Virtually forgotten by New Zealand rugby, George Fletcher Hart was - along with Dave Gallaher - arguably our finest ever All Black to die in war.

A mainstay in the national team in the early 1930s and judged by many (including the late Sir TP McLean) as our finest winger of the decade, Hart served as a tank commander in World War II, dying on June 3, 1944, of wounds sustained during the Battle of Monte Cassino.

Unlike Gallaher, however, Hart's remarkable story has never been fully told - until now.

By Ben Stanley

They're almost all gone now, the men and women who loved George Hart.

The fullbacks, the flankers, the props. The coaches, the newspaper writers, the fans.

Gone are the Kiwi kids of the early 1930s who, ball in hand at lunchtime, cut inside, then back out again just like George Hart, All Black winger.

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Many of them were destined to die in the same war that he would, too.

But if they served alongside Capt. G.F. Hart, a tank commander in the 20th Armoured Regiment, maybe that'd tell you a truth that still matters to Kiwis today: he was a bloody good sort.

Capt. W.K.L. (Walter) Dougall felt so. Dated August 16, 1944, HQ 2nd NZEF, he wrote a heartbreaking letter from Italy to Hart's widow, Maisie, about his mate.

Seventy-five years ago on this June 3, her husband - and the father to her two children, Simon and Jenny - died in a Catholic seminary turned makeshift combat hospital in Sora, Italy.

Hart had been standing beside his Sherman tank, hidden behind a building wall, when a German shell exploded next to him. It was right on dusk. He held on for a couple of hours.

"He loved you as few women have ever been loved – you were in his thoughts, always," Dougall wrote. "He was full of faith too - never faltered.

"I'll never forget saying to him one night, just after we had been given some orders concerning an attack, "this seems a bit grim, George", and he replied: "yes, but I have great faith, haven't you?"

"He was always a source of strength to his friends. And now I have said enough, Maisie my dear."

Look at Hart's roots - red dug deeply into black - and you'll see how rugby was always going to matter for George Fletcher Hart.

Born in Christchurch on February 10, 1909, his father Lionel Hart was a successful merchandising businessman, while his grandfather, Michael Brannan Hart, arrived in 1840, built the city's first hotel and served as its third mayor.

A portrait of former All Black George Hart from the early 1930s. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
A portrait of former All Black George Hart from the early 1930s. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Hart – who, outside rugby, worked as a travelling salesman for Lionel – excelled on the wing for Waikati Boys High and Christchurch Football Club, before making his Canterbury debut, aged only 19, in 1928.

Despite a larger build (1.70m and 76.2 kg) than the usual outside backs of the 1930s, Hart's speed – he was the 1931 national sprint champion – helped make him, arguably, the finest All Black winger of the decade.

"He was faster by yards last season than when he first appeared in big football and his biggest asset – his swerve – was more pronounced," wrote the editors of the New Zealand Rugby Almanac in 1935, when they made him one of their Players of the Year.

Hart's tries – 80 for his club, 42 for his province and 28 for his country – were legendary.

In a Ranfurly Shield game against Southland in 1933, he once scored from an opposing kick-off. Against Auckland at Lancaster Park three years later, Hart beat six defenders over half the field to score a spectacular solo try.

"He could ignite a crowd running down the side-line like a wild deer," former All Black coach Jim Burrows, who briefly commanded Hart's unit during the war, would later write in his book Pathway Among Men .

"The crowd, knowing exactly what was going to happen, would wait for him to veer infield, then, watching the opposing fullback check his pace ... would roar with delight as George would veer out again and race around to score."

Hart's international debut came in a rare home loss, 6-3, to the touring British & Irish Lions in Dunedin on June 21, 1930. He scored the All Blacks' only try. George Nepia played at fullback.

Hart would be a regular member of the New Zealand line-up for the next six years, playing in 35 games, including 11 tests with seven test tries.

His surprise omission from the final test of the 1935-36 northern tour likely led to one of the All Blacks most infamous defeats, too.

All Black George Hart with famed English winger Prince Obolensky at a function in London, following the All Blacks infamous 13-0 defeat at Twickenham on January 4, 1936. Photo:Supplied.
All Black George Hart with famed English winger Prince Obolensky at a function in London, following the All Blacks infamous 13-0 defeat at Twickenham on January 4, 1936. Photo:Supplied.

Officially, Hart, halfback Joey Sadler and first-five Jack Griffiths were dropped because of poor form. But legendary rugby writer Sir TP McLean later revealed, in his book Rugby Legends , that the star backs had been late back from a New Year's Eve party days before. Tour management did not see the humour in it.

At Twickenham, Prince Obolensky, whom Hart dominated in an earlier tour match, would score two great tries as England ran out 13-0 winners.

Hart played three more times for the All Blacks later that year, but officially retired from all rugby, following his last test against Australia, aged only 27, on September 12, 1936. Family life beckoned.

Simon Hart has no memory of his father. Born in 1940, he was 4 years old when his dad died on the day before the Allies liberated Rome.

He is now a 79-year-old retired management consultant, living near central Auckland.

His sister Jenny, 77, was born after Hart shipped out for North Africa, in 1942. She never knew him. Due to her profound deafness, which she has had since childhood, she lives in assisted care in Auckland.

"As I got older, my mother would tell me stories of my father," Simon told me, speaking on the phone earlier last month.

"I knew that Daddy was over there. There was an old water tank where we were living, which I thought of as his 'tank'.

"[Mum] thought he was fantastic. Really, it was in superlatives about a great man he was and what a great thing he was doing, being overseas."

