The Relief of Tobruk
CHAPTER 1 — After Greece and Crete
IN the history of the New Zealand Division the campaigns in Greece and Crete are chapters of waste and frustration, an unhappy introduction to battle. An earlier New Zealand contingent had endured greater hardship and suffering in another Balkan adventure, the eight Anzac months at Gallipoli in 1915; but in 1941 there was a double dose of humiliation. The challenge to the Wehrmacht on the mainland of Europe failed miserably and then the Cretan outpost was lost. A third of the Division was left behind on battlefields and beaches from Salonika to Sfakia, 900-odd dead or dying and the rest facing years of captivity.1 Time might tell that this costly experience would prove invaluable; but in June 1941 the loss was more evident than the gain.
Of the 16,700 men who had sailed to help ward off the German threat to Greece, 5816 (on a July estimate) did not return, and it was but a small consolation that reinforcements at hand or on the way were more than enough to replace them. Many desert-trained veterans of the First Echelon were gone, and many, too, of the Second Echelon men who had served England in the dark days after Dunkirk. Their places would be taken by men from the 4th, 5th, 6th and even 7th Reinforcements—in ascending scale of inexperience—who would outnumber the ‘old hands’ in many units. Yet morale proved remarkably buoyant, as the Prime Minister, Mr Fraser, noted when he reviewed 5000 survivors from Greece on 18 May and found them ‘in great heart and excellent condition’, and again when he met men from Crete at Alexandria a fortnight later, the fit and the wounded all ‘convinced of superiority man for man over the Germans given equal weapons and equal air support.’2
Sixth Brigade, having missed the holocaust of Crete and returned to Egypt with its units largely intact, was among the blessed. By 27 May its battalions—the 24th, 25th, and 26th—were so far restored to battle-worthiness that they could assume a role in the defence of the Canal Zone against airborne or Fifth Column attack. The two other brigades—the 4th and 5th—could not hope for a high priority in replacement of war stores until reinforcements had been absorbed and the units brought up to something approaching their normal complements. Even then the flow of new equipment would depend on the future role of the Division, which remained for some months in doubt. By the end of June the field regiments had their full quota of gun-towing vehicles (‘quads’) and a third of their 25-pounder guns, but most other units were living from hand to mouth.
By 10 July General Freyberg1 was able to point out to the New Zealand Government that the units were ‘almost up to strength’, though the 6th and 7th Reinforcements had not yet arrived; but he expected ‘wastage’—the bloodless technical term for what was chiefly the shedding of blood—to increase in the autumn and winter and therefore needed the 8th Reinforcements as scheduled.2
1 Lt-Gen Lord Freyberg, VC, GCMG, KCB, KBE, DSO and 3 bars, m.i.d., Order of Valour and MC (Gk); born Richmond, Surrey, 21 Mar 1889; CO Hood Bn 1914–16; comd 173 Bde, 58 Div, and 88 Bde, 29 Div, 1917–18; GOC 2 NZEFNov 1939-Nov 1945; twice wounded; Governor-General of New Zealand Jun 1946-Aug 1952.
2 See Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War (hereinafter Documents), Vol. II, pp. 33–5.
3 Organisation Plan 36 of the Field Force Committee (briefly FFC 36).
Other matters which Fraser tackled before he left Egypt included Freyberg's status as GOC 2 NZEF. Freyberg was to feel free, Fraser told him, to put his opinion direct to the Commander-in-Chief Middle East Forces on any matter concerning ‘the safety of the D[ivision]’ (as Freyberg noted in his diary). The New Zealand War Cabinet, he continued, ‘should have the benefit of your experience and in future … will definitely ask for your advice.’ Freyberg had the right to refer ‘any matter affecting the safety of the NZEF’ to the New Zealand Government and the latter would in turn refer any proposal for the employment of 2 NZEF to him for comment.
The Prime Minister was sharply dissatisfied, now he knew the facts, with the Government's briefing prior to the Greek campaign, and interviews with men back from Greece and Crete had impressed him deeply, in particular, with the need for strong air support if the Division's contributions to the war effort were to be effective. But Freyberg's charter already gave him unusual powers for a divisional commander2—an arrangement which, even with tact and restraint on all sides, could be embarrassing. Short of stationing a minister in Cairo—a step which even the United Kingdom War Cabinet did not take until the end of June—there was no way the New Zealand Government could gain the influence it sought without adding to the already considerable burden on Freyberg's discretion.
1 See p. 24.
2 See Stevens, pp. 93–6, McClymont, pp. 19–20, Scoullar, Battle for Egypt, pp. 3–4, and Agar-Hamilton and Tumor, The Sidi Rezeg Battles 1941, pp. 81–4.
3 McClymont, pp. 489–90, and Wood, The New Zealand People at War: Political and External Affairs, pp. 188–9.
4 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d., MC (Gk); born Gore, 4 Sep 1891; farmer; Member of Parliament, 1931–44; Otago Mtd Rifles, 1914–20 (CO 2 Bn, Otago Regt); comd 5 Bde May 1940–Nov 1941; p.w. 27 Nov 1941; escaped, Italy, Mar 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.
I have often worried over the anxiety I caused you when I unloaded my cares on you in Cairo. I have no doubt now of the justification for doing so, but the effect itself justified it all. The General met us in several conferences and we cleaned up a great deal of important details. I was forthright in my remarks and he was splendid about it all — but the result has been good beyond my strongest hopes. Now we meet in conference and the whole details are placed before us — we on the other hand are free to express ourselves — and we must accept a share of the responsibilities. Thanks to you we have developed a new method - conference before the details are fixed…. I have never been so happy soldiering as now and never had more confidence — I cannot say more.
None of the other brigadiers who served in Greece — Miles Puttick and Barrowclough — joined Hargest in his complaints. Moreover Freyberg had had little opportunity until after Crete for the kind of consultation mentioned. The improvement in relations Hargest thought he discerned, therefore, was possibly due to closer acquaintance with a distinguished soldier who was not personally well-known in New Zealand military circles when he was appointed GOC.
Meanwhile Fraser had obtained opinions on Freyberg's ability at the highest level in Cairo and when he reached London. ‘While Mr. Fraser likes Freyberg and is keeping an open mind’, General Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote on 20 August to Wavell and his successor as C-in-C MEF, General Auchinleck, ‘this is causing him grave anxiety.’ None knew Freyberg's qualities better than Wavell, who replied on 21 August that Freyberg had ‘produced one of best trained and disciplined and fittest divisions I have ever seen and he must be given fullest credit for their exploits in Greece and Crete.’ Auchinleck also wrote reassuringly and considered that ‘it would be great mistake to move Freyberg from the Command of the New Zealand Division….’1
1 See Kennedy, The Business of War, p. 160, and Connell, Auchinleck, pp. 274–6.
On the delicate preliminaries to the campaign in Greece it was Smuts whose views Churchill sought, not Fraser's, though the South Africans could not serve there and the New Zealand contribution was essential. Personality was, as always, a coefficient of formal authority: Smuts was an established and impressive figure on the international plane, Fraser a newcomer. As the war moved towards its third year, however, Fraser and his government colleagues were moving on from a fairly general acquiescence in the strategic decisions of the United Kingdom and its professional advisers to a more critical and independent standpoint.
1 See Wood, pp. 216–18.