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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II

440 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

5 May 1945

As I reported to War Cabinet, the New Zealand forces have taken a very full part throughout this final stage of the war here in Italy. I now send you for your information, and for publication in the press should you so desire, the following account of these important operations. Field-Marshal Alexander has no objection to publication.

page 405

After a short period of training in the area near Matelica the Division went back into the line on 1 April to take part in the final battles, the object of which was to destroy the German Tenth and Fourteenth Armies in the broad open Po Valley, force a crossing of the River Po, and then, among other plans, to push north-east and join up with Marshal Tito's forces in the vicinity of Trieste.

In this offensive the Allied armies faced many difficulties. The country with its many mountains, rivers, canals, and ditches favoured the defence. The Allied and German armies were about an even match in numbers. The enemy had 25 divisions in Italy, 18 of which were lined up opposite the Eighth and Fifth Armies. These included some of the Wehrmacht's best and most experienced formations, troops which had obtained, in the Italian fighting, a very high degree of skill and a strategy of defensive fighting which Field-Marshal Kesselring promptly fostered to the utmost. They included the 1st Parachute Division, our opponents in Cassino, 4th Parachute Division, whose units led the attack on Crete, 90th Panzer Grenadier Division, the successor to the 90th Light Division we defeated and captured in North Africa, the 26th Panzer and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions, while the infantry were well tried and confident. These troops were the cream of the German Army. They had under command Tiger and Panther tanks as well as other armour.

As against these forces we had fewer but larger divisions. The balance, however, was weighted heavily in our favour as regards equipment, air support, artillery, and tanks.

During the winter months the best use had been made by the enemy of the country and by the spring the positions to be attacked were formidable. I believe the flanks of the enemy line were secure. The northern flank rested on marshy, inundated areas on the Adriatic, while to the south the line lay along the Apennines. The only possible area suitable for offensive action was on the flat ground in between, which had few roads and was crossed by seven formidable river barriers, beginning with the Senio and ending with the Adige. These rivers had no junctions left and, particularly in the case of the first four, were heavily defended, mined, and wired. The rivers themselves, owing to the peculiar formation of the floodbanks, were from a tactical point of view almost ideal for infantry defensive positions. The floodbanks were in many cases 30 feet high, tapering from a base of 100 feet thick up to a flat apex 10 feet wide. Further, the stopbanks were only 120 feet apart and the enemy was dug in tightly on both banks. When the near bank was attacked you were shot at from the trenches on the far side. Between the banks themselves were mines and wire. The enemy slit-trenches on these floodbanks were most difficult artillery targets. The water gap itself, although page 406 only 40 feet wide, was 10 feet deep between the canalised perpendicular banks, 15 feet deep, dropping almost vertically down to the water's edge.

Altogether the position was a most difficult one to capture. Field-Marshal Alexander's plan was to attack in the flat country in the centre, thereby drawing off the enemy brigades from the mountains and the marshes, and, when this had been achieved, to push between the marshes through the narrow Argenta Gap on the northern flank. When all enemy reserves had been drawn off from the mountains, the final blow was to be struck by the Fifth American Army attacking through the hills towards Bologna. The underlying intention behind the whole plan was to defeat the German forces in their existing defences so that further enemy resistance on the big obstacles of the Po and the Adige Rivers would not be possible.

Your Division, a part of the 5th British Corps, was given the role of slogging across the rivers in the centre and fighting hard battles to carry out the job of smashing as much of the German Army as possible, drawing off the enemy reserves and thereby weakening the flanks so that other formations could push through. It is a fair statement to say that during these operations the New Zealand Division, which had grouped with it nine British artillery regiments, carried out its part most thoroughly. The enemy fought right through without respite from D-day to the final phase at Trieste. In the process your Division destroyed three German divisions—4th Parachute Division, the 98th and the 278th Divisions. In all these operations we were most ably supported by the 12th Lancers, the 42nd British Medium Artillery Regiment and, later on, by Brigadier Barker's 43rd Gurkha Brigade.1

In the original plan it had never been intended that our thrust should break the enemy line. It was assumed that the main breakthrough would occur to the north through the marshland of Argenta.

