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

356 — The High Commissioner for New Zealand (London) to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

page 325

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

6 December 1943

I have been asked by the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to transmit to you personally and informally the following expression of his views on Leros with which Mr. Attlee also associates himself:

It seems to me essential that we should go back to the position as it was when the decision to enter upon these operations was taken. At that time the surrender of Italy and the apparent willingness of the Italians to co-operate with us against the Germans offered a prospect of gaining immediate and substantial advantages which we certainly would have been wrong to neglect. With this in mind it was clearly proper to take some risks—risks which were successfully taken in the case of Sardinia and Corsica, with the result that the Allies are now in secure and effective possession of those great islands. If we had not also tested out the position in the Aegean to see whether similar advantages could be secured there we should surely have been open to blame. In this our hopes were disappointed: first on Rhodes, where a large Italian garrison surrendered without a blow and the Germans were able to prevent our forces landing at all; and next in Cos, where the lack of effective Italian support made it possible for the Germans to seize the island before our forces had had time to establish themselves. It was then necessary to decide whether to try to retain our foothold in Leros. The arguments in favour were that we were successfully diverting a considerable portion of the German air effort from Italy and to a lesser degree from Russia, that as a result of the forthcoming discussions with the Turkish representatives there appeared to be a fair chance of obtaining air facilities in Turkey, and, lastly, that even apart from this it was thought there was a good chance of our being able to hold the island in any case. In fact this nearly succeeded, and it was only by a narrow margin that the final German assault was not beaten off by our troops.

It is impossible to conduct a war without taking risks, and looking back over the whole story I think that we should have been far more to blame if we had not taken the risk which, had it succeeded, would have given us great advantages and made a contribution to shortening the war.

Secondly, on the question of the employment of New Zealand personnel of the Long Range Desert Group in these operations, page 326 full inquiry has been made and the following is the position: For some three years the Group—a British unit under the direct command of General Headquarters, Middle East—has included New Zealand personnel. The group has operated throughout North Africa during this period without comment or question from the New Zealand Government. The Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, has reported that General Freyberg was kept in the picture and agreed to the use of the New Zealand Squadron in the Aegean operations before it was actually involved in fighting there. It is understood that General Freyberg informed the New Zealand Government at the time that he had given his approval. The number of New Zealand personnel employed was seven officers and 73 other ranks, of which, unfortunately, one officer and 29 other ranks are missing as a result of the Aegean operations.

As regards the replacement of this personnel, it was agreed with General Freyberg that they should be gradually replaced. However, in view of the further wishes now expressed by the New Zealand Government in their telegram of 22 November (No. 350), and as the Squadron has now been withdrawn from the Aegean, the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, has been instructed to send the remaining personnel to the New Zealand Depot, where they will be available as required for the New Zealand Division.

The above information constitutes the reply promised in the Secretary of State's telegram of 23 November (No. 351).