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

Despatch of 2nd New Zealand Division to Italy

page 263

Despatch of 2nd New Zealand Division to Italy

General Freyberg to the Prime Minister

21 August 1943

As you know, I saw the Prime Minister [of the United Kingdom] and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff on the way back from New Zealand. I also saw the heads of the Intelligence services. A great spirit of optimism prevails in the highest quarters, based on the following facts:

The German offensive on the Eastern front this summer was stopped without difficulty by the Russian Army, who have since resumed the offensive. The operations against the Italians were going well, and Mussolini and the Fascist regime had collapsed. In official circles it was expected that the war against Germany will be over during 1944, and some contended that the German Army could be disposed of this year.

I feel that the optimism to a great extent is justified. This winter is likely to see great change in the Axis position, but a forecast of the future is difficult because there are so many uncertain factors. Germany is to all intents fighting on two fronts, a situation she has always tried to avoid. Although she has 289 fighting divisions on her Order of Battle, there is every indication that she has not the men to maintain them. She has few reserves in depots in the rear and some of the fighting divisions on the Russian front are reported to be 40 per cent below strength. It is certain that the enemy is desperately short of men and, with an enormous front to hold, is weak everywhere.

Although our air attacks are formidable, we do not know yet to what extent bombing has softened the powers of resistance of the civilian population in Germany. Neutral countries who still have embassies in Germany are in a better position to judge this, and possibly increased anti-Nazi feeling in Sweden and other countries is significant. Undoubtedly the fall of the Fascist regime in Italy page 264 and the heavy bombing of industrial Germany have made it impossible to keep the truth from the German people. They now realise there is no hope of avoiding ultimate defeat.

From a purely military point of view Germany's position is desperate. They have lost the Battle of the Atlantic. Their air forces have been eclipsed on every front and there is no doubt that from a production point of view the Allies are definitely on top. The longer the war goes on the better will the equipment position become. Further, the Axis armies have been outfought on every battlefield during the last twelve months. The situation on all fronts is so grave that the German General Staff must reconsider the policy of major strategy. The most sane decision for Germany would be a general withdrawal on the Eastern front to escape further disasters in the autumn and winter. Such withdrawals, however, would render Germany more vulnerable to air attacks, and giving up conquered territory would be an admission of defeat which would weaken the power of the Fuehrer in a way they could not risk in view of what has happened in Italy. Notwithstanding all these facts, there is no doubt that German anti-Bolshevik propaganda has made the Germans desperate, and they will fight the Russians to the finish on the Eastern front, realising that the only hope for their population is to wear out the Russian Army before Germany is reached. Whatever happens in the Mediterranean, the Germans can be expected to attempt to hold on on the Russian front. Their position, however, is precarious, and in holding on they risk being overwhelmed by the Russians during the autumn and winter.

The bulk of the land fighting this year has been carried on by our Russian allies. We are engaging at the most ten German divisions on the Mediterranean front, while on the Eastern front the Russian armies are fighting 198 German divisions. It is unfortunate that all our support landing craft and trained troops are in the Mediterranean. They could not be moved in time to use them again this summer for an invasion from England and no landing operations could be attempted there until April or May 1944.

Although the main battle will be fought by the Russians, the Americans and ourselves must intervene and fight the Germans whereever we can. It is hoped that the theatre of war will be picked so that we can keep our armies concentrated and make full use of our greatly superior tanks.

Three courses appear open to the Allies. We can operate either against the Balkans, Italy, or the South of France. The Balkans are not suitable for armoured battles. Italy and France remain. Without knowing the result of the conference at Ottawa,1 I feel page 265 that every effort will be made to knock out Italy and later to open up a second front through France from the south.

A cipher message follows about the training and probable role of the New Zealand Division.

1 This conference, between President Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill, was held at Quebec from 17–24 Aug 1943.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

28 August 1943

There is no doubt that the pendulum is swinging violently against the Axis. One of the decisive battles of the war is being fought in the Ukraine, where the Russians are making headway, while in the Mediterranean the Axis position may deteriorate more quickly than was contemplated when I saw Generals Alexander and Montgomery four weeks ago. In the circumstances it is premature to forecast the Division's future role at present. We have, however, been given the first week in November as the new provisional date to be ready for an operational role, and I wish to report on the equipment situation, training, and fitness for battle of your Division.

