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

The Position in Egypt

The Position in Egypt


I have been asked by the Prime Minister to give an appreciation of the position in the Middle East. It would be a difficult task even if I had the full facts and unlimited time. But, situated as I am at present, fully occupied in training the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and being only a subordinate Commander without full knowledge of many of the more important aspects of the problem, I feel that my information is too incomplete to cover the whole field. I must therefore confine my observations to the Egyptian theatre from the point of view of a subordinate Commander who knows the smallness of our Garrison, the incomplete state of our equipment and the inadequacy of our war reserves.

Defence of London v. Defence of the Empire

There are in England at the present moment two distinct schools of thought upon Defence—one that advocates a policy of concentrating all our military resources to safeguard the British Isles as the heart of the Empire, and the other that believes there should be no policy of defence which does not consider the defence except from the point of view of the Empire as a whole. This latter view brings automatically with it the problems of the defence of the Suez Canal and Singapore.

It is perhaps not beside the point to note that the further away one is from England the less one believes in invasion. In the Middle East itself few responsible people, if any, regard the invasion of the United page 342 Kingdom as a serious proposition. That was my own opinion when I arrived in England a month ago, and I still look upon it as a desperate action with little chance of success.

I believe the Defence of London School to be a dangerous one, and in the same category as the view held by many during the last few years who argued that it was not necessary to mechanise our Army or to send troops to France, and who inferred therefore that everything necessary could be done by the Air Force and the Royal Navy. The Defence of London School now hold that no equipment should leave England until the danger of an invasion is over, and that when the bad weather comes here it will be time enough to reinforce the Middle East.

In the same way people not connected with the Middle East are prone to minimise the risk there. Those of us, however, who have been stationed in the Middle East know the true picture. We have watched the position deteriorate during the last eight months until the present deplorable state has been reached. We have seen our sea communications cut off both north and south, and with France, our Ally, out of the war, we are now facing single-handed the large armies on either frontier.

The Axis Powers now have the initiative and we face possible attacks in two theatres, in the United Kingdom and in Egypt. The present war has become one of material. There is no shortage of manpower. Since Dunkirk the rival demands for equipment of the various theatres of war cannot be fulfilled. It is natural that the claims of Home Defence should have a high order of preference, but they should not be enforced to the total exclusion of the needs of Egypt.

The Importance of the Weather and Climate

Although the German General Staff have the initiative, their position is hedged round with difficulties and limitations. If an attack is to be made upon either the United Kingdom or Egypt, weather and climatic conditions must come into their calculations. They will play a large part and place limitations upon the activities of the Axis Powers. To effect a beach landing in the United Kingdom will require settled weather conditions, and these are unlikely to occur after the equinoxial gales in September. If the Germans have not attacked by that time they know from the rate of our rearmament that we will be too strong for a successful invasion next Spring.

It is argued, therefore, that Germany must attack before 20 September of this year or give up the project for good.

On the other hand, owing to the excessive heat a campaign on the Western Desert of Egypt could probably not be undertaken before October.

The invasion of Egypt from Libya should not, therefore, be possible until after the threat of a German invasion of England is over.

A further investigation of the administrative difficulties that face the Axis Powers gives us additional data to work upon. As stated, climatic conditions should preclude Germany and Italy staging a simultaneous attack upon the United Kingdom and Egypt. Further, the limited number of load-carrying aircraft of the Axis Powers would appear to compromise their chances of success. The losses to load-carrying aircraft which Germany would be forced to face in an attack upon the United Kingdom would minimise any chance of success in the Middle East later in the year. The Axis Powers can only attack one, not both.

page 343

Scale of Attack against Egypt

Any attack delivered on Egypt must be a full-scale one. In addition to an attack along the Coast we should prepare to meet a desert motorised column of not less than one mobile Corps of two motorised Divisions, together with an Armoured Force covered by air reconnaissance and protected by fighters. This force could be supplied by load-carrying aircraft. To cross the desert with such a force it would be necessary to dump by aeroplane large quantities of water, food, petrol and oil. The estimated load that would be required to be delivered each day by air would be 1,300,000 1b. To dump this heavy weight of material would require either 650 aeroplanes doing one trip, or 325 aeroplanes doing two trips. It would be possible for the Germans and the Italians to produce this number of aeroplanes, as Germany alone has approximately 500 load-carrying planes of this type.

