28 (Maori) Battalion
CHAPTER 10 — Medenine and Point 209
Medenine and Point 209
Let us bring the war into focus again. in June 1942 the Allies had agreed to clear enemy troops out of North Africa as a preliminary to the invasion of Europe. To this end the Eighth Army was to advance from Alamein and join at Tripoli an Anglo-American force which was to land in French North-West Africa. Tripoli had been secured by the Eighth Army according to plan but the Anglo-American Army had not been able to keep to the timetable. Rommel, after refitting his harried panzer divisions, had left the Italians holding the immensely strong Mareth line and had joined General von Arnim in an effort to delay further the advance from the west before the Allied armies could join up.
These German operations were causing some worry and to relieve the pressure Eighth Army was asked to demonstrate against the Mareth line. The New Zealand Division took no part in this reconnaissance in force, which coincided with Rommel's return to Mareth after indifferent success in the north. Soon there were indications that, before General Montgomery's preparations were complete, his adversary proposed to put in a major attack himself.
General Freyberg was asked to get his division up to the danger spot with all speed and the transition from a working to a fighting role was very sudden indeed.
The Maori Battalion's officers at the beginning of March were as follows:
2 i/c: Maj K. A. Keiha
Adj: Capt R. C. Te Punga
QM: Lieut M. P. Swainson
IO: Lt M. Wikiriwhi
Padre: Rev N. T. Wanoapage 257
OC: Maj F. R. Logan
Signal Platoon: 2 Lt G. McDonald
Anti-Tank Platoon: Capt H. M. Mitchell
Lt H. C. A. Lambert
Lt W. D. P. Wordley
Carriers: Capt E. V. Hayward
Mortars: 2 Lt G. Katene
Transport: Lt A. E. McRae
OC: Maj W. Porter
2 i/c: Capt J. C. Henare
Lt J. G. P. Aperahama
2 Lt K. Rika
2 Lt A. J. Stephens
OC: Capt C. Sorensen
2 i/c: Capt M. R. Pene
2 Lt W. P. Anaru
OC: Capt A. Awatere
2 i/c: Capt T. Wirepa
Lt S. F. Jackson
Lt W. Te A. Haig
OC: Capt J. Matehaere
2 Lt J. Smith
Lt P. F. Te H. Ornberg
At 10 a.m. on 1 March the troops were returning from a lecture by Captain Sandy Thomas1 (23 Battalion) on a subject about which he was something of an authority, ‘Prisoners of War and Escaping’; at 11.30 a.m. everybody was packing up and checking over ammunition supplies; at 7 p.m. the battalion attended a cinema show put on by the YMCA—its features were two scenic tours of New Zealand; at 11.30 p.m. 5 Brigade was embussed and it moved within the hour, its destination Medenine.
A short halt for breakfast and then the long column pushed on through Ben Gardane where dumps were being built up for the coming offensive. The coast turns sharply to the north at this point but the route was still westward to Medenine, a white-washed village of semi-nomads, the location of our most forward fighter strip, the junction of several tracks through the Matmata hills and the point at which the road itself turned north through the Mareth line to Gabes and Tunis.page 258
Allied positions at Medenine
It was too dark to deploy when the battalion reached Medenine so the troops slept around the trucks until first light, when they were put down in their allotted areas. Fifth Brigade fitted into a line previously held by a single English battalion; 28 Battalion was on the right, 21 Battalion in the centre, and 23 Battalion on the left. Later, 131 Brigade of 7 Armoured Division moved in between 201 Guards Brigade and the Maoris, and 6 Brigade deployed in reserve as it arrived.
Fifth Brigade's front was about eight miles in length, three miles of which was in the Maori sector—all gently undulating country and ideal for defensive fighting. The line faced west and south towards the Matmata hills, ten miles across a plain carpeted with tussock. Medenine lay about three miles east of the Maoris with the only prominent feature, Elephant Hill, on the right of their sector. It made a lovely O Pip and was regarded by the gunners as a special dispensation of Providence.
The final dispositions were A Company (Major Porter) right, D Company (Captain Matehaere) centre, and C Company (Captain Awatere) left. B Company (Captain Sorensen), together with some elements of 21 Battalion which had a shorter front, was in reserve. The anti-tank and anti-aircraft platoons, plus two platoons of machine guns, supplied depth to the line, which was further strengthened by twenty-four guns from 73 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA. If enemy tanks were still functioning after passing that obstacle there were four new 17-pounders and then the field guns detailed for extreme emergencies. The 17-pounders were still on the secret list; for security purposes they were called ‘Pheasants’ and were able to knock out tanks with an efficiency equalling that of the deadly German 88-millimetre. Still further back was 8 Armoured Brigade charged with the task of sealing off any penetration which enemy armour might make.
Two days and two nights passed in siting and re-siting the defences so that not a square yard of Maori ground was uncovered. The troops slept in their weapon pits, strong patrols roamed about, listening posts kept watch and carriers went out to the foot of the hills. The troops were instructed that, should an attack come in headed by tanks, they were to lie low until the anti-tank guns opened fire, for these guns had been placed well forward and were expected to deal with enemy armour before it got among them.
No mines were laid by 5 Brigade on this occasion as it was not desired to restrict the freedom of movement of the supporting tanks should they have to counter-attack. Instead, a single page 260 strand of wire stretched across the front, which included in A Company's area an eighty-yards-wide wadi sufficiently deep to give reasonable cover to tanks.
The only way to tell if a minefield is real or a dummy one is to test it, and it was hoped that if enemy armour came that way they would take the mines for granted and skirt the wire denoting the alleged field. This would lead them to rising ground covered at point-blank range by two Royal Artillery six-pounders hidden from view by a fold in the ground.
