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The 2nd New Zealand Division was a formation of the New Zealand Military Forces (New Zealand's army) during World War II. It was commanded for most of its existence by Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, and fought in Greece, Crete, the Western Desert and the Italy. In the Western Desert Campaign, the division played a prominent role in the defeat of German and Italian forces in the Second Battle of El Alameinmarker and Eighth Army's advance to Tunisia. In late 1943 the division was moved to Italy, taking part in Eighth Army's campaign on Italy's Adriatic coast which ground to a halt at the end of the year. In early 1944 the division formed the nucleus of the New Zealand Corps, fighting two battles attempting unsuccessfully to penetrate the Gustav Line at Monte Cassinomarker. The division saw further action on the Gothic Line in Italy in 1944 and took part in the Allies' 1945 Spring offensive which led to the surrender of German forces in Italy in May. After returning to New Zealand, reorganised elements of the division formed part of the occupational forces in Japan from 1945.

Outbreak of war

At the outbreak of war in 1939 it was decided that New Zealand should provide an Expeditionary Force of one division, under then Major-General Bernard Freyberg. This force became known as 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force and the division, initially, as the New Zealand Division. The first echelon of 2NZEF Headquarters and a Brigade Group landed in Egypt in February 1940. The second echelon, also a Brigade Group, was diverted to Britain on Italy's entry into the war and did not reach Egypt until March 1941. The third echelon arrived in Egypt in September 1940 and concentration of the division was completed just before it was deployed to northern Greece in March 1941.

The division remained as part of the British Eighth Army to the end of World War II in 1945 during which it fought in the Battle of Greece (March–April 1941), the Battle of Crete (May 1941), Operation Crusader (November–December 1941), Minqar Qaim (June 1942), Battle of El Alameinmarker (July–November 1942), Libya and Tunisia (December 1942–May 1943), the Sangro (October–December 1943), Battle of Monte Cassinomarker (February–March 1944), Central Italy (May–December 1944), and the Adriatic Coast (April–May 1945).

Defence of Greece

In April 1941, New Zealand's 2nd Division was deployed to Greece, to help the British and Australians defend the country from the invading Italians. (The Second Echelon of the 2 NZEF had been diverted to the UK between June 1940 and January 1941, and had had an anti-invasion role with VII Corps.) The New Zealanders were combined with Australian and British forces as 'W' Force under Sir Henry Maitland Wilson. The immediate operational commander was Australian Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey with his I Australian Corps headquarters, which was briefly renamed Anzac Corps. The Germans soon joined what became the Battle of Greece, overwhelming the British and Commonwealth forces. Due to this factor, the British and Commonwealth forces had to retreat to Crete and Egypt by 6 April. The last New Zealand troops had evacuated Greece by 25 April 1941, having sustained losses of 291 men killed, 387 seriously wounded, and 1,826 men captured in this campaign.

Battle of Crete

Since most New Zealand 2nd Division troops had evacuated to Crete from Greece, they were very much involved in the defence of Crete against further German attacks. Freyberg was judged to have performed extremely well during the evacuation of Greece, and he was given command of all Allied forces for the defence of the island of Cretemarker. Consequently, the New Zealand 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 in May 1941, and gradually gained the upper hand over the Allied forces in the battle for the island. Greece and Crete saw some of the heaviest casualties suffered by the New Zealanders in the whole war.By the end of the month, however, German soldiers had once again overwhelmed British and Commonwealth forces, and it was decided to evacuate, again without its heavy weapons, to Alexandria by June. The unit's ability to help itself to enemy—and Allied—heavy weapons and transport lead to it being nicknamed "Freyberg's Forty Thousand Thieves". In this battle, 671 New Zealanders were killed, 967 wounded and 2,180 captured. During the battle Charles Upham was awarded the first of his two Victoria Crosses.

