Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume III
451 — General Freyberg to the acting Prime Minister1
General Freyberg to the acting Prime Minister1
Reference your telegram of 23 May.
I have read the Chief of the Imperial General Staff's appreciation most carefully, and in view of War Cabinet's statement in a previous cable that they desire to keep their Division in the field as long as possible,2 I have assumed that the New Zealand Division will take part in the war against Japan if manpower allows.
In the War Office appreciation it appears that in planning they expect important and arduous campaigns in Malaya to open the Malacca Straits, followed later by a possible campaign against Japan with a British Empire force. It will depend on the timing of the South-East Asia Command plans which of these campaigns we would take part in. Time appears to be an important factor. If we come early in 1946 we will be in time. A few months' delay may relegate the Division to cleaning-up operations of a minor nature, presumably after Japan has been invaded. As there are already considerable forces in South-East Asia Command, they may embark upon operations in Malaya towards the end of 1945 without waiting for reinforcements. It would seem to follow from this that the value to the Allied cause of New Zealand's contribution depends to a great extent on the speed with which it is made available. Without more information I have formed this opinion which, if accepted, may influence you in making your difficult decision.
Dealing with the War Office conclusions, I see no cause for disagreement. They do not like the two-brigade division any more than we do. They appear, however, so anxious to have a New Zealand force that they will be grateful for any help.
I agree that the New Zealand Division should, if possible, work with British forces. Our limited experience of fighting with the Americans shows that difficulties do occur, mostly from an organisation, equipment and training point of view.page 478
I agree that South-East Asia Command appears to be the only theatre of war open to New Zealand forces at present, and if South-East Asia Command is chosen the most convenient and logical place for reorganisation would appear to be in Egypt. I feel that a decision to go to South-East Asia Command direct would be accepted, provided it is well presented and a good system of relief of long-service men is announced and implemented. Short-service men here would accept, and indeed expect, a policy which involves further campaigns against the Japanese.
I am not in any position to assess the difficulties which will face the New Zealand Government if they bring the whole force back to New Zealand before committing it to another theatre of war. You are in a better position to judge this problem.
If for any reasons the Government decide to return the force to New Zealand before committing it to another theatre, a readjustment to the policy of replacement will be advisable. The sending of long-service men home first will be in conflict with the need for speed in reorganisation. It would seem advisable to take the force home in existing units made up of short-service personnel, the long-service personnel who would not have any further service coming later.
It is possible that there will be a number of changes in organisation for a South-East Asia Command force, which in my opinion could be carried out in Egypt without difficulty.
Although I fully appreciate the manpower difficulties, I urge you against the two-brigade division. I also feel that we should have our own small armoured unit and our own rearward services. We have had experience of these matters in the past, and my opinion is formed after long experience.
The result of the recent conversion of your Division from two infantry brigades to three is shown by our recent successes. At one stage, moreover, we had to be given a fourth infantry brigade to help relieve the strain on the overworked infantry.
Tactically, a two-brigade division forces a commander to fight on a narrow front without reserves, which increases casualties and minimises success. It really amounts to attempting to achieve with six infantry battalions what others do with nine. In the Burma campaign infantry divisions all have twelve battalions.
I would counsel against dispensing with our armoured component and relying on United Kingdom troops for tank support. We should keep a small unit. Our experience in 1941 and 1942 at Tobruk, Minqar Qaim and Ruweisat Ridge proved this. British tanks failed to keep up with our infantry, which has never been the case since we have had tanks under command.
The use of United Kingdom rearward services would not prove page 479 satisfactory. Our men have had a very high standard of service, especially in hospitals and welfare. I agree that we could make savings, but after five and a half years' experience of commanding your Division I am convinced that our fighting troops are best looked after by their own services.
The Division we have at the present time is excellently balanced for war here in Italy, and it has proved itself as one of the finest fighting formations in the British Army. Here again, before the final organisation is decided, it would be necessary to consult South-East Asia Command. Conditions here have been purely offensive and we have been able to cut out all defensive weapons, Machine Gun Battalion, anti-aircraft and anti-tank regiments, and have given up the Cavalry Regiment because it was never used. At the same time we have increased our heavy mortars and maintained our artillery and our tanks. The result of our reorganisation has been most gratifying. It is possible, however, that conditions in South-East Asia Command may demand a different organisation.
In my telegram of 15 May [No. 448] I suggested a possible organisation for economising on manpower. I believe the proposals to be practical and I believe it to be the smallest force that should be committed. I feel that given this organisation, together with 5000 reinforcements, and provided we have no epidemics, we could fight through 1946 and might even go on into 1947.
To sum up my views on the Chief of the Imperial General Staff's appreciation:
It appears certain that the British Government would welcome any force that the New Zealand Government will send.
Time is important and the early arrival of a New Zealand Division will help the British war effort.
It is better to link up with British forces than with the Americans.
If South-East Asia Command is chosen, Egypt is the logical place to carry out reorganisation.
I urge against sending a two-brigade division. The organisation I have suggested in my telegram of 15 May is what I consider the smallest and best organisation. Before any decision in detail is made, however, South-East Asia Command would have to be consulted.
Provided a fair replacement scheme is implemented, the decision to go to South-East Asia Command would be accepted by all ranks.page 480
If a two-brigade division is decided upon there will be no difficulty in carrying out the necessary reorganisation.
1 Repeated to Mr Fraser and General Puttick.
2 See Vol. II, No. 415.