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

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

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

3 August 1940

In connection with your telegram of 30 July (No. 223), for which they are grateful, His Majesty's Government in New Zealand have the following observations to make:

The view, which they have held for some considerable time, that relations between the British Commonwealth and Japan are most unstable, has been reinforced by the rapid deterioration in the past few weeks in the Far Eastern situation. They look on the position as it is now developing as one of great gravity and they cannot disguise from themselves the fact that the contingency of hostilities with Japan in the near future is one that must be taken seriously into consideration if it is not to be accepted as a probability.2

They have felt it to be their duty in these circumstances to consider with much care the course that should be taken with the New Zealand troops now in training in the Dominion, including those for the Third Echelon, and particularly the question of the departure and the destination of the Third Echelon with its page 171 accompanying reinforcements and ancillary troops. In considering this matter they have tried to weigh carefully every pertinent consideration, and they think it might be of advantage were they to inform His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom of the lines upon which their discussion of the matter has developed.

On the one hand, they have had to recognise and attach due weight to the fact that the situation in the Far East is very serious, and that it appears to be getting worse; that if the Third Echelon leaves this Dominion there is at the present moment no force available in this country whose training is in any way comparable with that of the Third Echelon, which is in itself only partially trained; that some time must elapse before, with the existing resources in this Dominion, any other force will be trained even to that standard; that the absence of trained troops in adequate numbers would be a particular disadvantage here in case of attack because of the length of New Zealand's coastline and the numerous harbours and open beaches offering ready facilities for a landing; and that the Third Echelon on departure would naturally take with it a proportion of the available supplies of arms and equipment, already far from adequate. In view of the effect on the British Commonwealth's position of a possible successful attack on New Zealand, it might well be, in the existing circumstances, that the best contribution this Dominion could make to the common effort would be in fully ensuring its own defence.

They have also had to consider the fact that the surrender of the French, as His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom have informed them, has doubled the contemplated scale of attack in the Middle East, and the prospect that, whatever the fate of the pending German attack on Great Britain, a large-scale attack may well be launched in the Middle East, possibly from more than one direction, and possibly too, as a combined German and Italian operation. They are also anxious to ensure that it will be possible to continue to reinforce with men and supplies the troops in the Middle East.

The fact has had to be acknowledged that the equipment to be provided for the troops of the Third Echelon on arrival in the Middle East is much less than half the recognised fighting scale and that there is, and it is realised that there can be, no definite indication as to when they will be fully equipped; and they have been forced to realise that while the scale of equipment contemplated might well be, as His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom assure them, adequate for one possible scale of action, it would nevertheless be a fact that if fighting on the Continental scale were to take place the New Zealand troops in that area may have to fight on very unequal terms.

page 172

Also, the risk of the passage has not been absent from their minds, and in this respect they have felt it necessary to consider that the proposed escort on this occasion is materially smaller than on either of the previous occasions (though they readily appreciate why this should be so) while the risk is certainly no less and, indeed, if Japan were to enter the war, the risk would be appreciably greater than before. However, they assume that all necessary protection and escort will be provided. All these circumstances have been looked at with the greatest of care and in the light of the fullest possible information that they have been able to gather here.

On the other hand, there are very weighty considerations against deferring the despatch of the troops. They fully accept the fact that a large view must be taken, that in the last resort this Dominion must stand or fall according to the decision in the main theatres of war, and that as a corollary it would be wise to have all possible forces at decisive points rather than to disperse them in reserves all over the world. Again, they see that if the despatch of the Third Echelon to the Middle East is deferred, the First Echelon would be left unsupported and the concentration of the New Zealand Division retarded.

The fullest weight has been given to the recent appreciations of the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff on the vital necessity of maintaining the British positions in the Middle East, having regard to the lines of communication which would otherwise be open to the enemy eastward and southward, and to the necessity of safeguarding vital oil supplies; and, finally, they have attached the utmost importance to the fact that His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, after full consideration on the widest strategical scale, have concluded that in the present circumstances the best contribution this Dominion could make to the common cause would be by the despatch of the Third Echelon to the Middle East, and have asked them to take this course.

The New Zealand Government, having very carefully weighed all the above considerations and every other known factor that might conceivably have a bearing upon the matters in question, have come to the conclusion that the troops should depart as proposed, and all necessary preparations have accordingly been made. Having regard to the threatening situation vis-à-vis Japan, they feel, however, that they should retain from the reinforcements that would otherwise be despatched with the Third Echelon the necessary force (3050 all told) for despatch to Fiji as soon after the concurrence of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom is received as this can be arranged.

The comments of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom on the points raised above would be appreciated, but in the page 173 meantime the troops that will be ready on 19 August for despatch in convoy US 4 will total accordingly 287 officers, 53 nurses, and 5791 other ranks.1 His Majesty's Government in New Zealand will be grateful to receive at the earliest possible moment an intimation of the transports allotted for that purpose, with their respective accommodation, and the date on which departure from New Zealand is contemplated, and any further information that may now be available as to escort, including the passage across the Tasman Sea for which HMS Achilles2 could be made available.

2 See Volume III.

1 A total of 356 officers and 6078 other ranks (total 6434) embarked with the Third Echelon.

2 HMS Achilles had returned to New Zealand from the South Atlantic Station on 23 Feb 1940.