New Zealand 2nd Division

The New Zealand 2nd Division was that country's major land formation during much of World War II. Commanded for much of its existence by Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg, it fought in most of the major campaigns in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations during the war.

Its first major operation was the abortive attempt to defend Greece from attack. Along with the British and Australian forces that formed the bulk of the rest of the British Empire forces in the country, it was unceremoniously bundled out of the mainland by the Germans. Freyberg was judged to have performed extremely well during the evacuation, and he was given command of all Allied forces on the island of Crete. Consequently, the 2nd Division temporarily lost him as its commander. However, the attempt to defend Crete was as doomed as that to defend Greece had been. German paratroopers landed, and gradually gained the upper hand over the Allied forces on the island. Greece and Crete saw some of the heaviest casualties suffered by the New Zealanders in the whole war.

Following the disasters in Europe, the division was then integrated into the regular order of battle of the Eighth Army. It fought in many of the critical battles over the next year and a half, including playing a prominent role in the Second Battle of El Alamein. The division's return to Europe was made during the campaign in Italy. Having taken no part in the invasion of Sicily, due to being in refit at the time, the division joined battle again in late 1943. It took part in the Battle of Monte Cassino, ultimately failing in its attempt to capture the monastery and town.

Several times during the campaign, a 'New Zealand Corps' was formed. This was not a true corps, with a full staff and set of corps troops. It was more a temporary extension of the division. New Zealand simply did not have the resources to fully man a corps level formation. Even with a division in the field, New Zealand often found it difficult to keep up the supply of replacement men that the casualties suffered by the unit demanded. There were times during the war when Freyberg had to refuse to take part in an attack due to lack of men, or the possibility of heavy casualties. With combat on the scale of WWII, a division was a small tactical unit in many situations. Other countries had enough troops that the destruction of a single division, whilst it would hurt them, would not prove fatal. New Zealand, had it suffered the destruction of 2nd Division would have lost the bulk of its field army. That would have been disastrous for the cohesion of the New Zealand Army as a whole, and for morale in New Zealand.

By the end of the war, the New Zealand division had a reputation as a tough unit with good troops. It had earned that reputation by fighting in many of the fiercest battles of the war, and it was well deserved.


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