I may say that I welcome the postponement of the possible date of employment because the malarial season will be over, nothing will now interfere with the elections,1 and it will give valuable extra time for training.

When I discussed training in Sicily it was felt by the Army Commanders that the Division should be used in the traditional role as a mobile, hard-hitting force. I agreed. There are now many divisions trained to carry out the initial landings, but we are the only British division equipped, trained, and experienced for outflanking operations.

We are now drawing equipment and training for a mobile role. Although the use of the Division in the initial landings of the follow-on operations is not envisaged, I feel that in the Mediterranean, or any theatre where there is a sea flank, any force organised like ours must also be prepared to carry out left or right hooks by sea-borne outflanking movements. Our training programme, therefore, for September and October is to prepare the Division for:


Any operation that may be demanded of a mobile division, and,


An outflanking movement by sea.

1 The New Zealand General Election was held on 25 Sep 1943.

page 266

Details of the training policy are as follows: Individual and unit training ends in the second week of September. The Division, complete with the 4th Armoured Brigade, will move from Maadi on 17 September to Burg el Arab, west of Alexandria, to carry out full-scale divisional exercises. This period of training will end in the second week of October. During the remainder of October the brigade groups will move to the Combined Training Centre to train with landing craft for an outflanking movement by sea.

I have now had time to inspect the Division and to judge the effect on battle-worthiness of sending leave personnel to New Zealand.1 Upon the whole all goes well, but there are obvious weaknesses at present. There are many officers and NCOs and some thousands of men from the last reinforcement drafts who have not, of course, seen action, and the infantry are undoubtedly short of experienced company commanders. Experience has shown that unbattleworthy troops suffer a much higher percentage of casualties than experienced units. In the present state of the Division training is of the greatest importance, and we have been forced to go back to the most elementary stages before we can tackle full-scale divisional exercises.

I am well pleased with the last reinforcements, who are a good lot of men. With experience they will come up to the usual high standard set by your Division.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

14 September 1943

Since my telegram of 28 August I have been warned that the New Zealand Division may be asked to leave for Italy earlier than the first week in November.

At present the situation in Italy is confused, but we do know Rommel is in command with large forces, including two, and probably four, armoured divisions.2 Realising that time is on our side, Rommel can be depended on to attack and take advantage of the situation while we have insufficient troops on the mainland. It is certain there will be heavy fighting during the late summer and winter, and all available British troops will be wanted in Italy. page 267 Undoubtedly the New Zealand Division, organised and equipped as it is, would be of the greatest assistance at the present stage.

In my telegram of 28 August I stressed the need for training. The proposed acceleration of the move would shorten the training period by a month, and we should not be able to complete combined operations training. All divisional training, however, will be completed by the end of the first week of October, and we shall be fit to carry out any role as a mobile division. I do not consider combined training essential at the present juncture since the Division would be landed at a port and not on an open beach.

Our individual and unit training is complete, and at the moment the Brigadiers are carrying out brigade training schemes. During the next fortnight the whole force is being hardened. We are carrying out a 100-mile route march to Burg el Arab. A full-scale divisional exercise will then be held with our own Armoured Brigade and using live ammunition. It is early in the day yet to say how the younger commanders are measuring up to their added responsibilities, but I am confident that the Division will take the field fully trained and will live up to its past reputation.

The equipment situation is generally good. By the end of September the Division will be better equipped than ever before. The 4th Armoured Brigade will be armed exclusively with Sherman tanks, thus increasing its striking power by at least 50 per cent. There is, however, one deficiency which presents a problem. There is a shortage in the Middle East of load-carrying vehicles and the Division is short of 405 3-ton lorries. I consider these should be provided before the Division can accept a mobile operational role.

