Batta on the south side of Minqar Qaim escarpment, was occupied by the enemy. The breakout route was along the escarpment between these two positions and the brigade forming-up line was about a mile west of this 500-yard neck of escarpment.
Zero hour had been fixed for half an hour after midnight and a running O Group was held as company commanders arrived in response to urgent signals. The troops were collected from their sangars and concentrated around Battalion Headquarters on top of the ridge while the transport moved to the brigade assembly area. The 19th and 20th Battalions were able to get to the start line almost on time but Colonel Love, with only half an hour to assemble his men and march much further than the rest of the brigade, was over an hour behind them. The brigade formation was an arrowhead with 19 Battalion on a two-company front as the point, 28 Battalion in column of companies on the right rear, and 20 Battalion left rear in the same formation.
The brigade moved off in bright moonlight at 1.45 a.m. (28 June) towards Bir Abu Batta. For a while there was no sound except the rhythmic crunch, crunch, crunch of boot biting into the soft sand. Training makes it second nature to march in step even when advancing into battle. The Maoris' orders were that if enemy fire opened in front they were not to break formation except to open to ten-yard intervals, but if fire came in from the right they were to go straight for it.
Suddenly one or two inquiring flares away ahead and to the left where 19 Battalion was approaching the lip of Bir Abu page 194 Batta were followed by dozens more, urgently illuminating the unexpected battleground. The Maoris were silhouetted against the light from the flares and tracer from Mahatt Abu Batta cut lanes through the moonbeams. The battalion deployed as instructed and, noting the strongpoints by the stream of tracer, dealt with them as laid down in the Manual of Infantry Training.
Second-Lieutenant Waaka,8 commanding the leading platoon, of B Company paints a vivid picture:
I called to my platoon (No. 11) to deploy and swing right and we headed straight in at the gallop. We went straight through Jerry's groups of slit trenches (I always thought he grouped his trenches too closely—not more than six feet apart in this instance). Those who were not accounted for were left for the remainder of the Battalion who by now were following with the usual Maori roar and battle cry. By now ‘A’ Coy, the Ngapuhis from Northland, had swung up on our right… It was a tough job in the heat of the moment to get the boys to swing left again but we managed it… A lone Jerry suddenly jumped up not more than twenty yards in front of our line of advance and ran. He didn't run directly away but at about a 45 degrees angle to the left. The moment he was sighted which was plain enough in the moonlight, a cry went up, everyone let fly with tommy guns, brens and rifles. As the chap beside me was reloading he yelled out ‘Go for it boy!’ Well go for it he did, flat out and believe it or not he got away with at least 20 or 30 weapons firing at him. I'm sure everyone had a grin on his face. I know I did. Fairly early in the piece we ran into a truck on the back of which was posted an anti tank gun. Beside the gun a German was crouched and when he saw us coming he turned. My batman-runner Jimmy (Whiti) Ratema9 went at him with such force that his bayonet went right through him, struck the gun behind him and broke off at the nose cap of the rifle. Each officer normally carried rifles with fixed bayonets into any action as it proved more effective than the .38 pistol on issue. Ratema came back to me, showed me his rifle, threw it away and calmly took mine off me. The thought passed through my mind as to whether the QM would believe my batman's story when the time came to explain its loss.page 195
The Ngapuhis referred to by Lieutenant Waaka had much the same experience on the right of B Company. Lieutenant Marsden writes:
I can still see Lt Hupa Hamiora10 out in front of B Coy prancing, leaping and yelling as he led that famous haka Ka mate! Ka mate! No opposition was met by A Coy. We passed clean through the enemy defences (not manned), arty and troop carrying vehicles. The drivers of these were in bed either on or under their vehicles.
When there was no more opposition the red, white, green success signal was shot into the dusty sky and the brigade sorted itself out and re-formed. There were no prisoners to worry about and the men with reddened bayonets cleaned them in the sand while waiting the arrival of transport. A watchful eye was kept on the rear and flank in case of counter-attack, but the first battalion of Rifle Regiment 104 had been practically annihilated by 19 and 20 Battalions and the few survivors were heading due north as fast as their trucks could carry them.
Defensive fire was still coming in from the south and the troops lay on the sand listening to the rumble of transport grow to a roar as the trucks, carriers, guns, ambulances, portées and cars came up. The troops embussed as best they could, and as each truck was loaded it moved off independently. Men piled on to every variety of vehicle from water-carts to staff cars. Some rode on the barrels of the field guns. A truck full of Maoris passed a 25-pounder with two men riding the barrel, which was rearing like a buck jumper in the rough going. The gun jockeys were encouraged in their efforts to wriggle forward on to the ammunition trailer with yells of ‘Ride him cowboy.’
Everything went flat out until daybreak. Whenever a truck failed mechanically or blew out its tyres it was set on fire and the occupants scrambled on to the first vehicle that had room. There was a short halt at 7 a.m. for reorganisation and breakfast, but there was no breakfast for B Company because its cook-truck had been destroyed in the breakout. The men were sitting disconsolate without food or water when an old grudge against Ngapuhi was dissipated. A Company's cook-truck drove over with the remark, ‘They tell us you blokes have got no kai,’ and half the contents were handed over to their old foemen, the Arawas. A ‘take’ that started when Hongi cut a track page 196 through the bush to haul Ngapuhi canoes on to Lake Rotorua was ended in the Egyptian desert over a century later.
A course was set for the Alamein defences, which were reached at last light after a move of over one hundred miles. Sixth Brigade was now holding the Kaponga Box and 4 Brigade bedded down near by. It was some days before all the troops were collected and the battalion's casualties ascertained—five had been killed and seventeen wounded.
The breakout from Minqar Qaim was, somewhat naturally, viewed in different lights by the opposing forces: Afrika Korps' war diary mentions the bitter, defensive fighting and ends with the conclusion that ‘the encirclement was not a success.’
Colonel Love, on the other hand, ends his report, ‘altogether the show went off exceedingly well indeed.’
1Maj E. R. Chesterman, m.i.d.; born NZ 21 Aug 1914; school-teacher; killed in action 5 Jul 1942.
2Maj G. T. Marsden; Pukehou; born NZ 28 Aug 1918; school-teacher; three times wounded.
3Maj J. G. P. Aperahama; born Tolaga Bay, 9 May 1916; labourer; wounded 20 Apr 1943.
5Pte T. Wanoa, m.i.d.; Tikitiki; born NZ 11 Sep 1919; labourer; twice wounded.
6Slights and insults.
8Lt K. Waaka; Whakarewarewa; born NZ 27 Nov 1914; State Forestry worker.
9Pte J. Ratema; Whakarewarewa; born NZ 12 May 1919; labourer.
10Lt H. Hamiora; born NZ 18 Jun 1908; clerk; died of wounds 5 Jul 1942.