Kiwis in Combat: New Zealand in WWII

While New Zealand sits some 11,000 miles (18,000 km) away from London, they gave their heart and soul for the Empire during the Second World War. Many people have heard of the contributions of Australia or Canada in the war, but never New Zealand. The NZ Division underwent tests of strength in numerous battles, most notably the Battle of Crete in 1941 as Blitzkrieg swept through the Mediterranean. New Zealand also produced an air force which would play an important role in the Pacific. From the deserts of North Africa to the chilly shores of Normandy, the Kiwis would stamp their mark on the war.

Image result for nz ww2
A wartime poster for the New Zealanders

New Zealanders beared the brunt of the German Fallschirmjager attacks on Crete in May of 1941. With German and Italian troops in Greece, New Zealanders and other Commonwealth forces travelled to help protect the Balkans. Greece had been ultimately captures by Hitler’s forces and an airborne assault on Crete was imminent. Over 7,000 men of the New Zealand Division were stationed on the Mediterranean Island. Fallschirmjager landed in Crete on the 20th of May, fighting for the airfields around Malerne. A counterattack was launched three days later, but failed after their battalions became pinned around the airfields. Capt. Charles Upham, however, was awarded with a Victoria Cross for his bravery under fire. A new defensive line was organised, but German attacks on Galatas pushed them back and forced many supply issues. Another counterattack was launched, failing once more to defeat the Germans. The New Zealanders fell back once more and a new line was created at “42nd Street” named for the engineers who built it. A massive German attack on AZNAC positions was held, but the Allies retreated in the night. Many troops were sent to Egypt at night by ship once the Royal Navy arrived. By the 30th, most troops had retreated from Crete.

Image result for battle of crete
Fallschirmjager at Crete

With NZ and British troops in Egypt, the battles for the desert began. In Operation Crusader, New Zealanders captured important coastal towns from the Germans while main British attacks by the 8th Army were underway. At Point 175, the New Zealanders suffered their heaviest casualties of the war, but they still pressed on towards Tobruk. Unfortunately, they were smashed back into Egypt, suffering 2,500 casualties total. At Second El Alamein, the NZ Division broke through German lines and forced them to retreat. They captured hundreds of German prisoners before pressing on towards Tunisia in late 1942. The New Zealanders would be sent to Italy in 1943, fighting through the country. New Zealanders were present at the disaster at Monte Cassino in 1944, eventually pressing onto Trieste. The Kiwis even had a minor presence at D-Day, protecting the fleet from the air and at sea.

In the Pacific, New Zealand felt threatened by Japan’s growing presence, especially after the 1942 attack on Darwin, Australia. Thousands of New Zealanders joined the ranks and were sent to Africa, but a fair few remained on their hemisphere. They fought in the Dutch East Indies and also provided airbases to the United States for attacks on Japan. Kiwis arrived on Guadalcanal after the battle as an occupying force and proceeded to capture more of the Solomon Islands in 1943. The 4th Division later returned home in 1944.

New Zealand’s navy, the RNZN, provided needed support to British operations in the South Pacific. HMS Achilles and HMS Leander were sent to fight at the Battle of River Plate in 1939. These ships were named HMS since the title HMZNS wasn’t created until October 1941. Some 7,000 sailors would join the Royal Navy as they helped in the Normandy Operations of 1944. The RNZN also fought in the naval battles for the Solomon Islands.

Image result for nz ww2
The Maori Battalion preforming the Haka in Egypt  

Another component of New Zealand’s forces, the RNZAF, numbered a mere 102 planes at the outbreak of war in 1939. Immediately, their efforts greatly increased as they formed new pilot schools in Taieri, New Plymouth, and other locations. Some Kiwis formed a part of the RAF, becoming No. 75 squadron. More RAF squadrons were formed of New Zealanders and they managed seven squadrons total in the RAF. With Japan’s entry to the war in 1941, the NZ airmen became involved in the battle for Malaya and Singapore. Worries about an Axis invasion of the nation prompted a massive anti-invasion campaign. Kittyhawks arrived in 1942 to reinforce the RNZAF and in November, the NZ pilots engaged Japanese pilots for the first time above Guadalcanal. Over the next few years, they received better equipment and supplies. In 1945, the RNZAF mostly aided US air assaults on Japan as escorts. By the end of the war, they numbered some 42,000 personnel. Three pilots received the VC for their gallantry in the war: Lloyd Trigg, Leonard Trent, and James Ward.

