Political and External Affairs
CHAPTER 8 — Explosion
ON 19 September 1922, H. A. L. Fisher cast round in his well-stored mind to find examples of extreme political improbability, and he asked of the foreigners assembled at Geneva the rhetorical question: what would be the attitude of New Zealand if asked to fight because a threat to the eastern frontier of Poland involved Great Britain through a treaty of mutual guarantee? The answer was to Fisher and his audience so obvious that it was a conclusive argument against Britain entering into any such treaty without the most careful study and forethought.1 Nevertheless when New Zealand first declared war it was in fulfilment of a guarantee not very different from that imagined by Fisher, though entered into under conditions the reverse of those which he said were indispensable. The guarantee to Poland meant the abandonment of established policies. It was given in haste to meet an emergency, an improvisation on the part of disillusioned and indignant men which formed no part of ‘a coherent plan of action2.’ The objections which Fisher envisaged in 1922 as being too obvious to need mention were completely ignored, both when the guarantee was given in March and when it was honoured in September 1939. It would, in fact, have been hard to devise a more challenging issue for those in New Zealand inclined to favour isolation, or even caution in accepting risks originating in the Old World. Yet her involvement in eastern Europe was quietly accepted by a government which had pushed its claim for independence in policy-making beyond the point of embarrassment to fellow members of the Commonwealth.
1 Procès verbaux de la troisième Commission, Troisème Assemblèe, 19 Sep 1922.
For all their clarity as to the means proper to be adopted for the remedy of grievances, therefore, Mr Savage's cabinet was disposed to link with firmness of principle a willingness to contemplate peaceful change. His personal attitude was expressed at the 1937 Imperial Conference when he blamed the British Government for its acquiescence in German acts of lawlessness, but also laid stress on the necessity for rectifying legitimate German grievances. He suggested a world conference which ‘would review the Treaty of Versailles and all its works and would give Germany a new start’. What he had in mind seemed to be not so much a territorial redistribution as an effort to improve Germany's economic position. He did not completely exclude the restoration of Western Samoa to Germany as part of such a general settlement but pointed out that the welfare of the native inhabitants must be the primary consideration.
1 GGNZ to SSDA, 19 Sep 1938.
2 Ibid., 30 Sep 1938.
In short, there is reason to think that the New Zealand cabinet disapproved of the British Government's conciliatory policy; but its attitude was not publicly defined. To that extent the Dominion was associated with that policy, and after Munich assumed, like everyone else, that it would be continued. The Munich settlement had, in fact, strengthened a consideration already powerful: the sheer strategic impossibility of resisting an eastward move by Germany. This had been acknowledged by Eden to the 1937 Imperial Conference. Six months before Munich, with the Czech army intact and well equipped, the British ambassador in Prague—and the British Prime Minister in discussions with the French—had insisted that the Western Powers could not protect their friends in eastern Europe; the threat of war from the west could only be a bluff, because if fighting once began Bohemia must be submerged. The utmost that Britain and France could do would be to reconstitute Czechoslovakia when they had beaten Germany.1 In January 1939 the British Chargè d'Affaires in Berlin wrote plainly that Britain could not guarantee the status quo in central and eastern Europe, but that she could keep out of the coming war by squarely facing this fact, and by cultivating good relations with the more moderate Nazis.2 The implication was plain, and it was drawn by the German ambassador in London in January 1939. Of ‘authoritative circles’ there, he wrote that ‘It can be assumed that, in accordance with the basic trend of Chamberlain's policy they will accept a German expansionist policy in Eastern Europe3.’ Chamberlain himself gave a friendly response to Hitler's speech of 30 January 1939, which hinted broadly enough at this assumption.
1 Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-39, Third Series, Vol. I, pp. 55, 85.
2 Ibid., Vol. III, p. 563.
3 Documents on German Foreign Policy, Series D, Vol. IV, p. 367.
This was in part due to the impression created by Hitler, perhaps misleadingly, that he intended a further immediate drive eastwards. After occupying Bohemia and Moravia the Germans launched a ‘psychological offensive’ which constantly shifted its direction from one part of eastern Europe to another. On 22 March Lithuania accepted a German ultimatum and ceded Memel, on the following day Germany proclaimed a protectorate over Slovakia, and Rumania—under pressure—signed a trade agreement with Germany. Above all, German pressure against Poland steadily increased and by the time the British guarantee to Poland was decided upon Cabinet did not know, Chamberlain said later, that ‘Poland might not be invaded within a term which could be measured by hours and not by days1.’ All this had its effect not only directly on the feelings of members of the Government but indirectly through its impact on British opinion, notably in the Conservative Party. On 28 March thirty-four government supporters tabled a motion urging the formation of a national government.
