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

Tuesday 7 August 2012

An Island under Siege: Malta, Pedestal and the 'Ohio'

The George Cross
Whilst we are currently basking in the success of Team GB in what is turning into a superbly organised Olympic Games, the name of the game for the Allied powers in August 1942 was survival. Nowhere was this more vital than on the beseiged island of Malta.

The island was not an easy place to defend. In fact, prior to the outbreak of war, the RAF had taken the view that the island was indefensible due to it's proximity to the Italian airfields in Sicily. This view was opposed by the Royal Navy, who felt that as Malta sat astride the supply route of a potentially hostile Italy to North Africa, it should be defended and reinforced as a naval base in order to project British sea power and to disrupt any potential enemy's supply lines. The RAF's view had prevailed in peacetime, probably due to the expedience that this view also saved money from the defence budget. Fortunately, when Winston Churchill came into office in May 1940, he took the opposite view and the defences were hastily reinforced with whatever resources could be spared.

In these early days, the fighter defence consisted of a flight of ancient Gloster Gladiator biplanes based at RAF Hal Far. Something of a myth has built up over the years that there were only three of these aircraft operational, which were named Faith, Hope and Charity. In fact, there were usually more than three aircraft operational at any one time time and these names were not applied until after the battle was safely won and were the names given to the three surviving aircraft. Despite their obsolete appearance, the Gladiators were able to match the Italian aircraft initially deployed but the weight of numbers would soon tell and the biplane fighters began to suffer in the war of attrition. Later in the battle, more modern Hurricane fighters were deployed to the island and by the time of the Pedestal convoy in August 1942, the fighter defences had been further reinforced by the arrival of modern Spitfire Mk Vc fighters under the overall command of Sir Keith Park, one of the victors of the Battle of Britain, during which he had been christened by the Germans "Defender of London".

However, we are going ahead too far and should explain the background further. Malta had been identified by the Italians as a potential invasion target in 1938 but their high command had decided that the losses would be too great. Once war commenced, Mussolini revived his hopes of invading the island; he also hope that Spain would enter the war, occupy Gibraltar and having sealed off the Mediterranean, could occupy Malta after it had 'withered on the vine.' 

Fortunately, this was not to be and by June 1940, Mussolini knew that he would face a fight to occupy the island. Aerial bombardment was his chosen method to soften up the defences and the civilian population. At first the air defences consisted of the ancient Gladiator biplanes mentioned earlier, quickly reinforced by the Hurricanes flown in from the aircraft carrier HMS Argus. Despite the terrible damage caused to Valletta, the RAF were able to tackle the attacking Italian aircraft with relative ease and soon submarines based on the naval base were beginning to become a thorn in the side of the convoys supplying the Axis forces in North Africa. This was compounded by the destruction of the Italian fleet at Taranto by carrier based aircraft from HMS Illustrious on 11th/12th November 1940. It was obvious that the Italians couldn't take Malta unassisted - enter the Luftwaffe.

The Afrika Korps had arrived in North Africa in February 1941 with the ultimate aim of expelling the British from North Africa, taking the Suez Canal and thus going on to capturing the Arabian oil fields. The Luftwaffe, charged with supporting the Afrika Korps and also destroying the British base on Malta, moved into the same Sicilian airfields vacated by the Regia Aeronautica. Once again, Malta was under siege and this time it looked as if the Germans might succeed where their Italian allies had failed. The war of attrition took a heavy toll; although the island began the siege with a healthy supply of food and essential materials, the supplies began to whittle away and with their more modern aircraft, the Luftwaffe began to achieve air superiority. The Hurricane fighters were no match on their own against the attacking German aircraft and outclassed by the latest Bf109F fighters especially. Conversely, the Royal Navy were using Malta as a base to launch submarine attacks on Axis supply convoys and wreaked a heavy toll of their prey. Malta was still a thorn in the side of the Axis but the civilian population especially were suffering from the incessant air raids and the vital supplies of food and fuel were beginning to run low.

