At the start of WW2 New Zealand placed the New Zealand Royal Navy under the Royal Navy as well as making available to the RAF 30 new Wellington bombers it had just ordered that were in the United Kingdom awaiting shipping to New Zealand and the New Zealand Army provided the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF).
The 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force was formed under Major-General Bernard Freyberg and saw fierce fighting in Greece, Crete, North Africa, Italy, and Yugoslavia. The main fighting unit of the expeditionary force was the New Zealand 2nd Division which was also commanded by Major-General Bernard Freyberg.
In total, around 140,000 New Zealand personnel served overseas for the Allied war effort, and an additional 100,000 men were armed in NZ for the NZ Home Guard. By July 1942 New Zealand had over 154,000 men and women serving in the armed forces rising to the war's end a total of 194,000 men and 10,000 women serving in the armed forces at home and overseas. Approximately 12,000 New Zealanders (0.73% of the 1940 population) lost their lives in WW2, a much higher percentage than either Australia, (0.57%) Canada, (0.40%) and the UK (0.57%).
The Greek Campaign: Battle of Greece
New Zealand deployed the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force for combat in three separate formations that were all originally earmarked for Egypt however one was diverted to Scotland in June 1940 following the German invasion of France. In April 1941 after training in Egypt the 2NZEF's New Zealand 2nd Division which was stationed in Egypt was moved to the defence of Greece against invasion by Italian troops, and then German forces when they also joined the invasion.
This defence was mounted alongside British and Australian units with the combined Commonwealth contingent (W Force) under the command of British General Henry Wilson to support the small Greek Army. As the German panzers began their inevitable and brutal blitzkrieg into Greece on 6 April the British and Commonwealth units were quickly outflanked and had to quickly retreat. 3 days later on the 9th April Greece was forced into surrender. The 40,000 W Force troops began a huge withdrawal from the country to Crete and Egypt with the last New Zealand troops leaving on the 29th April. New Zealanders casualties were 291 men killed, 1,826 captured and 387 seriously wounded in this brief and in retrospect - futile action.
Battle of Crete
Worse was to come with the battle of Crete as most of the New Zealand 2nd Division (two of the three brigades) had evacuated to Crete from Greece (the third to division headquarters in Alexandria). The New Zealand contingent increased the Crete garrison to a total of 34,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers (with 25,000 evacuated from Greece) alongside 9,000 Greek troops. New Zealander General Freyberg became commander of the Allied forces on Crete on the 30th April. Due to the allies German code cracking ability top secret intercepts of German signals had already alerted Allied commanders that Germany was to invade Crete via a Luftwaffe Paratroop invasion - the worlds first full invasion via paratroops. General Freyberg began to prepare the island's defences but he was severely hampered by a lack of munitions, artillery and modern weapons as the troops from Greece had left under extreme duress and had left in most cases only with their personal small arms weapons. Although the Germans severely underestimated the combined Allies (Greek, British and Commonwealth) numbers and as well incorrectly presumed that the local population would welcome the invasion, Freyberg suspected (rightly) that the superbly trained and well equipped paratroopers could overwhelm the island's defences.
Operation Mercury: Battle of Crete
Operation Mercury started on the 20th May when the Luftwaffe air-dropped their troops around the Maleme airfield and Chania area around 8:15 pm. Most of the New Zealand forces were based around this north-western part of the island and with British and Greek troops they initially inflicted heavy casualties upon the first German attacks. However the training and professionalism of the German troops - despite the nearly complete defeat on their troops east of the airfield and in the Galatas region - meant the Germans were able to gain a foothold by mid-morning west of Maleme Airfield.
Battle of Maleme: Battle of Crete
Over the course of the morning, the 600-strong New Zealand 22 Battalion defending Maleme Airfield had its position rapidly worsen as the battalion lost telephone contact with brigade headquarters. The battalion headquarters had also lost contact with C and D Companies who were stationed on the airstrip and along the Tavronitis-side of Hill 107 and the battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Leslie Andrew (VC) had no idea of the enemy paratrooper strength to his west as his observation posts lacked wireless sets.
Faced with a seemingly desperate situation, Colonel Andrew played his trump card — two Matilda tanks, which he ordered to counterattack with the reserve infantry platoon and some additional gunners turned infantrymen. The counterattack failed and the exposed infantry were repelled by the Paratroopers. At around 6:00 pm the failure was reported to Brigadier Hargest and the prospect of a withdrawal was raised.