In blunt general terms, many men judged that the time had come to call a halt to Hitler, and therefore to take a stand beside his next prospective victim. Yet such reactions had an emotional, even a quixotic, quality of a kind unlikely in themselves to lead a responsible government to reverse a well established and logically defensible attitude. In particular, they provided no answer to the obvious question: how could British or French forces operate in eastern Europe? In this case, however, there was a powerful underlying apprehension of a more immediate and less romantic kind. On 25 January 1939 the British Government told the New Zealand Government of its fear that Hitler was ‘considering an attack on Western Powers as a preliminary to subsequent action in the east2.’ This estimate that Hitler was bent on an early war with the Western Powers seems to have prevailed first with Lord Halifax and then with the rest of the British cabinet in the critical days of late March.
1 Hansard, Vol. 351, cols. 1876–7.
2 This cable was along the same lines as a message from Viscount Halifax to the Embassy in Washington on 24 January 1939, printed on pp. 4–6 of Documents on British Foreign Policy, Third Series, Vol. IV. Documents released since the war suggest that, at the time the guarantee to Poland was given, Hitler did in fact intend to attack first in the west rather than the east, and in particular had then no firm plans for military attack on Poland; but the attack on the west was not scheduled to take place for some years.—Templewood, Nine Troubled Years, p. 344. See in particular de Mendelssohn, The Nuremberg Documents pp. 99, 100, 120, 140–1; also Hinsley, Hitler's Strategy, p. 2.
These two differing reasons for an immediate guarantee to Poland were apparently reinforced by personal influences of a kind comparatively rarely felt in British foreign policy. It seems likely that the arguments for a pessimistic interpretation of Hitler's intentions were strengthened in the mind of Lord Halifax by reaction against the sordid character of the Munich settlement, and given overwhelming weight with Chamberlain by indignation at the brazenness of German policy in the days after the middle of March, and its repeated failure to respond to his personal gestures of good will and confidence. These reactions at government level were swiftly reinforced by a sweeping revulsion of British public opinion against the Munich policy and its sequels. Decisive action was determined upon in circumstances more creditable to the emotional than the intellectual soundness of British leadership.
1 Cf. Salvemini, Prelude to World War II, p. 509 and passim.
The Government had more responsibility, though not much more knowledge, and little freedom of manoeuvre. The complexity of the situation and the speed of developments gave small opportunity for constructive comment from overseas, and as was to happen so often throughout the wartime period, New Zealand merely reiterated and stood by the policies established in the last years of peace. On 21 March a message to the British Government suggested that a conference be called of ‘as many nations as may wish to defend the principles of international decency or their own integrity.’ It concluded with a pledge that the Government and people of the Dominion would ‘play their full part should the occasion unhappily arise, in defence of the right against the brutalities and the naked power politics of aggressor states, and in defence of the decencies of international life and the traditions upon which the British Commonwealth had been built.’ In a press statement two days later Savage reaffirmed that ‘New Zealand would be found wherever Britain was when Britain was in trouble’ and remarked that ‘There were some people in New Zealand who seemed to know just what should be done, but he thought it likely that those on the spot would have the best knowledge, certainly better than those 12,000 miles away.’ Savage had, for the moment, come to a position not so very different from that for which he had so sharply criticised Forbes in 1935. New Zealand's criticism of appeasement had been made at an earlier stage and had no doubt played its very small page 96 part in building up the reaction against it in British opinion that was now reaching its climax. But, as the issue revealed itself not as one of how best to prevent a war but how to secure the most favourable conditions to fight it when it came, those who had hoped that war could be avoided by a system of collective security were left with their own adjustments to make.
When the British Government on 31 March announced its guarantee to Poland, there were good reasons why it should be accepted without demur both by the New Zealand Government and by public opinion. The ‘firm line’ against aggression which New Zealand had advocated in the past had at last been taken, and with a unity of opinion in England that had not been paralleled for many years. To New Zealanders, as to Englishmen, the fact that such a lover of peace as Neville Chamberlain had been driven to take such a step was a proof that there were in favour of it arguments of overwhelming cogency. Moreover, the optimistic tone of newspaper reports about Anglo-Russian relations created a general impression that the front against Hitler would soon be strengthened by the addition of Russia. Even the small Communist party, which sometimes struck a discordant note, supported the guarantee ‘to the extent that it is genuine’.1
For New Zealand, as for the Western world as a whole, the die was cast on 31 March. Technically, she was not a party either to the initial temporary and conditional guarantee, or to the full Treaty of Mutual Assistance, but she was committed up to the hilt, both by the decisions of her government and by the attitude of her people. If Hitler chose to strike either westward or eastward New Zealand was pledged to fight. We now know that it was only three days after the guarantee that he made his choice. On 3 April he gave instructions for preparations to begin so that an attack on Poland could be made at any time from 1 September onwards,2 and on 17 April the Russians opened with Germany the negotiations that were to culminate in the Non-Aggression Pact of 23 August.3 Thereafter the critical decisions controlling New Zealand's immediate future were made in Berlin and Moscow, not in London, and this situation had been created by her own leaders' responsible actions, based in turn on the realities of New Zealand life. Events of 1939 could be taken relatively calmly because the only decisions about which doubt was possible had been made freely and openly and with public acquiescence in the years of peace.
