The 28th Maori Battalion has gone down in history as one of the greatest military units of World War Two.
Their exploits are legendary. Their performance in battle is full of heroism and courage to the extent they were both feared and respected by the Germans as an extremely formidable fighting machine.
During the height of the North African Campaign of 1942-43, Field Marshal Rommel was apparently asked by Adolf Hitler what the Field Marshal would require in order for his German forces to defeat the British Allies and conquer the region.
Rommel replied : “Give me a Maori Battalion … and I will conquer the world.”
In one of his dispatches at the time, the British General Freyberg wrote, “No Infantry Division had a more distinguished record, or saw more fighting, or alas had such heavy casualties than the Maori Battalion.”
They were indeed soldiers of the finest order. Unlike the other military units of the New Zealand Armed Forces during World War ll that were made up to a large extent by conscripts, those in the 28th Maori Battalion were all volunteers. There was no conscription for the Maori during World War Two.
The 28th Maori Battalion was officially formed at Palmerston North in late January 1940.
This Battalion was made up of five companies :
“A” Company were Ngapuhi from Northland. They were known as the “Gum-diggers.”
“B” Company were from the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. They were known as the “Penny divers.”
“C” Company were from the East Coast. They were called “The Cowboy’s.”
“D” Company were from Wairoa south including the South Island. They were the “Ngati-walk-abouts.”
“HQ” Company contained recruits from all over. They were called “The odds and sods.”
While the Maori of New Zealand were accepted into the Armed Forces on a voluntary basis, those men of Pacific Islands origin were prohibited from joining up to any aspect of the military.
However, several young Pacific Island’s men managed to “bluff” their way through the recruiting process and so joined up with the 28th Maori Battalion by claiming to be of New Zealand Maori descent.
Two such Pacific Islanders were brothers Eric and Ru Henry. They were from Aitutaki.
Their father was Geoffrey (Tiavare) Henry. Their mother was Metua Grace Ru Kamire (Ngati Kamire).
During the early 1920s, Geoffrey Henry, who had previously qualified as a school teacher from the LMS Training College in Sydney, was based on Rarotonga where he was the Government Interpreter for the New Zealand Colonial Administration.
However, during the mid-1920s, the New Zealand Government could not find a suitable person in New Zealand who was prepared to be the Resident Agent on Pukapuka.
During these years, Pukapuka was an extremely isolated island. There was hardly any ship contact between Pukapuka and Rarotonga. The main contact this island had was by boat two or three times a year from Samoa. In terms of New Zealand’s Colonial Administration, Pukapuka was indeed very much a “hardship” post. No person in New Zealand wanted the position of Resident Agent.
Out of desperation to get a New Zealand Government Official on Pukapuka, the Resident Commissioner of the Cook Islands at the time, Judge Ayson, approached Geoffrey Henry and asked him to go to Pukapuka as the Resident Agent. Geoffrey accepted the appointment and so he and his family went to Pukapuka in 1927.
Included in that family were two of his sons, Eric and Ru. These boys had their early education on Pukapuka. However, when they were teenagers in 1936 their father sent them to Te Aute College in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Apparently most of their father’s salary as Resident Agent went to pay for their boarding school education.
As it happened, both Eric and Ru finished their education in 1939 and were working on separate farms in the Hawkes Bay area when World War Two broke out. Eric later said he had heard in early 1940 that recruiting officers were in the district seeking volunteers to sign up for the newly-formed Maori Battalion.
So when he went to sign up and join the army, he told the recruiting officer that he was a “Maori from Hawkes Bay.” Brother Ru said exactly the same thing. A few weeks later Eric received his papers instructing him to report to the Papakura Army Camp, South Auckland to begin his military Training.
Ru was told to report to the Trentham Army Camp near Wellington.
On arrival at the Papakura Army Camp, Eric discovered there was two other Cook Islanders who had also “bluffed” their way into the Maori Battalion. Like he, they had also claimed to be of New Zealand Maori origin. One of them was Viking Rota from Aitutaki and the other was Willie Woodpine from Rarotonga. His real name was actually Willie Rupe.
After three months’ basic training at the Papakura Army Camp, Eric and other members of the 28th Maori Battalion travelled by train to Wellington where they joined several thousand other New Zealand Army personnel and boarded the troopship “Aquatania” towards the end of 1940.
They then sailed for the Middle East where the troops subsequently landed at Port Taufiq in the northern part of the Gulf of Suez. From there they were transported by train to the Maadi Training Camp just outside of Cairo.
Upon arrival at the Mardi Training Camp in early 1941, Eric Henry found himself in the 17th Platoon of “D” Company. The captain of this company was Eruera (Edward) Te Whiti o Rongomai Love. More commonly known as Tiwi Love.
As it happened, Captain Love was married to a woman from the Cook Islands, Takau, who was the eldest daughter of Tinirau “Makea” Ariki of Rarotonga. She was therefore destined to be the next Makea Ariki of Rarotonga upon the death of her father . . . and several years later, that is exactly what happened.
