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Political and External Affairs

CHAPTER 14 — Politicians and Soldiers

page 173

Politicians and Soldiers


THE fall of France destroyed the easily sketched, conventional plan for co-operation-by-expeditionary-force: training in Egypt followed by service on the Western Front. Overnight Egypt became a potential battlefield, and the Western Front was the coastline of Britain. When the blow fell the First Echelon (with specialist sections) was in Egypt, still awaiting full equipment and final training. The Second Echelon left New Zealand at the beginning of May and was diverted to Britain, since it was not considered safe for the time being to use the Red Sea. The Third Echelon, which would complete the Division, and without which divisional training was impossible, was in camp in New Zealand. Transport and the availability of equipment to turn promising troops into first-rate fighting formations depended not only on the decisions of the New Zealand Goverment, but on British policy and the physical availability of ships and materials.

The situation was charged with problems, not only military but political. It was fundamental to the thinking of the New Zealand cabinet and of General Freyberg that New Zealand forces should operate as a self-contained formation and therefore should not fight until the complete Division was assembled and trained. It would then be used, by agreement between the two governments, under the orders of the appropriate field commander, but always as a coherent national army. This situation was roughly parallel with that of the three other dominions. The Canadians had reached a sensible formula for their troops in Britain. They would co-operate, under British command, in the defence of the United Kingdom or in limited raids on the Continent. Any other operations needed prior approval by the Canadian government, and in fact were dependent on direct negotiations between Churchill and Mackenzie King.1 South African troops were under British command, an arrangement that might not have been possible without the close association between Smuts and Churchill. The Australian government followed a different path. It was from the first alert to the

1 Dawson, Canada 1939–41, pp. 230, 297; Stacey, Six Years of War, Vol. I., p. 410.

page 174 problems of national status, and adopted the same course as New Zealand, a course for which there was ample precedent, that of a written ‘charter’ defining the position of a commander whose troops were part of an ally's army. Thus the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French troops sent to aid the colonists in the American war of independence, had been given very explicit instructions concerning the maintenance of the French force as a unity.1 Plumer in Italy in 1917 and Haig in France in 1918 held carefully defined powers, so also Gort in 1940 and Wilson in 1941. Blamey for Australia, then, had a charter, and stood vigorously for the independent status of his army; an attitude reinforced by the strength of Australian nationalism, by fear of Japan, and by the pressure on Menzies of an Opposition with a recent isolationist past and with strong objections to the use of dominion troops in the Middle East.2 The effect was that although, when strategic decisions had been made, Australian troops fought under a British commander-in-chief, their use depended in principle on agreements between the two governments.
For New Zealand Freyberg, too, had a charter defining his powers. The circumstances of its negotiation have already been noted.3 It made reasonably clear the position of both parties. From the first, however, it was recognised that no set formula could provide against all contingencies. In emergencies, therefore, General Freyberg was given wide discretion to vary normal practice, consulting his government if possible, and in any case reporting promptly what he had done. Neither he nor his government could contemplate the possibility that New Zealand soldiers would idly await the fulfilment of pre-arranged formal conditions at a time when Hitler might strike at the British coast at any moment, when Wavell was desperately improvising the defence of Egypt with inadequate resources, and when Britain's only formidable ally was transformed overnight into a doubtful neutral. On 4 June 1940 Freyberg in Cairo suggested that the Government should consider whether the present policy of keeping the New Zealand troops out of action until the Division was concentrated should be temporarily abandoned. ‘I advise,’ he cabled, ‘that the First and Second Echelons be concentrated in England at the first opportunity with early

1 ‘It is His Majesty's desire and He hereby commands that, so far as circumstances will permit, the Count de Rochambeau shall maintain the integrity of the French troops which His Majesty has placed under his command, and that at the proper time he shall express to General Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the forces of the Congress, under whose orders the French troops are to serve, that it is the intention of the King that these shall not be dispersed in any manner, and that they shall serve at all times as a unit and under the French generals, except in the case of a temporary detachment which shall rejoin the main body without delay.’—Pershing, My Experiences in the World War, p. 386.

