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

66 — Report by the Hon. P. Fraser on his Visit to England in 1939 — [Extract]

page 55

Report by the Hon. P. Fraser on his Visit to England in 1939

Arrangements were being finalised for the despatch of New Zealand forces towards the end of January but in the first place the question arose as to where they should go.

Expert opinion was completely unanimous on this subject. While there was a general appreciation of the advantages that would be gained by bringing New Zealand and Australian troops to the United Kingdom, particularly from the psychological point of view of the association of the men with their kinsfolk in Great Britain, nevertheless there were two main reasons which out-weighed these advantages: the first was the undesirability of bringing the troops from a New Zealand summer to a winter in the United Kingdom into probably unprepared quarters, and the second and deciding factor was the desirability of keeping a strategical reserve in the Middle East, where, in addition, the climate was stated to be reasonably healthy, and where training facilities and training areas could readily be made available. The deciding factor was, of course, that of the strategical reserve, and I had no difficulty in coming to the conclusion that we should accept the request of the British Government that our troops should proceed to Egypt and the Australians to Palestine. This having been arranged, the next step was a somewhat surprising one relating to the date of departure. This was, of course, complicated by the necessity, firstly, of having the necessary shipping available to transport large bodies of men and, secondly, and this was the important factor in this connection, the escort. Shipping difficulties prevented the whole of the Australian forces and the New Zealand First Echelon being moved at the same time, and the provision of the necessary escort rendered it essential, in the opinion of the Admiralty, that the combined Australian and New Zealand forces should move in two bodies, the first towards the end of December or the beginning of January, and the second towards the beginning of March. The awkwardness of the situation that thus developed was realised in London, but the British authorities felt that they had no alternative in the matter, and the best they could do for New Zealand was to give us the option of joining either the first or the second voyage. I should like to say here that the prompt decision of the New Zealand Government in admittedly difficult circumstances was greatly appreciated in London by the British authorities, and indeed, by myself, and the arrangements that have now been made are, I think, page 56 on the whole satisfactory. In particular, the ships to be provided as transports and the accommodation for the troops seemed to be very good.

On the question of escort,1 I had in the first place some small difficulties. The original suggestion, so far as the New Zealand First Echelon was concerned, was that the convoy should be escorted to Australia by HMS Leander only, and, from Sydney onwards, that the escort should be strengthened by HMS Ramillies and by Australian cruisers. I at once made representations to the Admiralty that I could not regard the Leander as sufficient escort across the Tasman, and although the naval officers who saw me on the matter informed me that the Admiralty were convinced that there was no risk involved, I remained firm….2

I think we may be satisfied that the escort now provided is adequate against any scale of attack that is at all likely to be made, but the First Lord gave me the assurance that if there were at the time any fear of submarines being in the vicinity of the route to be taken (which he thought in the highest degree unlikely) he would at once arrange for the despatch of the necessary destroyers to deal with such a menace.

I should perhaps add here, as I have mentioned previously, that the First Lord (Mr. Winston Churchill) was immensely appreciative of the steps that were taken by the New Zealand Government, not only to play an early part in general operations but also to meet the admittedly difficult situation that had developed in regard to the time of departure. Indeed, he spoke in terms of emotion and expressed an obviously genuine gratitude for and admiration of the attitude of co-operation which the New Zealand Government had so generously adopted….3

1 Naval escort for the First Echelon convoy, later joined by Australian troopships, was: WellingtonSydney, Canberra, Ramillies, Leander; Sydney-Fremantle, Canberra, Australia, Ramillies; Fremantle–Colombo, Ramillies, Kent, and French cruiser Suffren; Colombo – Aden – Port Tewfik, Ramillies, Sussex, Hobart, Westcott, and Eagle. (HMS Ramillies, battleship, 29,150 tons, eight 15-inch guns; HMAS Canberra, 8-inch cruiser, 9850 tons; HMS Leander, 6-inch cruiser, 7270 tons; HMAS Australia, 8-inch cruiser, 9870 tons; HMS Kent, 8-inch cruiser, 10,000 tons; Suffren (French), 8-inch cruiser, 10,000 tons; HMS Sussex, 8-inch cruiser, 9830 tons; HMS Eagle, aircraft-carrier, 22,600 tons (sunk by torpedo in Mediterranean, Aug 1942); HMAS Hobart, 6-inch cruiser, 7105 tons; HMS Westcott, destroyer, 4-inch guns, 1100 tons.)

2 The original of the report is missing. This draft was supplied by courtesy of Mr. Fraser.