New Zealand Division and attrition in the North African Campaign

Immediately following Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, New Zealand came to Britain’s support, the country’s sentiment expressed by its premier, Michael Joseph Savage, “It is with gratitude in the past, and with confidence in the future, that we range ourselves without fear beside Britain, where she goes, we go! Where she stands, we stand!”

Over the course of the war, around 140,000 New Zealanders served in the armed forces and nearly 12,000 were killed. At first, only volunteers were recruited, but with the defeat of France in June 1940, conscription was introduced to spread the burden more fairly.

Throughout 1940, men were recruited and trained under the command of Maj. Gen. Freyberg.

The force was designated the 2nd New Zealand Division to distinguish if from the 1st division which had been raised during the First World War. As the battalions completed their training they were sent out to Egypt and garrisoned in vast training grounds at Wadi Digla, near Maadi, a leafy suburb south of Cairo.

At full strength, the division mustered 20,000 men. Of these about 7000 were riflemen  in 10 infantry battalions; 4000 were gunners distributed through three field regiments, an anti-tank regiment and a flak regiment; 1500 were were members of a machine gun battalion and armoured car/tank regiment; 1250 were engineers; and an unspecified number were signallers distributed between the other battalions and regiments.

In addition, support was provided by ammunition, petrol, supply and transport units, while the medical corps provided field dressing stations, stretcher bearers, ambulances, and in the rear, general hospitals and convalescence centres.

Of a full division, of 20,000 men, therefore, only 7000 were trained to close with the enemy. Of that 7000, about 2000 were tied up with battalion and company HQ, leaving only about 5000 free for the assault, 500 in each battalion. This needs to be remembered when evaluating casualty rates, for most were suffered by these front line troops.

NZ-20-Batln-Sept-41-Baggush

Greece and Crete

By March 1941, they were combat ready and sent out with the 6th Australian Division to support Greece against an Italian invasion. This was successfully repelled but brought a repost from Germany in a devastating blitzkrieg. Commonwealth troops were forced into a retreat in which most of the New Zealand Division were evacuated to Crete. Here, it became the principal component of the defence and Freyberg became the Commander in Chief of all Allied forces on the island.

The following month, Crete fell to the largest airborne invasion of the war and the 2nd NZ Division was evacuated to Egypt.

Casualties in Greece: 272 men killed, 1,793 captured, 33 missing and 391 wounded in this brief and, in retrospect, futile action. (nzetc.victoria.ac.nz)

Casualties in Crete: 605 men killed, 2123 taken prisoner, 145 missing, 980 wounded. (nzetc.victoria.ac.nz)

Although the division had lost a total of 6342 casualties, reinforcements had been continuing to arrive in Egypt and the division was kept up to strength.

North Africa

Since March, Rommel had been sitting on the Libyan-Egyptian border while trying to subdue Tobruk to his rear. Wavell, Commander in Chief, Middle East, had lost the confidence of Churchill and was replaced by Auchinleck. In November, an offensive was mounted in which the New Zealand Division constituted the heart of the infantry corps (XIII Corps).

Operation Crusader

As British and German tanks clashed in the desert sands, the New Zealanders captured Fort Capuzzo on the border and pressed on towards the coast where they dispersed to cover different areas – 5th (NZ) Brigade surrounded the enemy garrison at Sollum; 4th (NZ) Brigade moved north to isolate Bardia; while 6th (NZ) Brigade was directed westwards to the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, about 40 km south-east of Tobruk. On 23 November 6th Brigade suffered heavy casualties trying to capture Point 175.

More bad luck was to follow. Rommel, falling back after an unsuccessful attempt to relieve Axis units on the border, ran straight through New Zealand lines, overrunning 5th Brigade headquarters in the process. Several New Zealand battalions also suffered heavy casualties as German tanks swept over the escarpments at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. For the third time that year thousands of New Zealanders went into captivity.

Casualties in Crusader: 1006 killed, 1932 captured, 46 missing, 1619 wounded. Total number of casualties 4603 (nzetc.victoria.ac.nz)

Despite the heavy casualties, Rommel was forced into a tactical retreat and the Commonwealth forces established a new defensive line beyond Benghazi.

The New Zealand Division had fought its most costly battle of the war. In February 1942, at the New Zealand government’s insistence, they were moved to Syria to recover.

Syria

In Syria, the New Zealanders spent much of the time in training. The infantry practised mobile attacks while the artillery perfected a method of concentrated bombardments into a rectangle 1200 y long and 600 y wide, a technique developed by Brigadier Steve Weir and one which was eventually adopted by the entire 8th army, to be known as STONKING.

