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

240 — The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the High Commissioner for New Zealand (Canberra)

The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the High Commissioner for New Zealand (Canberra)

22 May 1943

The decision of the Government and Parliament has already been conveyed to you in the telegram which I sent to Mr. Churchill last night, and I can assure you that this decision was, as you had anticipated, a most difficult one to reach.

The report of your interview with Mr. Curtin was most valuable, as was the aide-mémoire he was good enough to send for my information and consideration. Its full meaning and significance received the most careful consideration of the War Cabinet, the Government Cabinet, and the House, along with the views of Mr. Churchill, President Roosevelt, the Combined Chiefs of Staff, Generals Alexander, Montgomery and Freyberg, and our Minister of Defence, Mr. Jones, who on his visit to the Division in the forward areas had discussed the matters both with the Generals and with many of the men assembled to meet him. The fullest information available was placed before the House, in which the discussion took place in an atmosphere almost entirely removed from party politics and partisanship. There was much worried consideration on every aspect of the problem and much searching of heart and conscience by Ministers and members alike. All the relevant facts, including Mr. Curtin's opinion, which was given prominence, were analysed and re-analysed.

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Mr. Churchill expressed the opinion jointly with President Roosevelt (in reply to my message of 14 May (No. 231) repeated to you) that it would be a pity to withdraw the New Zealand Division from the Mediterranean theatre, and it was hoped that means would be found to sustain both divisions in their present strength and station.1 The message added that if this could not be done then it would be better when the time came to accept a lower establishment, and arrangements could in the meantime be made for meeting any deficiency in New Caledonia. This joint telegram concluded by referring to the loss in manpower for the build-up in Europe entailed by the removal of the 9th Australian Division and, by inference, it left no doubt as to the further serious blow which the transport of the 2nd NZEF would similarly entail upon the accumulation of United States forces for the attack on Europe.

While I outlined in my telegram to you of 15 May (No. 232) the main considerations and views which had been conveyed to us, I should I feel complete your information by setting out the opinions expressed by Mr. Jones.

His first recommendation from Tunisia was that Parliament should be asked to empower War Cabinet to agree to the Division being used for future operations after reorganisation.2 Following upon his talks with the men, Mr. Jones expressed the belief that while there was a general desire on the part of the men to return home, there was no desire to fight in the Solomons. ‘While I feel sure,’ he stated, ‘they would be prepared to serve where required, still I am convinced that if given the option the majority would prefer this theatre of war, where health conditions generally are certainly considerably superior.’ The force of this consideration was neither minimised nor over-stressed, but the House were in entire accord that if such action were demanded in the essential conduct of the war or the safety of the country we would not hesitate to send our men into any locality, however hazardous from the point of view of health, nor would they object to go. We are most anxious that there should be no feeling on the part of Australians or Americans that we are in any way shirking, or leaving to them, service in the tropics. Our men in New Caledonia, and our airmen and naval units in Guadalcanal and Espiritu Santo, and no doubt in the areas which may later be captured, will necessarily be subject to all those tropical conditions which are causing so intense a strain and toll on men's endurance. Mr. Jones summed up by giving us his opinion that the great majority of the 2nd Division would wish to return home, but that, on the other hand, the men had no expectation that page 214 there would be a general withdrawal of the Division. They would welcome a period of furlough, and this, Mr. Jones thought, would satisfy them; and moreover, that after a period of leave a large number would want to serve again with the 2nd Division.

A matter to which Mr. Jones devoted great care and attention was this question of the relief on furlough of the longest service personnel. He recommended that the remaining men of the first three echelons, some 9000, should be returned if an equivalent number of men were available in New Zealand to replace them. On investigation, the relief of 6000 in June appeared to be practicable, with an equivalent number returning in July to fill their places. These will require to be re-absorbed, together with the 4th Armoured Brigade, which will not be battle-worthy until October, before which date the Division is hardly likely to be ready for action.

Churchill's direct appeal dated 3 May1 and Freyberg's telegram,2 couched in moving terms, together with those of Mr. Jones, undoubtedly carried great weight in the House. Copies of these messages will be sent to you by mail. After prolonged discussion on Tuesday at a joint meeting of both Government and War Cabinets, it was decided to submit the following proposals to the House of Representatives:


That the 2nd NZEF should remain in the Middle East and that it should be available for operations in Europe.


That both forces—Mediterranean and Pacific—should be maintained for as long as possible with increasingly smaller establishments in accordance with the availability of manpower.


