The New Zealand Army was less ready for war in 1939 than it had been in 1914. It had greater commitments and fewer trained men. Voluntary Territorials numbered only 10,364, the Special Reserve 374, and the Regular Force 578. Mechanised warfare called for more equipment and training than that needed for the “footsloggers” of the First World War. Permanent camps did exist, however, at Ngaruawahia, Trentham, and Burnham – in this, at least, the Army was better off – and they were soon crammed with recruits.
A division was again to be sent to Egypt, raised in three contingents, the first of which went into camp on 3 October 1939. An advance party sailed on 11 December, and the First, Second, and Third Echelons (as they were called) departed as follows:
First: 6,529 all ranks 6 January 1940.
Second: 6,460 all ranks (plus naval details) 2 May 1940.
Third: 6,434 all ranks 27 August 1940.
Their main components were the 4th, 5th, and 6th Infantry Brigades respectively and each was to have a field regiment of 25-pounder guns, a battery of anti-tank 2-pounders and another of Bofors light anti-aircraft guns, an engineer and a machine-gun company, and signals and ancillary services. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment (of armoured cars and Bren carriers) was to be committed in whole or in part as needed. Tradition was ignored in the naming of the infantry battalions, and units which in the First World War had been associated with the major provinces, now became mere numbers. The 18th, 21st, and 24th were from Auckland, the 19th, 22nd, and 25th from Wellington, and the 20th, 23rd, and 26th from the South Island. Each brigade had one battalion from each district and 5 Brigade had in addition 28 (Maori) Battalion. The 27th was the machine-gun battalion. A Forestry Group and a Railway Construction and Maintenance Group of engineers were also formed, and they sent off an advance party on 17 April 1940 – the same day that an anti-tank battery formed of New Zealanders in England left there for Egypt. (A survey battery of artillery and an army troops company of engineers were among non-divisional troops raised then or later.)
All three echelons linked with larger Australian contingents en route. The First and Third duly landed in Egypt; but the Second, on the high seas when Germany invaded France and Italy entered the war, was diverted to the United Kingdom and docked in Scotland on 16 June.
Thus the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force was born. Both 2 NZEF and the NZ Division were to be commanded by Major-General B. C. Freyberg (q.v.). He insisted on getting a “charter” which laid down his responsibilities to the New Zealand Government and which gave him considerable discretion in administering and training 2 NZEF, forming new units or detachments for it, and committing it to action.
Assembling the Division
During the Battle of Britain 2 NZEF (U.K.), as the Second Echelon was called, formed two brigades as a mobile reserve to meet the threatened invasion. Released from this role, its units began to reach Egypt in January 1941, after a long voyage round the Cape of Good Hope; but it was March before the last of them arrived. Some 4 Brigade detachments had meanwhile clashed with Italians on the Libyan-Egyptian frontier in July and August 1940. Others laboured on anti-tank defences in the Western Desert, while transport companies carried supplies, engineers developed water resources, signallers operated communications, and the railway companies, as they reached Egypt, hastened to work on the desert railway. The New Zealand “lemon squeezer” hat with its coloured puggarees therefore became a familiar sight from Cairo to the frontier. When the winter campaign against the Italians opened, 4 Brigade was in reserve at Baggush, though some of its lorries drove Indian infantry into action near Sidi Barrani, while engineers and signallers also supported the offensive. Freyberg strongly disliked committing his fighting units until the whole Division was assembled.