Colonel Andrew was informed that he could withdraw if he wished, with the famous reply "Well, if you must, you must," but that two companies (A Company, 23 Battalion and B Company, 28 (Maori) Battalion) were being sent to reinforce 22 Battalion. To Colonel Andrew the situation seemed bleak; ammunition was running low, the promised reinforcements seemed not to be forthcoming and he still had no idea how C and D companies were. The two companies in question were in fact resisting strongly on the airfield and above the Tavronitis riverbed and had inflicted far greater losses on the Germans than they had lost. At 9:00 pm Colonel Andrew made the decision to make a limited withdrawal, and once that had been carried out, a full one to the 21 and 23 Battalion positions to the east. By midnight all of 22 Battalion had left the Maleme area, with the exception of C and D Companies which withdrew in the early morning of the 21st upon discovering that the rest of the Battalion had gone.
This allowed German troops to seize the airfield proper without opposition and take nearby positions to reinforce their hold on the airfield. Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft could then fly in much needed ammunition and supplies as well as more troops. Although the landings were extremely risky with the airstrip under direct British artillery fire the Luftwaffe got in and landed safely with major reinforcements. On the 21st the village of Maleme was attacked and captured, and a counter attack was made by the 20 Battalion (with reinforcements from the Australian 2/7 Battalion), 28 (Maori) Battalion and later 21 Battalion. The attack was severely hampered by communications problems again and although the New Zealanders made major advances German resistance was extremely stiff. 5 Brigade then fell back to a new line at Platanias leaving Maleme in German hands, allowing them to quickly build up their forces in the region.
Battle of Galatas & the Petrol Company: Battle of Crete
On the night of 23 May and the morning of 24 May, 5 Brigade withdrew again to the area near Daratsos, forming a new front line running from Galatas to the sea. The relatively fresh 18 Battalion replaced the worn troops from Maleme and Platanias, deploying 400 men on a two kilometre front. Galatas had come under attack on the first day of the battle wiht paratroopers and gliders landing around Chania and Galatas only to suffer extremely heavy casualties. The Germans retreated and made a stand around the Ayia Prison and repulsed a confused counterattack by two companies of 19 Battalion and three light tanks. Pink Hill - a crucial position on the Galatas heights was attacked several times by the Germans that day but was held by the Division Petrol Company with aid from Greek soldiers, though at a heavy cost to both sides.
The Petrol Company was made up of poorly equipped non fighting support troops of primarily drivers and technicians. By the end of the day all their officers had been wounded and most of their NCOs. On the second day the New Zealanders attacked nearby Cemetery Hill to take pressure off their line, and although they had to withdraw for it was too exposed, the hill became a no man's land as Pink Hill was relieving the New Zealand front. Day three, the 22nd, saw German soldiers take Pink Hill. Days four and five featured only skirmishes between the two forces. Luftwaffe air raids targeted Galatas on the 25th at 8:00 am, 12:45 pm and 1:15 pm, and the German ground attack came at around 2:00 pm. The New Zealand defenders, though prepared, suffered from a disadvantage: 18 Battalion, 400 men, was the only fresh infantry formation on the line — the rest were non-infantry groups like the Petrol Company and the Composite Battalion, consisting of mechanical, supply and artillery troops.
The fighting was fierce, especially along the north of the line, and platoons and companies were forced to make retreats. Brigadier Lindsay Inglis called for reinforcement and received 23 Battalion, who along with an improvised group of reinforcements scraped together at Brigade Headquarters (including the Brigade band and the Kiwi Concert Party) who then stabilised the north of the line. South of Galatas, only 18 Battalion and the Petrol Company were defending - 18 Battalion was forced to withdraw, and the Petrol Company on Pink Hill followed suit after becoming aware of this eventually. 19 Battalion was the only formation still in combat on Pink Hill, and they too withdrew. These forces withdrew past Galatas, as no defenders were in the village to link up with.
By nightfall German troops had occupied Galatas, and Lieutenant-Colonel Howard Kippenberger prepared a counter attack. Two tanks led two companies of 23 Battalion into Galatas at a running pace - heavy fire was encountered and as the tanks went ahead towards the town square, the infantry cleared each house of German soldiers as they worked inward. When the infantry caught up with the tanks they found one out of action. With German fire coming primarily from one side of the square a charge was mounted and with bayonets the New Zealanders cleared the German opposition. Patrols quelled resistance elsewhere in Galatas - apart from one small strongpoint, Galatas was back in New Zealand hands.
A conference between Brigadier Inglis and his commanders reached the consensus that Allied forces needed to make a further counterattack urgently — and that without a counterattack Crete would fall to the Germans. Despite hard fighting so far in the battle, the 28 (Maori) Battalion was considered to be the only "fresh" battalion available and the only one capable of carrying out such an attack. Their commander was willing to mount the attack despite the difficulty, but a representative sent from Brigadier Edward Puttick at New Zealand 2nd Division headquarters recommended against such an attack for fear of being unable to hold the line subsequently. The counter-attack was scrapped, and so too was Galatas, its position being far too vulnerable to hold. However, without Galatas the whole line was untenable and so the New Zealanders again retreated, forming a line from the coast to Perivolia and Mournies, near the Australian 19th Brigade.
