The 19th Battalion was an infantry battalion of the New Zealand Military Forces, which served during the Second World War as part of the New Zealand 2nd Division.
The 19th Battalion was formed in New Zealand in 1939 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel J. S. Varnham. After a period of training it embarked for the Middle East and then onto Greece in 1941 as part of the 2nd New Zealand Division. It participated in the Battles of Greece and later in Crete. Evacuated from Crete, it then fought in the North African Campaign and suffered heavy losses during Operation Crusader. Brought back up to strength, the battalion participated in the breakout of the 2nd New Zealand Division from Minqar Qaim in June 1942, where it had been encircled by the 21st Panzer Division. The following month, the battalion suffered heavy casualties during the First Battle of El Alamein.
In October 1943, the battalion was converted to an armoured unit and designated 19th Armoured Regiment. To replace men lost at El Alamein, personnel were drawn from a tank brigade being formed in New Zealand. The regiment spent a year in Egypt training with Sherman tanks, before embarking for Italy in October 1943 to join the Eighth Army. It participated in the Italian Campaign, fighting in actions at Orsogna and later at Cassino. The regiment finished the war in Trieste and remained there for several weeks until the large numbers of Yugoslav partisans also present in the city withdrew. Not required for service in the Pacific theatre of operations, the regiment was disestablished in late 1945.
The 19th Battalion was formed in New Zealand in 1939 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Varnham and was the second of three infantry battalions making up the 4th Infantry Brigade. Its personnel were drawn from the lower half of the North Island of New Zealand and formed into Wellington, Wellington/West Coast, Hawke's Bay and Taranaki companies.
After a period of training, the battalion departed on the P & O liner Strathaird for the Middle East on 5 January 1940 as part of the 4th Infantry Brigade, 2nd New Zealand Division. The battalion arrived at its base in Maadi, Egypt on 14 February, and was involved in training and garrison duty at Baggush for most of the next 12 months.
The British Government anticipated an invasion of Greece by the Germans in 1941 and decided to send troops to support the Greeks, who were already engaged against the Italians in Albania. The 2nd New Zealand Division was one of a number of Allied units dispatched to Greece in early March. The 4th Infantry Brigade was tasked with the defence of the Aliakmon Line in northern Greece with the New Zealand Division positioned on the northern side of Mount Olympus. The 19th Battalion was the reserve for 4th Brigade and spent most of its time from late March to early April preparing roading and defensive positions. On 6 April, the Germans invaded Greece and advanced so rapidly that their forces quickly threatened the Florina Gap. The 4th Infantry Brigade was withdrawn to the Servia Pass. The 19th Battalion was tasked with holding the mouth of the pass and spent the next few days digging in. On 13 April, German Stukas bombed the battalion causing its first casualties of the war. The following day, German armour reached the Servia Pass. The positions of the battalion's Wellington and Hawkes Bay companies were the subject of an attack on the night of 14–15 April. The Germans were resolutely defended and at dawn, 130 of them were prisoners of war. Despite artillery and bombing, the brigade continued to hold up the Germans for three days before being withdrawn. The battalion's commander, Varnham, was wounded and evacuated with its second-in-command, Major Blackburn, taking over for the next two months.
The battalion was shipped to the island of Crete. It participated in the defence of the island against the airborne invasion of the Germans but was eventually evacuated from Crete, It then fought in the North African Campaign under the command of Lieutenant Colonel S. F. Hartnell. The battalion suffered relatively few losses during Operation Crusader during which the two other battalions of the 4th Infantry Brigade were effectively destroyed by the 15th Panzer Division. The battalion played a role in the breakout of the 2nd New Zealand Division from Minqar Qaim in June 1942, where it had been encircled by the 21st Panzer Division. The following month, the battalion suffered heavy casualties during the First Battle of El Alamein and many personnel were made prisoners of war.
In October 1943, the battalion, along with the rest of the 4th Infantry Brigade, was converted to an armoured unit and designated 19th Armoured Regiment. Its commander, Hartnell, was promoted to brigadier and appointed second in command of the brigade and was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel R. McGaffin. Under McGaffin, who had experience with armour, the regiment spent the next year training with Sherman tanks before embarking for Italy in October 1943 to join the Eighth Army.
The regiment participated in the Italian Campaign, fighting in actions at Orsogna and later at Cassino. It finished the war in Trieste and remained there for several weeks until the large numbers of Yugoslav partisans also present in the city withdrew. Not required for service in the Pacific theatre of operations, the regiment was disestablished in late 1945.
During the war, the 19th Battalion and its successor, the 19th Armoured Regiment, lost nearly 230 officers and men either killed in action or who later died of their wounds, including 34 men who died as prisoners of war. Nearly 490 personnel were made prisoners of war.
Four members of the battalion, including three of its commanders, were awarded the Distinguished Service Order while a member of the YMCA who was attached to the battalion for a portion of its service overseas was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Twelve officers were awarded the Military Cross while two others received the United States Bronze Star and the Greek Military Cross respectively. One soldier received the Distinguished Conduct Medal and 20 others the Military Medal. Numerous men, including the founding commander of the battalion, were mentioned in dispatches.
The following officers served as commanding officer of the 19th Battalion:Lieutenant Colonel F. S. Varnham (October 1939–April 1941; June–October 1941);
Major C. A. D'A. Blackburn (April–June 1941);
Lieutenant Colonel S. F. Hartnell (October 1941–April 1943);
Lieutenant Colonel R. L. McGaffin (April 1943–August 1944);
Lieutenant Colonel A. M. Everist (August–November 1944; March–December 1945;
Lieutenant Colonel H. H. Parata (November 1944–March 1945).