April 29. So successful, however, were the operations of the 2nd New Zealand Division and the troops on our immediate flanks that five rivers south of the Po and the Adige were crossed more quickly than was estimated, and the operations which started as subsidiary ones finished up by smashing the enemy line and enabling the New Zealand Division to break through to Venice. We are, as I start writing this cable, across the rivers Piave, Tagliamento, and Isonzo, and we move forward tomorrow towards the capture of Trieste. We have joined up with the forces of Marshal Tito.

In all, your Division fought five major battles against the pick of the Germany Army. These battles were those of the rivers Senio, Santerno, Sillaro, Gaiana, and Idice. The plan of attack on each

1 Brigadier A. R. Barker, DSO, OBE, MC.

page 407 of these obstacles was not merely to secure a crossing on which to drive the enemy back, but to destroy his forces. In this way alone could his divisions be broken and prevented from reforming a line farther back. Our policy has been, as always, to hit the enemy a tremendous blow with every available offensive weapon—often with from 250 to 300 guns and 400 to 500 planes, supported by 150 tanks. During the four hours' bombardment supporting each of the main battles our guns fired up to a quarter of a million rounds. These terrific bombardments enabled the infantry to advance and crush the enemy on our front, and then to push through the gap we had made to the next defended river line. We always attacked at night on a broad front with two brigades forward and one brigade in reserve. Later, to ease the hard-worked New Zealand Division infantry, we were given the 43rd Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade. This enabled us to carry on delivering blow after blow by relieving the forward brigades after each operation.

It was battles such as these which paved the way to victory. On the Senio and the Santerno we smashed completely the 98th Division. On the Sillaro we broke the back of the 278th Division. On the Gaiana and the Idice we paid off the final of our old scores with the 4th Parachute Division and part of the 1st Parachute Division. The 4th Parachute Division, fully confident that they could hold the rivers where less fanatic divisions had failed, dug themselves in on the west stopbank of the Gaiana. The bombardment on the Parachute Division was the heaviest of the war, estimated at 100 rounds for every man holding the river line, and in support of this bombardment 44 flame-throwing tanks attacked the line of the stopbank with flames. It was little wonder that our success was complete. On the Idice, the next obstacle, we were not faced with organised resistance and were able to rush the riverbanks without difficulty.

The destruction of the enemy divisions against us was a big factor in smashing the Germans here in Italy. No division that opposed us could stand up to the methods employed. During the early stages of the offensive the fighting was bitter. We captured between 2000 and 3000 infantry, all part of Germany's finest fighting infantry. The enemy was well beaten and could put up only half-hearted resistance on the formidable river barriers of the Po and the Adige. These were crossed with the greatest skill in assault boats and bridged with folding-boat equipment for our light transport and 40-ton rafts for our tanks and heavy artillery. In this way 150 heavy tanks and 5000 vehicles and guns of the Division were passed over and we were able to commence a successful advance to Padua and beyond.

It will be of great interest to you to know that the opinions I have expressed as to the importance of our contribution are borne out to a great extent by others, and I quote a cable from the Army Commander page 408 and a charming letter I received today from the Commander of the gallant 2nd Polish Corps1 who fought upon our left flank:

Personal for General Freyberg from Army Commander. My heartiest congratulations on reaching Trieste. To have led the advance of the Eighth Army from the River Senio to the Alps is a magnificent achievement for your troops.

My Dear General,

On behalf of all officers and men of the 2nd Polish Corps I feel that I must write to express to you our unbounded admiration of your truly magnificent achievements since the offensive against the River Senio.

The Polish soldier knows well that his own successes were to a very considerable degree dependent upon the brilliant actions which were fought on his right. Since that period, during which we had the honour of attacking alongside your troops, your incomparable fighting qualities have been still more evidenced by the speed of your advance against the toughest troops which the enemy could muster, and these qualities have aroused a feeling of respect, admiration, and comradeship which will live in our memories throughout the years of peace.

May I say, too, how deeply grateful we are for the help which you have given to our people. The sympathy which you have shown will never be forgotten by the Polish fighting soldiers.

Yours very sincerely,
Z. Bohusz-Szyszko

It is fair to add that the speed of our advance was only possible because of the engineering work of our Divisional Engineers, under the command of Colonel Hanson, whose work was of a very high order.

Once the crust of the enemy resistance was broken just south of Padua, we carried out the advance through Padua itself on to the River Piave, including the capture of Venice. In two successive days' moves we had advanced 80 miles, capturing many thousands of prisoners.

