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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

Book Review: The Alps

Stephen O’Shea’s book, The Alps, is a quirky and charming account of the author’s trips through the namesake mountain range. Labelled as a “human history”, I figured I would give it a read after reading the inside cover to discover mentions of Hannibal Barca, Caporetto, Napoleon, and Adolph Hitler. The promises of military history were certainly there for the taking and considering O’Shea’s goof reviews from the press, it seemed like a good read. The book covers the author’s trip spanning Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Slovenia along arguably the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Stopping at Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, and other legendary sights, O’Shea’s down-to-earth writing style makes this book one for every historian’s list.

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Praise:

O’Shea is one of those writers who takes you with him. When he goes someplace, you go too. Linguists will certainly enjoy  The Alps for its wide use of language. The varying dialects of the Alps are conveyed beautifully by the author throughout the book. He does point out some very intriguing historical sights such as the Isonzo Front museum in Slovenia or Hitler’s Eagles Nest. His remarks on the collective nouns for groups of bikers (a goulash of Hungarian bikers, a pilsner of Czech bikers, etc.) are something to chuckle about too.

Criticism:

Dutchmen beware. O’Shea is custom to cracking jokes about the Dutch throughout the book as they appear to be the brunt of many jokes made by him or any Swiss or French he encounters. The most disappointing thing for me was the lack of military history in the book. I was enticed by promises of Caporetto, Napoleon’s Italy campaign, and more but was rewarded with maybe two or three pages entirely on each. This was certainly a disappointment; after all, this is a military history blog. The book was placed in the history section of my library, but, it would be much more properly placed in travel. It is more of a travel-history rather than history. He visits places, discusses the history, and describes his experience vividly. It just seems to lack a lot of military history, and focuses more on general history.

For any Hapsburg, language, Sound of Music, mountaineering, or travel enthusiast; this is a spectacular book. For military historians? No. I certainly enjoyed reading Stephen O’Shea and I am by no account saying “do not read his book.” This is just not what somebody interested in the battles of the Isonzo would want to pick up. Luckily for me, I am a Hapsburg and language junkie so this was perfectly fine for me. Notably, O’Shea has also written a book on travelling the battlefields of the Western Front in World War I. I am certainly intrigued and hope for a more military-centred book.

Rating: 3/5

Emigres in the British Napoleonic Army

Emigre units made up a sizable portion of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Emigres were foreign troops in British service who chose to form regiments of a similar group.

One of the most notable units of emigres was the Kin’s German Legion, or the KGL. Made up of predominately Hanoverians, the KGL was created in 1803 from the remnants of the French controlled areas in Germany. The House of Hanover, who were in control of the British crown, helped to influence many Germans to choose the path of Britain rather than fighting for their new French leaders. The KGL consisted of 8 battalions of line infantry, 5 regiments of cavalry, and 6 batteries of artillery. There were about 14,000 troops in the KGL- the most of any emigre unit by far. They served throughout many campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars, notably in the Peninsula and in the Hundred Days. They fought at Bussaco, Salamanca, Vittoria, and Waterloo. They were most notably involved in the fighting at La Haye Sainte, described in The Longest Afternoon.

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Stamp featuring a member of the KGL

The Royal Corsican Rangers, a unit of riflemen formed on the island of Corsica, began in 1794 with the aid of Corsican revolutionary Pasquale Paoli. By 1798, British General Ralph Abercromby made them an independent unit as they began to fight in Italy against Napoleon’s forces. Most notably, the Corsicans clashed with French troops at Maida in Sicily. The unit was stationed in Corfu later on until they were disbanded in 1817. Another of the Emigres was the Royal Sicilian Regiment founded in 1806 with 1,300 troops. Maj.-Gen. John Stuart created the unit who served on Malta and on their home island of Sicily.

One of the more famous and peculiar units was the Chasseurs Britanniques, made up of deserters from France. Many of them were people who were targeted in the revolution or people who were not allowed back in France. Over 1,700 troops fought in the Chasseurs Britanniques and they served widely around the world. They fought in the Egypt Campaign, in the Peninsula, and in the War of 1812 in the United States. The unit was disbanded in 1814 after Napoleon’s first exile.

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Regiment de Meuron

The King’s Dutch Legion (KDL) was formed in 1799 after King William V left Holland after the French invaded and created the puppet state of the Batavian Republic. William V’s legion consisted of 5000 infantrymen and artillery and the unit served in the 1798 Irish Rebellion before they were disbanded in 1802. Another Dutch-inspired unit was the Regiment de Meuron because they were in Dutch East India Company (VOC) service. The Swiss mercenaries numbered about 900 and were transferred to the British after the formation of the Batavian Republic. They fought both in the Peninsula and in the United States.

 

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?

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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.

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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.

Gebirgsjäger: The Alpine Warriors of the German Army

The Gebirgsjäger were the alpine troops of the German army during the Second World War, serving in many regions throughout the war. Using pack animals, these elite troops of the German army were tasked to defending and attacking mountainous areas where many regular troops would be unable to fight in. After the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria, the Gebirgsjäger were formed, inspired by the Tyrolean Jägers of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the First World War.

The Gebirgsjäger wore a patch with an edelweiss depicted.The edelweiss is a flower found normally in alpine conditions and high altitudes. They wore the regular feldgrau uniform, but with hiking boots, and sometimes skis or snowshoes. They also wore a Bergmutze, similar to the cap of Austrian troops in the First World War. The cap could be buttoned under the chin to provide warmth in freezing temperatures. As well as their specific uniform, Gebirgsjäger carried a special carbine called the G33/40, produced in Czechoslovakia. The steel plate at the bottom was used to crunch into ice to give a soldier a stabilizer while scaling rocks and mountains. A small number were produced, but they were perfect for mountain warfare. Many Gebirgsjäger used Russian weapons because they were better designed for cold weather.

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Gebirgsjäger in the Russian mountains

With the German Blitzkrieg into Poland and Norway, many Gebirgsjäger were placed in Army Group South. The Blitzkrieg smashed through Poland towards Russia, and by 1941, Operation Barbarossa was in full swing. The Gebirgsjager fought through the mountainous country of Ukraine. The 1st Mountain Division managed to capture the city of Lviv (then Lvov). They crashed through the Stalin Line and into the Caucasus. The Gebirgsjäger lifted a German flag on top of Mount Elbrus. The Gebirgsjäger also fought ferociously in Hungary as well as Northern Greece.

In 1942, Operation Edelweiss was launched in an attempt to capture oil fields in the Caucasus. Spearheaded by Gebirgsjäger units, the Germans swept through Baku and along the Volga River. The Gebirgsjäger assaulted the western slopes of Mt. Elbrus along with Romanian Mountain Troops. They were held by the Soviet rear guard, eventually capturing the mountains with some difficulty. They attempted to reach the coast near Sukhumi in order to outflank Soviet positions, but poor weather and stiff resistance held their advance. Over the operation, the Germans took some 10,000 casualties, but managed to squeeze their way towards Stalingrad.

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Gebirgsjäger cap badge

A recurring theme for mountain troops was heavy casualties with success. The inexhaustible number of Soviet troops managed to hold the alpine troops in battle, but the Gebirgsjäger deserve credit for their abilities and quality throughout the Second World War.