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

11 — The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom (Wellington)

The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom (Wellington)

11 August 1940

Please communicate to the Prime Minister the following personal and most secret message from the Prime Minister:

The Combined Staffs are preparing a paper on the Pacific situation, but I venture to send you in advance a brief foreword. We are trying our best to avoid war with Japan, both by conceding on points where page 18 the Japanese military clique can perhaps force a rupture and by standing up where the ground is less dangerous, as in the arrests of individuals. I do not think myself that Japan will declare war unless Germany can make a successful invasion of Britain. Once Japan sees that Germany has either failed or dare not try, I look for easier times in the Pacific. In adopting against the grain a yielding policy towards Japanese threats, we have always in mind your interests and safety.

2. Should Japan nevertheless declare war on us, her first objective outside the Yellow Sea would probably be the Dutch East Indies. Evidently the United States would not like this. What they would do we cannot tell. They give no undertaking of support, but their main fleet in the Pacific must be a grave preoccupation to the Japanese Admiralty. In this first phase of an Anglo-Japanese war we should of course defend Singapore, which if attacked—which is unlikely—ought to stand a long siege. We should also be able to base on Ceylon a battle-cruiser and a fast aircraft carrier which, with the Australian and New Zealand ships which would return to you, would exercise a very powerful deterrent upon hostile raiding cruisers.

3. We are about to reinforce with more first-class units the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet. This fleet could of course at any time be sent through the Canal into the Indian Ocean, or to relieve Singapore. We do not want to do this, even if Japan declares war, until it is found to be vital to your safety. Such a transference would entail the complete loss of the Middle East, and all prospect of beating Italy in the Mediterranean would be gone. We must expect heavy attacks on Egypt in the near future, and the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet is needed to help in repelling them. If these attacks succeed, the Eastern Fleet would have to leave the Mediterranean either through the Canal or by Gibraltar. In either case a large part of it would be available for your protection. We hope, however, to maintain ourselves in Egypt and to keep the Eastern Fleet at Alexandria during the first phase of an Anglo-Japanese war, should that occur. No one can lay down beforehand what is going to happen. We must just weigh events from day to day and use our available resources to the utmost.

4. A final question arises: whether Japan, having declared war, would attempt to invade Australia or New Zealand with a considerable army.1 We think this very unlikely, first because Japan is absorbed in China, secondly, would be gathering rich prizes in the Dutch East Indies, and thirdly, would fear very much to send an important part of her fleet far to the southward, leaving the American fleet between it and home. If, however, contrary to prudence and self-interest, Japan set about invading Australia or New Zealand on a large scale, page 19 I have the explicit authority of Cabinet to assure you that we should then cut our losses in the Mediterranean and proceed to your aid, sacrificing every interest except only the defence of the safety of this Island on which all depends.

5. We hope, however, that events will take a different turn. By gaining time with Japan, the present dangerous situation may be got over. We are vastly stronger here at home than when I cabled to you on 16 June.1 We have a large army, now beginning to be well equipped. We have fortified our beaches. We have a strong reserve of mobile troops, including our Regular Army and Australian, New Zealand and Canadian contingents, with several armoured divisions or brigades ready to strike in counter-attack at the head of any successful incursions. We have ferried over from the United States their grand aid of nearly 1000 guns and 600,000 rifles, with ammunition complete. Relieved of the burden of defending France, our army is becoming daily more powerful and munitions are gathering. Besides this, we have the Home Guard of 1,500,000 men, many of them war veterans, and most with rifles or other arms.

6. The Royal Air Force continues to show the same individual superiority over the enemy on which I counted so much in my aforesaid cable to you. Thursday's important air action in the Channel showed that we could attack against odds of three to one and inflict losses of three and a half to one. Astounding progress has been made by Lord Beaverbrook2 in the output of RAF machines. Our fighter and bomber strength is nearly double what it was when I cabled you, and we have a very large reserve of machines in hand. I do not think the German Air Force has the numbers or quality to overpower our air defences.

7. The Navy increases in strength each month and we are now beginning to receive the immense programme started at the declaration of war. Between June and December 1940 over 500 vessels, large and small, but many most important, will join the Fleet. The German Navy is weaker than it has ever been. The Scharnhorst3 and the Gneisenau4 are both in dock damaged, the Bismarck5 has not yet done her trials, the Tirpitz6 is three months behind the Bismarck. There are

1 Not published. In this message to all the Dominion Prime Ministers, Mr Churchill reviewed the position of the United Kingdom in view of the impending French surrender and expressed his Government's determination to carry on the war.

2 Lord Beaverbrook, PC; Minister for Aircraft Production, 1940–41; Minister of Supply, 1941–42.

3 Scharnhorst, battle-cruiser, 32,000 tons, nine 11-inch guns, speed 30 knots. Sunk in action 26 Dec 1943.

4 Gneisenau, sister ship to Scharnhorst. Scuttled in harbour at Gdynia, 28 Mar 1945.

5 Bismarck, battleship, about 45,000 tons, eight 15-inch guns, speed 30 knots. Sunk in action 27 May 1941.

6 Tirpitz, sister ship to Bismarck. Attacked by midget submarines in September 1943 in Aalten Fiord and put out of action for six months. Eventually sunk by RAF on 12 Nov 1944.

page 20 available now in this critical fortnight, after which the time for invasion is getting very late, only one pocket-battleship, a couple of 8-inch Hippers,1 two light cruisers, and perhaps a score of destroyers. To try to transport a large army, as would now be needed for success, across the seas virtually without naval escort in the face of our Navy and Air Force, only to meet our powerful military force on shore, still more to maintain such an army and nourish its lodgments with munitions and supplies, would be a very unreasonable act. On the other hand, if Hitler fails to invade and conquer Britain before the weather breaks, he has received his first and probably fatal check.

8. We therefore feel a sober and growing conviction of our power to persevere through the year or two that may be necessary to gain victory.2

1 Heavy cruisers, about 15,000 tons, eight 8-inch guns, speed 30 knots. The first of the five ships of this class was named Admiral Hipper.

2 In a message sent through the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom on 15 August Mr Fraser said: ‘Your sober yet confident and courageous summing-up of the position is not only most heartening and inspiring to us, but will … be of material assistance to the Dominion's war effort and will enable us to apply all our strength with a full knowledge of the situation and what it requires.’