New Zealand’s Unknown Warriors

New Zealand’s Unknown Warriors

By Reg Newell
6/12/2019 • World War II Magazine

When Lord Louis Mountbatten was named supreme Allied commander of the South East Asia Command (SEAC) in 1943, among his first decisions was to address the soldiers of the British Fourteenth Army in Burma, who felt so neglected they had begun calling themselves “The Forgotten 14th.” With a deft touch of humor, Mountbatten assured the men that they were wrong to seem slighted. “They were not forgotten,” he quipped, “because no one had even heard of them.”

The same could probably be said of the 3rd New Zealand Division, which found itself confronting more than just the Japanese in the Pacific theater during World War II. From its creation in 1940, the 3rd also had to negotiate the rocks and shoals of the Allied command structure, and after 1942 suffered the vagaries of being a tiny fighting force swept up in the American armed colossus.

The division was first deployed to Fiji, which it defended until 1942. New Zealand was a British dominion, but given the empire’s many global demands as war erupted, the Kiwis soon found that few resources could be spared. Because of their proximity to Japan, the governments in Australia and New Zealand were much closer—and therefore far more sensitive—to the threat the imperial army posed as it steamrolled its way across the western Pacific early in the war.

At least the British government recognized the prime strategic importance of Fiji, with its established harbor at Suva and several valuable airfields, and decided to defend it. At a conference in Wellington, representatives from Britain, Australia and New Zealand recommended that the New Zealanders form a brigade group to garrison Fiji.

It seemed a simple request, but to carry it out would be a tall order for the small island and its citizens. The prewar New Zealand army was miniscule even by the standards of the day, and when war broke out in 1939, most Kiwi troops were rushed to defend the empire’s interests in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa—except for Fiji, the protection of New Zealand’s northern approaches had been subordinated to the defense of the motherland. In July 1940, Colonel William Cunningham was given command of the New Zealand force sent to Fiji, initially called B-Force, then 8 Brigade Group and later informally 3 NZ Division. The troops, however, were deployed in piecemeal fashion.

When the first Kiwis arrived that October, they had to build their own barracks and accommodations. It was probably better that necessity forced them to act as laborers rather than soldiers, since the unit lacked any sort of training and even the most basic weaponry.

Compounding the problem was that New Zealand had not organized a force of any appreciable size since 1920 and had much to learn. Officials foolishly thought that troops could be deployed for periods of six months without suffering the effects of the tropical climate, finding instead that the sickness rate skyrocketed. In May 1941, the first of two troop reliefs occurred, and fresh, barely trained and unacclimated soldiers replaced the longer-serving forces. Cunningham feared his garrison was being used merely as a training ground for troops that would eventually be sent to North Africa and the Middle East. The reality was that his men spent their time building fortifications and had only limited military training.

As 1941 wore on with a continued series of Allied defeats, the Japanese threat to Fiji and the surrounding region became imminent. An August 1941 report by General Guy Williams, a British government adviser to New Zealand, focused Wellington’s attention on the inadequate size of the Fijian garrison, and efforts were made to increase it, even at the continued expense of New Zealand’s security at home.

When Japan launched its strikes throughout the Pacific in December 1941, it exposed the inadequacy of New Zealand’s defenses. A decision was made to commit the 14th Brigade to protect Fiji, and reinforcements being sent to the 2nd New Zealand Division in North Africa were instead redirected there. Even then, the garrison on Fiji was inadequate, and officials gave serious consideration to withdrawing the 2nd Division from North Africa altogether. Understandably aghast at the possibility of losing some of his best troops, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill lobbied hard for—and won—the eventual acquiescence of officials in Wellington to keep their men where they were.

Manpower was still needed to defend Fiji, however, and that soon brought in the United States as a player. General George Marshall and Admiral Ernest King decided that U.S. forces would take over the defense of Fiji, and the Kiwi garrison would be sent home. In turn, the return of those men to their homeland meant fewer U.S. troops were required to garrison New Zealand.

The withdrawal of the troops from Fiji raised the question of what to do with them. Options included absorption into the Home Defence Forces, deployment to the 2nd Division or demobilization. New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser, however, was determined to have his nation play a more active role in the war, and he tried to convince Churchill that offensive operations in the Pacific were essential in order to keep the Japanese at bay.

Frustrated by the Allies’ “Germany-first” policy, Fraser believed that New Zealand should lead by example and provide troops for an Allied counteroffensive against the Japanese in the South Pacific. He also had to deal with the criticism expressed by Australian Prime Minister John Curtin, who felt that by failing to withdraw the 2nd Division from North Africa and committing it to Australasian defense, New Zealand was letting down its Australian and U.S. allies.