For two more days the troops watched the sun disperse the morning mists and disclose the panorama of plain and hill devoid of any moving thing; then, on the fifth day (6 March), any doubts that Rommel intended to try to roll up our line and perhaps, for the third time, send us hurrying back to Egypt were swept quite away. Thick fog had hidden the initial approach but when it lifted there they were—tanks, guns and transport had debouched from the hills and fanned out over the plain. Soon the Desert Air Force and the Luftwaffe were at each other's throats and the blue Tunisian sky was dotted with the white puffs of exploding shells.
The Maoris left the sky to the pilots and watched the approach of some forty tanks preceding dozens of loaded half-tracked troop-carriers. The tanks halted about two miles from the FDLs, the turrets opened, and the commanders swept the country with their field-glasses. Nobody interrupted the operation. After a good look the turrets were closed and the tanks filed into the wadi that led towards the Ngapuhis; the enemy infantry in their trucks waited on events. Now it remained to be seen if notice was going to be taken of the dummy minefield.
Yes! The warning wire was taken at its face value and the leaders changed direction towards the bank that was presumably the boundary of the obstruction. Anti-tank gun crews are only human, and when four tanks were presenting their silhouettes the two six-pounders came ferociously to life. Four direct hits and four knocked-out tanks. The others scampered back out of trouble, but not before the Maoris' mortar platoon had blown the tracks off another tank and worried at it until it was burning.
Once the action was opened the field guns clamped down on the enemy infantry who had debussed and were moving cautiously forward. A patrol from A Company stalked the crews of the brewed-up tanks and returned with a company commander and fourteen other ranks of 7 Regiment, 10 Panzer page 261 Division. Such was the introduction of 10 Panzer Division to the Eighth Army. It had been withdrawn from the Russian front to refit and, when the Anglo-American army invaded North Africa, had been sent to the new theatre. Maybe the war was conducted on different lines in Russia for this was the first time the Maoris had been attacked by tanks without artillery support.
The Medenine flank had no further attention beyond searching shells until late afternoon, but, by the sounds of battle coming down from the north, the Guards and 51st Highlanders were having their dispositions well tested.
The next effort to pierce 5 Brigade's line was made by approximately a thousand infantry, formed up in three waves accompanied by tanks and supported by artillery. The FOOs on Elephant Hill had been waiting all day for some such move and warned their batteries that something special was coming up. As soon as the enemy was in the desired position the guns smashed the attack before it was properly started and the forward troops never got a target for their rifles. Just before dusk the tanks came again with machine guns blazing furiously at nothing in particular, like a small boy approaching a cemetery in the dark and whistling to keep up his courage. They were soon turned back; and that, in effect, was the Maori and 5 Brigade share of the battle of medenine. The result was the same in the north: fifty-two dead tanks in all and scarcely a dent in the line.
As darkness came down on the battlefield the German infantry could be seen earnestly digging weapon pits as if they had come to stay. Colonel Bennett ordered listening posts to be established 300 yards in front of the FDLs with telephone wires laid direct to Battalion Headquarters and, as most of the enemy preparations were being made in front of A and B Companies, a platoon from each of the other companies moved into the area to thicken up the line. A night attack was considered a possibility and it is axiomatic that, in such circumstances, you use guns by day and men by night.
Sentries were doubled and before dawn every man stood to, peering into the darkness; listening posts listened all through a night that was filled with the rumble of moving transport and reported variously that the enemy was manœuvring into position to launch an attack and that he was pulling back into the hills. Patrols went out but found only a very alert covering force.page 262
The noise of moving vehicles stopped before first light and fingers tightened around triggers; machine-gunners settled themselves for the business ahead and grenade pins were tested for a smooth withdrawal. The curtain of mist rose from the plain and, except for two ex-American half-tracked vehicles and an ex-British Bren carrier, the stage was empty. The cost to the battalion for the whole operation was two concussion cases and one wounded.
While carrier patrols scoured the plains to make quite sure that nothing hostile was hidden in the wadis, the anti-tank platoon got one of the American troop-carriers running and used it for carrying spare ammunition.
The Maoris did not think much of the fight for there were no trophies of the chase—not a luger or a spandau or even a pair of binoculars. General Montgomery, on the other hand, considered Medenine the perfect example of a defensive battle in its setting, its conduct, and its outcome. He issued a congratulatory message to the troops concerned, and at an address to senior officers he dealt at length with the tactics of a battalion defensive layout and concluded: ‘I would strongly advise those of you who can to make a point of visiting the Maori Battalion area.’
A suggestion from the Eighth Army Commander was equivalent to a command and for a while the place was thick with colonels and brigadiers. At the instigation of General Freyberg the New Zealand fernleaf and the serial number of the Maori Battalion, as well as that of 73 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, were superimposed on the German markings on the knocked-out tanks.
Still another morale-raiser was a demonstration of what, under favourable conditions, the anti-tank platoon could do to enemy armour. At 400 yards both the two- and six-pounders with which the battalion was now equipped ripped holes clean through the derelicts, and the Maoris applauded as tracer shells tore through the target and soared across the plains.
At the same time as he was seeing the enemy off at Medenine General Montgomery was putting the finishing touches to his plans for the turning of the Mareth line. Like the Alamein defences, the Mareth line began at the sea coast, but there the similarity ended for, unlike its Egyptian counterpart, the French engineers who designed the Mareth fortifications had natural obstacles to strengthen. This they had done according to the best military engineering practice with concreted pillboxes and page 263 gun emplacements. The result was a thirty-mile-long system of mutually supporting strongpoints sited behind wadis, above escarpments, and among the Matmata hills. The French might justifiably have felt that they had set up an impassable barrier between French and Italian North Africa while the Italians, now in possession of the works designed to keep them out, no doubt entertained the same fallacy. For extra strength the Mareth defences had been continued west and north for another 50 miles among the ranges, thus refusing the flank as far as the Tebaga Gap where a pass through the broken country carried a road to Gabes.
