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Problems of 2 NZEF

CHAPTER 6 — The Last Eighteen Months

page 79

The Last Eighteen Months

DURING July and August 1944 the Division moved forwards steadily towards Florence. The GOC accompanied by OICA interviewed General Alexander during the latter part of July in order to get some idea about the future moves of the Division, and indeed of the Eighth Army in general; for on this depended certain moves in the 2 NZEF line of communication. It appeared that the main line of advance of the Eighth Army would be along the northeast coast of Italy and not up the centre, so that our own moves would have to follow suit. Headquarters 2 NZEF must in any case move soon, as we were fast getting out of touch with the Division. In further discussions with the staff at GHQ our attention was directed to Ancona, which, it appeared, was to be developed as a main advanced port, and through which, in common with the rest of the Eighth Army, our own Division would be maintained. It seemed that Headquarters could not do better than move to some place near this port. A first reconnaissance of the area was made almost at once, in fact as soon as Ancona was captured.

In August the Division made another of its secret moves, this time from Florence across to the north-east coast just in advance of Ancona. Our previous experience in January 1944 stopped the secrecy being compromised this time by undisguised vehicles or personnel coming forward from Headquarters or Advanced Base. Headquarters made a further reconnaissance of the area in early August, and was attracted to a small town called Senigallia, which appeared suitable for a headquarters; but the first reconnaissance was punctuated by some enemy shelling, so that we were a little premature. However, we did get in early this time, and staked out our claim beyond dispute.

Our last non-divisional engineer unit, the Forestry Company, went back to New Zealand complete during August, as practically all its personnel were due for relief.

The graves authorities were at this time looking ahead into the period following the end of the war, when concentration of graves would proceed vigorously. They asked us if we would be prepared to let our units continue to work in the post-war period. This was a question for the Government to decide, and it was referred to New Zealand at once. No decision was given at the time, nor indeed until the following year; but it may be said now that New Zealand page 80 units did continue to work in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the interior of Europe for nearly two years after the war.

In the middle of September, as has been mentioned in Chapter 5, we were at last told that the Division was to continue serving in the Italian theatre. While there had been little doubt about this for some time, it was a relief to know officially. Planning could now continue with some assurance.

Senigallia was duly chosen as the new location for HQ 2 NZEF and was occupied during September. It was a pleasant spot, a small port and seaside resort combined. The great advantage at the moment was that the Division was only a few miles away on the main road north, the front line being sufficiently close for laagers of tank units in reserve to park in the roads round Headquarters. One of our hospitals moved to the same township about the same time; and in due course other line-of-communication units followed suit– ordnance depot, reinforcement transit unit, and so on – until the area became almost an advanced ‘Advanced Base’. The distance from the real Advanced Base was now so great that we had to agree that our reinforcements and stores should travel from Bari to Ancona by sea. From Ancona onwards we took over in our own MT.

The proximity of the Division, and the presence of New Zealand women, both in the hospital and at Headquarters, combined to produce an epidemic of so-called sightseeing expeditions, in which young officers in jeeps took their girl friends away up the road into the divisional area, even into shelled areas. The excitement shown by both parties was perhaps understandable; but all the same the risks were a bit too great, and we had to issue instructions laying down a limit to this new forward advance. Probably no one took any notice of the instruction; but luckily the Division soon became active again and drew farther away, and the cruises stopped.

On 3 September the GOC was injured in an air crash and entered the hospital at Senigallia, being one of its first patients. Another officer took over command of the Division, but the GOC continued in command of the Expeditionary Force.

Our line of clubs was added to during August and September when we took over a large hotel in Florence. This made four clubs – Cairo, Bari, Rome, and Florence – and it was becoming apparent that some form of central control would soon be necessary.

