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

120 — Letter from General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence — [Extract]

Letter from General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

6 February 1942

My Dear Minister


I have the honour to enclose a copy of a report1 that has been drawn up for circulation here among the troops so that they could be taught the lessons of this very difficult battle in which they have played so prominent a part….2

Before the battle started I had an opportunity of talking to the Army Commander and I expressed the opinion then that if he attacked Tobruk, which was surrounded by four Italian divisions and one German division, with two South African brigades he would fail, and that it seemed to me that the New Zealand Division would be ordered to march on Tobruk. I told him I had made all my plans to make this move and that all my officers had been studying the problem. I begged him, however, if the occasion should arise, to send us as a three-brigade division, and I pointed out the weakness in my opinion of a binary division3 in such an operation. I doubt if I made any impression on General Cunningham. He thought I was over-anxious and I thought him over-confident.

page 91

The move up of the Division, the capture of Capuzzo, and the driving of a wedge into the enemy fortress line was carried out brilliantly by the Division, and it was as fine a piece of work as could be imagined. The work of the 5th Brigade under Brigadier Hargest, which led the advance northwards, was admirable. Our casualties for this operation, which came as a complete surprise to the enemy, were negligible. We now know from the statements of prisoners that the capture of Capuzzo completely upset their plans for the defence of the fortress line. It upset the whole of their communications. The wedge was held throughout the critical days of the battle, three battalions of the 5th Brigade keeping a very large German and Italian garrison on the defensive for a fortnight.

When the crisis came on 22 November conferences were being held, and as a result of the indecisive armoured battles the word ‘Withdrawal’ was being mentioned. You will notice in the account my correspondence with the Corps Commander where I pressed for resolute action against Tobruk, asking that our 5th Brigade be sent as soon as possible. Had this been done the main fight for Tobruk would have been over on 25 or 26 November, by which time we should have destroyed the German positional infantry and been in a position to deal with Rommel's armoured divisions on their return from the counter-stroke into Egypt. However, it is no use being wise after the event. As it was we went forward and dislocated the whole of the enemy defences and joined up with the Tobruk garrison, thus forcing General Rommel to recall his Panzer divisions for the battle of Tobruk. I might point out here the position I found myself in on 23 November. The 6th Brigade had been ordered up to the Sidi Rezegh position, 45 miles away from where we were at Sidi Azeiz, to support the South African brigade which had become isolated there. We had either to support Brigadier Barrowclough or lose him, for it was obvious that all was not going well. At this time, of course, the Brigadier had been detached from my command and was working under 30th Corps. You will see from the maps round about 29 and 30 November and 1 December what a very critical and vulnerable position your Division was in during those anxious days.

The Division is now concentrated at Kabrit, training and refitting, and the men are in good condition, physically and mentally. I am certain that when the time comes for the Division to take its place again they will be as highly trained and as fit as ever before. I need hardly say that we watch anxiously developments in the Pacific and are always looking forward to good news from the South Pacific front.

With best wishes,
Yours, &c.


B. C. Freyberg

1 ‘Report on the New Zealand Division in Cyrenaica and Lessons of the Campaign.’

2 In the text omitted General Freyberg stated that the report had yet to be approved by the Commander-in-Chief.

3 A two-brigade division.