Battle for Egypt
CHAPTER 2 — A Hazardous Project
A Hazardous Project
REST and recreation, refitting, reorganisation and training were quick-acting specifics in the revival of the Division at Baggush. There were 5000 trained men in the reinforcement pool at Maadi to fill gaps in the ranks. Reorganisation was eased by the fact that the administrative portions of the units and formations had escaped comparatively lightly in the recent fighting. Casualties among the officers1 and non-commissioned officers, however, had been heavy. But the Division, at this period, was fortunate in the wealth of material available for promotion. Nevertheless, time was required to make the selections and to accustom the promoted officers and non-commissioned officers to their new responsibilities. The tactical lessons of the campaign had to be assimilated and put into practice. The two months' period suggested by General Freyberg for the restoration of the Division was not too long.
1 Fifty officers were killed in action, 13 died of wounds, 122 were wounded, and 144 were taken prisoner. Two COs were killed in action, two brigadiers and three COs taken prisoner, and four COs wounded.
2 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d.; Member of Parliament for Invercargill 1931–35, Awarua 1935–44; born Gore, 4 Sep 1891; farmer; served 1 NZEF 1914–20, comd 2 Bn Otago Regt, 1918; comd 5 Bde May 1940–Nov 1941; p.w. 27 Nov 1941; escaped Mar 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.
3 Brig R. Miles, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d.; born Springston, 10 Dec 1892; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1914–19; CRA 2 NZ Div 1940–41; comd 2 NZEF (UK) 1940; wounded and p.w. 1 Dec 1941; died, Spain, 20 Oct 1943.
4 Brig G. Dittmer, CBE, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Maharahara, 4 Jun 1893; Regular soldier; Auckland Regt 1914–19 (OC 1 NZ Entrenching Bn); CO 28 (Maori) Bn, Jan 1940–Nov 1941; wounded 23 Nov 1941; comd 1 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) Apr 1942–Aug 1943; 1 Div, Aug 1942–Jan 1943; Fiji Military Forces and Fiji Inf Bde Gp, Sep 1943–Nov 1945; Camp Commandant, Papakura Military Camp, 1946; Commandant, Central Military District, 1946–48.
The sick and wounded of the recovered prisoners were sent to hospital and the remainder to Maadi.
Innocuous rumour and gossip based on the war communiques and commentaries, scraps from the intelligence reports and letters from New Zealand also varied the routine. The Pacific war aroused the keenest interest and was the basis of many rumours concerning the Division's future. These were coloured by the Government's request for experienced officers and non-commissioned officers for the home defence forces then being rapidly expanded. Brigadier Barrowclough, DSO,2 commanding 6 Brigade, was specially asked for to command a division. Other senior officers released at this time and later were Brigadier Wilder and Lieutenant-Colonels Andrew, VC,3 Dittmer, Satterthwaite4 and Duff.5
The transfer of these officers meant more to the Division than occasion for gossip or colour for rumour. Added to the loss of other senior officers in Cyrenaica, their departure created anxiety for the Division's efficiency in command and staff.
1 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1916–17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939–Apr 1941, Jun–Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde, Crete, May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942–Jun 1943, Nov 1943–Feb 1944; 2 NZ Div 30 Apr-14 May 1943 and 9 Feb-2 Mar 1944; Prisoner of War Reception Group (UK) 1944–45; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories.
2 Maj-Gen Rt Hon Sir Harold Barrowclough, PC, KCMG, CB, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US), Croix de Guerre (Fr); Wellington; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915–19 (CO 4 Bn); comd 7 NZ Inf Bde in UK, 1940; 6 Bde, 1 May 1940–21 Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in Pacific and GOC 3 NZ Div, 8 Aug 1942–20 Oct 1944; Chief Justice of New Zealand.
3 Brig L. W. Andrew, VC, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Ashhurst, 23 Mar 1897; Regular soldier; Wellington Regt, 1915–19; CO 22 Bn Jan 1940–Mar 1942; comd 5 Bde 27 Nov-8 Dec 1941; Area Commander, Wellington, Nov 1943–Dec 1946; Commandant Central Military District, Apr 1948–Mar 1952.
