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To Greece

The Attitude of the Commonwealth

The Attitude of the Commonwealth

The despatch of the expedition to Greece was of considerable importance in the constitutional history of the Commonwealth. Great risks have sometimes to be taken for good causes, but neither Australia nor New Zealand wanted to see divisions which could have been used in the Pacific being thrown away in the Balkans. In August 1940 the New Zealand Government had hesitated for some time before arranging for the defence of Fiji and the despatch of the Third Echelon to the Middle East.2

In Australia the question of the AIF operating outside the Pacific area had sharply divided the political parties. The Opposition members of the Advisory War Council had refused to make any comment about the Balkan front; in fact Mr Curtin, the Leader of the Opposition, after pointing out that the Government had made the

2 See pp. 468.

page 475 decision which sent the troops to Greece, reminded the Council that if the Labour Party's policy had been followed there would have been no Australian force in the Middle East.

In the Middle East itself there were command problems which had arisen because no attempt had been made to define a policy for the control and integration of Commonwealth forces during a major war. The Middle East Command did not appear to appreciate the fact that Generals Blamey and Freyberg were commanding the national armies of self-governing Dominions. As the former afterwards explained to the Australian Advisory War Council, the British commanders still ‘had difficulty in recognising the independent status of the Dominions and their responsibility for the control of their own forces.’1 With his experience of the problems of the AIF in 1914–18, he had insisted that his corps should remain intact. General Freyberg, because of his efforts to co-operate with the Middle East Command, which was drastically short of specialist troops, had for a time been left with a depleted force and, on one occasion, had been faced with a proposal to distribute his units about the Middle East Command.2

The two generals were in a difficult position. In one sense they were subordinate commanders who were not expected to air their opinions about the major strategy of the war, but they were also independent commanders responsible to governments which were quite determined to make their own decisions. So far as Greece was concerned, both generals seem to have been soldiers first and politicians second.

General Freyberg, when told on 17 February that his division was going to Greece, did not advise the New Zealand Government of his doubts and apprehensions. As he afterwards explained: ‘We attended and were given instructions to go.’ Nor did he mention that on 5 March, before leaving for Greece, he had told General Wavell that he, Freyberg, had no illusions about the difficulties ahead.

After the campaign Mr Fraser, who was then in Cairo, was amazed to learn from Freyberg ‘… that he never considered the operation a feasible one, though, as I pointed out to him, his telegram earlier conveyed a contrary impression. In this connection he drew attention to the difficulty of a subordinate commander criticising the plans of superior officers, but I have made it plain to him that in any future case where he doubts the propriety of a proposal he is to give the

1 Long, p. 553. Had The Private Papers of Douglas Haig, 1914–1919 (ed. Robert Blake), London, 1952, then been available, the British commanders might have known that Australians looked upon themselves ‘not as part and parcel of the English Army but as Allies beside us’ (p. 266); that Currie, the Canadian commander, was suffering from a ‘swollen head’ when he wished his divisions to fight as a Canadian Corps (p. 303).

2 See p. 52.

page 476 War Cabinet in Wellington full opportunity of considering the proposal, with his views on it, and that we understood that he would have done so in any case.’1

This was the only occasion in the six years of the war when there was any such misunderstanding between the Government and General Freyberg. As an independent commander he thereafter used the powers2 given to him in his charter of authority: ‘To communicate directly either with the New Zealand Government or with the Commander-in-Chief under whose command he is serving, in respect of all details leading up to and arising from policy decisions.’ And it is quite certain that the Government never failed to support its commander.

With General Blamey it was much the same. On 18 February, when he received his first warning of the move to Greece, he was worried but had not informed the Australian Government, having been told by General Wavell that Mr Menzies had already given his approval of the plan.3 Shortly afterwards he learnt from Wavell that the proposal had been accepted by a meeting of the War Cabinet in London at which Mr Menzies was present. He was still the subordinate commander when he wrote to Mr Menzies on 5 March saying: ‘I am not criticising the higher policy that has required it, but regret that it must take this dangerous form.’ It was the interview with Generals Dill and Wavell the following day that brought matters to a head. ‘Although both on this and on the previous visits my views were not asked for and I felt I was receiving instructions, I made inquiries as to what other formation would be available and when.’ The answers so disturbed him that he ‘ventured to remark’ that the operation was ‘most hazardous’ and then cabled to Australia for permission to submit his views. When the discussion4 which they aroused had died down he, too, was told what his policy should have been. Mr Menzies declared that as he had been given his powers as GOC of the AIF he ‘should not have hesitated to offer his views.’

There was also the constitutional side to the problem. On 11 March Mr Fadden, acting Prime Minister in Canberra, when keeping Mr Fraser informed of Australia's protests to the British Government, ended his cable with this note: ‘Finally we protest against the actions of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs entering into an agreement affecting Dominion troops without prior consultation. While appreciating difficult circumstances in which he was placed we feel nevertheless repetition of such an action might

1 Fraser to acting Prime Minister, Wellington, 7 Jun 1941.

2 See pp. 1920.

3 See p. 99.

4 See pp. 108, 114, 11516.

page 477 well have far reaching and unfortunate Imperial repercussions.’1 The New Zealand Government, though very worried about the safety and intelligent use of its expeditionary force was, for the time being, less concerned about this constitutional problem. Its immediate desire was that New Zealand's advice and opinion be asked for in good time by those responsible for the major decisions of the war effort.

Nevertheless, the campaign had made it clear to the Dominions that the problems of Commonwealth relations were not always understood by the British Government or by the Higher Command in the Middle East. When the campaigns in Greece and Crete were over Mr Fraser addressed a formidable list of questions2 to the British Government. Complete answers were not made, but the result satisfied Mr Fraser. Thereafter the two commanders, as well as their respective Governments, insisted3 that they had rights and were prepared to assert them.

There is, however, another aspect of the problem which must be recognised. In war unity of command is essential and Dominion commanders with special powers could possibly be as selfish and unimaginative as the Dutch deputies who almost wrecked the plans of Marlborough. As General Freyberg has since stated, the system was ‘productive of great friction, and could have been anticipated and avoided if the problem of the integration of Dominion contingents had been thoroughly examined at the staff colleges between the wars …. In any future war at least one third of the British forces will be from Commonwealth countries overseas. These forces must be used in the best way possible.’4

1 Fadden to PM NZ, 11 Mar 1941.

2 As the questions, and the answers to them, are of some constitutional importance, they are reproduced as Appendix III to this volume.

3 Freyberg to Fraser, 14 Oct 1942: ‘It takes a new Commander-in-Chief some time to understand the relationship of a Dominion force to its own Government. They are prone to look upon us as just another British division. They are inclined to tell us what we may send in the way of information. If I were to agree to the last proposal it would have had the effect of muzzling me completely. I meet him [Montgomery] tomorrow morning and shall tell him that I am in duty bound to send you a full and frank opinion of any operation contemplated where the Division is to be employed, that I have done so in the past, and that the New Zealand Government expect it of me in the future.’— Documents, Vol. II, p. 127.

4 Lord Freyberg in the House of Lords debate on ‘The Statement of Defences’, 17 Mar 1954.