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

216 — 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

3 July 1940

The Chiefs of Staff have prepared the following appreciation of the military position in the Middle East. It is being communicated also to His Majesty's Ambassador at Cairo,1 the Commander-in-Chief, India,2 and the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East3 and Mediterranean.4

The retention of our position in the Middle East remains of the utmost importance to the successful prosecution of the war, particularly in view of our policy of an economic blockade of Europe. The security of the Anglo-Iranian oil fields is also important.

The security of the Middle East hinges on the defence of Egypt and the Sudan, where our main forces are based, our Middle Eastern communications are centred, and the Suez Canal is controlled; on the defence of Iraq, from which we must control the oil of Iraq and Iran and safeguard the route from Baghdad to Haifa; on Palestine, which is now our most northerly defensive position and contains the western terminus of the Baghdad route; on Aden, which is essential to our Red Sea lines of communication; and on the defence of Kenya, which is our second line of defence in Africa, a valuable base of operations against Italian East Africa, and which contains a second alternative line of communication via Mombasa to Egypt.

Very considerable success has already been achieved in reducing the Italian air and submarine threat to the Red Sea, and it is of first importance that this route should be rendered secure as soon as

1 Sir Miles Lampson.

2 General Sir Robert Archibald Cassels, GCB, GCSI, DSO; GOC-in-C of Army in India, 1935–41.

3 General Wavell.

4 Admiral of the Fleet, Viscount Cunningham, KT, GCB, OM, DSO; in 1940, Vice-Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham; Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, 1939–42; C-in-C Allied Naval Forces, Mediterranean, 1943; Admiral of the Fleet, 1943; First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, 1943–46.

page 161 possible. The development of the air route to Nigeria-Geneina (Duala), as reinforcement for the route for aircraft and light stores to Egypt, is being pressed on, as is the work on the Baghdad and Mombasa alternative routes.

Our Middle East policy must at present be generally defensive, although every chance of taking local offensive action will be continued. The possibility of attack on Egypt by German forces from this area, undoubtedly a serious threat, calls for an increased scale of defence, although the difficulties of terrain, climate, and communications in Libya are limiting factors. Our present forces are sufficient to deal with any purely Italian attack as long as we retain the Fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean. In Libya, Italy could now muster between 300 and 400 bombers, but their morale is indifferent and their maintenance poor. The participation of the German Air Force in air attacks on Egypt is not impossible and Alexandria might be rendered untenable as a Fleet base, although in the near future their air force is likely to be fully occupied in attacks on the United Kingdom.

It is hoped that Turkey would oppose a German or Italian attack on the Middle East through the Balkans. Although we cannot rely on her to offer prolonged resistance, the threat to the Middle East from this direction is comparatively a long-term one. It is important that Syria should not fall into enemy occupation.1 If the status quo is to be disturbed by our enemies, it is clearly desirable that Turkey should resist.

Iraq's defence is compromised by the situation in Syria, by the possibility of a disturbed internal situation, and by the growing hostility of Iran. Subject to the agreement of the Iraq Government it is intended to reinforce Iraq with one division from India.

Although the continuance of French resistance at Djibouti cannot be counted on, the success of our action against the Italian air and submarine threat promises well for the future security of the Red Sea route.

The intention is to retain the Fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean as long as possible.

The above reasons make it clearly necessary to strengthen our defence forces in the Middle East at the earliest possible moment. The situation is, however, governed by probable large-scale air offensive, and even invasion of this country, in the near future, and shortages of equipment to meet these threats. Therefore, our policy must be to concentrate our immediate efforts on the defence of the United Kingdom and to start releasing equipment for the Middle East when we can more clearly judge the situation following the

1 See Volume II, Syria.

page 162 impending trial of strength here. This may not be for two months; in the meantime we shall endeavour to send everything we can spare, including, if possible, modern fighters for the re-equipment of squadrons in Egypt and bombers to replace wastage.