After six days of hard fighting Freyberg received the order to evacuate his weary forces. Parts of 'Creforce' pulled back to Sfakia on the south coast, and from here about 10,500 troops left the island over four nights. A separate evacuation at Heraklion rescued a further 6000 soldiers, although a number of these men were killed by air attacks on their ships during the return journey to Egypt. All the soldiers left behind - British and Commonwealth forces - around 6500 men - formally surrendered to the Germans on 1 June. The majority would spend the rest of the war in prisoner of war camps firstly in Italy and later in work camps in Germany and Poland. Although many New Zealanders made it off Crete, thousands were left behind: more than 2000 were taken prisoner and 670 died in the battle. Among those evacuated were Charles Upham and Alfred Hulme, both Victoria Cross (VC) winners for their actions on Crete. A few New Zealanders retreated to the hills and fought with the Cretan partisans who still today remember New Zealand's part in the battle.
North Africa: Western Desert Campaign and Tunisia Campaign
A small number of New Zealand transport and signals units supported the British Operation Compass in the Western Desert in December 1940, but only in November 1941 did the New Zealand 2nd Division became fully involved in the North African Campaign. Following the evacuation from Crete, the Division regrouped at its camp near Maadi, at the base of the desert slopes of Wadi Digla and Tel al-Maadi. Reinforcements arrived from New Zealand to bring the Division back up to strength and the training cut short by the move to Greece and Crete was completed. On 18 November 1941, Operation Crusader was launched to lift the Siege of Tobruk (the third such attack), under the command of General Alan Cunningham and the New Zealand 2nd Division (integrated into the British Eighth Army) took part in the offensive, crossing the Libyan frontier into Cyrenaica.
Operation Crusader: The Siege of Tobruk
Operation Crusader was an overall success for the British, although Rommel's Afrika Korps inflicted heavy armour and infantry losses before it had to retreat to El Agheila because of its lack of supplies and munitions. The New Zealand troops relieved the Tobruk garrison after heavy fighting around Sidi Rezegh, where Axis tanks inflicted heavy casualties against the several New Zealand infantry battalions who had little or none of their own armour. In February, 1942 With Crusader completed, the New Zealand government insisted that the Division be withdrawn to Syria to recover - 879 men were killed and 1700 wounded in Operation Crusader, the most costly battle the Division fought in the Second World War.
First Battle of El Alamein.
On 14 June 1942 the New Zealanders were recalled from their occupation-duties in Syria as the Afrika Korps broke through Gazala and captured Tobruk. The New Zealanders found themselves encircled but escaped thanks to the brutal expertise of close quarter hand-to-hand fighting by 4 Brigade. The British forces however prevented Rommel's advance from reaching Alexandria, Cairo and the Suez Canal in this - the First Battle of El Alamein, where New Zealand troops captured Ruweisat Ridge in a successful night attack. This was short-lived however as they were unable to bring their anti-tank weapons forward, and more importantly British armour did not move quickly enough to support the attack resulting in heavy casualties being suffered by the two New Zealand brigades involved as they were attacked by the German tanks with several thousand men taken prisoner. Charles Upham earned a bar for his Victoria Cross (a Second Victoria Cross) in this battle after winning the Victoria Cross previously in the Battle of Crete. Under the new command of Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, the Eighth Army launched a new offensive on 23 October against the stalled Axis forces, the Second Battle of El Alamein.
Second Battle of El Alamein.
On the first night, as part of Operation Lightfoot the New Zealand 2nd Division, with other British divisions, moved through the deep Axis minefields while engineers cleared routes for British tanks to follow. The New Zealanders successfully captured their objectives on Miteiriya Ridge. By 2 November, with the attack bogged down, Montgomery launched a new initiative to the south of the battle lines, Operation Supercharge, with the ultimate goal of destroying the Axis army. The experienced New Zealand 2nd Division was called in as the elite 'shock troops' to lead the initial thrust, similar to the attack they had made in Lightfoot along with the assistance of two British brigades. The German line was breached by British armour and on 4 November the Afrika Korps, faced with the prospect of complete defeat withdrew their forces.
The New Zealanders continued to advance with the Eighth Army through the Tunisia Campaign, driving the Afrika Korps back into Tunisia, and notably fought at Medenine, the Tebaga Gap and Enfidaville. On 13 May 1943, the North African campaign ended with the surrender of the last 275,000 Axis troops in Tunisia. On 15 May 1943 the Division began the withdrawal back to Egypt and by 1 June the Division had returned to Egypt and was placed on standby for use in Europe.
