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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II

160 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

10 September 1942

As you know from Middle East situation reports, the Division has again been in action during the latest thrust into Egypt. The enemy offensive commenced on the night of 30–31 August, gaps being made in the minefield south of the New Zealand position. The minefields were not contested seriously, and next day the enemy advanced eastwards driving back our light armoured patrols. The enemy then swung north and came in contact with British heavy armoured formations working in pre-arranged battle positions, backed by large numbers of field guns and anti-tank guns east of the New Zealand position. The only tank battle joined took place in the evening of 31 August, when the enemy failed against our armour and artillery. Meanwhile the RAF and light armour were harassing page 124 the enemy's communications with success. During 1 and 2 September the enemy probed northwards without joining battle, and on the 3rd his withdrawals commenced.

Up to this stage the New Zealand Division was not seriously engaged except for the Artillery, which had harassed the northern flank of the enemy advance. Prior to the offensive our role had been to carry out harassing raids to upset the enemy's plans. Battalions of the 5th and 6th Brigades carried out very successful raids under heavy artillery barrages, important identifications being obtained and uneasiness caused on the central front. A large-scale raid on the night of 30–31 August coincided with the date of the enemy attack and probably caused considerable confusion. As the battle progressed, an enemy attack against the southern or south-eastern flank appeared to be imminent but did not develop. Offensive action was planned, and on the night of 3–4 September we attacked south in co-operation with British troops and tanks. The latter were held up by heavy fire. In our sector we reached our objectives, upsetting the relief of the German 90th Light Division by the Italian Trieste Division. Many of the enemy were killed, prisoners were taken, and equipment destroyed. On 4 September two counter-attacks from the south by German infantry, one with tanks, were launched, both being repulsed with heavy enemy losses, and three out of four enemy tanks coming forward were destroyed by six-pounder anti-tank guns. A further attack from the west was stopped by the fire of 120 guns. The New Zealand Artillery has played an important part in the battle. Antiaircraft gunners brought down several planes each day during the height of the enemy attack. On the night of 4–5 September, to avoid casualties by holding ground of no further tactical value, we withdrew to our original position. Since then the enemy has stabilised his front on minefields down to Himeimat.

The enemy certainly intended his attack to go through, but I do not consider that his withdrawal means he is on the defensive. The results of the recent engagements were highly satisfactory but were certainly not decisive. The time gained, however, makes us immeasurably stronger as reinforcements arrive and troops are trained for desert conditions. Our casualties during the latest operations were approximately 70 killed, 40 missing, and 250 wounded.1 I am exercised over our losses of senior officers in the last two months: one Brigadier and five commanding officers killed, one Brigadier and three commanding officers captured.2

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The New Zealand Division is now being relieved for a rest by the sea. Leave is being arranged, also baths, canteens, concert party, bands, &c. A period of refitting and training follows with a British armoured brigade under command. The 4th Brigade is now reorganising to become an armoured brigade, courses, &c., being arranged. After the long spell of active operations in the heat, the men deserve a rest and will benefit from it. I can assure you that in the fighting here they carried out their role in the manner expected of the New Zealand Division.

1 These are the figures given in General Freyberg's papers. The figures in the telegram on the Prime Minister's Department file are 40 killed, 20 missing, and 300 wounded.

2 Brigadier J. R. Gray and Lieutenant-Colonels E. Te W. Love, S. F. Allen, A. W. Greville, J. N. Peart, and J. T. Russell were killed. Brigadier G. H. Clifton and Lieutenant-Colonels C. N. Watson, C. D'A. George, and R. J. Lynch were taken prisoner, Lynch dying of wounds on 26 Sep 1942 while a prisoner of war.