Commanding Officer George Dittmer writes to Sir Āpirana Ngata from Egypt in July 1941.
28 Maori Battalion
Dear Sir Apirana,
Now that we have settled down again after our first brushes with the enemy it is time for me to write and confirm most of the reports you have heard concerning the good showing put up by the folk in whom you are vitally concerned.
In the first place I must offer you the sympathy of the whole battalion in the matter of your son, Henry, being missing. We are hoping to hear any day that he is a prisoner. In Greece he was left, together with six other officers, to form reinforcements near Athens, so he was not actually with the battalion during the withdrawal and evacuation. Apparently our reinforcements became engaged with forward elements of the enemy during the withdrawal in the Athens area, and it is assumed that some of them were cut off. Not being part of the battalion, they did not come under our control, and we knew nothing of their movements until after arrival at Crete. We do hope for your sake and that of his relatives that good news will be heard of him in the very near future. He was, as you would expect, doing a very good job of work as an officer and leader.
It was also most unfortunate that your other son, Bill, received the knock he did. He also had turned out trumps, and we are missing him. We trust that he will soon be restored to full health and soundness. Will you please remember me to him, and wish him the very best of luck?
All of the Maori officers, especially the ones commissioned in and after leaving New Zealand, came well up to expectations, and set good examples to the men they were leading. It was owing to this good leadership and the desire to set a good example that brought about so many casualties in the commissioned ranks.
It was very bad luck to lose Harding Leaf on Crete. He was wounded, and we are hoping that nothing worse has happened to him than being taken prisoner. It was practically impossible for a unit engaged as we were to keep track of the wounded in counter-attacks to a great depth and during the withdrawal, when there were frequent moves.
Although both of our ventures in this war have ended in withdrawal the battalion has done well, and I am pleased to say inflicted many more casualties in the ranks of the Hun than he did in ours, and the credit in the main was due to the fighting spirit and efficiency in the use of arms displayed by N.C.O's and men. The Hun didn't like the bayonet, and never once did he retaliate on this unit with it. The bayonet work of the boys at Suda Bay would have done your heart good.
The surprising thing about the operations in Crete was the fitness of the men right up until the very last, and the big number of active personnel we brought off, when numbers are compared with those of other units. About seventy of our people came straight to Egypt from Greece and did not go to Crete, and we brought 407 away from the latter, which shows, I think, that our men were able to look after and take care of themselves, and it is not as though they are not in the thick of it, because they were.
One pleasing thing is the way members of other units praise the men of this battalion for their good work.
About three weeks ago we received a big draft of reinforcements into the battalion, which has just about brought us up to full strength again, and we are training hard, although it is extremely hot, for the next show.
On Crete it was the German Air Force that turned the tables, and it is estimated that he used in the neighbourhood of 1,600 planes, a big number of which were bombers, dive bombers, and fighters which used their machine-guns freely on ground troops from a very low level.
Captain Royal is doing very well, and Tureia, who became very ill towards the end of operations on Crete, has just returned to us, but he is by no means right yet. Major Dyer also led his company very well.
When the present reinforcements settle down a bit more, the battalion will be more efficient and in better shape whan ever, and would do exceedingly well in their next effort. The more efficient the battalion is, the better it is able to look after itself and get out of tight corners.
C.M. Bennett and Te Punga are filling the appointments of company second in command, so you see the younger officers are coming on well.
Thanks to our well wishers in New Zealand, the battalion still has about ₤200 in private funds. We have from time to time received amounts from the general Patriotic Fund, and as supply allows supplement the ration by providing greens and other things.
Last week we put on a picnic for the battalion which I think all enjoyed. We were lucky in securing the use of a Club grounds in which there is a wonderful swimming bath, properly laid out sports ground for field events, tennis, etc. Soon after returning from Crete we had a hui, but of course many of the things that go with such a function in New Zealand were missing. Nevertheless it went off very well.
Will enclose a snap of members of C Company performing in front of the King of Greece when he visited the battalion here at the beginning of the month.
Must now close, hoping that this finds you and Lady Ngata in the best of health. We will be thinking of you until further word is received about Henry.
(Sgd.) G. Dittmer
Published with the permission of the Ngata family.
Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa.