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

Defence Requirements and Possibilities of Meeting Them

Defence Requirements and Possibilities of Meeting Them

41. Our policy in the Far East until the fleet again becomes available is to rely primarily on air power in conjunction with such military forces as can be made available. Land forces are also essential for the close defence of naval and air bases, for internal security, and for dealing with such enemy land forces as might succeed in gaining a footing in Malaya and British Borneo despite our air action. The air forces required are outlined below. Their provision must be the long-term programme; and, until they can be provided, their absence must be met as far as possible by the provision of additional land forces.

42. (Assumption 3 begins.) Our ultimate aim to secure the full military co-operation of the Dutch is of the utmost importance for the denial of bases to the enemy and to enable us to exert some measure of control over the channels through Southern Celebes, thus reducing the threat to our Indian Ocean trade and improving communications with Australia and New Zealand, whilst not entirely relying on Dutch forces to assist in the defence of Malaya itself. (Assumption 3 ends.) In assessing our requirements, therefore, Dutch collaboration has not been taken into account. Our requirements are not thereby substantially affected, since, even if the Dutch were co-operating with us, the enemy might carry out diversions against the Netherlands East Indies, thereby containing Dutch forces at a critical time.

43. An exact estimate of the strength and disposition of the air forces required must depend on appreciation by the United Kingdom Commanders in the Far East in collaboration with the Commonwealth and New Zealand defence authorities. Following is a general indication based on the necessity to meet Japanese attacks in Malaya from Indo-China or Thailand, while at the same time leaving sufficient forces to deal with the possibility of seaborne invasion on the coast of Malaya or attack on Singapore Island itself. It also includes provision for air forces for trade protection in the focal areas of the Indian Ocean….1

44. This is a very substantial addition to any previous programme, but in previous estimates:


The movement of a Battle Fleet to the Far East has always been assumed, and our air requirements, both in the Indian Ocean and in Borneo, were not therefore so great.


The situation in which the Japanese have virtually overrun South China, and Indo-China and Thailand had become potential bases for Japanese air forces, was not considered.


The necessity of defending British Borneo was not considered.

Moreover, experience has shown that it is unsound to rely upon reinforcements from India and Iraq. The above is the minimum we should aim at to afford a reasonable degree of air protection to our vital interests in the Far East and the Indian Ocean in the absence of a Battle Fleet. Some considerable time must elapse before the above requirements can be met from

1 Details omitted. The total estimate was 336 first-line aircraft.

page 550 United Kingdom, Australian and New Zealand resources. The date must depend largely upon the progress of the war in Europe, on the rate at which our production of aircraft and personnel can be sustained, and on the supply of aircraft from the United States of America. Subject to these considerations, our aim will be to complete the above programme by the end of 1941, and as soon as possible, and at any rate by the end of 1940, to reinforce the Far Eastern Command by at least two fighter and two General Reconnaissance land-plane squadrons, and to re-equip and bring up to establishment the existing squadrons.

45. Meanwhile, the air forces in Malaya provided by the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth comprise:

  • Bombers—3 squadrons, 36 aircraft.

  • Torpedo Bombers—2 squadrons, 24 aircraft, obsolete type.

  • GR Land Planes—2 squadrons, 24 aircraft.

  • GR Flying Boats—1 squadron, 4 aircraft, obsolete type.

  • Total: 88 first-line aircraft.

(Assumption 3 begins.)

Dutch air forces now in the Netherlands East Indies comprise:

  • Bombers—9 squadrons, 81 aircraft.

  • Fighters—2 squadrons, 24 aircraft.

  • Bombers for reconnaissance—1 squadron, 12 aircraft.

  • Flying Boats—1 squadron, 27 aircraft.

  • Total: 144 first-line aircraft.

The Dutch expansion programme will add another 42 fighters about January 1941, and in 1941 a further 48 fighters, 98 bombers and 18 reconnaissance aircraft, bringing the Dutch totals to 346 [350?] first-line aircraft. While these will be a valuable addition to the defence of our common interests in the Far East against Japanese attack, they can in no way make up for the totally inadequate strength of our own air forces in Malaya. (Assumption 3 ends.)

