'Fighting reputations' : combat effectiveness in the Western Desert campaign : a comparison of the 9th Australian and 2nd New Zealand Divisions, 1941-1942 : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History at Massey University, Albany, New Zealand. EMBARGOED to 19 January 2026.

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Massey University
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Few Second World War campaigns have garnered the attention of the Western Desert campaign of 1940-1942, and it has spawned hundreds of publications. The international composition of the British Eighth Army was a distinguishing feature of the campaign, and Australia and New Zealand’s participation received great interest both during the conflict and in the decades since its end. Much of this has centred upon the 9th Australian and 2nd New Zealand Divisions, which played critical roles in famous battles, like Tobruk, Sidi Rezegh, and El Alamein. Despite this, there has been a distinct lack of transnational analysis concerning both Australian and New Zealand performances in the campaign. In a similar vein, there exists many combat effectiveness studies, however their focus remains broad and covers both historical and contemporary topics for historical and predictive purposes. No study has utilised combat effectiveness as the main discursive methodological tool of analysis in the Western Desert campaign, and still none have assessed combat effectiveness at the divisional-level. This thesis identifies the major themes that governed combat effectiveness in the Western Desert by canvassing primary and secondary sources and combines various approaches to create a holistic framework and definition of divisional-level combat effectiveness in the campaign. It employs the 9th Australian and 2nd New Zealand Divisions as vehicles for analysis across environmental, operational, organisational, and intangible elements of combat spanning seven case studies –– Tobruk, Operation Crusader, Minqar Qaim, First Alamein, and Second Alamein, with the last two separated into Australian and New Zealand chapters. The research reveals that despite similar origins, the two Divisions underwent divergent combat experiences. Their different operational roles coincided with the dissimilar character of the Divisions’ commanders, both of whom influenced their respective formation’s organisational learning abilities. Nevertheless, the thesis found that common elements remained crucial to determining combat effectiveness at the divisional-level, however it also challenges long-held ideas of how and why the two Divisions adapted to battlefield conditions, and just how successful (or not) they were in doing so. It results in a more accurate analysis of the two Divisions’ capabilities, and ultimately, their fighting reputations.
Embargoed to 19 January 2026
World War, 1939-1945, Campaigns, Africa, North, Australia, Australian Army, Australian Division, 9th, New Zealand, Army, Division, 2nd, Combat