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Prisoners of War


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IN the First World War New Zealand troops fought in Egypt, on Gallipoli, in Palestine, in France and Belgium. Twenty-five men were taken prisoner on Gallipoli, 12 in Egypt, 464 in France or Belgium. None of the few hundred New Zealanders who served in the Royal Navy and in the Royal Flying Corps became prisoners.

In the Second World War our troops fought in Greece, Crete, Egypt, Libya, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, Tunisia, Italy and in the Pacific, and 8348 were taken prisoner. Our sailors served in the Royal Navy, the Royal New Zealand Navy, and the Merchant Navy in every sea and 194 became prisoners or were interned. Our airmen, in the Royal Air Force and the Royal New Zealand Air Force, fought in every one of the great campaigns waged by the Western Allies; 575 were captured and 23 interned.

The reasons for this remarkable difference are clear and should be put on record.

Between 1914 and 1918 our troops were involved in no disasters. The attack on Gallipoli failed, and in a skilful, unmolested evacuation no one was left behind. There had been two periods of very heavy fighting, the fortnight after the landing and the final effort in August 1915. In each we had been on the offensive, when few prisoners are ever lost. There were no tanks to overrun the units which devotedly and at great cost beat off the great Turkish counter-attacks at Chunuk Bair. In France the New Zealand Division was almost always employed in attacks and in holding the line. A few prisoners were lost in trench raids, and a company of the Entrenching Battalion ran out of ammunition and was captured in the German offensive in April 1918. The British Official History remarks that this was the biggest loss of New Zealand prisoners during the war.

Far different were the circumstances in the Second World War. The 2nd Division shared in one disaster after another, from April 1941 until the tide was checked at Alam Halfa in September 1942 and turned at Alamein on 23 October of that year.

In Greece 1856 prisoners were lost, 242 of them wounded. Nearly half were from the reinforcement companies stranded at Kalamata. The others were lost through transport breaking down page vi or being destroyed, through missing their way, or being left behind after reaching the beaches. For a month after the evacuation the Aegean was dotted with parties escaping in caiques and rowing boats, to Turkey or out of the frying pan into Crete. Hundreds of men wandered in Greece for months; some eventually reached Egypt, some perished; the remainder were captured in ones and twos.

In Crete 2180 men were taken prisoner, 488 of them wounded. Only a few score were captured in the fighting; the others reached Sfakia and were left there under orders to capitulate when it was decided to attempt no more evacuations. Several hundred broke away into the hills. Two hundred of these reached Egypt; the remainder were picked up during the next two years.

In the Libyan battles of November–December 1941, 2042 were captured, including 206 wounded. Most of the others were taken when 6 Brigade and 20 Battalion of 4 Brigade were overrun by tanks. We had few and weak anti-tank guns and our tanks were outnumbered and outmatched. The pattern was always the same. It was necessary to hold the positions, captured with the bayonet in costly night attacks, on Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. It was impossible to dig deeper than two feet. The Germans acted deliberately, concentrating forty to fifty tanks, followed by one or two battalions of infantry, on a chosen sector. They advanced slowly, lashing the ground with continuous fire. Our few anti-tank gunners, with their little two-pounders, fought till struck down. There was no instance of a gun being abandoned. Meantime the infantry fired steadily with Brens and rifles and mortars, forcing the tanks to remain closed down and keeping the enemy infantry at a distance. But when the anti-tank guns were knocked out the panzers closed. Invulnerable to small-arms fire or mortars, they moved right on to our positions and the only choices were to surrender or die uselessly. Most of these attacks lasted from one to two hours, but the result was always the same. I went over these stark battlefields a few months later and saw the cartridge cases round every fire pit, the piles of mortar shells, the wrecked guns, and the rifles marking the shallow graves. Often the Germans had marked the graves with rough crosses. It was a sombre and unforgettable scene.

During the same campaign 5 Brigade Headquarters and some attached troops at Sidi Azeiz were attacked by 40 tanks, with guns and infantry, and after the seven guns had been knocked out, Brigadier Hargest and seven hundred men were overrun in the same way and had to surrender.

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The men captured on these disastrous days had fought splendidly in attack after attack and had lost half their numbers before the end. The morale of the Division was never higher than at this time, yet it was the hard fate of these soldiers to be taken helplessly.

Seven months later, during the most desperate and dangerous months of the war, the Division made its great move from Syria and again plunged into a series of disasters. Almost surrounded at Minqar Qaim, it broke through the encircling forces, leaving two hundred men whose trucks had been wrecked to be taken helplessly in the morning. A fortnight later 4 and 5 Brigades, in a magnificent night attack, carried the Ruweisat Ridge, only to meet disaster in exactly the same way as at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. Fourth Brigade, down to half strength through casualties, was overrun by the tank and infantry counter-attack that had become the accustomed sequel to the unsupported but invariably successful night attacks which our infantry in those days had to deliver. In 5 Brigade 22 Battalion, moving in support and actually passing through a German armoured division, was overrun at dawn by the tanks of the same division attacking from the rear. A week later 6 Brigade, having taken its objective by an equally splendid feat of arms, met the same evil fate. That was the last of the disasters. In these three actions 1819 men were taken prisoner, 231 of them wounded.

It is impossible to blame the men who surrendered on these ghastly occasions. I know of no case in which further resistance was possible. The blows could not be evaded and the stage was reached in each case when they could no longer be resisted. What one man said in a report written after he had escaped—‘I had thought of death or wounds, but never of surrender, yet there it was’—could have been said by all.

During the remainder of the war very few prisoners were lost: 178, including 30 wounded, in Africa, 225, including 35 wounded, in Italy; all the result of the minor misfortunes that occur in the most victorious campaigns.

Our airmen prisoners were those shot down over enemy territory. A few evaded capture who came down in occupied countries and had the good fortune to find friends quickly. For most there was no chance of escape.

Most of the sailors were captured with their ships, merchant ships—no warship surrendered. For them also there was no alternative, unless useless suicide is an alternative.

So it came about that over nine thousand New Zealanders spent years of their lives as inmates of enemy prison camps. The great page viii majority of these men were volunteers; it was they and their contemporaries who died or were wounded or, in a few cases, escaped scatheless, who bore the brunt of the years of disaster, and in so doing gained time for the raising of the armies and air fleets of the victorious years. Among them were very many who, with better fortune, would have attained high rank.

As prisoners they endured years of uncertainty, privation and frustration. They unremittingly continued the struggle in every way that courage, pride, and ingenuity could suggest. Some escaped in almost incredible exploits, others continuously strove to escape or unselfishly helped those better equipped. In every camp they bore up against adversity, defied and deceived their guards, maintained discipline, soldierly spirit and pride of race. Only a very few failed.

I saw those who came out of Germany after the war ended. They were thin and strained, but they carried themselves as soldiers and as men who knew that they had acquitted themselves as men in a long and bitter ordeal. I was proud that I had served with them in the hard years.

This volume relates their experience as prisoners, and in doing so records an honourable chapter in New Zealand's history.

H. K. Kippenberger


New Zealand War Histories