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

134 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

page 101

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

21 March 1942

I have just returned from our northern area in Syria, where we reconnoitred the Turkish frontier from the sea across to the Euphrates. From a defensive point of view the mountain passes on the north-western front are strong and like the mountain passes of Olympus in Greece. The frontier from the north and north-east has no easily occupied defensive position and affords an enemy easy access over ideal tank country. I am certain the line cannot be held in the event of a serious enemy attack unless we have substantial forces and strong armoured and air components. As there is no likelihood of any immediate attack through Turkey there is no need for anxiety, but I am watching the larger aspect of the situation and will keep you in constant touch.

The Division is now situated as follows:

The 6th Brigade Group, under Brigadier Clifton,1 are in the northern area (Headquarters at Aleppo) with detachments on the Turkish frontier guarding demolition charges on roads, railway tunnels, and bridges.

The 4th Brigade Group are digging and wiring a defensive position facing north on the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, guarding the Bekaa Valley.

Divisional Headquarters and divisional troops are at Baalbek.

All ranks are delighted with the green fields and trees and are feeling the benefit of a colder climate. All are in good health and spirits. I have made notes from General Puttick's statement about the position in New Zealand and all ranks are being given the relevant facts.2

page 102

The 5th Brigade Group were not released from the Western Desert by the promised date but are now due at Maadi on 26 March, where they refit, rejoining the Division by the first week in April.

In our new defensive position we shall have a brigade group of Greeks under command. These are men evacuated from Crete, as yet partially armed and not trained. After the evacuation from Greece we were asked by General Headquarters, Middle East, to train the Greeks. We have sent to the Royal Greek Army numbers of New Zealand officers and instructors to help them in the use of British weapons. Further, we have taken Greek officers and men into our training establishments at Maadi. Thus we have made our contribution to the general pool of instruction in the Middle East. I knew it would have your approval. The Greek Government bore all necessary expenses. The Greek Brigade Group will come up to Syria to complete their collective training under our guidance and will then come under our operational command.

During these difficult times I intend to send you a weekly cable when there is anything to report, giving the New Zealand Government the situation of their forces in the Middle East.

1 Brigadier G. H. Clifton, DSO, MC; Brigade Major, 5th NZ Infantry Brigade, 1940; Commander Royal Engineers, 2nd NZ Division, 1940–41; Chief Engineer, 30th Corps, Oct 1941 – Feb 1942; commanded 6th Brigade, Feb-Sep 1942; prisoner of war, Alamein, 4 Sep 1942; escaped in Germany, Mar 1945; liaison officer with organisation for Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees (Far East), 1945; seconded to HQ BCOF (Japan), 1946–47; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1949-.

2 This statement on the defence of New Zealand was contained in a telegram from General Puttick to General Freyberg on 5 Mar. In it General Puttick gave details of the strength and equipment of the forces in New Zealand and stressed the strategic importance of the Dominion in the prosecution of the war. The reason for the statement was that Middle East field censorship weekly summaries had shown some resentment in the 2nd NZEF at the suggestion that United States troops should be stationed in New Zealand. General Puttick emphasised the importance of United States naval and air aid to the defence of New Zealand and Fiji in particular, and added: ‘No USA forces are in New Zealand, but the Government and Chiefs of Staff would welcome them in almost any strength. Naturally we would all prefer our own troops from the Middle East, but we realise that strategical, shipping, and time factors predominate at present.’