During the year the 11th, 12th, and 13th Reinforcement drafts had arrived, the last-named in November; but it was doubtful if these drafts, together with later ones foreshadowed in New Zealand, would be enough to keep the Division up to its present establishment. It had become most desirable that long-service personnel should be released forthwith and returned to New Zealand without page 81 further delay. The objective was to release all men with three years' service overseas, i.e, up to and including the 6th Reinforcements. During October the GOC, now recovered from his injury, reviewed the state of the Division in detail, and came to the conclusion that certain units could be disbanded without detriment to fighting power, and that others could safely be reduced in size. As an example of the first class, the fact that the German Air Force had been driven out of the skies meant that the Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment could be dispensed with; as an example of the second, the small number of casualties meant that field ambulances could be reduced in size. The result was to reduce the establishment of the Division by some 2500 all ranks, a considerable saving in manpower. The Government welcomed these reductions, as the most recent review of manpower in New Zealand indicated that in the future only equivalent numbers for men sent back under the replacement scheme could be supplied. There would be very few, if any, reinforcements to take the place of casualties.

The scheme of reductions in establishment, combined with the relief of long-service personnel, formed the subject of cables between New Zealand and the GOC over a period of two months. From the point of view of 2 NZEF there were one or two complications. First, it was always difficult to withdraw men from the Division while it was in action. Second, it appeared likely that in the future we would have to embody future drafts from New Zealand into the Division as one body at some one fixed date, which again meant when the Division was out of the line. Carried back to the New Zealand end, the scheme meant that future drafts would have to leave there on certain fixed dates if the changeover was to be effected smoothly. The GOC arranged with GHQ and Eighth Army Headquarters for the Division to be withdrawn from action at two periods during the approaching winter, each of some weeks duration, in the hope that drafts from New Zealand would be available in those periods to be embodied. Long-service men could then be released at the same time. He informed New Zealand of this programme, and obtained their concurrence, including agreement with the dates suggested for the drafts to leave New Zealand. It was thus distressing that before long we were told that sailings from New Zealand would be delayed. Not for the first time an extra effort had to be made within 2 NZEF to keep faith with men who had been promised relief at a certain date. Sailings were in fact later than had been initially promised for both the 14th and 15th Reinforcements; and the reorganisation of the Division at the end of 1944 and beginning of 1945 was all the more difficult. For once the GOC had to voice some distress in his cables, and said (inter alia), ‘the result of delaying the departure of the 14th page 82 Reinforcements will have most adverse repercussions upon the smooth working of the replacement scheme’.

It should be made clear that the fault did not lie with the New Zealand Government, which was doing its best, but was due to the usual shortage of shipping. In the end the changeover took place without much upheaval, for by this time the standard of training and of staff-work throughout the force was high enough to cushion a large degree of complication.

In November 1944 the British scheme cascade referred to on page 55 was at last abandoned, 6 NZ Division ceased to exist, and Maadi Camp went back to its original name, together with all the depots, etc., that had been masquerading under fancy titles. The scheme had justified itself, which was the consolation for the occasional irritations it had caused.

Towards the end of October the Division came out of the line for the first of its breaks, and went back into a rest area in some pleasant hilly country south of Ancona. For the first time in the war, HQ 2 NZEF was really in front of the Division, which was the excuse for some harmless fun. Periodically Headquarters used to advise the Division that the Senigallia front was standing firm, and that the Division was in no danger.

A ‘General Manager’ was appointed during November for the dual role of managing the clubs and superintending the distribution of canteen stores. For during the war, despite our 1941 decision to keep NAAFI as our main source of canteen supplies, the Expeditionary Force had imported supplies of its own from New Zealand more and more, using NAAFI only to fill in the gaps. The control of these canteen stores, after a period when the YMCA was mixed up in them, had been transferred, still somewhat confusingly, to the clubs. Like Topsy it had just grown that way and now badly needed sorting out. The running of the clubs was a big business in itself, and could with justice be looked on as quite separate from the distribution of canteen stores.