Shortly put, the Eighth Army plan was to break through on the coast while the newly constituted New Zealand Corps, consisting of 2 NZ Division, General Leclerc's Free French force, 8 Armoured Brigade and attached artillery, turned the inland flank and advanced to Gabes on the coast.
In accordance with pre-battle practice LOB personnel comprising seconds-in-command of companies, with the exception of Captain Pene who went to Headquarters Company vice Major Logan, evacuated sick, and fifty other ranks went back with Major Keiha to Advanced base at Tripoli.
The departure from Medenine was to be carried out with all deceptive measures—fernleaf and other typical New Zealand signs on vehicles obliterated; titles and badges removed from uniforms; at every halt vehicles were to be turned facing the way from which they had come so that the setting sun would not reflect from their windscreens. All units carried six days' rations and water, petrol for six hundred miles, and a full scale of ammunition. Another four days' supplies were carried in second-line transport.
Fifth Brigade travelled back on 12 March to Ben Gardane, where it changed direction south-west for the staging area about ten miles distant and on arrival halted for tea. It was only a three-hour halt, a leg-stretcher for the all-night drive which followed. The Maoris did not know where they were going but they did know, by the time they had reached the native village of Foum Tatahouine, that it was a dusty, bumpy ride. However, they were really lucky for bulldozers had trimmed up the worst sections of the route and 6 Brigade had already passed over it. By daylight the battalion was dispersed about 55 miles south-west of Medenine on the western side of the Matmata hills, and it stayed there for nearly a week while the other units of the New Zealand Corps got into position. When the assembly was page 264 completed there were fourteen and a half thousand Kiwis, five and a half thousand other troops, and goodness knows how many thousand trucks scattered across country that was not supposed to be negotiable for a significant military force.
History that had been forgotten before the Grand Migration carried the forerunners of the Maori Battalion from Hawaiki to Aotearoa is not included in the modern infantry training manuals, so the troops were not aware that their camp was near what was once the bottom of a lake. The salt pans in the area are supposed to be the deepest parts of the legendary Lake Tritonis which stretched almost to Gabes on the coast. One version of the legend of the Golden Fleece states that the Argo was cast into Lake Tritonis and that later the Argonauts managed to reach the sea by a river that came out near Gabes.
Every precaution was taken to avoid discovery by reconnoitring aircraft; movement by day was forbidden unless absolutely imperative; no vehicle could move without special authority and then, so that no dust would be raised, its speed was not to be greater than ten miles an hour; no fires or lights after dark; all digging to be covered with brushwood; no bedding or clothing to be displayed; camouflage nets to be used to the maximum.
It was not possible to do much training under these restrictions but route marches in the early night and weapon cleaning during the day helped to pass the time. Clearly something was afoot for the force would not be parked in the middle of nowhere just for the fun of it. The first sign that the possibility of an outflanking movement had not been entirely overlooked by the enemy even if it was considered rather unlikely was the appearance of a reconnaissance plane on the 16th. It was flying fairly high and may not have seen anything; in any case, identification was unlikely and the wireless was making special mention of the fact that the New Zealanders, specialists in moving across nasty country, were still in front of the Mareth line.
There was a muster parade on the 18th at which Brigadier Kippenberger told the troops with a big map (the officers had already been informed) what was brewing—NZ Corps intended driving a wedge into the Mareth line through the Tebaga Gap, a six-mile-wide passage through the hills on the western end of the Mareth line extension. On the same day another reconnaissance plane came over and this time made a thorough inspection. It was assumed that the enemy was awake to what page 265 was going on and all badges, titles, and fernleaf signs on vehicles were replaced.
Left hook at Mareth
More information was given at a brigade conference the following day—defensive works were being thrown up by the enemy in and around the Gap, but whether as a precautionary measure or in anticipation of an attack was not clear. It would probably mean an infantry show to get the armour through and the move forward would begin that night. Everybody was thoroughly in accord with the proposals; the Maoris were sick of lying around the trucks; there had been sandstorms and rainstorms, and the motto ‘Tunis or the bush’ was on every tongue.
The next move, with 6 Brigade leading, was a tough one; it took seven hours in bright moonlight to do the 30 miles to the Wadi el Midjend. Another 40 miles the next day (20th) brought the leading elements of the Corps within sight of the country around the Gap.
The Luftwaffe was now taking a very keen interest but the Desert Air Force was more than able to cope. The troops had by this time almost forgotten that there was a Luftwaffe (shades of Greece and Crete!) so efficient was the protection of the air page 266 arm—the sight of one Spitfire in the sky induced such confidence that the Maoris, instead of keeping watch, generally went to sleep.
The brigade shuffled around but did not move far until the 25th. Meanwhile the armoured cars chased the enemy behind an extensive minefield, 30 Corps launched a frontal attack on the Mareth line but failed to hold the initial penetration, and 6 Brigade, after passing through the minefield, captured an important hill, Point 201, guarding the Gap. German reinforcements had been rushed up to stiffen the Italian defence but had arrived too late to save Point 201. The Free French had widened the threat by pushing through the hills as far as the last range and were looking down on the coastal plains.
Prospects of forcing the Mareth line proper were poor and General Montgomery decided to shift the weight of the attack to the New Zealand Corps' area. To that end 1 Armoured Division was started on a three days' forced march so that it would be ready to break through when a path had been cleared through the rapidly strengthening defences denying the Tebaga Gap.