Greece and Crete
Before this could be achieved, however, elements of the Division were on their way to Greece. With 6 Australian Division and 1 Armoured Brigade, the Division sailed as part of W Force in a hasty expedition reminiscent of the Gallipoli adventure. Barely had they occupied the right of the Aliakmon Line, looking across the bay to Salonica, when they were withdrawn. New Zealand machine-gunners fought with Australians near Vevi on 10 April. The Divisional Cavalry and 5 Field Regiment briskly and competently delayed the enemy on the Aliakmon on the 12th and 13th. Then for four days 4 and 5 Brigades held up strong enemy forces in the Olympus and Servia Passes. So completely were the two brigades in command of the situation that they would have stayed until Doomsday had they been asked. But all was not well elsewhere. At a defile on the coast one battalion faced a whole division and was soon outflanked and forced back through the Vale of Tempe. An Australian brigade, rushed forward, could not stem the flood. Back came W Force to the Thermopylae Line, attacked every daylight hour from the air. All day on the 24th, 6 Brigade and the guns fought at Molos, destroying many tanks. But evacuation had been ordered and after dark the force withdrew, sadly spiking its guns. From beaches near Athens or in the Peloponnesus, W Force embarked up to 28–29 April. Thousands had to be left behind. In its first campaign the Division lost 291 dead, 599 wounded (212 of them captured), and 1,614 prisoners of war.
Most of 4 and 5 Brigades and other troops landed on Crete with nothing but what they could wear or carry. Freyberg was given command of the whole island and his place in the Division was taken by Brigadier E. Puttick. Puttick's force, besides 4 and 5 Brigades, consisted of 10 Brigade – made up of cavalry, gunners, and service troops acting as infantry – and three Greek regiments so poorly trained and armed as to be of little use. Forecasting accurately where the enemy would try to land, Puttick disposed his men to guard the so-called Prison Valley south-west of Canea and the airfield at Maleme, but he could spare no troops for a likely landing place on the coast to the west.
The landing on 20 May followed bombing and machine gunning from the air on a scale calculated to shatter the defences. But three battalions which landed by glider or parachute at Maleme were cut to pieces, one practically annihilated in a holocaust of small-arms fire. Others near Galatas were shot in the air or stalked on the ground until very few survived. A battalion which dropped on the undefended ground to the west, however, attacked the airfield under close and deadly air cover. By night the battalion guarding this vital sector was ordered to withdraw, a fatal mistake. Next day transport planes began to land supplies and re-inforcements. Counter-attacks on the 22nd failed to retrieve the position, though the Navy defeated a sea-borne force. On the 23rd, 5 Brigade withdrew and on the 25th the battle reached its climax with an attack by the surviving paratroops and fresh alpine troops on the village of Galatas. Air support was on a terrifying scale and mortar bombs rained down on the defence. The village fell, but was recovered in a brilliant counterthrust at dusk. After dark the Division withdrew. As its numbers dwindled those of the enemy increased. Freyberg had no choice but to make his way to the south coast and save what he could of his force. On the 27th an alpine battalion, incautiously following up, was overrun in a wild charge led by Maoris and virtually destroyed. Another rearguard on the 28th covered a weary 40-mile march over the White Mountains. On the last three nights of May the Navy took off all the men it could from the tiny beach at Sfakia. Naval losses had been severe and after that no more ships could be spared. Of the 7,702 New Zealanders on Crete 671 died, 1,943 were wounded (488 of them captured), and 2,180 became prisoners – a very severe loss for such a small force. Three V.C.'s were won in Greece and Crete, those of Hinton, Hulme, and Upham.
The Relief of Tobruk
Undismayed by these losses, the Division carried out amphibious and desert training in the next few months. With nearly 20,000 men and 2,800 vehicles, a powerful mobile force with its own light antiaircraft regiment and other valuable new elements, it crossed into Libya on 18 November 1941 in the first offensive of the newly formed Eighth Army. In the next four days the British armour was shattered. The Division, not knowing this, left 5 Brigade in the frontier area to hold its considerable gains and advanced with 4 and 6 Brigades to relieve Tobruk. The enemy armour under General Rommel fortunately made a simultaneous dash to the frontier area.
