Golden Journal No. 56
Kiwi Armour

New Zealand’s Tank Brigade

When war came in September 1939, New Zealand immediately lined up behind Britain. A Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF) would be dispatched to wherever needed (the 1NZEF had been created during the Great War, seeing action at Gallipoli, in the Middle East and in France). The heart of the 2NZEF would be an infantry brigade, a commitment later enlarged to a full division of three brigades plus supporting arms.

New Zealand’s small population and limited military infrastructure meant that the brigades had to be raised, trained and shipped one at a time. By October 1940, all three brigades of the New Zealand Division had left the home islands, with orders or at least the intention to concentrate the full New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Egypt for operations in the Middle East. The 6th Infantry Brigade arrived in Egypt at the end of the month, the 4th Infantry Brigade had been there since February 1940, and the 5th Infantry Brigade, then in England, was expected to leave for Egypt soon (it finally did so in December, arriving in March 1941).

That gave Maj. Gen. Bernard Freyberg, commanding both the division and the expeditionary force, the opportunity to urge adjustments to his force structure. He wrote to Prime Minister Peter Fraser, and after making his ritual obeisance to the principle that “New Zealand should adhere to the British organisation wherever possible,” proceeded to present a list of variations in New Zealand organization. Sir John Dill, the Chief of the Imperial Staff, had endorsed his ideas, Freyberg told Fraser, with the caveat that equipment had to be available.

Bren carriers of the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry. Maadi, Egypt, 1940.

The New Zealand Division already varied from British structure, with ten infantry battalions rather than nine in a British division (with an extra battalion of Maoris). Freyberg noted that Canadian divisions also differed from the British standard. Freyberg wanted many more light and medium mortars, more anti-tank guns and more Bren carriers. He wanted to organize his field artillery differently, and add a regiment of heavy howitzers. And the infantry platoons detailed as palace guards for brigade and division headquarters would be formally included on the tables rather than drawing men away from the infantry battalions.

But most of all, he wanted tanks.

The initial ask was for just one battalion of cruiser tanks, that would be joined in a mobile brigade with the battalion-sized divisional cavalry regiment (equipped with Bren carriers, armored cars, and New Zealand’s handful of Mark VI light tanks) and the existing machine-gun battalion (presumably this latter would be motorized) into a mobile brigade. One battalion of infantry already included in the division would be motorized and shifted to this brigade as well (presumably this would be the supernumerary 28th “Maori” Battalion, which was not assigned to any of the three infantry brigades), and one of the divisional artillery regiments.

Fraser approved all of the Freyberg’s suggestions, requesting only clarification on the manpower needs for the changes. Freyberg assured the PM that the flow of replacements from New Zealand to the Middle East would be adequate to man the new units (the New Zealanders would be running short of manpower by 1943, but at this early stage of the war, before Japan entered the conflict, the pool was more than adequate).

A Valentine II of 3rd Tank Battalion on manuevers at Waiouru. 6 May 1942.

New Zealand’s liaison officer to the War Office, Ronald Park, tossed the first dash of cold water onto Freyberg’s scheme. Though he claimed that the War Office supported the idea of a “New Zealand armoured formation,” he also noted that those tanks currently available should go to trained British tank crews. While he writes these as his own observations, it’s likely that he was passing along a refusal from London. New Zealand could have tanks, once they became available, but “new sources of tank supply must be tapped” and so this would be a “long-term project.”

Freyberg’s scheme also faced opposition within the New Zealand Military Forces (as the Army was called before 1946). Many senior Kiwi officers already resented Freyberg’s appointment, as he was a Brit who had lived in New Zealand as a child and had fought in the British Army, not the New Zealand forces, in the Great War (though all acknowledged his insane heroism). Based on Kiwi exploits during the Great War, the New Zealanders considered their troops “the best infantry in the world.” Tanks were not necessary, and would take the focus away from this proud tradition.

The project re-surfaced in the summer of 1941, once the New Zealand Division had seen extensive combat in Greece and Crete and the “best infantry in the world” had suffered heavy casualties. Sir Guy Williams, a British general newly appointed as the New Zealand government’s military advisor, brought with him a scheme from Sir John Dill of the Imperial General Staff for New Zealand to field a complete armored division. This project would require 25,000 men and soak up most of the country’s remaining military manpower.

A Valentine V of C Troop, 1st Tanks, named “Taharoa.” Tanks of this battalion carried Maori names as their official identification.

The New Zealand government declined, and likely wondered about their new advisor’s sanity; Williams would be retired soon after making the proposal. But in June 1941 they did approve formation of a tank brigade rather than a full division. Prime Minister Peter Fraser had already traveled to Cairo himself to arrange for 100 New Zealanders to be trained as instructors for the new brigade. At his insistence, the tank brigade would be mustered and trained in New Zealand and not in the Middle East.