Fifth Brigade received its orders on the 25th. Brigadier Kippenberger summed the position up thus: Rommel, anticipating that the thrust at Mareth would not be renewed, had brought 21 Panzer and 164 Light Divisions into the Tebaga area and there were signs that 15 Panzer Division was also coming in. New Zealand Corps would clear the Gap and 1 Armoured Division, coming up at the double, would exploit through and seize El Hamma behind the Mareth line.
The plan was based on the assumption that the enemy would be unaware of sundry dispositions to be made that night. The first step, entrusted to 21 Battalion, was the taking of Hill 184 on the right of the projected start line, thereby securing the right flank of the advance and denying the enemy a view of the deployment. The complete success of 21 Battalion's mission was an essential preliminary to the main effort.
The brigade was rolling by half past five that afternoon. The 28th and 23rd Battalions were to relieve 6 Brigade units, then hide up as at Alamein while 21 Battalion was making its preparations. At 10 p.m. the Maoris were at 26 Battalion headquarters, where guides led B and C Companies to the relief of their opposite numbers and the rest of the unit dug in where they stood.page 267
At one in the morning the artillery concentration prior to the 21 Battalion assault opened and it was no light one. The Maoris listened to the bang-bang-bang of field guns, the swoosh-swoosh-swoosh of shells overhead, the crrump-crrump-crrump of bursting high explosive, the rhythmic rat-tat-tat, tat-tat, tat-tat-tat of machine guns, muffled yells in the distance, then silence. The 21st Battalion was digging in on Point 184.
Before dawn the tapes had been laid on the start line and the troops had made the most of the last hot meal that could, with any degree of certainty, be expected for some time. Further back unit fighting vehicles and support weapons had vanished into wadis or under camouflage nets while 8 Armoured Brigade, which was to lead the infantry in the attack, had hidden itself behind Point 201.
The second phase was to open with an attack on a three-battalion front, 28 Battalion right, 23 Battalion centre, and 24 Battalion left, so that 1 Armoured Division, timed to arrive as the assault went in, would be able to pass through and capture El Hamma. The units not taking part in the main attack were to clear the enemy off the hills on either side of the Gap, and when that was completed NZ Corps would rejoin 1 Armoured Division.
The starting time was unusual—late afternoon. There might be an element of surprise involved for the Kiwis were notorious night hawks, besides which the enemy would, for once, be under the disadvantage of fighting with the sun in his eyes. Finally, and most important, the fullest use could be made of our superiority in the air.
About two hundred guns would fire a creeping barrage as well as timed concentrations on known enemy positions and batteries; regiments of tanks from 8 Armoured Brigade—in the case of 28 Battalion, the Notts Yeomanry—would precede the infantry; the Desert Air Force would supply for two hours continuous cover as well as a squadron of ‘tank-busters’.2
The right of the Maori start line was a mile west of 21 Battalion of Hill 184. C Company was already in position as moppers-up some 300 yards behind the forward troops and did not have to move. A and D Companies had a mile to march and were under cover before daylight, but B Company, farther away, had to dig temporary pits half a mile short of its correct lying-up area.page 268
Maori Battalion attack on point 209
The battalion formation was two companies up, A (Major Porter) right and B (Captain Sorensen) left, with C (Captain Awatere) spread across the front and 300 yards in rear. D Company (Captain Matehaere) was in reserve on the right open flank, with battalion Headquarters immediately behind accompanied by a truck equipped with a No. 11 set linking with Brigade Headquarters.page 269
The penetration was to be approximately three miles in depth and was to be done in two bounds. The first pause line, half-way to the final objective, was the edge of undulating country where a hill, Point 209, somewhat higher than the one 21 Battalion occupied, dominated the area. Colonel Bennett was instructed that the capture of Point 209 was essential and detailed the job to C Company, which was to swing right at the first objective and occupy the feature. D Company would assume the support role later and secure the open flank by exploiting forward and to the right of the battalion objective.
As a final precaution two sections of carriers, commanded respectively by Sergeants Walkers3 and Walters,4 were given a roving commission to patrol the open flank and shoot up anything they could find.
At precisely half past three in the afternoon of Friday, 26 March, the orange-coloured flares denoting the most forward line of infantry were set alight and the first wave of fighter-bombers—British, American, and South African—was overhead with bombs for infantry positions and gun emplacements. Wave after wave of these low-flying, light aircraft came up from the south and set the earth rocking with explosions; behind them came the squadron of tank-busters with attendant fighters weaving and zooming in search of targets; above this intricate mass of flying destruction was an umbrella of Spitfires. And behind the hidden infantry more tanks were emerging from their hiding places.
For thirty minutes the gunners fidgeted around their pieces; battery officers checked zero lines and inter-gun phones; gun numbers checked sights and recuperators and the moving parts of their weapons or the air pressures of tyres. It had all been seen to, checked and double-checked; but the infantry up front depended on the artillery—and at the dot of four o'clock over two hundred guns of all calibres opened fire.
General Freyberg wrote:
At three o'clock … as I drove up the valley in my tank all was quiet except for occasional shellfire. There was no unusual movement or sign of coming attack. Exactly half an hour later, the first squadrons of the RAF roared overhead and relays of Spitfires, Kitty-bombers, and tank-busters swept over the enemy positions giving the greatest measure of air page 270 support ever seen by our army. At four o'clock 200 field and medium guns opened their bombardment on a front of 5000 yards. In an instant the attack developed and 150 tanks and three battalions of infantry appeared as from nowhere, advancing in the natural smokescreen provided by the duststrom. It was a most awe-inspiring spectacle of modern warfare. The roar of bombers and fighters ahead of our advance merged with our barrage of bursting shells. Following close behind this intense barrage as it advanced came waves of Sherman tanks, carriers, and infantry and sappers on foot, preceded by three squadrons of Crusader tanks. Behind the New Zealand Corps, coming down the forward slopes just in rear of our front line, were 150 tanks of the 1st Armoured Division, followed by their Motor Brigade in lorries, advancing in nine columns.
