Fighting for Haane

by David Lomas / 13 November, 2010
Four WWII generals recommended Haane Manahi for a Victoria Cross for his bravery in Tunisia in 1943, but the medal was not awarded. In a new book historian Paul Moon investigates the contentious decision to downgrade Manahi's act of heroism.

On May 19, 1943, Haane Manahi ignored orders and, with just five men under his command, attacked hundreds of German and Italian troops defending the strategic 200m-high Takrouna Pinnacle, in northern Tunisia. His action was one of the bravest and, now, most controversial actions involving New Zealand troops in World War II.

Manahi was put forward for a Victoria Cross for his part in the capture of the rocky hill with a small town perched on top of it. But despite the recommendation being signed by four generals - including General Bernard Montgomery, the British 8th Army commander in North Africa, and Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg, the commanding officer of the New Zealand 2nd Division - it was mysteriously downgraded to a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), the second-level bravery award.

The decision to overrule the recommendation of four generals has sparked controversy ever since. There have been petitions to the New Zealand Government, a Treaty of Wai­tangi claim and an approach to the Queen, all seeking to have Manahi awarded the VC.

Even one of the generals who recommended the VC spoke out, questioning why Manahi was not awarded the top bravery medal. Major-General Brian Horrocks, a decorated World War I hero and Olympic athlete who commanded the 1st Army's IX Corps, wrote in his autobiography that the action of Manahi and his platoon "was the most gallant feat of arms I witnessed in the course of the war and I was bitterly disappointed when Sergeant Manahi, who I'd recommended for a VC, only received a DCM". Why Manahi was not awarded a VC has never been explained. However, among the rumoured reasons is a suggestion that Maori Battalion members committed war crimes during the capture of Takrouna. It was said surrendering Italian and German soldiers were thrown from a cliff. However, that claim, refuted by historian Paul Moon in his book, only surfaced after Manahi was awarded the DCM, so was unlikely to have been the reason. A second suggestion was that Manahi was the victim of a VC "quota" system that regulated how many medals were awarded to different countries.

Moon has reignited the Manahi VC debate in his new book Victoria Cross at Takrouna: The Haane Manahi Story. Moon says quite bluntly that Manahi should have been awarded the VC for not one but several acts of incredible bravery. "The frustrating thing is that Manahi's case is not marginal as far as acts of bravery are concerned. In fact, quite the opposite - it is really compelling," he says.

Manahi, who died in a car accident in 1986, rarely spoke of Takrouna. One occasion when he did was when he was home on furlough shortly after his heroic action. Talking to a Rotorua Morning Post reporter, he matter-of-factly described the incident as "a hot scrap at the top. Our ammunition ran out and we had to use Italian and German rifles, machine-guns and ammunition. We managed to hold on for the best part of the day and we were then joined by men of 'C' Company. Only three of us were left." It was a massive understatement.

Manahi and fellow Maori Battalion sergeant Johnny Rogers were meant to launch a mock night-time attack on Takrouna to distract the defenders while the real attack was launched from the other side of the hill. However, Rogers and Manahi, boyhood friends from Rotorua's Ohinemutu district, decided that rather than just keeping the defenders occupied, they would clear the Axis troops from the lower slopes of the hill.

The two sergeants split their platoons and advanced up Takrouna. As they did so, the Germans and Italians set off flares, lighting up the hillside. According to the Maori Battalion's official history, "the Maoris dashed from rock to rock ... and grenaded, bayoneted and shot their way through the system of defensive pits ... until they were way above and behind the enemy".

In Manahi's VC recommendation, he is said to have personally led attacks on machine-gun posts.

From their new position, Manahi and Rogers and their 10 men had the Axis soldiers at their mercy. Between 70 and 110 Italians surrendered and were marched down the hill by two of the Maori Battalion soldiers.

With the lower slopes cleared, Manahi and Rogers decided to continue on to the top, Manahi later explaining to his commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Bennett they'd done so, going beyond their orders, because after they'd cleared Italian troops from the base of the hill "there appeared to be no opposition".

Manahi's VC recommendation says that as his platoon advanced up the hill, "they encountered heavy machine-gun fire from posts on the slope and extensive sniping by the enemy actually on the pinnacle. In order to reach their objective, Manahi and his party had to climb 500 feet, the last 50 being almost sheer, and during the whole time they were under heavy fire. Manahi personally led a small party and silenced several machine-gun posts. Eventually, by climbing hand over fist, they reached the pinnacle, and after a brief fight, some 60 enemy surrendered."

