Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
V: Disbandment of 2 NZEF
V: Disbandment of 2 NZEF
Japan's surrender had caused a change in shipping plans; vessels which were to have been available for the early repatriation of the NZEF were diverted elsewhere. The first priority was the repatriation of prisoners of war from the Far East, the next the transportation of occupation forces to the Far East, and then came the repatriation of the British troops in Burma and Dominion troops in Europe. The New Zealanders in Italy and Egypt waiting their turn to go home became progressively more bored and discontented, despite the facilities for sport and entertainment, and the opportunities offered by the ERS2 to assist men to re-establish themselves when they returned to civilian life and to further their education.
2 Education and Rehabilitation Service.
While they were waiting to go home men went on leave to the United Kingdom. From 10 October onwards 105 officers and men were despatched daily and accommodated overnight at six staging posts staffed by New Zealanders; they stayed at British transit camps at Calais and a New Zealand transit camp at Folkestone. The journey to Calais took a week, and with 14 days' leave in the United Kingdom, the time spent away was about a month. Because of the wintry conditions which prevailed after mid-November, subsequent leave parties went overland by rail.
Memorial services were held in Crete and at the Sangro River, Cassino and Fl Alamein. Probably the most impressive of these was in Crete. About 50 New Zealand officers and men who had served in Crete, a guard of honour from the Maori Battalion, and 5 Brigade's band sailed from Naples to Suda Bay in the cruiser Ajax—which had evacuated New Zealanders from Greece and Crete in 1941—and were joined by a party which came by air from Egypt. Representatives of the Royal Navy, the Australian Imperial Force, the Greek army and navy, the Andartes (Cretan guerillas who had continued the struggle against the Germans during the occupation) and a very large crowd of civilians were also present at the service at the British military cemetery at Suda Bay on 30 September. General Freyberg was accompanied by Major-General Kippenberger and Captain John Cuthbert, RN, commander of the Ajax.
Wherever the New Zealanders went in Crete their reception was overwhelming. The General reported to the Government that it was obvious that the Cretans ‘deeply appreciated our coming back to their island. I feel that visit here has been more than worth while and has impressed on Cretan people our deep gratitude and affection towards them.’1
1 GOC's papers.
The ownership of the equipment was complicated: some of it was ‘lend-lease’ from the United States and therefore had to be returned ultimately to the Americans; some was in excess of the G10981 equipment of a normal British division and belonged to the United Kingdom Government. The remainder, however, was the initial equipment of 2 NZEF, brought up to date during the war, and paid for by the New Zealand Government. ‘It was definitely our own,’ wrote Major-General Stevens.2 ‘The New Zealand Government specified some items which were to be sent to New Zealand; but with this exception we handed everything over to British depots, leaving any adjustments in cost to be settled between the Governments of the United Kingdom and New Zealand at a later date. For a while the New Zealand Government was inclined to stand on the strict letter of the law about ownership of equipment; but we pointed out that throughout the war we had always had the best of it when it came to issuing equipment, that for all our new units the British authorities had always found the equipment without more than a brief delay, that when it came to a settlement we were sure that New Zealand would be treated with the greatest generosity, and altogether that it ill became us to haggle at this or any stage. The Government was faintly surprised at this outburst, but accepted it in good grace, and all was well.’3
1 G1098: sypnosis of the complete equipment of a unit or formation, itemised and enumerated.
2 Maj-Gen W. G. Stevens, CB, CBE, m.i.d.; Richmond, Nelson; born London, 11 Dec 1893; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1915–19 (Maj); AA & QMG, 2 NZ Div, 1940; Officer in Charge of Administration, 2 NZEF, 1940–45; GOC 2 NZEF, 22 Nov 1945–6 Jul 1946.
The open nature of the airfield made the vehicle park very difficult to guard, and the release of men for repatriation compelled the Ordnance Corps to find staff from other corps and to employ Italian labour. The lack of security, the Assistant Director of Ordnance Services (Lieutenant-Colonel Lewis2) complained, was responsible for ‘the biggest headache of the NZOC, as the changing of staff every week or two creates a great deal of confusion and the situation is not improved by deteriorating weather and wholesale thefts. One could expect a reasonable amount of thieving and pilfering being done by the local population which is very hard to check, but this could be kept down to reasonable limits if our own soldiers at the Park, particularly the Guard, did their duty. It is quite obvious at this stage … that the moral scruples of the average soldier, particularly with regard to WD3 property, are absolutely nil and it is difficult no matter what regulations and rules are laid down to find an answer to it. Every endeavour has been made by the Officers at the Park to cope with this growing problem but I am afraid it is almost impossible.’4 The theft of such articles as jeep tyres, which could be sold for over £100 on the black market, was too strong a temptation. ‘All we could do about the black-market activities was to refuse to handle the large sums of money that so many troops accumulated,’5 says Stevens.
Near the end of January 1946 the stores depot at Perugia was handed over to the Ministry of Supply, and in mid-February the vehicle park also was transferred. Meanwhile 2 Base Ordnance Depot at Bari completed the packing of the equipment intended for New Zealand, and 1 Base Ordnance Depot at Maadi disposed of the equipment and stores handed in by the 2 NZEF units in Egypt.
Lieutenant-General Freyberg relinquished command of 2 NZEF and 2 New Zealand Division on 22 November 1945, the sixth anniversary of his appointment, and was succeeded by Major-General Stevens, who was responsible for the completion of the disbandment of the force and the return of its members to New Zealand.
3 WD: War Department.
The General made farewell inspections of the dwindling formations of the Division at Florence and Siena. Many men already had been repatriated or had left their units and were awaiting shipping; hundreds were on leave in the United Kingdom or on guard or camp duties.
When Stevens assumed command of 2 NZEF, approximately 15,000 men were still waiting to be repatriated; these included single men of the 9th Reinforcements, the married and single men of the 10th, 11th and 12th Reinforcements, and the married men of the 13th, 14th and 15th Reinforcements;2 they also included about 870 men of the Maori Battalion and its reinforcements who were to embark as a complete unit. At that stage it was anticipated that the last man of 2 NZEF would leave the Mediterranean in March 1946, but the shipping arrived with such unexpected speed that Headquarters 2 NZEF had to take energetic steps to collect sufficient men to fill the vessels. Men were assembled in Advanced Base over Christmas and New Year, and because the camp was holding two or three times its normal number, conditions were most unpleasant. By early January, however, the bulk of 2 NZEF had departed.
The Maori Battalion embarked on the Dominion Monarch at Taranto on 26 December; it was joined by a party of Maoris from Egypt at Port Tewfik, and arrived at Wellington on 23 January 1946. The other units of 2 NZEF were disbanded overseas, most of them in December and January. When the last 2000 officers and other ranks still in Italy were withdrawn to the Bari–Taranto region to await repatriation, Headquarters 2 NZEF was closed at Florence and reopened at Bari in January. In February the last New Zealanders left Italy for Egypt, except those required for the Rear Party to attend to the final details of the disposal of equipment and the winding-up procedure, and the graves registration and concentration units.
1 The ground on which the obelisk was erected had been given by the Maadi Land Company with the approval of the Egyptian Government, and the obelisk had been paid for out of the central regimental funds of 2 NZEF.