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

199 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

2 March 1943

The following is an appreciation on the general situation and the position here:

It is difficult to determine the situation in North Africa without considering the larger aspect of the war, as the Russian counter-offensive overshadows other events and may have far-reaching page 164 effects on the course of the war. Although the results of the Russian fighting are considerable, it would be wrong to overestimate the effect of the present successes. There is no evidence suggesting that Germany is short of petrol, food, or equipment. There is, however, no doubt that Germany is facing a serious manpower shortage, which has been made worse by the losses in Russia. To win the war Germany must defeat Russia. To do this she must resume the offensive. As she still has the larger and more powerful army, it is possible for her to resume the offensive in the summer provided she can withdraw part of her army and refit. Her offensive could not be launched much before July, which would leave three and a half months' campaigning weather to defeat the Russian Army with a much weaker German Army than she used last year. Although hopes of the success of such an offensive cannot be high, the alternative would be to go on the defensive, surrendering the initiative to the Allies, which could only end in defeat.

The position in North Africa looks black for the Axis. To lose the bridgehead would not only be a blow politically and from the prestige point of view, but it would liberate two large armies and air forces and would open up the Mediterranean for our shipping to the Middle East, India, and the Pacific.

Further, the position in Turkey must give the Axis leaders cause for concern, as the use of her aerodromes would enable us to capture Rhodes, Crete, and eventually invade Greece. This threat is serious as the Axis position in the Balkans might well become unbalanced.

To sum up the present Axis position: although badly shaken they have enough troops for another summer offensive and are forced to attack the Russians. To avoid being attacked by the British and Americans in South-East Europe, they must hold the North African commitment no matter what it costs in material and men. There is ample evidence they intend to do so and they are still reinforcing the garrisons in Tunis. Here again they have considerable resources, and they may even resume the offensive against the Eighth Army.

The advance of the Eighth Army is temporarily delayed by maintenance. We are facing the Mareth Line, which is a strong, concrete defensive position covered by mines, with a rear position near Gabes, 25 miles to the north. The enemy has the men and material to contest our further advance. I feel that the Axis will fight hard here, realising that defeat must follow any further withdrawal. Once these positions are captured, I feel we shall drive the Axis forces northwards, and if all goes well, the Axis must eventually face defeat bordering on disaster.