Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II
382 — General Freyberg to the Prime Minister2
General Freyberg to the Prime Minister2
In the light of our conversations3 I have considered the question of the future employment of the 2nd NZEF. I give you my opinion as GOC 2nd NZEF, and primarily from the point of view of the Force. I realise that the ultimate decision will be made on a high plane, taking into consideration factors which are outside my sphere.
After careful consideration I have come to the conclusion that there are strong reasons why the 2nd NZEF should be withdrawn to New Zealand if and when a favourable opportunity arises.
The position as I see it is as follows:
I am certain that, if necessary, your Division could carry on and add fresh honours to its record. There are, however, various factors affecting the efficiency of the Force which must be taken into consideration. The inevitable effect of fierce fighting over a long period, on even the best troops in the world, is becoming apparent. There is no doubt in my mind that the high-water mark of our battle-worthiness was reached at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed in November 1941. In that campaign, and in the other costly Western Desert battles which followed, many of our best men became casualties, and gradually the keen fighting edge of the Force was blunted. For a period the gradual reduction in offensive spirit was offset by the increased efficiency of the divisional machine and the ever-increasing battle experience of our commanders. Time has gone on. Another long campaign in Italy has followed. I know the great stress of battle which large numbers of men have been through, and we cannot disregard its effect, especially on battle-weary leaders. Signs are not page 349 lacking now that many of the old hands require a prolonged rest. I feel, therefore, that if there is to be heavy fighting throughout 1945 a replacement scheme would be required for all long-service personnel. Such a change-over would not be easy, but I feel it would be essential in the interests of the efficiency of the Force. That being so, and taking into consideration your manpower difficulties and probable future commitments in the war against Japan, I have come to the conclusion that the time may well be opportune for the complete withdrawal of the 2nd NZEF.
If it is decided that the 2nd NZEF should be withdrawn there will be no suggestion that we have left our work unfinished. Your Division has played a great part—even greater perhaps than many realise—during the past four and a half years. It would leave here with great honour.
In considering this matter I have assumed that the Second Front is established successfully, and that there is no clear indication that Germany is about to collapse; in short, that the war against Germany may last throughout 1945. If the Second Front went very well and the defeat of Germany seemed certain within a measurable time, I feel it would be a pity to withdraw the Division with victory in sight. On the other hand, if, as is always possible, the Second Front failed, a difficult situation would confront the Allies here in Italy. The enemy could move divisions from France to Italy, in which case it might well be impossible to weaken the forces here by withdrawing your Division. In either of these cases, the first involving a quick advance without strong resistance and the second a defensive action, the cost would not be too heavy and we could carry on with our existing reinforcements. It is only if we have to face months of offensive fighting and ‘slogging matches’ that I consider a changeover of personnel is essential.
If the decision is made to withdraw the 2nd NZEF we would, nevertheless, have to remain here for a period of months until the Second Front is established and shipping becomes available. I would strongly advise you not to withdraw the Force to Egypt for a long wait in a transit camp as this would be likely to produce trouble. Until shipping is available I would recommend a short-term policy of continuing here in an operational role. In my opinion the advance to the Pisa-Rimini line is unlikely to involve any heavy offensive fighting. When that line is reached there will probably be a pause for regrouping, and I would recommend that the opportunity should be taken to implement a replacement policy.
The scale of replacement will of course depend on the length of time the 2nd NZEF is destined to remain in Europe. Whatever the decision as to the future may be, I consider the withdrawal of the 4th Reinforcements should commence before the Division takes page 350 part in another heavy offensive action. In previous estimates of reinforcements no provision was made for any replacement scheme, and, assuming the Division remains in an operational role for the remainder of the 1944 campaign, 3200 4th Reinforcements would have to be replaced by personnel from New Zealand. We would be able to carry on if 2000 were sent in replacement. Our reinforcement pool would then be sufficient to carry us through four months of intense fighting and two months of normal wastage to the end of this year. If the decision is to keep the 2nd NZEF in Europe for an indefinite period, then the 5th Reinforcements and succeeding drafts will have to be replaced as their turn occurs. It should also be noted that if replacement, as opposed to furlough, is instituted, as I believe in the interests of efficiency it should be, personnel of the First, Second, and Third Contingents who have returned to the Division would in fairness have to be given the opportunity of being replaced.
Briefly, my conclusions are as follows:
There should be a long-term policy for returning your Expeditionary Force to New Zealand for reorganisation with a view to fielding a new force in the war against Japan.
There should be an immediate short-term policy which would contemplate fighting on here until the strategic situation becomes clearer. This period could be extended to the end of the 1944 campaigning season, provided that 2000 replacements for the 4th Reinforcements are sent from New Zealand at an early date.
The above message has been handed to the Prime Minister.
2 Repeated to the Minister of Defence.