For three years from 1940 the Second New Zealand Division, led by Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, fought in the North African desert against a combined German-Italian army eventually led by Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel.
It was an astonishing campaign that see-sawed across hundreds of kilometres of desert – the arbiter, always, being the supply lines. In the process, the New Zealanders distinguished themselves on more than one occasion, particularly at the second Battle of El Alamein, where Freyberg’s personal leadership tipped the balance and the German lines were broken.
The Germans were well aware of the issue – a staff assessment summed the Kiwi force up in these words: ‘The New Zealanders…are trained and led by General Freyberg, a dangerous opponent. They are specialists in night fighting, they fight on a wide front, and…have learnt to follow up closely under the heavy artillery barrages which they use…They are also capable, in difficult country, of fighting without tank support…‘
During the desperate months of mid-1942, when the Axis forces had broken the Eighth Army outside Tobruk and were advancing on the Nile valley, the Second New Zealand Division was almost all that stood between Rommel and defeat.
An official US observer in Cairo was in no doubt as to the point: ‘In the battle which is sure to come within a few days, [the] outcome depends almost entirely upon Freyburg’s [sic] division and air support. New Zealand Division is by far the best fighting unit in the Middle East. Freyburg [sic] is a very great leader of men, possessed of tremendous courage and sound judgement.’
It was a hard-fought campaign. Yet the North African campaign was also a human story. Ordinary New Zealanders from civilian walks of life — accountants, lawyers, plumbers, labourers, teachers, musicians, even politicians — found unexpected strength within themselves to meet the demands of the war. Their battlegrounds — Sidi Rezegh, Ruweisat Ridge, Mingar Qaim, El Alamein, Tebaga Gap and Takrouna — are also part of New Zealand’s history.
I originally wrote my book Desert Duel: New Zealand’s land war in North Africa 1940-43 in 2001, and it was published the following year by Reed NZ Ltd, sans one word in the subtitle, at their insistence, for marketing purposes.
This new edition is available at an introductory price of $US 4.99 and marks the first time it’s been available in over a decade. It follows re-issue of four earlier titles in my military history series. Don’t forget to check ’em out – here. If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for whatever device you own, here.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015