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


page 98


General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

13 December 1941

….1 For the personal information of my Minister and the Chief of the General Staff, the Division is now to refit and train for future operations on the Syrian front. I consider it will take two months' hard training to get units and formations up to the requisite pitch…. Until the battle in the west is finished we shall be on a low priority for equipment.

Would Cabinet like a short appreciation with particular reference to the position on the Syrian front next spring? I could collect material and do this after visiting there later in the month.2

2 The Minister of Defence replied on 16 Dec that War Cabinet would welcome this appreciation. See No. 132.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

15 February 1942

Further to my telegram of 9 February.3 The 5th Brigade Group is now in the Western Desert in Eighth Army Reserve.

I am leaving for Syria by air tomorrow with the principal members of my staff to reconnoitre administrative areas and defensive positions prior to the arrival of the Division. I will not be back for some days, and there may therefore be a time-lag in any cables. All are well….4

4 A personal message has been omitted.

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.

The Prime Minister to General Freyberg

17 March 1942

War Cabinet have noted with interest and agree in principle with your telegram of 3 March on which we have the following detailed comments to make:


We would be most reluctant at this distance to endeavour to interfere with the concentration of troops considered necessary by the Commander-in-Chief to meet any possible threat in the Western Desert, but if you consider it proper and necessary that we should make representations for the return of the 5th Brigade, which of course we would desire at as early a date as possible, you will no doubt advise us.


The question of the location of the Base we must leave to your discretion and we see no objection to the proposals that you make.


The possibility of malaria is disturbing and we rely on you and your medical officers to take every possible step by way of precaution….1

page 101

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

21 March 1942

I have just returned from our northern area in Syria, where we reconnoitred the Turkish frontier from the sea across to the Euphrates. From a defensive point of view the mountain passes on the north-western front are strong and like the mountain passes of Olympus in Greece. The frontier from the north and north-east has no easily occupied defensive position and affords an enemy easy access over ideal tank country. I am certain the line cannot be held in the event of a serious enemy attack unless we have substantial forces and strong armoured and air components. As there is no likelihood of any immediate attack through Turkey there is no need for anxiety, but I am watching the larger aspect of the situation and will keep you in constant touch.

The Division is now situated as follows:

The 6th Brigade Group, under Brigadier Clifton,1 are in the northern area (Headquarters at Aleppo) with detachments on the Turkish frontier guarding demolition charges on roads, railway tunnels, and bridges.

The 4th Brigade Group are digging and wiring a defensive position facing north on the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, guarding the Bekaa Valley.

Divisional Headquarters and divisional troops are at Baalbek.

All ranks are delighted with the green fields and trees and are feeling the benefit of a colder climate. All are in good health and spirits. I have made notes from General Puttick's statement about the position in New Zealand and all ranks are being given the relevant facts.2

page 102

The 5th Brigade Group were not released from the Western Desert by the promised date but are now due at Maadi on 26 March, where they refit, rejoining the Division by the first week in April.

In our new defensive position we shall have a brigade group of Greeks under command. These are men evacuated from Crete, as yet partially armed and not trained. After the evacuation from Greece we were asked by General Headquarters, Middle East, to train the Greeks. We have sent to the Royal Greek Army numbers of New Zealand officers and instructors to help them in the use of British weapons. Further, we have taken Greek officers and men into our training establishments at Maadi. Thus we have made our contribution to the general pool of instruction in the Middle East. I knew it would have your approval. The Greek Government bore all necessary expenses. The Greek Brigade Group will come up to Syria to complete their collective training under our guidance and will then come under our operational command.

During these difficult times I intend to send you a weekly cable when there is anything to report, giving the New Zealand Government the situation of their forces in the Middle East.

1 Brigadier G. H. Clifton, DSO, MC; Brigade Major, 5th NZ Infantry Brigade, 1940; Commander Royal Engineers, 2nd NZ Division, 1940–41; Chief Engineer, 30th Corps, Oct 1941 – Feb 1942; commanded 6th Brigade, Feb-Sep 1942; prisoner of war, Alamein, 4 Sep 1942; escaped in Germany, Mar 1945; liaison officer with organisation for Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees (Far East), 1945; seconded to HQ BCOF (Japan), 1946–47; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1949-.