The infantry was to cross the start line at 4.15 p.m. with the Maoris following the tanks, but B Company, short of its correct position, moved forward twenty minutes earlier to get into alignment. The battalion waited for the armour to go through: first the heavy Shermans, then the lighter Crusaders, and finally the unit carriers under Captain Hayward, augmented by two sections from 21 Battalion. The assaulting companies went in behind the last wave of vehicles and the enemy brought every undamaged gun into action. It was the first time in North Africa that he had been confronted by tanks leading a largescale attack and he made every effort to see that the innovation did not succeed.
The tanks mistook the enemy artillery fire for our own barrage and paused for it to lift, thus halting the whole battalion. Then over-zealous planes mistook the side the Maoris were on, and it was with difficulty that the victims were restrained from answering in kind for there were casualties before the men again got moving.
Once away and through the defensive fire there was no pause and no opposition except the ‘overs’ meant for the armour. The shells continued to scream outwards, and high in the air there were dogfights from which the losers hurtled smoking to earth. Past the first mile and signs were not wanting that the enemy had left in extreme haste—strewn about were papers, typewriters, office equipment, trucks in going order, and a regimental aid post, but no sign of a body, dead or alive. There must have been some very fast movement.page 271
The tanks were now approaching the rising ground at the base of Point 209 and, because they could not climb the high ground to the east of it, they swung to the left and everything followed them. The result was a bunching of armour and men. Concealed anti-tank guns came into action, the pace slowed down, then stopped, and the barrage moved away. Some tanks, trying to close on the guns, had their turrets blown off by the weight of fire directed against them.
Colonel Bennett was told by the tank commander that it was impossible for the armour to move until the enemy gunners had been dislodged. There were move than gunners to be dislodged for the Colonel could see a row of steel-helmeted heads on Point 209 belonging to men of II Battalion, 433 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, 164 Light Division, who had been rushed up just too late to reinforce Point 201 which 6 Brigade had wrested from the Italians during the initial attack.
From where the CO was standing Point 209 was not the same shape as it appeared to be from the start line. In actual fact it was not Point 209 at all but an under-feature connected by a half-mile-long saddle, and from that position hiding 209 from view. The under-feature was later called Hikurangi by the battalion as a compliment to the Ngatiporou Company who performed valorous deeds on its rocky sides. It will be called Hikurangi in this history to distinguish it from Point 209 proper.
Elsewhere the line of battle had rolled on, leaving the enemy in possession of the feature 28 Battalion had been told must be taken and held for the security of the divisional flank. Colonel Bennett set about taking it. Captain Awatere was told to organise C Company for an assault on Hikurangi while the rest of the battalion assisted with fire. Awatere summed the job up and instructed 13 Platoon (Lieutenant Jackson) to work around to the rear of the hill from the right, 15 Platoon (Lieutenant Haig) to attack towards the crest in the centre, and 14 Platoon (Lieutenant Ngarimu) to take the left flank.
The company was in position about five o'clock and Captain Awatere, well forward and with his back to the enemy most of the time, directed the manoeuvre by whistle blasts and arm signals.
Moving by section rushes Lieutenant Ngarimu got 14 Platoon to the base of Hikurangi without serious loss. The hill was steep, the ground rocky, and the enemy was dug in above them, but Ngarimu went straight up. He annihilated two strongposts page 272 single-handed and near the top found himself with one section led by Corporal Wiwi Teneti.5 The Germans evacuated that part of the crest and Teneti, finding that the other two sections were held up by two machine-gun posts above them, took a Bren gun and, firing from the shoulder in full view of the enemy, kept their heads down long enough for his men to rush the posts. The rest of the platoon were then able to join their commander and establish themselves near the crest of Hikurangi. No. 15 Platoon in the centre was pinned near the base of Hikurangi by machine-gun fire from Point 209 and had to remain there until dark.
Hikurangi was nearly as high as Point 209—like this:
No. 13 Platoon, possibly aided by the diversion caused by Ngarimu's men, managed to work around and join them. By this time it was nearly 6 p.m. The two subalterns made their arrangements to push on to the top of Point 209 but soon discovered that it was not going to be easy to stay where they were. The enemy was only a few yards away on the far side of the crest, which was swept continuously by machine guns on Point 209, and the Germans were as determined to push the Maoris off the crest as the Maoris were determined to stay there. The enemy made several dashes over the top with bayonets but the Maori bayonets were waiting; their automatics were also waiting and the German losses were heavy. The casualties were not all on the one side, however, for by last light Captain Awatere had been wounded once, Lieutenant Ngarimu twice, and Corporal Teneti was the only survivor in his section. He had then joined the remainder of the platoon and fought on until he himself was seriously wounded. He was awarded the DCM.page 273
But to resume. When the enemy found that the Maoris were not to be moved by direct action they called on their mortars to help. The Maoris, lying unprotected on the rocky hillside, suffered severely, but when the Germans launched another bayonet attack the survivors arose out of the dust and smoke, and, with more enemy lying on top of those already killed, C Company remained in possession.
There were no more efforts to dislodge the East Coasters before nightfall permitted a redistribution of the garrison, and 15 Platoon less the Bren-gunners was brought forward on to the southern slope of Hikurangi; the Bren-gun section was placed where it could support the garrison with crossfire.
Colonel Bennett visited the men on Hikurangi and advised both Awatere and Ngarimu to go down to the RAP to get their wounds dressed. Awatere refused point-blank to do anything of the sort and Ngarimu begged to be allowed to stay with his tribesmen. ‘I'm all right, Sir, Let me stay a little longer with my men,’ was his plea, and the CO relented.