That the relief scheme for Middle East men discussed by Mr. Jones with Mr. Churchill and General Freyberg should be put into operation in the first instance on the basis of the plan put forward by the War Office, namely, for the relief of some 6000 of the men of the first three echelons on condition that they be replaced by men from New Zealand.


That no further replacements for the Middle East division be provided for until those returned to New Zealand under the leave scheme should again become available for service.


That further reinforcements for the Middle East and Pacific divisions be suspended during 1943. Note: It seems possible that the Middle East division might be sustained for a considerable period by drawing upon its ancillary units.


That the Pacific division be reorganised on a reduced scale, such reorganisation to include adjustments between this division and its capital troops at present concentrated in New Zealand.

1 No. 223.

2 No. 230.

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It was also decided to complete negotiations for the incorporation of a Fijian Mobile Brigade in the 3rd Division, subject to discussion with Halsey and Barrowclough.1

Though merely referred to in the House so far, it is also the Government's intention to re-examine the Home Defence position with a view to accepting General Puttick's memorandum of 8 March in which he suggested a reversion to the old Territorial system and the abandonment of the cadres.2 This would not only release additional Grade I men for the overseas forces, but it would enable probably some 6000 or so Grade II men to be released for industry.

Other recommendations concerned the Air Force, which is now being forced by circumstances to draw heavily upon the Army for its personnel.

The discussion in the House was in secret session and was comparatively short. I spoke on Thursday evening and was followed on Friday forenoon by Mr. Holland3 speaking for the Opposition as a whole ….4 Although no vote was taken, only six or seven members could be said to favour the return of the 2nd NZEF to New Zealand, and four or five of them would not have voted against the Government if a division had been taken.

The general attitude was that the Division should be used where it could be most effective in the world war, and on the balance it was felt that it would be most effective in operations in the Mediterranean area.

I would like you to assure Mr. Curtin that this decision is by no means based on any undervaluation by the New Zealand Government and Parliament of the importance of the situation in the Pacific, and that we are at all times anxious and willing to co-operate with Australia to the full extent of our resources. In addition to the Pacific force in New Caledonia, which still amounts to more than two brigades, and the troops in Fiji and the garrisons in Tonga and Norfolk Island—in all totalling over 19,000 men—there are our Air Force groups serving in Guadalcanal, Espiritu Santo, and New Caledonia and Fiji—now amounting to seven squadrons containing eighty-nine planes, which will be increased as planes arrive to fourteen squadrons and 6600 men. Our Air Force in New Zealand itself at present consists of eight squadrons and various types of planes, including trainers, in all totalling nearly 600, with personnel of close on 28,000 in New Zealand and 3000 in the Pacific. We understand that planes are the most urgent requirement for which Australia is pressing in Washington, and we feel that our 18—squadron programme,

1 See Volume III, Formation and Employment of 3rd NZ Division.

2 Not published.

3 Rt. Hon. S. G. Holland, PC, CH; Leader of the Opposition, 1940–49; Prime Minister of New Zealand 13 Dec 1949–.

4 Text omitted refers to opinions expressed by individual members in the secret session.

page 216 for which allocations of aircraft have been promised, will constitute a considerable New Zealand contribution to the striking power and defences of the South and South-West Pacific. We are of course also assisting to the fullest extent possible through our naval units. The Leander1 is under the orders of COMSOPAC,2 as will be the Achilles3 when she returns from Britain after refit. There are, in addition, our minesweepers, and we are also giving to the Americans in the forward areas valuable assistance in equipment and trained personnel for radio direction-finding work. Taking all these forms of military activity into account, together with the industrial effort, it cannot be contended, I feel, that New Zealand is not making a real and whole-hearted contribution in the Pacific area.

When General Freyberg arrives here, as I expect he will during the course of the next few weeks, I hope it may be possible to arrange for discussions on both the Pacific and European spheres between representatives of the Commonwealth and New Zealand Governments, General Freyberg, General MacArthur, and Admiral Halsey. On such an occasion I am sure that the viewpoints of both Governments could be discussed and clearly understood and appreciated.

1 HMNZS Leander, 6-inch cruiser, 7270 tons; badly damaged by a torpedo in night action off Kolombangara, 12–13 Jul 1943; went to the United States for repairs and rearming and afterwards reverted to the Royal Navy.

2 Commander South Pacific Area (Admiral W. F. Halsey).

3 HMNZS Achilles, 6-inch cruiser, 7030 tons.