Ngararatunua, Whangarei - Lt. Col. H.G. Dyer, Whangarei Boys' High School an
Humphrey Goring Dyer, my father, came to Whangarei in 1937 to teach geography and supervise the school cadets at the Boys’ High School. He bought a 20-acre farmlet on the road from Kamo to Ngararatunua and Pipiwai, with a big patch of bush. We raised a few sheep, had a large vegetable and flower garden, an orchard and a milking cow.
The Dyers had moved in 1853 to Auckland from India, where William Dyer had been Surgeon General in the East India Company. He and his family were prominent in the shortlived Mahurangi colony and in the life of Parnell, where they were active in St. Mark’s. Church His son Robert Coates Dyer served in the provincial government, and his grandson, H.G.’s father, Robert William Dyer, a practicing lawyer in Auckland, Hamilton and Cambridge, was Mayor of Hamilton in the early 1900s, and later Stipendiary Magistrate in Invercargill, Rotorua, Samoa and Napier.
Robert William, in partnership with his wife’s uncle F.A. Whitaker, had been wiped out by the spectacular bankruptcy of F.A.’s father, Sir Frederick Whitaker, in the 1880s, and the family was living in a certain decent poverty and indebtedness when H.G. was born in 1896. Thanks to his eldest sister, Mrs. Caroline Kennedy of Waiheke, he was educated at King’s College, (school prefect, 1914) and at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Australia, 1915-18. See 2 below.
He resigned from his rank of Lieutenant in the New Zealand Army in May 1919, with a certain anger for having been kept out of the fighting in World War One, and led a nomadic life with his Irish cousins at Annaghbeg, Tipperary, Ireland, as tea planter near Dibrugarh, Assam, where he married his boyhood sweetheart from Waiheke, Gretta Rutherfurd, and their first child Anne (later Mrs Jack Roberts of Rotorua) was born, and with Whitaker cousins in New South Wales. Returning to New Zealand he secured a B.A., and began a teaching career at Hawera Tech, where Peggy (later Mrs. J.D. Robison of Whangarei), was born, and at Lower Hutt High School. Gretta and he started at Waikanae, with the help of her brother, Duncan Rutherfurd, a well-known sheep breeder at Komako, a small private boarding school, Te Rama or Concordia. One of its graduates, Mrs. Mori Mason of Whangarei, eldest child of the sportsman politician, Jack Ormond (Omana), had joyous memories of her years there. This closed in 1934 in the Great Depression, at the same time as the birth of their son Robert, and they were forced to live supported by her grandfather, Sir John Makgill, at his cottage at Orua Bay. H.G. found occasional jobs until he was appointed to Whangarei Boys High School in 1936.
1915: 1 Feb. Accepted at Duntroon; apparently left at once, to enter on the 18th. See Colonel J.E. Lee, Duntroon, The Royal Military College of Australia 1911-1946 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1952) 44-56, 253 (#162).
1916 April – Dec 1918: Battalion Sergeant Major (cadet in charge of drills and cadet discipline, a role that earned him bitter enmity from 2 NZ cadets, under whom he later served in WWII) , Duntroon. Decorated with two Swords of Honour, awarded annually for exemplary conduct and performance, (1917 and 1918). Academically he was top student of his class in 1915, second and third in the succeeding years. Among the cadets under his command in these years were many who reached authoritative commands in the Second World War: the New Zealanders Air Vice-Marshall Arthur Nevill, Major-General W.G. Gentry, and Brigadiers F.G. Clark, George Clifton and F.M. Horowhenua Hanson; the Australians Major General Henry Wells, Air Vice Marshal F.M. Bladin, Air Commodores U.E. Ewart, J.P.J. McCauley and D.E.L. Wilson, and Brigadiers: J.T. Simpson, G.R.L. Adams, Jack Mann, V.C. Secombe, R.F. Monaghan, R.N.L. Hopkins, R. Bierwirth, H.F.H. Durant, R. King, P.S. McGrath, C.G. Reynolds, A.S. Wilson, R.G.H. Irving, B.W. Pulver, B.E. Klein, S.F. Legge, J.K. Coffey, E.W. Woodward, C.M.L. Elliott, E.L. Sheehan, A.G. Wilson, L. de L. Barham, A.H. Hellstrom, K.D. Chalmers, L.G. Binns, A.R. Garrett, G.H. O’Brien.