Subject to vehicle deficiencies being made good, I consider that the Division will be equipped, trained, and fit to embark for an operational role by the end of the first week in October. Would you please acknowledge this cable and let me have the instructions of War Cabinet on the proposal to send the Division to Italy in October?

2 At this date Rommel commanded Army Group B, Northern Italy. Field-Marshal A. Kesselring, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, 1942–43, was at this time Commander-in-Chief Southern Italy.

The Prime Minister to General Freyberg

18 September 1943

Your telegram of 14 September. We are glad to have your report on the state of training, equipment, and condition of the Division. War Cabinet are prepared to authorise embarkation for an operational role, provided all deficiencies in lorries are made good and you are entirely satisfied in all other respects as to the full capacity of the Division to carry out its allotted task.

page 268

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

24 September 1943

As instructed, I notified the Commander-in-Chief of your consent to committing the Division subject to the conditions mentioned. I am glad to report that complete equipment and MT is now being supplied, and we are to join Eighth Army. General Montgomery has asked me to fly to Italy to discuss future plans. He proposes to use the New Zealand force as an independent minor Corps directly under his command.1 I expect to leave for Taranto on 3 October after the divisional exercise to make arrangements for a rear administrative organisation not present in the Division but necessary in a Corps. After seeing General Montgomery I shall be in a position to inform you of the composition of the New Zealand Corps and our role. I do not expect to return to Egypt before the Division leaves for Italy.

Meanwhile we are concentrating at Burg el Arab. Fifty per cent of the Division, still marching from Cairo, arrive here during the next two days. It has been obvious that the hot summer and living at Maadi have made the men soft, and this hardening process was a most necessary preparation before facing the ordeal of a winter campaign in Europe.

We are fully aware of the risk of pestilence in Europe this winter. Two pairs of boots, New Zealand winter underclothing, battle dress, leather jerkins, and bivouac shelters are being issued. Precautions against lice include mobile laundries and disinfestors, and the whole force is being inoculated against typhus. We are in the throes of collective training, activity ending on 2 October.

The present embarkation arrangements provide for personnel sailing in two flights about 6 and 13 October. Transport comprising 4600 tanks, guns, and vehicles will move in four lifts, the last leaving about 3 November. When we include reinforcements and a General Hospital, we shall have 22,000 personnel crossing the Mediterranean. I feel that it would be advisable for the New Zealand Government to raise the question of naval escort and air protection for this move in the appropriate quarter.

Health is good and all ranks are in excellent spirits.

1 The New Zealand Corps was not in fact formed until 3 Feb 1944 (see No. 314).

page 269

The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

26 September 1943

The New Zealand Government has been notified by General Freyberg of the impending movement of the 2nd New Zealand Division. He reports that the Division is joining the Eighth Army and that the conditions upon which the New Zealand Government agreed to the use of their troops—namely the making good of certain deficiencies in mechanical transport and equipment—have been complied with.

One question remains to which the New Zealand Government attach the maximum importance, that of safe transport across the Mediterranean, and in this respect I feel I can, and should, request your ever-ready personal interest and assistance. This Government's attitude on this particular question has been appreciated by yourself whenever it has been raised, and I know that you will, without further emphasis or reiteration on my part, respond to this request, as you have always done previously, by ensuring that throughout the various stages of their transfer the 22,000 men New Zealand has made available will have about them and above them the fullest naval escort and the strongest air protection.

It is a source of the greatest pride to us that our Division is to resume its association with the Eighth Army. We are confident that the men of the 2nd NZEF will again display those fighting qualities which have characterised their part in the other campaigns they have fought in the Mediterranean theatre.

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

27 September 1943

Your message of 26 September has been transmitted textually to Admiral Cunningham who will, I am sure, take all possible precautions. We have a pretty strong control now over these waters. I look forward eagerly to seeing the New Zealand Division in action in these historic scenes….1

1 A personal message has been omitted.

page 270

The Prime Minister to General Freyberg

28 September 1943

Your telegram of 24 September (No. 295).

I was very pleased to have your most satisfactory report on the equipment situation and state of training, and, in particular, to learn of your comprehensive precautionary measures for a winter campaign.

