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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino

I: The Political Decision

I: The Political Decision


NO inevitable fate but a free Parliament freely choosing between alternatives almost equal in the balance now ruled the destiny of 2 New Zealand Division. It was a choice by democratic process that enabled New Zealand soldiers, returning to Europe after their victorious march along the North African shore, to avenge in Italy the discomfitures of Greece and Crete. The decision to employ the Division in further operations in the Mediterranean theatre rather than to withdraw it for service against the Japanese in the South Pacific issued from an interplay of complex and often conflicting forces – the claims of strategy and politics, of sentiment and the economics of manpower and production, of loyalty towards Great Britain and the United Nations and neighbourliness towards Australia, of ‘logistics’ and humanitarianism.

That in the mid-twentieth century no nation could live unto itself as an island and that the seas which divide also join was the unspoken premise of this resolve. The discussions preceding it displayed both the extent and the limits of New Zealand's sovereign status – the extent because in her lay the power to hinder, by abrupt disengagement, the execution of far-reaching war plans, and the limits because her choice was conditioned not solely by her own immediate national interests but also by those of fellow members of the British Commonwealth and the United Nations.

It may indeed seem that, in choosing as she did, New Zealand acted not boldly but traditionally. It would be possible to represent New Zealand as still the satellite of Britain, committing her fighting men in the Middle East and Mediterranean because their fathers had fought there, and because there lay a strategic sphere as peculiarly British as the Pacific was peculiarly American. Such an argument might appear to draw further strength from the recent reallocation of strategic responsibilities within the Commonwealth, whereby New Zealand relinquishes duties in the Middle East for duties nearer home. But on the whole this is to suppose that the choice was made in instant and unthinking obedience to a tradition. page 25 Nothing could be less true. It may rather be that the historian of New Zealand will see in the torment and self-examination to which it gave rise one of the great maturing moments of the national life and conclude that never did a New Zealand Parliament make a more difficult, a more adult or a less insular decision.

These reflections, however, are not for the historian of the Division, who must be content to submit brief facts as prologue to the swelling act of the military theme.


The security of the Middle East had been the purpose of Churchill's decision in 1940 to denude the homeland of armoured troops for despatch to Egypt, and it was for the same end that New Zealand had maintained the Division overseas even in the most sombre hour of Japanese success in the Pacific during the first half of 1942. The advance from El Alamein and the Anglo-American landings in North Africa seemed to the New Zealand Government an assurance that the Middle East was now safe and that the Division ought to be recalled to assist either in repelling a further Japanese offensive or in the Allied counter-attack that must soon be mounted. With the impending departure of 3 New Zealand Division to the South Pacific islands and the requirements of naval and air forces there and elsewhere, the troops available for home defence were fewer than the Chiefs of Staff judged wise. The withdrawal of more than 163,000 men and 5000 women from industry was taxing the efforts of the Dominion to provide food and other essential supplies for export and for the use of American forces under the mutual aid agreement of September 1942 with the United States Government. The long absence from home of 2 Division (most of its men had been overseas for more than two years) and its heavy casualties (18,500 of a total of 43,500 sent to the Middle East), together with a natural wish to see these most experienced troops employed in the South Pacific for the defence of New Zealand, were making public opinion restive, or so the Government feared. It was predicted that if the 9th, the last of three Australian divisions in the Middle East, were to be recalled, as the urgent request of the Commonwealth Prime Minister (John Curtin) suggested it would be, the agitation for the return of the Division would become irresistible.

As the Division lay outside Bardia on 19 November 1942, pausing in the pursuit of the enemy that had begun at El Alamein, the Prime Minister (Peter Fraser) addressed these arguments to Churchill, adding the opinion, which was at odds with the assumptions of. Allied strategy, that the conflict with Japan would be long page 26 and difficult, irrespective of success in the war against the two Axis Powers. Twice within a fortnight Churchill telegraphed a friendly objection. It would be regrettable to see the Division ‘quit the scene of its glories’; the possibility of large-scale action in the Eastern Mediterranean in the early spring would compel the replacement of formations withdrawn from the theatre; and, above all, the shipping needed to move the Division could be diverted only at the cost of denying transport to 10,000 men outward from the United Kingdom and 40,000 men across the Atlantic in the accumulation of strength for the invasion of the Continent. The recall of 9 Australian Division, by weakening our armed forces in the Middle East and straining our shipping resources, made it more necessary to retain the New Zealand Division in its piace.

In Washington the Combined Chiefs of Staff, with less reticence of language, found ‘every military argument’ against the request of Curtin and Fraser. It would reduce the Allied impact upon the enemy in 1943, and by diverting ships seriously dislocate United Kingdom and United States movements. To Marshall, it appeared that the move would actually enfeeble the immediate defence of the two Dominions by delaying the reinforcement of Burma and the Far East; to others, it would prejudice operations in progress in the Mediterranean and unsettle British and Indian troops whose service there had been longer than that of the New Zealanders and Australians.