The troops had now been long enough in Italy for one of the less attractive results of their sojourn to become apparent, to wit black-market activities. The situation was first brought to our notice when members of returning drafts produced to the pay staff large rolls of Italian lire, with the request that these should be credited to their pay accounts, by which means they hoped to obtain the advantage of an artificial exchange rate between the lira and the pound, and also the benefit of the current appreciation of the pound sterling compared with the pound New Zealand. During the war it had always been permissible for troops to ask the pay office to transfer credits in their pay accounts back to New Zealand; but the same claim could not be made for money which did not come from page 83 pay. On inquiries it became clear that a great deal of this money, if not all, had come from the sale to Italians of such things as blankets and boots, which commanded a price on the black market infinitely greater than the price demanded by the army for articles of lost kit. To sell the goods to the Italians and then pay the army the regulation price was a simple way of making money. However, the pay staff refused to handle the excess lire, and men had to dispose of it in other ways, of which buying jewellery was one.

In November and December the late commander of 3 NZ Division in the Pacific visited 2 NZEF, partly to discuss the absorption into 2 NZEF of the officers from 3 Division, and partly to talk over the situation that might arise if New Zealand forces had to be used against Japan at the end of the war in Europe.

In December 1944 2 NZEF formed its own officer cadet training unit (OCTU) for the first time in the war. Since the abortive attempt to start it in 1940, mentioned on page 29, we had made use of British facilities in the Middle East, in India, and in the United Kingdom; but even at this late stage it was easier to run our own. A small unit was set up not far from Advanced Base in southern Italy.

It has been mentioned above that during the year (1944) we had formed small units to receive escaped or recaptured prisoners of war, and to conduct their interrogation. In addition, we had provided a small staff to help the British body which was investigating war crimes; and now at the end of the year we provided our own section of the staff for the unit, known as the Allied Screening Commission, which was investigating and adjudicating on claims from Greeks and Italians for helping Allied soldiers who had escaped or had avoided capture. Greece had not long since been reoccupied by the Allies. In this country, particularly, the inhabitants had been helpful to New Zealanders and deserved reward.

Headquarters 2 NZEF finished the year in a blaze of glory by becoming operational for a few weeks. There were signs that enemy parties were coming down the coast in boats at night and then landing and damaging railways and roads. Senigallia was right on the coast and open to damage. So Headquarters had to organise itself into guards, parties to repel boarders and so on, and moreover was given control over a strip of coastline which included other units, among them United States installations. Nothing happened; but it was a change.

The winter of 1944–45 was a quiet one, but the weather was colder than twelve months previously.

It was mentioned on page 80 that we were using the sea route from Bari to Ancona for our reinforcements. We found, however, that sea transport for the mails was not so satisfactory, and that page 84 somehow or other there were delays in handling them; so during the winter we started our own MT postal service from Bari northwards. The number of vehicles employed was small, but the effect on the regularity of the mails was marked. We kept this service going until at a later date we made special arrangements to send the mail from Bari by air.

On a previous occasion, in 1941, New Zealand had sent us a small consignment of motor vehicles, to be additional to those issued to us from British depots. On another occasion New Zealand sent a consignment of MT, but for the use of Middle East Forces generally, and not specifically for 2 NZEF. In January 1945 we asked Army Headquarters to send us as many cars as it could spare. Luckily, the degree of demobilisation within New Zealand enabled Army Headquarters to help us by sending some dozens of cars.

During the winter watch was kept on the size of Maadi and Advanced Base, and from time to time adjustments were made towards reductions in personnel. Our main training area remained at Maadi, where, among other facilities, a mock Italian village had been built so that troops could be trained in village fighting.

Our selection of code-names for returning drafts caused some confusion about this time, when the name we were using, Tongariro, happened to be that of an existing vessel engaged in journeying to and from New Zealand. We had a mild protest from General Headquarters, Middle East, asking us to be careful in the future not to use names of vessels. Thereafter we used to inquire from the Military Liaison Officer in London if there was a vessel bearing the name we proposed to use. He in turn checked with Lloyd's register.