Thus, although it would be possible to supply a mechanised column by air across the desert to Assuan or Cairo, this operation would require a very large combined effort on the part of the Axis. Very large stocks of fuel would have to be concentrated near the border at an early stage. The maintenance of supplies to enable so large a force to move 100 miles a day would be a great strain.

There is another point: would the reserves of petrol be adequate to enable the Axis Powers to dump simultaneously and in advance the large quantities required in both theatres of war?

The Vital Importance of Air Power in the Middle East

Continuing the argument, when the Axis Powers are considering courses open to them for attack they must choose either the United Kingdom or Libya. It is unlikely that they would have sufficient load-carrying aircraft to carry out both campaigns.

Unfortunately for Great Britain there is also a difficult decision to make. We have a great aircraft shortage both here and in Egypt. In the next few weeks the air force reinforcement of the Middle East may become of primary importance. While the Axis Powers can reinforce Libya in the course of a few days, with France out of the war and the Mediterranean now closed, we are at a great disadvantage because our air reinforcement of the Middle East must now be ship-borne round the Cape of Good Hope, a long journey. It takes 40 days by fast convoy and up to 120 days by slow one. It is obvious, therefore, that should we decide it is necessary to reinforce the Air Force in Egypt we cannot afford to wait any longer.

Desert now not an Impassable Obstacle

In considering the question of the disparity of our Forces there is a tendency to take refuge in the comforting argument that the Western Desert of Egypt is a considerable barrier to an invasion by a large hostile force from Libya. This view has been put forward and argued over a period of years upon the basis that the Western Desert is wide, arid and waterless, which an army of any size, even without opposition, would find impossible to cross.

I hope that the Committee which has been set up to consider the question of the defence of the Middle East should be under no such misapprehension. They should appreciate the fact that the Western page 344 Desert is no longer an unknown area. As the result of air reconnaissance and special desert motor transport, there is no part of its surface that has not been accurately explored, and every square mile has now been surveyed and charted. It is accepted that the wide tracts of hard sand are capable of being rapidly crossed by desert motor transport or track vehicles; in fact, it is acknowledged that Egypt is the best possible training ground for an armoured force. In the past years it has always been considered that the lack of water and petrol and the difficulty of supply would prevent an invasion by an army of any size. With load-carrying aircraft as a means of transport this is now altered. Given air superiority and the necessary load carriers and a fast-moving desert mechanised army, the question of the defence of the Suez Canal region assumes different proportions. Such an army operating with air-borne supplies would have a long radius of action and a speed that would be difficult to deal with except either by a similar column, supported by aircraft of all classes, or by the necessary fighters and bombers to prevent the supplying of the column.

Modern Armies require Machines, not Men, to Counter them

The Allies have just been out-fought on the Continent by a large, fast-moving mechanised striking force supported by a large Air Force. These two enemy forces are still in being and could be used at short notice in the Middle East. It is this aspect of the problem that I wish to emphasise. With the lack of cover from sight and of tank obstacles, and the favourable surface for armoured vehicles, the Western Desert is even more suited for this class of warfare than the fields of Flanders.

The Garrison of Egypt is totally inadequate for present requirements both in numbers of men and in equipment. While the officers and men in the Armies of the East are well up to standard in physique and training, the Army as a whole is greatly handicapped. It is a mixture of Units, hastily thrown together, the armoured force vehicles are in the main obsolete, and the troops are for the most part armed with old, out-of-date equipment, obsolete artillery, and with an inadequate supply of signal stores, medical supplies and war reserves generally. In addition to the unserviceable nature and lack of essential equipment, our present garrisons, as compared with the Italians, show that we are weak in numbers and in aircraft:

British in Egypt, &c.
Army 149,000 men
Air Force 436 aeroplanes
Italians in Libya and Abyssinia
Army 445,000 men
Air Force 764 aeroplanes

Immediate Defence of Egypt

In my opinion, and this opinion is shared by many soldiers, the Italian forces alone do not constitute a menace, because Italians in the past have lacked the incisiveness to attempt such an operation and the offensive spirit necessary to carry through to a successful conclusion a project of this nature. If, however, Italy is helped by Germany with up-to-date methods and equipment, then the whole position of the defence of Egypt page 345 is altered, and the problem must receive the most careful consideration in the light of the new developments.