One important New Zealander in the war was the aforementioned Charles Upham, who won two Victoria Crosses. Only three people, including Capt. Upham, have won multiple VCs. The Christchurch native won his first VC in Crete as he single handedly charged a machine gun nest with grenades in hand. Upham destroyed the bunker and quickly destroyed another, before finally finishing off a German Bofors gun. He soon grabbed a wounded comrade and ran back to his line. The next year, Upham won his second VC at the Battle of El Alamein. He commandeered a Jeep, driving it into the German line and firing his machine gun wildly. Despite his wounds, the captain spotted German units for the Commonwealth troops who had become separated from the main force. He was wounded again and continued to fight before his capture. He was even transferred to Colditz, one of the most notorious German prisons of the war. Upham was later quoted to have said “I don’t want to be treated differently from any other bastard,” showing how humble the soldier really was.

Related image
Capt. Charles Upham after being awarded his first Victoria Cross in 1941

While New Zealand is not as noticeable as the USSR or Britain, they still provided much needed aid for the Allies in the war. Without contributions from minor nations, the world may have fallen to fascism and not been the way it is today. Thanks to the bravery of men like Charles Upham and other Kiwis, the world was made a safe place for all of us to live to this day.

Advertisements

Book Review: Passchendaele

Nick Lloyd released his new book just before the centennial of the Battle of Passchendale (also known as 3rd Ypres). Passchendaele is synonymous with mud and death as British and Dominion troops clashed with Germans over a small ridge and a few wooded plots of land. Names like Polygon Wood. Poperinge, Langemark, and Menin Road became etched in history as some of the bloodiest spots of the entire war. The churned up countryside of Flanders became home to the bodies of 670,000 soldiers and millions of horses. This gruesome battle would put the new British “bite and hold” tactics against the might on the Hindenburg Line.

Image result for passchendaele nick lloyd

Praise:

The book opens with the failure of the Nivelle Offensive by the French in the spring of 1917 and then gives a small description of the Battle for Messines Ridge. These two battles help one understand the background for the Battle of Passchendaele and illustrates the new tactical revolutions the British command underwent. Every chapter opens with a quote about the battle and uncovers some of the feelings of general and private alike. One harrowing quote that opens a chapter is an excerpt from a soldier’s letter to his parents: “Our dead were lying in heaps. It was the worst slaughter I had ever seen.” Another quote in the book was by Hermann von Kuhl, the Chief of Staff to Crown Prince Rupprecht. Kuhl said that “no division could last more than a fortnight in this Hell.” Passchendaele is full of primary sources from both the British and the German forces. Lloyd, a professor at Kings College London, has great access to the collections of the Imperial War Museum and the British National Archives. He also traveled to Germany to collect sources at the Bundesarchiv and the Bayerisches Hauptstaatarchiv. He also has sources from the Australians and Canadians, who played a major role in the latter stages of the battle. The book has about two Victoria Cross citations per chapter during the battle showing the incredible heroism in the face of danger. Lance Corporal Walter Peeler and Sergeant Lewis McGee both captured German machine gun bunkers by themselves under fire at Poelcappe and Zonnebecke.  There are plenty of other amazing stories of soldiers such as them in the battle. Lloyd’s maps are very good too, indicating the objectives which troops were ordered to take. The photographs are very good and one which was very striking was Polygon Wood during the battle, completely leveled by the scars of artillery. The book really shows the internal struggles between the English command. The conflict between Haig and his subordinates caused many problems, as did the fights between the Army generals also, notably Henry Plumer and Sir Hugh Gough. Lloyd’s writing shows how horrible the battle was for a common soldier, shuffling closer to death in a wet, muddy hole. I have used Lloyd’s other books in historical essays and the amount of detail you can gather from his books is astonishing. This book continues that trend. A perfect blend of historical sources, bravery, high command, and gripping battle descriptions make this one of the standout history books of the year. The book also ends quite abruptly without any description of future events, which bothered me a little.

