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

376 — General Wavell, Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, to the Chief of the General Staff (Wellington)

General Wavell, Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, to the Chief of the General Staff (Wellington)

26 April 1941

The following general review of the situation in the Middle East is private and most secret for the Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand and for Generals Sturdee1 and Duigan:

GREECE: Heavy enemy attacks have been delivered; the evacuation plan has been accelerated due to the Greek collapse in Epirus leaving open the route via Agrinion to Athens. A total of 13,000 troops embarked during the nights 24–25 and 25–26 April, but advice of their safe arrival at Crete or Egypt has not yet been received. The chief danger is from attack on shipping during the passage. This includes the bulk of the 19th Australian Brigade and one New Zealand, believed the 6th, brigade.2 There are 23,000 for embarkation on the night 26–27 April, leaving 12,000 for embarkation on the nights 28–29 and 29–30 April. Enemy attacks on aerodromes destroyed our fighter air force in Greece, but heavy air attacks on troops have not so far caused serious casualties. One New Zealand brigade, believed to be the 4th, assisted by the Australian Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers, are in position

1 Lieutenant-General Vernon Ashton Hobart Sturdee, CB, CBE, DSO; Chief of the General Staff, Australian Military Forces, 1940–42; Head of Australian Military Mission to Washington, 1942–44; GOC 1st Australian Army, 1944–45; Chief of the General Staff, Australia, 1945–to date.

2 It was in fact the 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade.

page 277 at Erithrai, north of Athens, covering the evacuation and withdrawal to the Peloponnese for final evacuation. General Blamey is now in Cairo and reports that the spirit of the troops is excellent.1 The Australian troops will refit in Palestine and the New Zealand troops in Egypt. I fear that all equipment will be lost.

CYRENAICA AND EGYPT: The Tobruk garrison under Morshead2 is carrying out a very active defence and is inflicting heavy losses on the enemy at small cost whenever he attacks. The enemy has certainly been forced to pause for reinforcements and, owing to the difficulty of maintenance, I do not anticipate a reinforced German armoured advance before the second week of May. The internal Egyptian situation is steadier, but it will react violently to any enemy success or air bombing.

Included in future German moves may be the reinforcement of his present weak Libyan air force from the Balkans, possible air-and sea-borne attacks on Crete or Cyprus, airborne landings in Syria and the use of Syrian aerodromes, pressure on Bundar Abbas, and the support of anti-British elements in Iraq.

1 General Blamey had been appointed Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Middle East.

2 Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie James Morshead, KCB, KBE, CMG, DSO; Officer Commanding 18th Infantry Brigade, AIF, 1940–41; GOC 9th Division, AIF (Tobruk), 1941–42; commanded Australian Corps in Middle East, 1942–44; GOC 2nd Australian Army, 1944.