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2nd New Zealand Division in WWII
By Brian L. Knipple
February 2014

When England declared on Germany on 3 September 1939, New Zealand simultaneously declared war. The British and New Zealand governments decided an infantry division for overseas service was the best way for the dominion to support the war effort.

From a March 1939 strength of 578 regulars, the New Zealand government had to raise combat and support units for employment in the Pacific (1st Division), while simultaneously raising a complete British-style formation of nine infantry, one machine gun, two engineer, two reconnaissance and three artillery battalions as well as a host of other support units for the infantry division. Sources for the manpower necessary included 10,742 territorials and trained reservists, the majority of whom were expected to enlist.

On 6 September the government authorized the initial formation of a volunteer force of 6,600. On 12 December the force was officially declared the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2 NZEF), the 1st now having been that dispatched in the First World War. Enlistment on a voluntary basis was limited to men aged 18-35 (later raised to 40), with length of service being the duration of the war plus 12 months. Enlistment began on 12 December and by the end of the day, 5,419 men had signed up. By 5 October, 14,983 men had enlisted. Enlistment of New Zealand men in England were sufficient to form the nucleus of the divisional anti-tank regiment, eventually forming 34 Battery of the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment.

(In all places here the term “regiment,” as used by the Commonwealth, actually refers to a battalion-sized unit.)

On 18 September 1939 the Maori tribes, the native people of New Zealand and fierce warriors in their own right, requested to be allowed to form a combat unit for overseas service. Approval was quickly forthcoming and the Army began accepting enlistments on the 9th of October. The unit eventually formed from the men who volunteered was the 28th (Maori) Infantry Battalion, one of the most flamboyant and warlike units in the division and maybe the entire Allied ground forces. The addition of this unit gave 2 NZ Division an extra infantry battalion. An earlier installment covered the exploits of the Maori at war.

Bernard Cyril Freyberg, warrior-dentist.

A New Zealander Commanding

Major General B. C. Freyberg, V.C., D.S.O., was appointed commander of 2 NZEF on 23 November. Unlike the First World War where the New Zealand Division was commanded by British regular army officers, the 2 NZEF was to be commanded by a New Zealander. Freyberg was so highly regarded that the Chief of the Imperial Staff had intended to offer him command of a British division. During the Great War, Freyberg had joined the British Royal Naval Division as an officer in 1914 and later a number of British Army brigades, ending the war, at age 29, as an acting major general commanding the British 29th Infantry Division. He had been awarded the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross three times, been wounded nine times and risen in the rank to major-general in the interwar British Army before being medically retired in 1937 under unusual circumstances by a cost-cutting British government.

As 2 NZEF commander, Freyberg insisted on and was granted a unique set of responsibilities beyond those of a combat unit commander. The force represented a significant percentage of the nation's male population between the ages of 21 and 35 and Freyberg and the government believed recourse beyond the British chain of command, which the unit would become part of, was necessary to ensure the unit was employed appropriately and administered as a New Zealand unit rather than a British one (Australia, South Africa and Canada did likewise). In this case “appropriately” employed meant what General Freyberg and the New Zealand government considered it did.

The 2nd New Zealand Division was organized and battalion-level and below units numbered so as to continue the numbering system used in the 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force (a convention also used by the Australians, except that they carried it to the numbering of brigades and divisions as well). Brigades were numbered 4th, 5th and 6th as the first three were to be in the 1st Division. Infantry battalion numbering began with 18 as there had been 17 in 1 NZEF, artillery battalions began with the 4th, engineer companies began with the 5th and so on.

As might be expected of a nation with as small a regular army as New Zealand, the commanders of the 4th Brigade and the 4th Field Regiment were regular Army officers, but all other battalion and company commanders were territorial officers, with two of the infantry battalions commanded by lawyers. In almost every case, units were commanded by men with experience in 1 NZEF, even if they had not remained in the Army between the wars.

The plan was for the First Echelon to depart for the Middle East in January 1940 so it could equip and train in far better conditions than could be found in New Zealand. With the addition of the next two echelons of units, the expectation was that the division would complete training in August and be ready for deployment in September 1940. A base in England was to be established and the division be made available for use in Europe.

