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

447 — The Prime Minister of New Zealand (Cairo) to the acting Prime Minister

The Prime Minister of New Zealand (Cairo) to the acting Prime Minister

7 June 1941

Before I received your telegrams of 2 and 5 June (Nos. 442 and 444), I had tentatively prepared some reflections for my guidance page 323 in London and for your consideration and comments. After further consideration, and after obtaining from returned officers and men and from the authorities here as much additional information as was possible, I forward them herewith, practically unaltered. I would be glad if you would telegraph your views to London to reach me on arrival.

The campaign in Greece was carefully considered by us with a full knowledge of all the implications and dangers involved. It is, however, most regrettable that the possibility that the Germans would obtain such complete air superiority that they could operate quite unmolested was apparently not foreseen by those, both here and in London, technically qualified to do so. I still think that the decision was right, although I find here some tendency to differ, and am surprised to learn now from Freyberg that he never considered the operation a feasible one, though, as I pointed out to him, his telegrams to us conveyed a contrary impression. In this connection he has drawn my attention to the difficulty of a subordinate commander criticising the plans of superior officers, but I have made it plain to him that in any future case where he doubts the propriety of a proposal he is to give the War Cabinet in Wellington full opportunity of considering the proposal, with his views on it, and that we understood that he would have done so in any case.

The operations in Crete seem to me to have been largely the result of chance. Driven from the Greek mainland, various forces (including New Zealanders) with different degrees of equipment but on the whole ill-supplied and to some extent disorganised, with an embarrassing number of refugees (owing to the necessity of a quick turn-round of shipping to facilitate further evacuations on the island) seem to have found themselves on Crete, which it was then decided to hold. As you know, we had no previous knowledge that it was intended to retain our troops on the island, or indeed that it was intended to defend it, and it seems clear to me now that with the means at Freyberg's disposal the island was in fact indefensible against the scale of attack which actually developed. It seems to me also, that it should have been as clear before the decision to defend Crete as it is now, that troops without adequate air protection (which it was known could not be provided) would be in a hopeless position, though obviously the scale of German air attack was larger and more intense than was foreseen. As far as the New Zealand troops are concerned, the net result has been that all our care, before committing them to battle, to ensure that they should fight only on reasonably equal terms as far as equipment and supplies are concerned, and that they should have a fair opportunity to defend themselves, has been rendered nugatory by the turn of events.

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Before the attack on Crete Freyberg told us that he was greatly short of supplies. It must in fairness be said that considerable arrangements had been made here to provide him with the necessary weapons, tools, and equipment, but, unfortunately, much of this equipment was lost at sea through enemy action and more was destroyed on landing by dive bombing. As a result, there was a marked shortage of many essential requirements, including such obvious tools as picks and shovels, and our troops were therefore on occasion obliged to use their steel helmets, mess tins, &c., in an endeavour to provide themselves with those trenches which alone could give them protection against incessant bombing and machine-gunning from the air. Indeed, in the final stages, many of them were short of food and water.

Individual deeds of gallantry on the part of the Royal Air Force were as usual many, but there can be no doubt that the Air Force here was not in a position to play that effective part in the defence of Crete upon which alone success depended. This has been as much a question of the want of a particular type of machine as of numbers, and I am satisfied that before the decision was made to defend Crete this vital factor of air protection could not have received the consideration it demanded.

It seems to me that there are several lessons to be learned from this operation. However unfortunate it may have been in its results for the Navy and British prestige, particularly in this part of the world, the operation has perhaps this advantage to the United Kingdom that it has proved that parachute landings can be effectively countered. These lessons appear to me to be as follows:


Unless the necessary adequate air protection is available, we must voluntarily embark on, or acquiesce in, no further adventures, and in no case must we again allow our New Zealand troops to be exposed to a situation requiring them to meet a highly-developed mechanised attack armed solely with their rifles and their courage.


More effective co-operation and co-ordination must be arranged between the Air Force and the Army.


While Crete provided an opportunity, almost unique in its advantages, for air attack, having regard to the complete enemy superiority, the large number of their available aircraft, the paucity of our artillery, anti-aircraft guns, transport, and communications, &c., nevertheless the development of an attack on the same lines, but on a larger scale, on other portions of the Middle East must, in my opinion, be regarded as probable and perhaps imminent, and the necessary steps to strengthen the Middle East must be taken immediately if we are to be sure of page 325 avoiding further setbacks in this part of the world. In fact so impressed am I with the dangers that I am forced to the conclusion that unless adequate air protection is provided we may well be obliged to evacuate Egypt.1

Unless any reason to the contrary is indicated by you, I intend to discuss these matters in London on the foregoing lines and to emphasise these views as forcibly as possible.

1 See Appendix 4, Appreciation by Major-General Freyberg, dated 29 Jul 1940.