2 Hasluck, Government and People, p. 217.

page 175 despatch to France if another brigade can be made available by the War Office or the Australians in the United Kingdom1.’

In the event, things worked out differently. Freyberg himself went to England. He had regretted the diversion of the Second Echelon to that country, and never himself believed that the Germans would risk a direct attack. He acknowledged, however, that the arrival of dominion troops was most opportune for the morale of a hard-pressed and courageous people; and, after some sharp negotiations with the War Office, had the New Zealanders kept together and assigned to active duty in the path of the anticipated invasion.2 ‘It is one of the refreshing facts about the Anglo-Saxon race,’ he reflected, ‘they respond to being told the truth, and black as it looked the New Zealand Government as usual took the big line, and we were released to be used as and when required. So I went hat in hand to the CIGS and said, “Give us what equipment you can spare and give us an active operational role.”3 Before long the Second Echelon was the best equipped and trained element of the New Zealand troops. It gave service that was later lyrically praised; but this happy upshot, and the reasonably prompt transfer of the echelon to Egypt, was achieved only by firm, though tactful and cooperative, resistance to plans initially favoured by the British Army.

The main problem turned out to be in Egypt, where, indeed, Freyberg judged the greatest military danger to lie. Before he left Cairo, he was approached by British Headquarters for permission to borrow certain detachments for special purposes. The case was strong and the need urgent, so Freyberg gave his consent, under his special powers as Commanding Officer. This policy was approved by the New Zealand Government, and was continued by his deputy during his absence in England. At one stage, indeed, he was told that the whole of the First Echelon was to be dispersed into six segments, only the New Zealand Headquarters remaining in Cairo. This instruction was objectionable on both military and political grounds. ‘We naturally refused to obey this improper order,’ said Freyberg later,4 and he cabled from England to his military superiors in Cairo the elementary facts about Commonwealth co-operation. The changes desired, he explained, could be made only with the approval of the New Zealand Government; but they were so wide of New Zealand's known wishes and would cause such deplorable reactions in the Dominion that he was unwilling even to disclose the British Command's proposal to break up the Expeditionary Force. ‘The answer to any such proposals would, I am sure, be an uncompromising

1 Documents, I. p. 119.

2 Ibid., pp. 83 ff, especially p. 136.

3 GOC's papers, Historical Review.

4 House of Lords Debates, Vol. 181 (15 Apr 1953).

page 176 refusal.’ The major proposal was accordingly dropped. Nevertheless, when Freyberg returned to Egypt in September, he found that ‘by peaceful means’ numerous groups of New Zealanders had been detached from the main body of the force and dispersed over a wide area. Without these detachments, some of which had been for months under British control, it would be impossible for the Expeditionary Force to train as a complete division. As Freyberg somewhat ruefully pointed out, he was in difficulties because New Zealand had agreed to every request for the loan of troops, whereas the Australians had bluntly refused from the first. As it was, the Third Echelon was about to arrive, and the Second would come from England as soon as transport could be provided, so Freyberg had to set about recovering the borrowed troops. It was a difficult situation, where short-term military needs—or at least military convenience—had to be overruled by a political argument: that New Zealand forces must be enabled to fight as a national unit. Freyberg acted firmly, with consistent support from Wellington. His position was in some respects eased, but often complicated, by the fact that the officers with whom he was negotiating were often personal friends and former colleagues of the British Army. Many letters were exchanged, said Freyberg, and ‘things were said and done that cannot be too quickly forgotten’; indeed there is little information about them in official record. In essence, the battle for dominion status was being fought again among members of a profession bred to obedience and respect for tradition, rather than sensitive to the importance, even in long-term military significance, of sound personal and political relationships. As Freyberg later emphasised, there was a problem here which had been inadequately studied, even after the lessons of the First World War.1
In the end, though at personal sacrifice, the problem was solved without damage to the public service. Freyberg regarded himself as being in the end ‘answerable to no one except his own government’; yet he was wise and loyal, with an overwhelming sense of the common interest shared with his colleagues of the British Army.2 Nor can Wavell's honesty of purpose and single-mindedness be questioned. Yet in purely military terms the relations between the Commander-in-Chief and some of his principal subordinates must have remained unusual, and the dual relationship of Freyberg to his superiors was a problem which for two and a half years required firm and tactful handling. It was solved largely because, on the political side, Freyberg and the New Zealand cabinet remained in close touch and close agreement, more particularly after the

