We had Anzac Day. The fields were full of these red Tunisian poppies so I said to the troops, 'It's a bit quiet this morning. Get a few jam jars, pop out into the fields and get some poppies and put them on the graves in the cemetery.' There were about twelve or fifteen graves there, I think.
Lawrence Wright, Medical Corps, North Africa
Before you interview any veterans of this campaign, we recommend you read our Guide to recording oral history.
While New Zealanders with the RAF and Royal Navy served in and around the Mediterranean, it was the New Zealand Army that provided the largest number of servicemen and women in this theatre.
The Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2 NZEF) fought in North Africa under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg (promoted and knighted since the Greek campaign) and was based at a large camp on the outskirts of Maadi, south of Cairo. From there they joined other Commonwealth forces in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to battle against the Italians and a German expeditionary force, the Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK), commanded by Major-General Erwin Rommel.
The New Zealanders' first major engagement with the enemy was in November 1941 as part of Operation Crusader, one of the British efforts to relieve the besieged port city of Tobruk. Key battles at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed took a huge toll – 4600 New Zealand casualties: 879 dead, 1700 wounded and 2042 taken prisoner. (Prisoners of war captured in North Africa were transported to camps in Italy first and later to those in Germany.)
The next significant action for New Zealanders took place in May 1942 when they were sent to meet a thrust by Rommel that threatened the British position. Almost as soon as the New Zealanders reached the front, they found themselves encircled by Rommel's forces at Minqar Qa'im. In a desperate battle that included hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets, the New Zealanders broke out of the ring. The division suffered 1000 casualties.
In early July 1942 the New Zealanders took part in the first Battle of El Alamein, which stopped Rommel in his tracks. But just two weeks later, at Ruweisat Ridge, nearly 1000 New Zealanders were taken as POWs when a counter-attack failed. The following week, at El Mreir a further 500 were captured in another enemy mauling. In both instances the New Zealanders took their objectives but were left unsupported by British armoured units.
On the 23 October 1942 the second Battle of El Alamein began with a 900-gun Allied artillery barrage. In the dust and shelling of the battle that followed, more than 1500 New Zealanders were killed or wounded. The New Zealand Division was an important element in the eventual Allied victory, playing a key role in the attack that finally broke the enemy resistance.
As 2 NZEF pushed relentlessly westward, it took part in a series of left hooks designed to trap the retreating enemy at El Agheila, Nofilia and Tebaga Gap. The New Zealanders later battled Axis forces (German and Italian) at Wadi Akarit, Enfidaville and Takrouna as the British 8th Army pushed north in Tunisia.
Axis forces capitulated on 13 May 1943.
A total of 2989 were killed, 7000 were wounded and 4000 were taken prisoner.
See also the North African Campaign on NZHistory.net.nz.
These questions are suggestions only. You can choose those that are relevant to your interviewee, and add your own, too.
After leaving North Africa, see also the POW suggested questions.