Sir Wira Gardiner's new book chronicles the Māori Battalion's heroics in World War II, including the Italian campaign.

"No infantry had a more distinguished record, or saw more fighting, or, alas, had such heavy casualties, as the Maori Battalion," said Major-General Bernard Freyberg.

Attached to the 2nd New Zealand Division, 3600 men served in the battalion throughout World War II.

Former soldier Sir Wira Gardiner's new book Ake Ake Kia Kaha E! Forever Brave! details their exploits during the Greek, Crete, North African and Italian campaigns.

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"It is about remembering the men who willingly left these shores to fight for a better tomorrow," he says.

"It is written as a testament to their bravery and their refusal to step back from the threats posed by the regimes of Nazi Germany."

The troopship Aquitania, carrying 2000 soldiers of the Second Echelon, including 28 (Maori) Battalion, leaves Pipitea Wharf, Wellington in May 1940. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
The troopship Aquitania, carrying 2000 soldiers of the Second Echelon, including 28 (Maori) Battalion, leaves Pipitea Wharf, Wellington in May 1940. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

The last surviving veteran of B Company, Robert Gillies, 95, lives in Rotorua, and contributed to the book. Gillies was involved in the five battles along five rivers in northern Italy in April 1945, near the end of the war.

Those battles saw 25 Maori Battalion men killed and 117 wounded. Over the course of the war, 649 died and 1712 were wounded. Another 29 died following discharge as a result of their service.

The below extract details the battles to cross the rivers Santerno, Idice and Po.

The Santerno

At 9am on April 10 Freyberg met his brigadiers to plan the next stage of the offensive. He was keen to "gate-crash" the Santerno before the enemy manned its stopbanks. Major Geoffrey Cox warned the brigade commanders to expect heavy fighting, as the enemy had moved to 5 NZ Brigade's frontage. Freyberg ordered the brigades to continue the advance at 12.30pm, once a heavy concentration of artillery fire had softened up the German positions. 5 NZ Brigade was to pull back while the barrage was in progress, and then "get to the Santerno".

B Company near the Marecchia River on the Adriatic coast, in 1944. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
B Company near the Marecchia River on the Adriatic coast, in 1944. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

For this action, 28 (Maori) Battalion was the left assault battalion in 5 NZ Brigade, with 23 Battalion on its right. The battalion's first task was to capture the Scolo Tratturo. C and D Companies would be in the lead, with A and B Companies (the latter now commanded by Captain Henry Ransfield of Te Arawa) in reserve. In the early part of the advance, which began at 2pm, the leading companies passed unmanned strongpoints and posts. They came under fire as they neared their objective.

In D Company, Lieutenant William Potaka's 18 Platoon was losing men and went to ground.

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"Without waiting to see if 16 Platoon (Lieutenant Alfred Preece) was doing likewise," said author Joseph F Cody in his 1956 book 28 (Maori) Battalion.

"Private George Nia Nia led his section straight at the enemy, all his men firing from the hip as they charged. These shock tactics were successful and, at a cost of one wounded Maori, eleven Germans were killed, five of whom fell to Nia Nia, who was awarded the Military Medal for this action. Preece led his men to the Tratturo and they occupied a group of houses."

C Company, which had had a torrid day on the 9th, again faced determined opposition on the 10th. When they left the shelter of a belt of trees to cross the cornfield D Company had taken casualties in earlier, 13 Platoon's Lieutenant Rua Kaika was wounded and C Company was pinned to the ground.

Battalion soldiers in a Divisional Reserve Motor Transport truck at Forli. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Battalion soldiers in a Divisional Reserve Motor Transport truck at Forli. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

Tanks could not move up to support them until a large antitank gun beyond the Scolo was knocked out. When C Company asked that a 6-pounder be brought forward, Lieutenant Te Rauwhiro Tibble and his team manhandled it up a bank and scored a direct hit with their second shot. The next step was to guide the tanks forward.

"The company runner, Private Pita Maangi was sent to bring them up" Cody said.

"Between the tanks and the troops was an open, bullet-swept space ... the shortest distance and the most dangerous. Maangi crossed safely and later was seen walking ahead of the armour, guiding them to the waiting company. The enemy redoubled his efforts and mortar shells fell so thickly that nothing could be seen except dust and smoke. Maangi emerged unscathed and the tanks opened fire on their targets."

For his bravery Private Maangi was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Under the cover of the supporting armour the whole company surged forward with their bayonets at the ready. The enemy asked for no quarter and received none. Three Maoris were killed and six wounded, but there were ten nests of rifle pits filled with dead men when the company pushed on.

