Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II
163 — Letter from General Freyberg to the Prime Minister
Letter from General Freyberg to the Prime Minister
Dear Prime Minister,
I am back from the Western Desert for thirty-six hours to see the Commander-in-Chief about keeping the New Zealand Government in touch at all times with the situation. It takes a new Commander-in-Chief some time to understand the relationship of a Dominion force to its own Government. They are prone to look upon us as just another British division. They are inclined to tell us what we may send in the way of information. If I were to agree to the last proposal it would have had the effect of muzzling me completely. I meet him tomorrow morning and shall tell him that I am in duty bound to send you a full and frank opinion of any operation contemplated where the Division is to be employed, that I have done so in the past, and that the New Zealand Government expect it of me in the future. I do not expect I shall have any difficulty except under two distinct headings.
The Commander-in-Chief is always anxious about our sending any dates or intentions dealing with future operations, and in this I know you will fully appreciate and understand their point of view. The second restriction they wish to impose from our point of view is less easy for us to sympathise with. They want to stop any candid account from me being sent after the battle. It is inconvenient, I page 128 agree, in many cases, because it may throw too much light upon aspects which they wish to repress. An instance in point was the fighting round Tobruk in November last year when the Division came in at Sidi Rezegh and saved the situation. We have no wish to make difficulties, but I do feel that we owe it to the men when they fight so magnificently to let the people of New Zealand know the whole truth.
As you will have gathered from my cables to you earlier in the year, they were very anxious about Turkey and, indeed, Persia and our northern flank generally.1 The loss of the Persian oilfields would have been a great blow to the war effort out here in the Middle East. In all those negotiations I felt that the New Zealand Government had to be told the full story as, difficult as it all was, I assured General Auchinleck that it was the only way—that you were entitled to know.
The spring here was a difficult period. We were training the Division in desert warfare and planning also for an 800-mile advance up to the Dardanelles. Then, without any warning, I was sent on a reconnaissance of the area in north-west Persia near the Caspian Sea. It was a long, hot, tiring motor journey across the desert, often 120 degrees in the shade, then up into the snows of the Persian Highlands over 10,000 feet up. I sent you cables about this because I do not think it right that an operation should be contemplated without your being informed.2
It was while I was near the Caspian Sea that we heard that Bir Hacheim had fallen, and then I knew we should be wanted in the Western Desert. I came back by air to Cairo. I arrived on 15 June in time to send the cable which started the New Zealand Division upon the most remarkable military move in history.3 They came down 1200 miles in eight days by MT to Mersa Matruh, ready to fight on 25 June. On arrival I received three separate sets of orders:
To go on to the frontier.
To take up a defensive position west of Mersa Matruh.
To occupy the defences of Mersa Matruh.
2 See Syria (No. 141). In a further telegram on 20 Jun General Freyberg reported on this reconnaissance as follows:
The journey across Mesopotamia to the Caspian area and back was very severe. I returned to go down with a touch of sun but am better. Extreme heat up to 120 degrees in the plains but cold on the plateaus and mountain passes up to 10,000 feet and temperature freezing point. Should operations take place we would need an advanced base north of Basra, sending hospitals and reinforcements by the Red Sea and Persian Gulf at the hottest time of the year. The Basra area is very hot and malarial.
This continual vacillation shook me, but not nearly as much as the tempo or condition of the troops coming down the Sidi Barrani road. I was anxious when I sent you my telegram telling you there would be hard fighting.1 What I was most anxious about was not to allow panic orders to put us in an impossible position. I was determined to appeal to the New Zealand Government if necessary and I went to see the Eighth Army Commander2 to protest against being shut up in Mersa Matruh. This could only have ended in one way. My next orders were to go into the Naghamish Wadi3—also an impossible position. Again I pointed out the inadvisability of committing a highly trained division to such a mission. Eventually I persuaded them to let us meet the full thrust of the German Army head on. We picked an area on the high ground south of Mersa Matruh, where there was room to manœuvre and use our powerful guns to the full.
We had painted out our Divisional sign on the vehicles and taken off our New Zealand badges, and our advent into the battle was electric. We hit the 21st Panzer Division very hard. It was a complete surprise to them to meet us. They turned and attacked us five separate times, twice with all their tanks, and were repulsed each time. It was during the last of these attacks that I was hit. I had gone forward to see how our front troops were faring. In this class of warfare the car is the only method of travel—on foot is too slow. I suppose it is the law of averages that settles these things. It is difficult to command unless you are on the spot to see for yourself. There are times in all battles when a Commander must go forward or be out of touch.
So much for that side of the battle. I am sad about our losses. The loss of Colonel Love was great. I am sure that the losses must be offset against the fact that but for the resolute fighting qualities of our men Egypt would have been in enemy hands at this moment.
The hot weather is now over.
Long before you receive this letter you will have news of further battles. I know the Division will do well. I hope the results will be as good as they should be….4
I have, &c.,
B. C. Freyberg
1 No. 144.
2 Lieutenant-General N. M. (later General Sir Neil) Ritchie, KCB, KBE, DSO, MC; GOC 51st Highland Division, 1940–41; GOC 8th Army 26 Nov 1941–25 Jun 1942; commanded 52nd Lowland Division, 1942–43; 12th Corps, British Liberation Army, 1944–45; GOC-in-C Scottish Command, 1945–47; C-in-C Allied Land Forces, South-East Asia, 1947–49; Chairman and Commander of British Joint Services Mission, Washington, 1949–.
3 First Echelon units had been employed in digging an anti-tank ditch here in June and July 1940.
4 A personal message has been omitted.