1 House of Lords Debates, Vol. 181 (15 Apr 1953).

2 GOC's papers, Historical Review; also in Army Quarterly, October 1944, p. 33.

page 177 critical discussions following the disasters of Greece and Crete. The New Zealand attitude retained its basic character. Desperately anxious to ensure that convoys were adequately protected and troops properly equipped for the tasks in hand, the New Zealand Government would at need vigorously resist British service opinion on such matters, as indeed on overall strategy. The right to form independent judgment was stoutly defended; yet in crises the decision was for whole-hearted co-operation. Maybe the lively if spasmodic personal contacts still maintained between Churchill and both Fraser and Freyberg had its part in maintaining harmony.1 So had the firmness and good sense of the high-ranking soldiers. Good relations between Alexander and Freyberg were rooted in mutual respect and practical agreement on policy, but also in the successful handling of long-drawn-out discussions where military, political and personal factors were incessantly entangled.


In 1940 the most urgent military problem from New Zealand's viewpoint was the reassembly of its Expeditionary Force on terms enabling it to fight effectively and as a unit. When this was at last accomplished the stage had been set for a supremely hazardous military operation, which also raised political questions of the greatest difficulty.

At the end of October 1940 the Italians attacked Greece. They fared very ill and it at once became evident that Germany might well intervene. This, as General Freyberg promptly pointed out, made Greece a possible theatre of war.2 Greece was one of those countries which Britain had guaranteed against aggression in 1939, and Churchill promised all the help in Britain's power. This in practice was little enough. British resources in the eastern Mediterranean were very low, and the Greeks could offer few facilities for modern aircraft. Moreover, at this stage the British Chiefs of Staff thought that if the Germans moved through Bulgaria and helped the Italians to overrun Greece, the result for Britain's naval position would be serious but not disastrous; and Crete could probably be held. In the general situation, Turkey seemed to them more vital than Greece.3 In the event, within a few days of the attack on Greece, preparations were made to bomb northern Italy; British troops went to Crete and defence works were started there; and on the mainland, the Air Force gave some support to the Greeks.

1 Documents, I, pp. 142–3.

2 Ibid., p. 200.

3 Playfair, The Mediterranean and Middle East, Vol. I, p. 239.

page 178

The Italians were, in fact, repelled; but matters could not rest there. General Wavell on 17 November noted his certainty that Germany would act—almost on the day on which Hitler announced to Count Ciano his intention to intervene—and German intervention was an obvious threat to Britain's lifeline in the Middle East. There were many—including Freyberg—who felt in 1940 that the war would be won or lost in this area rather than round the coasts of Britian herself.1 The British Government could not know at this stage that Hitler thought of occupying Greece not as a springboard for action against Egypt or the Middle East, but as a necessary protection for his oil supply and his Russian adventure.2 It had to take into account the possibility that Germany's impending move into Bulgaria was the prelude to a full-scale attack on the eastern Mediterranean. Accordingly, the Chiefs of Staff were set to work to study means of aiding the Greeks. Their report in January 1941 was realistic; ‘if Germany does undertake large scale operations against Greece, we could do no more than impose a small delay to their occupation of the country.’ Nevertheless Churchill instructed Wavell and Longmore to visit Athens. They found Metaxas to be of much the same opinion as the British Chiefs of Staff. He considered ten divisions to be the minimum aid giving hope of effective resistance, and after hearing what the British had to offer, he asked them to stay away: for a moderate-sized ground force would attract a German attack and have no chance of repelling it. Wavell, it appears, was personally of the same opinion.3 Though Metaxas said later that he would accept British help when the Germans entered Bulgaria, military opinion seemed definite and unanswerable. As late as 17 February 1941 Wavell made his view clear. Our military objectives in the Balkans are defensive, he wrote. If we could put sufficient forces into Macedonia to defend Salonika ‘we shall have fulfilled our object…. Unfortunately our forces available are very limited and it is doubtful whether they can arrive in time.’

