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

117 — The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs1

page 122

The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs1

12 January 1942

The following is from the Prime Minister for your Prime Minister:

We have been considering with the greatest of care the present position of the war, especially the situation that has arisen in the Pacific as the result of the outbreak of hostilities with Japan, and I am setting out in this telegram, as fully and frankly as I know you would wish me to do, our reflections and, so far as they can at present be formed, our conclusions on this matter which so vitally affects the people of this Dominion in particular and those of the British Commonwealth in general.

1. General Observations:

(i) The New Zealand Government have, throughout the whole course of hostilities, endeavoured to consider the problems of the conflict from the widest point of view, and we have we think succeeded, generally speaking, in looking upon the situation as a whole. We have never deviated from a complete recognition of the fact that the critical theatre of war has, up to the present at any rate, been the European theatre, and we have never allowed our preoccupations and apprehensions for the safety of this Dominion to interfere with what we considered to be our primary duty of applying the greatest force that we could provide at the most useful point. We feel that our efforts in this direction have not been less than those of any other portion of the British Commonwealth.

(ii) We have never, however, allowed our attention to be entirely monopolised by the European theatre. Though we still accept the principle that the continued defence of the United Kingdom is the most vital necessity in our conduct of the war, we have throughout attached great importance to developments, for example, in the Atlantic and in the Middle East, where indeed New Zealand's main forces are at present employed.

(iii) While the remarkable successes of the Russians over the Germans and the comparatively encouraging results so far of the battle in the Western Desert2 have removed any immediate fear of untoward developments in the Middle East, nevertheless we retain our apprehensions as to the situation that may before long develop there.

1 Repeated to the Prime Minister of Australia.

2 On the night 17–18 Nov 1941 the Eighth Army under Lt-Gen Sir Alan Cunningham crossed the Egyptian frontier to begin the Second Libyan Campaign. By the end of the first week of January the enemy had been driven back to El Agheila, from which on 21 January he launched a counter-offensive which, in turn, drove the Eighth Army back to the Alamein line.

page 123 We cannot believe that Hitler, having assumed the command of the German forces, will be content to retire into winter quarters. It seems to us most probable that he will endeavour to regain his lost prestige by some lightning blow in another area, and a likely field for this attempt is in the direction of North Africa. He would certainly have the troops available for a considerable adventure in this part of the world, and he has at his choice several methods of approach. We have noted the opinion of the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff that such a move need not be anticipated for some lengthy period to come, but this does not entirely allay our apprehensions.

(iv) The Battle of the Atlantic seems for the moment to be going strongly in our favour, and we hope will continue to do so, though it would not appear to be improbable that the attention of the United States will now be diverted to some extent to the Pacific, and this may consequently increase the burden upon British forces in the Atlantic.

(v) By far the most serious development in recent months has been the outbreak of hostilities with Japan. Clearly the intervention of America, which this has brought about, is of the utmost importance to our cause and will almost certainly prove to be the decisive factor, but the crippling of the United States Fleet in Hawaii and the success of the Japanese attacks upon the Philippines and Malaya have produced what is now, and must for some time to come continue to be, an extremely critical situation in this theatre of war.

(vi) It is clear that this is recognised by yourself and your colleagues, and of course we greatly appreciated the attempt that was made to help us by the despatch to these waters of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. But, to be completely frank, we have not always felt that the potential problems of the Pacific have had the importance attached to them in London which we, more intimately concerned therewith, have considered that they have perhaps deserved. Whether this be so or not, it seems essential that the position in the Pacific should be treated now as one of at least equal importance to that in Europe and in the Middle East, and we are most concerned to see that the very best means are adopted to retrieve the early and most serious reverses that we and the Americans have met with in this area.

2. The Pacific Area generally:

(i) We have noted with the greatest of interest your discussions on this matter with President Roosevelt, and I must at once say that, though we fully endorse the desirability, indeed the necessity, of the unity of command which was the principal objective of those talks, we have felt that there were many aspects of the arrangements proposed in Washington which we did not fully understand or of which, as far as we understood them, we did not fully approve. We certainly assumed, page 124 however, that these proposals were the first of a series designed to provide for the fullest co-operation, at least throughout the whole Pacific area if not in all theatres of war, and not to be confined to the particular area referred to in the Secretary of State's message to us of 29 December [No. 112] as the ‘South-West Pacific’ (a phrase which we consider to be inaccurate and likely to be misleading in view of the problems that will have to be considered in connection with what we conceive to be the South-West Pacific proper, namely, the Southern Pacific Islands, New Zealand, and Australia).

