At its peak the Māori force at Meremere numbered perhaps a thousand men under the overall command of the Ngāti Haua leader Wiremu Tāmihana. Every tribe which acknowledged the authority of King Tāwhiao had fighters there. The Māori force had three ships’ guns which had been given to Ngāti Tahinga by a trader many years earlier. These cannon were carried overland from Raglan, then brought downriver by canoe. A former East India Company gunner living in Waikato was forced to train Māori to fire them. But with no ammunition available, they fired projectiles improvised from iron chain, nails and pound weights that had little effect on armoured vessels. Cameron assembled an armoured river fleet to carry men and supplies for the assault on Meremere.
The paddle-steamer Avon had been readied for war at Onehunga in 1862. Iron-plated for protection from enemy fire, it was armed with a 12-pounder ship’s gun and a Congreve rocket tube. Four armoured barges were prepared to ferry troops. In October 1863 this fleet was boosted by the arrival of the ‘rifle gunboat’ Pioneer. Capable of carrying 300 men, this was the first naval vessel built for the New Zealand government.
On 31 October 1863, 600 men of the 40th and 65th regiments and two 12-pounder Armstrong guns were loaded onto the Pioneer, the Avon and the four barges, which were towed by two steamers. The convoy was fired at as it steamed past Meremere before landing 10 km upriver. Cameron’s plan was to cut off Meremere from its support base at Pukekawa on the other side of the river and attack the position from both north and south. Meremere’s defenders were outflanked and had little choice but to withdraw to the east. The British occupied the abandoned pā next day. The first major obstacle on the river had been removed, but Cameron had been unable to lure his opponents into a costly battle. He would have to move further south to achieve a decisive victory.