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Here in Australia we don’t give much heed to what happens across the Tasman and mostly thoughts about the NZ in ANZAC come as an afterthought. Not that there is any malice in that. It’s simply a case of we never think about it. NZ is a tiny country compared to ourselves but they do have a habit of punching way above their weight. Of all of the allied nations in WW1 and WW2, NZ would be the flyweight if one thinks of sheer absolute numbers. The biggest contributor to WW2 was Russia by a large margin, then the USA, Britain, Canada and Australia.

If you look at it another way, in terms of giving most of what you have to give,as a proportion of their available manpower of military age, NZ was the biggest contributor to WW1 and second biggest to WW2.

I have previously highlighted the role of HMNZS Achilles and its role in the sinking of the Graf Spee at the Battle of the River Plate. There are three other outstanding NZ contributions worthy of mention.

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The crew of the Achilles received a hero’s welcome when they returned to New Zealand in February 1940.

First is Charles Upham, one of only three people ever to receive a bar to their Victoria Cross.

Charles Upham won his first VC in Crete during the German advance and their eventual capture of the island. His specialty seemed to be attacking machine gun nests with grenades. By overcoming several of these in succession and personally killing over 25 Germans he routed them all. Heavily wounded in arms, legs and back, he persisted with his attacks and successfully enabled his platoon to withdraw to safety.

 

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After a period of repair and recuperation back in Egypt, leading a company, he attacked and destroyed a truckload of German soldiers killing them all with hand grenades, a tank, several guns and vehicles, also with hand grenades. His company was eventually overrun and he was taken prisoner. He was severely wounded and was treated in an Italian hospital where doctors wanted to amputate his arm. He refused and was eventually cured, with his arm intact, by a British doctor who was also a POW.

The second famous NZ soldier of note is Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg. Freyberg was not a true Kiwi. He was British born but moved to NZ with his parents at the age of two. In WW1 he served in the British Army. He was an outstanding swimmer and boxer.

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He left NZ in 1914 before war broke out to fight in the Mexican Civil War. When WW1 started he went to England and joined the Royal Naval Division. During the British landings at Gallipoli he swam ashore and started lighting fires to distract the Turks and for that he won his first Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

 In May, 1916 he transferred to the British Army and was commanding a battalion in the Battle of the Somme. He was prominent in the capture of Beaucourt Village and for this was awarded the VC. By the end of the war he had also received two bars to his DSO, five Mention in Despatches (MID) and the French Croix de Guerre as well as nine serious wounds.

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In 1919 he transferred to the Grenadier Guards and made several attempts to swim the English Channel. In 1921 he returned to NZ to convalesce while recovering from his war wounds. In 1934 he was promoted to major-general but in 1937 he underwent a medical examination preparatory to a transfer to India. A heart problem was discovered and he was retired from the army.

When WW2 broke out he was re-classified to the active list of the British Army. Following an approach from the NZ government he transferred to the NZ army and was appointed commander of the 2nd New Zealand Division.

In 1942 Churchill put him in command of the Allied Forces during the Battle of Crete. In this role he was unsuccessful and was blamed for the loss of Crete due to poor tactics of failing to protect the airfield after being warned of potential paratrooper attacks.

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The division was evacuated to Egypt where it formed part of the British 8th Army in its campaign across North Africa. He had a poor relationship with Auchinleck, commander of the 8th Army claiming that as the commander of a national contingent he had a right to refuse orders if he considered that they ran counter to NZ national interests.

Conversely, he had an excellent relationship with Auchinleck’s successor, Bernard Montgomery. The NZ 2nd Division is regarded as the outstanding Allied formation in the march to Tunisia and eventual defeat of the Afrika Corps in 1943.

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Field Marshal Messe surrenders to General Bernard Freyberg in Tunisia

Following the defeat of the Germans the 8th Army moved to Italy where he was involved in the controversial decision to bomb the ancient monastery of Monte Cassino in February, 1944. Germany surrendered on 8th May 1945. On the 3rd May, 1946, he retired from the army to take up the position of Governor General of New Zealand.

In 1951 King George VI raised him to the peerage appointing him Baron Freyberg of Wellington New Zealand and at the end of his term as GG of New Zealand he returned to England where he sat in the House of Lords. In 1953 he was appointed Deputy Constable of Windsor Castle where he took up residence until he died in 1963 following the rupture of one of his war wounds.

Although he is regarded as a New Zealander because of his outstanding leadership of the NZ 2nd.Division, and his term as GG of NZ, .his adult life was mainly spent in the service of the British government. He was British to his bootstraps and could equally be claimed as a British soldier as well as a New Zealander. Either way, he was one of the most outstanding leaders and one of the most decorated soldiers of WW2.

The third outstanding NZ contribution to WW2 was the creation of the Long Range Desert Group. The LRDG. This was an arm of the British Army founded in 1940 by Major Ralph Bagnold. Bagnold who was what many might call an “odd bod”.

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He had spent the inter-war years roaming and surveying the Libyan and Egyptian deserts with vehicles rather than camels. He invented what is known as the sun compass an instrument designed to find direction by the sun’s shadow on a dial as magnetic compasses were deflected by the metal of the vehicles and the high iron component of the desert sands.

 

The LRDG was formed specifically at the direction of General Wavell to carry out deep penetration, reconnaissance and intelligence missions behind enemy lines. Bagnold wanted men who were energetic, innovative, self-reliant, physically and mentally tough. He considered that the ideal candidates were New Zealand farmers and he was given permission to recruit them from the 2nd NZ Division.

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Long Range Desert Group lorry fitted with three sets of twin Vickers Class K-guns, c1942

Over half the division volunteered and eventually 106 were selected. Apart from Bagnold it was a 100% NZ formation.

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They became experts in desert driving and vehicle maintenance, survival, radio communications and demolition. They were equipped with 15cwt Ford and 30cwt Chevrolet trucks stripped of every non-essential item and armed with Lewis guns and 303 Browning machine guns, Bofors anti-tank rifles radios and all necessary equipment to travel off roads in the desert.

As their role and operational area expanded more volunteers were recruited from the Brigade of Guards and Southern Rhodesian regiments. Total numbers never exceeded 350 personnel. They established bases in remote desert locations way beyond the usual Axis patrolled areas. Their role was largely to sit, wait and observe rather than attack the enemy. They maintained constant observation posts along the Axis supply routes sending back valuable information on enemy strengths and movements. They were also used to transport parties of commandos and similar raiding parties to attack Axis camps, garrisons and headquarters from unexpected directions and disappear quickly back into the desert from whence they came.

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Their most notable direct confrontation with the enemy was the attack on the airfield at Barce. The Italian barracks and 35 aircraft were destroyed.

With the defeat of the Afrika Corps and the Italian surrender in 1943 the role of the LRDG as originally conceived was over.

The New Zealand personal returned to their division and the remainder of the LRDG, mainly Rhodesians, were sent behind the lines north of Rome and in Yugoslavia to harass the German retreat and support the Albanian partisans. When the Germans were cleared out of Italy the LRDG requested transfer to the Far East to fight the Japanese. The request was denied and the unit was disbanded in 1945.

Books and movies have been made of the LRDG. One of the outstanding small covert units of WW2.

 

 

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