4 Col S. M. Satterthwaite, m.i.d.; Timaru; born Timaru, 7 Jan 1897; Regular soldier; Bde IO (Lt) NZ Rifle Bde, 1917–19; CO 26 Bn Dec 1941–Apr 1942.
5 Brig C. S. J. Duff, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Wellington, 19 Nov 1898; Regular soldier; comd 34 NZ A-Tk Bty, 1939–40; 7 A-Tk Regt, Oct 1940–May 1941; 4 Fd Regt, Aug 1941–Apr 1942; CRA 3 NZ Div, Aug 1942–Oct 1944; NZLO Melbourne, 1947–48.
6 Maj-Gen C.E. Weir, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939–Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941–Jun 1944; comd 2 NZ Div 4 Sep-17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944–Sep 1946; Commandant Southern Military District, 1948–49; QMG Army HQ Nov 1951–.
This immaturity applied also to many of the units. In the artillery, 6 Field Regiment had suffered extremely heavy casualties at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed, and new officers and other ranks far outnumbered the old hands. To a slightly lesser extent this was also the case with 7 Anti-Tank Regiment. In 4 Infantry Brigade, 18 Battalion's losses had not been severe and 19 Battalion had come out of the campaign almost intact. The 20th Battalion, now commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows,3 on the other hand, had been practically destroyed at Belhamed. It was rebuilt with a team of new officers, some 600 reinforcements and a stiffening of about 150 old hands still to be found in Egypt. So also with 21 Battalion in 5 Brigade and 6 Brigade's three units, 24, 25, and 26 Battalions. All were rebuilt on a nucleus of survivors and of officers and other ranks left out of battle.
All this involved many psychological adjustments. On the return from Cyrenaica the survivors moved into the dugouts they had occupied before the campaign. The dugouts, in which each man had his neatly cut bed in the wall, his patent stove, his ‘pin-ups’, might have been regarded in other circumstances as ‘home’. But now they created a mood of sadness. They contained too many reminders of friends who had not come back from the battle. Besides the vacant places, there was the listing of details concerning friends known to be missing, the collecting and packing of the effects of comrades who had been killed, and then the pitiable battalion musters of the first days when the remnants of companies lined up—ragged, aggressive, resentful of anything suggestive of ‘paradeground stuff’: all part and parcel of war. Many had experienced it before and would go through it again and again before they became hardened but never callous to it.
1 Brig G. H. Clifton, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Greenmeadows, 18 Sep 1898; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier 1919–21 (MC, Waziristan); CRE 2 NZ Div 1940–41; Chief Engineer 30 Corps 1941–42; comd 6 Bde Feb–Sep 1942; p.w. 4 Sep 1942; escaped, Germany, Mar 1945; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1949–52; Commandant Northern Military District, Mar 1952–Sep 1953.
2 The principal appointments in the Division in June 1942 with some notes on the units are given in Appendix I.
3 Brig J. T. Burrows, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Gk); Christchurch; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn Dec 1941–Jun 1942; 20 Bn and Armd Regt Aug 1942–Jul 1943; comd 4 Bde 27–29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul-15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug–Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul–Aug 1944; Commandant Southern Military District, Nov 1951–Oct 1953; Commander K Force Nov 1953–Nov 1954.
The absorption of the reinforcements was a study in individual and mass psychology. Veterans on the one side and reinforcements on the other were sufficiently numerous to make distinct classes. Each class was slightly resentful of the other. The reinforcements carried a chip on the shoulder when they were dubbed ‘Coconut Bombers’ because their service in Fiji had been bloodless. They felt the depression of the older hands, but could not share it. If any of them appeared to be stepping too easily into a dead comrade's shoes, or oblivious of the honour done him in admission to the sacred ranks, he was coolly received. There was little that anybody could do about it except wait for the two groups to settle down together.