Total New Zealand losses since November 1941 then stood at 2,989 killed, 7,000 wounded & 4,041 taken prisoner.
Royal Air Force (Britain): Bomber Command
A lot of the Commonwealth crews flew in mixed air crews and played a major part in the air war over Europe. Many New Zealanders served in the seven "New Zealand" RAF Squadrons Nos. 485 - 490. 487 squadron's motto was `Ki Te Mutunga` (Maori translation: 'to the end') and it was formed as a part of No 2 Group, later transferring to 2nd Tactical Air Force in 1945 flying Venturas then Mosquitos. On a raid on the power station in Amsterdam in Holland *Sqn Leader LH Trent won a VC on the 3rd May 1943. Of the thousands of Bomber Crews that died in World War Two:
1,697 members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
4,050 members of the Royal Australian Air Force.
9,919 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
62 members of the South African and other Dominions Air Forces.
Battle of Britain
In the Battle of Britain, 401 Squadron, Fighter Command, was a pure New Zealand squadron. 11 out of 100 NZ air crew were killed in the Battle of Britain. Several New Zealanders became high scorers, including Pilot Officer Colin Gray (No. 54 Squadron RAF) with 14 claims, Flying Officer Brian Carbury (No. 603 Squadron RAF) 14 claims and Pilot Officer Alan "Al" Deere (54 Squadron), 12 claims. Carbury shot down the first German aircraft over British territory since WW1 and was also one of two aces in a day in the Battle.
Three New Zealanders won the VC during air operations in WW2:
Sergeant James Ward,
*Squadron Leader Leonard Trent
Flying Officer Lloyd Trigg.
Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF)
The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) was set up as a separate service in 1937, but numbered less than 1,200 personnel by September 1939. The Empire Air Training Scheme had resulted in about 100 RNZAF pilots being sent to Europe by the time the war had started. Unlike other Commonwealth countries New Zealand did not insist on its aircrews serving with RNZAF squadrons, thereby speeding up the rate at which they entered service. An annual rate of 1,500 fully trained pilots was reached by January 1941.
Air Vice Marshal Keith Park: The Battle of Britain:
The most prominent New Zealander in the Battle of Britain was Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, a high scoring air ace in WW1 and a member of the RAF since its creation. He was Commander of No. 11 Group RAF, which was tasked with the defence of London and south-east England during the Battle of Britain.
Lord Tedder, Chief of the Royal Air Force said in 1947 about Keith Park: "If any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I do not believe it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgment and his skill, did to save, not only this country, but the world."
Royal New Zealand Navy
The cruiser HMNZS Achilles took part in the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939. Achilles and two other English cruisers, HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter were in an operation that forced the crew of the German Pocket Battleship 'Admiral Graf Spee' to scuttle her which infuriated Hitler. Achilles then moved to the Pacific, and was working with the United States Navy (USN) when damaged by a Japanese bomb off New Georgia. Following repair, she served alongside the British Pacific Fleet until the war's end.
HMNZS Leander escorted the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to the Middle East in 1940, and then deployed in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Leander was in the thick of it being subjected to multiple air and naval attack from Axis forces and also conducted bombardments and escorted convoys. In February 1941, Leander sank the Italian auxiliary cruiser Ramb I in the Indian Ocean. In 1943 after serving further time in the Mediterranean, Leander returned to the Pacific Ocean. She assisted in the destruction of the Japanese cruiser Jintsu but was seriously damaged by torpedoes during the Battle of Kolombangara, ending her participation in the war.
The size of the RNZN greatly increased during the war and by the end of the war it had over 60 ships in commission. The RNZN participated both as part of the British and Commonwealth effort against the Axis in Europe and also against the Japanese in the Pacific. They also played an important role in the defence of New Zealand from German raiders, especially when the threat of invasion from Japan appeared imminent in 1942. Many merchant ships were requisitioned and armed for defence. One of these was HMNZS Monowai, which saw action against the Japanese submarine I-20 off Fiji in 1942. In 1941–1942, it was decided in an agreement between the New Zealand and United States governments that the best role for the RNZN in the Pacific was as part of the United States Navy, so operational control of the RNZN was transferred to the South West Pacific Area command, and its ships joined United States 7th Fleet task-force.
In 1943, the light cruiser HMS Gambia was transferred to the RNZN as HMNZS Gambia. In November 1944, the British Pacific Fleet, a joint British Commonwealth taskforce, was formed, based in Sydney, Australia. Most RNZN ships were transferred to the BPF, including Gambia and Achilles. They took part in the Battle of Okinawa and operations in the Sakishima Islands, near Japan. In August 1945, HMNZS Gambia was New Zealand's representative at the surrender of Japan.