Mersa Matrouh and Minqar Qaim

In January, Rommel launched his counter-attack and pushed the British and Commonwealth forces back to a defensive position at Ghazala just west of Tobruk. Here the two armies faced off over a period of three months while building up their strength.

On the 28th May, Rommel took the initiative by hooking round the British left flank but found the resistance tougher than he had imagined from the French defensive box at Bir Hakeim and British tank divisions now armed with the Grant tank. Nevertheless, in three weeks of hellish fighting, he managed to outmanoeuvre the British who started retreating on 14th June.

Freyberg was ordered to bring his division to Egypt which he did within the week, assembling his forces together which had become dispersed round Syria and racing across 1000 miles to the front line.

The whole move was carried out with the greatest secrecy: shoulder titles and hat badges by which the Division could be identified were removed, unit location signs and all tents were left standing, farewell parties were forbidden, and the divisional signs on transport were painted over before each convoy left; no one was informed of the destination or purpose of the move and all main urban centres were bypassed.

The first units were deployed by 21st June west of Mersa Matrouh, but on hearing of the fall of Tobruk, they were moved into the defensive box that had been constructed round the town. Freyberg, however, was unhappy with the position since it was overlooked by an escarpment 24 miles to the south at Minqar Qaim. He managed to persuade Neil Ritchie (GOC 8th Army) to allow the NZ division to take up a position on the ridge.

Auchinleck was now determined to keep his troops mobile to avoid the casualties that had arisen in the past from too static a defence. Since there was only enough transport for the 4th and 5th Brigades, the 6th Brigade was sent back to Alexandria.

The division had dug in by the morning of the 26th and during the day heard the sounds of battle as Rommel moved through the mine gap between the escarpment and the port. By the evening, the NZ division was engaging the German 90th Light Division, their old and bitter enemies from Sidi Razegh the previous year.

The following day their encirclement was completed by the 21st Panzer Division. The only option was to break out which they did in a furious night attack with a screaming bayonet charge, grenades and machine gun fire, ruthlessly killing any in their path and taking no prisoners in the frenzy of the assault. Later Rommel accused them of killing the wounded in a dressing station.

Casualties: 150 killed, 664 wounded, 149 missing or captured (between 20th and 30th June) (nzetc.victoria.ac.nz)

El Alamein

July fighting

Auchinleck was now holding the line at Alamein with four defended strongpoints, “boxes”, and mobile brigades between.

The 6th Brigade was deployed in the Bab el Qattara Box, known by the Kiwis as the Kaponga Box, while the 4th and 5th Brigades were deployed as mobile brigades around the Deir el Munassib.

Destruction of the Ariete Artillery

On the 3rd July, a roving NZ column noticed that during an advance of the Ariete Division around the Ruweisat Ridge, its artillery had become separated from its armour and was straying into the desert.

This is exactly what the New Zealanders had been training for in Syria and they quickly deployed ther guns and ranged them onto the Italians while the 19th Battalion of the 4th Brigade was called up from the Deir el Munassib. In a bayonet attack covered by mortars and machine guns, the infantry overwhelmed the entire artillery of the Ariete Division and took 300 prisoners, 28 guns and 100 trucks.

NZ-remains-of-Ariete-arty

Evacuation of the Kaponga Box

On the 7th July, Rommel assembled his forces, 21st Panzer and Littorio Division around the Kaponga box and struck two days later only to find that the New Zealanders had decided to vacate it. At last, Rommel was being outwitted.

NZ-meal-in-the-Kaponga-box

Assault on Ruweisat Ridge Operation Bacon

On the night of the 14th July, the NZ’ers mounted a major assault on the Ruweisat ridge. Two brigades, the 4th and the 5th, advanced 6 miles across a front of 1400 yards. They met minefields and enemy defensive position over a distance of 3 ½ miles finally gaining the ridge at 5.30 in the morning. To their surprise, it wasn’t occupied. They had actually passed through the defenses and were looking down on the HQ of the 15th Panzer Division, positioned to the north west. Dismay was soon added to surprise when they found the ridge to be solid rock and difficult to dig into. Unable to prepare trenches or gun positions, they were left exposed to any counter-attack.

NZ-preparing-for-Ruweisat-r

The 4th Brigade on the left flank had managed to bring up its anti-tank guns on portees. This meant that instead of hooking the guns to a truck or carrier, they were actually carried on the back of the truck to prevent damage. In training exercises, the NZ’ers had found they could fire them from the trucks, which made for very rapid deployment, useful in mobile action but not for consolidating a defensive position where the bulky guns-on-trucks became very conspicuous targets. By first light, other supporting arms, ammunition and supplies had still not arrived. In their rapid advance, the infantry had not cleared all the enemy positions and the following supply vehicles were receiving fire.

