The Maori Battalion followed in the footsteps of the Pioneer Battalion of WWI which had been very successful, and was wanted by Maori to raise their profile, and to serve alongside their Pākehā compatriots as citizens of the British Empire. It also gave a generation of people with a well-noted military ancestry a chance to test their own warrior skills.
The men were initially sent to Britain, when the perceived invasion threat from the German Wehrmacht threat was at its height, but when this did not eventuate they sailed from England to Egypt and then to Greece. The battalion went into action in Greece for the first time on April 15 1941.They were evacuated, and were then involved in the brief and bitter defence of Crete.
They pursued Erwin Rommel's Africa Korps until it was driven out of North Africa. Rommel described the Maori Battalion as the greatest fighting force he'd ever seen. They then went to Italy, where at the Battle of Monte Cassino the Maori Battalion took part in some of its fiercest fighting of the war and incurred 300 of its men being killed there.
The 28th Battalion were pulled out of the frontline on December 21 1944.
A 270-strong contingent was sent to Japan as part of the occupation force, and the rest of the Maori Battalion returned to Wellington on January 23 1946. Such was the respect for the Maori Battalion that they were frequently used as a spearhead unit. General Bernard Freyberg, the General Officer Commanding of the 2nd NZEF, commented "No infantry had a more distinguished record, or saw more fighting, or, alas, had such heavy casualties, as the Maori Battalion."
In December 2005 the Waitangi Tribunal released their finding to a claim that was lodged by iwi Te Arawa, in 2000, for a Māori Battalion member, Haane Manahi. Te Arawa lodged that Manahi should be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery at the Battle of Takrouna in 1943. Sergeant Manahi led his men up a sheer limestone escarpment to capture positions; the following day he set out to capture Italian outposts. Four generals, including Harold Alexander, Bernard Freyberg, Howard Kippenberger and Bernard Law Montgomery had recommended that Manahi receive the Victoria Cross but this recommendation had been downgraded in London, to a Distinguished Conduct Medal. 1 2
In October 2006 the New Zealand Minister of Defence announced that Manahi would be recognised by the presentation of an altar cloth, a personal letter from the Queen acknowledging his gallantry and a sword. The Victoria Cross could not be awarded as King George VI had ruled in 1949 that no further awards from World War II ought to be made. 3 The award was presented at a ceremony in Rotorua by Prince Andrew to Manahi's son on 17 March 2007.