Friday 24 August 2012

The Kiwi Connection

HMNZS Achilles
The country of New Zealand has been and remains to this day a good friend to this country, a friendship truly forged during two World Wars when the Kiwis stood shoulder to shoulder with their British cousins. Personally speaking, I count myself lucky to have made many friends from this wonderful country, largely due to my cricketing connections as well as my former involvement in the British shipping industry. I have yet to meet a New Zealander that I didn't like and trust.

During the First World War, New Zealand fought staunchly alongside Great Britain and this tradition was to continue during the following conflict. Indeed, when war was declared on 3rd September 1939, New Zealand's declaration followed immediately, with Prime Minister Michael Savage proclaiming "It is with gratitude that we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand." 

As always, in a blog of this nature, it is impossible to detail every last piece of New Zealand involvement in the Second World War, but instead we shall concentrate on some of the more outstanding individuals whose contributions were perhaps more noteworthy than most.

On the outbreak of war in 1939, the Royal New Zealand Navy did not exist in name; at that time it was merely the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy and did not become a stand-alone force until 1st October 1941, when it was finally recognised that the Navy was sufficiently large enough and self sufficient to warrant becoming a navy in it's own right. Despite this, the New Zealanders were involved at an early stage of the war at sea, when the cruiser HMNZS Achilles formed part of Commodore (later Rear Admiral) Henry Harwood's South Atlantic Squadron which harried and pursued the German Pocket Battleship Graf Spee during the Battle of the River Plate and which resulted in the German raider scuttling herself in the Plate Estuary in December 1939. It was the first British victory of the War, setting the tone for the remainder of the war at sea and giving a victory which in Churchill's words "in a cold winter, warmed the very cockles of the British heart." The New Zealand Navy steadily grew in size during the Second World War, fighting in many theatres from the South Atlantic, to the Mediterranean and against the Japanese in the Pacific with great distinction. By the end of the War, the Royal New Zealand Navy had some sixty vessels in commission.

As far as land forces were concerned, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force was formed on the outbreak of war under the command of Major General Bernard Freyberg VC, British born but who had emigrated to New Zealand at the age of two when his family left for those shores. Freyberg had won his Victoria Cross during the First World War at The Somme whilst serving with Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division as battalion commander. During the capture of Beaucourt Village on 13 November 1916, after Freyberg's battalion had carried the initial attack through the enemy's front system of trenches, he rallied and re-formed his own much disorganised men and some others, and led them on a successful assault of the second objective, during which he suffered two wounds, but remained in command and held his ground throughout the rest of the day and following night. When re-inforced the next morning he attacked and captured a strongly fortified village, taking 500 prisoners. Though wounded twice more, the second time severely, Freyberg refused to leave the line until such time as he had issued final instructions for his men. 

Freyberg's bravery was not in doubt and he was an inspired choice to lead the Expeditionary Force during the Second World War. The New Zealanders fought with distinction during the North African campaign, as well as in the defeats in Greece and Crete but saw deserved success at long last at the Second Battle of El Alamein, when they were at the forefront of Montgomery's advance. They fought across North Africa before the final victory in May 1943, when they were withdrawn to refit before re-entering the fray for the Italian campaign, where they again fought with great courage and tenacity at Monte Cassino, finally reaching Trieste on 2nd May 1945. It was during the North African campaign that the name of another remarkable New Zealand came to the attention of the public - Captain Charles Hazlett Upham - the only man during the Second World War to win the Victoria Cross twice and only the third person ever to achieve this remarkable honour.

Captain Charles Upham VC
Charles Upham was born in Christchurch in 1908 and despite serving in the New Zealand Territorial Army as a Sergeant, insisted on joining the New Zealand Expeditionary Force as a private soldier. It was not until July 1940, by which time his unit was already in Egypt that he was cajoled into joining an Officer Cadet Training Unit. His first VC came during the Crete campaign, when he performed an extraordinary series of exploits during the eight days from 22nd-30th May 1941. It would take too long to explain the whole series of actions here but suffice to say, his performances involved fighting almost single handedly against nigh impossible odds, mounting attack after attack on enemy machine gun nests, routing these positions, rescuing cut-off Companies and guiding them to British lines, before returning to action despite his own wounds and repeating these actions time and again. His reaction on being awarded the VC was to state modestly "It's meant for the men." The Crete campaign, although ending in an Allied defeat, wreaked such heavy casualties amongst the German paratroops assaulting the island, that is became known as a Pyhrric Victory to the Germans, so much so that Hitler never again committed his Parachute Army in an airborne assault. Upham's second VC came a little over a year later at Ruweisat Ridge, on 14th-15th July 1942 during what proved to be the last advance of the Afrika Korps before the tide turned in the Allies favour later that year. During the German attack, Upham led his Company straight for the two nearest enemy strongpoints, destroying a tank in the process but himself receiving serious wounds from machine gun fire that broke his arm. Despite this, he continued to lead his men. He temporarily allowed himself to be taken to the Regimental Aid Post to have his wounds treated. However, he soon returned to lead his men but was again wounded and this time was unable to move. By the time his position was overrun, Upham's Company had been reduced to just six men. After being captured and having recovered from his wounds, he was to spend the rest of the war in the notorious Colditz Castle, having attempted to escape several times whilst being transported through Italy en route to Germany. His second VC was awarded at the end of the war upon his liberation and return to Britain. When the citation for this second award came before King George VI, such was the unusual nature of this potential award that the King queried it to Major General Howard Kippenberger, himself another illustrious New Zealander who had been seriously wounded in battle. Kippenberger immediately responded that in his opinion Upham had deserved his second Victoria Cross "several times over." The King needed no further persuasion and the award was made without further demur. Upham returned to New Zealand after the war and died in 1994. His funeral at Christchurch Cathedral was conducted with full military honours and over 5,000 people lined the streets in order to pay their respects to this remarkable man.

