From 1941 to 1943 the 2nd NZ Division took part in the 8th Army’s effort to drive the Axis (Italian and German forces) out of North Africa. This was a see-saw campaign fought between two gateways, El Agheila in the west and El Alamein in the east. With no natural defences, outflanking was a perennial danger. The result was big advances and retreats.
In November 1941 the 2nd NZ Division entered the fray in Operation Crusader, designed to relieve the siege on the port of Tobruk in Libya and defeat the Axis force which had driven east into Egypt. In this confused battle about 700 New Zealanders were taken prisoner when their units were overrun, most notably at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. But the outcome was satisfactory: the link up was made with Tobruk, and Rommel’s forces retreated.
The New Zealand division spent February to June 1942 in Syria, recently captured from Vichy France (the French regime that collaborated with Germany). While continuing their training, the New Zealanders formed part of the defence against a possible enemy thrust down from the north through Turkey.
The island of Malta, lying astride the Axis supply route across the Mediterranean, was of crucial importance to the North African campaign. It was subjected to a fierce bombing onslaught. Among its defenders were New Zealand airmen, and several, including Keith Park, commanded its air defences.
Battles on the Alamein Line
In June 1942 a new crisis in the desert brought Freyberg’s division hastily back to the front. An Axis counter-offensive had swept into Egypt, capturing Tobruk. After a dramatic escape from destruction at Minqar Qaim, the New Zealanders helped the 8th Army to halt the enemy at El Alamein. In this hard-fought battle, the New Zealand division suffered heavy losses. Most were prisoners, taken when their units were overrun, especially at Ruweisat Ridge and El Mreir. A stalemate developed. Among the New Zealanders a strong distrust of British armoured units and high command had developed.
One VC, but not two
In the last stages of the North African campaign two Māori soldiers achieved great distinction. On 26 March 1943 Lieutenant Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu led his platoon to capture and hold the crest of a hill at Tebaga Gap. He was killed the next morning and was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Less than a month later Sergeant Haane Te Rauawa Manahi led his section to capture and hold a pinnacle at Takrouna, a Tunisian village. The Italians retook the pinnacle, but Manahi led a successful counter-attack. In this case the recommendation for a VC was not accepted. There has been an unsuccessful campaign subsequently for Manahi to receive the award.
Command of the 8th Army passed to Bernard Montgomery, whose incisive leadership restored morale. In the second battle of El Alamein (October–November 1942), the New Zealanders were again prominent. The 8th Army’s victory was the beginning of the end of the Axis presence in North Africa.
From November 1942 to May 1943 the New Zealanders took part in the pursuit of the Axis forces across North Africa to Tunisia. There, caught between the 8th Army and Allied forces that had landed in Algeria, the Axis forces capitulated on 13 May. Victory in North Africa came at a heavy cost to New Zealanders – 2,989 died, 4,041 became prisoners and over 7,000 were wounded.