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

135 — The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the Governor-General of New Zealand

The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the Governor-General of New Zealand

4 May 1940

With reference to my telegram of 1 May (No. 127). The following is the appreciation by the Chiefs of Staff asked for:

Intervention of Italy—Should Italy decide to intervene she will probably time her entry to coincide with a new development in the West, which might be a German attack on the United Kingdom or the Western Front, or an invasion of another neutral state. Neither the Italian Army nor the Air Force is in good condition for war, and it is probable, therefore, that the Italian plan will be to use her Navy to dispute Allied control of sea communications while using the other arms for raids and diversions. The probable Italian action would be either an invasion of the Dalmatian coast or Corfu,3 which would no doubt result eventually page 101 in war with the Allies, or direct attack on Allied interests in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

There is also the possibility, which is regarded as being remote, that Spain might enter the war with or soon after Italy, in which case Gibraltar could not be used as a naval base and an increased naval effort would be required in the Western Mediterranean, particularly if Italy should occupy the Balearic Islands.1

The defeat of Germany will remain our primary object, and it will be appreciated that, with our existing commitments in Norway, on the Western Front, and at Home, our first aim in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East must be to ensure the security of Allied interests. Measures to achieve this aim will automatically cut Italy's communications with the outer seas and immediately impose economic pressure, and will also isolate her possessions in East Africa.

Measures to re-concentrate Allied naval forces in sufficient strength in the Mediterranean are now being taken—the British being generally responsible for the Eastern Basin and the French for the Western. As regards the Red Sea, we do not anticipate serious difficulty in meeting surface or submarine attack, but we consider it inadvisable in the early stages of the war to expose troop convoys to the risk of air attack from East Africa.

In addition, Allied plans provide for local offensives as soon as they can be organised; in particular, the French from Tunisia against Libya, and Allied forces from Djibouti into Abyssinia. These attacks would take time to stage. Plans are also under discussion with the French for air action against war industries in north-west Italy, which we consider would be the quickest and most effective way of bringing possibly decisive pressure to bear.

Balkans and Turkey—The situation with regard to the Balkans and the Near East will depend upon whether Italy attacks Yugoslavia or Greece, and whether Germany invades the Balkans. We shall not be able to give direct support to Yugoslavia or Greece until the threat to Allied communications through the Aegean has been countered. We hope that Turkey will join us against Italy, in which case Allied support will be provided initially through the Anatolian railway2 until communications through the Aegean can be restored. With Turkey on our side the Bosporus will be closed to Italy and open to the Allies.

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North-West Frontier of IndiaRussia is the only power which could seriously affect our interests here. By itself, Italian intervention would have little if any effect. The present situation in this part of the world is satisfactory and the attitude of the Afghanistan Government vis-à-vis Russia is reassuring. The possibility of a flare up of tribal trouble always exists, but the army in India is fully adequate to deal with any situation in the tribal territory and Russia cannot develop a land attack on India for a long period. Air attack on a limited scale on centres in Northern India is possible and may lead to local internal security problems. We have recently equipped two Blenheim squadrons in India with fighter conversion sets, which would act as some deterrent. Russian invasion of Northern Afghanistan would be a more formidable danger. The Government of India is investigating the possibility of helping the Kabul Government to maintain authority in an emergency. The whole tendency of Russian policy, however, is to avoid being drawn into a major war after their experiences in Finland, and we regard Russian intervention against us as unlikely.

Far East—The view of the Foreign Office is that Japan's ultimate policy will be decided by the outcome of the war in the West. In the meantime Japan remains very heavily committed in China and is fearful of American policy. Her early intervention is, therefore, most unlikely. General indications are that American reactions to any Japanese aggression in the Pacific would be very strong. The Chiefs of Staff consider as very remote the possibility of direct attack on Australia or New Zealand.

Australian and New Zealand Forces—It has always been the intention that the Australian and New Zealand contingents when fully equipped should be employed according to the demands of the strategic situation, and the most likely theatres are the Near East and France. If war breaks out with Italy it is hoped that it will be possible to reconstitute the Red Sea route within the first three months. Full war scales of equipment for the Australian and New Zealand contingents will probably be ready by the middle of September. Therefore, there should be no difficulty in re-constituting a complete and fully equipped division either in Egypt or the United Kingdom by that date at the latest.

The anxiety of the Commonwealth and New Zealand Governments in the event of diversion to the United Kingdom at the present time and the inherent disadvantages in the splitting of formations are realised. However, all possible steps would be taken to reconstitute the whole expeditionary force at the earliest possible date. Meanwhile, if it is found necessary to divert US 2 page 103 and US 3 to the United Kingdom, it is suggested that liaison officers from the Australian and New Zealand forces now in Egypt be attached to these contingents. This arrangement could be made from here if the Commonwealth and New Zealand Governments agree.

The possibilities of diversion to India and Kenya have been examined. With regard to India, the difficulties are the complete lack of modern training equipment and suitable accommodation for hot weather, while in Kenya there is no suitable accommodation at all. If US 2 and US 3 were diverted to either of these countries, the ultimate reconstitution and equipment of the whole of the expeditionary force would, it is thought, almost certainly be delayed.

Taking into account the above considerations it is recommended that, in the present circumstances, diversion is unnecessary and that the convoys should adhere to their programme. The situation is being watched from day to day and the Admiralty would issue orders for diversion if the situation should demand it at any time. In that event diversion to the United Kingdom is recommended.

In the event of diversion the Admiralty is telegraphing separate arrangements for escort and security.

3 A Greek island in the Adriatic, off the western coast of Greece and about seventy miles from the heel of Italy.

1 The Balearic Islands of Minorca and Majorca are Spanish territory.

2 The principal and central Turkish railway, which would provide a rail link to the east and with Syria and Palestine to the south. Smyrna is the principal terminal on the Mediterranean coast.