Bennett was not aware that the rest of the brigade had taken its objective and reiterated that Hikurangi must be held at any cost. ‘Have no fear, Sir. This hill will never be lost,’ was the assurance of Captain Awatere, who supervised the defence until the leg that had taken the wound was so swollen that he could get around only by crawling. He then consented to be evacuated and Lieutenant Jackson took command of C Company.
Meanwhile Bennett organised the battalion against the possibility of a counter-attack. Battalion Headquarters was moved to the foot of Hikurangi, the wounded evacuated, and a hot meal brought up by Captain Pene was distributed even to those on top of Hikurangi. It was about 9 p.m. by the time the support arms were deployed in the area and the mortar platoon, which had been with 21 Battalion during the day, had reported back. Finally, after the ammunition had been replenished and the unit signal network completed, the question of making contact with 21 and 23 Battalions was considered.
Brigade Headquarters, out of communication with Colonel Bennett, instructed 21 Battalion to send out a patrol to find the battalion and to deliver a message that 28 Battalion was to locate 23 Battalion and, as soon as a line was laid to Brigade, the CO was to report to the Brigadier. Before the patrol from 21 Battalion arrived, however, Captain Sorensen had already sent out several parties to try to tie in with 23 Battalion and wireless contact had been made with Brigade Headquarters. page 274 The situation of the battalion was discussed but it was not made clear that the main objective, Point 209, was still in enemy hands, and it was not until next morning that artillery was directed to harass the reverse slope of the feature. Colonel Bennett was very worried about the gap between the Maoris and 21 Battalion, which was still holding its hill, and A Company 21 Battalion (Captain Bullock-Douglas)6 was sent forward with a platoon of machine-gunners to link up with the Maori right flank and so partially close the gap.
Until this had been arranged the safety of the open right of the Maoris had been in the hands of the two carrier sections previously mentioned. They had ranged far and wide shooting at any sign of movement. Both leaders were awarded MMs for their dash and determined leadership.
It was about three in the morning before A Company 21 Battalion was firmly in position and all this while the fight for Hikurangi, which had started again, continued almost without pause. The two lines were only twenty yards apart on opposite sides of the crest and the Maoris could plainly hear the German voices and commands. The scraping of hobnailed boots on the rocky surface was the warning that the Germans were massing, and when Ngarimu thought the time was opportune he ordered his men to throw their grenades.
The screams of the wounded and the sounds of men scattering were answered by the Maoris with the taunting call of ‘E koe’.7On one occasion the Germans penetrated the Maori line, but Lieutenant Ngarimu threw them out single-handed by shooting some with his tommy gun and scaring the others by throwing stones as if they were grenades. Again the Germans broke in and again Ngarimu rushed to the danger spot, rallied his men, and led them back again. So the night wore on, the Germans determined to win back the crest but not succeeding. Grenades gave out and Ngarimu told his men to use stones instead—they looked like grenades and served the purpose.
Casualties mounted, but the lodgment under the lip of the hill was still held at daybreak. Lieutenant Jackson reported to Battalion Headquarters with a request for reinforcements as there were only about a dozen men left in 13 and 14 Platoons. It was then that another counter-attack was mounted by the enemy and the whole episode was watched from Battalion Headquarters. Ngarimu was seen to wave his men on forward, then page 275 advance himself, firing as he went. He was killed on the crest of the hill and the Germans came on. It was an anxious moment and could have meant the loss of Hikurangi. Captain Hayward was ordered to cover the spot with converging fire from his carriers, but the Germans were apparently in no shape to exploit success for soon afterwards they withdrew from Hikurangi right back to Point 209. Captain Matehaere was ordered to relieve C Company and take over the defence of Hikurangi.
Brigadier Kippenberger had arrived at Hikurangi by this time and he saw that the Maoris were not, as they thought, attacking Point 209. He arranged for a series of divisional artillery concentrations on the hidden objective, impressed on Colonel Bennett not to miss any chance of aggressive action, and then carried on to 23 Battalion where Colonel Romans was instructed to push some of his men forward into a position where fire could be brought down on the rear of the enemy-held area.
In order to enable D and C Companies to change places the battalion mortars put down a smoke screen and by 9 a.m. the relief was completed. Moderate enemy harassing fire went on for another hour and was being replied to by far from moderate artillery ‘stonks’ when a dramatic change came over the battle scene—two German soldiers appeared on the top of Hikurangi with their hands high in the air. A carrier opened fire before the significance of the enemy action was realised and both men fell. One was killed and the other shammed dead. Everybody waited expectantly. Those two were out of luck but perhaps there were others prepared to take a chance. It was not very long before four Germans and a big Red Cross flag appeared. The ‘cease fire’ was ordered and the party, an officer and three other ranks, all wearing Red Cross armbands, was led down to Battalion Headquarters where the CO was waiting to receive them. The German officer in fluent English explained that he was a doctor and the men his stretcher-bearers. He had ninety badly wounded men on the other side of the hill but had run out of bandages and medical supplies. Could we help them? Colonel Bennett rang through to Brigade and Brigadier Kippenberger gave permission for all possible assistance to be rendered. Yes, we would be only too pleased to help.
Captain D'Arcy8 came over from his RAP and the two doctors discussed the position. It was arranged that rather than send page 276 medical supplies to the German RAP, which was in poor shape, the wounded were to be brought over to our lines, where they would receive proper attention before being evacuated to hospital. The doctor mentioned that they had also run out of food. A meal was produced immediately as well as a plentiful supply of cigarettes, both of which were gratefully acknowledged. Did the Maoris have any spare stretchers? Why, certainly, as many as were available. The German doctor was sorry but he did not have enough stretcher-bearers to manage all the wounded. Colonel Bennett was also very sorry but he could not see his way clear to risk the possibility of their being retained by the opposing commander. The doctor would understand? The doctor understood perfectly and thanked the Colonel for his courtesy. As the Germans were about to withdraw Bennett dropped the suggestion that if any of the German soldiers felt like calling it a day they would be guaranteed safe conduct. The doctor promised to pass the message to those concerned.