While the service commanders were under no illusions about the prospects, they were inevitably subjected to the pressure of political considerations and, no doubt, of political personalities. Churchill hoped and Hitler feared that some means might yet be found for constructing a Balkan front against Germany. That meant common action by Greece, Turkey and Yugoslavia, who together could have put a formidable number of troops into the field; and the most positive move towards bringing about that

1 Cf. Freyberg's appreciation of 29 Jul 1940, Documents, I, p. 341.

2 F. H. Hinsley in Cambridge Journal, Vol. IV; Kirk, Middle East in War, p. 76.

3 Playfair, Vol. I, p. 343.

page 179 combination would be, in Churchill's view, to face the admitted risks of a very hazardous military operation. The enterprise should be seen, he told the Australians in March, ‘not as an isolated military act, but as a prime mover in a large design1.’ Furthermore, considerations of principle and prestige were not far below the surface, and the possible reaction among neutrals, particularly the United States, to the abandonment of the Greeks was a factor.
black and white photograph of loading food

Loading beef for England on a Wellington wharf

black and white photograph of coal miners

Coal miners at work

black and white photograph of book distribution

Issuing ration books, April 1942

black and white photograph of ballot publication

Publication of a ballot, Auckland, January 1942

black and white photograph of women working

Women workers at a dehydration plant, Pukekohe

black and white photograph of women packing

Packing parcels for overseas, June 1942

black and white photograph of soldiers helping farmers

Soldiers help with the haymaking on a Waikato farm, December 1943

black and white photograph of maori carpenter

A Maori carpenter at the Rotorua carpentry school

black and white photograph of children

Polish refugee children at Pahiatua, February 1945

black and white photograph of prisoners

Japanese prisoners of war, Featherston

black and white photograph of soldiers

Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser arrives at Honolulu. With him are Admiral C. W. Nimitz (left) and Vice-Admiral R. L. Ghormley

black and white photograph of dignitiaries

Vice-Admiral W. F. Halsey meets a member of the NZRSA.
On the left is the Hon. W. Perry, Minister of Armed Forces and War Co-ordination

black and white photograph of farm land

Land for soldiers' farms, Rotorua

black and white photograph of soldiers on ship

The first furlough draft returns to Wellington, July 1943

black and white photograph of isitt signing surrender

Air Vice-Marshal L. M. Isitt signing the Japanese surrender at Tokyo Bay, September 1945. General Douglas MacArthur is at the microphone

In spite of Greek reluctance and the misgivings of soldiers, the plan took form. In January and February the advance in Africa was halted and Cyrenaica was only lightly held by inexperienced troops, for it was judged essential to send the greatest possible aid to Greece. On 11 February detailed planning for the Greek expedition was in hand, and on the 17th and 18th instructions were issued to the commanders of the troops which were to be sent.2 The military machine was therefore in motion by the time that Eden and Dill arrived in Cairo on 19 February, to begin the round of conferences which finally launched British and dominion troops into Greece.

At this time the Greeks, far from invoking the guarantee of 1939, had left it much in doubt as to whether they would even consent to be helped on the only terms which Britain could offer. Eden and Dill, in conference with the Middle East Commanders-in-Chief, Wavell, Cunningham and Longmore, had to formulate a plan combining military with political factors and then commend it to the Greeks on the one hand and, on the other, to the Australians and New Zealanders, who would have to provide the main strength of the proposed expeditionary force. The conference's conclusion, as summarised by Eden, appeared to follow the lines forecast in London talks. It was a gamble, but there was some hope that part of Greece might be held, at least if the Yugoslavs would hold the Monastir Gap. Failure had to be risked but it was ‘better to suffer with the Greeks than to make no attempt to help them.’ Moreover, stakes were high, for this at least was certain: if nothing were done for the Greeks, there would certainly be no move from Yugoslavia and little hope of a move by Turkey.