After heavy fighting at Point 175, Sidi Rezegh, and Belhamed, the Division broke through in the night of 26–27 November with the help of British infantry tanks and joined hands with the Tobruk garrison at Ed Duda, thus forming the Tobruk Corridor. The three enemy armoured divisions, thwarted in the frontier area, then returned and counter-attacked the corridor. In furious fighting a New Zealand field regiment and four battalions were overwhelmed, and the corridor was severed by noon of 1 December. For Rommel, however, it was a Pyrrhic victory. The remnants of the Division withdrew into Tobruk or back to Egypt. A week later Rommel retreated from Tobruk to Gazala. There, assailed by 5 NZ Brigade and other Eighth Army troops, he gave up on the 16th and withdrew to the Gulf of Sirte. For four critical days the Division had borne the brunt of the fighting and suffered heavy loss: 982 dead, 1,699 wounded, and 1,939 taken prisoner.
Among these were 124 killed at sea, 80 in a ship which was torpedoed while carrying wounded from Tobruk, and 44 in an enemy ship sunk while carrying prisoners to Europe. But this was not all. Ratings trained at Auckland were gradually forming a crew for the cruiser Neptune and in December she carried two New Zealand officers and 148 ratings. In heavy seas off Tripoli, in waters thought too deep for mining, the unlucky Neptune struck three mines in quick succession at 1 a.m. on the 19th. Three hours later she struck a fourth, rolled over, and sank. Only one English rating survived of a company of 750-odd. The 150 RNZN men thus lost added an unhappy sequel to the battle.
The Battle for Egypt – June-November 1942
Recalled hastily from Syria, in June 1942, the Division fought a delaying action at Minqar Qaim, south of Mersa Matruh, to cover the retreat of the Eighth Army after the fall of Tobruk. Encircled by day on the 27th, the New Zealanders burst through by night and headed back to a line being formed at El Alamein. In this last ditch before the Nile – as in front of Amiens in 1918 – the enemy was finally halted and the Division at once regained the initiative. It routed an Italian division on 3 July and captured its artillery. Then came two bold night attacks, at Ruweisat Ridge on 14–15 July and El Mreir on the 21st–22nd. The infantry in each case won their objectives, but supporting weapons, including tanks, failed to get forward and the foremost infantry were overrun with heavy loss. As a result 4 Brigade and 22 Battalion of 5 Brigade withdrew to base to refit and train as an armoured brigade. In these actions two more V.C.'s were earned, that of Elliott and the second one of Upham's.
At the end of August Rommel attacked in the south, was decisively checked, and New Zealand counter-attacks on 3–4 September gained some success. Then the Division withdrew to train for a major offensive. In the Alamein attack which opened at night on 23 October with a heavy artillery programme, the New Zealand objective, Miteiriya Ridge, soon fell. After a week of hard fighting, Freyberg, with three British brigades added to his command, attacked again on 1–2 November and broke the Axis line. Next day the NZ Provost Corps began marking out with black diamond signs a route which was to guide the two-brigade Division for nearly 2,000 miles across North Africa. The enemy was in full retreat. Before dawn on 11 November some 110 men of 21 Battalion stormed the formidable Sollum Pass and took 600 prisoners, opening the way into Libya. Near Bardia the Division halted for supplies. Since June it had lost 1,437 dead, 3,370 wounded, and 1,662 prisoners, mostly at Ruweisat and El Mreir.
Tripolitania and Tunisia
The Division carried out the first of its famous “left hooks” in December, moving over extremely rough desert to outflank the El Agheila position. The enemy at once withdrew, clashing briefly with New Zealanders astride his rear at Nofilia. The next stage in January 1943 took the Division through the inland oasis of Beni Ulid to hill country south of Tripoli, which fell on the 23rd. The third left hook, following a one-day defensive success at Medenine in Tunisia, passed round the southern end of the Mareth Line to the Tebaga Gap. There the New Zealand Corps (the Division with attached British armour and other troops) mounted a setpiece battle with close tank and air support and broke through. In so doing the Maori Battalion greatly distinguished itself at Point 209 and one of its members, Lieutenant Ngarimu, won a posthumous V.C. Leading the pursuit from the Wadi Akarit a week later, the Division soon reached the formidable heights before Tunis, including the dominating feature of Takrouna, which 5 Brigade gained in bitter hand-to-hand fighting on 19–20 April. Early next month veterans of the German 90th Light Division asked if they could surrender to the New Zealanders, whom they had come to respect in many a hard-fought battle, and some did so. On 13 May Freyberg took the surrender of the Italian First Army and the fighting in North Africa ended. Since Alamein the Division had lost 336 dead, 967 wounded, and 21 prisoners.
