Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume I
194 — Letter from General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence [Extract]
Letter from General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence [Extract]
I have the honour to report that I have just received your welcome letter of 27 May,1 which followed me by a belated route to page 137 England. I am happy that the actions and advice I have tendered have met with your approval. I hope that the relationship existing between us will continue because, even with complete understanding between two departments such as ours, the distance and the time lag in correspondence make co-operation difficult.
Since my last report to you the situation has changed completely. The French are now out of the war and for the moment almost hostile, and the Spanish from all accounts are only waiting their moment to remove General Franco and come in with the Axis powers. Japan also has given evidence of hostile intentions.
I know from the copies of cipher messages I have read that His Majesty's Government in New Zealand have experienced most anxious times during the last weeks. I wish, therefore, to give all the help I can in the difficult decisions you are forced to make.
Problems Caused by Splitting the New Zealand Expeditionary Force
As you know, I was very much against sending the Second Echelon to England, as I believe also were the Government in New Zealand. The diversion of the Second Echelon to Great Britain not only increased the difficulties of training and organisation of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, but also made it necessary to split the Divisional staff and send part of it here so that the troops could be trained upon modern lines.
When the split was decided upon I sent off part of my staff by air to make plans for the reception of the Second Echelon in England. I intended to follow in time to commence the training. As you will remember, a series of disasters followed. France was overrun and this was the moment when Italy chose to declare war upon the Allies. It was thought at the time that these changes in alignment constituted a threat to Egypt, and it was decided that I should remain there so long as the threat to the Middle East continued.
After the Italian inhabitants in Cairo and Alexandria had been interned, and this was carried out without any trouble, it was agreed that as I was of more use in England than in Egypt I should start for Home by an air route. As the Mediterranean route was closed we were sent across the Sahara. This journey, to say the least of it, was a most dangerous one. The route was unsurveyed and little preparation had been carried out; consequently there was no ground organisation, and the landing grounds were rough and too small. To add to our difficulties we were overladen. The news of the capitulation of France reached us at Khartoum. The journey across the intervening French territory was followed by great complications and, to add to these, the plane crashed in the desert, but notwithstanding this we eventually reached England after an eight-day journey.
The Situation in Great Britain after Dunkirk
The situation after our arrival in the United Kingdom was most interesting. There was considerable military activity, accompanied by a certain amount of apprehension, but there was no panic and no despondency, and public opinion upon the whole was very sound. It was felt, however, both in military and civil quarters, that an attack against Great Britain was imminent.
As far as I can gather the reason for this belief came from the fact that on the one hand the Germans said they were determined to attack and occupy Great Britain, while upon the other hand the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force said they could not guarantee our shore against seaborne or airborne attack. Furthermore, at Dunkirk the Army had lost all the modern equipment that existed, with the exception of some rifles. Since then, however, great strides have been made and all the divisions have now been issued with a scale quite sufficient to be effective, although on a reduced basis.
Arrangements made for Accommodation in the United Kingdom
On the arrival of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in England the question of the area of concentration and of our employment was uncertain, because all our arrangements to go to Colchester had to be abandoned owing to the German advance along the Belgian coast, and the vulnerability of the barracks to an air attack.
As you will remember, the War Department had allotted to us a provisional area which split up the whole force and gave them a garrison role on the East Coast, which would have made our training very difficult. I had reported this to the New Zealand Government and, with your approval, had insisted upon concentrating the force to enable us to be able to carry out collective training. After certain negotiations we were allotted a series of tented camps in the Aldershot area, and these, I am glad to report, have turned out as well as possible. We have been bombed only twice, and the administrative arrangements have been quite good. Being close to Aldershot we have had access to the School of Cookery and I am glad to say that the standard of housekeeping within the units has been brought up to a good level.
I have been to the Forestry Company at Crowborough and have looked into their difficulties and, with a certain amount of assistance, they will now be in a much better position to ensure that their men are properly fed.
So far we have not had any chance to organise games for the men. We have been training night and day to fit them for their part in the battle should the Germans decide to attack Great Britain.
Factors taken into Consideration in Deciding the Role I should Recommend to the New Zealand Government for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the United Kingdom
When I arrived in the United Kingdom on 25 June I found it hard to take the threat of an invasion of Great Britain by the Germans as a serious project. I still believe that any such action is an act of desperation and one which we should welcome. There was, however, the fact that we had lost the whole of the equipment of the British Expeditionary Force (ten divisions) plus all the five months' war reserves which were in the base depots in France.
