Reminiscences of a Brigade Major

This article appeared in the April 1984 The Battalion Remembers booklet.

Reminiscences of a Brigade Major [Major Dennis Blundell].

Kia Ora Kotou:

To all you former members of the proud and so justly famous 28th Maori Battalion.

I am happy to contribute some of my memories, though well aware that my position vis-a-vis the Battalion was always that of one perforce standing on the side-line.

The earliest part of my war was spent with the 19th Battalion, and thus in 4th Brigade. As a result I had no contact with the Maoris in Greece or in the 1941 shambles at Bel Hamed and Sidi Resagh, but when in Crete there were two fleeting occasions which I remember well. The first was that splendid counter-attack at 42nd Street. We were not in it, but what music to our ears it was to hear those triumphant yells as the Germans retreated in such haste from the dreaded bayonet. We had all been pushed around so much, it was so good to turn the tide of retreat, if sadly, only temporarily. Then later, and somewhere in the vicinity of Sparkia we came across some 50 odd Maoris and Lieutenant Colonel Dittmer. Those lads, like us, were tired out, but the CO in his own blunt way was making sure that there was no slacking off in discipline.

I now move on to November 1942 and Bardia. There, I was posted to HQ 5th Infantry Brigade commanded by that outstanding soldier and fine man Brigadier H.K. Kippenberger, "Kip" to all of us. The Brigade Major was Monty Fairbrother, whose place I took when he was promoted in April 1943 to CO of 21st Battalion, and in due course CO of your own Battalion.

Relatively, those few weeks at Bardia were halcyon days for the Battalion - weary troops as the Division awaited the political decision, whether we stayed with Eigth Army or returned homewards to participate in the Pacific War.

Thus, it was that at Bardia I had my first close contact with the Maoris. I began to appreciate more their fierce loyalty, their warrior outlook and their grand sense of fun. I recall, in particular, the arrival of four cases of mutton birds. How were these to be distributed fairly amongst five companies. A sports contest with plenty of variety was organised and the top four companies on marks shared the cases. There was great fun. "I forget which company missed out".

When the Division rejoined Eighth Army it was a case of onward to Tripoli. There was that period of a few days when 5th Brigade were well forward and busy, of all things, picking up stones to prepare a landing strip  for the fighters. There were some casualties from enemy bombing and straffing, but what a sight to see, the finest infantry in Eighth Army picking up stones! But by then we all knew the importance of having fighter cover.

Tripoli! A pleasant period of rest and re-supply. A few Maoris were in trouble for reasons of vino, chickens and the like, but they were not alone in that. There was the memorable parade before Winston Churchill and his stirring address and his reference to the NZ Division, "The ball of fire". None did better than the Maoris, and "Kip" later confessed to having tears in his eyes, and so did I!

In due course, Medenine, perhaps the most successful defensive battle of the Desert War. My recollection of the position of the 28th Battalion is rather different from that recorded in your war history. Until driven to cover by shell-fire "Kip" and I watched the German armour approaching your front. The commander of the leading tank was "sniffing" at the wire with its triangles indicating what was in fact an empty mine field, and moving on, and shot up by anti tank fire. General Montgomery came to 5th Brigade HQ's the following day and asked "Kip" to state his view of the principle of a defensive position, "Kip" was embarrassed, but stated them. Later at a meeting of Senior Officers, Montgomery said, he hoped Eighth Army would always attack, but sometimes defence was necessary, and not to forget the basic principles of a defensive position - and repeated verbatim what "Kip" had said!

On to Tebaga Gap. I watched the Maori infantry moving forward in daylight, in extended formation, and the fierce fighting that followed; the stubborn defence broken, the enemy in full retreat. Here it was, that 2nd Lieutenant Ngarimu, displayed in the highest degree, that tradition of courage, fortitude and determination which are the proud traditions of the Maori people and, in that way, their own 28th Battalion - The first Maori VC so nobly earned. How sad that it was posthumous!

At first light that morning, the dejected remnants of the German Battalion who had surrended, were assembled near Brigade HQ's. I talked with their English speaking Adjutant who had been in Crete, and who commented, "those were better days for us" - as indeed they were. This CO obtained permission from "Kip" to hold a last Battalion Parade. It was very much the same as ours and very well done. Then off they marched to our rear, guarded casually by a few Maoris.

I recall Takrouna and the fierce fighting there. Your Battalion suffered heavy casualties, including the CO Charlie Bennett and most of the Officers. Yet, as your history records, there were many incredible exploits of bravery and initiative by NCO's and other ranks. Surely one of the finest chapters in your proud history. I wrote the citation for a VC, Sergeant Manahi, and like the rest of the Division was disgusted when he was awarded an immediate DCM. I feel sure that here was an example, that even in the realm of bravery, politics played a part, and that the award to 2nd Lieutenant Ngarimu only some three weeks previously influenced the final decision. This for me, was confirmed, when later at the Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo, our Military Secretary Brigadier Rudd asked me to tell the story to a Senior British General. The Generals comment was, "We did make a mistake".

Finally, in North Africa, and only a few days before the German surrender, a night attack by 5th Brigade had been successful, except that at daylight there was a German platoon dug in between 23rd Battalion and 28th Battalion, with, apparently plenty of fight left in them. But they were no more than a nuisance and plans were put in train for a night attack by 23rd Battalion, preceded by heavy shelling. Then in the afternoon came the surprise, at least at Brigade HQ's, that they had surrendered. Apparently the nearby Maori platoon had got fed up with their sniping, and mounted their own attack and the Germans gave in. And so at the very end of the fighting in North Africa the 28th Maori Battalion demonstrated, as they had on countless occasions during the previous years, the initiative and courage of the very finest of NZ Infantry.

And so in due course, to Italy - Taranto - Orsogna and Cassino, where after several months I arrived to become CO of 23rd Battalion - a brief few weeks before I was injured when moving into a new position at Monte Cassino, and that ended my war.

I think of that gallant but, abortive attack upon the Railway Station at Cassino. A few days previously some 25-30 Maoris had arrived unheralded from Base at Bari. So bad was our intelligence security that they had learnt in Bari of the impending attack and decided to "be in with the boys". Rear Division sent up an order that they all be charged for being AWOL. Lieutenant-Colonel Young and the Brigade Commander agreed to ignore it. My recollection is that some four of them were killed and several injured.

Then came the main assault on Cassino itself, with fierce fighting on both sides. Again the Maoris played their full part. For better security there was a period when communications between Battalion and Brigade HQ's were conducted in Maori. It worked well.

Here then, are some reminiscences for you attending the reunion. Perhaps I have revived a few memories. May your reunion be another great success. There is no prouder page in Maori History than feats of their people in the wonderful 28th Maori Battalion, 2 NZEF.

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