The 1st New Zealand Army Tank Brigade would be an infantry-support outfit (thus the “Army Tank” designation), but initially it had no tanks and no men. That changed in October, when an initial draft of men and the first 30 Valentine tanks arrived at the Waiouru Military Camp on the North Island, along with 73 New Zealanders who had been trained at the Middle East Armoured School as instructors (those of the original 100 who had managed to graduate).

The brigade would have three tank battalions; under British tables of organization, each would require 52 gun-armed infantry tanks and six variants with a howitzer instead. These would be numbered 1st, 2nd and 3rd (1 Tanks, 2 Tanks and 3 Tanks in Kiwi military parlance). It would have two mobile workshops, and smaller maintenance detachments for each battalion. The officers and cadre for these came from the New Zealand Division’s motor maintenance section, with the rank and file from mechanics working in civilian garages and industry who suddenly found their draft deferments for vital war work cancelled.

Freyberg initially wanted the brigade dispatched to the Middle East in March 1942, when it was thought that it would be ready for combat. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the government chose to retain their most combat-ready unit at home; the decision would be reviewed in July, and the brigade could be sent on if the likelihood of a Japanese invasion of New Zealand had receded. As the brigade still had not received all of its Valentines, it was quickly re-organized as a motorized infantry brigade to serve as a reserve to counter-attack any Japanese landings.

Kiwis of 18th Armoured Regiment and their Sherman III, somewhere in Italy.

Before the brigade’s status could be re-evaluated, the 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade suffered a devastating defeat on 15 July, at Ruweisat Ridge in Egypt. Two of its three battalions were destroyed and the third suffered heavy losses. One week later, the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade attacked at El Mreir Depression to open the way for a British armoured brigade to advance, but the British tanks never arrived. Left to face the German armored counter-attack without support, the Kiwis again suffered heavy losses.

Many in the New Zealand military quickly concluded that this would not have occurred had the Kiwis fielded tanks of their own. Freyberg asked for the tanks in an 8 August telegram. The government agreed to release “some or all” of the tank brigade to 2nd New Zealand Division (as it was now formally known), but New Zealand chief of the general staff Sir Edward Puttick wished to retain half of the 120 Valentines then available in New Zealand, and asked if the British could provide the remaining vehicles.

Discussions over tank availability led to a revised plan. The Americans would supply new Sherman tanks for the New Zealand brigade. Only the personnel of 1st Army Tank Brigade would be shipped to the Middle East, where they would be combined with the survivors of 4th Infantry Brigade to form a new, Sherman-equipped 4th Armoured Brigade. The New Zealanders, in turn, agreed to deploy their division in the planned invasion of Italy and not recall it to the Pacific. The 3rd Tank Battalion immediately went to the Middle East, followed by most of the 1st Tank Battalion. Some of the 2nd Tank Battalion went to form a tank squadron for the new 3rd New Zealand Division, and the rest followed their comrades to the Maadi training camp outside Cairo.

This decision also appears to reflect the New Zealand government’s decision to keep its troops in the Middle East rather than rotate in fresh men. If 1st Army Tank Brigade had replaced the 4th Infantry Brigade in total, the survivors would then either be split up among the two remaining infantry brigades or shipped back to New Zealand. Either choice would have fed the already-simmering unrest over the division’s long service abroad while men at home remained in “essential” occupations, some of which were believed to be less than essential, or in Territorial units.

A Stuart light tank of Queen Alexandria’s Mounted Rifles, 1943.

The dispatch of the trained tankers of 1st Army Tank Brigade to flesh out the new 4th Armoured Brigade left – after new deliveries of tanks already on their way or ordered - 221 Valentine and 401 Stuart tanks sitting in New Zealand, plus a working training establishment. The New Zealand Military Forces, unwilling to leave them idle or to ship them back, instead converted its nine Mounted Rifles regiments from horsed cavalry to armored formations. Three of these had already become motorized, while the other six retained their horses. As Territorial units, these battalion-sized regiments had seen no overseas service.

Thanks to their cavalry origins, these “Light Armoured Fighting Vehicle Regiments” retained cavalry nomenclature, with battalions referred to as regiments and companies as squadrons. After an initial plan to convert all of the regiments into armoured battalions, five of them became armoured, each with one squadron of Valentines and two of Stuarts. The other four became recon (“recce” in British/New Zealand parlance) regiments, with one squadron of Beaverette improvised armored cars, one of Stuart light tanks and a motorized infantry company. None of these units served overseas, and all were reduced to training cadres by July 1943 and then combined into three such units in March 1944 as New Zealand released more men from military service into the civilian economy.

Golden Journal No. 56: Kiwi Armour tells the story of the 1st Army Tank Brigade, and of New Zealand’s armored formations in general. It’s in our usual Journal format, with 24 new pieces (all of them die-cut and silky-smooth) plus eight new Panzer Grenadier scenarios so you can play with them. This Journal’s tied to our Campaign Study, New Zealand Division, which added 88 New Zealand pieces and ten scenarios (in two chapters, each with a battle game) featuring the New Zealanders’ campaign in Tunisia to Panzer Grenadier: An Army at Dawn.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.

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