To the 2nd NZEF and the 28th Maori Battalion the North African Campaign brought due respect and indeed some fame due to our tactical battle efforts from many corners of the free world, and most definetly from our Desert Foe in Field Marshall Erwin Rommel and his Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK) Although the unique Kiwi tactics via our highly enlightened and very protective General, in Sir Bernard Freyberg,with his "salt of the earth" soldiers who in lifestyle and general occupation were created throughout New Zealand's fledgeling history, who had an inspired and intelligent form of combat,both in attitude and action.
The New Zealand native Maori were at that earthy extreme, with many still adhereing to long held ancient traditions and beliefs, these old world Maori ways with a "spirit in everything" or feeling spiritually (Wairua) connected to the soil, water and sky.. in thought, sight, sound and indeed in action..Always having a sense of whanau (family) thereby not feeling truely isolated..knowing the insects,birds (not just food)plants,sand,wind,rain and sun forces of nature were part of them. This in part helping them in being able to connect consciously to home, whanau and important Gods and descendants through these earthern life forces. Maori were able to draw a unique aroha (love) committment,and inner strength from this regardless of where they were, with personal and collective karakia (prayer) and ancient chants to the Maori Gods not being uncommon before and after battle.
So from the farthest part of this planet came the cream of New Zealands men in the 2NZEF, only 22 years after the original NZEF came home from the tragically wastefull WW1, and still fighting the same Foe. Also for the second time the Native Maori are to particpate, feeling much more part of this greater world, in a way searching for a truer reflection of the signed treaty with Pakeha in equality and partnership.Hence the organised 28th Maori Battalion was quite correctly formed and in the footsteps of the original WW1 Maori Contingent and subsequent Pioneer Reinforcents,they combined forces to protect this home and all free lands and its people.
Enter the leader of our North African foe ,a man of military honour and history,a caring family man and loyal career soldier of the German people and its Army,but not necessarily to Nazism and his supreme Kommander, Adolf Hitler.Erwin Rommel was sent to the North African shores on the 12 of Febuary 1941 with his newly formed Deutches Afrika Korps (DAK) the heart of which would be his Panzerarmee the 15th and 21st Panzer tank Regiments.Over the next few weeks and by March, the 11th and 8th Machinegun Battalion,606th Anti-aircraft Battlion with its famous 88mm hi-velocity gun,the 39th and 605th Panzerjager Battlions,75th Motorised Artillery Regiment and two tank Battalions of the 5th Panzer Regiment,all were ready and present at Tripoli.The Divisions 104th Motorised Infantry Regiment arrived some weeks later.Also placed under Rommels command as part of DAK were the numerically huge Italian Ariete Armoured and Trento Motorised Divisions, although in reality many vehicles were unavailable, being already battered by Allied Forces, high numbers of artillery and anti- tank weapons were on hand, but initially it consisted primarily of Italian Infantry.
Rommels German High Command in Adolf Hitler and Chief Of Army Staff, Franz Halder, were much more concerned with events about to take place in Russia,seeing this North Afican campaign somewhat as a side show. Its primary purpose was to stablise events in this area and prevent an assault on Italy and keep Italy in the war.The official title given to Rommels North Afikan campaign was "Operation Sonneblume" or Sunflower.Rommel was ordered simply to aggressively defend the Italian Tripolitania/Eastern Libya, no more no less. So when he arrived from Germany with clear and concise orders, he vigorously set about undermining these and begun his own bold interpretation deciding he could "rout" the Allied Army Forces completely from North Africa and take the Western desert and Egypt, maybe sensing Hitler's demise in Russia and thereby his inability to gain its oil fields over the Suez in Persia (Iraq). By all accounts at that time with the Allies much maligned and mistaken attempt to defend Greece,with vast material assets and huge human resources vitaly wasted and repeated (had Malame airfireld been held maybe not) on Crete. Little wonder he thought he could achieve this objective.