1 People's Voice, 14 Apr 1939.
2 de Mendelssohn, The Nuremberg Documents, p. 100; Documents on German Foreign Policy, Series D, Vol. VI, p. 186.
3 See United States State Department Nazi-Soviet Relations.
The course was set, and New Zealand politics subsided into their normal preoccupation with domestic and economic issues. The ONS, however, drafted its plans, the Prime Minister campaigned for recruits, and cables arrived from London describing the efforts to arrive at an understanding with Russia. New Zealand was informed step by step of these complex negotiations but as far as the records go her comment was confined to one despatch. On 12 May it was cabled to London that the New Zealand Government ‘fully realise that His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom are much nearer to the problem and more intimately affected by possible results, than are His Majesty's Government in New Zealand, but they would regard it as deplorable if Russian assistance in the prevention of aggression were not secured and in their view no reasonable opportunity should be lost of obtaining Russian collaboration in this essential policy.’ On 28 August New Zealand expressly approved of the British decision to tell Hitler that the Polish guarantee would be honoured in spite of the Russo-German pact. An overwhelming pressure of events had converted into a formality the decision to go to war that was made by the New Zealand cabinet just before midnight on 3 September 1939.
The immediate problem which followed cabinet's capital decision was technical, namely the transition from peace to war, involving alike the assumption by the State of the stronger powers necessary to wartime administration, and the readiness of armed forces and civilian departments to undertake their new tasks. The first moves were made, as planned, on 1 and 2 September: the ‘precautionary stage’ was adopted and a group of ten emergency regulations took the essential preliminary steps in relation to censorship, the armed forces, and the prevention of profiteering. Then, in the early hours of Monday morning, 4 September, the ONS and its associates had the strenuous, but rather satisfying, task of operating the newly finished War Book.
1 Stevens to Berendsen, 4 Sep 1939. Stevens had been promoted lieutenant-colonel on 1 Nov 1937.
The main contingency not directly provided for in the War Book was a war in which it was possible to send an expeditionary force overseas. Nevertheless, the Army had always thought in terms of this possibility. Public sentiment and the adventurousness of youth both stressed this form of co-operation, and Peter Fraser's sober remark that in such a conflict as that in prospect it might be of more value to the common cause to maintain farm production than to provide fighting men was out of key with the times.1 On 5 September the Council of Defence took the decisive step, and recommended that a ‘special force’ should be raised of men volunteering to serve in any part of the world. The advice was accepted, and the plan announced as government policy on 8 September. Overseas service was not mentioned, but everyone knew it was in mind. Enlistment was for the duration of the war and twelve months thereafter. Recruiting for the first batch of 6600 men began on 12 September, and within a week almost 12,000 men had volunteered. The prophecies of older men, that given a chance young New Zealanders would flock to serve overseas, were fulfilled; and the problem was clearly not so much to find the men as to train and equip them and transport them to some scene of effective action.
1 NZP D Vol. 256. p. 155 on 15 Sep 1939.
In short, so far as New Zealand's domestic arrangements were concerned, a complete reversal of military policy was quickly and easily achieved; though the Prime Minister's private thoughts on the matter will never be known. New Zealand, it was understood, would continue to defend her own shores, and to send overseas the relatively small flow of specialised trainees for Navy and Air Force, on whom stress had previously been laid; but in addition she offered a large expeditionary force on the pattern of the First World War.
The offer was formally made on 13 September,3 but was conditional on the attitude of Japan, on the availability of shipping and protection for convoys, and on the likelihood that New Zealand troops could, in fact, be useful in the common cause. These matters were considered carefully at a London gathering of Commonwealth ministers and their advisers in October and November 1939. On the attitude of Japan, information in London was reassuring. Lord Halifax, quoting a despatch from his ambassador in Washington, set out the reasons why Japan was unlikely to move southwards in the near future. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, reached the same conclusion on naval grounds, but assured the conference that, if the unlikely should happen, Britain would give almost top priority to protecting her southern dominions: ‘if the choice were presented of defending them against a serious attack or sacrificing British interests in the Mediterranean, our duty to our kith and kin would prevail.’ His conclusion was clear: there were no naval reasons to prevent the despatch of Australian and New Zealand armies to ‘decisive battlefields’.