On the 22nd Eden and Dill were in Athens, where the same arguments were traversed. The Greek Government's position was made very clear. Its position had been throughout that the Greeks would resist a German invasion, if necessary alone, but that the British should not send a force to Greece too early or in too small numbers, as this would precipitate a German invasion which there

1 PM to UKHC in Australia, 30 Mar 1941.

2 Freyberg states that he was told that on no account must he tell anyone of the move to Greece. He asked if the New Zealand Government agreed and Wavell replied that they did.—Freyberg to Kippenberger, 10 Sep 1956.

page 180 was otherwise a faint hope of avoiding. As this faint hope would obviously exist only in the event of peace with Italy and the acceptance of some degree of German control, the Greek position at this stage amounted to a postponement of an irrevocable choice between that unpalatable course and the equally grim alternative of accepting British aid on a scale which Greek military leaders knew to be almost certainly insufficient to check an invasion. By 22 February, with the Germans massing in Rumania and infiltrating into Bulgaria, a choice between the two alternatives could no longer be postponed. It is only in the light of these considerations that Eden's success in persuading the Greeks to accept British aid is explicable, as his promise of two or even three divisions fell far short of the ten divisions which they considered the minimum for a fair risk. Although Greek military leaders appear, to say the least, to have been convinced against their will, King George of Greece and his Prime Minister, M. Koryzis, must have known that to reject Eden's offer would have been to admit that resistance to the Germans was utterly impracticable and to pass the initiative to those elements who would negotiate a settlement with Germany along the lines made by Rumania and Bulgaria. At any rate, after presenting at the beginning of the conference documents which placed on the British Government the responsibility of deciding whether or not the forces it could offer, together with the Greek Army, would be strong enough to repel the Germans and to encourage Yugoslavia and Turkey to join in the struggle,1 the Greek Government on 23 February accepted the British offer. The decision was made in a gruelling conference which began at 10.45 p.m. on 22 February. At its conclusion, in the very small hours of the following morning, Eden ‘said that he would like to be sure that the arrival of British troops in the numbers and on the conditions proposed would be sincerely welcomed by the Greek Government…. We did not wish to give the impression that we were forcing our offer on the Greeks; we wanted to be sure that the Greeks of their own free will were anxious to accept it.’ M. Koryzis, ‘without hesitation and showing some emotion, stated formally that the Greek Government accepted with deep gratitude the offer of HMG and entirely approved the military plan on which the British and Greek military representatives had agreed.’
The Greeks seem to have been given little ground for optimism on the prospect of rallying the Turks and Yugoslavs against Hitler. Both Turkey and Yugoslavia had made their position quite clear, and in the next few days, when Eden went to Ankara, the faint hope that they might have changed their minds was dissipated in language

1 Documents presented by Greek Government, 22 Feb 1941.

page 181 which was as clear as diplomatic usage allowed.1 The Turks knew their danger clearly enough; but they shared the Greeks' view that the troops offered by Britain could make no real difference in battle, and they made it quite clear that they would remain neutral. Shortly afterwards the Yugoslav Government firmly refused to promise action if Germany should invade Bulgaria.2 Meanwhile the British Government had reported to Australia and New Zealand the agreement reached with the Greeks on 23 February, which, of course, could only be implemented by the use of dominion troops. Permission in principle was, with whatever uneasiness, given.3 As will be seen, in New Zealand's case an odd sequence in the delivery of cables resulted in cabinet being confronted at once with a request for permission to use the Division in Greece together with a cable from Freyberg saying that the Division was battleworthy and could be released for action if called upon. The detailed account of arrangements with the Greeks arrived later.4

