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

176 — The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

page 142

The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

19 November 1942

I feel that the time has come when I must raise with you the question of the return from the Middle East of the 2nd New Zealand Division. In doing so I assure you that I am fully aware of the exigencies of the war situation both in this part of the world and in the North African theatre. For some considerable time we in New Zealand have been of the opinion that, in view of the growing difficulties of the manpower position and of our increased and increasing commitments in the Pacific area, this request should be made, but both my colleagues and I felt that it would be inappropriate to do so in the adverse circumstances which have existed hitherto in the Middle East and in Russia. However, it was always my intention at the proper time and when the situation in Egypt became easier, to place the whole position before you. It was felt as late as August of this year, when approval was given for the despatch of reinforcements for the Middle East,1 that the urgent needs of that theatre outweighed those of the area in which New Zealand itself is situated. Now, however, with the launching of the most promising Anglo-American offensive,2 the immediate security of the Middle East, which we have always regarded as of such vital importance, appears for all practical purposes to have been achieved, and with the accession of large new forces from the United States and Britain the presence of one New Zealand division in this theatre becomes a matter of diminishing importance. Here in the Pacific, on the other hand, we are faced not only with the possibility that Japan may launch further offensive action, both to retrieve the situation resulting from her recent setbacks and to take advantage of the preoccupations of the United Nations in Europe and in Africa, but also with what we regard as the necessity that the United Nations should launch a counter-offensive at the earliest possible date. It is felt that the place of the 2nd New Zealand Division in either case is here in the South Pacific.

Now that, at our own request, the New Zealand land and air forces have been placed under the Commander of the South Pacific Area,3 we anticipate that increasingly heavy demands will inevitably be made upon the resources of this Dominion, both in manpower and in materials. Already, as you know, in response

2 United States and British forces under the command of General Eisenhower landed in North Africa on 8 Nov.

3 Vice-Admiral W. F. Halsey, United States Navy, had succeeded Vice-Admiral R. L. Ghormley on 18 Oct 1942 as Commander South Pacific Area. See also Volume III.

page 143 to requests from the Commander of the South Pacific Area, we have readily and promptly agreed to send a New Zealand division for service in the Islands, and part of it has already proceeded to its several destinations.1 It has been decided that, in addition to our Army commitments, the New Zealand Air Force also should be trained and equipped to undertake an offensive role in the Pacific, and I should add that for some time now a large proportion of our limited force of modern aircraft has been operating in Guadalcanal, Espiritu Santo, and other Pacific islands. New Zealand is now endeavouring to complete preparations for an air force of sixteen squadrons to serve in the Pacific, with an ultimate aim of achieving a force of thirty squadrons.

It will be appreciated that with our extremely limited manpower resources, which have now reached straining point, it is impossible for us to maintain two divisions overseas and an adequate Home Defence force in addition to our air commitments, which include of course the Empire Air Training Scheme, and our comparatively small, but increasingly useful, naval units. In fact the limit of our manpower resources in New Zealand has been reached. Up to the present over 163,000 men and 5000 women have been taken from industry. We now find ourselves unable to reach the establishment which our Chiefs of Staff laid down as the minimum force required for the defence of the Dominion.2

The question of production of food and other supplies, both for the United Kingdom and the South Pacific Area, also arises. The United States Forces are becoming increasingly dependent on New Zealand's resources for those essential supplies and services which we must endeavour to provide under the Mutual Aid Agreement.3 To maintain production it has already become necessary to strip the Army of a large number of its personnel and return such men to industry, and in considering the needs of essential industry and our commitments in respect of the armed forces, we are now forced to come to the decision to reduce establishment below the level which our military advisers regard as sufficient.

I think that you should be told also of the attitude of the New Zealand people, both Maori and European, towards the return of the 2nd Division from overseas. The First Echelon left New Zealand three years ago next January and the greater proportion of

1 See Volume III, Formation and Employment of 3rd NZ Division. The 3rd NZ Division sailed from New Zealand for New Caledonia in November–December 1942. In October the 34th Battalion had been detached from the 3rd Division to garrison Tonga and the 36th Battalion was sent to Norfolk Island.

2 See Volume III, Defence of New Zealand.

3 On 3 Sep 1942, by an exchange of notes between the United States Secretary of State (Cordell Hull) and the New Zealand Minister in Washington (Hon. W. Nash), New Zealand and the United States agreed to exchange mutual aid.

page 144 the men now fighting in the Middle East have been away from this country for well over two years. There is general feeling in the country that our men have a strong claim to return, particularly in view of the extremely heavy casualties which our Division has suffered—some 18,500 so far out of a total of 43,500 sent to the Middle East—and further, that our own tried and well-trained troops should be used in the Pacific area for the defence of New Zealand.

Lastly, I must draw your attention to the effect on public opinion in New Zealand of the possible withdrawal of the 9th Australian Division from the Middle East, concerning which Mr. Curtin has now sent me advice.1 It will be appreciated that it would be absolutely impossible for the New Zealand Government to resist the strong feeling to which I have referred should it become known that all three Australian divisions have returned. Therefore, I feel bound to place the whole matter fully and frankly before you and to ask that effect should be given to this request as soon as circumstances permit.

I fully realise that there will be difficulties and embarrassments, particularly in regard to shipping, but I hope that it will be possible to make some adequate and early provision.

The despatch of the reinforcements which we had undertaken to send to the Middle East, and for which transport is already bound for New Zealand is, of course, the urgent question at the moment. It will be necessary, therefore, to give further consideration to this matter upon receipt of your reply to this telegram.

In conclusion, I would like to make it plain that it is not our intention to regard the 2nd NZEF as a force to be stationed permanently in New Zealand itself. We are firmly convinced that a long and difficult conflict with Japan lies ahead, irrespective of the success of any operations against Italy and Germany, and that a forward move against Japan must be made by the United Nations at the earliest possible date. We would wish to participate to the fullest extent of our capacity in any such offensive in the Pacific.

Unmistakable evidence of its fixed determination to fight this war through to the end has, I hope, been given by this Dominion, and the losses we have suffered in successive campaigns are proof of the spirit of the New Zealand people and of their willingness to make every sacrifice to this end.

I know that you will give full and sympathetic consideration to this matter, and that the reasons which induce me to raise it will be appreciated.

1 This telegram, dated 16 Nov, is not published. It contained for Mr. Fraser's information a copy of a telegram from Mr. Curtin to President Roosevelt on the withdrawal of the 9th Division from the Middle East.