Leading the 28 Māori Battalion: Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Baker
Known for being a strong and honourable leader, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Baker (Ngāpuhi) could be considered an ideal soldier - skilled in strategy, he was a courageous and “worthy commander” who led his troops with courage and mana, later continuing his service by advocating for equal treatment of Māori in the army.
Throughout his time in the Battalion, Baker showed perseverance and determination to lead his troops using his strategic thinking and resourcefulness.
Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Baker was born at Whauwhaukauri, Hokianga, on 19 June 1908. Baker's mother Jane Robinson was of Ngāpuhi descent as was his father, John Francis (Frank) Baker, who worked as a dairy farmer.
Baker did well in school and was noted as being particularly promising at sports. He held a strong interest in rugby and played for Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. Baker was also an accomplished accountant, and by the end of 1931, he had completed his Professional Accountants' Examinations in Hamilton.
Baker married Edna Mavis Carrie, a dressmaker from Hamilton on 26 December 1933. They were married at the Presbyterian church in Frankton, and had two children.
In 1926, Baker joined the Territorials. He progressed quickly in his career, was appointed as a sergeant by 1928, then eventually became a lieutenant in June 1931. Following this, Baker served with the Mounted Rifles in Northland and the Waikato. In 1933, Baker moved to Wellington, where he worked as a reserve officer. Baker's work ethic and leadership was recognized, and by November 1939 he was posted to the 28th Māori Battalion as an Intelligence Officer.
Greece and Crete
Baker took charge of the Māori Reinforcement Company in Greece, and organised the battalion's embarkation from the UK to Egypt in 1941. Baker's leadership was tested when the Company suffered heavy casualties after defending Greece from the German invasion in the Olympus Pass. Baker was captured, but he managed to escape to Crete, where he became second-in-command to Major Dyer in D Company and after rejoining the battalion in Crete, he took command of A Company (28 Māori Battalion, p.224). Although Baker was wounded in heavy fighting, he still led others in the retreat. He continued to show perseverance and strong leadership skills within the army, and was made temporary colonel in 1942.
Baker reflected on these campaigns in a letter to his cousin, writing about the Māori soldiers from an observers perspective. He was impressed by their strength and discipline, noting that the Māori soldiers excelled in battle, and proved themselves to be stoic and unnerving. Baker was proud of his battalion, and made his thoughts known to his comrades, stating the following:
I congratulate every Platoon individually on its splendid effort and am proud of the command which I hold. When our losses are compared with those of the Enemy and when we consider the effect it had on the Enemy plans, the operation cannot be regarded as anything but an outstanding success. The above message is to be conveyed to every member of the Battalion".
Baker was given the command of the battalion in Egypt where he conducted a model operation. He recovered from his wounds, and was appointed to command of a company in the 25th Battalion. Baker continued to progress through the ranks quickly, and in May 1942 he joined the 28th Battalion as its second command, and was promptly promoted to Major.
Baker continued to guide his battalion during the campaign in Egypt, and once promoted to temporary Lieutenant Colonel, he withdrew the battalion behind the lines for a brief period of recuperation.
Battle of Alamein
Baker's perseverance and determination to lead his battalion proved successful. An excerpt from the New Zealand Gazette on 21 September 1944 outlines Baker's admirable performance at El Alamein:
In the battle of Alamein from 23 October '42 up to the battle on 1/2 Nov. when he was seriously wounded, Lt. Col. Baker showed himself to be a worthy commander of a hard fighting battalion. During difficult and confused situations and whilst under heavy fire his firmness and fine personal example of cheerfulness and courage materially assisted to maintain the spirits of his men. In the attack on Pt 29 on 1 Nov. he commanded with outstanding spirit in a hard fought attack and whilst doing so suffered severe wounds. He showed exceptional thoroughness and skill throughout".
Baker showed strategic thinking in the lead up to the battle of El Alamein, and prepared his soldiers for battle carefully. Half an hour into the assault he was seriously wounded. His wounds to his mouth and tongue were so severe that "he spent almost a year convalescing and undergoing surgery to restore his ability to speak. In his four months of command he had taken the battalion through a series of highly successful operations" (Butterworth, 2000).
Bakers leadership as a commander of the 28th Battalion was recognized with an award of the Distinguished Service Order in 1944. This award was given as a recognition of gallantry.
Baker committed himself to more leadership positions after the war had ended, and in November 1943, he was appointed as a director of the Rehabilitation Department. He also served on the Rehabilitation board in Wellington. The Rehabilitation board aimed to see ex-servicemen based in suitable employment or provided with suitable housing.
Following this, Baker also took responsibility for other Rehabilitation programmes. Many Māori soldiers resented the way they had been treated by rehabilitation policies in the First World War, and they felt that they were not treated the same as Pākehā ex-servicemen, despite the government's promises. Baker established a Māori Rehabilitation Finance Committee, and took responsibility to ensure that the services to Māori were of the same standard. The Rehabilitation Department was abolished in April 1954, however Baker was appointed to the Public Service Commission on 15 September in 1954.
Baker sadly passed away from a heart attack in Wellington on the 1 June 1958. His wife and their two children survived him.
Frederick Baker is one of the many Māori soldiers that served in the 28 Maori Battalion. To discover more, his Online Cenotaph record can be viewed here.
Butterworth, Graham, 'Baker, Frederick', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2017)
Cody, J.F (1956). 28 (Maori) Battalion. Wellington, New Zealand: War History Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs.
Gardiner, Wira (1992). Te Mura O Te Ahi: The Story of the Maori Battalion. Auckland, New Zealand: Reed Books.
Harper, Glyn and Hayward, Joel S (2003). Born to lead? : portraits of New Zealand commanders. Auckland New Zealand: Exisle Publishing.
McGibbon (Editor), Ian (2000). The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press.
Soutar, Monty (2014). Ngā tama toa = he toto heke, he Tipare Here ki te ūkaipo : Kamupene C, Ope Taua (Maori) 28 1939-1945 : i tuhia tenei pukapua i roto i te reo Maori. Tamaki Makaurau, Aotearoa : David Bateman.
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Leading the 28 Māori Battalion: Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Baker. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 April 2017. Updated: 22 April 2017.