(ii) We did make in connection with these proposals, and conveyed to the Secretary of State in my telegram of 30 December [No. 113], certain assumptions on which we have had as yet no further information, but we are not without doubt, as the result of a subsequent communication on the subject, whether similar collaboration in other areas is intended or will be found to be possible.

(iii) On the actual proposals for the ABDA area as set out in the directive to General Wavell contained in the Secretary of State's telegram of 4 January [No. 114], we have the following comments to make:


As it seems to us, there is one main problem and one alone in the whole area of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and that is the defeat of Japan, and that object in our opinion cannot be attained except with great delay and at great expense in life and treasure unless the problem is treated as one whole and not piecemeal.


As we see it, any attempt, such as the ABDA proposal, to divide this area into smaller areas must have the effect of dissipating our efforts. General Wavell is to command in the ABDA area at sea, on land, and in the air. At the moment there is a general understanding that an American Admiral is to command in the remainder of the Pacific and a British Admiral to command in the Indian Ocean. Frankly this seems to us to be a step in the wrong direction. If it is not possible to have one strategic command of the whole Pacific and Indian Ocean area then at least it becomes completely essential in our opinion that there should be means established for the fullest co-operation not only within the ABDA area itself, but also between the ABDA area and (i) the remainder of the Pacific, and (ii) the area of the Indian Ocean, as well as a more clearly defined and practicable means of co-operation in the remainder of the Pacific.


We observe that New Zealand is not to be concerned in any way with the ABDA area, and I must say at once that we are not content to accept this position. It is a fact that we page 125 have very few troops in that area, but it is similarly a fact that our safety in New Zealand depends to a very real extent upon operations and conditions in that area, and there must, I suggest, be some means found of associating New Zealand with the conduct of affairs in that area.


The means proposed for consultation with the Dominions, namely through the Chiefs of Staff in Washington and London via the British Government to the Dominions, seems to us to be quite inadequate for any decision of emergency and importance.


We note that as the result of the appointment of General Wavell the position of Resident Minister at Singapore1 has now been considered superfluous, and I am bound to say that here also we wonder whether this is correct. In addition to the operations that will be necessary in that area, there must arise in the very nature of things innumerable problems of a highly political order which it would seem could most conveniently be dealt with there, as in similar circumstances they are dealt with by the Minister of State in Cairo.2 If not there they must certainly be dealt with somewhere, and wherever they are dealt with this Dominion would wish to be represented.


The problems of the ABDA area will spill over from that area into the Indian Ocean area and into the Pacific area proper, and there must be some body established somewhere to deal with these wider and, in our opinion, even more vital problems. Wherever this body is established New Zealand will wish to be represented.


Our main criticism of the ABDA proposal is shortly this: that it professes to provide, and does provide, for only one portion of the problem, and by isolating that problem from the rest of the Pacific fails to deal with the situation as a whole.

I cannot too strongly express the strength of our view that the very first step to be taken to defeat Japan is to obtain naval supremacy in the Pacific, and our belief that this object cannot be obtained by setting up one command in the ABDA area, another command with a strong (though, in comparison with the Japanese, inferior) fleet in the Indian Ocean, and still another command with a strong (though, in comparison with the Japanese, probably inferior) fleet in the remainder

1 Viscount Norwich, PC, GCMG, DSO (then Rt. Hon. Alfred Duff Cooper); Resident Minister for Far Eastern Affairs, Singapore, 10 Dec 1941–10 Jan 1942.

2 Capt the Rt. Hon. Oliver Lyttelton, PC, DSO, MC; Minister of State in the Middle East, Jul 1941 – Feb 1942.

page 126 of the Pacific Ocean. It seems patently obvious to us that we must concentrate our forces or we will run a serious risk of being defeated piecemeal, as the tragic history of Europe has recently indicated.

(iv) Finally, on this aspect of the matter I wish to say this, that during the period when the war, though world-wide, had its principal manifestations in Europe we were content very largely to abide by the decisions of the British Government and the British Chiefs of Staff, who were not only closer to the problems but more vitally affected by the repercussions of any immediate decision that was taken. Now, however, that the war has moved to our doorstep, I am sure you will agree that where the matters under discussion are of immediate and direct concern to us there must be some method devised by which we can intelligently form and explicitly express our views before action is taken. How this is to be brought about is, of course, a most difficult question. It may well be that some supreme directing body must be set up either in London or in Washington, but whether this be so or not we are all convinced here that some means for the better co-ordination of the views of the various Allied powers, including the Dominions, now engaged in this struggle must be established and that New Zealand must have some method of association. I notice that Mr Eden has recently announced that Canada and New Zealand are satisfied with the existing situation in this connection, but this is not strictly accurate. What I said in London was that I did not consider it feasible for the Prime Ministers of the Dominions to be constantly or substantially in session in London, and thus be away from their own more immediate responsibilities, or for one Prime Minister to represent all the Dominions. I did, however, make it plain that I would be ready to consider any other method that could be devised to improve consultation, and I am more than ever ready to consider this problem now, as I say, that the war is on our doorstep.

