This article appeared in the April 1986 The Battalion Remembers II booklet.
39192 Major Harry Mackey, MM, MID - Carefree Shepherd to O.C., C Coy 1939-1946
I was born December 1, 1914 on the East Coast of the North Island of NZ at a small place between Waiomatatini and Kakariki being adopted by an aunt and her husband at an early age. I started school at 7 years of age, attending Manutuke Primary for two years then back to birthplace Waiomatatini. I had a bad speech impediment which was no help to my education. I did not have secondary education but went to work on the family farms. At the age of 20 I went to Rotorua and joined the Maori Affairs Dept as a shepherd.
Two years later, September 3 1939, war was declared. I was in Rotorua one Saturday morning and met Whiu Te Purei and two other Ngati Porou chaps. They asked me to go to the pub with them. I refused saying I was going to the drill hall to enlist. They talked it over for a while then said they'd come with me and enlist also. We had our medical tests but when the time came to supply a urine sample they failed to come up with the required amount. Whiu called asking me to help out. This I did willingly. We all passed.
I settled my affairs, giving away my horses and dogs. The department manager farewelled me saying work would be waiting if I ever came back.
I returned to the coast to say farewell to my parents and await the call-up papers. They never did arrive. The day the boys left to go to camp I happened to see Sir Apirana Ngata and mentioned my problem. He said "You have two options, wait for next week's draft or pay your own way down. Tell them I sent you". So I caught the next bus and arrived ahead of the main draft who had traveled by train. Having no papers I had to wait till the last. The Trentham Permanent staff who were doing the bookwork told me to go back home as I wasn't on the list. I then explained to them that Sir Apirana Ngata had sent me. "Who the hell is this Ngata? The army doesn't work that way". But it did!!
Training was tough. I had difficulty in adjusting to the rigid discipline and wasn't used to the hard life. It was during this period in camp that I started to meet my relatives - huge numbers whom I didn't even know existed. It was a good life and we all became very fit.
Mr Savage, the Prime Minister, had died and I was proud to be picked as a member of the guard of honour to go to Wellington to parade outside Parliament Buildings. One of the silly things that amused me in camp happened at meal time. As a treat, we had been given pork bones. Sitting opposite me was a very dark skinned relative. Perhaps because he was an NCO he was given the whole pig's head. Once he'd picked off all the choice pieces from the head he opened its jaws to find about half a yard of dirty dish cloth inside. He turned as white as a sheet. No doubt the cook got a talking to.
Final leave, then off to Waitangi Centennial, back to Wellington and aboard the Aquitania - a huge ship by any standard. Once at sea we joined a convoy some of whose ships were even larger than the Aquitania. Our first port was Fremantle with a few hours leave in Perth then on out into the Indian Ocean to Colombo. A few days sailing from there and we turned south to the Seychelles, a group of very beautiful islands. We unloaded frozen meat and took on water. Our next stop was Capetown, when after some bother we had a few hours leave. I remember Major Bertrand telling us not to fraternise with the coloured people. We stopped at Sierra Leone but there was no leave and no where to go. The boys had fun trading with the natives. The next leg was a long one to Glasgow. Every few miles we passed floating wreckage - a sad sight. Part of the way we were escorted by HMS Hood and an aircraft carrier. We felt safe. We left ship in Gourock and traveled by train to Aldershot. The countryside reminded us of home but with buildings mostly of brick and stone, not like our corrugated iron. We trained in England for several months, having leave to London, Blackpool and other places. The English people were very good to us.