During the Battle of Britain, New Zealanders formed the largest single Commonwealth contingent, providing some 127 pilots during this struggle for Britain's very survival. Indeed, this was the second largest 'foreign' contribution, with only the Free Poles providing more pilots. The Kiwi Connection started almost at the very top, with Air Vice Marshall Keith (later Air Chief Marshall Sir Keith) Park leading 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command. Park fought such a successful battle that he was dubbed 'Defender of London' by no less than his enemies in the Luftwaffe. We have studied Keith Park in a previous post in this blog, so will not re-visit his story here, suffice to say that after the war, no less a luminary than Marshal of the Royal Air Force Baron Tedder stated of Park that "If any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did." Praise indeed from one illustrious airman to another. 

Alan Deere in 1941 by Cuthbert Orde
One of the 'few' during the Battle of Britain and one of the 127 New Zealanders to serve during the Battle was Alan 'Al' Deere. Al was born in Auckland in 1917 and had been one of the very first New Zealanders to join the RAF in 1937. He had passed out as a Flying Officer in early 1938 and was accepted on a short-service commission with the service. On the outbreak of war, he was serving with 54 Squadron, at that time still flying Gloster Gladiator biplanes. Having converted to Spitfires at the beginning of 1940, like most pilots he immediately fell in love with the pretty but lethal fighter and described it as "the most beautiful and easy aircraft to fly." In common with many Battle of Britain pilots, Deere first encountered the enemy over Dunkirk and during the French campaign. By 26th May 1940, Al had already shot down six German aircraft over France but two days later he was shot down for the first time during the war and after being knocked out whilst making a forced landing on a Belgian beach, was rescued by a British soldier and evacuated through Dunkirk (in common with some 338,000 others) and eventually returned to his base at Hornchurch some 19 hours after taking off. He was awarded the DFC in June 1940 for his actions during the French campaign. During the Battle of Britain, Deere was heavily engaged in the fighting, first in dogfights over the Channel defending Merchant Convoys and on 9th July, shortly after shooting down a Bf109, Al's Spitfire collided head-on with another Bf109 but he was able to nurse his fighter back to the Kent coast where he crashed. He was shot down three more times during the Battle of Britain, surviving each time and convincing himself that he had Nine Lives, which indeed became the eventual title of his autobiography. On one of these occasions he was shot down, he was taken to Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, the base of another celebrated New Zealander, the famous burns surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe. Although Deere was not seriously injured, McIndoe recognised that he was terribly tired and in need of rest and tried in vain to persuade Deere to stay in hospital for a few valuable days recuperation. Deere would have none of it and discharged himself the following morning. However, such had been the strain not only on Deere but on the whole of 54 Squadron, that on 3rd September 1940, they were withdrawn from 11 Group and sent to 13 Group based at Catterick in Yorkshire to recover from their exertions. Three days later, Al Deere was awarded a second DFC for his efforts in destroying eleven German aircraft and sharing in the destruction of two further aircraft. Whilst in Yorkshire training new pilots, Deere suffered a further collision and used up another of his nine lives and as a result of this was rested from active flying, first as a ground controller and then being sent on a lecture tour of America to teach American fighter pilots the tactics used in winning the Battle of Britain. Later in the War, Deere engineered a return to active flying as Biggin Hill's Wing Leader and later as leader of the Free French Fighter Wing on operations over the beaches on D-Day. After the war, Deere remained in the RAF, not retiring until 1967 as an Air Commodore, before which he had led the surviving Battle of Britain pilots' flypast at the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in January 1965. Al Deere passed away aged 77 on 21st September 1995 and following his funeral service, his ashes were scattered over the River Thames from a Spitfire of the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

Les Munro (left) speaking to King George VI

There are many other New Zealanders that space does not permit more than a passing mention - Sir Howard Kippenberger, mentioned above - grievously wounded at Monte Cassino by a land mine, he recovered from losing both feet to mastermind the repatriation of the many New Zealanders liberated from German POW Camps. Les Munro, born in Gisborne in 1919, Les is still with us and is the last of the surviving Dambusters - the raid recounted here a few months ago which has entered British wartime folklore. Last but by no means least, the aforementioned Sir Archibald McIndoe, a civilian who became one of the pioneers of modern plastic surgery. McIndoe's burns unit at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead treated the terribly burned victims of the RAF during the Battle of Britain. He thought the World of "his boys" as he called his patients, and they in turn revered him, referring to him as "The Boss" or "The Maestro." 

To paraphrase Michael Savage, we have every reason to be grateful that New Zealand stood where we stood in the fight against tyranny.

Published Sources:

The Battle of The River Plate - Dudley Pope, Secker & Warburg 1987
Dambusters - Max Arthur, Virgin Books 2008
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri-Service Press 1990
VCs of the Second World War - John Frayn Turner, Pen & Sword 2004

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