The Italian Campaign
From the New Zealand Perspective

The New Zealand Armed Forces had been clashing with the Italian Armed Forces since 1940, over several years and many battles on land, in the air and at sea. Already established in Ethiopia, Somaliland and Eritrea, the Fascist-led Italians had attempted to expand their empire into other North African countries, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.

The New Zealanders were there as part of the British forces that were to eventually beat back and evict the italians from the African continent. In doing so many New Zealanders were captured by Italian and German forces and ended up in Prisoner of War camps in Italy.

In the land battles the New Zealanders and other Allied forces usually found the Italians to be no match for them, and in many cases the Italian soldiers actually had little interest whatsoever in fighting the Allies. However when Rommel's Afrika Korps emerged on the scene to bolster the Axis forces the Allies soon had a real match on their hands. The Italians and Germans were extremely formidable together, and it would not be till mid-1943 that the Axis were finally beaten by the British Eighth Army, and the supporting newly arrived US forces.

In the air there were hundreds of New Zealanders flying with Royal Air Force squadrons, in fighters, bombers, army co-operation units, transports and liaison and communications aircraft. Many New Zealand fighter pilots experienced aerial clashes with Italian fighter and bomber crews. The Italians flew in their own home made aircraft and also in German supplied types, all around North Africa and the Mediterranean region. For some time they had superiority over the Allies, but the tide turned and eventually the Allies had command of the air of Africa which was a major turning point in the campaign there. The Allied aircraft also took the fight to the Italian and German ships that were supplying Rommel, taking food, arms and men across from italy, France and Greek ports.

At sea many New Zealand sailors were with the Royal Navy, and many kiwi flyers were in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. The Royal Navy constantly clashed with the Italian navy during the North African campaign.

By the time that the war in North Africa had come to a close, New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy were already well established in taking the fight to the Italians on their home soil of mainland Italy, and on Sicily and Sardinia and other islands. When Sicily was invaded by the Allies, kiwis were there in the navy and in the skies above. And the same followed when the Allies landed on the boot of Italy, the kiwis were there as part of the invasion forces.

The turn of the Army finally came in October 1943 when the 2nd New Zealand Division landed at Taranto, in the south of Italy. Having reconsolidated and trained up at Maadi Camp, Egypt, they were brought to Italy to rejoin the fight.

However by the time they were ready to re-enter the fray, the game had changed a fair bit. This was no longer an invasion of a fully hostile nation - the Fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini had been deposed and imprisoned, and replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who eventually signed an Armistice with the Allies, and his people were no longer the enemy. In fact soon after the kiwis arrived he would pledge his support of the Allies and his own troops went into action alongside the other Allied nations.

Now the only enemy in Italy were the Germans, who on realising the situation funneled many more troops and much equipment into Italy to attempt to hold onto their position in the country. They created a series of defensive lines that cut across the country where they planned to withdraw to and hold back the Allied push.

The first line that the New Zealand Army came across was the Gustav Line, at the Sangro River. The kiwis crossed the river, and forced their way into the line headquarters for that region at the hilltop village of Castel Frentano. From their they attempted to take the next fortified village on the line, Orsogna. The winter was against them, as was the heavy defences that the Germans had poured into Orsogna. A stalemate ensued, and eventually the kiwis were pulled off the line, Orsogna became someone else's mission now.

The 2nd NZ Division was moved in secrecy across to their next objective, Cassino, on the western side of Italy. This would prove to be one of the toughest campaigns of the war, and the kiwis were heavily involved in three of the four major battles to take the town off the Nazis.

In the second Battle of Cassino - which was the New Zealand Division's entry into that campaign - an attempt was made to take the vital railway station in the town. 'B' and 'C' Companies of 28 (Maori) Battalion crossed the Rapido River by night and infiltrated the town, capturing the station and holding it. The plan was for the New Zealand Engineers to put a bridge across the Rapido to allow a task force into the town, with tanks and more infantry, to back up the Maoris. The Engineers however came under intense shell fire and the bridge did not get up in time. The Maori soldiers came under intense counter-attack and the survivors were forced to withdraw. A similar fate had befell Indian troops trying to take the higher ground the same night.