Criticism:

There is not much that I have a problem with in the book. I initially had some problems recognizing when the Battle of Passchendaele officially started. You could easily read a good deal into the book thinking you were still at the Battle of Messines Ridge. Another point which sometimes bothered me was the cutbacks to the Italian Front. The Battle of Capporetto was happening during the Battle of Passchendaele, so Lloyd mentions the fighting in Italy every few chapters. It doesn’t make much of a difference with or without it. Capporetto simply reveals a little more of the character of David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Britain at the time.

Passchendaele is a great book to fill in a gap on the Western Front history section. A book like this really needed to be published to tell how much this battle influenced British tactics and damaged the mind of the common soldier. The book also reveals how much of a stalemate the war was in late 1917. Many people simply label the German troops as poor at this point, simply due to the knowledge of the Entente victory in 1918. This is not true. German forces showed incredible resistance and strength during the battle, taking back the ridge within two weeks. Nick Lloyd is a great author and this book makes it to the top of the tree for the holidays this year.

Rating:

4.5 / 5

“We Shall Enter it With Soil Saturated In Blood” : The Six Day War

Israel and the surrounding Arab nations had major tensions since its founding in 1948. The small Jewish state constantly clashed with the other surrounding nations and especially the Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip. After two previous wars, Israel and the surrounding nations were on the brink of yet another armed conflict.

While tensions rose, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered his military to mobilise to attack neighbouring Israel on May 14th, 1967. Egypt’s ally, Jordan, mobilised around the same time at the order of King Hussein. Syria committed itself to the Arabic triumvirate, and so, Israel was surrounded by enemies.

Image result for six day war tanks
Israeli Centurion tanks

After a vote by the Israeli government, the IDFl quickly attacked an off-guard Egypt in a massive preemptive strike in the Sinai, named Operation Moked. On June 5, Israeli pilots destroyed a massive amount of Egyptian fighter jets before they could take off from the runways of air bases. Some 300 Egyptian fighters were destroyed and the IDF struck at Syrian and Jordanian air bases in a similar manner The Sinai front was opened, and the Egyptian army panicked without any air support. Israeli Centurions rolled into the Sinai and at the Battle of Abu-Aelia, wiped out any enemy resistance. The IDF reached the banks of the Suez canal in a mere four days.

With the Sinai secured, Israel turned its attention quickly to news from the Syrian front, as enemy troops were pressing onto Jerusalem. Col. Motta Gur’s 55th Parachute Brigade was ordered to defend the city while more troops could be sent to aid them. Early on June 6th, the paratroopers slashed their way through Jordanian positions at Ammunition Hill, suffering over 200 casualties. Another battalions fought their way in and around the Rockefeller Museum, suffering greatly at the hands of Jordanian machine guns. Moshe Dayan, the Israeli commander planned to take the Jordanian positions the next day. Uzi Narkiss, and IDF officer, said that Jerusalem hadn’t been taken from the east since King David. Dayan cooly replied “then this will be the second and last time.” On the 7th, Gur charged the Temple Mount and captured it quickly. An Israeli soldier raised his flag on top of the Dome of the Rock, but was ordered to remove it. Israeli troops celebrated. Jerusalem was theirs.

Image result for six day war
Israeli Paratroopers in Jerusalem

IDF reinforcements quickly attacked the West Bank of the Jordan, catching King Hussein’s weary army off-guard. North of that, Israeli troops tried holding off against a massive attacking force of Syrian troops streaming up the Golan Heights. After days of brutal fighting, the Israelis emerged victorious on June 9th with the help of their air superiority. Israel took staggering losses, with 115 confirmed dead on the Golan Heights. Overall, they had suffered some 3,000 casualties.