During the first nine months of the war almost 20,000 men embarked for overseas service in 2 NZEF. The First Echelon began training of officers and senior noncommissioned officers (NCO) on 27 September with the main draft of enlisted men being mustered in on 3 October. This was to be followed by the Second two months later and the Third two months after that.

27th Machine Gun Battalion boards the troop transport Sobieski. Lyttleton, N.Z., January 1940.

First Echelon

The First Echelon, numbering 6,529 of all ranks and composed of 2 NZEF divisional HQ, some administrative and supply units deemed necessary for the establishment of a base force in Egypt, the 4th Infantry Brigade (18th, 19th and 20th Battalions), 27 Machinegun Battalion, A and B Squadrons (companies) of the divisional cavalry (reconnaissance) battalion, 5th Field Park (engineer) Company and 4th Field (artillery) Regiment, departed Lyttelton and Wellington harbors on 5 and 6 January 1940.

The convoy arrived at Port Tewfik, 100 miles from Cairo, on 12 February, completing disembarkation on the 15th. Camp was established 8 miles outside Cairo and training and equipping begun. The divisional reconnaissance squadrons received Bren carriers and Mark VIb light tanks and 4th Field Regiment an allotment of 18 pounders and 4.5-inch howitzers. By late April, the 34th Battery, 7th Anti-tank Regiment had joined the First Echelon in Egypt.

Second Echelon

The Second Echelon and attached companies mustered on 12 January 1940 and began the process of training and preparation. It totaled 6,838 all ranks and was made up of 5th Infantry Brigade (21st, 22nd, 23rd and 28th [Maori] Infantry Battalions), 5th Field Regiment, 7th Anti-tank Regiment (31 and 32 Batteries), C Squadron of the divisional cavalry, elements of 6th Brigade HQ (being sent out to prepare training programs for the Third Echelon) and 7th Field (engineer) Company.

The 11 Forestry Company (loggers) and 9 Railway Survey and 10 Railway Construction Companies joined the group for passage to England instead of the Middle East. Second Echelon and the forestry and railway companies departed Lyttelton and Wellington on 2 May and sailed first to Australia, where they joined a larger convoy carrying Australian troops to the Middle East (50 members of the railway companies left in an earlier convoy).

This journey did not have the air of carefree adventure of the First Echelon. Germany had invaded Norway and Denmark and plans were made to divert the convoy to England in the event it should prove necessary. On the 12th of May Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Two days later British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned and Winston Churchill was sworn in.

Due to increased concern over German raiders and the potential for Italy entering the war, the convoy was diverted to Capetown, South Africa. After a week’s stay at Capetown, the convoy set sail for England on 31 May. During the first ten days of June, the astonished soldiers heard of the Dunkirk evacuation, panzers advancing across France and finally, on the 10th, of Italy's declaration of war. Although sinking ships from other convoys were spotted, the convoy itself was not attacked, arriving at the Clyde on the 16th of June.

With the surrender of France the situation changed dramatically. General Freyberg flew to England to take command of the Second Echelon. After conferring with the New Zealand government, he was given total control of the force in England and reported it ready to assume its place in the British defense scheme without regard to many of the restrictions placed on the use of the division. Thus it became part of the GHQ reserve and slowly began to receive equipment, the first issue arriving on 28 June.

The force was divided into 5th Brigade and a mixed brigade composed of 28th (Maori) Battalion and 29th (composite) Battalion. Both were assigned to VII Corps (along with the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and 1st Armoured Division) and given buses for transport. Numerous exercises were conducted and in two months the force was considered trained and ready.

New Zealand anti-tank gunners training in England, March 1940.

When the expected German invasion did not occur, the units in England made ready to depart on the 15th of September for the Middle East to join the rest of the division. Increased German air attacks and evidence pointing to invasion resulted in a request by the British government to delay the force’s movement to Egypt. General Freyberg agreed.
With the 14 September Italian invasion of Egypt, Freyberg faced the choice of staying in England or joining the units in Egypt in what was clearly going to be a battleground.

Convinced of the ability of the forces in England to defeat an invasion, he and his chief of staff took a flight on the evening of 22-23 September and arrived on 25 September, despite a crash landing on Malta. In the last months of the year small parties managed to find passage on the convoys to the Middle East, but is was not until December that a large unit sailed, in this case 5th Field Regiment. The remainder left in two convoys in early January, arriving in the Middle East on 3 and 4 March and completing disembarkation on 8 March. Twentieth (Composite) Battalion was disbanded and the personnel spread among other units of the division.