A month of bad weather prevented the next move at Cassino, but when the weather finally cleared the entire town was bombed by USAAF bombers and then bombarded by hundreds of artillery pieces. Before the dust had even settled the New Zealand Infantry battalions moved into the town. Their armoured support was stalled due to the massive rubble and craters created by the bombing and bombardment, so they were largely alone, in a destroyed landscape, moving only in darkness from ruined house to house. All the while German machine-gunners and snipers watched every move and shot at everything they saw. And the rain continued, swelling the already sodden ground and filling all the craters with water. The kiwis lived in this squalid battle front for weeks in stalemate, neither side could force the other back. Eventually the decision was made to stop attempting to push forward, and instead the gains made were simply held. The New Zealanders were thinned and then withdrawn from the lines as British units took their places. For the kiwi Infantry soldiers the third battle was over. However the New Zealand Artillery continued with their contribution to the battle.

After the third battle of Cassino, the Infantry were moved north of Cassino into the Apennine foothills where more fighting ensued on steep, treacherous slopes, culminating in their attack on and taking of the German stronghold at Terelle.

Meanwhile the NZ Artillery was still at Cassino firing daily stonks at the enemy, and they were very involved in the Fourth Battle of Cassino, when the town was finally taken by the Poles, the Ghurkas, the Goums, the British and the Italian mountain troops.

The fall of Cassino coincided with the breakout and move into the Liri Valley by the combined forces of the British Eighth Army and the US Fifth Army. Leading the British units were tanks of the New Zealand Armoured units. As the Allies moved northwards towards Rome the progress forward became much more steady from here on. By now the Kiwis were back with the Eighth Army on the front lines.

A major blunder by US General Mark Clark to roll his army into Rome on a glory hunt, rather than follow orders to conduct a pincer movement to entrap the bulk of the German forces, led to the Germans escaping back to their next defensive line, and thus likely prolonged the war in Italy considerably.

Past Rome the kiwi's next major objective was to take Florence. However several major battles occurred south of the city as the German forces desperately hoped to halt the Allied advance. One of these battles occurred in a small village called San Michele, which some who were involved said was worse than Cassino. But the Division overcame the counter attack there and also took neighbouring La Romola in an equally fierce struggle, and these actions opened up the gateway to Florence. Some of the kiwis were involved in taking possession of Florence, which like Rome had been declared an open city by the Germans in order to prevent its historic buildings being destroyed by battle. However many were disappointed to be told they were not going to enter the city first, that honour being gifted to a South African unit.

Following a rest, the New Zealanders moved back across to the eastern side of Italy now, the Adriatic coastal side of the country, and with the Eighth Army continued to move north over the next year, taking back Italy from the Germans mile by mile. It was a series of major river crossings which kept the bridge-builders of the NZ Engineers very busy. Another stalemate occurred after the kiwis and their Allies took Faenza, as winter of 1944-45 set in, and the Allies hunkered down on the southern banks of the Senio River to wait it out.

Come the spring in April 1945, the Allies crossed the Senio into the Lombardy Plains and pushed north to take Verona and then cross the Po River. The Allied war machine continued to roll northwards and in May 1945 the 2nd NZ Division rolled into Trieste, where they were when the German forces in Italy completely surrendered, and then Germany surrendered unconditionally, and the war in Europe was over.

All the way along from the first landings in Italy till the surrender there had been kiwis involved, in the air and at sea, and from October 1943 on the land. It was a major campaign for New Zealand.

For more in-depth description of this campaign it is recommended that you see the links in our Links section to the various official history volumes. And of course for personal memories of this campaign, have a listen to the episodes of Courage And Valour, here.



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