Western Desert

Operation Crusader

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 in the North African Campaign over the next year and a half. On 18 November 1941, the New Zealand 2nd Division took part in Operation Crusader. Merged into the British Eighth Army, New Zealand troops crossed the Libyan frontier into Cyrenaica. Operation Crusader was an overall success for the British, and New Zealand troops withdrew to Syria to recover. The Operation Crusader campaign was the most costly the New Zealand 2nd Division fought in the Second World War, with 879 men killed, and 1,700 wounded.

El Alamein

The Division was originally known as the 'New Zealand Division'; it only became known as 2nd New Zealand Division from June 1942, following the adoption of the 'Cascade' deception scheme and the 'formation' of Maadi Camp, the division's base area in Egypt, as "6th NZ Division".

The division played a prominent role in both Battles of El Alamein. During the First Battle of El Alameinmarker, in July 1942, the division put in a night attack against the Afrika Korps. As no armoured support was available to the Division after their night attack against the Germans at Ruweisat Ridge, 4th New Zealand Brigade was shattered, with the loss of around 3,000 men, during the fighting that resulted when German Panzers counter-attacked the New Zealand infantry the following morning. It was for his actions in this battle that Charles Upham was awarded the Bar to his VC, becoming only the third man to be awarded the VC twice, and the first soldier in a combatant role. Also at Ruweisat, Sergeant Keith Elliott of 22nd Battalion was awarded the VC for continuing to lead his company, despite wounds, in assaults which led to the destruction of five machine guns plus an anti-tank gun and the capture of 130 prisoners.

During the Second Battle of El Alameinmarker, the division broke through the German positions and got behind Rommel's flank. During the night of 1–2 November 1942 the 9th Armoured Brigade was to have advanced in support of an attack by the Division. However, the Armoured Brigade was stopped in the minefield lanes by the 15th Panzer and 90th Light and the following morning, the armour continued to be attacked, suffering heavy losses. However the 9th Armoured Brigade's sacrifice had made the follow-up successes possible.

Italian Campaign

The division's return to Europe was made during the Italian Campaign. Having taken no part in the Allied invasion of Sicily, due to being in refit at the time, the division joined battle again in late 1943 as part of Eighth Army. The division came into the front line in November and took part in the advance across the Sangro at the end of the month. During December the division was involved in very heavy fighting at Orsogna, part of the Moro River Campaign. By the end of the year the deteriorating winter weather made movement of even tracked vehicles impossible except on metaled roads and severely impeded vital close air support operations. This, together with the failure to capture Orsogna led the Allies to call off the Adriatic coast offensive until spring brought better conditions in the skies and under foot.

Monte Cassino

Meanwhile, to the west of the Eighth Army on the other side of the Apennine mountainsmarker, Italy's central mountain spine, the U.S. Fifth Army had also been fighting its way north. By the end of January 1944, the Fifth Army's attacks against the Cassino massif had ground to a halt and the "Battle for Rome" had stalled. Army Group commander General Harold Alexander and Fifth Army commander Lieutenant General Mark Clark looked around desperately for solutions to penetrate the defences, as their careers and reputations were irrevocably linked with success on this front, particularly due to Churchill’s insistence at this time, that Italy was the key to the ultimate success in the war. As part of the solution, Alexander withdrew the 2nd New Zealand Division from the 8th Army line to establish a small Army Group Reserve with a view to reinforcing the Fifth Army front. Alexander also withdrew the 4th Indian Infantry Division as well as the British 78th Infantry Division from Eighth Army to join this strategic reserve. This formation was initially known as "Spadger Force" to confuse German intelligence, with the commander, General Freyberg being known as "Spadger." The Corps later became known as the New Zealand Corps under command of the U.S. Fifth Army.

The Second Battle for Cassino

On 8 February, Clarke conceded to Alexander that the US II Corps would not succeed with any further attacks and he "allowed" the British (and Dominions) to attempt to strike the final blow against the Axis line at Cassino. Alexander advised Freyberg to ready the NZ Corps to take over from the US II Corps, also advising him that enemy reinforcements had arrived and that even greater resistance could be expected.