Third Echelon

The Third Echelon, numbering 6,434 all ranks and composed of administrative and supply units, the 6th Infantry Brigade (24th, 25th and 26th Battalions), 34rd Battery, 7th Anti-tank Regiment, 8th Field (engineer) Company, 6th Field (artillery) Regiment and 3,050 replacements assembled for training on 15-17 May, 1940. With lessons learned from the two previous groups, things proceeded swiftly as events in Europe made even more urgent the dispatch of the units.

The drastic turn of events that left the Commonwealth alone facing Germany and Italy after the surrender of France made for dramatic changes in the New Zealand political climate, to the point of enacting compulsive service on 23 July 1940. Additional requests for logging, railway and engineering support from England led to the formation of 14 and 15 Forestry Companies, 16 and 17 Railway Operating Companies, 13 Railway Construction Company and 18 and 19 Army Troops Companies, the last two coming from and effectively resulting in the disbanding of 8 Field Company.

As the time approached for the units to sail for the Middle East to complete training and be equipped, questions arose regarding the need for them to remain in New Zealand. A rapidly declining political situation in the Pacific seemed to increase the likelihood of Japanese aggression, particularly after the Royal Navy reduced its strength in the region following the fall of France. After careful consideration and dialog with the British government, the New Zealand government agreed to the dispatch of the Third Echelon to the Middle East, after which the New Zealand Division would be formed and retained for operation in the Middle East in lieu of England. It was decided that the 3,050 replacements would be retained for formation of a Fiji Island garrison.

The Third Echelon sailed on 27 August, reaching Bombay on 15 September where the group was rearranged to allow the forestry companies to proceed to England. The remainder continued to the Middle East, arriving at Tewfik on 29 September. Sixth Field Ambulance and 500 reinforcements were forced to remain in India until transport could be found, finally sailing on 9 October. This group had the most exciting voyage — they were attacked at sea and in port by Italian aircraft, and the convoy escort engaged in a surface action with Italian destroyers from Italian East Africa. They finally reached Port Said, Egypt without loss.

The 5th Brigade and a number of other units were in England and the two brigades in the desert were not concentrated, and it would take several more months for these issues to be resolved. But finally the whole of the 2nd New Zealand Division was overseas.

By late April 1940 the First Echelon, hereafter referred to as the 4th Brigade Group, had begun training and equipping in the Middle East. The diversion of the Second Echelon to England meant that until the beginning of October it was the only significant New Zealand formation in Egypt.

While the 4th Brigade Group was obviously not ready for deployment, the urgency of the situation led to it being designated as a reserve element of the Western Desert Force. And as the threat of Italian entry into the war grew, the three infantry battalions (18th, 19th and 20th) were assigned rear area security, ultimately being assigned to secure the city of Cairo. Other units of the brigade were gradually dispersed to support communications, signals and railway operation. In short order a group of 129 men became responsible for British Army communications in Egypt.

The New Zealand Division would become one of the hardest-fighting formations in the Western Desert. That makes it very important in our upcoming Alamein game. But the war started slowly for the Kiwis. Italy's entry into the war was anticlimactic. Italian nationals were rounded up and life went on. The Italian Army in Libya made no immediate moves against the British, although this was not expected to last for long. General Freyberg and the New Zealand Government concluded that the Second Echelon, already diverted to England, was more likely to be in action, and he flew to England to take command of 5th Brigade and attached units. On 18 June, 18th and 19th Battalions were transported to Mersa Matruh where they combined training with defensive preparations. In early July they were replaced by 20th Battalion and a number of artillerymen; in late July, 18th Battalion returned to replace them.

18th Battalion lands in Egypt.

While the major units of the brigade pulled garrison and defensive construction duties, the 4th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company (RMT) was released to drive transport for the Western Desert Force (including moving units of the Brigade to and from Mersa Matruh). In this capacity the company became the first unit of the division to suffer casualties, when an Italian air attack wounded a corporal on 12 July. The one attempt by Gen. Wavell to combine elements of 6th Australian and 2nd New Zealand Divisions and designate other units as Army formations was rejected by Freyberg, who sent a message from England reminding Wavell of his charter to operate the New Zealand forces as a formation and not as dispersed subunits.