As the Japanese swept south and New Zealand seemed in danger of invasion, the public demanded that units be formed to fight them. The government in Wellington wanted a say in the postwar Pacific, and it believed having Kiwis involved in any sort of fighting was a means to assure that. Fraser’s argument picked up momentum after the fall of Singapore in 1942, which left his New Zealand troops as a small “British” presence in what was rapidly becoming an American war.

Despite their vast materiel and manpower resources, the Americans were stretched thin, holding a perimeter that ran from the Aleutians to Australasia. Troops were at a premium and the 3rd Division was an asset that could not long be ignored. In discussions with Walter Nash, New Zealand’s representative in Washington, Admiral King had alluded to having Kiwi soldiers train with U.S. Marine units for amphibious landings. This was embraced by the government in Wellington, which appointed Maj. Gen. Harold Eric Barrowclough, a combat veteran of North Africa, to command a division for offensive operations.

Barrowclough intended the division to be ready for combat by August 25, 1942. However, given that the New Zealanders who had returned from Fiji had been sent on leave, that many of the remaining units were untrained and lacked adequate equipment, and that there were huge logistical difficulties, it was no surprise the general missed his deadline. At its formal creation on November 15, 1942, the 3rd Division consisted of the 8th and 14th brigades, fleshed out with units from the Home Defence Forces.

Although there had been a rush to prepare and properly train the division, the precise role it would play was ambivalent from the start. It was unclear whether it would provide a garrison force, be involved in combat operations or both. This uncertainty resulted in the unit being heavy with coastal defense artillery but lacking the usual three-brigade structure. The U.S. commander in the South Pacific, Vice Adm. Robert Ghormley, indicated a preference for garrison units only, but his successor, Admiral William Halsey, foresaw the Kiwis in both a first-line role and as garrison troops.

Admirals King and Chester Nimitz had intended for the New Zealanders to assist with mopping-up operations on Guadalcanal. When the division was not available by August 25, however, the U.S. Army’s 23rd (Americal) Division was sent instead. Ghormley then requested the division be sent to New Caledonia to garrison Norfolk Island and Tonga.

In early January 1943, units from the division arrived at New Caledonia and took up defensive positions in the north of the island. A significant part of the division was also deployed to Norfolk and Tonga, which made division-level maneuvers and training impossible. Eventually, the detached units rejoined the division on New Caledonia, and training began in earnest.

Efforts to flesh out the division to three infantry brigades, however, were unsuccessful. There were insufficient numbers of Caucasian New Zealanders to generate another brigade, and the feeling among the native Maori population was that their sons should be sent to reinforce the 28th Maori Battalion in the Middle East.

This meant that the division lacked the size and capability to relieve an equivalent U.S. division. That brought a protest from the new commander in the South Pacific, Admiral Halsey, who claimed that he had been short-changed and that New Zealand was not pulling its weight. Incensed, Fraser pointed out that his country was making great efforts in North

Africa and the Middle East and that its resources were limited. After equipping and training his units, by late 1943 Barrowclough was keen to get his troops into action. A U.S. request for combat troops resulted in the division being deployed to Guadalcanal and completing amphibious training exercises, while Barrowclough developed the concept of combined-arms battalion combat teams. These teams were first put to the test as part of Operation Cartwheel, the U.S. scheme to neutralize the Japanese naval base at Rabaul.

Under U.S. direction, the 14th Brigade was relegated to mopping-up operations on Vella Lavella, part of the New Georgia island group. U.S. forces invaded Vella Lavella on August 15, 1943, pushing the Japanese garrison northward in the face of stiff resistance. Hoping to regain momentum, the New Zealanders were charged with destroying the remaining pockets of opposition, a task complicated by Japanese aerial dominance, dense jungle terrain and the lack of roads.

To overcome those challenges, Brigadier Leslie Potter, the brigade’s commander, sent two combat teams organized from the 35th and 37th battalions around the eastern and western sides of the island in a series of amphibious landings. Moving from bay to bay, small parties were landed to keep the enemy in place while the remainder of the force moved in for the kill. Despite occasional setbacks, the operations were largely successful in driving remaining Japanese forces off Vella Lavella once and for all. Potter’s troops then garrisoned the island.