George Hart with his son Simon, likely taken in 1941 before the former All Black was sent to North Africa. Photo: Simon Hart's personal collection.
George Hart with his son Simon, likely taken in 1941 before the former All Black was sent to North Africa. Photo: Simon Hart's personal collection.

Hart had married Maisie Chambers Harris in Christchurch, March 30, 1930. Empire Games rower Les Pithie was his best man.

After leaving rugby, the couple - who'd swap 78 letters during Hart's time overseas - moved to be near his retired parents in Mount Maunganui. Before the war began, Hart ran a local campground.

Seven All Blacks died during in World War II. One - Canterbury's Jack Harris, killed at Monte Cassino - was a distant relative of Maisie's. She had already lost her older brother Norman on Gallipoli's Chunuk Bair, in 1915.

After training to be a tank officer, Hart, alongside NZ test batsman Martin Donnelly, was posted to the 20th Armoured in North Africa, in October 1941.

After two years of training and support operations in the Egypt, his first real action came in late 1943 when the 2nd NZEF joined the Italian campaign.

Commanding a troop of tanks in A Squadron, Hart quickly gained a reputation as a strong, capable leader, with a great loyalty to his men.

On December 24, 1943, during the Battle of Orsogna, his squadron lost all but three tanks, leaving Hart to protect the stranded men as the enemy attacked.

"But George beat them off and after a dreadful night, he managed to get all his men out on his own tank," Dougall wrote to Maisie.

Hart's unit was almost constantly engaged throughout 1944, including during Cassino. His death occurred just two weeks after the notorious battle ended, as the Kiwis chased the retreating Germans north.

Simon Hart has visited his father's grave - like a group of touring All Blacks did last year - in the Commonwealth

Cemetery at Cassino, twice. Once during his OE in the early 1960s, then on a group tour 30 years later.

The second time, he researched where his father had been, and was able to retrace his tracks, from Orsogna to Sora.

All Black winger George Hart sprinting away from defenders in the early 1930s. Photo: Supplied.
All Black winger George Hart sprinting away from defenders in the early 1930s. Photo: Supplied.

"When I was doing this trip, I followed, almost literally, in his footsteps," he says.

"It was quite an eerie sensation because you could virtually tell where he'd been, especially in Orsogna and Sora, where he was killed."

Hart's death shook his family – and Canterbury rugby – hard. Maisie never re-married, while Hart's parents donated annual trophies in his name to Christchurch Football Club, and for national athletics.

According to a local newspaper, Mr W. Maxwell, president of the Canterbury Rugby Union, stated that a "finer sportsman and cleaner footballer than George Hart had not been seen".

Hart's closest rugby friends formed a protective cocoon around his family, enabling them to reconcile from the loss.

With razor-sharp memory, Simon Hart rattles off the names of the All Blacks that were there when they were needed:

Jack Griffith. Hubert McLean. Jack Manchester. Ron Bush. Archie Strange. Rusty Page. Brushy Mitchell. Beau Cottrell. Sir Pat Caughey.

Griffiths, who captained Hart during his last test, and McLean, the brother of Sir TP, took Simon and Jenny under their wings, often taking them to All Blacks games.

"They were serious, serious supporters, them and their wives," Simon says.

"They realised my mother was a war widow and they wanted to support her strongly. They did a really good job there. They were very positive, as far as I was concerned, and I feel very strongly about how much they did for me when I was younger."

They're almost all gone, now. Maisie Hart passed away in 1984, aged 74. Griffiths was the last of his All Black friends, and family supporters, to die, in 2001. McLean died in 1997, and Burrows in 1991.

Gone too are most of the boys from the 2nd NZEF, and the men and women who saw a wild deer in the backline, from the rugby stands, more than eight decades ago.

George Hart in action for the All Blacks against Australia in the early 1930s. Photo: Supplied.
George Hart in action for the All Blacks against Australia in the early 1930s. Photo: Supplied.

The records are still there in books and online, but it seems Hart's place in our rugby history has somehow been lost, for far too long.

Not for two people, though. Simon still has one of his father's All Black jumpers, the official blazer from the 1935-36 tour and the stack of letters George sent, from the front, to his mum.

"When we are on the job here it is not so bad, but ... when we stop, [I] think of you all and try to picture ourselves ... again," Hart wrote, in one.

"Heaven on Earth. That is, what it would be. It will come dear, and I expect we must have patience and wait for the day we will be reunited."

On Jenny's bedside table is a photo of her father. After all these years, Simon says it brings her great pride to know her father was an All Black, and a serviceman.

"I felt privileged that he was my father," Simon says. "I might not have seen him, but I know a lot about him now, and it is pretty good news.

"I'm sure he wasn't perfect, but, mostly, it's good."

In Pathway Amongst Men , Burrows, Hart's old coach and unit commander, recalled watching one of Hart's last rugby games, a services match against South African troops in Egypt, in late 1943.

Former All Black George Hart with an unknown South African player after a NZEF vs 'Rest of Egypt' armed forces rugby game in Egypt, 1943. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.
Former All Black George Hart with an unknown South African player after a NZEF vs 'Rest of Egypt' armed forces rugby game in Egypt, 1943. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.

"I saw [him] in his togs again," Burrows wrote, "taking the ball in full cry, George fit and youthful and vital but so soon to lose his life [near] his tank in Italy, and I watched him veer infield in his own inimitable style, and then gallop round the fullback to score in the corner.

"I had never seen him do it in a more masterly fashion. I could hear quite clearly the roar from the crowd at Lancaster Park."

Though an emotion-thin stoic like most who hold the role, even the old All Blacks coach couldn't hide the truth: that on a rugby field in Egypt, he once saw a man take off – and fly.