Part of the plan was for the armoured brigades to provide support, but the assumption was that the infantry would be dug in and protected by their own artillery. The tanks could only move after first light and needed time to advance through the mine-fields and still active enemy strongholds.

The infantry were therefore left on their own and were soon under heavy shelling and mortar fire. The 5th Brigade hadn’t managed to bring up its anti-tank guns and one battalion, the 22nd, was soon surrounded and forced to surrender.

The 4th held the left flank and was attacked from the south in the afternoon by the 60th Light Division, their old enemies, and forced to capitulate. It was the end of the 4th Brigade.

To the East of the ridge, the 5th Indian Brigade was fighting for point 63 which they seized by midday. This cut off fire from the right flank and allowed the tanks to advance up to the ridge, but, as Panzers massed to the north, the British tanks remained cautious and failed to come to the support of the NZ’ers. With only minimal numbers of anti-tank guns, no artillery or tanks, the 5th eventually withdrew. The failure of the tanks to provide support created long and bitter resentment from the NZ’ers.

Assault on Deir el Mireir Operation Splendour

Another assault was launched on the evening of the 21st July by the 5th and 6th Brigades. Rommel had withdrawn the 21st Panzer Div from the north at the time of Operation Bacon and now both 15th and 21st Panzer divsions were concentrated to the west of Ruweisat so that they could be deployed either north or south. He had lost faith in his Italian divisions and was now integrating German infantry with them in a process of “corseting”.

The plan was for the NZ’ers to capture the Deir el Mireir in a night assault while the Indian 5th Division was to move along the Ruweisat ridge to take Point 63 and the Deir el Shein. With both flanks secured the 1st Armoured Division was to move through the gap between and take on the German armour.

At the same time, the Australians were to extend their hold on Tel el Eissa in the north and capture the Mitereiya Ridge.

Inglis, in temporary command of the NZ division since the wounding of Freyberg at Minqar Qaim, insisted that the British armour should be on the edge of the Deir el Mireir by first light to protect the infantry from possible tanks counter-attacks. He was determined not to have a repeat of the botched operation to take Ruweisat.

This time the attack was prepared by heavy DAF bombing throughout the day and then supported by artillery bombardment during the assault.

The NZ 6th Brigade with three battalions advanced 6000 yards while sappers followed to clear mine fields for the supporting vehicles to pass through.

The 26th Bn was the first to clear the minefields and charge over the ridge to knock out the German posts dug in on the ridge. Once in the depression they found themselves in the middle of a tank leaguer. They knocked out some with sticky bombs while the remaining tanks retreated. The sappers had successfully cleared lanes for the supporting arms but two carriers and an ammunition truck veered off course and were blown up by mines, the resulting conflagration attracted heavy German shelling which prevented the rest of the supporting material to advance. The battalion commander realized that without anti-tank guns they would be blown to pieces by an armoured counter attack at sunrise so withdrew back to the NZ defensive line held by the 5th Brigade.

The 24th Bn had a tougher climb to the ridge and could only assemble fewer than a 100 men on the objective, but the supporting vehicles arrived and they were able to consolidate their position with anti-tank guns, mortars and machine guns.

The 25th Bn arrived with only three of its companies intact; one had got lost, overshot the target and then retired. When supporting arms and ammunition were brought up, however, the moon had set and it was too dark to dig in so the guns were left on their portees.

Anxious requests were sent back to the armoured division to mobilise and be in place by first light but orders were not relayed or were left ambiguous. Once more, just as at Ruweisat, the British armour failed to come to the assistance of the NZ who were exposed to a withering German counter-attack before the sun had risen. About 20 Panzers took up hull down positions on the northern ridge and fired blind onto the assembled NZ’ers. As conflagrations lit up their positions, they came under more accurate fire. Once all the anti-tank guns had been knocked out the Panzers rolled into the depression and overrun all the positions and forced the NZ’ers to surrender. 880 men became casualties, most of them prisoners.

NZ-operating-theatre-for-ca

That the caution of the tank brigades was not unfounded was demonstrated towards Ruweisat. The Indians had first taken point 63 and moved into the Deir el Shein but in the following counter-attack they had been forced back and point 63 remained in German hands.

An armoured attack had been planned to lunge through the gap between Ruweisat and Deir el Mireir but was conditional on the NZ’ers and Indians holding the flanks. But with increasing pressure on the Armoured Division to do something, the 23rd Armoured Brigade was launched through the gap. They were woefully unprepared. They had just arrived in Egypt on the 6th July with no desert experience, training or properly fitted tanks; they had been ordered to move to Alamein on the 15th July.