As the bridges over the River Po had all been destroyed some months back by our own air forces, a halt of 24 hours became necessary to bridge the gap, and the Division took advantage of this to do maintenance, service tanks, and gather up and evacuate the huge number of enemy prisoners who were by now becoming an embarrassment.

The last stages of our advance to join up with Marshal Tito's forces show the Division again in its traditional role—a ‘left hook’ carried out magnificently. I wish you could have seen the triumphal move of this highly trained force along the coast over the Piave and Isonzo, in places fighting hard and, as opposition broke down, moving long distances through towns and villages full of cheering

1 Major-General Zygmunt Bohusz-Szyszko.

page 409 and happy people, with all our vehicles, tanks, and guns garlanded with flowers. The last part of the advance was a sustained attack to free Trieste. It will always be a proud moment for the New Zealand Division that we were able to be of assistance to the Yugoslav Army in helping to free Trieste.

I cannot say how many German prisoners were taken during the move from the Po. I can only estimate the numbers at between 30,000 and 40,000. Our casualties, I am glad to say, have not been unduly heavy for the scope of the operations.1

I hope that this will be the last report that I shall have to send you of active operations. I write this one on the outskirts of Trieste. As in the past, I do so from my office truck which has served me as a battle headquarters during all past days. Now that we have reached the conclusion of the European war, I hope that I may be permitted to tell the people of New Zealand what a great force this Division of theirs is. No tribute I can pay does justice to the individuals whose work has contributed to our great successes. A successful commander depends in battle upon his subordinates. No praise can be sufficiently high for our commanders and staff. I wish especially to mention Brigadier Parkinson, commanding the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, Brigadier Bonifant, commanding the 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, and Brigadier Gentry, commanding the newly-formed 9th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, which distinguished itself so greatly during the battle of the Gaiana River and the advance to Trieste. Outstanding work has been done by Colonel Hanson wherever commanding the Divisional Engineers, and by Colonel Campbell, commanding the 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade. The work of Brigadier Queree, commanding the Divisional Artillery during the five battles from the Senio to Gaiana and beyond, has been well up to that high standard which has always been the characteristic of the New Zealand Artillery. The work of the Army Service Corps, under Brigadier Crump, in keeping us fed and maintained over difficult obstacles and long lines of communication has been up to the highest traditions of the desert days.

1 New Zealand casualties from 27 Oct 1944–2 May 1945 were:

Died of wounds111
Died on active service (includes deaths through sickness, accident, &c.)62
Prisoners of war (includes 1 died of wounds while prisoner of war)19
page 410

On my own staff Colonels Gilbert,1 Elliott,2 and Cook3 and Major Cox,4 the Intelligence Officer, have been of the greatest assistance and help. Their work has been of a high order.

But it is not of these senior officers, good as they have been, that one thinks of the most after battles such as we have been through. No division, no matter how good the Commander and staff may be, could achieve such results during the last year of heavy fighting unless the rank and file of the force were of the highest class. Our New Zealand troops have gone into these battles day after day and night after night with a quiet, steady determination and a spirit which I have not seen equalled elsewhere in my experience of warfare. In the New Zealander you have qualities of heart and mind that place him high among men. It is to resolute courage in our junior officers and men that this Division owes its fighting record. No men could have done more than they have done—never daunted, always calm, no matter how great the odds against them have been. No commander has been served as I have been during these difficult five and a half years. I have been the most fortunate and privileged of commanders to have led such a Division.

1 Colonel H. E. Gilbert, DSO, OBE; GSO 1, 2nd NZ Division, Nov 1944–1946; NZ Representative on Joint Chiefs of Staff Organisation in Australia, Jul 1946-Jul 1947; GSO 1, Army HQ, Mar 1948-Mar 1949; Director of Plans and Intelligence, Mar 1949.-

2 Colonel R. A. Elliott, OBE, ED; Assistant Director of Medical Services, 2nd NZ Division, Dec 1944-Oct 1945.

3 Lieutenant-Colonel J. P. Cook, OBE; Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General, 2nd NZ Division, Dec 1944-Nov 1945.

4 Major G. S. Cox, MBE; GSO 2 (Intelligence), 2nd NZ Division, Oct 1944-May 1945; Chargé d'Affaires, New Zealand Legation, Washington, 1942–44.