This settling-down process was hastened at the New Year with a celebration big enough to pass into tradition as the ‘Battle of Baggush’. At midnight on the last day of the year, pent feelings were loosed with a display of fireworks on a grand scale. German and Italian flares were fired in abundance. Machine-gun and rifle fire was almost continuous. The artillery added bass tones to the celebrations with their 25-pounders. So many Very lights, parachute flares, tracer bullets, and shells and weapons of all kinds heralded the New Year that adjacent Navy and Air Force commands made emergency calls asking if the Division was being attacked.
General Freyberg noted in his diary that it was a ‘regrettable waste of ammunition and enemy flares, etc., but, being New Year's Eve, only to be expected.’ If, however, there was material waste, there was moral gain. All ranks, old and new, now had something in common. From that moment morale took a distinct upward turn.
Thus 1941 ended on a high note and gave way to 1942 with all the confident hopes associated with the change of the calendar. But, as so often happens, the New Year was to bring the unexpected.
Only three days after General Freyberg had advised the Government of the move to Syria, he was warned of another projected role for the Division. The enemy was then resisting stubbornly on the Gazala line in Cyrenaica, but Middle East Headquarters was confident of victory and thought that some time in February it would be possible to mount a battle for the key defensive area at El Agheila. The New Zealand Division would be required for this operation. Instead of going to Syria, the Division would move into General Headquarters Reserve at Maadi and the Combined Operations Training Centre at Kabrit, on the Suez Canal, to complete refitting and to train for its revised role.1page 11
Agheila loomed large in the appreciations of Auchinleck and his staff. The remnants of Graziani's Italian Army had escaped to the shelter of this naturally strong position the previous January. From Agheila, Afrika Korps and the reorganised Italians under Rommel had debouched on 30 March to recapture the whole of Cyrenaica except Tobruk and establish themselves on the frontier of Egypt. In the current operations the destruction of the enemy forces, especially of the armour, was given its customary place as the main objective of Eighth Army, but always in mind there was the additional objective of preventing a withdrawal to Agheila in organised strength.
The new strategic situation created by the entry of Japan into the war gave further importance to Agheila. While Auchinleck hoped to continue the offensive through Agheila to Tripoli, he was compelled to recognise that transfers and diversions of formations and equipment to the Far East might force him to halt at the western frontier of Cyrenaica. Therefore he was as anxious to secure Agheila as he judged the enemy would be to hold it. Agheila had to be traversed to invade Tripolitania. It was equally essential to control the area in order to hold Cyrenaica. Otherwise, Auchinleck feared, Eighth Army would have to retire to the Egyptian frontier if the enemy became strong enough to launch an offensive in force.1
Looking well ahead, Middle East Headquarters prepared a plan for the capture of Agheila and, in the middle of December, assigned troops and equipment for the project as well as for intermediate operations to clear Bardia and Halfaya and thus improve the administrative situation. The general idea was that a lightly equipped brigade group would be landed on the coast at Ras el Ali to the west of the enemy positions at Agheila, while a motorised brigade would move round the positions to the south and then turn north to join the seaborne forces in the enemy's rear. The combined forces would then prevent reinforcements from reaching the enemy from Tripoli and close his only avenue of escape from a frontal attack to be made at the same time.
A New Zealand brigade group (later the 5th) was cast for the role of the landing force and the 22nd (Guards) Motorised Brigade, accompanied by Headquarters New Zealand Division, was assigned the encircling move through the desert. The desert column was to be commanded by Freyberg.
1 Despatch, p. 348.
When, however, the project was submitted to General Freyberg he did his utmost to dissuade Middle East Headquarters from pursuing it. In his view, the plan had nothing to commend it. It was based, he thought, on too scant information and faulty appreciation of the enemy's strength and resourcefulness. Freyberg told Middle East Headquarters that they did not know what reserves Rommel had behind Agheila and that, in any case, it would be a simple matter for Rommel to turn on the landing force and destroy it.