At 8.00 am, the 23rd Brigade with 106 tanks, most of them the slow moving Valentines, still carrying the obsolete 2 pdr guns launched their attack driving at 10 mph for the first 2000 yards before they hit the enemy mine fields and came under fierce anti-tank fire. Although severely mauled, they still had the advantage of surprise and over-run the positions of the Panzergrenadier regiment and motored to within yards of the Afrika Korps HQ. But small groups of German gunners continued to fight on until the Panzers could be mobilised in support, forcing the 23rd Brigade into a retreat. Only 7 tanks out of the original 106 were to make it back.

Casualties: 967 killed, 1641 prisoners of war, 53 missing, 2329 wounded. Total casualties 4990

October Battle

Operation Lightfoot

The 5th and the 6th Brigades advanced onto Mitereiya Ridge. On the right flank was the 5th Brigade which had to advance through 6000 yards. A single battalion, the 23rd was to advance to an intermediate position and then its sister battalions, 21st and 22nd were to leapfrog through to the final objective. But the 23rd lost a sense of distance traversed, and because they had not met too much resistance moved on and reached Mitereiya ridge. The other battalions had no idea where they were and therefore took the initiative advance. They suffered heavy casualties from mines but met determined resistance only on the ridge which they eventually seized. By then the missing 23rd Bn had been located and sent back to the intermediate position.

The 6th Brigade only had a distance of 4000 yards to traverse but met with considerable opposition and dug in just short of the final objective.

The Maori Brigade was deployed in mopping up operations behind the leading battalions. The division was anxious not to repeat the problems they had had on Ruweisat ridge when remaining strongpoints prevented the supporting arms from reaching the final objectives.

This time both brigades managed to dig in with their supporting arms, equipment and supplies.

NZ_Maori_battalion_training

The 10th Armoured Division (8th and 24th Brigades, 273 tanks), under the command of Gatehouse, was to strike through corridors in the middle of the NZ positions.

The first to arrive however were the armoured regiments assigned to the NZ division, 9th Brigade (118 tanks – Crusaders, Grants and Shermans) and a regiment of NZ cavalry. Note: 400 tanks in the NZ sector.

The idea was to strike through, but the first tanks over the ridge were soon mauled by enemy fire and the 9th Brigade retired behind the ridge and took up a hull down position. For the first time, the tanks were with the infantry although they had not broken through.

By dawn the first tanks of the 10th Armoured Division, 8th Brigade tried to cross the ridge, but received a hail of armour piercing shells which caused the first 10 tanks to blow up in sheets of flame leaving wrecks with glowing red-hot tank turrets.

It was now realized why the ridge was fairly lightly defended. The main axis defence was deployed in depth on the reverse side of the ridge.

Gatehouse, Commander of the 10th Armoured Division, drove up with his tactical HQ in 3 tanks and decided to deploy behind the ridge along the 2 mile NZ front, about 200 tanks, causing an enormous traffic jam which delayed the passage of the 24th Brigade through the cleared corridors.

Throughout the morning this heavy deployment of troops, guns and tanks received very heavy Axis shelling.

By late morning, the allied artillery were directing accurate and concentrated counter-fire using the STONKING methods of Weir.

In the afternoon, the German tanks moved up and down about 2000 m from the British positions but didn’t press home an assault.

German strategy in the past was to fire from 2000 yard which was further than the British tank shells could reach and goad the British into a charge which would then fall victim to the 88 mm guns and anti-tank guns, but now the Shermans could throw shells just as far and so the two sides were engaging fire at distance.

Battle on Mitereiya ridge remained fairly static for a few days with initiative moving to the Australian and Highland sections. At last light on the 27th, NZ Division was relieved by the 1st SA Brigade and the 9th Armoured Brigade was moved into a reserve position. The 4th Indian Division was to extend its front to include the SA sector.

Montgomery was preparing for his final assault. He regarded Freyberg as his finest divisional commander and put him in charge of the operation.

Although planned by the New Zealand staff offices and with the use of the divisional artillery under the command of Brig Steve Weir, the New Zealand infantry brigades were too depleted for action and were replaced by fresh Northumbrian and Indian brigades along with the 9th Armoured Brigade which had been attached to the NZ Division and the Maori battalion which had not yet been used in a front line assault.

Casualties of October battle: 384 killed, 40 taken prisoner, 2 missing, 1360 wounded. Total casualties 1786  (inkeatsman.wordpress.com)

Over the Greek and Crete campaign there had been 6342 casualties (of which 877 killed), equivalent to the division’s entire contingent of riflemen.

In the Crusader campaign in Libya, the had been 4603 casualties (of which 1006 killed).

In the Egyptian campaign from 20th June to 21st November, 1942, there had been 7296 casualties (of which 1437 killed).

To these combat casualties must be added those who reported ill or suffered battle exhaustion.

 

 

 

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