By Brigadier M. C. Fairbrother, CBE, DSO, ED, Editor-in-Chief, New Zealand War Histories
THE publication of this volume concludes the record of New Zealand’s military operations in Italy and her participation in the Second World War.
Thus ended, in Churchill’s words, this ‘great contention’. It was not, as with the First World War, a sudden ending, leaving a situation for the troops in which little else remained but to return home and resume their interrupted lives. For months after victory was won in Europe a further task loomed ahead. The diversion of forces from the European theatre to the Pacific for the defeat of Japan and the mode of their employment became a priority for politician and soldier alike. That the war in the Pacific ended without the need for New Zealand to again deploy her forces there was without doubt the greatest blessing, for the strain on manpower had been severe.
New Zealand in peacetime had displayed no warlike propensities, and her armed forces had been neglected. But twice within 30 years she had provided military forces among the most effective in the world. In the muddy anonymity of the Western Front in 1916–18 this was not always easy to perceive and few but the experts became aware of it – those with access to situation maps, perhaps, or who could discern from enemy dispositions the respect the Germans had for their New Zealand opponents. But in the Mediterranean theatre in 1941–42, the whole world could see. More than once, as General Freyberg recorded, the 2nd New Zealand Division ‘stood athwart the path of history’. The recurrent pressures from Britain and America to keep the Division in that theatre, when it was plainly in New Zealand’s interest that her men should be committed against the Japanese, testify to the high esteem in which the New Zealanders were held as fighting men. Similar tributes, too, have been paid to New Zealanders serving with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.
What then gave rise to this effectiveness. First, New Zealanders were mentally and physically well adapted for military life, once committed to it for a just cause. Most of them, even the town
dwellers, enjoyed a good deal of country life and open-air living. They were well nourished, sturdy in physique, energetic and capable of great endurance. They were adaptable, resourceful and mentally alert. In these respects they compared favourably with the soldiers from industrial Europe, many of whom had been subjected in civil life to poor conditions and a deadening routine of work.
Then too, there were not the social distinctions in the New Zealand forces that were to be found in the forces of older countries. The more senior leaders, it is true, were mostly of good education and thoughtful background. But as the war progressed officers were selected from among those who had shown themselves to be tough and steadfast in battle and to have the capacity for leadership. No account was taken of social status. Once commissioned, if they survived the dangerous subaltern stage and later, their progress depended on results. The opportunity for promotion regardless of social or economic factors had a good deal to do with the effectiveness of the New Zealand soldiers.
Recruitment for infantry battalions and companies had a regional basis and their members therefore did not come together as strangers. In most companies officers, NCOs and men alike generally came from the same district, had attended the same schools, travelled in the same trains and lived more or less to the same standards. They were, in a sense, from the same family and shared a determination not to let that family down – or any member of it. Similarly the Division as a whole matched the country as a whole, reflecting its regional variations and also its national characteristics and its strong sense of solidarity. Even many expatriates, when the war came, felt impelled to join the New Zealand forces in England or to make their way back to New Zealand to join. The ‘family atmosphere’ of the 2nd NZEF was one of its outstanding features.
One popular branch of this family was the Maori Battalion, serving as a combatant unit as distinct from the Maori Pioneer Battalion of the First World War. The Maoris were cheerful, light-hearted, willing and full of zest. But they were stern warriors and seldom failed to gain their objectives in an attack. Out of action some of them were a trial at times to the authorities. But on the battlefield at many a crucial point they did great service.
Almost all the New Zealanders overseas served in fighting ships or as aircrew, or in combatant formations in the army. Here they often displayed a nonchalance towards parade ground ceremony, and on leave many of them were defiant of any sort of authority. But on the battlefield their brand of discipline showed to good effect. The officers and NCOs proved themselves capable and worthy of respect, and
intelligent initiative was not lacking in the men. The spirit and skill which brought success at Sidi Rezegh, El Alamein, Medenine and at Tebaga Gap and the doggedness shown in Crete were impressively sustained throughout the war. Nowhere were they more evident than in the last battles, from the crossing of the Senio until the fighting ended in Trieste. In this advance the 2nd New Zealand Division, with powerful artillery and air support, overcame a series of strong defensive positions at great speed and with remarkably light losses. This final campaign in itself explained why the New Zealand Government had received a succession of requests to allow the Division with its commander, General Freyberg, to remain in that theatre.
In the First World War the shrewd observer could often guess the location of the New Zealand Division on the Western Front by noting the bulge on the published situation maps. This marked the positions of the most advanced troops and was likely to be the New Zealand sector. It was much the same when positional warfare developed in the Second World War, as in the ‘New Zealand Box’ period in Egypt in 1942 and again in the Romagna in the winter of 1944–45. The thrusting purposefulness of the men of these two Divisions, a generation apart, must have been much the same; but the circumstances of the fighting in the Second World War allowed more scope for speed of movement and versatility.
The war efforts of sovereign states are a measure, as with individuals, of their courage, virility and loyalty, and of their faith in their way of life and their attachment to freedom. New Zealand’s war effort was large, manifesting itself not so much in great tonnages of war materials and the conversion of its people to war work, but most impressively in the high proportion of its young manhood drawn into the services and the heavy losses they suffered.
The pattern of the war, as it gradually unfolded, made this effort all the more remarkable. By far the greater number of New Zealand servicemen served in the struggle against Germany and Italy; yet the only conceivable direct threat to New Zealand came from Japan. New Zealanders stood in peril at Minqar Qaim and amongst disaster at Ruweisat Ridge and El Mreir soon after the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway halted the southward drive of the Japanese. For New Zealanders in the desert in North Africa, or fighting the Battle of the Atlantic, or the air war over Europe, as for their families at home, those were days of anxiety and anguish.
But the security of a small power in a world of compelling great powers must always give rise to concern. New Zealand by her efforts has earned her place in the League of Nations and the United Nations, and her representatives have given full support there to the principle
of collective security. Only once, through a happy conjunction of circumstances, has it been put into effect to check aggression: the case of Korea in which New Zealanders also served. New Zealand continues to support this principle, but she cannot rely on it. Until she can, she has to have allies and to deal with them loyally as she would like them to deal with her.
New Zealand’s war effort not only made a contribution to her security – and a continuing one – but it also encouraged New Zealanders to regard each other with deeper understanding. As a result New Zealand came to know herself better. Memories of privations, of fortitude, failures and victories, have blurred. But the sense of high achievement lingers and sets the standard for new effort. It is something by which to measure what is done in peace as well as in war. It was a process of self-revelation when the country looked on as its sons struggled from Mount Olympus to Trieste, or skilfully succeeded in combined operations in the Pacific, or fought the Graf Spee in the southern Atlantic, or were reported in air operations over Berlin or Rabaul. These men who were thus engaged and who impressed themselves in their various ways on the consciousness of the world lived in the same town, even in the same street, as the onlookers before whom the shape of the war gradually revealed itself.
The story of their achievements, of the women’s services who supported them abroad and of the many others who worked on their behalf at home all for the same cause, these volumes have endeavoured truthfully to record. The successes and the failures, the frailties and the strengths are recounted in a variety of Official Histories from many different authors. These volumes contain a significant and illuminating part of the total New Zealand experience, and should be a prized possession of their country, for the crises of war display more sharply than the dilemmas of peacetime the essence of the national character.