In late March 1941 the Second New Zealand Division was sent from Egypt to Greece. While the bulk of the 730-strong Maori Battalion entrained to Mt Olympus to defend northern Greece a 90-strong Māori reinforcement company was left with other New Zealand reinforcements at Voula near Athens. They were to reinforce their battalions if and when required. When the troops were evacuated from Greece at the end of April the Reinforcement Company headed south but were captured at Kalamata.
In this video clip Sir Henare Ngata an officer in the Māori Battalion and the youngest son of Sir Apirana Ngata recounts the trip south and the Reinforcement Company's capture by the Germans. In the full interview he recounts his experiences from training in New Zealand in 1939 to fighting in Greece in 1941 where he was captured. He also talks about his time in Germany in a Prisoner of War camp which only ended in 1945.
This is one of a series of interviews conducted as part of an oral and photographic history of C Company of the 28th Māori Battalion. The project commenced in 1994 and the Nga Taonga a Nga Tama Toa Trust (Box 399, Gisborne) hold the recordings on behalf of the descendants of C Company.
The interviewer is Tom Fox supported by Monty Soutar (project leader) and Hirini Reedy (then a captain in the NZ Army) and Tata Lawton (camerman). It was recorded 24 April 1995 at Sir Henare Ngata's residence in Gisborne.
Well there wasn't much organisation when you're in flight; there's not a great deal of organisation, almost everyman for himself. Where the Battalion was I don't know we never ever made contact with the Battalion. Whether they were behind us or whether ahead of us, I don't know. We moved south.
Question: Just your platoon or company, group?
Question: The Reinforcements still intact?
Well more or less. [There were] A lot of empty trucks moving. When you ran out of petrol you just tipped your truck over the side of the road and dive into the nearest ravine and hopped onto the next truck. And that's where we finished up. We finished up at a place called Kalamata. We finished up there because there was nowhere else to go further south. (Except the sea) That was supposed to have been the port that we where we to embark from and I don't know to this day where the Battalion embarked from. The first night we were at Kalamata we fancied we could hear ships out at sea. Whether they were any there or not I don't know. But there were literally thousands of people there.
Question: Uniformed people?
Yes there were New Zealanders, Australians, Yugoslavians - huge number of Yugoslavians there, Palestinians, British. There was a brigadier there, Pom brigadier, I've forgotten his name. Poor beggar, I suppose because he was a brigadier everyone expected him to organise the shambles, because nothing happened I suppose everyone pointed the finger at him. But certainly we didn't get off that night. Whether anyone got off, whether in fact any ships came in I don't know. Everything had to be blacked out anyway. In the meantime we knew the Germans were fairly close to the township. Next night they came, there was some fighting in the streets and so on. That's where a chap Hulme got his VC. There was a chap with him, a chap Horopapera, all sorts of stories that he should've got a VC too. Whether it was so or not I don't know. He was shot through the lower jaw. I saw him briefly after the war, we were in England, and I asked him about the stories and well, whether that's the dinkum or not I don't know. So we ran out of space and we ran out of time.
Question: Just waiting for the inevitable?
Well, waiting for something. But what turned up on the final day, 29th of April 1941 the Germans came. Panzer troops came and occupied.
Question: Just rounded everybody up?
Yeah, rounded everybody up. Well rounded up the officers particularly. There'd been some casualties, some deaths the night before. All dumped in the back of the truck like carcases of meat. These German Officers were very curious to know who we were with New Zealand patches and dark faces. So that's how we were rounded up. So you can be cynical in later years as to why they ever sent such a poorly equipped force into a place such as that. However, that's what happened. We spent five weeks in a place called Corinth, Corinth Camp. It was during that period that the attack on Crete took place. From time to time they had to our change guards. I recall some of these paratroopers they were assigned to guard us - young fellas, they all looked young. We were young ourselves and these fellas looked like kids compared with us. Young, fit, all bursting with energy. Then we'd see them go out, planes fly out, together with troop carrying planes going out. And the next night these fellas would come back, about three nights in succession I think. They'd ome back to, I don't know not coming back, but they had paratroopers to guard us and then they disappeared. We knew nothing of what happened what was happening in Crete, no news whatever, till a long time afterwards. There were six of us Maori officers: myself, Jimmy Wiremu and Henry Hokianga - the three of us were with the Reinforcement unit - then there was, oh and Bill Herewini, he was also with the Reinforcement unit. The other two were Tenga Rangi, who was separated from the Main Body of the Battalion. He was the officer in charge of the... Tenga and... George Bennett. George Bennett was in command, had the bren carriers under his command. I've forgotten what Tenga's command was [note: 2/Lt Rangi was in charge of the mortar platoon] but they were separated from the Battalion and they found themselves with us. So they were taken prisoner.
Question: Within that five weeks stay in that camp what was the treatment like?
[There] Was hardly any food. Physical treatment was alright. A whole lot of other troops there with us. We had with us a dental unit; a New Zealand Dental unit were right up in the front line. Why that should be so I don't know. And then we had one of these chaps with us, two or three of them with us and in the mornings at medical parade one of these dentists had to deal with people who wanted dental treatment. I think he only had a left jaw pliers or whatever it was and he used to, whatever the complaint was he'd yank the tooth out. We were there about five weeks, we moved from there to Salonika and then to Germany.
This excerpt has been reproduced with the permission of Sir Henare Ngata.