It would seem obvious that General Freyberg, holding such views, should refuse the assignment. He could do so within the terms of his ‘charter’. Alternatively, he could use his right to refer the matter to the Government for its decision. The obvious course, however, was not open to him. Certainly it was not one to be taken at that early stage of the project. Nor, at that stage, could he give the Government all the information and advice it would need in reaching a decision. There were, however, other factors which, consciously or subconsciously, would weigh with any commander of Freyberg's experience and sense of responsibility. Of these, perhaps the most important was morale.2
General Freyberg's decision could enhance or weaken the morale of Eighth Army. If Middle East Headquarters abandoned the operation because of his refusal to undertake it rather than because of the merits of his arguments against it, the fact was almost certain to become known and, with repetition, to become distorted. The army in the field might rejoice in the decision; it might also lose confidence in a high command apparently willing to be dictated to by a subordinate.
1 Churchill, Their Finest Hour (Cassell), p. 374.
2 In spite of all that has been said and written about morale, few laymen and not over-many soldiers really understand how important it is and the calculations which may be based on it. The morale of the fighting forces and the civil population of Britain was the ‘real test’ on which the Government decided to fight on alone in 1940. See Churchill, Their Finest Hour, pp. 78–9.
The New Zealand Division, too, would resent any suggestion that it would not essay dangerous operations. Again, the high reputation of the New Zealanders in two world wars would be undermined if, in spite of Freyberg's misgivings, another division accomplished the mission. It could also be argued that refusal to comply with the Commander-in-Chief's plans would not be in keeping with the Dominion's policy of full co-operation with Britain, a policy precisely stated by the Prime Minister, Mr Savage, in September 1939: ‘Where she goes, we go.’
Strategically, it was highly desirable that the enemy should be prised out of Agheila at the earliest moment and the way cleared for an advance into Tripolitania. And, on the vital tactical side, it was a matter of opinion whether the project was feasible or not. Against Freyberg's doubts and apprehensions, Middle East Headquarters could array the views of other experienced officers whose judgment had to be respected.
General Freyberg had a test question he used as an aid in reaching a decision when he doubted the worth or feasibility of an operation. ‘If the New Zealand Division does not accept the assignment, will some other division which cannot refuse be ordered to undertake it?’ If the answer were in the affirmative, the New Zealanders should accept the task and do their best to ensure success.1
Reflection on these factors persuaded Freyberg that he could not refuse the assignment and orders were issued for the moves to Maadi and Kabrit. His apprehensions were not allayed, but he could still press Middle East Headquarters not to go on with the project as planned. He could also supervise the detailed planning, particularly co-operation among the three services and the provision of air cover.
1 Statement to author, 3 May 1948.
Thus the matter stood until the final planning conference, which was attended by about thirty officers from the three services. At this conference Freyberg was so forthright in his comments and so argumentative that at length Admiral Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, beckoned him out of the room. Cunningham advised him not to worry. He said he had told Middle East Headquarters that the Navy would not go into the Gulf of Sirte unless air cover for twenty-four hours was guaranteed. As the aircraft were not available ‘the show was off’ so far as the Navy was concerned.2
But unknown to the planners and completely unexpected by them, a more decisive factor was to make an end to the project. ‘On the 21st January the improbable occurred, and without warning the Axis forces began to advance.’3 Rommel once more was on the rampage into Cyrenaica. Neither the New Zealanders nor any other British troops except captives were to see Agheila until nearly a year later.
Doubts and discussions concerning the Division's participation in the Ras el Ali project did not hold up the moves and training incidental to the operation.
On 4 January 5 Brigade, the last of the brigades to return to Baggush from the battle area, with 28 (Maori) Battalion attached, moved to Kabrit. Under the direction of the Combined Training Centre, units practised the details of landing operations item by item, including rowing, use of scaling ladders, embarking in and disembarking from assault landing craft, assembling and loading handcarts, and the art of crossing beach wire defences.
1 Documents, Vol II, Nos. 116–19.
3 Despatch, p. 348.
The training of the brigade culminated in the first week in February in a landing operation in the Red Sea. The men thought the exercise was mainly for the benefit of the Combined Training Centre, which had not previously attempted the landing of a full brigade. Actually it was a full-dress rehearsal for the assault at Ras el Ali which had not then been abandoned. The exercise was watched by General Auchinleck.
