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

132 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

page 99

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

3 March 1942

Following a detailed reconnaissance in Syria and a visit to the 5th Brigade Group in the Western Desert, I have to report as follows:

The 5th Brigade are in good spirits and health. I am endeavouring to get them back for refit and short musketry and artillery training before following the rest of the Division to Syria. Although the 5th Brigade are detached temporarily, as is usual with detachments I am experiencing difficulty in having them released.

The move to Syria is now in progress with Divisional Headquarters and advanced parties on the way. The 4th Brigade moves by train today, followed by the 6th Brigade. We shall have an advanced formation at Aleppo and shall be preparing and digging extensive defences facing north in the Bekaa Valley, north of Baalbek, flanked on either side by the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountains, 9000 and 6000 feet respectively. The conditions are similar to Greece.

The Division is now fully equipped, except for a shortage of transport, and has been training actively since Libya. Small arms have been reclassified, artillery reshot, and the usual amount of marching done. Individual training now ceases. Collective training will be for mountain warfare and for the Syrian Desert, which differs from the Western Desert. The next three months will be hard work— extensive digging and pillbox-making in the northern defences and road-making into the mountains to enable us to use our guns in the high ranges. The lack of roads from the north and east will prevent the enemy using field artillery should they attack across high ground. Training for mountain warfare will separate us from mechanical transport, and infantry sections will have pack mules. In this warfare tanks play a less important part while musketry comes much to the fore.

As the Division will be approximately 650 miles by road from Maadi Base, the question of moving arises. I feel, however, that the present arrangement is not at all permanent and existing conditions at Maadi are very good. I propose, if the Government agree, to leave the main base at Maadi and open the smallest possible advanced base on the coast at Nathanya, south of Haifa, for a depot convalescent camp and General Hospital. I also propose to open a Casualty Clearing Station in or near Beirut. None of these will necessitate new construction.

The prevalence of malaria in Syria raises serious medical problems. The matter, of course, is in hand and I hope casualties will be kept to page 100 the minimum. The climate at present is cold but it is hot in the summer. As this is the third summer in the Middle East, it is planned to send each unit to the seaside at Advanced Base for a fortnight during the hot weather.

Beirut is our closest big town and is very expensive. I propose, when the AIF leave there, to take over the club for officers and men. I am also opening a centre for the men at Baalbek. This can all be carried out with the profits from the Forces Club in Cairo and will not make inroads into the Patriotic Fund, which must now cover a larger field.

The men are greatly pleased at moving to Syria.

In view of the general situation I will conserve resources to the limit of my powers.

I join Headquarters in Syria by air this week.

Will you please acknowledge this and say if the Government agree in principle.