During one of the tough route marches in England I went to sleep dead tired in the lunch break. I dreamed we were in a country populated by a dark skinned people. The air was full of hundreds of parachutes with folding bicycles. I woke and told the chap next to me and then put the moment from my mind. Months later in Crete when such an occurrence really did happen my friend said "Remember your dream? This is it". We lost two Ngati Porou chaps while in England. [Apanui] Ngamoki from Whanau-a-Apanui and a dispatch rider, [Tokena] Pokai, from Reporua. Issued with new equipment we were told that we would be made up into groups of 14 to serve as gun crews on the cargo ships due to sail just before Christmas. Our boat was a small ore carrier with a top speed of 11 knots. We were sent down to Wales and went aboard. The boat was loaded with a mixed cargo of petrol cans, ammunition and bombs. We had a few days leave. We had difficulty in understanding the speech of the older Welsh people but those of our own generation spoke the way we did - better than the English. Many times we were stopped and asked if we knew George Nepia. He came from the same area we did and was very popular with the Welsh.
We sailed up the coast of Ireland before landing again at Gourock to load landing barges. These were welded to the decks. During our few nights off we patronised local taverns - quite an experience for me. It was here that I bought my first bottle of whisky which I kept in my valise for safekeeping. We left Gourock to join a large convoy with some of the boat crew. Clouds and mist were mast high and we could just make out the outline of some of the convoy. The total number including escort vessels was about 40. Change of direction took place every few minutes. On one tack three shells landed "in the sea on our starboard side and two fell to port. The third shell went through the carpenter's shop. No one was hurt. We heard later that we had been attacked by a pocket battleship. The other ships were hit but managed to sail on. One destroyer gave chase and caused a fire in the battleship's deck. We were told that our escort consisted of aircraft carriers, cruiser and destroyers. At this stage the convoy increased speed and within a few hours we were on our own - not a ship in sight; we ate Christmas dinner in a somewhat subdued manner. Early the next morning we were back in our same position in the convoy.
A few weeks later the navy captured the pocket battleship's supply vessel. She was laden with captured merchant seamen including a number of Kiwis. We sailed on round the Cape of Good Hope. Most ships went on to Egypt but because we were damaged we remained in Durban for two weeks for repairs. We were well received in Durban which reminded us of England. Eventually we sailed out into the Indian Ocean and joined another convoy. We spent a few hours at Aden, went up the Red Sea through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean Sea to Alexandria.
We were sent to the Mustapha Barracks, on firm ground again. The next morning a few of the boys lined up for sick parade with lumps on their bodies. The locals roared their heads off. Bed bugs. Despite its age Alexandria was a very modern city. We spent a few months training at various camps. Here much time was devoted to practicing ship to shore landings. This came in very handy as we were then sent to Greece.
Landing in Athens we marched up the street to be given the Hitler salute as we passed the German Embassy. We were not at all pleased. During the odd nights leave we met numbers of Greek soldiers who had served on the Albanian frontier. Most of them had their feet in bandages due to frostbite. Greece, though poor, we found very beautiful with its ruins. Our next move was by train in old dilapidated coaches which were very uncomfortable. We stopped at Katarini and made ourselves at home with the locals who though poor were very kind to us. The Greek Army was in trouble in Albania and we were shifted to form defences on Mt Olympus. After a few days Major Turei took two of us from our work and we set off for Salonica to do some shopping. Nearing Salonica we were stopped by our engineers and told to go back. The Germans were in that city preparing to blow up the bridges and railway line. Soon the Germans were attacking on all fronts. The order was given to withdraw to Athens. On arrival we were off to a bay to board ship. By next morning, we were well out to sea where a plane came over and tried to sink us.
CRETE: We marched a few miles to our campsite which was amid a huge ruin - there must have been acres of it.