Back to Egypt: Furlough and Regrouping
The Division turned back within a day or two from the flowery Tunisian fields and purple hills and re-entered the familiar desert. In easy stages the 1,900 miles to base camp at Maadi near Cairo took 16 or 17 days and the reunion at the end with 4 Brigade, now an armoured formation with three regiments of Sherman tanks and 22 Motor Battalion, was heart-warming. Men in the ranks, most junior officers, and a sprinkling of senior officers of the first three echelons, went home on furlough in two drafts three months apart. Reinforcements took their places, diluting the fighting units with inexperience. Such was the Division's reputation, however, that Churchill, writing of the Division which had “always held a shining place in the van” of the historic advance across North Africa, urged that it be allowed to continue into Europe.
Italy: the Sangro and Orsogna
It was a very different Division which disembarked at Taranto in October 1943 and entered the line, after a 250-mile journey by road, in mid-November. It now had 4,500 vehicles and these had no open highway such as the Western Desert; they were tied to a few muddy roads and tracks. The weather was filthy and the Sangro River ahead and the Abruzzi Hills beyond promised a cold and muddy introduction to the Italian campaign. After careful preparation, 5 and 6 Brigades, with two tank regiments, attacked in the early hours of 28 November, crossing the swift, icy current and floundering across the muddy river flat. The infantry then climbed slippery cliff faces while engineers laboured to bridge the river in two places. Fortunately opposition was slight.
In the next fortnight the New Zealanders fought their way and manhandled their supporting weapons and supplies up into the Abruzzi, capturing several villages. Only at Orsogna did they fail. This large village enjoyed great natural strength. Its stubborn paratroop garrison beat back two frontal attacks and two outflanking moves. When the last elements of the Division were relieved on 17 January 1944 the paratroops still held Orsogna. On this wintry front 413 New Zealanders died, 1,132 were wounded, and 89 captured (18 of them wounded).
In secret the Division crossed the snowy Apennines to form (with an Indian division, an American group, and corps troops) another New Zealand Corps for the pursuit towards Rome, after the Fifth Army broke through to the Liri Valley behind Cassino. The Corps was to link up with troops from the landing at Anzio. Freyberg commanded the Corps and Major-General Kippenberger the Division. Severe fighting by Americans, however, failed to breach the line and soon it was evident that NZ Corps would have to fight its way through. In wind and rain on 4–5 February, units of 5 Brigade splashed through flooded fields and into sodden foxholes facing Cassino, to relieve the Americans for a final effort. The scene by day was daunting. The Rapido River in front was flooded. On the right the outskirts of the town lay less than a mile ahead and behind them Montecassino rose steeply, topped by the gigantic abbey, like a huge all-seeing eye. Beyond it, snow-capped Monte Cairo loomed higher still. Heights and marshy flats were all strongly fortified, and patience was clearly called for until the ground dried. But the Allied Command in Italy, worried about Anzio, could not wait.