Freyberg's plan initially included a wide flanking attack—differentiating it from the approach previously used by Keyes' II Corps. This flanking movement was eventually excluded from the final plan and Freyberg dictated that the attack be along the same unsuccessful lines as used by the Americans the month before. Major-General Francis Tuker, commander of the 4th Indian Division voiced strong disapproval regarding the plan to Freyberg, his new Corps Commander—as his division was to lead the now, frontal assault. Tuker also expressed his concern over Freyberg's apparent obsession with reducing the monastery on Monte Cassino, arguing that (supported by General Juin) they were attempting to breach the strongest and most fortified point of the Gustav Line. As part of his plan, and encouraged by the complaints from Tucker, Freyberg insisted to Clark that the monastery should be flattened by bombing in the preparatory stage of the attack. Alexander, although expressing the opinion that it would be regrettable to destroy the Benedictine Order monastery built around AD 529—supported Freyberg's insistence that reducing the monastery be considered a military necessity.

The Allied planes dropped 442 tons of bombs on the Abbey and its immediate environs in two separate attacks on 15 February, one between 0930 and 1000 and the other between 1030 and 1330, but the infantry attack which was to commence directly after the second bombing mission was delayed due to differences regarding H-Hour between Freyberg and his 7th Brigade. Also, the division commanders were insisting that a preliminary high-point (Point 593) was to be captured first, as a prelude to the main attack.

The 4th Indian Division was to attack in an arc towards the south and south west, taking Point 593 and then moving south east, up the heights towards the Abbey. The Indian Division would only advance on the Abbey, once the NZ Division had attacked south and south east taking the town of Cassino. The main attack eventually commenced just after last light with the 28 (Maori) Battalion tasked to cross the Rapido River and to seize the station south of Cassino town, to establish a bridgehead for the corps armour to move into the town and to the foot of the Cassino massif—the attack starting at 2130. By dawn, German 10th Army artillery had stopped the 28th Battalion advance on the Rapido River bridgehead and the NZ Division were forced to use all their guns to fire smoke onto the bridge and railway station areas to mask the withdrawal of the 28th Battalion. The attack had failed, and so had the 4th Indian Division attack on Point 593.

The Third Battle

On the evening of 14 March, the battalions of the NZ Corps were alerted that Operation Bradman, the bombing of Cassino, was approved for the next day. In a third attempt to penetrate the Gustav Line, the Corps was again launched against Cassino town and the massif. By this time, the US VI Corps had landed at Anziomarker and were under severe pressure from German forces. This third assault on Cassion was intended to not only penetrate the Gustav Line, but to draw away forces to reduce the pressure on the Americans at Anzio.

The bombing started at 0800 and continued till 1200—dropping an equivalent of four tons per acre. By 1230, an 890 gun artillery bombardment started, which would continue for eight hours. The 6th NZ Brigade lead the attack, assaulting Cassino town, supported by the tanks of the 19th Armoured Regiment and at the same time, the Indian Division was to advance on Hangman’s Hill after which they were to assault the Monastery. The next morning, the 4th NZ Armoured Brigade was to take over from American tanks in the Liri Valley while the 7th Indian Brigade and small NZ tank groups were to advance up the Cavendish Road (built by Indian engineers) to clear any pockets of resistance on the Cassino slopes.

The advance into Cassino town by the 6th NZ Brigade went wrong from the start—as the 19th Armoured tanks were unable to pass through the badly damaged roads, covered in rubble and bomb craters. The infantry, advancing without tanks came under severe fire from German paratroopers in the town, their fire further preventing armoured engineer bulldozers from clearing access routes for the tanks. Although the armour had been stopped, the NZ Infantry still held some parts of the town, including the strategic Castle Hill. Freyberg's orders had defined that the 4th Indian Division would only commence their advance on the Abbey, once Castle Hill had been secured, as they were to pass through the NZ lines on the hill as they progressed up the mountain. It took two hours to pass the message that the hill had been secured and as it was already dark, further delays were encountered by the Indian Division struggling to find Castle Hill. The Indian advance on Hangman’s Hill only commenced after midnight, further compounded by heavy rain.