2 This statement on the defence of New Zealand was contained in a telegram from General Puttick to General Freyberg on 5 Mar. In it General Puttick gave details of the strength and equipment of the forces in New Zealand and stressed the strategic importance of the Dominion in the prosecution of the war. The reason for the statement was that Middle East field censorship weekly summaries had shown some resentment in the 2nd NZEF at the suggestion that United States troops should be stationed in New Zealand. General Puttick emphasised the importance of United States naval and air aid to the defence of New Zealand and Fiji in particular, and added: ‘No USA forces are in New Zealand, but the Government and Chiefs of Staff would welcome them in almost any strength. Naturally we would all prefer our own troops from the Middle East, but we realise that strategical, shipping, and time factors predominate at present.’

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

10 April 1942

I am now back in Syria after a visit to General Headquarters and Base, during which I inspected the 5th Brigade at Maadi. The brigade is fully equipped up to strength, with all its transport, and has never been in better shape. There has been no sickness, and the men are fit and have enjoyed a week's well-earned refitting leave at Maadi. While in the Western Desert they dug a defensive position in solid rock at El Adem.

On 8 April they entrained for Aleppo to take over from the 6th Brigade on the Turkish frontier guarding demolitions on roads, railways, and bridges. The 6th Brigade on relief will move about 20 April to the Bekaa Valley fortress area to prepare the western flank on the Lebanon Mountains. The 4th Brigade is still working on the eastern flank in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains while the Artillery, Engineers, and Cavalry work in the valley between. All work proceeds at maximum speed.

page 103

General Auchinleck inspected the defences here recently with General Wilson and expressed satisfaction with what he saw. Later I accompanied them by air on a reconnaissance from Aleppo to Mosul. With the arrival of the 5th Brigade the Division will again be concentrated, though Aleppo is 180 miles from the defensive position in the Bekaa Valley. Conditions here are good though a shortage of potatoes, which has removed them from the ration for six months, has upset the balance of the ration. Mosquitoes have appeared in the north but no cases of malaria are yet reported. The general health is excellent.

I have discussed the position with Australian senior officers. They state that all ranks of the AIF now in the Middle East would be much happier if their situation of uncertainty were settled one way or the other. I informed them that the 2nd NZEF would be remaining in the Middle East. The Australians now have approximately the same number of troops in the Middle East as are in the 2nd NZEF, that is, the equivalent in numbers of two British divisions. Our figures, including non-divisional units, are about 2000 officers and 30,000 men. General Morshead,1 commanding the 9th Australian Division, has gone to Cairo to take over the AIF Headquarters following the departure of General Blamey,2 leaving the senior Brigadier to command in the field. As soon as the Australians are announced to be staying I shall issue a clear statement of policy to the men. There is no discontent among the men.

Public Relations have produced a New Zealand film of the Crete and Libyan campaigns entitled ‘Return to the Attack’. It is to be sent to New Zealand and England. I consider it a good film.

I am at present working on a Middle East appreciation which I shall forward as soon as possible.

1 Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie James Morshead, KCB, KBE, CMG, DSO; commanded 18th Infantry Brigade, AIF, 1940–41; GOC 9th Division, 1941–42; commanded Australian Corps in Middle East, 1942–43; GOC 2nd Australian Army, 1944.

2 General Blamey was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Allied Land Forces in the South-West Pacific Area in March.

General Freyberg to the Prime Minister

16 April 1942

The following appreciation of the position on the Russian and Middle East fronts is forwarded for your personal information.

page 104

The evidence shows that Germany has made administrative arrangements to resume the offensive on several fronts, either simultaneously or in succession. The possible fronts are:




Turkey—by land, sea, and air;


Cyprus and Syria—by sea and air;


North Africa.

