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The New zealand campaign in greece

In March 1941, New Zealand sent an expeditionary force to Greece to help the Allied forces defend against the German invasion. The New Zealand forces consisted of two infantry brigades and an artillery regiment, and they were part of a larger British Commonwealth force.

The New Zealand troops fought bravely but were ultimately overwhelmed by the superior German forces, who had air and ground superiority. After several weeks of intense fighting, the Allied forces were forced to evacuate the mainland of Greece, and the New Zealand troops were among the last to leave.

Despite the defeat, the New Zealanders made a significant contribution to the Allied effort and demonstrated their bravery and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. The campaign in Greece had a significant impact on New Zealand, with many families losing loved ones and the country realizing the importance of developing its own independent defense capability.

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Where britain goes, we go

The context for the story

The New Zealand government declared war on Germany at 9:30 pm on 3 September 1939. Cabinet decided on 6 September to mobilise 6,600 men into the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (the first one went to the First World War) to go to the aid of Britain.

Recruiting offices opened at 9:00 am on Tuesday, 12 September. 5,400 men volunteered that day, and by 8 October 15,000 had joined up.

The Division left New Zealand in “Echelons” progressively during 1940. Each Echelon was broadly comprised of a brigade group of three infantry brigades, a specialist Machine Gun Battalion, and all the other support, logistics and maintenance units that make up a modern army.

Two of the three infantry brigades in each Echelon brigade group were drawn from the North Island and the third from the South Island. They were numbered consecutively, the first Echelon, for example, comprising the 18th, 19th and 20th Battalions, some base staff and part of Divisional HQ. The infantry component was bolstered by the specialist 27 Machine Gun Battalion. 

The Second Echelon contained another brigade group (21, 22 and 23, Rankin’s battalion), the rest of the HQ and artillery units, plus an additional infantry battalion, 28 Maori Battalion. The main body of troops went into camp on 12 January 1941 under the command of Brigadier James Hargest, a farmer from Gore.

They sailed at the beginning of May in company with an Australian force. By this time Denmark and Norway had fallen. The situation deteriorated as the ships crossed the Indian Ocean. On the 10th Hitler invaded the European Low Countries, Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Churchill, who rose in Parliament on the 13th and gave his “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech. Italy opportunistically declared war on 10 May, and by early June France had fallen and the miracle of Dunkirk had plucked some 300,000 troops from the grasp of the Germans.

The convoy of ships dropped anchor in the Clyde on 16 June 1940.

Battle of Britain Men

23 Battalion was amongst those sent to Kent to take up defensive positions against Germany’s threatened invasion of England. They had a grandstand view of the passing fleets of enemy bombers, “like a run of whitebait” according to one soldier, and the air battles overhead. The blitz was experienced first-hand during bombing raids near camp and on leave in London. Everywhere they went they were enthusiastically received and warmly greeted in the homes and pubs of a thankful civilian populace.

The threat of invasion diminished as autumn turned to early winter, and the first Christmas overseas was spent in camp with the “halls decked with boughs of holly” and a Christmas dinner of roast pork and plum pudding.

The battalion sailed for Egypt in early January, a trip which took two months via Capetown. 4 NZ Brigade moved to Greece almost as 5 Brigade arrived, 6 NZ Brigade left soon afterwards, and 5 Brigade, of which 23 Battalion was a part, struck tents and packed for the move on 16 March. After a week cooling their heels in Amiriya, reputed to be the most unpopular camp in the Middle East, they embarked for Greece on the 25th.

Two days later, the Cameronia  with 23 Battalion aboard sailed into Piraeus Harbour on a sparkling spring morning, to bring the last of 2 New Zealand Division to Greece. This is where our story begins... 

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1941: A Year of Defeats and the European War goes Global

By March 1941, when the Rabbit Hunter’s story commences, New Zealand had been at war with Germany for 19 months. The country’s largest contribution, in terms of manpower committed, was the Second New Zealand Division. The division as a whole was sent to Greece, and came together once the units that had been in Britain from June 1940 to early 1941 arrived in the port of Piraeus.

During 1941 it must have seemed that the war was lost. The early British offensive in North Africa had borne fruit and rolled the Italians back through Libya. Success was soon reversed by the Italians, now reinforced by Rommel’s Afrika Korps, in September. The British managed to stabilise the situation in December, in a see-saw campaign, pushing the Axis forces back from the Suez Canal, so vital to Britain’s supply routes.

In virtually every other theatre the war went badly for the Allies. Greece fell to the German in late April, and the battered Anzac battalions were evacuated either to Crete or to Egypt.

The Germans invaded Crete on 20 May and took the island after a ferocious battle with heavy casualties on both sides. The Germans employed airborne troops en masse for the first time in history. They were so badly mauled by the island’s defenders that Hitler lost his faith in airborne assaults and they never attempted another large scale airborne operation. The German paratroopers were used as elite infantry for the rest of the war.

With the southern flanks secured, Hitler launched his major gambit, operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June. Armies numbering in the millions clashed in colossal battles. This campaign soon eclipsed everything that had gone before it in this war, for scale, ferocity, destruction and casualties. The year ended with German troops at the gates of Moscow, having destroyed whole Soviet armies with millions killed or made prisoner.

The war took another disastrous turn for the Allies on Sunday 7 December, Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy,” when Japan attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour and put many of the major units out of action. Simultaneously, Japan attacked the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore. Two large British warships, HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales, key to British naval defence of the region, were sunk on 10 December. Driven out of Malaya by the end of January 1942, 130,000 Allied servicemen went into Japanese captivity when Singapore fell in February, the largest surrender in British military history.

These events led to the friendly invasion of New Zealand by US servicemen in 1942 and the withdrawal of the Australian division from the Middle East to bolster the home defences. Australia was threatened with invasion. The war, now a global one, had come to New Zealand’s doorstep.     

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