When the last American assault failed, Freyberg undertook a two-pronged attack; but first the dominating appearance of the abbey was drastically altered. On 15 February it was heavily bombed and its massive walls reduced to ruins – an act, controversial though it later became, which accorded with opinion at the front. Again before dusk on the 17th it was bombed. After dark Indians from the north got within 300 yards of the ruins while two Maori companies crossed the river and seized Cassino Railway Station. But daylight came too soon, engineers failed to bridge the river, and the Indians and Maoris were driven back with heavy loss. Firmer ground was essential and an anxious month followed, the Division meanwhile edging round to the north into the outskirts of the town and preparing for a frontal assault. Kippenberger was wounded on 2 March and Brigadier Parkinson took command of the Division. On the 15th heavy bombers (and “mediums”) dropped 1,100 tons of bombs and battered the town beyond recognition. Artillery took up the destruction. Then a battalion of 6 Brigade attacked, supported by tanks.
The bombing and shelling, however, had substituted one kind of obstruction for another. Everywhere the ground was deeply cratered and tanks were held up. One company of infantry climbed cliff faces and brilliantly captured Castle Hill. Elsewhere the attack petered out in a maze of fallen masonry and jagged walls. Reinforcements were only slowly committed after much delay and, as they advanced, rain turned the craters into ponds. A morning attack gained 200 yards. On the 17th tanks and infantry gained the railway station. In the hills above, Indians took several useful features in hard fighting and it became imperative to break through from the town to ease the pressure on them. Even in the town 6 Brigade was thin on the ground and two Maori companies on the 19th scarcely filled the gaps. A long detour through the hills could not receive infantry support and partly for that reason it failed. The New Zealand tank crews nevertheless gained a tantalising glimpse of the Liri Valley – as the Wellingtons at Chunuk Bair in August 1915 saw the Dardanelles. The offensive was halted on 24 March and two days later NZ Corps disbanded. Isolated detachments on the hillsides withdrew with great difficulty, all bitterly disappointed – New Zealanders, Indians, and Ghurkas.
It took firmer ground in May to carry both Fifth and Eighth Armies through the enemy line on a broad front. The Division held the line to the north, but its 18th and 19th Armoured Regiments took part in this final offensive. The 19th, after much hard fighting, proudly entered Cassino on 18 May. A week later the 18th took up the pursuit through country almost impassable for tanks and, when relieved on 4 June, was well on the way to Rome. The Division had meanwhile penetrated the hills to Sora, and then Balsorano, on the upper Liri. At last came a well-earned rest. The Cassino fighting up to mid-June cost 460 New Zealand lives, 1,801 wounded (7 of them captured), and 43 unwounded prisoners.
A quick move in mid-July took the Division to the Arezzo front where 6 Brigade fought a sharp two-day action against rearguards barring the way to the Arno Valley and Florence. Its next task was to exploit the impending fall of Florence. Within a few days plans were changed and the Division began on 22 July to push towards the Arno below the city. In this country of vineyards and woods and many hill villages, Tiger tanks with guns and armour far heavier than those of the Shermans offered lively opposition and caused much loss. After fighting to gain a suitable start line, a divisional attack before midnight of 1 August, under a strong artillery barrage, pierced the last line of hills before Florence, and early on 4 August Maoris and men of 23 Battalion raced each other into the outskirts of the town, only to be recalled within an hour or so. The Division took over a sector to the west of the city and on 10–11 August pushed forward to the bank of the Arno. The confused fighting which took the Division through two strong defensive lines on the way to the city cost 298 lives, 900 wounded (4 of them captured), and 27 other prisoners.
Winter in the Romagna
A hasty and secret move across the Apennines at the end of the month led to fighting north of Rimini on the Adriatic at the end of September. The land was quartered by ditches, canals, and stopbanks thickly sewn with mines and booby traps. In heavy rain 5 Brigade attacked from the Marecchia River on the 22nd, and by the 26th 6 Brigade had reached the Uso. Over sodden ground in blinding rain 5 Brigade resumed on the 28th and reached the Fiumicino – officially the Rubicon of old. But the storm won and the river was in raging flood; thus the Division had to push inland. In this laborious fashion the Division snatched a bridgehead opposite Gatteo on 11 October, crossed one river or canal after another in the next fortnight, and ended up on the River Savio north of Cesena. There was now a shortage of infantry and the cavalry, anti-tank gunners, and others had to hold the line. On the 22nd the weary units withdrew for a month in reserve.