In considering the problem of the defence of Egypt I have so far only considered the threat from Libya, although in the near future we may have to face the fact that Turkey may be forced to assist the Axis Powers and even to allow a German Army through her frontiers. This development would not seem to be practicable this year. I am afraid there is a lot of wishful thinking about the Middle East at the moment. We are gambling upon the desert being an impassable obstacle. In two month's time we may have the answer. There may be no warning. Libya can be reinforced in a few hours from Italy by aeroplanes of all types—fighters, bombers, troop-carriers, load-bearing aircraft, of all of which the Axis Powers are known to have a large supply. If we want to ensure against Egypt's being invaded there is only one certain way and that is to make the Air Force in Egypt sufficiently strong in fighters and bombers to prevent the load-carrying aircraft from penetrating into the Western Desert and establishing the supply points without which no Army can move across it.

From the defensive point of view there are three areas vital to the life of Egypt, and these would have to be protected—the Coast road, Cairo and the Barrage, and the Assuan Dam. This would force us to disperse our already meagre forces over a large area. When a Commander is set a task he has the right to be told the scale of attack to be expected upon his front. That is the first consideration. The next consideration is when the attack is to be expected. If the attack is from the Italians alone I should say that the reinforcement of the garrison could wait until the late autumn. If, however, the German Army are coming to Africa in any numbers with modern, fast-moving, mechanised vehicles the question of bolstering up Egypt's defences is urgent. It is now too late to contemplate sending another armoured force, even if we had one available. All that can be achieved at present is the hurried reinforcement of Egypt's air power. Barely sixty days remain before the campaigning season opens. I understand that the route from Lagos to Cairo by land is being prepared, but this will only allow the transit of planes and not the ground organisation, personnel and stores. Nevertheless, time still exists to ship to Egypt by fast transport, fighters and bombers, and we must consider this problem very deeply before we decide our action.



The Axis Powers can choose whether they strike at the United Kingdom or at the Suez Canal. But they cannot strike at both, either at the same time or separately, because they have insufficient load-carrying aircraft.


Italy will not move against Egypt without solid German help. It is most important that we should prepare for the worst scale of attack possible.


The British Army in Egypt, excellent material though it is, and excellently trained, is comparatively weak in resisting power owing to the lack of equipment and war reserves.


In preparing for the defence of Egypt, we are laying the foundations of ultimate victory. Because, if Italy attacks from Libya, even with German help, they can be made to suffer a great reverse. If they do not attack we shall be well situated to attack Libya before next hot weather.

page 346


1. We should push on with all speed with the Lagos-Cairo air-route. I came through this a month ago. It is, at the moment, most dangerous. The landing-grounds are too small, and very rough. There is no Directional Wireless, and no spare parts or ground service available. All these deficiencies require immediate attention if it is to be used in air reinforcement of Egypt. The opening of this route would save three weeks by enabling aircraft to be flown the last lap to Cairo, and this saving in time is most important. It still remains necessary to have a fast route, i.e., through the Mediterranean or some other route, to provide for the transit of the essential ground organisation, personnel and stores in Egypt.

2. We should send, with all despatch, sufficient fighters to give the Royal Air Force in Egypt a reasonable chance of defeating a possible combined German and Italian Army and Air Force operating offensively from Libya against Egypt.

3. It is unfortunate that there is not a single completely-equipped Division in Egypt. The Armoured Division is not properly equipped; the Fourth Indian Division has only two Brigades; the New Zealand and Australian Imperial Forces are incomplete both in numbers, and even the equipment for the existing personnel is inadequate. It is recommended that full equipment be sent by fast convoy for the whole of the Divisions, especially for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

4. As war in the Middle East depends almost entirely upon Administration, we should examine and provide all means of transportation so that when we take the offensive in the near future we shall be able to reap the full advantage of any local success we may achieve.

I recommend—


That all the Railway Construction and Railway Survey Units not wanted at home be sent out to the Middle East.


That a thousand miles of broad gauge railway tracks be accumulated in Suez or Alexandria area.


That the question of concentrating load-carrying aircraft in Egypt to support and supply Desert mobile columns be examined.


That as the Royal Navy are now too busy to undertake sea transport the Army should organise and man a sea-borne transport service which would be prepared to carry and supply raiding-parties or even an Army operating along the Mediterranean coast. In this respect, I am certain I could get a Corps of yachtsmen and seamen from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force who are trained and competent, and there are innumerable barges and similar small craft suitable for fitting with outboard motors, or small engines. Parent-ships could be supplied for these from captured enemy merchant vessels.

5. Finally, I am certain that the first move towards defeating the Germans is to ensure the defences of Egypt, and then a real start can be made by chasing the Italians out of Libya.