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

99 — Note for the New Zealand Division from General Wavell1

page 81

Note for the New Zealand Division from General Wavell1

27 December 1940

I feel that I owe an explanation to the New Zealand Division, and especially to the 4th Infantry Brigade, regarding the recent operations in the Western Desert. I know that they are disappointed at not having taken part in the advance on Sidi Barrani or beyond, and perhaps feel hurt that they have been used for all the hard work of making defences and then have not been detailed to take part in the attack when attack became possible.

I therefore give you the reasons which influenced the decision not to use them in the advance. It was my original intention to do so. But the New Zealand Government, quite naturally and quite rightly, has always wished that the New Zealand Division should be employed in active operations only as a complete division under its own Commander. I am sure that if I had been able to explain the situation to the New Zealand Government, they would have granted permission for the 4th Infantry Brigade to be used, as they have granted permission for the special use of a part of the forces they have supplied. At the time when the decision had to be taken, however, it was still several weeks before the operations were to take place, the strictest possible secrecy was being maintained, and the number of those who knew that an operation was to take place at all was extremely limited. To consult the New Zealand Government would necessarily have involved the communication of some details of the plans to several people and possibly some discussion of them. It would have been necessary to place the Brigade under the command of the Commander of the 4th Indian Division. I felt that I could not do all this without some detailed explanation to the New Zealand Government which might have jeopardised secrecy. I therefore decided, somewhat reluctantly, not to use the New Zealand Brigade, and to use instead the 16th Infantry Brigade which I could do without reference to anyone.

As regards the use of the Australian Division for the second stage of the operations, I required a whole division, and if I had sent forward the New Zealand Brigade it would have been necessary to form a composite division of Australian and New Zealand troops, which I had been given to understand was contrary to the wishes of the New Zealand Government. It would have either broken up the New Zealand Division or would have involved a further page 82 relief at a later stage with loss of time and waste of transport. It had always been my intention that the Australian Corps should eventually take over the Western Desert, and that the New Zealand Division when complete should become the General Headquarters Reserve. This explains why I was unable to send forward the New Zealand Brigade in the second stage of the operations.

As you know, however, the assistance that has been given by the New Zealand Division to the operations in the Western Desert has been invaluable, and the recent success could not have been gained without it. The New Zealand Division has supplied its Signals, its transport, its Engineers, Railway and other personnel who have made up our shortage in these very necessary services. I should like to refer also to the magnificent work done by the Long Range Patrols who relieved me of any anxiety about the Southern Libyan Desert, from which the Italians might have threatened Upper Egypt or the Sudan.

I take this opportunity of thanking the New Zealand Division for all the assistance they have so willingly provided during the very difficult period when the defence of Egypt was dangerously weak, and I very much regret that it was not possible for them to take an even greater share in the advance from Matruh. Their turn will come before long, and I have every confidence that their leadership, training, and spirit will win them great distinction in any operation in which they take part.

A. P. Wavell

1 Field-Marshal Earl Wavell, PC, GCB, GCSI, GCIE, CMG, MC (then General Sir Archibald Wavell); GOC-in-C, Middle East, 1939–41; GOC-in-C, India, 1941–43; Supreme Commander, South-West Pacific, Jan–Mar 1942; Viceroy and Governor-General of India 1943–47.