Crete was tough and our losses were high. After several moves we settled in a position overlooking Maleme airfield. We were warned that paratroops were on the way. A fairly hectic few days followed after which we had to pull out. Most of the paratropps were killed or wounded before they hit the ground. We withdrew fighting many rearguard actions. At 42 Street area just before our main charge I was behind a huge heap of pick heads trying to get a shot at some Germans when Toka Poa ran over to help me. Before I could stop him Toka looked over the top of the picks and was shot in the head. He slumped back onto me dead. The attack was successful and after several rear-guard actions we reached the embarkation point. Our ship was Abdiel - the fastest mine-laying destroyer in the navy. We had to wade out into the sea under attack to board her. We had several bomb attacks but reached Alexandria safe and sound. We were issued with new equipment and weapons then back to training leave and more training. Our reinforcements started to arrive at this stage and it was good to see them. One night at Kabrit Camp we were on guard duty in a sandstorm. We saw B Coy with their CO Major Bennett about 30 yards away. I called out the guard. Their rifles were stacked against the centre pole of our tent and when the boys grabbed them the whole tent came down on their heads. The B Coy chaps started to laugh but the CO called them to march at attention. I looked and felt a little foolish presenting arms on my own. Major called out, "Report to my office Sergeant". When I went to B Coy Headquarters the CO was out but his duty officer said, "You have reported now forget the whole thing". Ruhi Pene was the officer. We knew each other quite well in Rotorua.
The Battalion suffered a few costly attacks in which I took no part. Then we were sent to Syria and beyond digging and preparing defences. We took turns guarding the ammunition and bomb dumps in the Bekka Valley - a very interesting place. Back in the desert, the Gazala Line which we had helped to capture was pierced and our troops outflanked. We were called back from Syria and arrived a few days later at Mersa Matruh. About that time Tobruk fell. We went to new positions at Minqar Qaim where we were promptly encircled and had to fight our way out at night. This was a successful attack and we headed for the Kaponga Box. Previously we had spent time there building a road. One of our officers died during the above action. He was a great inspiration during the break out. Jim Tuhiwai was a great chap - a fair skinned person who nearly always spoke in Maori.
General Montgomery was appointed in charge of the 8th army. From then on our movements were always forward - no more retreats. He was a small man, highly religious. After several more probes and raids to test the enemy lines and we were ready for the breakthrough. During a raid in broad daylight Colonel Love and Capt Woods were wounded - a shell had landed among us. One large scale raid we shared with other units. During this attack we got right into the enemy's transport lines where we inflicted a great deal of damage. We withdrew just before daybreak. One of our officers, Sadlier, was wounded in the neck and assisted out. Major Keiha was a worried man. He arrived in our area with a handful of C Coy at dawn. We had captured about 17 prisoners mostly Italians. I asked Mac Walsh and two others to take them back to our area. It transpired that the few Germans in the party managed to trick Mac by leading them in the wrong direction so the whole party fell into enemy hands. Walking back to our lines I met Henry Northcroft of B Coy. We came across a burnt out German truck laden with two gallon cans of water. As water was precious we each took two and started walking along the skyline. We were shelled and a piece of shrapnel passed through the can that Harry was carrying, passing through his knee joint. While I was putting a dressing on the knee Henry said he was finished and asked me to go and leave him. He also told me to cut his leg off. I managed to take him about a quarter of a mile when one of our ambulances, which was cruising around looking for wounded, found us. They would not take me as I had a bren gun and rifle. I have not seen Harry since that day. C Coy eventually all turned up the next day as we usually did.
The time came for the main breakthrough. This happened on November 2. We assembled in the area and I was told by Capt Awatere to find the start line tape. It was hard to find, being much farther forward than we had expected. After a massive barrage 'the attack began. I was asked to keep the yardage as we were to advance only so far. There was a great deal of movement on our right - sounded like tanks. It turned out to be the Australians removing their carriers and weapons away from our shelling. During the attack I heard someone calling my name saying he was badly hit. We couldn't stop and carried on. Right at that moment a bullet passed through the butt of my weapon - probably the same burst of fire that got our chaps. Seven of them wee killed in that one area.