Israel could have easily pressed on, crippling the three Arab nations , but decided to broker for peace. On June 19th, the nations met to discuss peace, and Israel retained the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. In August, the Arab nations met in Khartoum, Sudan, and decided that they would no longer agree to any peace terms with Israel and would be aggressive in future endeavours towards the nation.

Historical Field Trip: The First Day at Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest battle fought on American soil and the turning point of the American Civil War. The small farm town in Pennsylvania erupted into a clash between hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers. Many people simply known of the famed “Pickett’s Charge” on July 3rd or the fighting at Little Round Top on July 2nd. The day before was even more vital to the battle than the others, organizing positions, creating command problems, and yielded a massive amount of casualties.

1. Buford’s Cavalry

Brigadier General John Buford, commanding the Union’s 1st Cavalry Division ran into Henry Heth’s division early on July 1st and began to delay their advance while awaiting reinforcements. Gamble, Devin, and Merritt held off attacks by Archer’s brigade while Buford surveyed the land. Holding their position on McPherson’s ridge, the Union cavalry desperately put up a fight against the Confederate infantry streaming down the Chambersburg Pike. Look at Buford’s statue along the road as he looks up the road with his field glasses. One of the four cannon barrels at his feet has a small plaque showing that it fired the first shot of the battle.

2. “For God’s Sake Forward!”

Finally at about 9:30 in the morning, Buford’s weary cavalry saw the flags of James Wadsworth’s division of John Reynolds’ 1st Corps from the South. The cavalry dropped back as the infantry sped into the gap to repel the Confederates. Davis’ brigade arrived and placed even more pressure on the Union. General Reynolds ordered forward the legendary Iron Brigade, an elite unit of troops from Michigan and Wisconsin. The brigade hurled themselves against Archer’s brigade in Herbst Woods. Reynolds was struck by a Confederate bullet and fell off his horse. Abner Doubleday replaced the dead general. Trek up Reynolds Avenue and find his marker on the edge of the woods. The Pennsylvania native lends his name to the woods now, as many refer to it as Reynolds’ Woods. The Iron Brigade’s memorials are on the other side of the woods.

Monument on the spot where Reynolds fell. He is buried in Lancaster, PA.

3. The Railroad Cut

While the battle for Herbst Woods raged, three Union regiments rushed to cover their flank on the other side of the Chambersburg Pike. As Mississippians and North Carolinians under Davis slid down into an unfinished railroad bed, the Union troops charged their positions. Suffering one casualty for every foot they advanced, the troops were presented with a murderous Confederate fire. The 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade, which had separated from the rest of its brigade, jumped into the cut and a fierce hand-to-hand battle ensued until the Confederates fell back. The railroad is now complete and operational, but is hardly ever used. You can go into the cut from the side. Feel free to charge down like the Union troops and when you’re in there, look at how exposed the Union troops were to volleys from the defenders.

The Railroad Cut

4. Oak Ridge

Continue north towards the metal observation tower. This is Oak Ridge where Union forces were pushed back by Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Corps. Edward O’Neal and Alfred Iverson’s brigades attacked Doubleday’s Corps along the hill on what is now Doubleday Avenue. Robert Rhodes’ Confederate division continued to pound Union forces here until about 5 PM when the Union centre collapsed under constant attacks from Brockenborough, Pettigrew, and Scales. Doubleday gave up the defense of the ridge and rushed back towards Cemetery Ridge. Climb the tower to get a view of the Union positions on the hill and back towards the center of their lines.

View towards the town from Oak Ridge. This is the Confederate point of view as they marched to the town of Gettysburg.