At the jetties at Fanara and Fayid four Glen ships—Saint Essylt, Glengyle, Princess Marguerite and Derwentdale—were loaded with guns, vehicles and men, and on 4 February they sailed in convoy to Port Tewfik. Next morning the ships moved into the Gulf of Suez to a point opposite Ras el Sudr on the east coast. At 11 a.m. the first waves of assaulting troops reached the beach. They were followed by heavier landing craft with guns and vehicles. Beachheads and communications were established.
The principal errors reported in a generally successful exercise were the grounding of a tank landing craft too far out for the guns to be unloaded and the failure for some time of communications with the mobile tank column. Units bedded down in the positions they were holding and next morning re-embarked in preparation for a similar exercise by night.
At this date, however, Middle East Headquarters was convinced by events in Cyrenaica that the enemy's emergence from the Agheila stronghold was more than a reconnaissance in force. By 4 February the advanced divisions of Eighth Army had been forced back to the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line. The Ras el Ali operation, therefore, was cancelled and the Division was given another new role.
At the beginning of February the New Zealanders moved into Cairo for security duty. Contact was made with British and South African forces similarly employed and brigade battle headquarters was established in the leave and transit camp at Abbassia. The 24th Battalion was lodged at Abbassia, the 25th at Kasr-el-Nil Barracks, and the 26th was quartered in the Citadel.
All ranks were vaguely aware of a crisis in the affairs of the Egyptian Government, but most contented themselves with the official explanation for such a display of force. This was that the crisis might precipitate demonstrations and rioting, which could not be allowed to get out of hand to prejudice the security of the British forces.
The 24th Battalion's announced role was to prevent mobs from crossing the main railway bridge, to maintain order in Sharia Shubra, and to disperse demonstrators forming elsewhere in the Shubra area. The 25th Battalion had orders to patrol part of Sharias Abbas and Bulac and to prevent mobs from assembling in and breaking out of the Bulac area.
In the evening of 4 February a New Zealand detachment some 800 strong, under Lieutenant-Colonel Gray,2 joined British and South African troops in enclosing Abdin Palace where King Farouk was in residence. By nine o'clock the palace was completely surrounded by infantry shoulder to shoulder, with carriers, light machine guns and rifles. Light tanks were deployed in the palace yard and further tanks and artillery in Abdin Square, opposite the main entrance to the palace. Orders were given that no Egyptians were to be allowed to enter or leave the palace until the cordon was withdrawn.
1 Brig A. S. Falconer, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Mosgiel, 4 Nov 1892; tobacconist and secretary; Otago Regt 1914–19 (BM 2 NZ Inf Bde); CO 23 Bn May–Aug 1940 and Mar–May 1941; comd 7 and 5 Inf Bdes in UK, 1940–41; NZ Maadi Camp Jun 1941–Oct 1942; 5 Div (in NZ) Dec 1942–Aug 1943; Overseas Commissioner, NZ Patriotic Fund Board, Nov 1943–Feb 1945.
Shortly after nine o'clock the British Ambassador, Sir Miles Lampson, accompanied by military representatives, had audience with King Farouk. Upon his withdrawal the cordon about the palace was also withdrawn. Later, the units deployed elsewhere in the city returned to their camps.
No official record of the Ambassador's audience with the King was issued in London or Cairo nor, in the post-war years, was any effort made to challenge or contradict highly coloured and somewhat dramatic accounts which purported to be records in the first person of the meeting. The background and the result of the audience, however, are not in dispute.
Early in January trouble arose between King Farouk and the Prime Minister, Hussein Sirry Pasha, when the Government broke off diplomatic relations with Vichy France. Although the King did not object to the Government's decision, he challenged the method in which it had been made. He claimed he had not been consulted and that the Royal prerogative had been infringed. The disagreement appeared to be capable of settlement, but the King pressed the affair to the point of demanding the resignation of the Foreign Minister, Salim Samy Pasha. The Prime Minister interpreted this as an effort to undermine his position and, although he was conciliatory, he made it known at the end of the month that he no longer enjoyed the King's confidence. On 2 February his Government resigned.