Back in Cairo at the beginning of March, with the knowledge that no help could be expected from Turkey or from Yugoslavia, Eden and Dill conferred again with the Middle East commanders. Much apprehension was expressed, but, so the record stands, general agreement was reached that in spite of risks the operation should proceed; and they returned to Athens. There they found that the Greek Government had not acted on the military terms of the agreement of 23 February as it was understood by the British, and it was only with difficulty that they could negotiate a new and detailed military understanding on 4 March 1941.5 By this time the troops destined for Greece were on the move, and many of them actually embarked, and it was at this stage that the New Zealand and Australian governments were asked to give their final approval to the use of their troops on the venture. They approved, with misgivings that were candidly expressed. Very soon afterwards controversy began as to whether they had been given adequate opportunity to make a well-informed and responsible judgment, or whether they had in practice been committed by a British decision, formulated by Churchill in London, or perhaps by Eden in Athens.

On these issues, as always, voluminous information was supplied from London; it could not, however, cover every point, nor could cabled advice convey as between Eden and Churchill, or as between London and Wellington, the full details as grasped by men on the spot or the precise balance between political and service arguments.

1 Playfair, Vol. I, p. 382.

2 Ibid.

3 Documents, I, pp. 239 ff; Hasluck, p. 336.

4 Documents, I, pp. 207, 239.

5 Ibid., p. 250.

page 182 The broad situation was placed before the New Zealand Government on 23 January 1941. On 20 February the position was again summarised, and New Zealand was told that ‘our major effort is now directed to making all necessary preparations and assembling forces to aid Greece and/or Turkey against German attack.’ There is no evidence, however, of the Government having been told that since 17 February Freyberg knew his Division would be sent to Greece. Freyberg himself made no comment to his Government, but on 23 February reported that ‘should the British Government request the release of the NZEF for a full operational role, the New Zealand Government can now do so with confidence1.’ This cable reached the New Zealand Government simultaneously with a formal request from Britain for permission to use the Division in Greece, a request made without detailed explanation of the plan. Freyberg's cable was naturally taken as an indication that he knew of the impending operation and that it had his general approval.2 The Government immediately agreed, and a few hours later confirmed its approval clearly though anxiously on receiving the slightly belated cable setting out the British Government's case. Before the New Zealand reply was received, however, the Division had received orders for the move towards Greece. After Eden's visit to Turkey, when hopes of Turkish and Yugoslav support had to be abandoned, and when there was an alarming change in the attitude of the Greeks, almost all the relevant cables were repeated to New Zealand. These included a comment by Churchill which has been held to prove that right to the last he was hesitating.3 The changed situation, he cabled to Eden on 6 March, ‘makes it difficult for Cabinet to believe we now have any power to avert the fate of Greece unless Turkey and Yugoslavia come in, which seems to us most improbable…. We do not see any reason for expecting success, except, of course, we attach great weight to the opinions of Dill and Wavell. A rapid German advance will probably prevent any appreciable British and Imperial force from being engaged. Loss of Greece and Balkans by no means a major catastrophe for us provided that Turkey remains honestly neutral.’ Yet Eden and his advisers on the spot unanimously

1 Documents, I, p. 207.

2 General Freyberg states emphatically that he had been given no information on which he could express a responsible and well-informed judgment, that he understood that the decision to go to Greece had been taken on a level which he could not touch and that he did not suppose that his assurance of the fitness of the Division for war would be taken as approval of the expedition. ‘At that time I knew little or nothing about the Greek campaign. I did not have any proper maps of Greece. I did not know the size of the forces involved, or the relationship with Yugoslavia, with Turkey or with the Greek Army, neither could I get any information from Middle East sources. When I cabled the New Zealand Government that we were “Fit for war as a two-brigade Division” I was using a term understood by soldiers, but it had no relation to the Greek adventure except insofar as we might be used in Greece.’—Freyberg to Kippenberger, 10 Sep 1956.

