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

138 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

18 April 1942

Reference my telegrams of 16 and 18 April (Nos. 136 and 137). The Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, has asked me to consult the New Zealand Government about the possible employment of the New Zealand Division in an operational role. In the summer we may have to send the Royal Air Force into Turkey if she is attacked, irrespective of the situation in Russia or elsewhere. If the RAF go they will be operating from aerodromes built by us in western Anatolia, in positions enabling them to give fighter and bomber cover over the Turkish defences at Catalga and Bulair lines, covering the Bosporus and Dardanelles and the sea approaches to Gallipoli. The importance of this assistance to Turkey, as well as the delay and damage inflicted upon invading German forces, needs no comment.

The role of the Division and attached troops would be to move in troops by road and anti-aircraft guns by rail to protect the RAF and landing grounds from enemy airborne attacks and possible land raids by mechanised forces. It is pointed out that the force so allotted will have the Turkish Army and the Sea of Marmara between it and the main Axis forces attacking from Thrace.

The Commander-in-Chief is anxious to allot the New Zealand Division and another brigade group, probably of the 4th Indian Division, for the task. A decision is urgently required so that joint planning with the prospective Air Commander can begin now.

page 107

Realising that the New Zealand Government is not in a position to form a clear opinion either on the risks or conditions of the proposed operation, I send my opinion to enable you to make a decision.


I have nothing to add to my appreciation regarding the Turkish position.


The operation envisaged is a difficult one. The move in would be over difficult country and bad roads. The New Zealand force will be completely mobile; the main body would move by road 700 miles, and the force covering the advanced aerodromes an additional 250 miles.


While the Axis forces are assembling in Thrace, the special force could assemble in the Aleppo area preparatory to a rapid advance taking ten to fourteen days.


The Turkish defences in Thrace are prepared and a considerable sea obstacle exists. On the other hand, there is the threat to the left front and flank of sea and air landings from the Aegean and the Dodecanese Islands, but such a force would be immobile for some time as port facilities and difficulties of transportation would prevent a large number of vehicles being landed.


If withdrawal became necessary our main troubles would come from air attack, but considerable anti-aircraft and air defence in depth could be provided.


The proposed operation is bound to have some measure of success and gain great advantages. The alternative would be to desert Turkey, and she might capitulate and hand over undamaged the whole of her communications. Under a Quisling Government Turkish forces might be used against us. Even if we got part of the way in and had to withdraw prematurely, roads, railways, bridges, &c., could be demolished and the enemy advance handicapped so that attack on Syria might be delayed and even prevented by the winter snowfall.


The Turkish-Syrian frontier itself cannot be defended, and early withdrawal from it would entail the certain loss of Cyprus, the premature opening of the ports of Beirut and Tripoli, and the surrender of the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean sea routes. Further, if the Suez Canal is to be held until reinforcements arrive, the German advance through Turkey must be met as far from the Canal as possible.

To sum up, we are now fully equipped and in the course of six weeks will be fully trained. There is no division in the Middle East so well fitted to carry out the proposed role. If for any reason you decide against the proposal, another division less well trained page 108 would have to do it. The difficulties of getting in and of a possible withdrawal must be fully realised, but provided our headquarters are with the foremost troops and our signal communications are good, we can keep in touch with the position ahead and to our flank and extricate the force should the worst happen. In all the circumstances I feel that you would be justified in accepting the proposed role.