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

“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.

The Rif War: Prelude to Spain’s Civil War

Morocco’s horrible political dealings had ended poorly and European nations prayed on the weakened country. In 1912, Spain and France agreed on the creation of a Spanish colony in northern Morocco along the Rif Valley on the Mediterranean. With Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War, they were eager to create a new colony. The Rif was occupied by a large, fiercely independent Berber population.

Related image
Berber guerillas in the Rif Mountains

Spanish troops attempted to pacify the Berbers, but Abd El-Krim, a member of the Beni Urriaguel, decided to unite the Berbers against the Spanish. Establishing the Rif Republic in 1920, El-Krim banded together guerillas to resist the Spanish troops in the area. The Berber tribesmen were not numerous at all, but were great at skirmishing against their enemies. They had traditionally repelled Arab invasions of their home in the Rif Mountains. The Spanish would be one of their toughest challenges yet. General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre commanded the Spanish troops at the front, but quick attacks by El-Krim forced him to abandon his position at Anwal on July 22, 1921. The Spaniards were hit quickly and were not prepared whatsoever, suffering staggering casualties. Silvestre was killed along with some 10,000 Spaniards and Spain was smashed back to the coast.

Things stayed the same until 1924 when the Spanish government snapped into action. Miguel Primo de Rivera recalled Spanish troops to form a defensive line at Tetuan and came under major scrutiny. Abd El-Krim and his Muslim Berber army took control of the land the Spanish evacuated and established a law code, built roads, and created trade agreements. He turned towards the French colony in Morocco and decided to unite his Republic with the other Berbers. Attacking Fes, the Berbers caused heavy French casualties in a quick ambush. The French made the decision to ally with the Spanish in order to combat the Berber threats to their colonies. Philippe Petain took control of the French in Morocco and in a collaboration with the Spanish, the French marched 20,000 troops to deal with the threat. Spain landed 18,000 soldiers at Alhucemas Bay in September 1925 and the two sides joined to fight the 10,000 Berbers. Abd El-Krim’s guerillas couldn’t withstand such force and began to be pushed back from the coast. The Spanish captured Ajdir on October 2 and dealt a huge blow to the Riffians.

Image result for rif war
Spanish Foreign Legionnaires defending Alhucemas

By March the next year, El-Krim had been so badly defeated that he asked for peace talks with the Europeans. The Spanish refused and continued to hammer Berber troops out of their lands. El-Krim was captured by the French in April and he was forced to unconditionally surrender. He and his family were sent to Reunion in exile and Morocco was reclaimed by Spain and France. The Rif War sparked thoughts of independence in the area and would later spring to life after World War Two. This also marked the beginning of the Spanish problems. Soon, the Spanish Civil War would tear the country in two and serve as the training ground for the European nations before World War Two.

Book Review: The Odyssey of Echo Company

The Odyssey of Echo Company by Doug Stanton describes a company of the 101st Airborne Division who are sent to Vietnam in 1968, right at the beginning of the Tet Offensive. Stan Parker, a 19 year old from Indiana, goes against his mother and joins the military. He finds his way into a tight group of young mates united in pain through wounds, loss, and grief. Stan’s rocky relationships with his family and girlfriend affect him and when he returns to America, he is still faced with intense problems and discrimination from those against the war.

Image result for odyssey of echo company

Praise:

One of the more interesting parts of the book is how Stan deals with being home and how cruel the American public was to Vietnam veterans at the time and how emotionally complex it was, and still is, for veterans. The book does draw you in during combat and makes you want to keep reading on. It’s very interesting to see how much emotion is involved in the Vietnam War, and the book definitely captures that.

Criticism:

It was very easy to tell that Doug Stanton is not a historian by some of the ways he describes things. He calls nearly every weapon a gun and it rolls the eyes of historians who don’t want to hear about the “M60 Gun.” The book’s maps are a little child-like and cartoonish as well, and they illustrate things he has already spoken about in the book: they don’t really serve much of a purpose. There is a lot of stereotyping in this book and cliches you hear in nearly every Vietnam story. They’re all just kids, they don’t know where they are, they’re there to kill communists. This is in pretty much every single Vietnam story out there. One of the things that particularly bothered me was a part of the book in which Stan Parker, as a young boy, has to wear metal knee braces. he is chased by some school bullies and he just takes the braces off and runs in an absolute miracle. Allegedly, Stanton heard all of this from Parker himself and that the book is as historically accurate as possible. The scene is exactly the same in the classic movie, Forrest Gump, which makes me really wonder about the book’s authenticity. In another scene, Stan calls the President and speaks to both Robert McNamara and Lyndon B. Johnson. That just seems insanely unlikely. The fact that the book is based around one person doesn’t give as much freedom as I thought. The book is about Stan, not about Echo Company. He knows and interacts with his company, but there is no real story development about them. The writing style of this book also feels really choppy and clumsy. There’s a huge amount of repetition and it just gets to be tiring after a certain point.