Major Arapeta Awatere. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Major Arapeta Awatere. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

The companies moved forward and reached the Santerno stopbanks late in the afternoon. By midnight the battalion area was secure and a hot meal had been brought forward. On the following day the Santerno was crossed and secured. The New Zealanders had outstripped the divisions on either side, but Freyberg was not about to slow down. He ordered his commanders to maintain the momentum.

Captain Arapeta Awatere received orders to resume the attack at 2pm after a barrage had softened up the enemy positions. The battalion was to cross the Santerno and advance about 600 yards beyond it. The Engineers would then bridge the river to enable tanks and supporting arms to cross. 6 NZ Brigade would pass through the battalion's area once it was secure. A and B Companies were to make the crossing. Meanwhile, Tibble was to try to get two 6-pounders across to deter German tanks.

The Santerno was about 12 feet wide, and muddy and sluggish, at the point where the companies were to cross. As the leading elements plunged in and headed for the other bank, some found that they had to swim.

"Private Jimmy Kira was first across and caught a spandau crew unawares; then he caught sight of another one and wiped that out also," said Cody.

"By this time the rest of his section had arrived dripping and mud-covered. Again the troops lined the bank and, on the word of command, swept over the top. No. 7 Platoon (Lieutenant Pompey Rivers found two bazooka crews and shot them in their trenches before they could do any harm. Kira was awarded a Military Medal."

B Company did not even need to get their feet wet, as they found a narrow footbridge across the river. Enemy fire from an embankment was suppressed by artillery fire they called down. They reached their objective, a group of houses 1500 yards to the west, and had settled in when they sighted three tanks. These moved off when heavy fire was brought down on them.

Soldiers of the Maori Battalion on a stopbank beside the Santerno River. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Soldiers of the Maori Battalion on a stopbank beside the Santerno River. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

During this battle the men came across some horses which they pressed into service. Private Robert Gillies and a mate captured thirteen German prisoners and marched them to headquarters. Gillies led the way on a white horse, while the other man brought up the rear on a grey, which also carried a wounded German. Earlier in the battle the padre [Wi Huata] had been seen cantering towards the Santerno stopbank — then still in German hands — without the benefit of a saddle or bridle. It is fair to say that by now the men were very confident.

Meanwhile, Tibble and his men were struggling to bring forward the two 6-pounders to provide protection against any German counterattack with tanks. For almost a mile the two crews hauled and pushed the weapons up to the front line. One gun was ready for action in each company before dusk. It was a feat that excited the admiration of the Division when it became known. For this and previous exploits Lieutenant Tibble was awarded the Military Cross.

The battalion paused for the night, with A Company on the right and B Company on the left. A Company's Captain Graham Harris "from the top window of his headquarters house, watched a Tiger [tank] nestle in alongside the wall and switch off its engine", said Cody.

New Zealand troops line the road waiting for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to be driven past them, at Castellina. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
New Zealand troops line the road waiting for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to be driven past them, at Castellina. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

"The Maoris kept studiously out of sight; the turret top opened and one of the crew sat on the edge for a while and conversed with others in the bowels of the Tiger. Harris told one of his men to slip Hawkins grenades under the tracks as soon as the turret closed. This was done, but when shortly afterwards the unwanted visitor moved away the grenades failed to explode. Probably in the excitement of the moment they had not been primed."

B Company's front was quiet except when an artillery stonk was called to target a Tiger. Three German soldiers captured while riding a rations cart through the lines were clearly unaware that their troops no longer held the riverbank.

Next day, 12 April, the New Zealanders were to advance another 2 miles to the Scolo Zaniolo canal. The battalion moved off at 6am with A Company on the right and B Company on the left. Enemy mortars and machine guns soon targeted both the forward and reserve companies, and the attack broke down. D Company had the worst of it. When Major William McRae was wounded, Second Lieutenant Wituroa Duff assumed command until Captain J.W. Mataira arrived.

The Battalion drive through Sora in a jeep. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
The Battalion drive through Sora in a jeep. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

About midday, Awatere issued further orders. Both brigades would begin advancing towards Massa Lombarda at 3pm. His forward companies had to pull back under fire to avoid being hit by the preparatory artillery barrage.

When this lifted, A Company moved to secure the agreed rendezvous point, a cemetery. When they charged, all 30 Germans in the cemetery fought to the death.

The battalion remained on this pause line while Awatere and his company commanders went back for further orders. That evening, B Company's Quartermaster Sergeant Kani Rangitauira, from Rotorua, drove towards the forward troops with hot meals.