1917: June: requested discharge and leave to go to the war. Refused
1918: Sept: Again requested discharge and leave to join war. Again refused.
1919: Jan: Ministry of Defence decided that all NZ cadets who had completed their education at Duntroon be sent to England for at least a year. However it was also decided the cadets were to return to NZ first, against the desires of the cadets to be sent to England directly. (letter from James Allen to RW Dyer 7 Jan 1919)
1919: 15 Jan: Returned to NZ from Duntroon to family in Napier.
31 Jan: Appointed lieutenant in NZ Staff Corps.
3. World War Two
1939: Outbreak of war. Opens Whangarei recruitment office, with aid of Harding Leaf.
1940: April. Joins 28 Maori battalion, rank of major from permanent staff. Given command of D Company 28 Maori Battalion.
1940 1 May: leaves NZ on Aquitania with 28 Battalion. Serves as Quarter-Master for the Aquitania.
1941: April: served in action at Mount Olympus in Greece and was evacuated.
1941: May: Served on Crete and in the attempt to recapture Maleme Airport and in the much discussed withdrawal. Commanded rearguard of retreat of NZ forces first from Maleme Airport, then to Sfakia, Brigadier Hargest expressed surprise he received no recognition or decoration for the success of this rearguard, the so-called “suicide squad”, but it appears that no decorations were approved by the NZ Government for this retreat. The choice of the Maori Battalion as the rearguard, and its consequent loss of life, was a touchy subject, already raised by my father in his discussions with Freyberg on the need to appoint a Maori CO for the Battalion.
1941: Served in Western desert. At some point in the year, was sent with the Battalion on a survey in the Near East, in preparation for a German attack after the anticipated defeat of the Soviet Union.
He was present in the following battles: El Alamein-Kaponga Box August, Sollum, November, Menastir on 3 December, Sidi Magreb on 5 Dec, where over 1,000 Italians prisoners were captured, and Maori soldiers individually seized many arms.
1942: 7 Feb: Promoted to OC of 28 Maori battalion. Confirmed in rank as T Lt Colonel.
Defended the right of the Maori soldier to retain arms captured in war, according to Maori custom, against an order of Brigadier Inglis to report and surrender all such arms.
1942: 13 May: In a tense meeting with General Freyberg and Inglis, refused to obey the order and demanded that a Maori commander be named for the Maori Battalion, to support better their customs and to represent better the arguments of the pakeha to obey pakeha customs and orders. At the order of Freyberg, obliged to support Inglis’s order, he resigned his command of 28 Battalion, to make way for its first Maori commander. (see 5 below))
Reassigned as Base Commander of 9 Infantry Brigade (New Zealand Base Camp at Maadi, Egypt, for new recruits and those on leave from their duties or in transit to or from them).
1942: Dec: Mentioned in despatches for gallant service in Mid East from Nov 1941 to April 1942
1943: Feb. Confirmed in rank as Lieutenant Colonel.
1943: 16 Nov.: Transferred to Reserve of Officers, Diagnosed as suffering from shellshock after disparaging comments about his General . Returns to NZ and Kamo farm.
4. Resignation from command of the Maori Battalion.
There are various stories current of this resignation. I had a surprising encounter with General Freyberg in the summer of 1955, when I was teaching at Eton College in England and Freyberg, then a warden at neighbouring Windsor Castle, was living in the Norman Tower. He clarified the history.
As a young teacher I had been on duty at the Eton College Fourth of June celebration, always attended by the Queen. I was placed in the section adjacent to the Queen’s marquee. From my section a drunk party started a game to see who could hit the pole of her marquee with an empty bottle. Startled, I saw the headlines, “Queen assassinated at Eton College while young New Zealander stands idly by”. I raced for help and had the drunks escorted out. A few weeks later my Headmaster called me in to say that the Queen had asked Freyberg to invite the “young New Zealander” to dinner in the Norman Tower.