While Curtin's mind was made up and the transfer of the Australian division proceeded, New Zealand proved to be in no need of the involuntary tuition given by the Combined Chiefs of Staff on the entanglement of one ally's affairs with all the others'. On 3 December, the day before the case was considered at Washington, the House of Representatives in secret session decided, on the strength of Churchill's plea, to leave the Division in the Middle East for a further period, without prejudice to the revival of the question at a more opportune time. There, except for expressions of gratitude by Churchill and Roosevelt and of implied dissent by Curtin, the matter rested for four months. None but the enemy would contend that the Division could have made better use of the time thus won than it did on the road from Bardia to Tunisia.


When the House of Representatives made this temporising decision, Fraser gave a pledge that the Division would not be employed in any other theatre without the approval of the House and promised that its future would be reviewed at the end of the Tunisian campaign. This review was hastened by a proposal of
Organisation, Chain of Command, and War Establishment by Units of 2 New Zealand Division

Organisation, Chain of Command, and War Establishment by Units of 2 New Zealand Division

page 27 mid-April to engage the Division in the assault phase of the coming invasion of Sicily. Montgomery wanted to prolong the partnership of the New Zealand and 51 (Highland) Divisions in 30 Corps, which was his most experienced and highly trained and which worked, in Churchill's words, ‘with unsurpassed cohesion’. The Division would have to be moved at once from Tunisia to Egypt for two months' amphibious training. The condition of urgency, imperatively necessary since the date for the invasion was less than three months away, caused Churchill's invitation to be declined. Fraser was reluctant to call an early meeting of the House of Representatives for fear of rousing undue alarm and speculation and for security reasons, nor would he anticipate its attitude to the British request. An offer by the New Zealand War Cabinet to permit the Division to be withdrawn for special training subject to parliamentary approval of its actual employment in Sicily was unacceptable to the planners, since facilities existed for the amphibious training of only one more division, of whose participation they must be certain.

If the Division was not to assault the Sicilian shores, what of the later Mediterranean operations upon which the British had set their hearts? How did their claims compare with those of the Pacific war? The choice between the two theatres was becoming exigent. In the fourth year of war New Zealand could no longer call upon enough men to maintain indefinitely at full strength 2 Division in the Middle East and 3 Division in the South Pacific, as well as meeting her other commitments by land, sea and air, on the farm and in the factory. Though the home defences were now manned by a mere cadre and industry had been combed for ail fit men, the day of decision could hardly be postponed beyond the end of 1943. Three main options would then arise: one of the two divisions could be withdrawn; the establishments of both could be reduced; or one could be reinforced from the other. Many and eminent were the witnesses cited and grave and double-edged the arguments rehearsed when on 20 and 21 May the House of Representatives, behind closed doors, debated the issue.


The case for the transference of 2 Division to the Pacific theatre rested principally on political, but partly on strategic and humanitarian, grounds. New Zealand, as a party to the setting up of the Allied command in the South-West Pacific area, had accepted the obligation to act on its directives, and these called for the use of all available resources. The strongest possible British representation among the Allied forces that would soon seize the initiative in the page 28 Pacific was needed to ensure British influence at the peace table; at the existing stage of the war, such representation must largely depend on the exertions of Australia and New Zealand. ‘The Union Jack should fly here as the standard of British interest in the Pacific,’ wrote Curtin, whose views were fully placed before the House.

Australia, whose great bulk had shielded New Zealand from immediate peril of Japanese attack and which had supplied her with munitions, had claims upon the gratitude, or at least the willing co-operation, of the Dominion. Having recalled three divisions from the Middle East to fight in the disease-ridden islands of the Pacific, Australia might feel that the retention of the Division in the more lenient climate of the Mediterranean betrayed scant appreciation of New Zealand's responsibilities in the Pacific and of the charity that should begin at home, and even, should 3 Division have to suffer reduction, direct defiance of the Commonwealth's appeal for greater energy and resources in the theatre.

It was also argued, if not exceedingly arguable, that, since a holding war was the object of Allied strategy in the Pacific until the defeat of Germany, by neglecting to replenish the wastage of manpower there, Australia and New Zealand might fail in their assigned role and thus bring about the collapse of the whole strategic plan.

To cease to reinforce 3 Division and allow it gradually to dwindle until its offensive value disappeared would depress the spirits of the men in New Caledonia.

Finally, the move of 2 Division nearer home would conveniently make possible leave, or even relief, for its members who had been long overseas.


Yet the weight of argument lay on the other side. Strategically, the opinion of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in November had not been outmoded by events in the meantime, and it was now disclosed to the House. So was a more recent expression of the views agreed upon by Churchill and Roosevelt, who were at the time in conference at Washington. They regretted the possible loss of the Division to the Mediterranean theatre and hoped that means would be found for sustaining both divisions in their existing strength and station, failing which they advised accepting the need, as it arose, for lower establishments. This message left no doubt about the serious hindrance the transport of the Division to the Pacific would impose upon the massing of American troops for the continental invasion. Since the United States was heavily committed in both theatres, the President's preference for the Mediterranean as the right place for page 29 the Division was impressive. It now appeared, since the German capitulation in Tunisia a few days earlier, that operations of great potentiality were imminent in Europe, while in the Pacific the tide of Japanese victory had turned and the threat to New Zealand shores was receding. This was no time to abandon the strategy of ‘Germany first’.