It was after this section that I received the Military Medal. It did not seem right after losing so many good men. Walton Haig, an excellent soldier in action, was our officer at the time. A few weeks earlier I was called up by Major Awatere, asked some questions and told I was to go tot he Officer's Cadet Training Unit. After the breakthrough when we were resting in Mursa Mutrah area I was called up before Colonel Bennett. He looked at a few papers on his desk, looked at me and said, "I would shave off those few hairs on your upper lip if I were you".
About a week later Major Awatere called the company together telling them I wanted to say goodbye. Eventually I got the 'speech over and prepared to leave. I had a .45 Colt which I gave to the CO. I think he was pleased to have it. I traveled to Palestine with a few others from our unit. On the same truck were Frank Solomon and Jack Best, both ex All Blacks.
After doing two months training I found I had to do an extra month. I was hurt. My training officer was about 45 years old. He told me not to worry as they often kept pupils on to start the next intake. "While you are here, you are safe". He also said he has never worked for a living as his parents were very rich. I feel the reason for my extension of time was my lack of secondary education. Having received my pips we started training the new arrivals. This lasted for several weeks then I came back to NZ on leave. I met my future wife at this time. She was Jean Walker - a school teacher at Ruatoria. After a few weeks I returned to Trentham and so back overseas. On arrival in Egypt I-was promptly sent to Italy.
We flew over from Cairo via the desert spending the night in Algiers onto Naples then to Rome. There I met up with Padre Huata who was visiting hospitals and checking on burial places. It was good to get back to the company but sad to find so many faces missing. I was second-in-command to Capt Baker and after a few months became Coy Commander with the rank of Captain. We trained for a while then into action again. After several small forays we took ·over from a Canadian unit. The evening we arrived I asked Whiro Tibble to take out a patrol and check on the river crossing the buildings ahead. He returned reporting "no enemy". The CO ordered us to take over those buildings which we did in the early hours of the morning. From then on it was forward all the time.
At Camarino rest area Colonel Awatere asked me to go home as I was one of the longest serving men in the unit. My answer to him was that I had only just arrived back and would like to see the war out. He relented patting me on the back saying his answer would have been the same. We got on very well together.
During one action I was leading one of our tanks forward to a position where it could blast a building giving us a lot of trouble. I stopped to get a better view and these words came to me "fools rush in where angels fear to tread". Sure enough, a few more steps and we would have been in a minefield.
During this period we had the best of equipment - also tank artillery and air force support. In Forli, Italy, during a rest break Coy Commanders and second-in-command were invited to a party given by Colonel Awatere. We arrived on time and were told to wait in the Colonel's office. Bill Reedy and I waited then Bill spotted some packets of chewing gum on the table. He put them in his pocket and went upstairs. I followed Bill to remind him that we were supposed to wait in the office and perhaps we'd better put the gum back. Just then there was a loud whistle followed by an explosion. A shell landed on the steps of the room and burst forwards killing Phil Campbell and Mete Kingi who were arranging the drums and other gear for the party. Acting the fool saved us.
We arrived on the outskirts of Faenza, took over a few houses and settled in. That night I decided to check on the outpost as our lads had a bad habit of going to sleep. Again one of those inexplicable things happened to me. I was walking through some trees when the hair on the back of my neck and arms stiffened. I promptly changed direction. A few days later one of our boys was killed and several were wounded. The river track I had set out to follow was booby trapped. The following day a small mortar or rifle grenade landed on the concrete. I and one other were wounded. We spent three weeks in hospital at base along with George Marsden and Charlie Passmore. Eventually I rejoined my unit to be told by Colonel Awatere that he though my luck was coming to an end and that I was to leave for home.
I came home, married, bought a farm in the Waihi district and raised three children. I sold the farm in 1960, went to work for Wright Stephenson for 10 years, shifted to Hamilton for a further 10 yards and then to Titirangi, Auckland. I now live 40 yards from the 13th tee of the Titirangi Golf Course. I am still working for the same firm at 71 years of age.
I have been blessed with a good wife and family - two sons and a daughter - all in their 30s - in good jobs - a joy to any man.