Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
At Trieste the New Zealand Division ended its pursuit of a defeated enemy in the last of a series of campaigns which had begun in Greece four years earlier in a time of stress and anxiety but of unwavering conviction in the justice of the cause and in the inevitability of victory. After the withdrawal from Greece, where there had been little opportunity of coming properly to grips with the enemy, the Division had suffered grievous casualties in men killed, wounded and captured, but had gone on unfalteringly to survive the holocaust of Crete, the alternate elation and bitter disappointment of the ebb and flow of battle in the deserts of North Africa, and the relentless drive, despite rebuff and war-weariness, in winter and summer, over mountain and plain in Italy.
The New Zealand Division was moulded, nurtured and commanded for six years—except for a few brief periods of absence imposed by wounds or while in the command of a corps—by General Freyberg, an indomitable warrior of English birth, New Zealand boyhood and education, and distinguished service with British forces in the First World War. Upon the Division he stamped his personality; with it he became absolutely identified; without his leadership it most likely would not have earned its reputation as a ‘ball of fire’. In battle after battle Freyberg led the Division with the wisdom born of experience in the field unsurpassed by that of any of his contemporary commanders. At all times he attended to the welfare and material needs of his men with an understanding, tact and devotion which set him apart from other commanders. Sustained by a charter prescribed by the New Zealand Government, he displayed invaluable qualities as a soldier-diplomat, who maintained an essential but sometimes precarious balance between the overall demands of Allied strategy and the vital interests of a small country whose major war effort was involved in the Division.
Freyberg expressed his pride in the Division in a farewell message on 22 November 1945. He felt that ‘the important part we played was far in excess of the size of our Force. Looking back over the long years of the war, it seems to me that we have been present at most of the vital moments, such as the disasters of Greece and Crete, the battle to save Tobruk in 1941, the battle to save Egypt in 1942, El Alamein, the turning of El Agheila, the Mareth Line, the battle for Cassino and the final advance across the Po Valley to Trieste. Always, as I see it, the Second New Zealand Division page 584 has been in the forefront of battle…. I am sure there is no finer fighting force amongst the armies of the Allies. I realise how privileged I have been, for no commander ever went into battle with greater confidence than I have done during the last six years, and no confidence has been better justified….’
The Division was praised by Field Marshal Alexander, General Mark Clark and Lieutenant-General McCreery, and also by the Commander-in-Chief of the German forces in Italy, Field Marshal Kesselring. When the United States Historical Branch asked Kesselring for the enemy's opinion of the various Allied troops who had taken part in the battles for Cassino, he said that the New Zealand Division was a formation of very high fighting value which ‘always tried to take its opponents by surprise when it attacked. It was very inventive in the tactics it used, and not stereotyped. It attacked by day or night, either with or without a preliminary bombardment, sometimes on a wide front and sometimes in a very narrow spearhead, often trying to hit our positions where we did not expect it.’
Kesselring, however, was critical of junior leadership in the Division: ‘At times the commanders of smaller formations failed to exploit opportunities which might have led to local successes, because they had been given no orders to cover this eventuality— contrary to German policy, which always strove to bring out initiative in junior commanders.’ But he thought that the co-operation of the artillery and tanks with the infantry was always very good. The Division's most noticeable individual trait was its fondness for reconnaissance. ‘As a rule both recce and fighting patrols were very active before an attack. This certainly made the German soldiers jittery, but on the other hand it enabled them to identify their opponents very quickly.’ The New Zealand soldier ‘was well trained in the use of his weapon and in the use of ground…. brave and tough, very good in single combat and on patrols, equally fearless in attack and in the defence of newly-won ground.’ Kesselring believed the Division ‘had a large number of excellent snipers.’
The New Zealanders, when they arrived in Italy, had to adjust themselves to a kind of warfare unlike that in which they had excelled in the deserts of North Africa; they had to acquire new skills for the mountainous terrain and house-to-house and street fighting. This they accomplished in the battles fought among the farm buildings and villages in the hills south of Florence and page 585 amid the canals and ditches of Romagna. The departure of long-service men, many of them senior NCOs, made way for the well-earned promotion of experienced men eager to prove themselves. The absorption of reinforcements, including officers who had dropped rank and others from the Pacific, was a beneficial infusion of new blood.
In the final offensive in 1945 the resolute infantry, supported by the weight, flexibility and mobility of the artillery, by the fighter-bombers and tanks, by the speed and ingenuity of the engineers, and by the self-sufficient supply and maintenance services, took one position after another without crippling losses, despite the enemy's naturally strong and well-prepared defences, his Tiger and Panther tanks, guns, mortars, machine guns and rocket projectors, his minefields and wire entanglements.
The fighting spirit of the men, the enterprise and skill of their commanders (including the junior leaders), combined with the superb efficiency and co-operation of all arms, enabled the New Zealand Division to overcome a series of obstacles, from the Senio onwards, more quickly than all other divisions. This was ‘probably the finest battle you ever fought—and you have fought some pretty useful ones,’ declared Field Marshal Alexander in an address to some 150 officers of the Division at Miramare on 1 June 1945. He was particularly gratified that the Division, which had seen the campaigns through from 1941 onwards, should be ‘the spearhead of the attack in 1945. It is a matter of great pride to me that I should have had you under my command.’