3. New Zealand's own Position:

(i) You are already aware in some detail of the deficiencies in the armaments necessary to defend this Dominion and also Fiji1 which, as you know, we are defending not only as an outpost of the defence of New Zealand but as a vital link in the connecting line of reinforcement from the American continent. We are, as you will have realised, exceedingly short of the implements of war, in many cases as a result of denuding ourselves to strengthen Fiji. This we feel is not our fault. We have for a very lengthy period past requisitioned for what we have considered to be necessary, and have from time to time, within what we considered to be the limits of propriety, pressed our page 127 needs to the utmost. We have, however, always been restrained in the past by a knowledge that the war was after all as yet many thousands of miles away from us and that other portions of the British Commonwealth and the Allied countries might well have more pressing claims.

(ii) Now, however, all this is changed. We have seen within a few short weeks the United States Pacific Fleet crippled. We have seen the Philippines practically captured.1 We have seen Malaya in dire straits and Singapore in the greatest peril. We have seen the two magnificent ships which were sent out destroyed by the air arm in a few minutes.2 And we foresee for a considerable period ahead the Japanese in complete command of the Pacific and, for all practical purposes, without restraint on further activities except the use already being made of their resources and their estimate of the value to them of any further operations. Such being the case, we are bound by our duty to our own people to consider most carefully the situation in this part of the world, always having, we hope, due regard to larger issues.

(iii) I am sure you will agree with me that we have in the course of this war seen tragic instances in which the most competent opinion has been rapidly falsified by the event, and I am sure you will agree with me also that, as those responsible for the lives and safety of the people of this Dominion, we cannot wholly divest ourselves of this responsibility in favour of expert opinion, however authoritative, though of course we would wish to attach all due weight to such opinion.

(iv) In considering the military opinion so far as it affects ourselves, we have noted in the first place that in New Zealand itself we have been told by the highest military authority only a few months ago that New Zealand and Fiji were in no danger of serious attack unless in the ‘unthinkable’ contingency of the British and American Fleet being driven from the Pacific and Singapore having fallen, and that this could not happen under six months. Our reflection on this is that the unthinkable is now in everybody's mind. We have been warned that the Japanese are preparing for a southward advance and, as you know, the Joint Staffs in Washington have expressed the unofficial opinion that an attack on Fiji may be expected at any time after 10 January. So far as New Zealand is concerned, our own Chiefs of Staff have reduced the six months' period in respect of this Dominion to three months.

(v) We have noted also the opinion constantly expressed in the past by the Chiefs of Staff, both in the United Kingdom and in New Zealand, that there is no ‘immediate large-scale threat to the territory

1 The Japanese landed in the Philippines on 10 Dec 1941. The garrison on Corregidor held out for five months before surrendering on 6 May 1942.

2 HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sunk off Malaya by Japanese air attacks on 10 Dec 1941.

page 128 of Australia and much less of New Zealand’, a phrase taken from the Secretary of State's telegram of 11 December last [No. 109]. Frankly we do not accept this, and, even if we did accept it, prudence and the demands of our own people would oblige us to prepare against the worst. This we are doing without dismay, but we do feel entitled to ask of you what we know you are—and are confident you will continue to be—very willing to grant, namely, the utmost degree of assistance in the provision of implements of war that is consistent with necessary demands elsewhere.

4. To sum up, we have very little knowledge indeed of the intentions of the higher direction of the war, whatever be the authorities now responsible for it, either in London or in Washington. Indeed, so far as American intentions are concerned, we have practically no knowledge at all. We feel that we must be informed. We feel that we must have an eye, an ear, and a voice wherever decisions affecting New Zealand are to be made, and we are by no means happy with the arrangements, so far as we know them, for the conduct of the war against Japan. And, finally, we feel that both in Fiji and in New Zealand we must prepare urgently for a possible attack on a substantial scale.

5. I do most earnestly apologise for adding this additional burden to your shoulders, which I know are very much strained with other and more immediate perplexities, but I am sure were you in our place here you would feel much as we do, and I do hope that you will find time at an early date to let us have your comments on this communication.