I went in some doubt of the outcome. The dinner was full of old generals and brigadiers reminiscing about the war. I was seated on Freyberg’s right as the guest of honour, and he presently turned to me and asked if this was boring. “But did you have a brother or father in the war?” “Yes, sir.” “Was he an officer?” “Yes, sir.” “One of us probably knew him. What unit was he in?” “The Maori Battalion, sir.” “You are not a Maori are you?” “No, sir.” “Then he was an officer early in the war.” Danger was approaching, “Yes, sir.” “What did you say your name is?” “Dyer,sir.” The table froze. I had no idea my father was so important as to cause this reaction. Freyberg offered me an escape, “You said your uncle?” No, I was British. I would not accept this flight, “No, sir. My father, Colonel Dyer.” The officer across the table was lifting his fork to his mouth. Fork and hand froze. I stared at the fork, not daring to look around me. The pause seemed to last 10 minutes. It was probably no more than 20 seconds. Freyberg lifted his glass and broke the silence, “We toast him. He was a good soldier.” He turned to me and asked quietly, “I know you have some questions.” “Yes, sir.” “We will talk later.” And the dinner went on but noticeably less vibrant.
In conversation I said I had heard different stories of his resignation and his firing. I did not know the truth. “I believe he was not fired over the captured arms.” “No, but he had disobeyed an order of Brigadier Inglis, who was present, to surrender the arms. I had no choice but to support my Brigadier’s order.” “Then Inglis left the room?” “Yes. Your father talked of the attitude to the Maori as cannon fodder on Crete. That was unjust.” His eyes were tired and full of despair. Did he actually believe it was true? Old generals must have many weights on their mind. My heart went out to him. “I told him he had no choice but resigning his command. I promised to find him another post. He demanded that he be replaced by a Maori commander. He said that the pakeha could not understand the traditions of the Maori, and did not know when they were violating Maori custom. I promised to replace him with a Maori. We parted heated but in mutual respect.” “He was appointed Base Commander at Maadi. But then he was fired. He had called you a racist in public.” “Yes, no general officer can permit an officer to criticize him in public – especially one so much loved by his men as your father was. I had no choice.” “Diagnosed as shellshock, so that no one who would believe what he said?” He closed his eyes, and the conversation was over. He sent me Christmas cards afterwards. He knew that his honesty had earned and won my respect and love.
6. After the war
1944: Returned to teaching and to training school cadets at Whangarei Boys’High School. He presently sold the farm and built a new home on Cartwright’s Road, Onerahi, where he grew a notable orchard. He took a year’s leave in 1950 to accompany his son on a scholarship to King’s College, Otahuhu. He worked under Rangi Royal, a former 28 Battalion colleague, in Government service.
For the rest of his life after the war he devoted most of his time to studying Maori language and culture (and teaching them to his son Robert, to whom he eventually bequeathed his extensive library).
He assisted Dan Davin in his history of the campaign in Crete and Charles Bennett and Cody in that chapter of the history of the Maori Battalion. Most of his correspondence with Cody is preserved in the Turnbull Library, where it provides useful diagrams of the rearguard retreat from Maleme, which he commanded.
He also published Ma Te Reinga, The Way of the Maori Soldier, a tribute to the Maori officers and soldiers who died in Crete. A long unpublished novel on the Maori choice between remaining in their strong traditional culture or entering into pakeha culture, Hoani Patoka, Man of Two Worlds, or Volcano, is preserved in the archives of the Turnbull Library in Wellington. He also drew up large annotated genealogies of his Dyer and Whitaker ancestry in New Zealand and England.
In 1957 he retired from teaching and presently moved with Gretta to Rotorua, near to his daughter, Mrs Anne Roberts. They later bought a house in Titirangi, Auckland, with a view over the Manukau Harbour.
1962:12 Dec. Gretta dies, aged 68. He moved back to Whangarei area, to live in a cottage of his daughter, Mrs Margaret Robison, on the Ngararatunua property of her husband, John D. Robison, a real estate agent.
1977: 13 June. Dies, aged 81. Buried Waikumete cemetery Auckland, alongside his wife.