The next morning, while concentrated German artillery fire and house to house fighting pinned the New Zealand Division in that portion of the town which they held, the Indian Division was making no progress up the mountain. The 20th Armoured Regiment which was to have supported them, considered the road too risky, as numerous hairpin bends had not been secured. German reinforcements continued to arrive, bolstering the defences in town, as well as on the Cassino massif. Attempts by the NZ Division to expand their perimeter in town continued on 16 March—the XIV Panzer Corps reported in this regard "…south of the town, the enemy [the NZ Division] fought our foremost posts to a standstill by weight of fire and then occupied the station after hand-to-hand fighting... [but] the centre of the town is still in our hands."

By the afternoon on 19 March, it was evident that no further progress would be made by the NZ Division in Cassino town—the German paratrooper line held firm, with machine gun, mortar and sniper fire and continued counter-attacks to reduce the NZ perimeter. By 20 March a company of Gurkhas overran Point 435 on Hangman’s Hill, 500 yards from the Abbey but were again driven back German fire from unassailable positions. The NZ Division re-occupied the railway station and the botanical gardens in the town and the process of attack and counter attack continued until 23 March when Alexander decided to call off the offensive. The Monte Cassino Abbey, although totally destroyed by now, remained firmly in German hands.

Race to Trieste

Following the two assaults at Monte Casino, the New Zealand Division was employed as an Assault Division of the 8th Army during a series of difficult night crossings of major Italian rivers, along which the Germans had erected their defensive lines. The division fought as part of I Canadian Corps during Operation Olive, the offensive on the Gothic Line in the autumn of 1944, was attached to British V Corps during the winter and joined British XIII Corps for the assault crossing of the river Senio marking the start of the Allied spring 1945 offensive in Italy. The closing weeks of World War II saw the New Zealand Division race to Triestemarker in northern Italy to confront Tito’s partisans, and prevent that city’s forced absorption into greater Yugoslavia.

The New Zealand 3rd Division, then fighting in the Pacific Ocean Areas against the Japanese, was demobilized with the bulk of its officers and men then transferred to the 2nd NZ Division in part to replace losses.


By the end of the war, the New Zealand Division had a reputation as a tough unit with good troops. This opinion was expressed by Rommel in his report to the OKH on 21 July 1942 (at the end of the Second Battle of El Alameinmarker) in which he described the New Zealand Division, along with the 9th Australian Division, as "formidable opponents." This view was repeated within the 5th Panzer Division intelligence reports. It had earned that reputation by fighting in many of the fiercest battles of the war, and it was well deserved.

General Bernard Montgomery, who commanded the Eighth Army and who would later command the land forces in the Normandy Invasionmarker, was so impressed with the New Zealanders that he recommended that the division should be used in the invasion of Normandy, but it was fighting in the Battle of Monte Cassinomarker at the time.

Captain Charles Upham, VC and Bar, of the New Zealand 2nd Division, was the only person to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice during World War II. Other Victoria Crosses were awarded to John Hinton, Alfred Hulme, Keith Elliott, and Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu. Lance Sergeant Haane Manahi of the Māori Battalion was posthumously honoured in 2007 by representatives of the Queen after it was decided that his Distinguished Conduct Medal, awarded for actions at Takrouna, was not to be upgraded to a Victoria Cross, despite recommendations from senior officers, including Brian Horrocks.

Elements of the division, the 9th Brigade, were reorganised as the division disbanded to become J Force (later 2 NZEF, Japan), the New Zealand contribution to the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan.

