Friday, April 12, 2019

Maori Battalion B Company story vividly told

Ake Ake Kia Kaha E! (Forever Brave) by Wira Gardiner, David Bateman Ltd, Hobsonville, 2019, Price $49.95.

World War One centennial commemorations have faded in a publishing sense, after the scramble of activity between 2014-18, and the field of military interest has widened again.

One of the latest offerings is the immensely-readable, prodigiously-illustrated Ake Ake Kia Kaha E! by Wira Gardiner.

If military history to the general populace is about reducing the amount of jargonised description of battles and skirmishes in all their technical detail, then Gardiner has managed to tell his story appropriately. 

This is written in an easy format and while dealing with military matters, as it must, it is in a readable style that those with a non-military upbringing or background can enjoy.

What will appeal most in this story of the B Company of 28 Maori Battalion is the description and personalisation of events as they affected the Company whose members were drawn largely from the Central North Island and Bay of Plenty. This is not only of the eye-catching examples of personal bravery and acumen but also of some of the less palatable behaviour of Kiwi young men overseas.

Gardiner, already a chronicler of 28 Maori Battalion nearly 20 years ago, has backed his writing with a marvellous collection of photos of many of those who were part of B Company throughout the Second World War, not the least being the roll call of all who served, with a high percentage of photographs to accompany their individual placement in a special section towards the end of the book.

But, as in all the most readable war histories, it is the personalisation of war activities that lends authenticity to the book. 

There is time for a brief appreciation of what a Maori Battalion represented especially after the efforts of the Maori Contingents, the subsequent Pioneer Battalion with its mixture of Maori and Pakeha Companies, and then finally the creation of the New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion in 1917 during the First World War.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, much discussion occurred on the best way to involve Maori and by January 1940, 28 Maori Battalion was established. Issues of establishing the command structure of the group, and the recruiting for the Battalion are covered by Gardiner before they sailed, initially for Egypt with the Second Echelon, but then being transferred to England when the invasion of Britain appeared imminent.

Once joining the Division in Egypt, there was little time before they were shipped on to Greece and the sorry episode that resulted in the retreats from Greece and Crete, both with significant numbers left behind and to spend the rest of the war in prison camps. Stories of escape and derring-do began in those difficult days, not least being the famed bayonet charge at 42ndStreet on Crete. Accounts of the action and its aftermath make for chilling reading.

Likewise, the accounts of B Company's involvement in battles fought in the to and fro of the early years of the North African campaign are supplemented by personal description which capture the events vividly, especially in the breakout at Minqar Qaim.

Equally, the key battles at Tebaga Gap and Takrouna are brought to life, and the toll on B Company in the latter, is especially telling and evocative.

Across in Italy and with the impasse at Cassino there was some humour in one instance where a patrol under Stewart Black, that had been given instruction in mine warfare, and how to clear mines, had picked up 25 mines. At one stage they were carrying out their tasks, initially some distance from the Germans. Black related: "We got closer, ten yards, five yards and then we stood still. A section of Germans was passing us and our section passed them at the same time. They did not seem to know we were there. However, we knew they were there. They marched and we marched too into the night."

Having been close to some German pillboxes during the incident they reached the last pillbox and one of the members of the group said: "Bugger this, we're not going to come all this way without some excitement." 

Black said: "He returns and lobs a grenade into the pillbox. Everything exploded. Well that was the fastest 250 yards, the fastest time in the world we ever ran."

Progress beyond Cassino was slow as they and the NZ Division crossed river after river before finally war ended with the securing of Trieste.

Gardiner's story does not end there. Returning home, and all the adjustments that took are also described while on-going activities of B Company and the Battalion overall are included to complete a full and rounded tale that is not only a worthy record of B Company but highly readable for those without any connection to the group.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Vale Ray Harper - a true rugby man

You're lucky in life sometimes when in your everyday working life you come into contact with people like Ray Harper, the former New Zealand Rugby Union councillor and life member of Southland Rugby, who died on Thursday after a lifetime of devotion to the game.

For 10 years as sports editor of The Southland Times, it was my privilege to work with Ray in his role as Southland's representative on the NZRU of the day and as member of the Southland Rugby Union's management committee.

Ray Harper, right, showing off Rugby Park's readiness for the 1987 Rugby World Cup games played in Invercargill to the tournament boss John Kendall-Carpenter while the writer tagged along for a few words for The Southland Times.
He was a terrific representative for the province who never held back if the province needed defending and ensured that every time a North Island rugby team was in town for a game with Southland, and the sun was shining, he would enquire if their travelling reporter ever needed sunglasses in order to cover the game.

There was none happier on the July day in 1977 when Bay of Plenty visited and the ground at Rugby Park was so dry that dust was raised whenever a high kick fell to ground. It helped that Brian McKechnie completed the feat of scoring in each possible way in Southland's win.

But there was a much stronger connection to the province. He was well known and respected in the commercial sector for his carpentry business.

It was at one SRFU management committee meeting around about 1980-81 that Harper said it was only a few years until Southland was due to celebrate its rugby centennial and he thought a committee should get together to start preparing for the occasion which would be in 1986. From that arose a relationship with Craigs Publishing which saw me commissioned to start working on a book to celebrate the occasion that became Something to Crow About. The luxury of five years to research the subject was typical of Harper's thinking.

It was while interviewing Ray about his own extensive playing and coaching involvement with the province in which his side beat the touring British & Irish Lions in the opening game of their 1966 tour and which a year earlier went within an ace of relieving Taranaki of the Ranfurly Shield when they drew 6-6, that he revealed how much rugby had helped him recover from the loss of his father as a youth when the pair of them were cycling on a street in Invercargill and his father had been killed.

He worked through a tough period in the New Zealand game around the 1981 Springbok tour which created so much division while running into him on the 1986 morning it was realised that the country's best players had flown out the evening before on an unofficial tour to South Africa he was mortified that such a thing should have happened.

The game was always the thing for Ray and it was fitting that he should have been given the job of managing Graham Mourie's side on their centenary tour to Wales in 1980. He revelled in the opportunity and carried his style into the international league with a memorable speech at the centennial dinner in Cardiff. He said he knew he could never hope to match the eloquence of the speakers who had gone before him, but as he listened to them and gazed above to the intricacies of the woodwork in the ceiling of the famed establishment they were in he wondered aloud how many of them might have been able to construct something like that they were seated under.

He was also a good guardian of the significant financial resources the SRFU had carefully built up over the years and anyone seeking to spend some of that money had to have a pretty good case to get it past himself and the SRFU treasurer Fred Ward.

So it was with some interest, having been forewarned, when the late Peter Tait suggested the SRFU needed to do something about further developing the all-weather grounds at Oreti Park that Ray's reaction was slightly less than muted when ballpark (excuse the pun) figures were thrown around about what it might cost. But it was decided to form a committee to look into the venture.

This resulted in the specific advancement of what became the Les George Oval with its own small grandstand and superb turf as a back-up playing surface to the often water-logged grounds in the city. Ray became one of its firm supporters and once again it proved a timely development.

Behind it all was his Pirates Rugby Club, now but all a distant memory in the wake of inevitable club mergers. However, throughout fair weather and foul, of which there tended to be plenty in Southland, Ray Harper was a constant attendee and there can be no greater measure of his commitment to the game. All the trappings that came with his subsequent appointments were just that, trappings. Ray Harper was your true rugby man.