Meanwhile, Captain Love took Viking Rota to be his personal “batman.” In due course Captain Tiwi Love was promoted to be the overall Commander of the 28th Maori Battalion. However, he was killed in action and so died on the battlefield in North Africa on July 12, 1942. Lieutenant Colonel Tiwi Love was buried in the El Alamein Military Cemetery.
Ru Henry should have been on the troopship Aquatania in late 1940 when it left Wellington and headed for the Middle East. Instead, he was doing six months’ detention in the military stockade (army prison) at Trentham near Wellington after being convicted in a Military Court for striking a superior officer.
Sometime previously while being trained on an open football field by a Maori Sergeant Major, the new recruits, including Ru, had been instructed to run so many laps around the football field. As they ran, the Sergeant Major was constantly barking and yelling at the men to run faster, go harder to the extent he ended up annoying all of them.
In the end Ru had enough of this abuse and when the Sergeant Major picked on him in person by yelling out “come on Henry you black bastard . . . hurry up,” Ru left the run and went over to promptly punched the Sergeant Major in the head as hard as he could.
Question to Ru many years later : “Why did you do that?”
Ru’s answer : “He called me a black bastard . . . but he was blacker than me!”
For this offence Ru was sentenced to six months in the military stockade and so did not get to Egypt until 1942.
A short time after this, Eric, now on leave in Cairo, was told that his brother Ru had arrived in Egypt as part of the recent reinforcements from New Zealand. The person who told Eric this was Padre Huata. The reverend had known both Eric and Ru because he had been the chaplin at Te Aute College during the years the two were at school.
So Eric and several of his mates were able to get leave and then went looking for Ru. Eventually they found him in a bar where he was drinking and socialising with several of his friends who had also just arrived as reinforcements for the 28th Maori Battalion. The two men greeted each other and the 18 year old Ru asked his older brother what it was like to be on the battlefield against the Germans.
Eric told Ru that it was a terrible place to be.
Casualties in the Maori Battalion had been very high, with several of Eric’s friends either killed in action or severely wounded. Eric said it was a place of extreme hardship and suffering and that to go into battle was not a something a man would want to do to by choice.
Many years later, Eric said Ru simply had no comprehension as to what it was like on the battlefields of North Africa. In Eric’s words, he thought everything there was “like a picnic.”
It was at this point in time that Eric made a decision that he was going to do something that would prevent his younger brother from going to the front line and so be exposed to the horrors of war on the open battlefield. Eric did not want his younger brother to go through what he had already been through fighting the Germans in the middle of the North African desert.
Two military policemen had since entered the crowded bar and slowly began making their way through the crowd of drinking soldiers, on the lookout for any signs of trouble.
As they passed the table where Eric, Ru and their respective friends were drinking, Eric stood up and then deliberately belted the second passing policeman on the back of his neck, just below his helmet, as hard as he could.
This MP staggered forward and then collapsed into the back of the first MP before falling to the floor. This first MP then turned in startled amazement, firstly to see his colleague trying to pull himself up off the floor and secondly to come face to face with Eric Henry.
Before the MP could say anything, Eric called out loudly and proclaimed “It was him . . . It was him, he was the one who hit the MP,” as he pointed directly at Ru who was still sitting on his chair next to the table.
All of Eric’s friends immediately backed him up. “Yes it was him,” they all said pointing to Ru Henry as well. “He’s the one who hit the MP . . . he’s the one who did it!”
By now the fallen MP had regained his feet and the two policemen then promptly arrested Ru on a charge of striking a member of the military police.
Ru resisted arrest. He fought and struggled against the two MPs. But no-one stepped into assist him.
As the two MPs manhandled a resisting Ru Henry out of the premises, he called back to Eric and said :
“I know why you did it brother . . . but it won’t work, you’re not going to keep me out of the war.”
However Eric’s trick did work for several months because Ru was charged and convicted not only for striking a military policeman, but also for resisting arrest. He was sent to the army stockade near Cairo and jailed for six months. So Ru Henry saw no action during the North Africa campaign.
By the time he was released and reassigned back into the 28th Maori Battalion, the North Africa campaign had all but ended. The Germans had been defeated and the Allies were on their way towards invading Italy.
It was not until the Italian campaign was well under away several months later that Eric and Ru met up once again.
During World War Two the 28th Maori Battalion suffered 1489 casualties. Of this number 32 officers and 552 men of other ranks were killed in battle. These soldiers fought in some of the most horrific battles as infantry men from Greece to Crete and then North Africa.
They fought the length of Italy with many of their number, like Eric and Ru, ending up in Northern Yugoslavia where they were assigned to guarding captured German prisoners before World War Two finally came to an end.
The 28th Maori Battalion was greatly respected and admired by all who came into contact them as being soldiers of the highest quality and finest military excellence.
Eric Henry died in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2008. He is buried in Northland, New Zealand. Ru Henry died in Auckland in 2009. His ashes are buried next to his father on Aitutaki.
Eric and Ru were the younger brothers of the first Cook Islands Premier Albert Henry.
They were therefore brothers to my grandfather.
Lest we forget.