In Tunisia Montgomery’s ‘Left Hook’ to circumvent the Mareth Line defences had not progressed as quickly as had been hoped. On the night of 26th March a renwed assault was made on the Tebaga Gap which would enable the mainly New Zealand force to break through to the rear of the German lines. Whilst tanks made an attack on the Gap through the mountains itself, the infantry were engaged in fierce engagements to take the tops of the surrounding peaks.
In the thick of the action were men of the Maori Battalion, native New Zealanders, with an established reputation as aggressive fighters dating back to the First World War. One man distinguished himself before all others. 2nd Lieutenant Ngarimu had risen from the ranks after coming to notice since the Batatlion had first seen service in Greece, two years before.
2nd Lieutenant Ngarimu’s citation for the Victoria Cross reads:
During the action at the Tebaga Gap on 26 March 1943, 2nd Lieutenant Ngarimu commanded a platoon in an attack upon the vital hill feature, Point 209. He was given the task of attacking and capturing an under-feature forward of Point 209 itself and held in considerable strength by the enemy. He led his men with great determination straight up the face of the hill, undeterred by the intense mortar and machine-gun fire, which caused considerable casualties.
Displaying courage and leadership of the highest order, he was himself first on the hill crest, personally annihilating at least two enemy machine-gun posts. In the face of such a determined attack the remainder of the enemy fled, but further advance was impossible as the reverse slope was swept by machine-gun fire from Point 209 itself.
Under cover of a most intense mortar barrage the enemy counter-attacked, and 2nd Lieutenant Ngarimu ordered his men to stand to and engage the enemy man on man. This they did with such good effect that the attackers were virtually mown down, 2nd Lieutenant Ngarimu personally killing several. He was twice wounded, once by rifle fire in the shoulder and later by shrapnel in the leg, and though urged by both his company and battalion commanders to go out, he refused to do so, saying that he would stay a little while with his men. He stayed until he met his death the following morning.
Darkness found this officer and his depleted platoon lying on the rock face of the forward slope of the hill feature, with the enemy in a similar position on the reverse slope about twenty yards distant. Throughout the night the enemy repeatedly launched fierce attacks in an attempt to dislodge 2nd Lieutenant Ngarimu and his men, but each counter-attack was beaten off by 2nd Lieutenant Ngarimu’s inspired leadership. During one of these counter-attacks the enemy, using hand grenades, succeeded in piercing a certain part of the line. Without hesitation this officer rushed to the threatened area, and those of the enemy he did not kill he drove back with stones and with his tommy-gun.
During another determined counter-attack by the enemy, part of his line broke. Yelling orders and encouragement, he rallied his men and led them in a fierce onslaught back into their old positions. All through the night, between attacks, he and his men were heavily harassed by machine-gun and mortar fire, but 2nd Lieutenant Ngarimu watched his line very carefully, cheering his men on and inspiring them by his personal conduct.
Morning found him still in possession of the hill feature but only he and two unwounded other ranks remained. Reinforcements were sent up to him. In the morning the enemy again counter-attacked and it was during this attack that 2nd Lieutenant Ngarimu was killed. He was killed on his feet defiantly facing the enemy with his tommy-gun at his hip. As he fell he came to rest almost on top of those of the enemy who had fallen, the number of whom survived testified to his outstanding courage and fortitude.
The was the first VC awarded to a Maori.
28th Maori Battalion has much more on the men of the Battalion, who spent 6 years away from New Zealand fighting in Greece, Crete, across North Africa from Egypt to Tunisia and then all the way up Italy.