After he had removed his cap the older soldier began repairing his hair. He ran the comb slowly from his forehead to the back of his neck, and fiddled with the mirror he had found in his breastpocket, just beneath the patch that showed an imperial eagle balanced on a swastika. When he had finished he put the mirror away, looked into the distance, and blew a long, phlegmy kiss.
The other soldier, who had SS markings on his helmet and his shoulder and pimple scars on his chin, looked embarrassed, and stared down at his muddy boots and at the muddy butt of his rifle.
I followed the kiss into the puddled field in front of the Nazis' tents. A few kids stood in the field, but they had their backs to the Nazis, and they were staring up at the louring sky, trying to distinguish spitfires from seagulls.
A few metres away a large man in a trenchcoat slowly mounted a German motorcycle. His helmet wore a pair of heavy black goggles. Underneath his helmet, his eyes angled downward and his nose was flat. I later found the man posing in a series of photographs on a website of the New Zealand Military Reenactment Society, and learned that his name is Michael Chong.
The motorcycle bobbled across a brown no man's land toward a tent that flew an American flag. Inside the tent two men sat on deckchairs; a map sat in their laps. The map was pale green, with brown and grey blotches that represented cities and towns and prison camps. It looked like an army issue blanket that had been burned with cigarette ends and smeared with cigarette ashes.
Hearing the motorcycle's muddy sound, the Americans stepped out of their tent, tugging at their skimpy garrison caps as the rain began to strike their hair. The motorycyclist had been joined by the vain old Nazi and the young SS recruit, and I wondered whether all three might be about to surrender to the Americans. But the enemies slapped each other's backs, giggled at each other, then wandered together towards the food stall near the edge of one of Ardmore airport's hangars. By the time the Nazis were finishing their hot dogs a spitfire was flying low over their encampment, dropping imaginary bombs.
Reenactors' Nazi impressions have not always been appreciated overseas. A Republican candidate
for Congress was discredited after photos showing him hanging out with his SS Unit appeared on the internet. A Yorkshire town banned
its reenactors from wandering round in Nazi uniforms, saying that their performances were offensive.
New Zealand's Military Reeanctment Society seems to have tried to preempt objections to its war games by pursuing a policy of multiracial Nazism. As it refights the battles of the Second World War, the Society will not hesitate to hand a mauser rifle or an iron cross to a Chinese or a Maori or a Jewish member. Historical authenticity may suffer, as the rigorous and ferocious racism of the Nazism is elided, but offence is avoided.
There is something inescapably absurd, though, about attempts to make Hitler's army a place of racial harmony.* The reenactors at Ardmore reminded me of an old Fry and Laurie
sketch in which a kindly but very confused English vicar attempted to argue that, in the name of tolerance, the Church of England and Satanist covens should join forces.
I am sure that bad weather rather than quibbles about historical authenticity kept the masses away from this year's event at Ardmore Warbirds festival. Certainly, last year's event
, which included many Nazis and was not raided by stormclouds, was a large and ebullient affair. New Zealanders remain fascinated by World War Two, and the fascination is perhaps especially strong in South Auckland and Franklin, districts that were occupied by many thousands of American troops during 1942 and '43.
As their commanders pondered defeats in the tropical Pacific and plotted the reconquest of Melanesia and Micronesia, American troops and airmen raised tents and barracks at camps in Papakura, Pukekohe, Helvetia and a dozen other bewildered suburbs and villages. They trained
in local forests, hills, pubs, and dance halls, scattering bullet cases and used condoms wherever they went.
My grandparents' farm was briefly occupied by hundreds of soldiers, who used it as a platform for the an assault on a Japanese-controlled island named the Drury Hills, and I grew up hearing vivid and ambivalent tales about the invaders.
Ardmore airport itself was built in 1943 for American and New Zealand corsairs and dive bombers. A wartime map shows the 'Aerial Ladder' that began in Auckland and ascended through the air bases on Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, Tonga, Fiji, and Espiritu Santo.
And yet Americans were not the first foreign power to occupy southern Auckland. Eighty years before the GIs, the British imperial army established a network of forts that extended from the little colonial town of Auckland to the border of the Maori-controlled Waikato, a region they would eventually invade and conquer
These redoubts were linked by the Great South Road
and its tributaries, and together housed more than ten thousand troops. The larger redoubts had libraries, chapels, and drinking dens. After the beginning of the Waikato War in July 1863 Maori guerrillas began to snipe
at the forts, and to raid the armed convoys that supplied them with bullets and beef and brandy. For years after the end of the war, the redoubts were maintained and staffed by local militia.
The remains of one of the larger Waikato War redoubts lie a short distance from Ardmore airport. Ring's Redoubt protected the trail that ran east from Papakura to the port village of Clevedon. Its high earth walls made a square, and two of its corners boasted curved, specially strengthened 'bastions' where soldiers could fire at the guerrilla parties that sometimes emerged from the bush-barricaded hills behind Papakura.
But no crowds come to Ring's Redoubt to remember the Waikato War. For a long time the site was part of a farm, and in 2013 a businessman from Orewa announced plans to cover most of it in houses.
When a handful
of local historians complained, the developer noted
that almost all of the redoubt's walls and ditches had already been knocked down and filled in. Papakura's politicians and planners were apparently satisfied with his promise to create a tiny reserve, surrounded on three sides by houses, for the vestiges of the redoubt.
I talked recently with Ian Barton
, whose Queen's Redoubt Trust
is building a Visitor's Centre on the site of the largest of all the Waikato War forts. 'A lot of Pakeha don't want to remember the Waikato War' he told me sadly, after explaining the Trust's struggles to attract volunteers. Certainly, New Zealand's military reenactors seem much more interested in the wars of the twentieth than the nineteenth century. And the reenactors' coyness about Nazism can perhaps be linked to the silence that many Kiwis maintain about the Waikato War and other Maori-Pakeha conflicts.
Like the Second World War that is commemorated so curiously every year at Ardmore, the struggle for the Waikato was started by politicians and waged by commanders who believed that their race was superior to and bound to triumph over its enemies. Wartime Premier Alfred Domett spoke
for the consensus when he declared his enemies 'savages', who needed to learn the necessity of 'the white man's domination'. Just as the reenactors who meet at Ardmore do not want to remind their audiences of the racism of the Nazis, so much of the wider New Zealand population remains reluctant to remember a local war that was often justified and understood in racial terms.
*It might be argued that the Society's fantasy of a multiracial Nazism has an antecedent, in this part of the world.
In the late 1930s a few white residents of Samoa resentful of New Zealand colonial rule and nostalgic for German control created a Nazi Party
. But the Samoan Nazis upset their mentors by admitting Polynesians and Jews to their party. Alfred Matthes, the Fuhrer of the Samoan Nazis, had a Polynesian wife. Polemical letters flapped back and forth between Apia and Deutschland, as the Nazis and their distant allies disputed the correct definitions of Aryan, Semite, and Savage.
I was recently astonished and depressed to learn, from a tiny article in a seventy year old issue of the Pacific Islands Monthly
, that two young Samoan half-castes, one of whom bore the name Matthes, died in German uniforms, fighting on the Russian front of World War Two.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]