When the bulk of Axis troops withdrew to a lower part of the Takrouna village, they unleashed an artillery attack on the small Kiwi force. A German shell killed Rogers.

The official history of the Maori Battalion describes how Manahi and his small force then defended the hill against "12 truckloads of Italians [who] made a really determined effort to climb the track, but Manahi and Corporal [John] Bell mowed them down with their automatics. The second party forced its way onto the ledge and there was some close-quarter fighting in the alleys between the huts. The Italians lobbed a grenade into a building where the wounded were gathered: it is not suggested that they knew the men were wounded, but the grenade killed most of them. The Maori reaction was ferocious, and Italians, whether they wanted to surrender or not, were shot, bayoneted or thrown over the cliff."

After the initial skirmishes, Manahi, while under fire from the Axis troops, went down the hill to get reinforcements, food and more ammunition. When back-up troops arrived, Manahi was ordered to leave, but refused to do so till he had helped carry down all his dead platoon members.

Manahi's VC recommendation, signed by the four generals and three other senior officers, was forwarded to London, where a small committee headed by Lord Alanbrooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, decided whether the award should be made.

Moon says there is no documentation showing why Manahi's VC was downgraded. There is simply a stroke of a pen through the typed VC recommendation and a handwritten "DCM" in its place. He believes, given the status of the generals who signed the recommendation, the only person who could have changed the award was Lord Alanbrooke, who was senior in rank.

Although Moon does not believe there was a "quota" system for the Victoria Cross, he suspects Manahi may have missed out simply because another Maori Battalion soldier had also acted incredibly bravely just three weeks earlier while capturing another hill in Tunisia.

On March 26, 1943, Second Lieutenant Moana Ngarimu led his platoon straight up a vital hill, personally destroying two machine-gun posts. Ngarimu rallied his men to stop several German counterattacks. Even though he was wounded twice, Ngarimu continued to fight. When reinforcements arrived, just Ngarimu and two of his platoon were alive. Ngarimu was killed when the Germans launched another counterattack.

Moon says the actions of the two men were remarkably similar. Both recommendations for the VC were almost certainly discussed at the same meeting, "so it is more than likely the two were considered together and they said, 'Here is the first one, chronologically. Yes, he is deserving of a VC. Here is another Maori from the same battalion. Can we really give him a VC?' And it is downgraded."

Moon believes both men deserved ­the VC, saying, "It is a very slippery slope when comparing acts of bravery ... the recommendations are made by officers of the very highest ranking. They ­are the people that know best. Not a committee in London."

Allegations that Maori Battalion members may have committed war crimes by throwing Axis soldiers off the cliff at Takrouna do not stand up to close scrutiny, according to Moon.

Moon says he knew of the allegations, "and I put them under the microscope because there is no point brushing them under the carpet - and they don't stack up". He has read the battalion's war diaries, even the battalion's secret diaries (which have detail right down to how many men had lice), "and there's not even a hint of any irregularities that soldiers have come even close to war crimes".

Italian and German letters and official documents also don't mention atrocities, "and just about every crime we know about surfaced about 10-15 years after the end of the war in enemy diaries or letters".

Also, with Manahi and his men outnumbered by between five- and 15-to-one, they were not in a position to commit such crimes.

Moon believes the allegation of enemy soldiers being thrown from the hill stems from a combination of fact and myth. With the hand-to-hand fighting so close to a cliff, there were undoubtedly men hurled over the cliff in legitimate battle. There was also a comment from a Maori Battalion member in "C" Company, "who joked that those fellas in 'B' Company are throwing fellas off the cliff". The two have over the years become entwined, even in official writing of the event.

Moon says the stench of the war crimes allegations - the worst allegations that can be made against soldiers - is why neither Labour nor National Government ministers have directly asked the Queen for Manahi to be awarded the VC, as ­recommended.

He believes his enquiries have cleared the way for a new approach to the Queen. "It is never too late," says Moon. "It goes back to that question: is the matter fully resolved? And it is not. The answer? That VC should be awarded."

In 2007 at a ceremony at Te Papaiouru Marae, Rotorua, the Duke of York, Prince Andrew, presented Te Arawa with gifts as a token of the Queen's recognition of Manahi's bravery at Takrouna. A palace spokesman had earlier stated the Queen placed great store by King George VI's decision shortly after World War II that no further awards for service during the war should be considered.

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