By March 1942, the Luftwaffe's air superiority was beginning to be challenged; Spitfire fighters at last began to arrive on the island, ferried in by HMS Eagle and USS Wasp in repeated runs from March to May 1942. The arrival of the Spitfires coincided with the arrival of Keith Park and pitched against his old adversary from the Battle of Britain, Albert Kesselring, he once again gave him a beating by using the same tactics that he served so well in the dark days of 1940; meeting the attackers as far forward as possible and breaking up the attacks early.

HMS Eagle sinking after being torpedoed by U-73 (IWM)
Despite this turning of the tide, the supply situation on Malta was becoming desperate; the Axis were successfully targetting convoys and out of range of the defending Spitfires, the exacted a heavy toll of both the merchant ships carrying the supplies and the Royal Navy escorts. By the summer of 1942, it was decided to send a 'make or break' convoy to lift the siege. Codenamed 'Pedestal', the convoy consisted of fourteen merchant ships, heavily escorted by two battleships, three aircraft carriers, seven cruisers plus some twenty destroyers, many of which were diverted from the all important Western Approaches convoys. Amongst the vessels in the convoy was the tanker Ohio, American built but British managed and crewed under the command of Captain Dudley Mason, who at the age of 39, was the youngest Master in the Eagle Oil Company's fleet. Loaded with kerosine and fuel oil, she was the most important vessel in the convoy, containing the very life blood for the defending fighters and defending warships.

S.S. Ohio limps into Grand Harbour, Valletta (IWM)
The convoy sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar on 9th August and entered Gibraltar the next day under cover of thick fog. Sailing later on the 10th August, any hopes that the convoy may have been undetected were dashed when one of the escorting carriers, HMS Eagle, was torpedoed and sunk by U-73 with heavy loss of life. Whilst Eagle was being attacked, another carrier, HMS Furious successfully flew off another thirty seven Spitfires for Malta and her mission completed, returned safely to Gibraltar. On the way back, one of her escorting destroyers rammed and sank an Italian submarine, so at this early stage the honours were even. Later on 11th August, there were four heavy air attacks on the convoy and another of the escorting carriers, HMS Indomitable was temporarily put out of action. As the days wore on, so did the losses amongst the merchant ships and the escorts. The Ohio was a special target, for the Germans knew the importance of her cargo. Somehow, she managed to survive the attacks despite being torpedoed and bombed multiple times. Ship after ship of the convoy was sunk however and by the time the battered remnants of the convoy reached Grand Harbour on 15th August, just five of the original fourteen merchant ships were still afloat; amongst them and against all the odds was the Ohio, which limped into harbour lashed between two destroyers, her back broken but with her vital cargo still intact. As she discharged her cargo into two waiting empty tankers, she finally sank in two halves just as the last drops of fuel were discharged. The Ohio and the cargoes carried on the other four vessels gave Malta another ten week's worth of supplies and ensured that she could stay in the war. 

The shield of protecting Spitfires was able to keep the attacking Luftwaffe at bay and perhaps more importantly, from the naval base, the Royal Navy was able to wreak havoc amongst the Afrika Korps supply convoys and by September, entire Axis convoys were being destroyed, leaving Rommel desperately short of supplies with which to withstand the expected attack from the newly arrived British Eighth Army commander, one Lieutenant General Montgomery.

Operation Pedestal was a strategic victory for the Allies, although one achieved at an extremely heavy cost; it kept Malta in the war and provided a springboard for the British victory at El Alamein in November 1942 and ultimate Allied victory in North Africa. The people of Malta earned their George Cross, awarded for the highest acts of civilian bravery.

Published Sources:

A Sailor's Odyssey - Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, Hutchinson 1951
Engage the Enemy More Closely - Correlli Barnett - Hodder & Staughton 1991
Park - Vincent Orange - Grub Street 2001
Pedestal: The Malta Convoy of August 1942 - Peter C Smith, William Kimber 1987