War oral history programme

Page 7 – Notes and questions, North Africa

North Africa – February 1940–May 1943

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.

Background notes

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.

New Zealand casualties in North Africa

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.

Background questions

  • What is your name, date of birth and place of birth (don't forget to spell out names).
  • Describe your life a little before the war (parents, school, childhood and early working life).
  • Did either of your parents serve in the First World War? (If so, where? Did they talk about it? What did they tell you?).
  • Where were you when you heard about the outbreak of war? What were your feelings?
  • What were your reasons for enlisting (joining up)?

Life in the army and in Maadi camp

  • What unit were you assigned to? What was your rank?
  • What training did you receive in New Zealand?
  • When did you leave New Zealand?
  • How did you get to Egypt? Did you have a send-off before you left? What was life on board ship like?
  • When did you reach the United Kingdom/Egypt? Describe your arrival and first impressions.
  • What sort of training did you do in Egypt?
  • How easy or difficult did you find adjustment to army life (discipline, officers)?
  • Describe your living conditions like in Maadi camp (ask about such things as food, accommodation, alcohol, leave activities and sport).
  • Did you have any contact with local people? What were your reactions to them?

Life on the move in the desert

  • What are your strongest memories of life in the desert?
  • Describe typical living conditions: where did you sleep? What did you eat?
  • How much water did you have each day? How did you use it?
  • How did you wash yourself? Your clothes? How often did you shave?
  • What were the toilet arrangements?
  • How long did it take to build a slit trench?
  • How bad were the flies? Were they constant or just at certain times?
  • Did you ever get an upset stomach? What were the symptoms? How was it treated?
  • Did you ever get desert sores? Describe these? How were they treated?
  • Did you ever get hepatitis/yellow jaundice? Describe these? How were they treated?
  • Did you ever experience sand storms? Describe these.

In battle and under attack

  • How often did you experience enemy air attacks? Describe what they were like.
  • What was your reaction to air attacks?
  • What weapons did you have?
  • Did you feel adequately equipped to defend yourself?
  • What was the terrain like that you were fighting in?
  • What effect did this have on the way you fought?
  • How did the dust and heat affect you in battle? How difficult was it to see what was happening?
  • What was it like waiting for a battle to begin?
  • What were your thoughts and feelings? Did you talk much with your mates before an attack, or was it quiet?
  • Do you remember being scared?
  • How did you cope with fear?
  • Did you ever attend church services? If so, what did they mean to you?
  • What can you remember of being under fire?
  • What are your strongest memories of being in battle?
  • How did you cope with the longer, sustained battles?
  • Did you have any close calls/near misses?
  • What were your feelings about killing? How did you cope with this?
  • How did the men around you cope with killing others?
  • Did you ever talk about it?
  • Were you ever aware of men who could not take being in battle? Describe this.
  • What happened to them?
  • Did you ever suffer from lack of sleep? Describe the circumstances.
  • How did you cope with that?
  • Were there any battles that you particularly remember?
  • Did you ever take prisoners? What was your reaction to this?
  • What were they like (age, build, manner)?
  • Whose responsibility were they? Were any ever shot instead of being taken POW?
  • Did you search their bodies? What sort of things were you looking for?
  • Did you ever keep anything you found on a dead German/Italian solider? Describe this.
  • Were you wounded? How? What happened to you then?
  • Have you had any ongoing effects of being wounded?
  • Were any of your friends/mates wounded? How did you cope with them?
  • What sort of supplies were there for wounded? (Water?)
  • What did you do with your dead mates? (What were the burial arrangements? How difficult was it to bury men in the desert? What were your feelings at these times? Informing relatives)
  • Did you have to walk/fight through places where corpses lay? Describe what that was like.
  • What were your feelings about this?
  • Did you do things during the battle without thinking about them?

Out of battle

  • How often did you receive mail? What sorts of things did you write home?
  • Did it affect morale if someone in the unit got bad news from home? How?
  • Were there many ‘Dear John’ letters? How did you help these men cope?
  • Did this ever happen to you?
  • What did you miss about home?
  • Language: what slang terms can you remember? What Arabic terms can you remember? Were there any that were peculiar to the New Zealand Division? What did you call the Italians and the Germans?
  • Patriotic Fund parcels: what was in them? Describe them.
  • YMCA trucks: what did they have on them?
  • Importance of drinking tea? Importance of cigarettes? (Reasons?)
  • Alcohol: was it ever available in the desert?
  • What card games did you play?
  • Sport: what was played? Did you belong to any sports teams?
  • Were there singalongs? If so, what did you sing?
  • Leave in Cairo [Note: typical leave – bath, shave, haircut; meal; innumerable cups of coffee/iced drinks; look around zoo/citadel/mosque/pyramids; another meal; shopping; cinema; supper; home after going to station by gharry]
  • Which of the soldiers' clubs did you visit? What do you remember of these?
    • Victory Club
    • Toc H
    • Anzac Club
    • Tipperary Club
    • New Zealand Club
    • Springbok Club
  • Did you ever visit the cinemas: Metro, Diana Palace? What were they like?
  • Did you have any contact with Arabs/Egyptians?
  • What was the general attitude towards them?
  • Did you have any contact with others living in or near Cairo?
  • Did you ever visit the red-light areas in Cairo? What were they like?
  • How many men visited prostitutes?
  • What instruction/information was given about VD and sexual health generally?
  • How were men who contracted VD regarded by others?

If taken as a prisoner of war in North Africa

  • Where were you taken prisoner?
  • How did it come about? Describe the circumstances leading up to your capture.
  • What were your feelings when you realised you were a prisoner of war?
  • What were your guards like?
  • What conditions were you kept in before being transported out of North Africa?
  • How much food did you get? Describe this.
  • What were your sleeping conditions like?
  • If you were wounded, what medical attention did you receive? Describe what you remember of that experience.

After leaving North Africa, see also the POW suggested questions.

The end of the war

  • Where were you when you heard that the war had ended?
  • What was your reaction?
  • What did you do between the time the war finished and your return to New Zealand?

Returning to New Zealand

  • Were there farewell parties for those going back to New Zealand?
  • How did you get back (name of ship, which route)?
  • When did you arrive back in New Zealand?
  • How long did it take?
  • Were you met on your arrival back in New Zealand?
  • How did it feel to see your family again? Did New Zealand seem different to you after your time away?

After the war

  • When did you go back to work? Describe how it felt to be back at work?
  • Did you feel as though you had anything in common with people who had not been fighting?
  • How was your health?
  • Did you ever experience nightmares? If so, how long did they continue after the war? Do you ever have them now?
  • Did you drink much alcohol after the war?
  • Do you have a War Pension? If so, on what grounds?
  • Did you join the RSA on your return? (Reasons?)
  • What level of involvement did you have?
  • Did you join any other veterans' groups (e.g., POW Association)?
  • What was your attitude towards conscientious objectors?
  • What did taking part in the North African campaign mean to you at the time?
  • What does it mean to you now?
  • Why do you think it is so well remembered by those who fought there?
  • What did you do on Anzac Day? Has that changed over the years?
  • What does Anzac Day mean to you?
  • What are your feelings about war in general?
  • What is the impact of your war experiences on your life?
How to cite this page

'Notes and questions, North Africa', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/hands/from-memory/notes-and-questions-north-africa, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012