So effectively from April 1941 until August 1942 the "Desert Fox" ran riot.. as foxes happily do.. across the North African continent with the out foxed Allied Forces and Command in disbelief. It became a career death bed for Generals, namely..Neame, Beresford-Pierse, Wavell, Cunningham, Ritchie and Auchinlech all faultering and failing to learn from Rommels intelligent tactics and strategies,which were mostly inspired and learnt from the exceptionally brilliant tank and armoured warfare strategist, developer and exponent, General Heinz Wilhelm Guderian.
So to put it simply Erwin Rommell liked to play his own game and he was at that time the German "rock star" General with a fondness of the media with its associated cameras and microphones. His basic tactic of outflanking and getting in behind his enemy with his rolling armour sent chills repeatedly up the Allied English opponents who were slow to learn. But essentially the North African campaign with its vast ocean like distances involved and the permanent need for transported water and essential battlefield supplies would be the ultimate dictator of the end result in this critical must win conflict..this proved certainly to be the case..
The British High Command after its continuous frustrations desparately needed to find a leader who could tackle Rommel,the man selected was the charismatic respected Major General W.H.E. Gott. He on being transfered to carry out his new role from Cairo to the Battle front HQ while being flown in an old allied air transport incredibly without any RAF fighter protection, was promptly attacked by patrolling German Avant Guarde ME 109g fighter aircraft and was killed by a cannon shell through the heart,along with all on board..Well once again panic stations with Prime Minister Churchill puffing and blasting at top British High Command brass, who promptly selected a relatively untested but well thought of General in Bernard Law Montgomery.This General was known to be rather cautious in planning and action,very different from Rommel,but his approach to Desert Warfare was sound,being of the logistically superior type who prefered (who doesnt in battle) numerical supremacy. This over cautiousness later hindered the planned Anglo/Canadian advances during the early weeks of the Normandy D Day landings, and ironically later again his failure to heed concise inteligence and reconnisance revelations before the Belgian/Dutch Arnhem airborne landings which failed.However the embattled English Commonwealth forces were about to recieve additonal support in spades thanks to the naive and ill concieved Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour which promptly brought the USA into the war, awakening its industrial slumber into a crescendo of massive capacity and production ultimately evolving into the only true nation which to this day can justifiably can be called a superpower..very much becoming the "new kid in town"This initailly all came to fruition from the supportive US President Franklin D Roosevelt greatly pleasing the English Prime Minister Churchill in November 1942, with the combined Anglo/US seaborne landings led by the very logistically capable US General Dwight D Eisenhower in "Operation Torch"
Montgomery was given little time to relax with Rommel constantly out performing a confused Allied effort with a seeming inabilty to acknowledge and learn from Rommell with his consistent use of combined air, armour and infantry constantly in simaltaneous co operation. For the New Zealanders the panic stations became obvious when General Freyberg was ordered to bring his Division as quickly as possible back from rest and training in Syria to help with the desparation. This we famously did covering 1500k/m in 5 days (Maori battalion happily came by train) eventually arriving to a blazing and notorious 24 hour artillery desert duel between Rommels panzers and artillery at the notorious Minqar Qaim on the 27 and 28th of June 1942. Our NZ Division brilliantly scrapped itself out by the skin of its teeth being surrounded by the 15 Panzer gruppe and combined mobile artillery, eventually running out of ammo with our supply lines cut off. A full 2NZEF (10,000 personal and 2500 vehicles and mobiles) frontal night time 5 Brigade (which includes the Maori battalion) bayonet led charge attack and successfull (relative term with 600 casualties)break out to desert freedom. Of note in this break out is 5 Brigade's 20 Battalion Captain Charles Upham who was witnessed numerous times while himself wounded single handedly performing multiple devastating grenade attacks with meagre concern for his own safety upon the German oposition, whereby he recieved a second recommendation for the Victoria Cross. A third Victory Cross recommendation was to come to Captain Upham a month later on the tragic Ruweisat Ridge incident where for the second time in North Africa 5 Brigade and particularly 20 Battalion was severly mauled with high casualties and many Kiwi POWs inflicted because of the inabilty of ordered British mobile infantry supporting armour failing to show at a critical point of battle. Captain Upham was awarded a bar to his Victoria Cross by the British King on release as a POW post war... So after this 2 month long combative defensive retreat including the battle of Tel El Elisa the Allies were ultimately able to hold at the naturally protective 40 k/m Alamein line against the attacking but straining German DAK forces in what was known as the first "Battle of Alamein" Rommel was then forced to retreat as supply lines were stretched and weak, but also to lick his own wounds, rest re-supply his Afrika Korps for what he thought would be the final and successfull blow and destroy the 8th Allied Army.
