New Zealand Bomber Command Association



Flying Officer Porokoru ‘John’ Pohe – The first Māori pilot in the RAF

Nearly 16,000 Māori enlisted for service in World War Two.  Māori participation in the war is perhaps most readily identified with the 28th Battalion, which became one of the most celebrated and decorated units in the New Zealand forces. In the words of German General Siegfried Westphal, Field Marshal Rommel’s chief of staff, “Give me the Māori Battalion and I will conquer the world.”

Many other Māori made outstanding contributions to the war effort.  A number served in the Royal New Zealand Air Force or Royal Air Force in both Europe and the Far East.

In January 1942 Sergeant Bert Wipiti of New Plymouth, shared the honour of shooting down the first Japanese bomber in the battle for Singapore.  He later flew with the RNZAF’s No. 485 Squadron in Europe and was killed on operations while escorting bombers on a raid over France.

Amongst those Māori who served in Bomber Command, Porokoru Patapu (John) Pohe, holds a special place in history, not least because he is recognised as the first Māori Pilot to serve in the Royal Air Force.

Born on 10 December 1914 in Whanganui, Pohe was the only son, with six sisters, of Whatarangi Ropoama and Honoria Maraen Pohe.

Educated at Te Aute College, he excelled academically and at sport. After school he worked on the family farm before spending two years in the Territorial Army in the Manawatu Mounted Rifles.

Pohe enlisted with the Royal New Zealand Airforce in 1939 and began his training. He was awarded his Pilot’s brevet in January 1941 and embarked to Canada to complete his training before joining 10 Operational Training Unit at RAF Abingdon.

He undertook his first mission over occupied Europe on 21 July 1941 and flew 22 sorties as part of 51 Squadron, including the Bruneval Raid and St Nazaire Commando Raid.

On completion of his tour, Pohe was posted as an instructor at 24 O.T.U., RAF Honeybourne and survived a crash in March 1943 when his Wellington caught fire.

Pohe then re-joined 51 Squadron in September 1943 for his second tour of operations.  This time flying the Halifax bomber. On 22 September he took off from RAF Snaith to bomb the German city of Hannover.

His aircraft was struck by flak over the target and limped toward home before ditching in the English Channel. The crew managed to escape from the Halifax and spent two days in a dinghy before being spotted by a German aircraft and then picked a German vessel. Pohe and the crew became Prisoners of War.

Imprisoned at Stalag Luft III, Pohe was one of 76 Allied prisoners who took part in what became known as ‘The Great Escape’.

On the night of 24/25th March 1944 in the depths of a really bad winter, seventy-six POWs managed to escape through tunnel ‘Harry’ before a guard patrolling outside the perimeter fence noticed the next man attempting to emerge from the tunnel.

When the Germans discovered the escape, they put into action a well-rehearsed manhunt. Pohe and his companion Al Hake, an Australian Spitfire pilot, both suffering with frostbite in their feet, were captured by a local patrol and handed over to the Gestapo at Görlitz prison.

On 30th March, Gestapo officers collected six prisoners including Hake and Pohe. They were driven away and never seen again.

On Hitler’s orders fifty of the original seventy-six escapees were executed. They were chosen from different nationalities to send a chilling message back to the camps.

Twenty-three of their fellow escapes were returned to POW camps while just three managed to avoid recapture. One successfully made his way to England and two managed to seek refuge in Sweden.

Originally cremated and buried at Sagan, Porokoru Pohe is now buried in Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery. At Zagan close to the where Stalag Luft III was located, there is a memorial to ‘The Fifty’ (see photo next page).

Flying Officer Porokoru Patapu Pohe RNZAF was Mentioned in Dispatches with the citation “In recognition of distinguished service and devotion to duty”.

He is remembered on Panel 227 of the Memorial Walls at the International Bomber Command Centre.

A docu-drama of Pohe’s life Turangaarere: The John Pohe Story screened in 2008. You can see an excerpt of the documentary at:

Flight Sgt. Porokoru Patapu “John” Pohe
(Credit: Royal New Zealand Air Force Museum)

Flying Officer Pohe flew the Handley Page Halifax on his brief second tour for 51 Squadron
(Credit: Royal New Zealand Air Force Museum)

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