B Company 28 Maori Battalion Exhibition Opening, Rotorua Museum

  • Mark Burton
Veterans' Affairs

Your Worship Mayor Graham Hall, Greg McManus (museum director), Maori Battalion veterans, families, other invited guests.

At the outbreak of World War Two, many Maori volunteered immediately and left New Zealand with the first contingent bound for Europe in January 1940. Maori were to serve in almost every New Zealand army battalion over the next six years, while many Maori volunteers served in the airforce and navy.

A handful of Maori women also went abroad with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service.

But the Maori war effort is most directly associated with 28th Maori Battalion, the all-Maori unit that the Labour government agreed to establish in October 1939 after pleas from Maori Members of Parliament, on behalf of their tribes.

There was a strong desire from Maori to represent themselves in this fight for freedom.

Recruiting for the Maori Battalion began in the second week of October 1939 and within three weeks nine hundred men had enlisted.
Enlistment remained voluntary throughout the war – Maori recruiting officers, working in close co-operation with tribal elders made sure the battalion was never short of replacements.

It was decided that the Maori Battalion should be organised on a tribal basis.

B Company received volunteers from Rotorua, Bay of Plenty, Taupo and Thames-Coromandel – from the Te Arawa and Tuhoe tribes, as well as Ngatipaoa, Ngatimaru, Ngaiterangi, Ngatiawa, Ngati Tuwharetoa, Whakatohea and Whanau-A-Apanui.

The Battalion went into training in Palmerston North in January 1940. This must have been a remarkable experience for many of these young men who had never before left their tribal districts.

They had much to learn – but military historians tell us that the Maori recruits had one big advantage over the pakeha trainees – they were used to living in close proximity in their own communities, used to a communal way of life. And so, they were not daunted by the rigours of living in camp with only basic amenities.

Far greater tests were to lie ahead. In May 1940 the 28th Maori Battalion left Wellington. After further training in southern England, the battalion departed for the Middle East, where it was joined by 300 reinforcements.

The Maori Battalion was destined to be involved in some of the most important and deadly battles of World War Two.

This exhibition takes us through the Greek campaign, and the battle for Crete, where the bravery and fierceness of the Maori warriors did much to assist the successful evacuation of Allied troops.

This was followed by the long North African campaign – including the battle at Takrouna, where B Company performed outstandingly.

Casualties were extremely high. Eventually the need for a furlough scheme was accepted and 130 men were sent home to New Zealand, to be replaced by reinforcements drawn from the newly raised 2nd Maori Battalion.

After a period of rebuilding and retraining, the battalion was committed to the Italian campaign.

The first attack, at Orsonga in December 1943 resulted in more than fifty casualties – and at Cassino, B Company suffered horrendous losses.

In 1945, as the war in Europe neared an end, the Battalion took part in the final advance to Trieste.

270 men were deployed to Japan as part of Jayforce – the rest of the 28th Maori Battalion headed back to New Zealand, arriving home to great celebrations in January 1946.

Over the previous 6 years, almost 16,000 Maori had volunteered for service – a remarkable fact considering that the Maori population at the time was around 95,000.

Of the 3600 men who saw action with the 28th Maori Battalion, 649 died on active service, more than 1700 were wounded and over 150 were taken prisoner. By any measure, it was a remarkable and heroic contribution.

This major new permanent exhibition is a long over due tribute to the men who served in B Company. I know there have been many issues to work through and I want to congratulate all involved for working together to bring us to where we are today.

I am sure that what we see here today will be just the start – I know the museum director is hoping many families will now come forward with new photos or memorabilia which can be added to the displays.

This exhibition will be a very emotional experience for many visitors, whether or not they have a direct connection with B Company and the Maori Battalion - because this truly is an incredible story.

I can do no better than to repeat an often-used quote from General Freyberg, who wrote….

…That no infantry battalion "had a more distinguished record, or saw more fighting, or, alas, had such heavy casualties as the Maori Battalion."

It is now my very special privilege to officially open this important exhibition.