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

59 — The Hon. W. Nash (Wellington) to the Hon. P. Fraser (London)

The Hon. W. Nash (Wellington) to the Hon. P. Fraser (London)

29 November 1939

The New Zealand Government's decision to send the First Echelon overseas appears to have embarrassed the Australian Government, page 48 and for your information in discussions with Casey the following facts may be of value:

On 21 November, the day following our formal offer to the United Kingdom,1 Menzies cabled stating that they were considering the very difficult questions connected with sending troops out of Australia and suggesting that the despatch of Dominion troops could not be very urgent. The reasons he gave were the uncertain position in the Far East, the possible effect on the Dutch East Indies should Holland be invaded by Germany, and the unenthusiastic state of public opinion in Australia arising from the comparative inactivity on the Western Front and the small number of British divisions in France.

Menzies also commented that they were finding the greatest difficulties in obtaining even a fraction of the shipping needed for some of their exports, while there seemed to be no difficulty in securing ships and naval convoy for a military force.

For all these reasons they intended to watch the developments of the next three or four weeks before committing themselves to the despatch of their division overseas, but, not wanting to be out of step with us, they asked for our comments. We replied to Menzies on the next day informing him that we had already told the United Kingdom Government that we had decided to send the First Echelon overseas and were then waiting for the time of publication to be arranged before informing him of our action. We regretted that we had not discussed the matter earlier but had assumed that it was one of common arrangement with our respective Ministers in London. We told him that we too had our particular problems, such as limited training facilities, lack of modern equipment, the desirability of sending the First Echelon overseas for advanced training, and the fact that the departure of the First Echelon would also make the initial training facilities available for those volunteering for the Second Echelon. We said, further, that the retention of our voluntary system of recruitment was to some extent dependent on the public knowledge of the fact that the men would serve overseas. We informed Menzies of the time of the announcement in London and New Zealand as soon as we received your telegram on 23 November.2 It would appear that this action on our part was not welcome, and we are informed unofficially that Menzies considered that he should have been consulted before our decision was taken. It may be that he was embarrassed politically since Curtin3 had just stated publicly that he was opposed to the despatch page 49 of troops overseas, and our announcement may have forced the Government's hand.

Today we have received another telegram from him (No. 56) pointing out the desirability of exchanging information and decisions on defence policy and regretting that earlier consultation on the Expeditionary Force had not been possible. He stated that he was announcing today that he anticipated sending the Special Division overseas early in the New Year, and that he had suggested to Casey that he consult with the United Kingdom Government and with you regarding the co-ordination of shipping requirements for their forces with New Zealand arrangements. In view of the information contained in Park's telegram to Duigan this morning (No. 57) it may be that some transport arrangements have already been made for Australia and New Zealand. I would be glad if you would consult with the United Kingdom Government urgently and let me have your comments in time for Cabinet's meeting tomorrow morning.

1 No. 50.

2 Not published. In this telegram Mr. Fraser stated that the announcement had been issued to the press.

3 Mr. Curtin was at this time Leader of the Opposition in the Australian Federal Parliament.