Next it was the turn of the 8th Brigade. Designated as part of the 1st Marine Amphibious Corps, the brigade was given the mission of taking the Treasury Islands and diverting Japanese attention from the larger landing at Bougainville Island scheduled for two days later. Once ashore, Kiwis and accompanying U.S. Navy Seabees installed radar facilities on the north of Mono Island. In preparation for their planned role in Operation Goodtime, two patrols landed and succeeded not only in gathering vital intelligence, but also in rescuing several downed U.S. pilots.

The main landings occurred on October 27, with the New Zealanders disembarking on Mono and Stirling islands. Japanese resistance was fierce, and the Kiwi and Navy personnel suffered severely from artillery, rifle and machine gun fire. They established a successful beachhead and a defensive perimeter, however. A second group, designated Logan Force, then landed at Soanatalu on the north of Mono Island and set up a radar station, which quickly came under attack from Japanese troops retreating off the island. By the end of October, the Treasury Islands had been secured, and the veterans of the 8th Brigade settled down for their own period of tedious garrison duty.

To bring the Japanese base at Rabaul within Allied fighter range, U.S. commanders determined that they needed to take the Green Islands, deciding the New Zealanders would be ideal for the task. Before the invasion, a reconnaissance force of 300 men from the 30th Battalion and 30 Allied specialists landed on the night of January 30, 1944. The landing party soon collided with well-entrenched Japanese troops who had to be driven off at great cost. After the necessary intelligence had been gathered, the Allied force was evacuated, its landing craft attacked by marauding enemy planes. Although casualties were light, the raid had tipped off the Japanese to the weakness of their position, and reinforcements were soon on their way.

Dubbed Operation Squarepeg, the main landings on the Green Islands took place on February 15. The landings went relatively smoothly, but the New Zealanders soon confronted Japanese resistance nests while fanning out from their beachhead. An attempt to use armor against the enemy positions failed, and mortar-supported infantry was called in to finish the task. In addition to encountering inhospitable terrain, the Kiwis to that point had had little opportunity to conduct any meaningful training with armored forces and were unfamiliar with the peculiarities of operations that involved both combat elements. Nevertheless, the infantrymen accomplished their mission and secured the Green Islands.

Having been “blooded,” the division was ordered to prepare for operations against Kavieng, with Barrowclough given command of a U.S. garrison as well, but the landing site was soon changed to nearby Emirau Island. Command of a unified force was a unique opportunity for Barrowclough, and the fact that the enemy force on Emirau most directly threatened New Zealand made it even more desirable. However, just as his moment was about to become reality, the 3rd Division fell victim to internal Allied politics and Prime Minister Fraser’s postwar aspirations. Faced with increasing pressure to keep the renowned 2nd Division up to strength and fighting in Italy, the New Zealand government forbade the use of its troops in the Allies’ invasion of Emirau.

The tiny nation had simply run out of men, and Fraser had to decide whether to allow the 3rd Division to continue as a cooperative force in the Pacific, where it would play just a minor role in the growing U.S. operations, or to disband the outfit and send the men to reinforce the 2nd Division, now regarded as among the best Allied units in Italy and regular recipients of good press and accolades.

Since Fraser was hoping to secure a stronger role for New Zealand in the Commonwealth after the war, it actually proved to be an easy decision. Thereafter, the dominion’s primary function in the Pacific was confined to the men and machines of the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

The 3rd Division was withdrawn in small groups and finally disbanded for good in August 1944, ironically just at a time when many believed the war in Europe was coming to an end and Allied attention was being diverted to the Pacific theater. Because the New Zealanders were more familiar with U.S. doctrine and methods than probably any other member of the Commonwealth, it was hoped that a small cadre from the division could be retained to form the core of a Kiwi contingent in the planned Commonwealth Pacific Division. The abrupt surrender of Japanese armed forces in August 1945, however, soon made that a moot idea.

For most of its existence, the 3rd Division existed in the shadow of its vastly more powerful American ally. Scarcely even noticed by the likes of Halsey, Nimitz and King, the Kiwis performed what was asked of them and always seemed eager to do more, had the constraints of their population allowed it.

Taking stock of the political winds, Fraser’s decision to allow the spotlight to continue to shine on the 2nd Division was probably the right one for New Zealand. After the war, colonial possessions such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand found it much easier to demand greater autonomy within the Commonwealth.

As for the brigade’s veterans, despite feeling somewhat slighted by history, they should take pride that they defended their country when most needed, and supported the greater Allied war effort. More important, they provided a legacy of experience with jungle warfare that would be critical for the Kiwis who followed in their footsteps in Malaya, North Borneo and Vietnam.

 

Originally published in the November 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here

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