46. Until our very serious deficiency in air strength in the Far East is at least reduced, we can only hope to provide a deterrent to attack and concentrate on the defence of the foremost of our vital interests, mainly Singapore. Under present conditions and in the immediate future, we cannot hope to secure the defence of British Borneo. For the present, therefore, it is necessary to make plans for the destruction of the oil and the air facilities. Ultimately we should establish defended bases for the operation of air forces referred to in paragraph 43 (c)1 at Kuching and Jesselton. Only very limited air forces could at present be made available to assist in the protection of trade in the Indian Ocean. On special occasions aircraft could be diverted from other tasks to cover the passage of convoys. (Assumption 3 begins.) Nevertheless the situation is not so black as it may appear. The British and Dutch Air Forces between them now dispose of more than 200 aircraft of a quality equal, and in some respects superior, to those of Japan. Experience has shown that to venture a seaborne expedition within range of modern air forces involves grave risks, so that even with our present air forces direct attack on Singapore would be a very formidable undertaking. Until, however, a standard of air defence approximating more closely to our estimated requirements can be obtained, everything possible must be done to increase our land forces in Malaya. When

1 Omitted—for the defence of British Borneo.

page 551 our defence position has improved and it becomes possible to undertake Staff conversations with the Dutch, they should be pressed to station some of their units in Borneo, to improve the aerodromes in the islands, and to provide certain additional anti-aircraft defence troops for their security. The development of air routes within the Netherlands East Indies, and between the Commonwealth and Singapore, for reinforcement purposes is an essential factor for the general defence of the whole area. (Assumption 3 ends.)

47. As regards land forces, a review of the position regarding the defence of Burma by the Governments of India and Burma is likely to disclose the necessity for extra troops and anti-aircraft equipment, particularly for the defence of air bases.

48. Although bases will eventually be required for four shore-based squadrons in British Borneo, and these bases will require troops and antiaircraft defences for their protection, some time must elapse before the aerodromes can be completed.

49. (Assumption 3 begins.) As it will be necessary to rely for some time on the operation of air forces from Dutch bases for the defence of the Dutch East Indies, the security of these bases is of considerable interest to us. The provision of the necessary troops must be a matter for the Dutch, who have a total of two divisions in Java and fourteen garrison battalions at outlying stations. Tarakan, Balik Papan, Macassar and Amboina each have a garrison battalion. The troops are not thought to be of high quality but are reasonably well equipped, except for a serious lack of anti-aircraft guns. Such guns as are available are in Java. The Dutch should be pressed during the Staff conversations to increase their garrisons at certain of the more important air bases. (Assumption 3 ends.)

50. The minimum garrison required in Malaya to hold the whole country and to safeguard the aerodromes required for the operations of our air forces is the equivalent of six brigades with ancillary troops, provided that the air forces mentioned in paragraph [43] are made available. Apart from coast defence and anti-aircraft troops, the present garrison of Malaya comprises nine battalions and corps troops. Until the additional air forces referred to in paragraph 43 can be stationed in the Far East, the reconnaissance and striking forces available to deal with invasion or seaborne attack are seriously inadequate. The absence of these air forces will involve an increase in the existing land forces by an amount which the General Officer Commanding1 estimated as equivalent to three divisions and attached troops. This figure could be progressively reduced as air reinforcements are increased. Since the GOC's estimate was made, the air forces in Malaya have already been increased by one squadron, and it is hoped to provide four additional squadrons by the end of 1940. Apart from the possibility of an Australian division going to Singapore (which is under separate consideration) it may be possible to make further forces available for the reinforcement of Malaya from some other source at a later date. Preparations are therefore being made in Malaya to receive, ultimately, two reinforcing divisions.

51. The provision of anti-aircraft guns for Singapore is much below the approved scale, and anti-aircraft requirements for air bases in Malaya, British Borneo and the Netherlands East Indies will need careful examination. It is not possible to state at this stage exactly what the total requirements will be.

1 Lt-Gen Sir Lionel Bond, KBE, CB; GOC Malaya, Aug 1939–May 1941.

page 552

52. Naval forces now on China, Australia and New Zealand stations are:

  • One 8-inch cruiser.

  • Two modern 6-inch cruisers.

  • Four old 6-inch cruisers.

  • Six armed merchant cruisers.

  • Five old destroyers.

  • Three anti-submarine escorts.

  • Eight motor-torpedo boats.

These are entirely inadequate for war in the Far East.

The Dutch forces in the Far East are:

  • Two cruisers.

  • Seven destroyers.

  • Sixteen submarines.

Until the naval situation in European waters is materially improved, it may be necessary to face a serious threat to our Far Eastern trade, as fully adequate forces for its protection could not be made available in the event of determined action against it by Japanese forces, particularly if they used heavy ships. Everything possible will be done by the United Kingdom Government to press on with future naval construction programmes to the maximum extent possible; this is a long-term project and no naval building programme has ever allowed for a war in which the British Empire alone would be fighting Germany, Italy and Japan. Our best hope of being able to supply naval forces for the Far East in the near future lies in early and successful action against Italian naval forces in the Mediterranean, which we are doing everything possible to bring about.