In villages round Fabriano units were reinforced, and on 25 November the Division passed through the large town of Forli to take up positions on the Lamone River facing Faenza. In frequent snowstorms and an icy wind, 5 Brigade crossed the river to the west and in heavy fighting between 14 and 17 December reached the Senio. Ghurkas cleared Faenza on the 16th and three days later 6 Brigade pushed northeastwards to complete the line on the Senio. The rest of the winter passed quietly with frequent reliefs for the infantry, and early in March the Division moved back to the Fabriano area, well knowing that the Germans would not have wasted their time and that the next advance would be through a maze of barbed wire, mines, traps, and fortifications. Already the campaign in the Romagna had cost 419 dead, 1,733 wounded, and 33 prisoners.
From the Senio to Trieste
For the Division's last campaign another brigade, the 9th, was formed from the Divisional Cavalry, and machine-gun battalion reorganised as infantry units, and reinforced with anti-tank gunners and others no longer needed in their normal roles. The third battalion was 22 Motor Battalion from 4 Armoured Brigade. An assault squadron of engineers was ready to build bridges under fire. Flame-throwing “Crocodiles” and “Wasps” and troop-carrying armoured “Kangaroos” were to help the infantry across the stopbanks.
In the line north of Faenza, the Division gained full control of the southern stopbank of the Senio early in April. A heavy bombardment by 17 artillery regiments and bombing by heavy and medium bombers and fighter-bombers (all dropping light fragmentation bombs so as not to crater the ground) preceded a night attack on the 9th under “artificial moonlight” created by searchlights. The flamethrowers hosed the opposite stopbank, infantry crossed by boat or kapok bridge, led off behind a barrage, and won their objectives. Crossings of the Santerno followed on the 11th and 12th, and, on the 15th–16th, 9 Brigade crossed the Sillaro with 6 Brigade. A bloody crossing of the Gaiana Canal by 9 Brigade and a Ghurka brigade finally broke the defence. Dead German paratroops lay everywhere as 5 and 6 Brigades passed through. And so on to the Idice, daringly crossed on the 20th, then 20 miles to the Reno and, on the 24th, to the southern bank of the Po. A few bold spirits paddled across at once; but the main crossing, largely unopposed, took place on Anzac Day.
Beyond this 250-yard-wide barrier, the Division raced through turbulent countryside to Padua and Mestre, sent a detachment into Venice, skirmished by the Piave River on the 30th, and pushed on rapidly towards Trieste. At 3 p.m. on 2 May, tanks of 20 Armoured Brigade drove into the city, and in the evening 22 Battalion took the surrender of the garrison of the castle. The German forces in Italy officially surrendered that day; but in Trieste and its environs many Germans refused to give themselves up to Yugoslav partisans. Some 12,000 non-supporters of General Tito caused trouble and the Tito partisans in the city were truculent. But on 11 June the Yugoslav troops began to withdraw from Trieste and the Division was able to relax. Its long campaign in Italy had at last ended. The last phase cost 436 dead and 1,159 wounded.
Demobilisation and J Force
The furlough scheme continued and in September 1945 the 9th Reinforcements departed. By this time Japan had surrendered (on 15 August), and a composite brigade known as “J Force” was formed to take part in the occupation – men of late reinforcements plus unmarried volunteers. It kept the units of 9 Brigade, but in name only, their ranks being filled from eligible men throughout 2 NZEF (including 270 Maori volunteers who formed an extra squadron of the Divisional Cavalry Battalion). The force sailed for Japan in February 1946, by which time the Division had long since ceased to exist.
The Losses of the 2nd Division
The total dead from all causes amounted to 6,581, the wounded to 16,237, and the “unwounded” prisoners (including many wounded not reported as such) to 6,637. For the operations carried out these totals are not high.