1 Strength in March 1939 was 9512; in September, 17,523; and in March 1940, 15,926.
2 Documents, I. p. 171
3 Ibid., p. 21
4 Ibid., p. 43
Place was easily decided, on expert advice: New Zealanders should finish their training in Egypt, and be available for service where required. Time was mainly a problem of transport and protection, an administrative matter to be arranged, not without difficulty, with the Admiralty. In 1939, as in the First World War, New Zealand rejected the Admiralty's estimate of adequate escort, and there was some brisk discussion, finally resolved in personal talk in London between Winston Churchill and Peter Fraser. It was the first meeting of the two men, whose association was a factor of major importance in New Zealand's war effort. Maybe the soundness of their relationship owed something to the firmness with which, on this occasion, Fraser stated his country's case.2
Naval matters, however, were on the whole straightforward: as arranged, New Zealand's own ships passed under Admiralty control on the outbreak of war. It was a different story on the military side, where a new and delicate relationship had to be worked out. Though the awkward experiences of the First World War were only hazily remembered, it was realised by thoughtful men that the smooth working of the British Commonwealth at war was an objective to be worked for, not a benefit to be taken for granted.
3 Ibid., pp. 23 ff.
On his appointment, wrote Freyberg later, he had very definite notions on the control of the new Expeditionary Force, on the powers that should be vested in its commander, and in particular on the rights which should be retained by the New Zealand Government when its troops went overseas. And he was firmly of the opinion that such matters should be thought out from the first, and clear understandings reached. He made some rough notes of his ideas and handed them to Fraser. He called at the War Office, where ‘I found every help I could desire’. The Director of Military Operations took the attitude ‘that the wishes of the New Zealand Government were law’. He visited France, and returned somewhat disturbed by the state of preparations there, by the optimism of Allied commanders, and by the way in which the British Expeditionary Force had apparently been handed over unconditionally to French command. Then he flew to New Zealand. On the plane he worked diligently on documents which he proposed to discuss with the New Zealand cabinet. They were typed and retyped; and in Melbourne he consulted with senior military officers who were dealing with parallel problems. Finally, he reached Wellington on Christmas Day, with a great deal of his thinking done, and his conclusions on paper. The documents thus prepared, it seems, were closely discussed with the Minister of Defence and with cabinet, and were, with little change, embodied in agreements between the British and New Zealand governments and between the New Zealand Government and its commander in the field.
Most of the material discussed between cabinet and General Freyberg about Christmas and the New Year concerned military matters and the welfare of the men. Freyberg had insisted from the beginning that the commanding officer should be a man who understood New Zealanders and was capable of welding ‘the Division page 102 into one large happy family’; and he was anxious to be sure that his powers were adequate. In addition, however, there were important political issues involved. There was a real danger that New Zealand soldiers would, in practice, be absorbed into the British armed forces; as indeed happened with the men fed into the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. With the Expeditionary Force, however, the numbers were much larger. They formed a substantial part of the manhood of the country. The disappearance of these men into the general mass of British troops would be an offence to New Zealand's sense of nationhood; and in the view of many, it would blunt the edge of fine soldierly material, and would make impossible the maintenance of the high standards of welfare on which New Zealand opinion insisted.
The essence of the problem was to hold together the New Zealand Expeditionary Force as a single well-recognised entity, with its own organisation and services; to ensure that it would be used in accordance with New Zealand wishes, formed in consultation with Britain, but not in automatic acceptance of British orders; and yet to ensure that, when policy decisions had once been made, the force would co-operate smoothly with Allied units to which it was attached. Its commander necessarily had a dual responsibility, which so far as possible should be defined. As a Divisional Commander within an army, he was an officer obeying orders. Yet, in another capacity, he was the ‘servant of the government of New Zealand’, responsible to that government, with right of direct access to it, and in practice often called upon to report to his political masters on the policy of his military superiors. The Division he commanded, Freyberg wrote afterwards,1 ‘is the Expeditionary Force of a Sovereign State, a partner in the British Commonwealth of Nations…. We are in the position of an ally, a very close one it is true, but we are not part of the British Army…. All major decisions, such as the employment of the force, are made by the New Zealand War Cabinet, and the force only comes under the command of an Allied Commander in Chief for operational purposes.’
2 Documents, I, p. 31; Hasluck, Government and People, 1939–1941, p. 217.
The integrity of the New Zealand Division was due in no small measure to the robustness with which Freyberg, backed by the New Zealand Government, fought for the principles which, he claims, he had enunciated to the War Office and to the New Zealand cabinet in November and December 1939. His achievement was notable, not only as a soldier, but also in the field of policy-making, when in the first two and a half years of the war his status as a Dominion Commander at times brought him into embarrassing personal conflict with military colleagues and superiors of the British Army. He was truly typical of his country in his determination to combine independence with loyalty; and his moral courage in evil times laid the foundation for teamwork in later years which was as sound and healthy in military as in political affairs.