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

57 — The Prime Minister to General Freyberg — [Extract]

The Prime Minister to General Freyberg

17 March 1942

….3 The question of reinforcements for the Division in the Middle East is causing us serious concern, and neither you nor we can ignore the possibility that future developments may be such as to prevent their despatch altogether. We gather from paragraph 8 of your telegram of 3 March4 that this thought has not been absent from your mind, and, should the position develop as we fear it may, then we may have to consider the possibility, if reinforcements cannot be despatched, of progressively reducing the size of our force in the Middle East. We should, of course, deeply regret this, but the possibility exists and must be contemplated. We would wish you to know in this connection, with the highest degree of secrecy, that page 41 in considering the forces to be made immediately available to New Zealand and Australia, President Roosevelt has offered to send three divisions at a comparatively early date (one of which is intended for New Zealand and two for Australia) on condition that the Australian and New Zealand Divisions now in the Middle East should remain there, the object being, of course, to minimise the use of shipping, the provision of which for other necessary purposes raises considerable difficulties. We would, of course, very much wish to have had our Division returned to the Pacific area for many and obvious reasons, but in view of President Roosevelt's request, the extreme difficulty of providing the necessary shipping, and the risk involved, we think we must accept the retention of the New Zealand Division in the Middle East, in the meantime at any rate. In order to put you fully into the picture I attach hereto an extract from a communication addressed by me to Mr. Churchill on 15 March, which, while explaining our general views, indicates that we do not at the moment ask for the return of our Division.

The extract is as follows:1

We note also that the despatch of the [United States] division is subject to the condition that our own Division remains in the Middle East. This raises for us problems of the first magnitude. It is a fact, as you have so kindly emphasised, that we have not asked for the return of the New Zealand Division and we do not ask it now. But Australian troops are, we are informed, being returned, and with your experience you will realise what a difficult position we will have to face here when this fact becomes known. Our troops have been in the Middle East, divorced from their homes and their people, for two years. Added to their natural desire to see their people again is a much more serious feeling which, I am told, is becoming marked in the Division, that their proper place when their own country is in danger is in the Pacific theatre, and I must say that we have a lot of sympathy with that point of view, which may well be the cause of grave embarrassment and that before long. Again, on this aspect of the matter, the pressure on New Zealand's manpower at the moment and the physical difficulties of transporting troops to the Middle East are such that at present we do not see the possibility of reinforcing the Division. Actually General Freyberg has enough troops at the moment to carry him on without reinforcements for a lengthy period, but the time must arise when the question of reinforcing or not reinforcing will present very great difficulties to us. Finally, on this particular subject, our Division is now trained and experienced in war itself and thus would unquestionably be of page 42 infinitely greater value to us in this theatre than any American division can be until it has had equal experience.

As you know, we are preparing here as rapidly as possible, and to the extent that our resources will allow, the forces that we consider necessary to meet any attack on New Zealand and Fiji, and I think you should know also that in order to provide a stiffening of experienced officers and other ranks we may find it necessary to ask you to return a substantial number of officers and men for this purpose. We have come to no definite decision as yet, and we must of course always have regard to shipping and escort difficulties, but there is no doubt in our minds as to the desirability of the proposal, which, if ultimately decided upon, might necessitate our endeavouring to supply you with a corresponding number of reinforcements. Will you please let us have your opinion of this proposal?

If you have any other comments that you wish to make on the contents of this communication, we should of course be very happy to receive them.

3 See Syria (No. 133) for text omitted.

4 See Syria (No. 132). Paragraph 8 reads: ‘In view of the general situation I will conserve resources to the limit of my powers.’

1 See Volume III, Defence of New Zealand for complete text.