Story: Love, Eruera Te Whiti o Rongomai

Page 1 - Biography

Love, Eruera Te Whiti o Rongomai

1905–1942

Te Ati Awa; rugby player, interpreter, military leader

This biography was written by Susan Love De Miguel and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Eruera (Edward) Te Whiti o Rongomai Love was born on 18 May 1905 at the Top House, the Love family’s homestead in Waikawa Bay in the Marlborough Sounds. He was the second son of seven surviving children of Wi Hapi Pakau Love and his wife, Ripeka Wharawhara Matene. His mother was a great-grand-daughter of Honiana Te Puni-kokopu and was of Ngati Te Whiti and Ngati Tawhirikura (hapu of Te Ati Awa), and also of Ngati Ruanui. Wi Hapi was a great-grandson of the whaler John Agar Love and Mere Rure Te Hikanui, a rangatira of the Taranaki iwi. Eruera Love was a descendant of the whanau of the Parihaka prophet, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai, and was the first Maori to command the 28th New Zealand (Maori) Battalion. He was known to his family, and to the men he commanded, as Tiwi, sometimes Tui.

Eruera’s parents moved from their sheep station, Homebush, on Arapawa Island to Petone in 1911, and established the family home, Taumata, at Korokoro. He attended Petone West School and joined the cadets aged 11, moving to the Territorial Force in 1922. By May 1926 he had reached the rank of second lieutenant. He studied law at Victoria University College in 1924 and 1925, and became an interpreter with the Native Land Court.

Following his father’s wishes, he researched the whakapapa of the Love family: Wi Hapi felt that a recorded whakapapa would ensure the family’s survival in a nation that was increasingly pressuring Maori to change. It was widely expected that Eruera would some day take up the mantle of leadership within his family; he was a natural orator and demonstrated financial acumen. His parents and kaumatua had inculcated in him an unswerving belief that the survival of their iwi and of Maori in general lay in the retention of their culture, language and lands.

Love had always enjoyed sport. He rowed with the Petone Rowing Club and played in the local Maori cricket XI, but it was in rugby that he excelled. He played for the Petone team, then for Wellington. He was a member of the 1925 and 1926 Maori All Black teams, the second of which toured France, Britain, Canada, Australia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Over one school holidays Love’s mother had billeted two young Rarotongan girls, Takau (Margaret) Tinirau Makea Rio and her younger sister. The ship carrying the 1926 Maori All Black team stopped at Rarotonga, allowing Eruera and Takau to meet again. The couple decided to marry, and eventually secured the approval of their respective families. They were married on 17 September 1928, at Pare-o-Tane on the marae of Taputapuatea in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Takau was given the title Rio Rangatira by her father, who also bestowed on Love the title Rangi Makea.

The couple spent the following three years living in Pare-o-Tane, where twin daughters were born in 1930. During this time Eruera learned the traditions and language of his wife’s people, and the responsibilities of the Makea Nui title, which would one day be passed on to their eldest child, Rio Rangatira Mokoroa ki Aitu Love. In 1931, after the birth of their third daughter, they returned to New Zealand. They lived at first at Petone, then in Lowry Bay, but by 1934, when their fourth daughter was born, they were living permanently at Taumata.

Love returned to a job with the Native Land Court and continued with the Territorials. He was a driving force behind the fund-raising efforts for the building of Te Tatau-o-te-Po meeting house near Taumata, built principally to house and accommodate relations from Taranaki who came to Wellington to pursue land issues. The opening on 18 October 1933 was a grand occasion, attended by many Te Ati Awa from Taranaki and the South Island and by Pakeha dignitaries. Eruera was administrator and treasurer in its early days.

Takau worked as a nurse, and she and Eruera were kept busy attending functions and activities in the local community and in Wellington. The times most enjoyed by Eruera were those spent with his family cultivating the market gardens the Loves kept in Waiwhetu. Large groups, including all the children, would go to tend the plantings, swim in the stream and play cricket. The food grown was distributed to family members and used as provisions for the large gatherings at Taumata and for the many hui held at Te Tatau-o-te-Po. Over the summer months, Love and his family and Rarotongan relations often stayed in the Marlborough Sounds at the Top House and Homebush.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Love, already a company commander in the Territorial Force, was seconded to Army Headquarters to assist in forming the 28th (Maori) Battalion. He then served briefly as commander of D Company before being appointed to the command of the Headquarters Company. Eruera embarked with the battalion on the Aquitania for England in May 1940. By March 1941 the battalion was in Egypt. At this time he was described as ‘a big man, not tall, of average height, but otherwise solid and compact’. He was said to roar his orders, and was dubbed ‘The Bull’ by his men. His voice could be heard a mile away.

The Maori Battalion moved to Greece in late March 1941, and took up defensive positions against the invading Germans at Olympus Pass. Forced to withdraw with the rest of the Allied force, the battalion was evacuated to Crete. The New Zealand Division’s task on the island included defending Maleme airfield. In a moving letter to his wife, Eruera described his horror at the necessity of killing German paratroopers as they emerged helpless from their planes. On the night of 22 May the battalion was ordered to attack the airfield, which the Germans had captured. During the fighting he became isolated with about 10 men. Early in the morning of 23 May they came under heavy anti-tank and machine-gun fire. They rushed the guns and killed the crews, but Love was wounded in the shoulder. The wound became numb and he was able to carry on through another day of bombing and machine-gun fire. After several more days of fighting they were evacuated to Alexandria.

In Egypt, after a period of training for desert warfare, the Maori Battalion was moved to El Alamein. On 23 November 1941 the battalion was in action again, its task the capture of Sollum, near the strategic Halfaya Pass. Colonel George Dittmer was wounded in this action, at Sollum, and command devolved on Captain Love. During his temporary command, Captain Rangi Royal and B Company achieved a victory at Musaid, capturing 15 enemy vehicles. Sent to Menastir to block supplies from Bardia to the Afrika Korps, the battalion won a significant victory against troops from the 15th Panzer Division on 3 December 1941, forcing a German retreat. The battalion regrouped in the Sollum–Capuzzo area, and here Love handed over command to the new lieutenant colonel, Humphrey Dyer. Before leaving for hospital (the result of his wound on Crete), Love addressed the battalion, urging them to treat prisoners of war well.

After recovering in Cairo, Love rejoined the battalion in Syria in March 1942 as second in command with the rank of major. In May, Dyer asked to be relieved of his command. He was replaced by Love, now granted the rank of temporary lieutenant colonel. He was the first Maori to command the Maori Battalion, and this met with jubilation in the battalion and in New Zealand. With Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s attack on the Eighth Army in Libya and capture of Tobruk (Tubruq), the New Zealand Division returned to North Africa and on 25 June took up defensive positions at Minqâr Qaim. By evening on 27 June the New Zealand Division had been encircled by the 21st Panzer Division. At 1.45 a.m. the Maori Battalion joined the 19th and 20th battalions in leading the division in a breakout that reached the El Alamein line.

Early in July 1942 the New Zealand Division was ordered to attack Ruweisat Ridge, an important strategic feature dominating the desert near El Alamein. The attack took place on 11 July and developed into a siege. Just after dusk Love and his adjutant drove up to see how his men were faring; his vehicle attracted enemy fire and he was mortally wounded, dying later that night on 12 July; he was only 37. He was buried in Egypt at the El Alamein military cemetery. The loss of Eruera was a tremendous blow to his family, and the ramifications were to be felt for generations. He was survived by his wife, who died in 1947, and by their four children.