Despite Axis pressure Turkey remains a potential ally, and in all plans for the defence of the Middle East her attitude is of great importance. It is thought that Turkey will not acquiesce in the passage of German troops unless the Russians are utterly defeated or beaten so badly that they lose Moscow and are driven behind the Volga, thus allowing Germany to concentrate large forces in Thrace and the Caucasus. It is difficult to estimate the Turkish strength: her Government is over-centralised, her army is inadequately equipped, and they miss Kemal's leadership. Turkey, however, remains confident, perhaps over-confident.

At present there is no indication of German reinforcement of the Balkans and Aegean area, and although administrative arrangements may be complete it would be some weeks before the necessary redis-position of forces could be effected.

In view of the present weakness of our naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean and our weak military garrison, the invasion of Cyprus and Syria by sea and air might appear an attractive proposition. The condition precedent, however, would be overwhelming air superiority, only attainable by the use of airfields in Anatolia at present not available. The Royal Air Force opinion is that, even if Germany remained on the defensive in Russia, insufficient troop-carrying and transport aircraft are available for a purely airborne attack on Cyprus. This can be ruled out for the present. It is also unlikely and against all teaching that Germany will open up a fresh front until a decision is reached on the main front in Russia. It is probable, however, that she will attack in the Western Desert to improve the jumping-off position against Egypt and to help Japan in the Far East.

Evidence also suggests that the Germans have been fully extended in Russia during the winter. There are doubts about this, but in any case it appears certain that by drawing extensively on their allies and by a comb-out of German industry, they have collected a considerable striking force, including armour, for the spearhead of a new offensive against Russia. Germany's first objective must be to remove the threat of the Russian Army. If she achieves that, I think the Japanese successes in Burma will tend to draw the German effort south as soon page 105 as possible to break our hold on the Middle East and the Mediterranean. She will aim to carry out a winter campaign attacking Iraq, Syria, and the Western Desert. Our position here will then be difficult, but the administrative difficulties facing the Germans must not be forgotten as communications through the Caucasus and Turkey in the winter are very bad, and the sea route to Africa requires a large enemy air force to neutralise Malta.

On the evidence available it would be of little value to express an opinion on the future. Everything depends on the result of the battle in Russia this summer. Assuming, however, that the German offensive commences in mid-May, as seems possible, and succeeds, certain calculations are given.

Attack on Iraq through the Caucasus:

  • From the start of the offensive in Russia to the capture of Stalingrad—one month.

  • Consolidation and regrouping—two to three weeks.

  • Advance to frontiers of Turkey and Persia—eight weeks.

  • Total time for four divisions to arrive at the Persian frontier—14 to 15 weeks.

Attack on Syria through Acquiescent Turkey:

  • To capture Stalingrad—one month.

  • To withdraw troops from the Stalingrad front and concentrate in Thrace—one month.

  • To move four divisions through Turkey to the Turkish-Syrian frontier—two and a half months.

Thus, if the German offensive succeeded, four German divisions could cross the Persian frontier by the end of August and four divisions could cross the Turkish-Syrian frontier by the middle of September.

To sum up: Germany has undoubtedly mobilised all her forces and those of her allies for a supreme effort this year. The situation is parallel in many ways to 1918 with the result much in the balance. If Germany succeeds in Russia and Turkey capitulates without fighting, and no reinforcements of men, tanks, aeroplanes, and ships arrive in the Middle East, we must go on the defensive in the Western Desert, Syria, and Iraq. We must be prepared for loss of territory and for very heavy fighting during the late summer. On the other hand, Russia may prove a tougher proposition than we expect. In any case, should Germany fail to get the decision against Russia, her position will be perilous. Come what may, we must be prepared to fight very hard during 1942, either in defence of the Middle East or in attacking the Axis wherever possible, to support our ally Russia and possibly Turkey.

A cable dealing with the proposed operational role for the New Zealand Division follows.

page 106

General Freyberg to the Prime Minister

18 April 1942

Further to my telegram of 16 April. The Commander-in-Chief has seen my appreciation and comments as follows:

I agree generally but have the following comments. I should not describe Turkey as over-confident. I doubt if Germany's plans in the Middle East will be influenced by the desire to assist Japan directly. Your estimate of the middle of September is presumably based on the assumption that the enemy must first capture Stalingrad before forces for Turkey can be released. The War Office think that with Turkey acquiescent the Germans may be on the Syrian border by mid-July.

