Courage And Valour – New Zealanders In The Italian Campaign of WWII

Members of the Signals Platoon of 2 Infantry Battalion, taken at Coli. Photo via the late Harry Hopping.

The largely forgotten story of New Zealand’s contribution to the liberation of Italy between 1943 and 1945 is being told in a free podcast series called Courage And Valour: New Zealanders in the Italian Campaign of WWII.

As a background to the series, on the 6th of October 1943 the first battalions from the 2nd New Zealand Division began to board troopships at the port of Alexandria in Egypt. The Division had been in the Mediterranean region since early 1940, initially training and defending Egypt, and then from 1941 onwards they’d been part of the vanguard of the British Eighth Army, in Greece, Crete and Egypt. They had been critical in relieving the embattled Australians at Tobruk, and in stemming Rommels steamroller advance at El Alamein. As a mobile Division they were among the units that led the charge back westwards, pushing the Germans and Italians back across Egypt, through Libya, and into Tunisia, with their critical ‘left hook’ decisively sealing the Axis forces’ fate. The war in North Africa came to an end on the 13th of May 1943.

The Division was then withdrawn back to their home base of Maadi Camp, near Cairo in Egypt. There the survivors of the battle recuperated, rested and healed. Most of those who’d travelled from New Zealand in the first three Echelons of the Division back between February and September 1940 were now given a long furlough leave, in which they were taken in drafts by ship back to New Zealand for several months. These soldiers were the furthest from home of any of the Allies and these particular ‘old digs’ from the early days had been away for three years or more from their families.

A typical Italian casa, or house, sporting battle damage following the fighting to take the village of San Michele, on the outskirts of Florence. Photo 24 Battalion, 2NZEF, via Colin Murray
House in San Michele – a typical Italian casa, or house, sporting battle damage following the fighting to take the village of San Michele, on the outskirts of Florence. Photo 24 Battalion, 2NZEF, via Colin Murray

Meanwhile new reinforcements were arriving from New Zealand, building up the numbers to replace those lost in the recent battles. Many of these reinforcements had actually been serving in the Army several years at home in New Zealand, or in Pacific garrisons. But most had not yet seen action. So they began a period of extensive battle training in the desert area known as The Devil’s Playground. They were preparing for their baptism of fire. The newly arrived men were integrated into the battalions and units with the experienced, hardened veterans, including those returning from their furlough.

After the Desert War and before the Italian Campaign, the battle-scarred veterans of 18, 19 and 20 Infantry Battalions found themselves training for a new role. Due to the losses to the New Zealand Infantry when they were let down on several occasions by a lack of British tank support, these three battalions were converted by the Division Commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, to become Armoured Regiments with Sherman tanks.

Now, back to the port of Alexandria in October 1943, the Division had been rested, reinforced and re-equipped. Most of the men had endured one last training mission, a seven-day march across the the 144 mile (232 km) long desert road between Cairo and Berg el Arab, near Alexandria. Now they were boarding the ships for Italy. The Division was heading back to the battlefront, and this time it was on the very soil of one of their arch enemies, the Fascist Italians.

Those first battalions arrived at the port of Taranto on the 9th of October 1943. Having taken Sicily already, other Allied forces had already landed on mainland Italy and were working their way north. However to the sincere relief of all, the Italian Government that had recently deposed their previous Fascist leader Benito Mussolini had agreed in secret talks to cease hostilities against the Allies and switched allegiance on the13th of October, declaring war on Germany.

The remainder of the Division arrived in Taranto on the 22nd of October, and training in the new and unfamiliar Italian countryside began. Their first ordeal was with the weather, thunderstorms drenching their camp and hampering their movements around Lucera. The Divisional Headquarters was set up initially at Gissi.

Members of the New Zealand Engineers at Trentham Camp, north of Wellington, just before leaving New Zealand for Egypt and eventually Italy. Photo via the late Tom McLennan
Trentham Camp 9th May 1943 – Members of the New Zealand Engineers at Trentham Camp, north of Wellington, just before leaving New Zealand for Egypt and eventually Italy. Photo via the late Tom McLennan

In the meantime German forces in Italy had raced south, consolidated and been reinforced ready tomeet the steadily encraoching Allies. On the 22nd of November 1943 the 2nd NZ Division moved into the front lines along the Sangro River. Their new campaign now really began. Crossing the Sangro on the night of the 27/28 of November, the New Zealand Infantry went into their first advance on Italian soil.

The objective was to breach the German’s Winter Line. In the coming weeks the New Zealanders took the stronghold of Castelfrentano and fought up to a stalemate at the even stronger town of Orsogna. Winter hampered their advance hugely.

However in January 1944 the kiwis were withdrawn from Orsogna and moved across Italy to the west, now tasked with taking on the German fortress in the town of Cassino. They were detached from the British Eighth Army and joined the US Fifth Army here, temporarily. American, British and French troops had taken a hammering in the first battle of Cassino, the New Zealanders were brought in to break the deadlock they’d come up against.

The Second Battle of Cassino, fought by New Zealand, Indian and British units all under Freyberg’s newly formed New Zealand Corps failed to take much new ground in February.