Mr. Churchill's personal assistance was requested in ensuring the fullest naval escort and the strongest air protection, and he has advised me that my message has been conveyed to Admiral Cunningham.

It will, I know, be a source of pride and satisfaction, both to the troops and to the New Zealand people, that the association of the 2nd New Zealand Division with the Eighth Army is to be resumed. On this, as on all previous occasions when our men have gone into action, it will be our constant prayer that, despite the arduous nature of the campaign, casualties will not be unduly heavy. Your able leadership and devoted care for the welfare of the men is a matter of great assurance to us….1

1 The return of the first furlough draft to the Middle East is discussed in the text omitted.

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

1 October 1943

Your telegram of 26 September (No. 296). The following message has been received from Admiral Cunningham:

Please assure Mr. Fraser that every care will be taken of our old friends the New Zealand troops on their passage through the Mediterranean. We know their value too well to leave any precaution untaken which will assure their safe arrival where they can bring their weight against the enemy. The matter is receiving my personal attention.

page 271

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

6 October 1943

I have to report that we have concluded our training and the Division is now moving to a transit camp prior to embarking for Italy. The training has been thorough and, I feel, satisfactory. When I came back from New Zealand I felt that a hot summer in Cairo was not a fitting preparation for a winter campaign on the Continent. I therefore made the training progressively severe to fit them for the obvious battles which will be the common lot of all troops that are in position to fight the Germans during the winter. We followed up the three months' intensive training with a 100-mile march from Cairo to Burg el Arab and a divisional exercise, complete with the newly-joined Armoured Brigade. I consider that the Division is now as fit as we can make it to take the field.

Our Armoured Brigade have yet to encounter enemy armour in battle and until they have, of necessity, will be a weak spot in the Division. I am, however, quite certain that they will do well. The final stage of our divisional training was the lifting of a minefield and breaking through an enemy gunline to enable us to pass through our Armoured Brigade. We were employing a technique which we ourselves developed. It involves a surprise attack at night with unregistered artillery working upon survey data. It is admittedly a difficult form of attack but has been the basis of all our past successes. To ensure that the Division is capable of carrying out this form of attack, it is essential that it should be carried out under active service conditions, which involves close support with live ammunition. This we did on the night of 29–30 September. While I am satisfied with the result, I have to report that during this attack we had eight casualties in the Maori Battalion—three killed and five wounded. This was due to a gun shooting short during one part of the barrage. We had a similar case during training in September 1941, prior to the advance to Tobruk. The case has been investigated in full.

For the next two days I am at Maadi on New Zealand Expeditionary Force business trying to forsee the changes that may be necessary here during the ensuing year as a result of the move of the Division so far from our Base. I feel that when we leave for Italy we shall not return. The question of what organisation is necessary behind us here in Egypt has to be considered. I am of the opinion that we should start to cut down our commitments in Egypt to a minimum, retaining only that which is necessary for the Base. We shall have page 272 to have an Advanced Base, possibly at Taranto, and this will be stepped up behind us as we move towards France. We may also have Advanced Headquarters 2nd NZEF there, as all questions of administrative policy become difficult when so far from our Base. It will be necessary now to cut down all our commitments in Egypt. I have talked this over with my staff in the last few days and am having the problem examined in detail.

With regard to general future policy, we appear destined to fight with the Eighth Army in the immediate future. We must expect heavy fighting and be prepared to face the resulting casualties. At a later date a second front may be started, but it is uncertain whether or not they will want the New Zealand Division to take part in it. I will, as in the past, keep you in touch.

I leave here by air for Foggia on the 7th with part of my Divisional staff, the remainder following on the 8th. We shall be staying there with General Montgomery, and I shall take the first opportunity I have to send you more detailed information after my talk with him.