About midday a long procession with the German doctor at the head wound its way around the base of Hikurangi; some were walking, some were being helped, and others were being carried on stretchers. The Maori rifles were ready but silent, and the procession's only trouble was from odd shells from both sides casually searching the area.
The column reached Battalion Headquarters safely, and the first thing the doctor did was to point to a group of about twenty in the rear. ‘They are not wounded,’ he said, ‘they are surrendering.’
They were soon under guard; then, with the two doctors working side by side and the Maori stretcher-bearers showing their German opposite numbers the way to the ambulances that had by this time arrived, the wounded were cared for. The combatant Germans had clearly had all the fight knocked out of them. Quite voluntarily they said that others were ready to surrender but were afraid of being shot if they came over. They added that the garrison of Point 209 was short of ammunition and supplies and was generally in a bad way. Colonel Bennett decided to attack immediately. Colonel Romans was asked if 23 Battalion could assist and was told that a mortar concentration on the reverse slope would be helpful. Captain Matehaere was ordered to prepare D Company for the assault at 3 p.m. under cover of a concentration that Bennett arranged privately with a British field regiment.page 277
The concentration came down on the dot of three o'clock but not on Point 209. Somebody had got the ranges and directions mixed and B Company shared with 23 Battalion what was meant for the Germans on Point 209. The artillery assistance was called off and D Company went unsupported for its objective. The company was held up at the foot of the hill and Matehaere wirelessed for carrier support to deal with the fire coming down on it from the top of Point 209. Sergeants Walters and Harding9 brought their carriers, each mounting a heavy machine gun, up a wadi between Hikurangi and Point 209, where they drew down on themselves the concentrated fire of the enemy. One wheeled round and advanced on the north while the other carried on towards the south of the objective hill; Matehaere, thus with carrier support on each flank, sent his men climbing Point 209.
By this time D Company had an enthusiastic audience, for most of the battalion had scrambled on to the top of Hikurangi for a ringside view of the proceedings. The enemy, if not too preoccupied with dodging the carriers' hose of machine-gun bullets, must have been at least mildly astonished to see a crowd of cheering, tin-hat-waving troops urging their side on to victory.
The determined advance of D Company was bad enough, but when the opposite hill broke into the rhythm of the stirring haka ‘Ka mate, ka mate’ it was too much and too unorthodox for the Teutonic temperament. One white flag after another began to wave on Point 209, each surrender being followed from Hikurangi by the cheers that would have greeted the winning try in a Ranfurly Shield match.
The Germans had fought bravely and had taken terrible punishment from the artillery, from 23 Battalion, and from the Maoris. There were only 231 prisoners10 from the battalion that had occupied Point 209 with the intention of preventing the forcing of the Tebaga Gap; only one gun was serviceable out of the thirteen mortars and anti-tank guns emplaced there, and there was practically no ammunition left for the survivor; the machine guns were down to their last belt and the automatics to the last clip. It was discovered later that the sight of the two carriers, which were mistaken for tanks, had caused the final collapse.page 278
Maori casualties were not light, 98 in all, 22 of them killed, the rest wounded and nearly all from C Company; but, apart from the damage done by the long-range weapons, the enemy dead were lying one on top of another, with the nearest but a few yards from the Maori line.
Besides the decorations awarded to the rank and file Colonel Bennett received the DSO, Captain Awatere an MC, and Lieutenant Ngarimu a posthumous VC, the first Maori to be so honoured. The citation upon which the Victoria Cross was awarded to Second-Lieutenant Te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu read:
During the action at the TEBAGA GAP on 26 March 1943, 2/Lieut Ngarimu commanded a platoon in an attack upon the vital hill feature, Point 209. He was given the task of attacking and capturing an underfeature forward of Point 209 itself and held in considerable strength by the enemy. He led his men with great dash and determination straight up the face of the hill undeterred by the intense mortar and MG fire which was causing considerable casualties. Displaying courage and leadership of the highest order he was himself first on the hill crest, personally annihilating in the process at least two enemy MG posts. In the face of such a determined attack the remainder of the enemy fled, but further advance was impossible as the reverse slope was swept by MG fire from Point 209 itself.
Under cover of a most intense mortar barrage the enemy counter-attacked in an attempt to regain their dug-in positions. 2/Lieut Ngarimu ordered his men to stand up and engage the enemy man for man. This they did with such good effect that the attackers were literally mown down, 2/Lieut Ngarimu personally killing several. During this encounter he was twice wounded, once by rifle fire in the shoulder and later by shrapnel in the leg and though urged by both his Coy Comd and Bn Comd to go out he refused to do so saying he should stay a little while with his men. He stayed till he met his death the following morning.
Darkness found this officer and his depleted platoon lying on the rocky face of the forward slope of the hill feature with the enemy in a similar position on the reverse slope about twenty yards distant. Time and again throughout the night the enemy launched fierce attacks in an attempt to dislodge 2/Lieut Ngarimu and his men, but each counter-attack was beaten off entirely by 2/Lieut Ngarimu's inspired leadership.page 279
During one of these counter-attacks the enemy, by using hand grenades, succeeded in piercing a certain part of the line. Without hesitation 2/Lieut Ngarimu rushed to the threatened area and those of the enemy he did not kill he drove back with stones and with his tommy gun. During another determined counter-attack by the enemy, part of his line broke. Yelling out orders and encouragement, he went to his dislodged men, rallied them and led them in a fierce onslaught back into their old positions.