In March 1944 the Third Battle of Cassino saw the New Zealanders move into the town, which was now flattened by bombing, and the Indians take a lot of higher ground. This was a success but again became a stalemate developed. The New Zealand Infantry was replaced in the town positions, and they went up into the hills around Terrelli to out-flank the Germans, which led into the Fourth Battle of the Cassino that saw the Poles and British troops, supported by New Zealand tanks and artillery, take the monastery at Cassino and force a full German withdrawal. Meanwhile the kiwi infantry piled down the other side of the mountains and the Allies broke out into the Liri Valley.

This opened the road to Rome. Whilst Allied forces and the kiwi tanks continued up that road the New Zealand Infantry cleared out many towns in the valley, and then took a break after the gruelling four month campaign.

The remains of the Hotel de Roses in Cassino which proved to be an almost impregnable objective for the infantry. Photo 24 Battalion, 2NZEF, via Colin Murray
The remains of the Hotel de Roses in Cassino which proved to be an almost impregnable objective for the infantry. Photo 24 Battalion, 2NZEF, via Colin Murray

Rome was taken whilethe kiwis rested and the next major objective for the New Zealanders was Florence. This was a hard fought battle for the kiwis to take the heavily defended towns leading to that city, but the Germans then withdrew and the city itself was declared ‘open’ to save it from bombardment (as had happened earlier in Rome).

Following the Florence campaign the New Zealand Division moved east again to the Adriatic Coast and then pushed north from town to town, village to village. The Allies were now almost unstopable, but a break in fighting and stalemate was forced for months by the weather again, with Axis and Allies facing off on each side of the Senio River. Both sides sat and waited from December 1944 till the thaw came in March 1945. Then the Allied spring offensive saw the massive Allied war machine move north rapidly, and they killed or captured tens of thousands of Germans as they fled north.

For the New Zealanders the final act came as they took the city of Trieste. The same day the German forces in Italy capitulated and a few days later the entire war in Europe ended.

The New Zealand effort in the campaign had been constantly a large part of the success, as the war moved slowly north. Winston Churchill had referred to Italy as the “soft underbelly” of Europe but in reality it was far from that, it had proven at every step to be a harsh struggle against a very determined enemy, coupled with a battle with the attrocious weather that impeded movement with either heavy snow in winter or slushy mud that slowed traffic in other seasons.

The Italian Campaign was also the Second Front that Russia had long called for, many German Divisions were diverted from the Russian Front and from Fortress Europe to stop the Allies in Italy. This assisted both the Russian advance and when the Allies finally landed at Normandy meant the German forces had three major fronts to contend with, and to keep reinforced and resupplied.

Whilst the New Zealand Army’s efforts are perhaps forgotten by most other countries, and is little known now in New Zealand by the younger generations, it has to be noted that there were also New Zealanders flying bombers, fighters, transport planes and other aircraft wih the RAF squadrons in Italy too. And there were also many New Zealand sailors serving on Royal Navy ships that landed the Armies into Sicily and Italy, and keeping the costs clear of enemy shi[pping. And there were also kiwis onboard the Merchant Navy vessels, keeping the supplies coming for the troops.

The stories of the New Zealanders in this campaign are now being told in Courage And Valour. This free audio podcast series has veterans themselves telling the story of the campaign through their own personal memories. In a project that began in 2010, veterans around New Zealand have been recorded and their amazing stories edited into a linear narrative.

Veterans 2 (Medium)
Veterans who appear in the series, Left To Right: Norm Harris, Peter Brown, Colin Murray, and Bob O’Brien (Photo: Dave Homewood)

Already available online are eleven episodes. The first nine cover the Infantry soldiers in a chronological unveiling of their story from when they first joined up, and their training within New Zealand, to their voyage to Egypt, training there and then the arrival into Italy, followed by the stories of their battles, and life on the front lines from Taranto to Trieste. This includes three episodes focusing on the battles in and around Cassino, but also much more detail about the other major battles the New Zealanders fought that usually get overlooked.

The tenth episode is a two-hour special with no chronological bearing but is again focused upon the Infantry soldiers in the front lines. Entitled Life In The Poor Bloody Infantry, this is a collection of little stories and memories of the infantrymen that paint a picture of life in general in their branch of the Army during WWII.

Veterans who appear in the series, Left To Right: Norm Harris, Peter Brown, Colin Murray, and Bob O'Brien (Photo: Dave Homewood)
Veterans who appear in the series, Left To Right: Colin Murray, Harry Hopping, Galvan Garmonsway, Norm Harris and Fred Blank (Photo: Dave Homewood)

The eleventh episode focuses on the New Zealand Engineers. These are the men who laid and lifted minefields, built bridges and demolitioned obstructions. And they kept the many vehicles the Division owned in servicable condition.

Recorded at a time of life when the veterans knew it was time to tell all, there is a gritty, raw edge to many of the memories, and a frankness perhaps never witnessed before in previous documentaries. There is also a much larger coverage and depth than ever previously attempted by any documentary before in New Zealand, either for television or radio, on this topic.

Courage And Valour already has around 14 hours of listening available, with more to come as episodes are also planned covering the New Zealanders in the Armoured Regiments, the Artillery, the Medics, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, The Royal Navy, and Prisoners of War to eventually be produced and added to the archive.

You can access, listen and download the Courage And Valour series for free, and find other information such as a glossary of the slang used and a timeline of events, photographs,a few audio extras and more here.