Te Rau Aroha, an old canteen truck with its own colourful history of war service is held, with care, in the collection of the National Army Museum at Waiouru.
During World War II Te Rau Aroha was driven and looked after throughout the North African and Italian Campaigns by the legendary canteen keeper Charlie Bennet MBE. Charlie, a Pakeha serviceman, was affectionately known by the soldiers as “Charlie Y.M.” (The Y.M. coming from the initials YMCA). The truck was a gift to the 28th Māori Battalion from children of the Native Schools of New Zealand. When the Māori community decided to send their men to war with a special gift, an appeal for funds went around the schools. The target was 850 pounds, (about $1700 at the time). The response was magnificent. In just six months the schools grew vegetables for sale and ran concerts and stalls; children also dug into their moneyboxes. The final total was 1000 pounds ($2000 at the time), a lot of money in those days.
The truck was hoisted aboard a troop ship and taken to the Middle East in late 1941. The canteen supplied all kinds of goods including tinned fruit from home, razor blades, toothbrushes, scented soap, chocolates, sweets, books and tinned seafood. Among the habits of Charlie Bennet that endured him to the men were the extending of credit between paydays and his bravery in following the battalion into battle.
Once, when Te Rau Aroha was known to be on its way back to the battalion from base, news came that the enemy had cut the supply lines and captured several vehicles carrying materials to the front. There was gloom over the whole Māori Battalion until their beloved van appeared over the edge of the desert. Cheers rose from hundreds of throats as men surged forward to hear about Charlie’s adventures.
Another story relates to the slow withdrawal to the defences of El Alamein. Once, Stuka dive-bombers (deadly German planes) attacked from out of the sun and straddled the Māori convoy with bombs. Several of the trucks caught fire, some men were killed and many more were wounded. A bomb landed a few metres away from Te Rau Aroha, shrapnel sprayed its sides and one tyre was punctured. The men were as concerned for their canteen truck as for the wounded, and the convoy even waited until the tyre had been changed. Today the patched shrapnel gashes bear testimony to its exploits.
Another story is told of the time when Te Rau Aroha, unique among YMCA trucks, did become a fighting vehicle. It was at El Aghiela, east of Tripoli, where Rommel had momentarily halted the spearheads of the Eighth Army. A portion of the enemy forces had been cut off, and from their position the Māori Battalion had spotted their location. With bayonets fixed, the Māori prepared to charge. The driver of the van charged too, and sped down the hill. Afterwards an English Officer said that he could hardly believe his eyes when he saw those fierce men racing down the hill with a YMCA van in their midst.
To the soldiers of the 28 (Māori) Battalion, Te Rau Aroha was more than a canteen. They had hastened to its assistance when it was in trouble on the desert; they had protected it, they had shown concern for its safety when it was overdue; they had sought it out in the night just to satisfy themselves that it was still there in the convoy. It had represented to them everything they held dear to home; and the inscription on the side, “presented to the Māori Battalion as a token of love by the Children of Native Schools of New Zealand” was written on the hearts of the brave men of the 28th (Māori) Battalion.