All through the night, between attacks, he and his men were heavily harassed by MG and mortar fire, but 2/Lieut Ngarimu watched his line very carefully, cheering his men on and inspiring them by his gallant personal conduct. Morning found him still in possession of the hill feature but only he and two unwounded other ranks remained. Reinforcements were sent up to him.
In the morning the enemy again counter-attacked and it was during this attack that 2/Lieut Ngarimu was killed. He was killed on his feet, defiantly facing the enemy with his tommy gun at his hip; and as he fell he came to rest almost on top of those of the enemy who had fallen to his gun just before he fell to theirs.
There is ample confirmation in captured enemy documents that the citation is, if anything, an understatement. A report by II/433 Regiment of the fighting at Point 209 on 26–27 March reads:
By the night 26/27 Mar. the regrouping of the battalion on Pt. 209 was at the following stage; Bn HQ and 8 Coy on Pt 209, 6 and 7 Coys on the high features in front of 209, 5 Coy in reserve behind 209. [The report goes on to describe the preliminary bombardment, the infantry attack, and the destroying of four tanks, three by anti-tank-gun fire and one by a sticky bomb.]
In the meantime the situation on 7 Coy's front had become serious—enemy infantry had succeeded in occupying a spur running out from 7 Coy's feature. 6 Coy's reserve platoon, under S/Sergt Schmidt was sent up to 7 Coy, both as a counter-attack force and to make up for the heavy casualties page 280 the company had suffered in the barrage. In a fluctuating hand to hand struggle (which even developed into a fight with stones after most of the weapons had been knocked out) 3 Pl 6 Coy and Schlinder Pl of 7 Coy took and lost the ridge several times. S/Sgt Schmidt and Sgt Schlinder distinguished themselves by particular initiative.
Early on the morning of 27 Mar 7 Coy received a further reinforcement—a platoon of 5 Coy under Lieut Noack, which was sent up with orders to clear the enemy finally off the ridge forward of 7 Coy. The platoon suffered heavy casualties but did not achieve its object. Only half the troops engaged in the counter-attacks came back. Lieut Behrens, Lieut Noack, S/Sgt Schmidt and Sgt Schlinder—that is to say, all the platoon commanders—were either killed or wounded.
(signed) Drechsler, Lieut.
The battle for the Tebaga Gap ended for the Maoris with the surrender of Point 209, but even before the capitulation the rest of 5 Brigade was manœuvring to form a gunline and widen the gap. The Maori Battalion was already in the required area, but the effect of the operation was that the unit was the pivot of a brigade gunline facing north-east.
Sixth Brigade was under thirty minutes' notice and 1 Armoured Division had broken through to the vicinity of El Hamma, where another delay threatened; it was essential for the enemy to hold El Hamma until the Mareth garrison escaped; so, rather than mount another frontal assault, NZ Corps made for Gabes to outflank El Hamma.
As far as 28 Battalion was concerned the night was quiet and the troops caught up on sleep lost during the marching and fighting of the previous three days and two nights. Early in the morning (28 March) Brigadier Kippenberger was taken by Colonel Bennett on a tour of the Hikurangi battlefield, and he later entertained Major Meisner and his adjutant to breakfast before their departure for the peaceful environs of a prisoner-of-war camp.
Breakfast over, these two were marched off to join the Bn page 281 and go off to the PW cage, Capt Abbott (IO)12 going with them. They paused about half way across and Abbott carried a request ‘Could the CO address his Bn before it went away?’ Brig Kippenberger gave permission. The Adjt went ahead. In a few moments the RSM (or some NCO) shouting orders, formed the Bn up in line 3 deep and called it to attention. It was first class drill and after their ordeal it showed remarkable discipline. The Adj took over. The CO then took over from the Adj exactly as we do, and when he did so the whole Bn, some 200 odd, gave a lusty and perfectly timed ‘Heil’ salute. The CO addressed his unit (a FS Sec. NCO knew enough German to understand) thus—‘We are going off now to a cage and are together for the last time. We had an honourable end and were fairly beaten in a real fight. Let us face up to imprisonment as we faced up to our active service’—words to this effect.
He received another ‘Heil’ on finishing. The guards promptly took over just as the Bn was breaking up into groups and reformed it, and marched it off southwards down the road in the usual dust. The CO and Adjt were bundled into a 15 cwt. and at the rear of the unit they too disappeared in the dust—not without the sympathy of those who watched for they showed good qualities to the very end.
1Lt-Col W. B. Thomas, DSO, MC and bar, m.i.d., Silver Star (US); London; born Nelson, 29 Jun 1918; bank officer; CO 23 Bn Jun-Aug 1944, Oct 1944-May 1945; twice wounded; wounded and p.w. May 1941; escaped Nov 1941; returned to unit May 1942; Hampshire Regt, 1947-.
2Hurricanes equipped with 40-mm cannon.
32 Lt J. I. Walker, MM; Te Kaha; born Te Kaha, 22 Nov 1917; dairy-factory hand.
4Sgt W. P. Walters, MM; Te Kopuru; born Aratapu, 25 Nov 1918; wounded Oct 1942.
5Cpl W. Teneti, DCM; Waipiro Bay; born Waipiro Bay, 18 May 1918; labourer; wounded 27 Mar 1943; died 16 Aug 1956.
7Words of satire used when a wrong has been requited.
10Approximately 60 all ranks evaded capture.
11Brig M. C. Fairbrother, CBE, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Carterton, 21 Sep 1907; accountant; BM 5 Bde Jun 1942-Apr 1943; comd in turn 21, 23, and 28 (Maori) Bns, Apr-Dec 1943; GSO II 2 NZ Div Jun-Oct 1944; CO 26 Bn Oct 1944-Sep 1945; comd Adv Base 2 NZEF, Sep 1945-Feb 1946; Associate Editor, NZ War Histories.