The book just doesn’t live up to the comments on the back. Compared to The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, this book is dwarfed. The writing style isn’t as good, and O’Brien has a first hand experience of death and hell in Vietnam. He knows the feeling to kill. It’s hard to live up to some of the Vietnam greats. This book just seems tacky and not really what I expected.

Rating: 1.5/5

Indochine: The Kindling for Vietnam (Part 2)

Last week, I discussed the origins of the French presence in Southeast Asia and how their imperial attitude led them to wars with Chinese and Vietnamese troops throughout the 19th century. After the heavy losses, France was determined to hold onto their newly-captured land. With Chinese influence gone, the Vietnamese were on their own in achieving autonomy from their French rulers. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s recent miniseries on the Vietnam War explores the US in its longest war overseas, but the French presence is still very important to understand.

Image result for french indochina war
French troops with an artillery piece.

After the so-called “Pacification of Tonkin,” the French officially established the colony of Indochina on October 17th, 1887. The colony encompassed all of modern-day Vietnam and Cambodia which had already been a French protectorate. By 1893, the French were at war again with Indochina’s neighbours, Siam. Siam, modern day Thailand, had been provoked by the French who had demanded control of Laos. When Frenchmen were thrown out of Siam, the French sent troops into Laos. A Frenchman in charge of a Vietnamese expedition into Laos was killed, and the French became outraged, sending in more troops to the area. The French navy bombarded the Siamese fort at Paknam, opening a route straight to Bangkok. Siam gave Laos to France to avoid destruction and the war quickly finished.

The French managed to capture more regions of Siam in 1904, but were forced to return them in 1907 due to pressure from the British in nearby Burma. As years dragged on, more anti-French sentiment grew in the area, especially in Indochina itself. On February 10, 1930, members of the Vietnamese Workers Party and rebellious members of the tirailleurs indochinois attacked French officers at Yen Bai. Troops quickly repelled the rebels and ended the uprising, but the effects of Vietnamese freedom movements were being felt. The Second World War erupted in 1939 and dragged France into a major conflict in Europe against Germany, one which quickly turned into a nightmare for them.

With pressure on France at home, Indochina was vulnerable. The first attack came from Ho Chi Minh, a Communist born in Vietnam who had recently spent time in China and the USSR. Minh created the Viet Minh, a Vietnamese independence group hich would fight any foreigners that were in Vietnam. Secondly, Laos was attacked by Thailand (Siam had changed its name in 1939) in 1940. Thirdly, Japan began to sweep through Asia claiming more and more land for its empire. France’s government fell and the establishment of Vichy France occurred. France allowed for Japanese access to Tonkin so they could better access China, but threats from the US convinced the Japanese to move to Malaya and leave Indochina relatively alone.

Thailand’s army outnumbered and outgunned the French who had most of their troops back home to hold against Germany. Constant attacks by the Thai Air Force put the French under pressure to react. Laos fell with one massive Thai assault but a rally in Cambodia helped the French establish a counterattack. Though unsuccessful, the counterattack shocked the Thais and eventually the Japanese arrived to bail out the French. When France was later liberated, Japan decided to control all of Indochina until their surrender in 1945. Japan gave all their military supplies to the Viet Minh in hopes they would eventually remove the French from the region.

The First Indochina War began in 1946 at Haiphong when Viet Minh members clashed with French troops. The troops had landed as a part of the campaign to make Indochina part of France officially. The French navy opened fire on the port of Haiphong and many civilians were killed. The two sides declared a cease-fire but war again flared up in Hanoi as French troops captured the city and forced Ho Chi Minh to flee.

The Viet Minh’s General, Vo Nguyen Giap, was originally a history teacher but was appointed their commander. Avoiding a head-on attack on the French, Giap favoured guerilla tactics to outwit and outmanouvre French troops. The war continued this way for years as the French desperately tried to make some kind of breakthrough politically or militarily. In 1950, Ho Chi Minh’s government was recognized by China and the USSR and they pledged their support. The Korean War broke out the same year, pulling the US into the region as they quickly stated their anger with a new communist threat in the area. Dong Khe fell in September, prompting the French to send massive amounts of Foreign Legionnaires to the area. At Vinh Yen, the French got their wish as they massacred the attacking Viet Minh troops in a head on assault- precisely what Giap was trying to avoid. Mao Khe and Day River also ended in disaster for Giap as his troops suffered around 24,000 casualties in 1951.