Hussein Sirry Pasha had been loyal to the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, and the British Government, therefore, was concerned with his fate. The interest quickened when it was learned that the King was negotiating with politicians who might not be so favourable in observing the terms of the treaty. Consequently, on 4 February the British Ambassador, on instructions from London, entered the palace for the audience at which he persuaded the King to send for Nahas Pasha, leader of the Wafdist Party, to form a Government. The display of armed force was to support the Ambassador in his representations.
The occurrence passed into Egyptian history as the ‘Incident of 1942’. It loomed large in demands by Egypt after the war that Britain should withdraw her garrison of the Suez Canal zone and for the removal from the treaty of the clauses giving Britain rights page 18 of occupation. Egyptian Governments contended that it was not consistent with the independence and dignity of Egypt that foreign troops should have occupation rights. When the British Government denied that these rights prejudiced Egypt's independence, pointed reference was made to the ‘Incident of 1942’ as an example of direct interference with Egypt's internal affairs.
Rommel's advance from Agheila was halted on the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line. General Auchinleck ordered Eighth Army to make a stand there to preserve Tobruk as a forward supply base. He hoped to fight a decisive battle on the Gazala line and to convert the British retreat into another offensive. As an insurance against misfortune, the defences of Tobruk and of the frontier at Sollum and Halfaya were to be strengthened.
Headquarters New Zealand Division was then at Fayid, 4 Brigade at Kabrit, 5 Brigade on Great Bitter Lake and 6 Brigade at Maadi. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment, which had carried on with 2 South African Division in Cyrenaica, had rejoined the Division and was refitting at Maadi. The only units still to rejoin the Division were companies of the Army Service Corps serving British formations of the Eighth Army. One of the companies, 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport, had the ill-luck to be in a convoy which ran into the enemy advancing from Agheila. The New Zealanders had men of the 1st Battalion Welch Regiment in twelve trucks and were taking them forward from Benghazi. The convoy was surrounded. The New Zealanders destroyed their trucks and, with the British troops, set out on foot in small groups in an attempt to slip through the enemy columns. Only four of the New Zealanders escaped, although another, Driver Oswald Martin,1 later organised an escape from a prison compound near Benghazi and got through to the British lines in April.
On 6 February General Freyberg cabled the Prime Minister, Mr Fraser,2 that he had received orders for the Division to move to the desert for a full operational role, the move to be completed by the 22nd. The Division was to relieve troops coming out to rest and refit. Equipment was being made up completely in the next two days and the Division was up to strength in officers and men and in good condition. Freyberg said he expected a defensive role but this depended on the Commander-in-Chief's future policy, which had not yet been divulged to him.3
2 Mr Fraser had become Prime Minister on the death of Mr Savage in March 1940.
3 Documents, Vol II, No. 121.
The Government's response was swift and left no doubt of its feelings in the matter. ‘While we must accept the position,’ Freyberg was advised the following day, ‘we are most disappointed that circumstances now apparently require further operations by the New Zealand Division so soon after its recent heavy losses. We assume that nothing but the serious nature of the emergency has necessitated this step, and we would wish this communication to be shown to the Commander-in-Chief.’1
At the same time the Government took up the matter with Mr Churchill.2 After repeating the information received from Freyberg and stating that ‘we have of course told him that we must accept the position’, Mr Fraser said that ‘ill-informed comments emanating recently from America and elsewhere concerning the very large forces retained inactive in the United Kingdom as compared with the needs elsewhere, the despatch of American troops to Northern Ireland, and the use of Dominion forces in the Middle East have been taken up with some force in this Dominion and were indeed reflected, with some degree of embarrassment to us, at the secret session of Parliament yesterday.’
Mr Fraser recalled that the Division had had a full share of heavy fighting and had suffered grievous losses. ‘I greatly fear,’ he continued, ‘that their renewed employment will add weight to this point of view, especially since their employment now will be misrepresented here as an indication that their last campaign was useless and that the job must be done again. Indeed, point may well be added to a demand that the New Zealand forces should be returned to the Pacific area to meet the danger nearer home…. Such consensus of sentiments may have mischievous results.’
