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

105 — The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

page 77

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

24 October 1941

Your telegram of 13 October (No. 103).

In order to make quite sure of the relative air figures I sent Air Chief Marshal Freeman1 to Cairo to confer with Air Marshal Tedder.2 The following are the agreed figures of the Home and Middle Eastern staffs: British air forces 660; Axis forces 642. Probable serviceability of these forces: Day 1—British forces 528; Axis forces 385. Of these latter, little more than 100 are German. Moreover, all the Axis forces are in the shop window. We expect to have about 50 per cent reserves behind the counter. Germany has also in the Aegean and Crete 156 all types, excluding all short-range fighters. In Malta we have 64 bombers. No doubt is entertained by the Commanders that we shall have good air superiority unless the situation alters markedly.

General Auchinleck assures me that the New Zealand Division will have all proper protection. We must not, however, repeat the mistake of the action on 15–18 June3 by frittering away superiority to put up small local umbrellas over each unit and detachment, thus losing the chance of beating the main enemy air force out of the sky.

Much has been risked in delay in order to gather sufficient armoured forces. It is unlikely that the enemy can reinforce his armour before the battle. We shall have 658 infantry tanks, cruiser tanks, and American cruisers of 12 tons or upwards, against 168 comparable Axis vehicles. The Axis has in addition 234 9-ton light tanks, which play a serious part. The armoured battle is what matters and we hope to force the enemy to it. The destruction of his armoured force would bring ruin to the rest.

The infantry are limited only by transport, but are declared to be superior in numbers to the enemy. General Auchinleck hopes to deploy 450 field guns and over 500 anti-tank guns, with 325 Bofors and over 100 heavy mobile anti-aircraft guns, the last-named exclusive of those in Tobruk. Our columns will therefore be protected by their own flak to an extent never before known by us.

All the above is of fateful secrecy. War Cabinet here have declined to be informed of the date of the offensive. Unless the situation alters in the interval, we are justified in sober confidence.

1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Wilfrid Rhodes Freeman, GCB, DSO, MC; Vice-Chief of Air Staff, 1940; Chief Executive, Ministry of Aircraft Production, 1942–45.

2 Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, GCB; AOC-in-C, Royal Air Force, Middle East, 1941–43; AOC-in-C, Mediterranean Air Command, 1943; Deputy Supreme Commander under General Eisenhower, 1943–45; Chief of the Air Staff, 1946–50.

3 Operation ‘Battleaxe’, in which British forces attempted to sieze Halfaya Pass and capture Sollum, Capuzzo, and Bardia.