In the early months of 1945 we had rather a spate of important visitors – the Hon. Mr Sullivan, Minister of Supply in New Zealand, Mr Jordan, High Commissioner in London, Sir Patrick Duff, High Commissioner designate for the United Kingdom in New Zealand, and Messrs Holland and Doidge, leader and member of the Opposition. The last-named two visitors arrived in time to see the opening day of what turned out to be the last offensive – 9 April 1945.

Up to the start of this offensive Divisional Headquarters had never been more than three hours' drive from HQ 2 NZEF since the move of the latter to Senigallia in September – a great help to discussions with the GOC and to the administration of the force. On the other hand, it was a long journey to Advanced Base, a full day by car, with no convenient point at which to break the journey. To reach Egypt normally took two days, as the air service started from Bari, but on one or two occasions we were able to make special arrangements to travel by air from an airfield near Headquarters and then reached Egypt in one day.

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Prior to the last offensive the Division had come out of the line for the second time. It went back to the same area as before, again for a few weeks.

The final advance of the Division from near Faenza in early April to Trieste in early May was speedy, and maintenance from the rear became difficult. Losses were low, however, and the demands of the Division for men or for medical attention were low also. Even at this late stage, however, Headquarters tried to keep contact in such things as were its concern, and set up further intermediate links in the line of communication – a reinforcement staging post, an advanced detachment of a hospital, and so on.

During the Division's rush past Venice, the GOC sent in a detachment of troops under a senior officer to make sure that New Zealand got the use of the Danieli Hotel, the best in Venice, as a club. The detachment went to ground there and was in Venice a day or so before the official occupation. In the end, after making a gesture of offering to give up the place and accept an official allocation, the GOC was allowed to keep the hotel. There we established the last of our long succession of clubs. Every effort was made in the weeks that followed to ensure that everyone in the Division had leave in Venice for a few days. It was a fine finish to our welfare organisation.

In Appendix II is the Order of Battle of 2 NZEF as at 9 May 1945, immediately after the end of the war in Europe. The most advanced unit was beyond Trieste, the rearmost one in Suez. Between these two points was a chain of New Zealand units, unbroken except for the sea gap between Alexandria and Bari. From the moment men came ashore at Suez they were handled by New Zealand units until they reached the Division. Had the war continued for another year or so, we might even have had our own vessel sailing across the Mediterranean! As it was the New Zealand hospital ships came all the way to Italy.

The end of the European war meant that our Education and Rehabilitation Service went into top gear. It was formed as a separate corps in order to emphasise its importance and to give its personnel some esprit de corps; and once it had called up the previously earmarked staff, it set to work to show results and to provide education up to the standard of New Zealand University degrees. Once the flurry with Yugoslavia over Trieste was finished, and there was no chance of further operations, ERS became of the first importance.

A few hours before the last offensive commenced, the GOC received from New Zealand a cable asking his views on certain proposals, then before the Government, for carrying on the war against Japan. From then until the middle of August the exchange page 86 of cables continued. The Government had every intention of supplying a force for the next stage of the war, but thought that the manpower situation would not permit of the force being above a certain size, too small in numbers to reach the size of the existing Division and its rear establishments. The theme underlying the exchange of cables was how best to organise the limited numbers, a subject on which the GOC held strong views. Naturally, the cables are now only of academic interest.

As soon as the war had ended, steps had been taken both by the Government and by 2 NZEF to arrange the return to New Zealand of the next group of men due for relief, comprising the balance of the 6th and the whole of the 7th Reinforcements. They were released from 2 NZEF in the course of the next two months. Thereafter the return of men to New Zealand became part of the general scheme of repatriation.