5. Barlow’s Knoll

A young Union division commander, Francis Barlow, placed his troops along a small hill jutting out from their lines. These were the lead elements of Oliver Howard’s XI Corps made up of mostly Polish and German immigrants from Ohio and Pennsylvania. Rhodes sent Doles’ brigade north to fight them, as Barlow’s division was too far forward to be supported. Hays and Gordon’s brigades slammed into Barlow’s position and the Union brigades routed under pressure from the attack. Francis Barlow was wounded and paralysed from the legs down as his troops streamed through the town of Gettysburg. Left on the battlefield, Barlow needed help until Gen. John Gordon spotted him. Gordon got Barlow a litter and helped tend to him and the two would become great friends after the war finished.

Union guns had a stellar position on top of Cemetery Ridge

6.Cemetery Hill

Union troops fell back through Gettysburg as the Confederates chased them. Howard’s XI Corps found a position on Cemetery Hill by the Evergreen Cemetery but still struggled to organize a solid resistance to Ewell’s Corps. The timely arrival of Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps provided much needed assistance for Howard and the Union managed to form a solid defensive line. Hancock took position on the hill while Howard drifted towards Culp’s Hill. Cemetery Ridge would mark the center of the Union line for the rest of the battle.

Wargame Miniatures: Swiss Infantry 1914-18

Switzerland has always been a nation synonymous with neutrality, but they almost found themselves at war in 1914 with Germany and France at their borders. The Swiss were worried the French would try to use Switzerland as a shortcut to Germany, but the Germans attacked Belgium and France before any skirmishes erupted. These figures are great for doing any early war “what if?” scenarios.

Swiss Infantry

The Battle of Kulikovo Field

Russia was in turmoil during the 14th century. The Mongolian Hordes had controlled Western Russia for years in what was called the “Mongol Yoke,” but its decline was tearing the nation apart into small kingdoms and duchies. The Kievan Rus had been dead for years, causing many problems in Russia, for they lost their major territories. By 1380, the newly formed Grand Duchy of Moscow was ready to strike. The Grand Prince of Moscow, Dmitry Ivanovich Donskoy, decided that the weaker Tataro-Mongols would be vulnerable enough to attack in order to drive them from their country. Mamai, the current khan of the Mongols, had sought to reaffirm his position in Russia and remove the Muscovite threat. The stage was set for Russia’s most important medieval battle.

Image result for kulikovo
Dmitri and his staff after the battle

Dmitri allied with a coalition of smaller Russian principalities to form a large amy to cast out the Tataro-Mongols. Marching under the flag of the Russian Orthodoxy, the coalition of 60,000 marched to the Don River near modern-day Tula. Mamai’s horde numbered 150,000 men including Genoese crossbowmen. The Genoese were the most formidable mercenaries in the middle ages along with the Swiss. On paper, the skilled horsemen and deadly crossbowmen held every position of power on an open plain.

On September 8th, the Russian forces positioned themselves in the Don watershed. Dmitri’s forces lined up in three lines. The largest regiment positioned themselves in the middle with two regiments on either side. A vanguard was placed ahead of them as was a front regiment. Behind the Russian main line was Dmitri and other generals. Russian troops were also placed in the forests nearby to ambush enemy forces. Mamai’s Tataro-Mongols lined up around their Genoese mercenaries in two main lines. The Mongols attacked at 11 in the morning and pushed back the forward Russian troops. The Russians formed a defensive line and received the onslaught of Mongol horsemen. Dmitri’s troops were outflanked and surrounded by the Mongols. In extreme danger, Dmitri called in his troops from the woods to ambush the horsemen. The Muscovites quickly rallied to crush the enemy who routed from the battlefield.

Image result for kulikovo
Battle of Kulikovo Field

The battle did not officially expel the Mongols from Russia, but the battle was extremely important in Russia’s history. Mamai was later assassinated in Crimea. The battle of Kulikovo Field allowed the expansion of Moscow to occur in order for the Mongol Yoke to be thrown off. 100 years of Russian attacks would later throw out the Tarto-Mongols at the Battle of the Ugra River in 1480. Russia was open for expansion and soon would be one of the most important world nations.