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

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.

Historical Field Trip: The Veneto

Italy’s history dates back to the times of the Etruscans and Romans, and one of the nation’s most memorable cities is Venice. The winding canals, seafood, and magnificent churches make it a massive tourist destination. While Venice and the surrounding region, the Veneto, are big tourist stops, many breeze over their complex history and the few interesting landmarks and monuments off the beaten path.

Venice:

Venice was a very complicated republic in its early history. Run by the doge, Venice controlled lands from Italy to Croatia and even parts of Greece. Both Byzantine and Classical influences spread throughout the city for its many magnificent buildings.

1. Doge’s Palace

The Doge, or Duke, of Venice controlled the Republic. You can tour the apartments of the Doge and also look at the judiciary chambers of the republic. The prison is connected to the palace as is the armoury, which contains many weapons from the 14th century as well as some artifacts from the Battle of Lepanto.

2. Revolution

Venice’s uprising took place in European rebellion’s favourite year- 1848. A monument to the battles remains in the backstreets of Venice in the San Marco area at Corte Tagliapietra. The monument is to the “heroic resistance” of Austrian rule at the time and a plaque has been put up next to a statue of the Venetian Lion. The plaque is lined with Austrian cannonballs fired at the Venetians. Daniele Manin led a revolt in order to create a new Venetian Republic, but it ended in disaster for the Italians

.

Austrian cannonballs used in the 1848 uprising
The Venetian Lion atop the monument

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Veneto:

The Northern Veneto was the sight of many battles of the First World War between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Though many overlook the Italian Front, it is one of the most intriguing topics of the war.

3. Travel to the town of Asiago in the Italian mountains to see the Asiago War Memorial. The Italian Front cost both nations massive casualties, and some 50,000 remains are housed in the memorial. The arched monument is quite large and opened in the 1930s. Also in Asiago is a selection of trenches preserved on Monte Zebio. The trenches are both Austrian and Italian, and are exceptionally well preserved.

Image result for monte zebio trenches
Trenches on Monte Zebio

4. The Strada delle 52 Gallerie is a section of 52 roads through the Italian Alps which were built by the Italian army during WWI. These allowed the transfer of supplies, food, troops, and munitions to the front with less danger of enemy rifle fire or artillery. There are some scenic hikes and you can drive through some of the tunnels.

Verona:

Remembered primarily as the city of Romeo and Juliet, Verona is one of the more interesting cities of Italy that doesn’t get much attention. While they don’t have many historical sights, apart from sights of the Shakespeare play, there are still a few interesting spots.

5. On Via dietro Anfiteatro, a plaque sits on the wall of some Italian soldiers. These are members of the Pasubio Division, one of the Italian army units stationed in Verona. They fought in Africa, Russia, Yugoslavia, and in Italy from their years of service from 1866 to 1943.

Pasubio Division

6. The equestrian statue of King Vittorio Emmanuele II sits by the Roman amphitheater in Verona. The unifying king of Italy, Emmanuele is immortalized in Italian history and his image appears all over the country.

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.

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.

Related image
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.

Image result for gebirgsjäger
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.