I saw our troops and their Commanders on arrival and then went to the War Office and interviewed General Dill and General Ironside. As a result of all my contacts at Home I came to the conclusions:
That Great Britain was in a tight corner and that the people were facing up to their difficulties most gallantly;
That the arrival of the New Zealanders and the Australians in the circumstances had been most opportune and had steadied the nation considerably;
That in the event of an invasion under present conditions any New Zealand troops in England, even though untrained and under-equipped, must be prepared to take their stand in the forefront and defend the Old Country. I felt this partly because I knew if we were to risk our lives we could not do so in a better cause than in fighting to safeguard the people in Great Britain, and also because I knew that should there be an attack, the first question that all our people in New Zealand would ask would be, ‘What part did our men take?’ I felt that you would all expect us to accept battle even on uneven terms in the defence of the heart of the Empire.
Knowing what was expected of us, and after consulting the New Zealand Government, I went to the War Office and told the authorities that ‘my Government want you to give us as much equipment as you can spare, and would wish you to cast the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the role in which you may consider us to be of greatest assistance at the present moment.’
Role of New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Event of German Invasion
They accepted our offer with alacrity and were most appreciative and most helpful about equipment. They assigned to us a position of great importance, as we were made part of General Headquarters Reserve and formed a striking force composed of:
1st Canadian Division
1st Armoured Division
New Zealand Expeditionary Force (United Kingdom)
I decided that the quickest method of training was to take out the force and make it work together as such over the actual country page 140 we were to guard. I wish the people of New Zealand could know the wonderful effect the presence of our men had upon the people at Home here. I also wish they could have seen the fine sight of 6000 bronzed New Zealanders marching across the Sussex Weald.
We paid weekly visits back to our camp at Aldershot to pick up the transport and the additional arms and equipment as they arrived, leaving again for Sussex as soon as possible. For these operations I organised the Second Echelon into three mobile columns:
The Covering Force, commanded by Brigadier Miles, comprised of—
1 Cavalry Squadron
1 improvised Infantry Battalion of Royal Artillery personnel
The 5th Infantry Brigade Group, commanded by Brigadier Hargest, comprised of—
21st Infantry Battalion
22nd Infantry Battalion
23rd Infantry Battalion
The 7th Infantry Brigade Group, commanded by Brigadier Barrowclough, comprised of—
28th Maori Battalion
29th improvised Infantry Battalion (reinforcements)
State of Equipment Issued
We had no field or anti-tank artillery, but for a matter of fact neither had any other British formation. We had, however, an adequate amount of arms and equipment:
18 Bren guns
10 Boys [anti-tank] rifles
3 Bren carriers
25 per cent of unit transport
We had, however, two complete Bus Companies which could move our whole force at one lift.
The Three Full-scale Exercises
The Second Echelon moved out of camp as soon as possible and took with it all available arms and equipment, together with its ammunition, engineers' stores, picks and shovels, explosives, and five complete days' rations and water.
The object of these exercises was:
To practise Divisional staff in carrying out a bus move of the Division;page 141
To give Brigadiers and Battalion Commanders experience in handling their commands in the field;
To try out our administrative services in the field.
1. The first operation was the hasty occupation of a defensive position at Crowborough, Sussex. Each of the groups then moved separately in their bus columns down to the sea coast to rehearse repelling possible enemy landings.
2. The next manoeuvre was arranged for Brigadier Hargest's force to fight Brigadier Barrowclough's force.
3. The final scheme was to carry out an endurance march of 100 miles in six days.
During these exercises the Commanders learned how to handle their fast-moving bus columns and their transport, and the junior officers and men found their feet and got the idea of working together as a force. We came back at the conclusion of our last exercise on 8 August, bronzed and fit, and I feel confident that if we are asked to take part in the defence of Great Britain the Second Echelon of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force is a force to be reckoned with, and will give an excellent account of itself wherever it may be used.
Since then, more equipment has arrived and we have now got 50 per cent of our unit transport, together with 100 per cent of our field guns—eight 25-pounder guns and sixteen 75-millimetre (French) guns, 50 per cent or ten 2-pounder anti-tank guns, 100 per cent of our Bren carriers, 100 per cent of our Bren guns, 100 per cent of our Boys rifles. From today we are to all intents and purposes almost 100 per cent equipped.
The Problem of What the Future Holds for the British Empire
I know that it has been a most difficult time for you in New Zealand, and it has also been a difficult period here both for the staff and for the men. All ranks have responded excellently, and they have worked Saturdays and Sundays and all hours when necessary. I am, however, now quite happy over the results achieved. This crisis and the threat of invasion have given a great stimulus to training. I feel that everybody has come through the training with the greatest credit. I am more than satisfied with the progress made, and feel confident that when we concentrate in Egypt in the near future we shall be able to take the field as a first-class division. Now that it is decided that the New Zealand Expeditionary Force are to concentrate in Egypt, I am going ahead with all preparations. I have sent the ADMS1 back by sea, in the same convoy as the Railway Construction Group.page 142
I feel that with nearly 20,000 troops in Egypt we must now make all arrangements for our Base. I am at the moment going into all the details with Brigadier Falla, who will be leaving for Egypt in the course of two or three weeks. I have also arranged to send off early in September Brigadier Miles, Brigadier Barrowclough, Colonel Crump, and the staff of the 6th Infantry Brigade.