Until the middle of July the Division remained in the Trieste area. It was then released from all operational duties and withdrew to an area in central Italy around Lake Trasimene, where it spent a further two months awaiting the determination of its fate. Until the surrender of Japan, there was the chance that part at least of the Division would be taken to form the backbone of the new force, and calculations of numbers available in various categories were sent out to New Zealand. There was even the possibility that the whole force might move to Egypt and reorganise there. Luckily it all came to nothing on the surrender of Japan, leaving only one query – how speedy would the repatriation be? The broad outlines of the scheme for repatriation involved sending back at once the drafts which were next in order of service, giving leave to England for the drafts coming next but one in the order, and assembling an occupation force for Japan from the single members of the last three reinforcement drafts, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Reinforcements. All the cables to settle this took some time, and it was not until mid-September, for instance, that the leave scheme to England was started.

While, strictly speaking, it had nothing to do with 2 NZEF, it must be said that the firm decision of the New Zealand Government not to allow any troops to take part in occupation duties in Europe created a slight feeling of shame in the force, at least among those who had dealings with British headquarters; for it was so clear that while we were all packing up and gleefully going home, many tens of thousands of British troops would be staying on for months and even years. It seemed a pity that after contributing so nobly to the war effort, we should just fail to clinch it in the immediate post-war period. However, this was a matter for the Government, and not for us.

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During these months after the end of the war in Europe Headquarters was involved in a number of small administrative matters – interrogation and repatriation of prisoners of war, selection of personnel to serve under the Colonial Office, preliminary handing in of gear, collecting wives from all over the Eastern Mediterranean, and trying to evolve some system out of the flood of applications to go to England, this last disclosing a remarkable capacity among New Zealanders for producing plausible reasons. The number of applications for early return to New Zealand for compassionate reasons sky-rocketed, but luckily by that time we had a well-tried system of dealing with them. There was an undoubted falling off in the general discipline of the force, combined with an amount of long-distance sightseeing (‘swanning’) that was truly amazing, even making full allowance for the initiative of the New Zealander.

The leave scheme to England was a triumph of organisation, as it involved sending men by relays of MT all the way from Italy to the Channel coast of France, and enlisting the help of both British and United States camps and depots to form staging posts en route. The arrangements reflected the greatest credit on the staff of Divisional Headquarters who were entrusted with the task. A rule was made at the outset that men could not delay their repatriation to take advantage of the scheme, which meant that those next for repatriation were excluded, and only those whose repatriation would not take place for some two months or more could be considered.

In order to get better accommodation for the coming winter months, and to facilitate the organisation of the force to go to Japan (called ‘Jayforce’), the Division moved into an area in and around Florence and Siena, settling down there in early October. At the same time the wheel turned full circle, and HQ 2 NZEF moved from Senigallia to Florence and combined with Divisional Headquarters to make one headquarters again, as had been the position away back in 1940. Control of repatriation and of the other problems still confronting us was the task of HQ 2 NZEF alone; but Divisional Headquarters remained as a unit, and one staff served for both.

The club in Venice was kept open for as long as the Division was in the Lake Trasimene area; but when we concentrated in Florence it was closed, as indeed were all the units to the north and east of the new divisional area. We were gradually drawing in our horns and concentrating the remains of 2 NZEF.

The position regarding some of our equipment was not clear. Some was ‘lend-lease’ and had to be handed in to British depots for subsequent return to United States depots. Some was in excess of the normal equipment for a British division and belonged to the British authorities. Some was in effect our initial equipment, page 88 brought up to date during the war, and paid for by the New Zealand Government. It was definitely our own. 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 costs 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.

