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

210 — The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs2

The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs2

15 March 1942

With reference to your telegram of 10 March [No. 208], and with further reference to your telegram of 4 March [No. 205]. Following is for Prime Minister from Prime Minister:

page 242

We warmly welcome your message of 10 March and particularly the prospect that it opens of definite reinforcements for New Zealand from United States sources. Your communication has, however, given us much food for thought, and as I am sure you will agree that there is everything to be gained and nothing to be lost by the fullest communication of views between us, I am setting out below our comments on your messages and on the situation as it appears today.

1. In connection with President Roosevelt's offer the following thoughts occur to us:


The dates of despatch and arrival of the contemplated reinforcements are distant and we cannot avoid the apprehension that they may be too late. It may well be that shipping difficulties or other restraining factors are such as to preclude the despatch of these troops at an earlier date, but it does seem necessary to say at once that from our point of view time is the very essence of the matter, that we would much prefer an earlier date, and that if, by way of illustration, we were forced to select an alternative, we would choose half the troops in half the time rather than the whole body at the times indicated.


It is not clear from President Roosevelt's message which of the flights is to come to New Zealand. We cannot, of course, enter into competition with Australia, but we would like to stress the urgency of our needs and hope that you will be able to take this matter up with the President.


We note that owing to the pressure of shipping demands this movement of troops, even to the extent and at the dates proposed, must be at the expense of diverting twenty-five vessels from the supply of the Middle East and China and this at a time when, as indicated in the recent Chiefs of Staff appreciation in London, it is in any case proposed to take great risks in the Middle East, which is of course at the same time exceedingly important and exceedingly vulnerable.


We note also that the despatch of the division is subject to the condition that our own Division remains in the Middle East. This raises for us problems of the first magnitude. It is a fact, as you have so kindly emphasised, that we have not asked for the return of the New Zealand Division and we do not ask it now. But Australian troops are, we are informed, being returned, and with your experience you will realise what a difficult position we will have to face here when this fact becomes known. Our troops have been in the Middle East, divorced from their homes and their people, for two years. Added to their natural desire to see their people again page 243 is a much more serious feeling, which I am told is becoming marked in the Division, that their proper place when their own country is in danger is in the Pacific theatre, and I must say that we have a lot of sympathy with that point of view, which may well be the cause of grave embrassment and that [not] before long. Again, on this aspect of the matter, the pressure on New Zealand's manpower at the moment and the physical difficulties of transporting troops to the Middle East are such that at present we do not see the possibility of reinforcing the Division. Actually, General Freyberg has enough troops at the moment to carry him on without reinforcements for a lengthy period, but the time must arise when the question of reinforcing or not reinforcing will present very great difficulties to us. Finally, on this particular subject, our Division is now trained and experienced in war itself and thus would unquestionably be of infinitely greater value to us in this theatre than any American division can be until it has had equal experience.


I must now tell you with what uneasiness we have noted the strength of the reinforcements which President Roosevelt proposes to despatch and, indeed, the strength of those which you hope to find it possible to send from the United Kingdom. We fully realise the limitations imposed by shipping inadequacies, but if this is the best movement of troops to the areas at present threatened, if there can be no acceleration and no increase in the forces which it is contemplated to send, then we must tell you, and I think we must tell President Roosevelt also, that the prospects in this part of the world seem to us to be bleak indeed. The Japanese have as we know some twenty-nine divisions in the South China seas and the ABDA area. Many of these divisions have largely completed their tasks and will be available for further adventures, west or south or both. In addition, the Japanese have large numbers of surplus troops in other areas which they can use as circumstances require, subject only to their estimate of the advantages of any particular plan, their physical means of transporting them, and their freedom from apprehension regarding the safety of that transport. To meet this possible attack we gather from your message that all that is in sight at the moment between now and May are three British divisions, who are presumably to go to the Middle East, India, or Burma, and the three American divisions referred to in President Roosevelt's message. To be perfectly frank, this scale of reinforcement seems to us to be patently and perhaps fatally short of the requirements page 244 of the situation. You cannot, of course, summon ships from the vasty deep but I do beg you, and President Roosevelt, to employ every means to increase the scale and accelerate the tempo of the reinforcements which this part of the world needs if it is to meet what we expect will come. I know you will not misunderstand me. We are not dismayed and, believe me, we will not disgrace you when the test comes, but we have seen so often in this war the preparation of inadequate means of defence which have led merely to the dissipation and loss of forces without effective results. We most earnestly suggest that the attack which we expect on Australia and New Zealand cannot be allowed to succeed, and we suggest this not only from our own point of view but also from a very deep conviction that if it does succeed the conduct of the war in the Pacific will become extremely difficult, if not impossible.


It seems to us to be possible that in the United Kingdom and the United States the possibility of a Japanese attack southwards is given less weight than it merits in comparison with the chances of their choosing now to attack solely to the west. We consider they may do both, and that if they had to choose one course only the strategical prize to be gained by their early capture of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, as the obvious bases for our offensive when it develops, might well outweigh the advantages to them of an immediate attack westwards. In any case we feel also, especially having regard to your comment on 4 March that ‘there are many other far more tempting objectives’ for the Japanese than New Zealand, that the prospects of an attack against New Zealand before an attack on Australia, and for the purpose of isolating Australia, are substantial and have perhaps not been adequately weighed.

2. No doubt as a result of your communications with President Roosevelt, Mr Nash asked us last week, for the information of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington, to supply an appreciation of the situation as we see it in this part of the world at the present moment and an estimate of the forces and equipment which we felt we required. A reply has just been despatched to Mr Nash and repeated to Mr Jordan, who has been asked to transmit a copy of both communications to you at once. You will observe that the necessities as now calculated by our Chiefs of Staff have increased materially over those formerly communicated to you, and I suggest to you that this increase is in itself an indication of the rapid alterations of view that have been imposed upon our technical advisers by the still more rapid deterioration page 245 of the situation in the Pacific. You will notice that the Chiefs of Staff estimate not only that very large air reinforcements are required, but also that the minimum land force to provide safety in this Dominion is six divisions. Of the six we have, in addition to the troops that we have already sent abroad to the Middle East and Fiji, managed to provide ourselves with three, at present both inadequately trained and inadequately armed. We cannot find more, and the one division which President Roosevelt at present promises to us still leaves us two divisions short of what our Service advisers consider to be the minimum required.

3. Again, please do not misunderstand me. We warmly welcome the present proposal and, indeed, we will gratefully receive any help that we can get. It is, however, as we see it, our duty to lay our position fully before you, knowing that you will do your utmost with the means that are available to enable us to defend ourselves and Allied interests in this part of the world.

Would you kindly supply a copy of this telegram to Mr Jordan.

2 Repeated to the Prime Minister of Australia.