The citation for his Military Medal described what happened next: "As it became darker visibility decreased whereupon he missed our FDLs [forward defensive lines] and found himself on the very outskirts of the village. On making a recce he saw some eighteen armed German soldiers coming towards his jeep. Immediately he moved behind cover and when these enemy soldiers were near him he dashed up behind them, ordering them to surrender. He called and made signs as if calling up more infantry to help him. When the enemy saw this they surrendered. He immediately disarmed them and shepherded them back to his lines. By his daring and cunning this soldier contributed to the Battalion's effort to reduce enemy resistance on the front as much as possible."

The Idice

New Zealand soldiers and Italian civilians walk across a bridge at Taranto, southern Italy. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
New Zealand soldiers and Italian civilians walk across a bridge at Taranto, southern Italy. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

8 (Maori) Battalion was relieved that night and moved back to Sant' Agata while 21 and 23 Battalions advanced. The Maori had suffered 116 casualties and "remained in reserve until the afternoon of the 16th, during which period the Sillaro [River] . . . proved no greater obstacle than had the Santerno," said Cody.

On the night of 19 April, 5 NZ Brigade took over from 9 Brigade. The next river to be crossed was the Idice. The attack began at midnight on the 20th, with A and B Companies leading and C and D Companies following up to widen the foothold. The battalion's allocated flamethrowers failed to operate, and while the troops waited for them, the barrage moved some distance ahead.

The lead companies incurred casualties but continued to make progress.

Navigation was difficult because the smoke shells blotted out the artificial light. Some Germans did their best to hide. D Company's Sergeant Turi Carroll, "lighting a match to take a closer look at some bullocks in the stable stalls, was startled to see nine fully-armed Germans arise from the straw-covered floor and give themselves up," Cody said.

"No. 13 Platoon also found an empty house but the investigation of suspicious sounds at the rear disclosed eight Germans busily boring into a haystack."

Shells fired by 28 (Maori) Battalion land on enemy positions towards Cotignola, Senio sector. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Shells fired by 28 (Maori) Battalion land on enemy positions towards Cotignola, Senio sector. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

Bridges had been constructed across the Idice by 9am, but 28 (Maori) Battalion was held up by a deluge of mortar shells from Cazzano.

Eventually the battalion moved around and through 23 Battalion to bypass Cazzano, and by 10.30pm. It was back on track. When the advance continued early the next morning, it was clear that the enemy was in full flight towards the River Po.

The Po

Both the Fifth and the Eighth Armies were now dashing for the River Po, the last enemy bulwark. Before that the Reno had to be crossed. As A and B Companies moved carefully forward, a reconnaissance aircraft dropped a message stating that no Germans could be seen for 4 miles in front of them. For once Awatere thought discretion the better part of valour and insisted that all buildings were still checked. By now partisans were appearing and telling the men where enemy groups were hiding.

When B Company was informed that Germans were holed up in a house near Rubizzano, Captain John Ransfield deployed a platoon to watch the northern exit and waited for the tanks, "which were having trouble in this particularly deeply-ditched area", said Cody.

"Suddenly the back door opened and about twenty Germans ran out. Only two were brought down owing to the distance and the Maoris raced after them like dogs after a hare, but the fugitives threw away their arms and escaped."

Robert Gilles, pictured in the 1940s, the last remaining member of B company. Photo / Supplied
Robert Gilles, pictured in the 1940s, the last remaining member of B company. Photo / Supplied
Gillies met Prince Harry in Rotorua when he toured New Zealand with his wife Meghan last year. Photo / Ben Fraser
Gillies met Prince Harry in Rotorua when he toured New Zealand with his wife Meghan last year. Photo / Ben Fraser

During an exciting afternoon, D Company complained that B Company was bypassing too many buildings. At one stage fairly accurate sniping from 23 Battalion's area was quietened by Colonel Awatere's Honey tank, whose Browning dealt effectively with the situation. Regimental Sergeant-Major Martin McRae brought up the ammunition truck in answer to demands for more bullets.

A pitched battle between partisans and Germans at Gavasetto was resolved with the assistance of a flamethrower.

"By midnight the troops had marched nine miles from their afternoon halt, were wet to the skin through wading so many canals, and because of the mud in their socks were wearing their boots slung over their shoulders," Cody said.

"The danger of meeting any opposition now appeared remote and the men were told to climb aboard tanks, portées, and the other unit vehicles. This strange mixture of vehicles, with the tanks leading, swept down to the Reno, where the forward companies dug in on the side of the river."

Ake Ake Kia Kaha E! Forever Brave! By Sir Wira Gardiner
RRP: $49.99
Out today