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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume I

446 — General Freyberg to the acting Prime Minister of New Zealand

General Freyberg to the acting Prime Minister of New Zealand

6 June 1941

After taking part in the campaigns in Greece and Crete, the New Zealand Division is now concentrating in Helwan Camp, Egypt, preparatory to re-equipping. It is my duty to report to you on these two distinct operation: see also my telegram from Greece of 6 April (No. 357) and my telegram of 30 April from Crete (No. 380).

In Greece we fought for the first time as a complete division. We fought under most adverse conditions. The enemy was numerically superior by as much as four to one, and a very large proportion of his force was armed with armoured fighting vehicles. He quickly achieved air superiority. The Division fought in a gallant manner and the troops demonstrated that man for man they were better trained and better fighters than the Germans. Unfortunately, the early collapse of the Greek Army and the absence of air support told heavily against our forces, and eventually a general withdrawal was ordered. Covering the withdrawal with courage, tenacity, and steadiness, which showed conclusively their quality, the New Zealand Division fought on successive lines. Finally, with the splendid co-operation of the Royal Navy, the evacuation was carried out by our units in excellent order, and all the equipment that could possibly be saved was brought away.

Without fear of contradiction I can say that the general bearing of our men during those difficult weeks aroused universal admiration. The battles fought by the 4th and 5th Brigade Groups at Servia Pass and at the passes on either side of Mount Olympus, the stalwart defence of the Thermopylae line by the 6th Brigade Group, page 321 and the final rearguard action of the 4th Brigade Group near Marathon are achievements worthy of the highest traditions of the British Army.

Following the evacuation from Greece, the Division was split, one part returning to Egypt and the other remaining in Crete. The latter were set the difficult task of trying to hold this important naval and air base. As you know, I was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces in Crete.

The War Cabinet will remember my candid criticism of the situation in the island and the peril in which I considered the bulk of the Division had been placed. See my No. 388 of 1 May. I felt that it was my duty to report on the situation at that time, and I can assure the Government that their representations to the United Kingdom Government had a far-reaching effect. Everything was done that could be done in the difficult position. Having made this protest we set about making the island as secure as the limited time and materials at my disposal allowed.

The attack came on 20 May and for three days our fate hung in the balance, but we were slowly blown out of our positions by what was possibly the largest concentration of battle aeroplanes ever committed to a single battle. All troops—British, Australian, New Zealand, and Greek—fought with determination and gallantry. The brunt of the main battle was borne by the New Zealand Division in the Maleme-Canea sector, where the severity of the hand-to-hand fighting exceeded anything experienced in the last war; our troops' magnificent counter-attacks and fighting qualities will ever be remembered. I wish to mention in particular the great gallantry of the Maori Battalion.

During the withdrawal the New Zealanders fought alongside the Australians in desperate rearguard actions, fighting all day and marching all night. I cannot begin to tell you what a terrible experience those last few days were. We were short of food and water. We knew that even if we got to the south, the steep, rocky coastline and a shortage of shipping, quite apart from enemy action, would make it impossible to evacuate more than a proportion of our troops. Once again no praise can be too great for the work of the Royal Navy.

In the battle for Crete our forces can claim to have damaged very severely the highly trained parachute formations which carried out the attack, and it is doubtful if they will be fit for active operations for a long time. We also destroyed a large number of troop-carrying aircraft. As you are aware, the Royal Navy took tremendous toll of the enemy's attempt at a seaborne invasion, and in the great battle between the Navy and the German Air Force many more German page 322 planes were accounted for, though not without serious loss to our Fleet. In this battle, and on several occasions in Crete, the Royal Air Force formations played a part, but, owing to the distance from the African bases, assistance was only spasmodic and had little real effect. Although the battles for Crete and Greece were lost, valuable enemy formations and much enemy equipment has been used, so that precious time has been gained for the making of preparations to meet the enemy, if and when he continues his march to the south-east. Further, the lessons of these campaigns will not be forgotten.

In Greece our losses were approximately 2200 and in Crete about 2450. I believe that in Crete nearly 500 were killed, and a high proportion of the missing were wounded and had to be left in hospitals and on the battlefield during the withdrawal. The picture is a grim one, but I wish the Government to know that everything possible was done for the wounded, and doctors and Royal Army Medical Corps personnel remained to care for them. To the people of New Zealand who have suffered loss in these campaigns the men of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force send their deepest sympathy.

The men are now in camp having a few days' well-earned leave and are recovering quickly from the strain under which they have been working. We are now getting down to the job of refitting the Division as quickly as possible.

The troops back from Crete were addressed by Mr. Fraser on a parade this morning, and he has seen and talked to all the men in hospital. During the anxious days of the evacuation the Prime Minister was indefatigable in ensuring that everything possible was done to rescue the maximum number from Crete. Since my return I have been able to discuss many matters with him. His presence here was most opportune.1

1 In a number of details the text of several of the preceding messages in this section varies from that of the telegrams on the files of the Prime Minister's Department. Mutilations and omissions in transmission are responsible for most of these discrepancies, and typing errors for others. In cases of doubt, the text on the GOC's files has been followed.