Black-market activities became a real menace, and indeed a disgrace. It has already been recorded that men were selling their personal equipment to Italians and, when charged with being deficient, were handing to the army the low price given in the vocabulary of stores. Now they saw masses of unwanted equipment being handed in to depots, its future disposal being uncertain. To steal and sell items of this equipment, such as tyres or even whole vehicles, seemed to some men to be quite harmless, as the equipment was in such quantities that most of it must be superfluous to any military needs. In fact, they did not regard it as stealing at all. Putting guards on the dumps was useless, as in some instances the guards themselves quickly became involved in the racket; and sad to say, the only reliable protection in the last few months was that provided by German prisoners of war. In Maadi Camp also we used Germans to protect the camp against large-scale pilfering by Egyptians. There were plenty of prisoners who were only too pleased to be given something to do, and progressively they took over a lot of the domestic fatigues in both Maadi and Advanced Base.

All we could do about the black-market activities was to refuse to handle the large sums of money that so many troops accumulated. Altogether it was a regrettable state of affairs.

In October the New Zealand Government was asked by the United Kingdom Government to agree to a reduction in the ration, partly because of the reduction in effort now expected from the troops, and partly because of the world shortage of food. The Government referred the request to us, showing some concern about it; but we were able to assure it that the reduction could be accepted and that there would be no reactions. The reasons were explained page 89 to the troops, the memorandum including a comparative statement of their reduced ration as compared with the still lower ration of civilians in England. There was no trouble.

Between the leave scheme to England, the assembly of Jayforce, plentiful sporting activities, and the work of the ERS, the weeks passed not so badly, the only regrettable feature being a marked increase in the VD rate, a price we had to pay for release from tension combined with being billeted in large towns. Progressively units and depots throughout our long lines of communication were disbanded. Advanced Base was kept busy right up to the last, as drafts were now embarked at Taranto direct into vessels for home and had to be assembled nearly three weeks before vessels sailed. Sometimes there was considerable congestion in Advanced Base – when, for instance, ships were delayed beyond the expected dates – but the prospect of soon being on a homeward-bound vessel helped to soften any hardships.

On 22 November the GOC gave up his appointment, exactly six years to the day since he had been appointed in London. It was the end of an era. His successor had the easy task of getting what was left of the force back to New Zealand.

But perhaps not so easy! Towards the end of December we were very nearly caught. All our plans had been directed towards keeping men occupied for long periods while sufficient shipping could be found. We had never envisaged a situation where ships came so fast that we would have trouble in filling them; but that is what happened. We had to take energetic steps to collect men in numbers enough to fill the vessels, including cutting short the leave to England of many thousands. Men were assembled in Advanced Base over Christmas and New Year in such density that the camp was holding two or three times its normal numbers, and conditions were most unpleasant. By early January the bulk of 2 NZEF had vanished, and only a comparative handful was left. We owe a great debt to the British Government for providing shipping so speedily.

Following on this sweeping reduction in numbers, the remainder of the force in Italy was withdrawn to the area Bari-Taranto, leaving the newly-formed Jayforce in camp in Florence By mutual arrangement with the commander of Jayforce, the time had come when it was to stand on its own feet, so to speak, and cease to be a part of the old 2 NZEF. By that time it was fully self-contained, with its own small hospital, postal unit and so on. It embarked from Naples in February 1946.

The two graves units still remained as formed bodies, the Government having agreed that they should continue serving into the post-war period. Our few remaining medical units kept some page 90 cohesion until the last, as their services were called on until repatriation was practically complete. Otherwise, of the old 2 NZEF no formed units remained by the beginning of February 1946. Troops awaiting repatriation could then be numbered in hundreds, and their control passed to a small headquarters specially formed and headed by a senior officer located at GHQ near Naples. With the exception of rear parties, repatriation was complete by the end of February in both Italy and Egypt.

Towards the end of February, at a ceremony held in one of the midans (squares) in Maadi township, there was unveiled an obelisk bearing this inscription:

This pylon records the fact that between 1940 and 1946 76,000 members of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force trained in Maadi Camp; and expresses the gratitude of the Force for the kindness and hospitality received during those years from the residents of Maadi.

The ground had been given us 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. The day it was unveiled was exactly six years from the day the Maadi Tent had been opened to cater for the welfare of the newly-arrived New Zealand troops.

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