Image result for vo nguyen giap
Vo Nguyen Giap

The French built up small areas where they could lure Viet Minh troops into attacking them in hopes they could cause havoc akin to that in 1951. The “hedgehog” tactics did not help them much, as Giap captured French positions north of Hanoi. Operation Lorraine was executed in 1952 to recapture these positions but it proved ineffective. The hopes of the French were waning as Laos began to quickly fall into Viet Minh hands. French troops were moved to Dien Bien Phu and by 1954, Giap saw his opportunity to strike.

Image result for french indochina war
French Paratroopers landing in Vietnam

Dien Bien Phu is very mountainous and slopes down into a fertile valley. Vo Nguyen Giap surrounded the base with his army and on March 13, the battle began with a bombardment of outpost “Beatrice.” The French commander, Christian de Castries, named the posts after various lovers. His 14,000 French soldiers were outnumbered by Giap’s 65,000 Vietnamese troops. “Beatrice” was captured and French attacks were repulsed. “Gabrielle” was taken the next day as did “Anne-Marie.” The French were pushed closer and closer together, relying on troop reinforcements and supplies from air. “Elaine” and “Dominique” were captured on March 30th after bloody assaults from both sides. A French attack at “Elaine” did not surmount to anything, nor did breakout attempts at “Huguette.” With the situation dire, the French chose to fight to the last instead of surrender, but many, including Castries, chose to flee to Laos. Over 11,000 French troops were captured.

The war finished with the 1954 Geneva Conference, separating Vietnam into the Communist North and Republican South. To learn more on Vietnam, feel free to watch Burns’ excellent series on PBS.

Defending the Gates: Vasily Zaitsev

The 2001 Movie Enemy at the Gates brought a Russian sniper into the limelight once again- Vasily Zaitsev. Centered around the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, Zaitsev, played by Jude Law, dukes it out with German sniper Erwin Konig. While the movie is not entirely realistic, the two really did exist. So who was Vasily Zaitsev and why is he so important?

Related image
Vasily Zaitsev

Born in Yeleninka, a small town about an hour away from Magnitogorsk, Vasily Gergorovich Zaitsev was a natural hunter. His peasant origins made him an easy target for the Soviet military, who traditionally drew its forces from the massive peasant population. Zaitsev traveled to Magnitogorsk to study at a technical school. Eventually, he enlisted in the Russian Navy and became a bookkeeper in the Far East Fleet.

Vasily Zaitsev volunteered to join the 284th Rifle Division in the Soviet Army. The Division recruited most of its troops from Siberia and Eastern Russia in order to transfer more experienced troops from the quiet Manchurian Front to the German Invasion. Zaitsev’s sharpshooting ability was quickly noted, and he was trained as a sniper. He relied on a simple 1891 Mosin-Nagant Rifle, a veteran of the First World War. The Russian is most revered for his actions at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, in which he killed 225 soldiers & officers as well as 11 snipers. Zaitsev’s heroics made him a morale boost for the Soviets and a threat to the Germans. When Erwin Konig, a renowned German sniper, was sent to deal with him, Zaitsev managed to kill him on Mamaev Hill. Working with Nikolai Kulikov, the sniper developed his own tactics and sniper school during the battle. Firstly, Zaitsev never fired from the same spot. Movement was key in order to prevent any enemies from locking onto a particular position. “Sixes” was another of Zaitsev’s tactics. Three teams of 2 men would be positioned in order to cover a large area to maximize sight and damage. Zaitsev trained other snipers such as Tania Chernova, who he shared a relationship with.

Image result for vasily zaytsev
Zaitsev’s Mosin-Nagant Rifle

In January 1943, Zaitsev was hit by a mortar round and nearly blinded. He was immediately taken to a hospital where he slowly recovered. On February 22, he was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union. Zaitsev returned to combat later in the war, ending it in 1945 as a captain. Chernova thought Zaitsev was dead until 1969, when she finally learned he was alive and married.

Vasily Zaitsev is immortalized in William Craig’s book, Enemy at the Gates, and in the 2001 film of the same name as well as War of the Rats by David L. Robbins. Zaitsev died in December 1991, and was initially buried in Kiev before being moved to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). He was buried with full military honours.