Order of Battle

Initial composition, 1940–41

Headquarters New Zealand Division
  • Divisional Cavalry Regiment
  • HQ Divisional Artillery
    • 4 Field Regiment
    • 5 Field Regiment
    • 6 Field Regiment
    • 7 Anti-Tank Regiment
    • 1 Survey Troop
    • 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment
  • HQ Divisional Engineers
    • 5,6,7,8 Companies
  • Divisional Signals
  • HQ 4 Infantry Brigade — 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade from 1943
    • 18 Battalion
    • 19 Battalion
    • 20 Battalion
  • HQ 5 Infantry Brigade
    • 21 Battalion
    • 22 Battalion
    • 23 Battalion
  • HQ 6 Infantry Brigade
    • 24 Battalion
    • 25 Battalion
    • 26 Battalion
  • 27 Machine-Gun Battalion
  • 28 Battalion
  • HQ Divisional Army Service Corps
  • Divisional Ammunition Company
  • Divisional Petrol Company
  • Divisional Supply Column
  • Reserve MT Company
  • 4, 5, 6 Field Ambulances
  • 4 Field Hygiene Section
  • Divisional Provost Company
  • Divisional Intelligence Section
  • Divisional Postal Unit
  • Divisional Employment Platoon
  • Other service support units — LAD, Bath, salvage etc

Order of Battle as at 11 May 1944

Order of battle taken from the New Zealand Official History.
  • HQ 2 NZ Division
    • 2 NZ Divisional Cavalry
  • HQ 4 Armoured Brigade
    • 4 Squadron, 2 NZ Divisional Signals
    • 18 Armoured Regiment
    • 19 Armoured Regiment
    • 20 Armoured Regiment
    • 22 (Motor) Battalion
  • HQ 2 NZ Divisional Artillery
    • 4 Field Regiment
    • 5 Field Regiment
    • 6 Field Regiment
    • 7 Anti-Tank Regiment
    • 14 Light And-Aircraft Regiment
    • 36 Survey Battery
  • HQ 2 NZ Divisional Engineers
    • 5 Field Park Company
    • 6 Field Company
    • 7 Field Company
  • HQ 5 Infantry Brigade
    • 5 Infantry Brigade Defence Platoon
    • 21 Battalion
    • 23 Battalion
    • 28 (Maori) Battalion
  • HQ 6 Infantry Brigade
    • 6 Infantry Brigade Defence Platoon
    • 24 Battalion
    • 25 Battalion
    • 26 Battalion
  • 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
  • HQ Command NZ Army Service Corps

See also



  1. 2 Div NZFE DiggerHistory.Info Inc
  2., W Force, 5 April 1941, accessed July 2009
  3. The other two recipients of the VC and Bar are Arthur Martin-Leake and Noel Chavasse, both doctors in the Royal Army Medical Corps, see
  4. ed Max Lambert, Air New Zealand Almanac 1989, NZ Press Association, p.220
  5. Latimer p. 290
  6. Ellis, p. 159
  7. Ellis p. 160
  8. Atkinson p. 411
  9. Ellis p. 161
  10. The New Zealand Corps 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.
  11. Ellis, pp. 162–163
  12. Ellis, p. 163
  13. Molony, p. 706
  14. Ellis, pp. 165–166
  15. Ellis p. 168
  16. Ellis, p. 182
  17. Ellis, p. 184
  18. Molony p. 712
  19. Ellis, p. 185
  20. Ellis, p. 191
  21. Ellis p. 221
  22. Molony p. 777
  23. Ellis pp. 221–222
  24. Ellis p. 226
  25. Ellis p. 229
  26. Ellis p. 231
  27. Ellis p. 238
  28. Ellis p. 244
  29. Ellis p. 250
  30. Connell p. 58
  31. Playfair Vol III, p. 339
  32. Gillespie, p. 310
  33. Kay, Appendix III


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