Two months later on the 23rd of October at 21.30hrs. after a huge logistical re-supply and personnel reinforcement which were undertaken enough to satisfy Gen. Montgomery and US Operation Torch leader General Eisenhower landing near Algiers and Oran. s Simaltaneously opening two fronts a massive 3000 multi calibre artillery attack was unleashed and the second and offensive "Battle of Alamein" began. After a number of months thereafter chasing Rommels desert Army in retreat across Egypt and Libya,with the 2NZEF attempting a stealthy cross desert race and left hook punch.This in effect became the beginning of the end for Rommels DAK and Panzerarmee after his many months of "Wizard" tactical and strategic displays of massive cost to the Aliies with huge casualties taken by our 2NZEF and nearly 3000 Kiwi souls being left behind forever on African soil.
Clearly in retrospect, if Adolf Hitler's obsessional compulsive disorder (not his only one) for destroying the Russian's had not taken place, the North Africa campaign would more likely have been an Allied slaughter house and his hands would have found limitless oil supplies,which thanks the Royal Air Force in its Bomber Command in Europe he was unable to obtain,rather forcing Mr Hitler literally to run out of petrol by 1945. The vital Suez Canal would have been in Axis hands and I cringe to think of the consequences, length of time to counter, coupled with devasting human wastage there after..I dare say the atomic bomb would have found its way to the Middle East and indeed Europe itself.
A tactically defeated Rommel returned to Germany tired and un well, but recovered after some months to take on the role as Chief Of Atlantic Wall Defences in readiness for the inevitable invasion of Europe and opening of the Second front which took place on the 6th of June 1944.He realised as did most of the pre war professional soldiers of the time that Hitler was a mad fanatic and certainly not thinking of the German people as a whole, he felt he needed among many others rightly to stop Hitler.A daring plot was organised to kill Hitler at his Lair using a timed bomb which failed in its objective to kill Hitler although injuring him.Hitler rounded up (using the feared SS guard) all whom he thought were responsible and promptly shot them all, on the other hand because of Rommels loyal service to the German Army, Rommel was ordered to take a cyanide capsule, in doing he would be given a full Military Honoured Funeral,this he chose after bidding farewell to his wife and family and sadly he passed away in such an ironic manner,no doubt thinking of the safety of his family in doing so.The end of an illustrious and courageous career leaving a long legacy that spans compassionatly to this day.
The North African Campaign was seen actively by many as a "chivalrous" campaign and from a Kiwi perpspective Rommel displayed that, eg. Compassionately over running our forward medical stations and hospital containing 100 of his wounded troops and 800 Allied sick and wounded he was very respectfull to all Kiwi medical staff, leaving entirely unhindered. Also after vehement blaming the NZ DIV for ruthless and murderous actions at the Minqar Qaim breakout (we killed many German wounded already in a their mobile field hospital believing they were firing on us) later taking one of our Battalion commanders Brigadier James Hargest. Rommel believed his truths regarding our desperate situation at Minqar Qaim, our will to survive "out of the bag" and stated to Brig. Hargest.. "well i guess i would have done the same then" Although General Irwin Rommel was a hardened and very tough adversary, he was fair, and like our General Sir Bernard Freyberg his primary non tactical concern were for his men,he was certainly at times over confident but most definitively was a loyal thoughtfull and committed Army infantry soldier.