With the Second Division, Tony Simpson

A Bloody Road Home: World War Two and New Zealand’s Heroic Second Division
Christopher Pugsley
Penguin, $70.00
ISBN 9780143571896

It might seem strange that we have had to wait seven decades from the conclusion of WWII for a comprehensive history of record of the New Zealand Second Division in that conflict, and that it owes its very existence to an anonymous benefactor who was prepared to underwrite its production. But, on reflection, it is not as strange as it might appear. That particular experience of war was so overwhelming that it really had to wait for its immediate generation to pass before anything like an objective account could be attempted. In the meantime, we have had to make do with the official histories of units and campaigns – a mixed lot to say the least – and accounts of particular affairs and military incidents which have caught the imagination of a wide range of writers, some of whom were themselves participants. Notwithstanding its unavoidable length – 555 pages of narrative – this book has been worth the wait and has found the best possible author of its generation.

It is a book which sets itself two tasks. It can tell you what the New Zealand Division was up to at any particular moment between the outbreak of war in 1939 and its conclusion six years later and as such is going to prove a very handy work of reference for subsequent writers in the field. In doing so, it has avoided the trap of becoming a dreary first-they-did-this-and-then-they-did-that, two-dimensional list of happenings. This is largely because the author is an experienced soldier, understands battles, and has personally walked the major battlefields – an indispensable accompaniment to the writing of military history as I know from personal experience. It takes only a few minutes on the crest of Hill 107 casting one’s eye westwards to understand, for instance, why the battle for Crete was lost.

Naturally, I paid particular attention to those two affrays on which I have written myself and can therefore claim to know something about: the Crete battle in 1941 and the confrontation with Tito’s Yugoslavs in Trieste in 1945. Pugsley quite rightly doesn’t make much of the latter. By then, the war was over and was turning into something else (which was what interested me). But the 1941 battleground of Crete has exercised a continuing fascination on numerous writers over the decades and continues to do so. Pugsley gives it three chapters. I wouldn’t quarrel in the least with his account overall. In fact, he puts me right on one or two matters: in particular, Freyberg’s relationship to one of the earliest Ultra decipherments which I thought the latter had interpreted wrongly in making his dispositions and ordering his counterattack, although understandably, given the military orthodox thinking on troop landings from the air. It seems not and that it was other factors (which I only secondarily identified) which led to its failure. I can only say in exculpation that when I wrote Operation Mercury in 1978 the full story regarding Ultra had yet to come to light.

More importantly, Pugsley does not skirt the question which exercises everyone who deals with this battle. Who lost Crete? The mere hint of an answer over the decades has been enough to produce a flurry of angry correspondence in the local newspapers from partisans of one view or another. Pugsley, in attributing it to a combination of the insouciance of Brigadier Hargest and the wooden rigidity of Colonel Andrew’s military thinking, could not have better illustrated the advantages of distance in the writing of near contemporary history. I absolutely concur with his conclusion.

But the book serves a second purpose which goes far beyond being a history of record, no matter how excellently achieved. As the author himself remarks at the outset, this is a story not just about military performance in a war, but about the performers themselves: that is to say, New Zealanders at war. What that means is implicit in the whole narrative, as well as the book’s concluding summation.

As it happens, my own two essays into military history neatly encompass the frame of that meaning, from the amateur shambles that was the Greek campaign, to what the New Zealand Division had become by 1945. Pugsley makes the compelling point – which has not, so far as I can tell, been noted by any major previous military historian in this field – that the New Zealand Division was the only one in the European theatre which retained its identity as a formation and its commander throughout the six years of war, and that this was crucial to its ultimate achievements. By the time, in other words, the blokes got to Trieste they knew “Tiny”, and he knew them; they fitted together like a hand in a glove, and the Div had developed a culture into which all reinforcement detachments were quickly integrated and socialised. Because of this, it became, in the end, what my late friend and veteran Jim Henderson once described to me as “a terrible killing machine”.

Why this should be so is prefigured, as seems to be usual, in what John Mulgan said of the New Zealanders when he first encountered them in the desert part way through the war.  He said that they knew themselves as good as the best the world could bring against them, like a football team in a more deadly game, coherent, practical, successful. And he went on to explicate what he meant by that:

New Zealanders, when they went to war, found it easier to get down to the moral plane of a German soldier, and were even capable of thinking a ruse or two ahead in the game of total war. Englishmen spent some time and casualties in finding war ungentlemanly before they tossed the rules overboard and moved in on the same basis. I don’t know that the cunning and professionalism of my fellow countrymen is to be commended on abstract grounds, but these are comfortable qualities to have about in wartime.

His conclusion was that they looked on war as a game, “and a game to New Zealanders is something they play to win, against the other side and the referee, if necessary.” The Germans themselves concurred. William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) described the New Zealanders in one of his broadcasts as “poor ignorant farm boys”, but he had never had the experience of dealing with them face to face. Pugsley cites the report of the 278 Division who were obliged to do so at Faenza:

The New Zealanders, the majority of whom volunteered for service in Europe out of a sense of adventure, are trained and led by General Freyberg, a dangerous opponent. They are specialists in night fighting. They fight on a broad front, in a way which corresponds to the German method. The New Zealanders have learned to work their way forward under heavy artillery support close up behind their barrage, and in this way take their opponents off their guard without suffering heavy losses themselves. They are capable of fighting through difficult country without tank support.

This was not the first German unit to learn first-hand and to their cost that farm boys knew a thing or two when it came to fighting a battle. The image painted for me by one of my interviewees for my book on Crete of Charles Upham stalking and killing hapless paratroopers in much the same way as he had done with deer in the North Canterbury foothills can still induce a shiver.

The sort of society New Zealand might become after the war which Mulgan himself envisioned did not happen for reasons that some of us are still trying to puzzle our way through. But he based his vision on the men of the Division he came across in the desert. “It seemed to me,” he wrote, “meeting them again, friends grown a little older, more self-assured, hearing again those soft, inflected, voices, the repetitions of slow, drawling slang, that to have produced these men for just this one time would be New Zealand’s destiny.” In Chris Pugsley, the Division has found a worthy chronicler, and Penguin is to be congratulated on picking up the challenge.

Tony Simpson is the author of Operation Mercury: The Battle for Crete 1941 and Ambiguity and Innocence: The New Zealand Division and the Occupation of Trieste 1945.

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