Italy’s entry into the war threatened the British in the Middle East, who had interests in protecting the Suez Canal, a vital communications link, and ensuring the availability of the region’s oil. There were huge Italian forces in Tripolitania/Cyrenaica (Libya) and Abyssinia (Ethiopia), but the danger was more apparent than real. When British forces attacked in the Western Desert in late 1940, Italians surrendered in droves. Only a few 2NZEF units took part in this offensive, though New Zealanders were in supporting RAF squadrons. Other British forces soon secured the southern flank by defeating the Italians in Abyssinia.
The arrival of German land forces under Erwin Rommel – the Afrika Korps – in early 1941 changed the picture. But even as they landed the British campaign was distracted by the need to provide support for Greece.
Italy had attacked Greece in October 1940 but been thrown back. When German intervention loomed in early 1941, a British force was sent from Egypt to bolster Greek morale and defences. New Zealand’s division, just united in Egypt with the arrival of the Second Echelon from Britain, formed part of this force.
The campaign on the Greek mainland was quickly over. German forces, driving into Greece from Yugoslavia, outflanked the main defence line, forcing a hasty retreat by the British force. Most of the 2nd NZ Division was among the troops evacuated by the Royal Navy in the last week of April 1941. In the ill-fated effort to support Greece, the division lost 291 men killed and 1,826 taken prisoner.
On Crete, New Zealander Charles Upham won the first of his two Victoria Crosses. During the counter-attack on the Maleme airfield he destroyed German machine-gun posts with grenades three times. Then, despite wounds to foot and shoulder, he repeatedly went forward to engage the enemy, on one occasion surviving by pretending to be dead. Finally, with three others, Upham ambushed a German force which threatened the men leaving Crete. Throughout he suffered from dysentery as well as being wounded and bruised. When Upham won another Victoria Cross in North Africa, he became the only combat soldier to achieve this feat.
The bulk of the 2nd NZ Division ended up on Crete, where it became part of the island’s defence forces. Bernard Freyberg commanded all Allied forces on the island – a difficult task given shortages of equipment, though helped by British foreknowledge of German plans provided by ULTRA (operational intelligence gained by deciphering enemy radio signals).
The German airborne assault on 20 May was fiercely resisted, but mistakes by New Zealand officers allowed the capture of Maleme airfield. When a counterattack failed, the British position on the island became untenable as German reinforcements poured in. Once again, the Royal Navy evacuated most of the defenders. In all, 691 New Zealanders died on Crete; 2,180 were taken prisoner.
Read more about the Battle for Crete on NZHistory.