Other units of the group worked on construction projects, and some from the divisional cavalry were recruited by the Long Range Desert Patrol. Small groups were attached to units in the field to gain operational experience.

By July, the British position was serious. With a hostile Italian Libya to the west, a neutral but German-conquered Vichy French Syria to the east and an aggressive Italian East Africa to the south, every British unit in the Middle East had to be incorporated into the defensive plan.

Fourth Brigade, despite having not completed training and being only partially equipped, was to secure the line of communications between the Delta and Mersa Matruh, the position to which Gen. Wavell intended to retreat when the Italians in Egypt advanced. The 4th RMT Company remained deployed as part of the frontline British forces and continuously carried units and supplies forward. Nondivisional railway units assisted in the management and running of the Egyptian railroad system in the desert. By the time the Third Echelon — hereafter the 6th Brigade Group — arrived in late August, a 2 NZEF base had been established near Cairo to manage affairs behind the lines.

When Gen. Freyberg returned from England, he asked for the return of the many small units loaned all over the Middle East. Wavell replied that most could not be returned until 1941. Again Freyberg had to explain the New Zealand Government's position on the matter, and all units were placed under the command of 4th Brigade in the short term. Freyberg requested that the New Zealand division be assigned an armoured brigade, but was denied. It was not long, however, before the 4th Field Regiment was re-equipped with the new 25-pounder field gun.

Mail call.

In September the Italians crossed the Egyptian border and advanced only as far as Sidi Barrani before halting. There they prepared a series of fortified camps and began work on an extension of the water pipeline and an upgrade of the coastal road, presumably preparing to continue the advance. By December, no signs of a further move had appeared and Gen. Wavell began planning a counterattack. Operation Compass, as it came to be named, did not include the New Zealanders because of their insistence on the whole division being committed as a unit.

Those New Zealand units not integral to the division itself were involved in the offensive. Engineering and signals personnel already in the field took a bigger share of the load. Most directly involved of all was the 4th RMT, assigned to transport 5th Indian Brigade in the infiltration of the Italian positions. After an unobserved approach on 7 and 8 December, the entire 4th Indian Division moved through the Bir Enba gap in the early hours of 9 December. The drivers of 4th RMT were to carry the three infantry battalions of 5th Indian Brigade to the rear of the Italian fortified camps named Tummar West and Tummar East as part of the sweeping maneuver behind the Italian lines of the 4th Indian Infantry and 7th Armoured Divisions.

The huge dust clouds raised by the passage of so many vehicles made navigation difficult and resulted in a short halt. Once positions were fixed, the attack was launched, the New Zealand drivers bringing their charges to within 150 yards of the Tummar West fort walls. In the excitement of the day, many of the drivers picked up their rifles and joined the attack. One battalion had been allocated to attack Tummar East and the trucks carried the battalion to the walls of the fort only to be counterattacked. In the confusion many of the drivers joined the attack, one sergeant capturing an Italian machinegun post. As the remaining Italians were attacked or forced to retreat, 4th RMT Company was everywhere, moving fighting units forward or prisoners of war back.

New Zealand’s fighting truckers.

The transport company continued to support the advance of the Western Desert Force as Operation Compass grew into the pursuit of the Italians into Egypt. Casualties were light for the company, the heaviest of the period being sox killed and six wounded on the 24th of December in a bombing attack against Sollum. Engineering assets of the division were brought forward to repair services and restore roads and equipment in the ports captured from the Italians. Except for engineering and signal support, no New Zealand units took part in the eventual destruction of the Italian Tenth Army.

In February 1941, division-level training instructions were drawn up and begun in earnest with the expectation that operations would begin in March. The composition of the division was solidified with the 27th (MG) Battalion joined to the division (it had been a separate unit) and the artillery re-equipment completed with 25-pounders.

On the 16th of February the 5th Brigade advance elements arrived from England, followed on the 3rd of March by the remainder of the brigade. On the 17th General Freyberg was told that the division was to be the first formation of a corps being dispatched to the assistance of Greece, then at war with Italy and soon to be at war with Germany. On the 28th of February the advance elements of the division sailed for Greece, followed by the 4th Brigade, then the 6th and, after hurried training and re-equipment, finally the 5th.

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