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.

The Prime Minister to General Freyberg

22 April 1942

The information contained in your telegrams (Nos. 1368) is much appreciated and we have given most careful thought to the considerations to which you call attention.

On the following assumptions, namely:


that the move is undertaken only with the full support and approval of Turkey;


that an assurance is given by the Commander-in-Chief (a) that adequate air support is provided sufficient to ensure that the Division does not have to go through another Greece or Crete, and (b) that adequate forces will be available to protect the Syrian flank and, if necessary, to assist in supporting and extricating the Division, we agree that the Division should be used for the operational role proposed.

You will, of course, keep us advised of the situation from time to time.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

10 May 1942

Reference your telegram of 22 April.

The Commander-in-Chief is most grateful for the helpful attitude of the New Zealand Government. The question of assurances will be the subject of further communications.

I have to report that with Colonels Gentry1 and Maxwell2 I attended page 109 detail planning meetings at General Headquarters, Cairo, examining the whole question from the point of view of organisation, equipment, timing, and forward movement to the concentration area. The scarcity of information about the state of the roads and the country through which we would have to move makes planning most difficult. General Headquarters, Middle East, are therefore trying to arrange with the Turkish Government to send in four New Zealand officers—road engineer, doctor, signals, and General Staff officers—for a fortnight's reconnaissance to report on communications, roads, water supply, hygiene arrangements, &c. On receipt of their reports we shall be in a better position to deal with the problems of planning and administration.

As instructed, I will keep you in touch with the situation as it develops. I am at present preparing a statement on the present state of training and efficiency of the 2nd NZEF.

1 Brigadier W. G. Gentry, CBE, DSO; GSO 2, 2nd NZ Division, 1940; AA & QMG, 1940–41; GSO 1, 1941–42; commanded 6th Brigade, 1942–43; Deputy Chief of the General Staff (in NZ), 1943–44; commanded New Zealand Troops in Egypt, 6th NZ Division, and NZ Maadi Camp, Aug 1944 – Feb 1945; commanded 9th NZ Brigade (in Italy), 1945; New Zealand representative on Joint Chiefs of Staff Organisation in Australia, Mar-Jul 1946; Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Jul 1946 – Nov 1947; Adjutant-General, Apr 1949-.

2 Colonel D. T. Maxwell, OBE; Deputy Assistant Adjutant-General, 2nd NZEF, 1940; GSO 2, Oct 1940 – Jan 1941; GSO 2 and later AA & QMG, 2nd NZEF Base, 1941; AA & QMG, 2nd NZ Division, Oct 1941 – Jun 1942; returned to New Zealand for duty Aug 1942 and held various senior staff appointments, including Commandant, New Zealand Staff College, Aug 1943 – Mar 1944; posted to 2nd NZEF (Japan), Mar 1946; Commander British Commonwealth Sub-Area, Tokyo, Jun 1946 – Jul 1947; Commander Area 5, Wellington, Nov 1947 – Oct 1948; NZ Joint Services Liaison Staff, Melbourne, Nov 1948-.

General Freyberg to the Prime Minister

4 June 1942

In my appreciations (Nos. 1368) plans to meet a German attack through Turkey have been the main consideration. Although these plans are still being considered, there is no indication at present of an attack developing. Information indicates that the main German thrust is aimed at the oilfields in and around the Persian Gulf, and the planning now being given first priority is the defence of Persia from attack through the Caucasus. The capture of the Persian oil supply would be a great loss to the Allies, especially in the Middle East.

This message is to inform you of the trend of thought here, and also to advise you that I have been asked at short notice to leave tomorrow with the GSO 11 for ten days' reconnaissance in Persia. The reconnaissance is purely exploratory. I shall keep you fully informed of any possible change in policy, which will be referred to you in the ordinary way.

I have to thank you and the Government for my promotion,2 which will help me in my dealings here and elsewhere.

1 Colonel W. G. Gentry.

2 In a telegram sent on 3 Jun the Prime Minister advised General Freyberg that he had been granted the temporary rank of Lieutenant-General as from 1 Mar 1942.