The Italian Campaign

Page 2 – Prelude

The Allied decision to invade Italy arose from a combination of opportunism, misplaced hopes and coalition compromise. The British were particularly keen to knock one of Germany's major allies out of the war using the seasoned Commonwealth troops freed up following the successful North African Campaign.

As well as creating a second front to ease pressure on the Soviet Union, the Allies saw merit in using Italian territory to launch attacks into the Balkans and bombing raids into southern Germany. But the Italian Campaign would last a lot longer than originally intended due to the trying conditions and determined German resistance.

Whereas Australian forces had been withdrawn from the Mediterranean to fight in the Pacific theatre against Japan, the New Zealand government resisted public pressure and agreed to Britain’s request for help in the campaign against Italy. This ensured that the bulk of New Zealand's active soldiers would see action there until the end of the war in Europe, and it became New Zealand’s only major theatre of war not shared with the Australians.

The Div

The 2nd New Zealand Division had been seasoned by years of active warfare. With a strong sense of camaraderie forged in the heat of battle, New Zealand's predominantly amateur soldiers had transformed themselves into the 'Div' – a formidable fighting force. They had acquitted themselves well in the deserts of North Africa since November 1941 after disheartening defeats in Greece and Crete. But they were not necessarily prepared for the wintry conditions which they would encounter on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.

Te Māori i Ītari

The 28 (Māori) Battalion formed an integral part of the Div’s efforts in Italy. The Battalion spearheaded New Zealand’s first attack on Cassino, during which over 150 of its men were killed, wounded or captured.

After the decision was made to commit the New Zealand force to Italy, its members were allowed a period of recuperation and reorganisation in Egypt. 6000 men who had served longest were permitted a furlough back home – read more about the controversy surrounding the soldiers' long leave here – and the Second Division was strengthened with reinforcements from New Zealand. The new arrivals were fresh, but they were untested in battle and had yet to be integrated into the ways of the Div. The seasoned soldiers who had remained were as battle weary as they were battle hardened.

As part of the unit’s reorganisation, the 2nd New Zealand Division joined the multinational 8th Army, under British command, with which they had also been associated in the desert campaigns. The 8th Army fought alongside the American 5th Army throughout the Italian Campaign.

The invasion of Italy

While New Zealand troops were still being reorganised in Egypt, the Allies commenced the campaign with an invasion of the island of Sicily on 9 July 1943. Within five weeks the island was in Allied hands and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had been overthrown.

An invasion of mainland Italy was launched on 3 September 1943, the same day the new Italian government agreed to an armistice with the Allies. The 18 divisions Germany had deployed in Italy were then ordered to disarm Italian troops and defend the peninsula against the Allies’ 5th and 8th Armies by establishing defensive lines across Italy’s narrow, mountainous spine.

Freshly reinforced, the 2nd New Zealand Division landed in Allied-occupied Taranto in October 1943. They quickly moved north from the southern port city to assemble in Bari on the Adriatic coast, which would serve thereafter as the main staging base for newly arrived New Zealand troops.

How to cite this page

'Prelude', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/italian-campaign/overview, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 16-Aug-2014

Community contributions

1 comment has been posted about Prelude

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Mackenzie Brown

Posted: 19 Jun 2013

My great-grandfather fought here! I just read his war diary last week and he was a tank driver and soldier. In the battle of Cassino he was trapped inside his tank for 4 days and 3 nights.. pretty horrific.