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

93 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

19 September 1940

On 10 September Puttick reported as follows:

All well. I am perfectly satisfied with the conditions under which the force is employed. It has now been decided to form an extensive defensive position at Maaten Baggush.

In answer to my telegram (No. 92) sent after receiving your message of 10 September (No. 90), Puttick reported on 17 September:

I consider the equipment situation very satisfactory and better than that of many Regular units here. Vickers, Bren, and anti-tank rifles are complete for fighting units, and the remainder almost complete. Each battalion has seven carriers out of ten, balance in a week only; also 25 per cent 2-inch mortars. The Divisional Cavalry have nine light tanks and eight carriers, with eleven carriers shortly, but no .5-inch machine guns. The Artillery have eighteen 18-pounders, plus eight howitzers. Twenty-five-pounders are due shortly. Answering your three questions: (1) The New Zealand Expeditionary Force is concentrated and under my command. (2) It is holding a sector of the defence of the Maaten Baggush area with, and under the command of, the 4th Indian Division. (3) The remainder of the equipment, except for 25-pounders and light tanks, will be available in ten days from the 17th.

For the information of the Minister, Maaten Baggush is 29 miles in the rear of Mersa Matruh, our foremost defences, and approximately 140 miles from Sollum.

Realising that the Third Echelon is arriving in Egypt in about two weeks untrained and only partially equipped, I send for your information the latest appreciation from General Wavell of the situation in Egypt, dated 12 September:

page 78

Evidence and indications of enemy intentions on the Libyan front are as yet inconclusive. Movements in the Western Desert on the 10th/11th still appear preparatory and indicate no immediate intention of a major advance. The recent move forward closely follows the plan adopted by the Italians during the last two months of gradual approach by stages to the frontier. As the enemy approach close to the frontier, protective troops covering the formation of defended localities noticeably increase. The immediate intention seems to be the strengthening of defences on a broad front up to the frontier line to prevent our continued penetration which has been a running sore and a consistent cause of casualties in men and material. The propaganda value to the Italians of re-occupying territory previously overrun by us must not be overlooked. Also, Italian occupation of Sollum is projected. Results of air reconnaissance and other rearward indications still provide no evidence that a major attack is impending.

As for the Home front, I still consider a German invasion not a possible operation of war. Movements of shipping off the French coast and the recent savage bombing attacks on London are so pronounced that every precaution must be taken. The weather here is bad and there are indications of equinoxial gales commencing. I understand now that our departure for Egypt is again retarded by the order of the Prime Minister who considers that in our role in the defence of the United Kingdom we cannot be spared while the threat remains. The splitting of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force has caused great difficulties. As Commander I feel torn between the military needs of both theatres, Egypt and here. I know you will be greatly relieved that both echelons are well equipped with modern arms and reserves of warlike stores adequate for all contingencies, also that their training has progressed very satisfactorily. The force in Egypt is, however, short of tanks, artillery, and air support. With the Third Echelon arriving, I feel sure of your approval to my transferring to Egypt as soon as the War Office releases me

Postcript: News has arrived that the Italians have advanced in force to Sidi Barrani and it appears that a serious effort to invade Egypt has begun. I have arranged to fly out as soon as a plane can be produced. This depends on meteorological [word omitted] on account of ice forming on the wings. I shall take Stewart, and Miles will follow as soon as possible. Hargest, who has shaped very well in training, will be left in command of the Second Echelon.1

1 The above text, taken from the GOC's files, differs in a number of respects from the telegram received in New Zealand in which there were many mutilations and omissions.