Of prime importance in determining Parliament's attitude, because it built a bridge between strategic need on the one side and the claims of humanity and the politics of welfare on the other, was the scheme for bringing home on furlough long-service members of the Division. The Minister of Defence (the Hon. F. Jones), who visited the Division in Tunisia in April and May, discussed its future employment and the return of its long-service members with the General Officer Commanding the Division (Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg).1 He reported to the Prime Minister that a period of furlough would be welcomed and that, in his opinion, it would satisfy the men. Arrangements were already in train for the return on furlough of 6000 men of the first three echelons, who would sail from Egypt in June and be replaced by reinforcements leaving New Zealand in July by the same ship. Jones thought that, while many men of the Division would be glad to return to it after furlough, there was no enthusiasm for service in the Solomon Islands. This opinion strengthened the case for retaining the Division in the Mediterranean, because it was now apparent that it would be easier to reinforce the 2nd from the 3rd Division than the 3rd from the 2nd.

The need for training the replacements of men on furlough and for reabsorbing into the Division 4 Armoured Brigade, which had still not received its full complement of tanks, would prevent the Division from taking part in any European operations until at least October, and the request for its employment as a follow-up division in Sicily could not therefore be met. But the repeated applications of Alexander and Montgomery for its services told the House a gratifying tale.

Two other testimonies were heard with the deepest respect. One was volunteered by General Freyberg. Writing on the morrow of the German surrender, when the fruits of the long war in Africa were being gathered, he naturally recalled the trials and triumphs of his Division, the inspiration which it had shed, the repute in which it stood, and the confidence with which it would face the future of a European campaign if called on to do so. Between the lines of this page 30 message the least acute member of Parliament could not fail to read the pride of a general in his veterans and the desire that they should end together what they had begun and pursued through bad times and good

The other message, solicited for the occasion by the Prime Minister, was of Churchill's composing. As so often before, the British war leader set the magic of his style to the service of a cause. Instructed by a true reading of New Zealand history, he sounded the strain of imperial unity; and to a House the more impressionable from its unfamiliarity with eloquence he addressed sentences resonant with the cadences of Gibbon and ornamented by a reminiscence of Tennyson.

There have been few episodes of the war [he wrote] more remarkable than the ever-famous fighting march of the Desert Army from the battlefields of Alamein, where they shielded Cairo, to the gates of Tunis, whence they menace Italy. The New Zealand Division has always held a shining place in the van of this advance. Foremost, or among the foremost, it has ever been. There could not be any more glorious expression of the links which bind together the British Commonwealth and Empire, and bind in a special manner the hearts of the people of the British and New Zealand isles, than the feats of arms which the New Zealanders, under the leadership of General Freyberg, have performed for the liberation of the African continent from German and Italian power.

There are new tasks awaiting the British, American, and Allied armies in the Mediterranean perimeter. As conquerors, but also as deliverers, they must enter Europe. I earnestly trust that the New Zealand Division will carry on with them…. On military grounds the case is strongly urged by our trusted Generals.

Yet it is not on those grounds that I make this request to the Government and people of New Zealand…. It is the symbolic and historic value of our continued comradeship in arms that moves me. I feel that the intervention of the New Zealand Division on European soil, at a time when the homeland of New Zealand is already so strongly engaged with Japan, will constitute a deed of fame to which many generations of New Zealanders will look back with pride….

The discussion, in secret session of the House, on resolutions adopted by a joint meeting of the Government and War Cabinets, though earnest, was neither acrimonious nor long, and only six or seven members dissented from the general conclusion that the Division could be most effectively used in the Mediterranean area. Without dividing, therefore, the House resolved that the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force should remain in the Middle East and be available for operations in Europe. Both the Mediterranean and the Pacific forces were to be maintained as long as possible with increasingly smaller establishments in accordance with the availability of manpower and, apart from their immediate replacements, no further reinforcements were to be provided until the 6000 men page 31 on furlough in New Zealand again became free for service. In choosing independently to describe the decision as farsighted, Churchill and Freyberg seem likely to have anticipated the verdict of posterity.

1 Lt-Gen Lord Freyberg, VC, GCMG, KCB, KBE, DSO and 3 bars, m.i.d., Order of Valour and MC (Greek); born Richmond, Surrey, 1889; CO Hood Bn 1914–16; commanded 173 Bde, 58 Div, and 88 Bde, 29 Div, 1917–18; GOC 2 NZEFNov 1939–Nov 1945; twice wounded; Governor-General of New Zealand 17 Jun 1946–15 Aug 1952.