Transcript of Phil Goff's (Minister of Defence) speech during the launch of 'Breakout: Minqar Qaim, North Africa, 1942'
Veterans of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, National President of the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association, John Campbell, Deputy Chief of Army, Brigadier Barry Vryenhoek, Bob Anderson, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for the invitation to launch, Breakout: Minqar Qaim, North Africa, 1942 by Colin Cameron. I congratulate Colin and also Bob Anderson and his team at Willson Scott Publishing.
To Tim Skinner and Capital Books, thank you for hosting this function. Capital Books has a strong tradition of supporting publications about New Zealand's military history. As a shop much frequented by Defence Force and Ministry of Defence staff, this is an appropriate place to do the launch.
In a few days time it will be the 64th anniversary of the New Zealand Division's epic escape from encircling German forces at Minqar Qaim, near Egypt's border with Libya. Late in June 1942 the New Zealand Division was within hours of destruction by vastly superior enemy forces. 'Breakout' is about how the Division escaped this fate.
Surrounded and facing defeat the following day, the plan was formulated for the Division to break through the German lines just after midnight on 28 June 1942. The infantrymen of the fourth brigade spearheaded the Division's attack. Their advance was marked by cheers and Maori war cries that struck terror into the heart their opponents. The attack caught the surrounding German forces by surprise. In confused and ferocious close-quarter combat the New Zealanders bayoneted and shot their way through the enemy forces. One man, in a very New Zealand metaphor described how "we went straight down the field through everything and everybody, like a pack of All Black forwards."
The Fourth Brigade's commander Jim Burrows was stunned by the way his men surged forward spontaneously. Every man appreciated that they were in a desperate position, and that the fate of the New Zealand Division and the hopes of New Zealanders at home depended on them. The spearhead of infantry was followed by hundreds of vehicles of all sorts into which as many men as possible had been crammed.
The breakout was an audacious operation and an electrifying experience for all those who took part. The New Zealand war artist, Peter McIntyre captured this in his famous painting of the battle. One of the things that comes through clearly in this book is the way in which the confusion, fear and exhilaration of that night has imprinted itself on the memory of all who survived it. Colin has used first-hand accounts, both by New Zealanders and Germans, to bring the battle to life.
The day before the breakout, General Freyberg was seriously wounded and had to pass command of the Division to Brigadier Lindsay Inglis. During the breakout, the improvised ambulance carrying Freyberg was twice hit by enemy fire. At one point Freyberg pulled himself up from his stretcher and looking out a window called out: "My God, Another Balaclava"!
Fortunately, the breakout was not another charge of the Light Brigade, and although the New Zealand Division suffered significant losses, it quickly recovered and went on to play a key role in stopping the Axis advance into Egypt. Had the Division been destroyed at Minqar Qaim, New Zealand would not have been able to make the significant contribution it did between 1942 and 1945, in North Africa and in Italy, to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The outstanding bravery and leadership displayed by Captain Charles Upham during the breakout is well known, contributing to the awarding of his second VC. Moreover Colin Cameron recounts numerous other incidents in which the officers and men of the New Zealand Division showed great courage and devotion to duty.
However, the breakout was not without controversy. Unfortunately, during the melee a German medical unit was inadvertently attacked and many of its personnel and patients killed. This incident has led to allegations that some of the New Zealand troops involved in the battle committed a war crime. Colin Cameron's work, like earlier studies that have examined the battle in detail, demonstrates that these charges are not justified. All the available evidence shows that in the heat of the battle the New Zealand troops involved not aware that the German personnel they were attacking were from a medical unit.
Military historian and soldier Chris Pugsley has pointed out, in the context of a battle being fought in the middle of the night 'anything that moved received attention just in case you suddenly got a burst from behind once you had passed over'. A few months after the battle, Field Marshal Rommel, the commander of the German Africa Corps, raised these allegations with the newly captured New Zealander, Brigadier George Clifton. Clifton responded by explaining the circumstances of intense and confused fighting at night. Rommel, a honourable man and a vastly experienced front-line soldier, accepted this explanation. I hope that this book will help ensure that what really happened in the early hours of 28 June 1942 is properly understood.
Rommel's conversation with George Clifton is the most famous exchange between a senior New Zealand officer and an enemy commander. During that conversation Rommel also asked why the New Zealanders were fighting in North Africa, so far away from their homeland. In this context it is worth repeating wartime Prime Minister, Peter Fraser's comments about why New Zealand had gone to war with Germany in 1939. Fraser saw the war as "a conflict between two diametrically opposed conceptions of international relationships, between reason and force" and believed that victory for Germany would "mean the triumph of violence and the trampling underfoot of all that we hold dear".
These same ideals lie at the heart of why New Zealand currently has its military personnel serving around the world in places such as Afghanistan and Timor-Leste. New Zealand has never been afraid to stand up for the core values that we treasure. This tradition is an important part of New Zealand's identity on the world stage.
It is now more than 60 years since the end of the Second World War. The men and women who served our nation in that great conflict are now elderly and with each passing month there are fewer of them to explain to younger New Zealanders what it meant to serve in a world war. By writing this book Colin Cameron has done much to ensure that this dramatic action and the experiences of those involved are remembered by current and future generations of New Zealanders. It is with pleasure that I officially launch, Breakout: Minqar Qaim, North Africa, 1942.