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

362 — The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

14 April 1941

I am sure that you are anxious for information on how we view the present situation in the Middle East, and the following will supplement my remarks in the House of Commons on Wednesday.1

Of the two main attacks, that in Cyrenaica appears secondary to that in the Balkans, but the Cyrenaica attack has achieved unexpected page 266 success and reports indicate that the Germans are moving more land forces to exploit it, but are at present unable to spare additional air forces. If they should be able to do so we may be faced later on with the threat of the development of a large-scale attack on Egypt. The deciding factors here are our power to hamper or cut the enemy's communications from Italy and Sicily to Tripoli, the speed with which we can reinforce with tanks, anti-tank guns, and aircraft, and the enemy's ability to maintain his forces. As Benghazi will be unusable for some time, this will be no easy task for him and his road line of communication will be long. The Germans are also making trouble for us in Iraq and are attempting to do so in Syria. It does not appear that they intend to attack Turkey at present.

As has always been the case, our vital strategic requirement in the Middle East remains the security of our main base of operations in Egypt, and so we are faced with the problem of how far we can maintain our forces in Greece and safeguard the security of Egypt at the same time.

We still consider the decision we made in sending our forces to Greece strategically correct, however the present situation may have developed. The situation in the Balkans is so fluid that it is impossible at present to give a considered appreciation, but even with the rapid German advance into Yugoslavia the picture is better than that which seemed probable before the Yugoslavian coup d'état. Therefore, there cannot be any question of withdrawing those forces now, quite apart from what we have said and undertaken vis-à-vis Greece and Yugoslavia. While our forces continue to operate in Greece they compel the enemy to fight, contain his forces, and prevent him re-establishing normal economic conditions in the Balkans.

At the same time, since all other available forces are required for the defence of the Egyptian frontier, we have decided that we must for the present hold up the despatch of the second Australian division to Greece, and limit our commitments in Greece to maintaining the forces which have already arrived there. This means that lustre will be short by one division and the Polish Brigade of the strength that we put before you when you generously agreed to the inclusion of the New Zealand Division in that force, but I am sure that you will appreciate the overriding factors which have since intervened.

Various steps have been taken which will accelerate considerably the arrival in the Middle East of additional aircraft, tanks, antitank guns, and other reinforcements. Included in these measures are the reinforcement of our air forces in Egypt by squadrons withdrawn from Aden and East Africa, and the reinforcement of our fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean by destroyers from the Red Sea. Our aim will be to re-establish ourselves in Cyrenaica at the first page 267 opportunity, and in the meantime we propose to take strong action against the enemy's lines of communication in Tripoli and from Tripoli forward.

1 Not published.