As you will realise, the additional numbers to be accommodated in Egypt will necessitate an increase in our medical institutions. We shall now require Convalescent Homes and a Convalescent Depot. You will be glad to hear that the New Zealand General Hospital has opened at Helwan.
The Possible Action of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Event of Invasion
Although the situation here looks fairly settled for the moment, nobody can be certain what the Germans mean to do. There is only one certainty I feel, and it is that should the Germans attempt to attack Great Britain, using their land forces, they are bound to suffer a serious reverse.
By the time this report reaches you we shall know a lot more than we do now. I feel, however, very much happier about the state of our equipment and the state of our training.
So much for the equipment, training, and operational side of our work here in England.
Position in Egypt
Since leaving Egypt the situation there seems to have deteriorated and as soon as we have disposed of the possibility of an attack upon this country I shall make my way back to the First Echelon. It is of interest to note that when I arrived here I found that people outside the War Office did not realise how meagre was the margin of safety in Egypt. I was glad, therefore, to be asked by Mr. Churchill to come and dine with him at Downing Street. As a result of my attitude on defence he asked me to write for the use of Cabinet an appreciation of the situation in the Middle East. It was not easy for me to do this as I was busy training the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and I had to complete my appreciation while I was on our full-scale exercises at Coleman's Hatch. When it was finished I sent it to the Prime Minister who, in spite of the fact that I attacked the Government policy of concentrating upon the defence of England at the expense of the Middle East, had it published and circulated to the members of the War Cabinet and the Committee he had appointed to look into the position in the Middle East.page 143
I asked Mr. Churchill if he would mind my sending a copy of my appreciation, which is most secret, for your information and he readily agreed, so please find a copy attached.1
The Prime Minister then asked me to dine and stay the night at Chequers with him, and we stayed up very late talking about the problems that beset us in Egypt. I feel, therefore, that some good may come of this because I spoke very freely of our difficulties.
Mr. Churchill was fully informed about our Division and asked me to send messages of thanks to New Zealand for all that has been done in these very difficult times.
I have now been given another paper by the Prime Minister to prepare for the War Cabinet. It is upon an operational role, and this I have almost finished.
I was much impressed and comforted by Mr. Churchill's grasp of the situation and I believe that my frank exchange of views with him may have beneficial interest in the Middle East.
Finally, my views on the Middle East can be taken as those expressed in my appreciation to Mr. Churchill. I am apprehensive that we may not get our reinforcements there in time. If we can hold Egypt and then later on reinforce it with a large, fast-moving, armoured force, together with an Air Force capable of protecting our columns, we can capture Libya from the Italians without having to do very much fighting.
General Questions Of Interest
(a) The Visit of His Majesty the King
On Saturday, 6 July, His Majesty paid us a visit at Mytchett Place and spent the whole day going round our units. He was much impressed by all he saw and was especially impressed with the smartness and drill of the Maori Battalion.
During his visit His Majesty honoured us by staying to luncheon when he met about 140 officers and nurses picked from all the units of the Second Echelon. Needless to say, his visit, which was attended by the High Commissioner, Mr. Jordan, and the Commander of the 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force, General Sir Alexander Godley, GCB, was greatly appreciated by us all….2
(i) Organisation at Home after Departure of Second Echelon
When the New Zealand Expeditionary Force leaves England to concentrate in the Middle East we shall be forced to leave about page 144 one hundred men in hospital who will come to us in Egypt as and when they are fit enough to travel. I intend, therefore, to leave behind a doctor and possibly two nurses, together with a small organisation, to look after them. These will follow us to Egypt as and when they can.
Finally, may I say that as far as I can estimate everything is going well both here and in Egypt. I am anxious that we should concentrate as a division and get our complete equipment as soon as possible. It really looks now as if that goal were in sight. In the work I am carrying out here I am supported by a most excellent body of officers and men who will, when the time comes, give a good account of themselves.
I am most indebted also to the band of officers and NCOs in New Zealand for the excellent work they are doing in training the men for overseas, and am most appreciative of the help given me by Army Headquarters.
It is difficult to say what the future has in store for us all but I am sure that if we can get through the next four months without any major setback, North Africa will be an active and profitable theatre of war for the Allies.
I have …
B. C. Freyberg, Major-General,
Commanding the New Zealand Expeditionary Force
PS.—I have sent by separate post a copy of this report to the GOC New Zealand Forces, Wellington.