Maori territory, Mark Derby

Nga Tama Toa: The Price of Citizenship: C Company 28 (Maori) Battalion 1939-1945
Monty Soutar
David Bateman, $69.99,
ISBN 9781869535933

The East Coast leader Apirana Ngata, for all his political and rhetorical gifts and his unquestioned public-spiritedness, could evidently be a right pain in later life. From the outbreak of WWII this stocky and utterly determined rangatira, although then an opposition MP, dominated the government’s decision-making over the composition and role of the Maori Battalion.

He determined its tribally based structure, led recruitment efforts, recommended officer appointments and scorned inconvenient regulations. On at least one occasion he extracted a disorderly young recruit from jail so he could rejoin his detachment. The Chief of General Staff bewailed Ngata’s “constant interference” in the command structure, but to little effect.

Just weeks after the surviving members of the Maori Battalion returned home in early 1946, Ngata made a further non-negotiable pronouncement. A history of the Battalion’s C Company, the unit made up of men from his own region, was to be compiled, “while things are fresh in the mind”. The government was then preparing an official history of the entire battalion, and singling out just one of its five companies to receive its own historical record was, even for Ngata, an audacious proposal.

The old man persisted, pointing to the disproportionate prominence of his people among those Maori who had enlisted for the war, and the example they had set other tribes. The project went ahead, without state financial support, but it was soon shelved, and Ngata’s death in 1950 deprived it of much of its motive power.

The Maori Battalion’s official history appeared in 1956 and was followed in 1991 by a briefer and more anecdotal account from Wira Gardiner, a Maori with considerable military experience.

A few years later, Ngata’s long-dormant proposal was revived and for the next decade a team of East Coast Maori researchers recorded the memories of former C Company men and their families. The degree of trust and understanding engendered by this process has delivered a history from within the cultural world of Ngati Porou and its neighbouring tribes, and constitutes a major publishing landmark.

The response throughout the East Coast to the outbreak of war and the formation of a tribally based Maori Battalion was extraordinary.

The iwi of Tairawhiti committed “their entire eligible youth” to the foreign conflict, and this book’s even-handed introduction explains that this was due more to the region’s long tradition of intertribal warfare than to its more recent history of far-from-universal loyalty to the Crown. Almost a century after the Hauhau wars of the 1860s, some still opposed their sons’ eagerness to fight for the nation that had imprisoned, impoverished and executed their forebears. Descendants of both sides were represented in the contingent leaving Gisborne in 1940, and even arch-loyalist Ngata told them he could not decide whether the greater honour was due “to those ancestors who supported the Queen or to those who opposed her”.

Fencers, shearers and other farm workers supplied the bulk of those C Company volunteers and they were named the “Cowboys” by the rest of the Battalion. A Company was recruited from Northland and therefore known as the “Gumdiggers”. B Company from the Rotorua-Urewera region were the “Penny Divers”, D Company, comprising Ngati Kahungungu and others, the “Foreign Legion”, and a tribally mixed headquarters company was known as the “Odds and Sods”.

These tribal divisions engendered valuable esprit de corps but were enforced liberally. C Company included several Pakeha and men of other ethnicities who had been raised among East Coast Maori and succeeded in enlisting with their childhood friends.

In a vivid assemblage of largely light-hearted anecdotes and images, the narrative follows the cowboys of C Company through the early wave of mass recruitment, training in Britain (where one grateful landlady said “she’d rather have Maori boys at her place than anyone else”), to their first major deployment at Mount Olympus in Greece, impeding an unstoppable German advance. The mood of the men’s recollections then switches abruptly to describe their first experience of battle and the ensuing chaotic withdrawal. The battle of Crete that followed proved even more costly and disastrous but the raw young country boys proved themselves in action against better-equipped German paratroopers and infantry.

Those engagements laid down the battalion’s later reputation for ferocious hand-to-hand fighting, employing tactics not found in an army training manual. The tutu ngarahu, spine-tingling preliminary to a haka, was the signal for devastating bayonet charges that repeatedly repulsed “the pride of the German army”. These early victories boosted the battalion’s morale and spread its name. A British airman was helped to safety in Crete by “a hulking Maori” who assured him, “ ‘You jokers should be all right now. This is Maori territory.’ He made it sound like an impregnable fortress.”

C Company’s best-known action took place against Rommel’s troops in the desert between Tunisia and Libya. Here Second Lt Ngarimu, a mild-mannered young officer from Ruatoria, won a posthumous VC for holding an isolated position in stone-throwing distance of his enemy. This battle, the huge investiture ceremony that took place in Ngarimu’s hometown later that year, and the effect on his family are described in deserved detail.

From 1943 the battalion was spoken of as “the best fighting unit in the British army”, and its fearsome reputation had reached its opponents. A young German soldier entrenched at Cassino in Italy wrote to his mother that, “we are once again confronted by the masters of close quarter fighting – the dreaded Maori warriors of the New Zealand Division.” The staggering casualties suffered by C Company and the rest of the battalion in the battles to take key positions in Cassino are carefully examined.

This campaign, when Maori were holed up in bombed-out ruins within metres of their enemy, was the setting for Taika Waititi’s short film Tama Tu. His Te Whanau-a-Apanui surname is well-represented among the C Company veterans listed in this book.

Sidebars accompany the main narrative, often giving capsule biographies of colourful figures, such as the barely manageable Private Charlie Shelford, whose propensity for drunken violence meant he spent much of his leave in punishment cells. In the Middle East, Shelford revealed a flair for disappearing behind enemy lines on solo missions, on one occasion returning with a captured German tank.

These exploits were recognised with a DCM, but on the day of the award ceremony Shelford was again serving time for disciplinary offences. He arrived handcuffed between military police, causing an enraged General Freyberg to demand that he be freed at least long enough to receive his medal. The moment the handcuffs were off, Shelford turned to one of his captors and invited him to settle an outstanding score between them. The man sensibly refused but Shelford dropped him anyway, before turning to salute his superior officer. Duly decorated, he was returned in handcuffs to his cell.

For all its thoroughness and clarity, this is very far from an official history. Along with the careful accounting of C Company’s achievements and losses, Nga Tama Toa notes instances of self-inflicted injury, refusal to obey orders, and the butchering of prisoners and unarmed men in the heat of battle. It does not skirt the question of whether the Maori Battalion was unfairly selected for the deadliest assignments. Maori soldiers’ penchant for pillage is well documented, their trophies extending to a piano strapped to the back of an enemy Bren gun carrier, itself probably pilfered. Most unique of all in a military history are the many accounts of traditional spirituality and mysticism, and the guiding influence of ancestors on troops raised within a deeply Maori world.

These accounts and much of the book’s other material are taken from interviews with C Company veterans and their families. They have been recorded in the distinctive idiom of fully bilingual East Coast Maori who switch freely between their two languages, sometimes in mid-word. Concise extracts from these interviews are given in both languages and provide some of its most revealing and moving content.

Equally valuable are the extraordinary number and range of photographs, such as the shot of a hangi in preparation, seemingly in Tokomaru Bay but in fact in Isernia, Italy in 1945.

This exhaustively compiled and reverently assembled history is presented as a suitably handsome hardback, stout enough to stop a bullet. Its lead researcher and author, Monty Soutar, is both an East Coast Maori and a former soldier. He has provided us with a wholly confident Maori account of the men of C Company that Ngata, its begetter, would surely deem worthy of them.


Mark Derby’s Kiwi Compañeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War is reviewed on p19. 


Nga Tama Toa was shortlisted for Best First Book of Non-fiction in this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards.



Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review, War
Search the archive
Search by category