The health of the men is good; they are fit and in excellent spirits. As you can realise, a move into a new theatre of war is an anxious moment. I feel that all that could be done has been done.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

11 October 1943

I am glad to report that the 6th Brigade Group and Divisional Headquarters have arrived safely at Taranto.1 The transports were protected by a strong escort of six destroyers and air cover. The men enjoyed an easy crossing and arrived in excellent condition. As surprise is such a great factor in the success of a force such as ours, special measures have been taken to keep the move secret here and in Egypt. All New Zealand identification signs have been removed and the destination is only divulged to the men after embarkation. The troops on arrival here went straight to the bivouac area on relatively high ground west of the town and have had fine weather to set up camp in the olive groves. The malaria season is now on the wane, but full precautions are being taken.

The Divisional staff preceded the Division by air, and I have just returned from visiting General Montgomery in the forward area. All of the Eighth Army were most cordial in their welcome and obviously glad we shall be with them again.

page 273

We shall not be concentrated with all our equipment until 15 November at the earliest. General Montgomery's present intention is to use us as a hard-hitting, fast-moving force directly under his command. We would operate as the New Zealand Corps and have under command an additional British armoured brigade, a medium artillery regiment, and a British cavalry regiment. We would be a powerful force, as your Division by itself is probably the best-equipped division in existence, equal in fighting power at present strengths to two German divisions.

It seems clear that the implementing of the policy settled at Ottawa for the future conduct of the war will have repercussions here. It is evident that Allied strategy is to open another front in Western Europe in addition to the Russian and Italian fronts. The selection of battle-experienced leaders and formations from the Middle East theatre to form the hard core of the new front is in progress. Many rumours as to the command are current and the names of Marshall, Alexander, and Montgomery are mentioned. Only one of the last two would go. It is also known that some battle-worthy divisions are going to England, but there is no suggestion here that the New Zealand Division might be one of them.

I shall cable reporting the arrival of the troops as they reach Italy and will keep you informed as the situation develops.

1 The first personnel flight arrived at Taranto on 9 Oct.

The Prime Minister to General Freyberg

12 October 1943

Your most secret message of 6 October (No. 300) received. We were very pleased to receive your report on the state of training of the Division and its general fitness for the forthcoming operations, in which we are certain that under your able leadership it will give a good account of itself. We note that the question of the Base organisation is now under examination and will be interested to know later what arrangements you finally propose should be made.1

Our warmest good wishes go to you, and to all under your command, in the forthcoming move and the operations which lie ahead of you.

1 A telegram from General Freyberg on 18 Oct, which contained details of the revised Base organisation, has not been reproduced. Briefly, an Advanced Base was established in the Bari area while Rear Base remained at Maadi. General Freyberg's proposals were approved by War Cabinet. In January Headquarters 2nd NZEF also moved to the Bari area from Egypt.

page 274

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

27 October 1943

Today, on the anniversary of the Battle of Alamein, I have to report that after two and a half years the Division has returned to the Continent of Europe. We have rejoined Eighth Army in Italy and have received a very warm welcome from General Montgomery and his staff.

The journey across the Mediterranean, now dominated by the Allied navies and air forces, was uneventful, and a smooth voyage in ideal conditions was greatly enjoyed by all ranks. We are now bivouacked in pleasant surroundings amongst olive groves and stone-walled fields. The men are in excellent health and very fit. Footballs have appeared. Everyone is feeling the benefit of the more bracing climate and enjoying seeing new country.

Arrangements for Advanced Base are well in hand. We have now taken over a new modern building and a small restaurant in the city1 as a New Zealand Forces Club for men on leave. A management team from Cairo has arrived and supplies of New Zealand goods are on the way.

Great advances have been made since Alamein, and now that the final phase of the war against Germany appears to be in sight there is a feeling of exhilaration in the air. After their rest in Egypt and a period of training, all ranks are ready for the next role, whatever it may be.2

2 At General Alexander's request, publication of this message was delayed for some weeks for operational reasons. The New Zealand Government was anxious that the news of the arrival of the Division in Italy should first be announced in New Zealand before being broadcast from the BBC or published in the overseas press, and also that the initial announcement should not be to the effect that the Division was taking part in an engagement. Several telegrams dealing with the release of this announcement were exchanged but have not been reproduced. A statement by the Deputy Prime Minister (Hon. W. Nash) that the Division had rejoined Eighth Army in Italy was published in the New Zealand press on 23 Nov.