After a period of rest and recuperation, the 2nd New Zealand Division was back in action again in July 1944 as part of the Allied effort to breach the Germans' new so-called Gothic Line running from Pisa to Rimini in Italy’s northern Apennines.
The New Zealanders enjoyed early success in their return to the battlefield, capturing the town of Arezzo on 16 July before moving north towards Florence. Good progress was made despite determined German resistance in the hills just south of the city, which the Allies finally entered on 4 August. From July the New Zealanders joined the British 8th Army’s march east and north towards the Italian plain.
Progress was difficult – the rugged terrain of the Apennines, the numerous canals and rivers with destroyed bridges in the low-lying east, and the mud that accompanied winter’s driving rain restricted the mobility of the Div. By the end of October the New Zealanders had reached the Savio River – the 8th Army having breached the Gothic Line in the east on 2 September – and here they were given a month’s break.
The Div rejoined the attack in late November and succeeded in capturing Faenza on 14 December. Having reached the Senio River, the Division halted and endured its second Italian winter.
After another period of relief, the Div lined up again on the banks of the Senio River on 8 April 1945 to begin what would prove the final offensive in Italy. The New Zealanders now moved forward at an increasingly rapid pace against a foe whose morale had weakened significantly. After crossing the Senio, the drive continued to the Santerno River and then on to the Gaiana River. Briefly halted there, the New Zealanders then pushed on to the Idice, finally crossing the Po River on Anzac Day 1945. Taking Padua on 28 April, the Div embarked on its last helter-skelter advance, amidst disintegrating German resistance and partisan success everywhere.
The Div crossed the Izonso River on 1 May and reached Trieste the next day just as the German forces in Italy surrendered unconditionally. After their exhilarating final charge covering over 220 km in less than a week, the New Zealanders arrived just in time to share in the city's liberation with local partisans and units of Josip Tito's Fourth Yugoslav Army.
It should have been a final moment of glory in the Italian campaign – a chance to savour the end of the war in Europe on 8 May and relax before a speedy return home. Instead, it proved a 'helluva way to end a war', as one soldier recorded in his diary.
The fortunes of war had pitched the Div into an international hot spot, as Trieste became the setting for the first inter-Allied clash of the post-war era in Europe. The city was the focal point of a bitter territorial dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs had hoped to strengthen their post-war claims to Trieste by being first to liberate it and then putting in place their own military administration. The Western Allies, however, had planned that the city should come under Allied Military Government like other parts of liberated Italy, pending a final peace settlement. By arriving in Trieste when they did, the Second Division had dashed the Yugoslavs' hopes. For some weeks, Trieste was under an uneasy dual occupation. Only after the problem was resolved diplomatically at the highest Allied levels, with the Yugoslavs reluctantly withdrawing from the city in mid-June, were the New Zealand soldiers able to relax.
The following month, the Division began demobilising when it moved to Lake Trasimene, from where most of the New Zealanders would began their long journey home. Limited availability of shipping meant that it would prove a slow process and it was not until February 1946 that the last members of the Div ended their wartime Italian sojourn.
Although the Italian Campaign had become a secondary theatre in the Second World War, it contributed to the grinding down of German military power. Over 20 German divisions – 15% of the German Wehrmacht – were diverted from France and the Eastern Front in order to defend Italy. In playing their small part in the campaign to defeat Nazi Germany, the 2nd New Zealand Division had upheld their country’s reputation as a valuable coalition member, but at a great cost: a total of 2176 New Zealanders are buried in Commonwealth war cemeteries or commemorated on memorials in Italy. Around 6700 were wounded during the campaign.