Mr Fraser added that to counter any such propaganda and to allay any possible public feeling, he would be most grateful if Mr Churchill would let him have, as far as possible for public use, a full statement of the number of troops then held in the United Kingdom and the reasons for their retention—‘ reasons which I do not for a moment suggest are not completely conclusive.’
Mr Churchill immediately supplied the information sought.3 He said that only shortage of shipping held troops in Britain, but that every month for more than a year past the equivalent of one New Zealand division had been sent from Britain to the Middle East. He was anxious to get the Australian and New Zealand troops into the Japanese theatre, and ‘night and day we work to find more tonnage: all is continually filled.’
1 Documents, Vol II, No. 122.
2 Ibid, No. 123.
3 Ibid, No. 124.
‘Do not allow anyone therefore,’ he said, ‘to reproach the Mother Country with an undue regard for her own security.’1
In the event, the New Zealand Division was not called for further operations in the desert. Concurrent with Mr Churchill's reply another message was received from Freyberg stating: ‘Our proposed move forward was due to the fact that some of the formations which took part in the more recent operations in Western Cyrenaica will have to be replaced and brought back to refit …. The Commander-in-Chief …. sympathises with the point of view expressed in your telegram and has now altered his plans by bringing in another division in our place. There will be a short time-lag … and to tide over this period he has asked me to place the 5th Brigade Group at the disposal of Eighth Army. I have agreed to this course.’2
The Government accepted Freyberg's decision, and on 11 February the brigade group, brought up to strength in transport by drawing on other formations, moved back to the desert by rail and road. It comprised:
- Headquarters 5 Infantry Brigade
- 21, 22, and 23 Battalions
- 5 Field Regiment
- 7 Field Company
- 32 Anti-Tank Battery
- 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery
- 4 Company, 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
- 5 Field Ambulance
- 2 Section Ordnance Workshops
- C Section Ordnance Field Park
- 5 Brigade Group Army Service Corps detachment
- 6 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company
1 The correspondence is an example of the wide repercussions that may follow exploitation of an opportunity in a theatre of war. The defeat of Eighth Army was Rommel's principal object, but the enemy's cause was also assisted by ill-based comments and recriminations which his operations inspired amongst the people of the British Commonwealth and America. These, as Fraser mentioned to Churchill, were even reflected in the secret session of the New Zealand Parliament. Similar incidents occurred at other stages of the war. While they did not prejudice relations between the Governments concerned, they point to some of the difficulties of leading democracies in war. Students may contrast the democratic system which fosters a healthy interest in the conduct of war, even to the extent of permitting every man to be his own strategist, with the blind obedience exacted by totalitarian regimes.
2 Documents, Vol II, No. 125.
All units were on the position by 16 February, and they dug, wired, and mined mutually supporting battalion boxes within a group perimeter of 14,000 yards. In ten days the engineers put down 16,944 mines, of which 13,000 were lifted from the outer defences of Tobruk. The mines were lifted with full authority as it had been decided that Tobruk would not be held if the enemy broke through the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line. This particular weakening of the mine defences of Tobruk was thought in the Division, and elsewhere, to have been a factor in the rapid fall of the fortress in the following June.
On the completion of the defences at El Adem, a mobile column was formed to operate in the triangle Acroma-Tobruk-Sidi Rezegh. It was to hunt raiding parties and harass armoured groups should they break into the box. The column was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Russell,2 22 Battalion, and comprised a battery of the field artillery, a detachment of 44 Royal Tank Regiment in Valentine tanks, a carrier platoon, an infantry company, anti-tank and antiaircraft troops, a machine-gun platoon and a signals detachment. The column acquired considerable skill in its exercises but its role was not taken seriously by the brigade commander.3
The brigade remained at El Adem until 22 March, when it was relieved by South African units. The box was later referred to by 29 Indian Brigade, which occupied it effectively in the June fighting, as being ‘particularly strong’.4 The diary of 90 Light Division for the period 12–16 June also made references to the strength of the position.
3 ‘The idea was that while we were beleaguered in our nice little box it would cavort around outside, biting at the rear of our besiegers. I thought that war should be taken more seriously.’—Infantry Brigadier, p. 115.
4 The Tiger Kills (English edition, HMSO), p. 127.