3 e.g. F. H. Hinsley, Cambridge Journal, Vol. IV, p. 426.

page 183 decided that the operation should proceed, and entered into an agreement with the Greeks to that effect. Their action was endorsed by the British cabinet, which based its decision on the views of the Commanders-in-Chief on the spot, of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and of the commanders of the forces to be employed;1 that is, Freyberg, and Blamey of Australia, to whom, Wavell said, he had explained the greatly increased hazards of the operation, and who were expressly reported as being agreeable to operating it.2 The British Government reached its decision, however, without waiting for a comprehensive military appreciation3 from the men on the spot. They acted on the conclusion, without full technical arguments; which, it has been said, they would have been unlikely to do ‘if the recommendation had not been in line with their own inclinations4.’
On 6 March Churchill said explicitly that the whole matter had to be referred to the dominion governments whose troops were to be used, and that their consent could not be taken for granted.5 Yet the movement of the New Zealand Division had, in fact, commenced, advanced parties sailing on the 6th; and on the 7th Wavell was authorised to proceed, without any formal reservation of dominion rights. At this stage it would have been an extreme step, though not inconceivable, for the New Zealand and Australian governments to veto the whole affair. Yet there is no evidence that their assent was due to unwillingness to upset a timetable which was so far advanced. Both Blamey and Freyberg later expressed grave criticism of the military aspects of the venture, but neither spoke before the political decision was irrevocable. It must remain a matter for speculation whether the decision of the Australian and New Zealand governments would have been different if all the facts known to the British cabinet in London had been available to them. However, with the documents now available, it is clear that their information was misleading in certain respects. The hope that Turkey and Yugoslavia might act was mentioned after Eden and others had said explicitly that no such hope was reasonable. The attitude of the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East was not made clear to the Dominions, if indeed it was made clear to London. ‘Our advisers at present in the Middle East have recom-

1 Documents, I, p. 256.

2 CIGS to UK Govt, 6 Mar 1941. Freyberg, as we have seen, denies emphatically that he ever received any such explanation or expressed any such agreement.—Freyberg to Kippenberger, 10 Sep 1956.

3 On 7 March Churchill informed Eden that ‘a precise military appreciation’ was indispensable as it was necessary to justify the operation to the Dominions on other grounds than noblesse oblige and a ‘commitment entered into by a British Cabinet Minister at Athens and signed by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff ….’—Churchill, Vol. III, pp. 92–3.

4 Playfair, Vol. II, p. 150.

5 Documents, I, p. 252.

page 184 mended
the enterprise’:1 this general phrase concealed the fact that these officers thought that the chances of success were very small, but agreed that for political reasons the operation should go forward in defiance of military prudence. They thought there was a fighting chance, and the prospects by no means hopeless; but those reading the cables could scarcely have realised their fears. There was certainly no emphasis on the fact that the Greeks, early in February, by documents again brought to the notice of Eden on 22 February at the beginning of the Anglo-Greek discussions in Athens, so far from appealing for help, asked that British troops should stay away unless they could arrive in good time and in sufficient strength. On existing evidence, neither the British nor Greek military leaders modified their initial estimate that eight divisions, with one in reserve, was the minimum requirement for the Aliakmon line. Nor did either British or Greeks ever consider that there were any military possibilities without positive assistance from Yugoslavia or Turkey or both.

These facts were not made clear in the cables. Moreover, one of Eden's last cables was not repeated to New Zealand. It reported, among other things, that Longmore, for the Air Force, was not confident that he could give adequate air support to the operations. ‘Longmore requires all the help that can be given. If he can hold his own, most of the dangers and difficulties of this enterprise will disappear2.’

All these facts accordingly were known to Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff, and to Eden and his advisers in the Middle East, unless indeed they were temporarily obliterated from day-to-day calculations by the rush of events. They were not fully conveyed to the Dominions. In particular, an attentive study of the cables could not give to the dominion cabinets (or probably, for that matter, to the British War Cabinet and Menzies in London) an adequate forecast of the devastating extent of German air superiority. What was more serious, the views of the CIGS and of the Middle East commanders were quoted, in the main, in their final form, wherein military and political arguments were blended. The preliminary discussions, in which the military risks were no doubt faithfully analysed, were not—perhaps they could not be—conveyed to London or to the Dominions. Yet despite these omissions, the difference between the documents available to the New Zealand Government on 9 March 1941 and those in the hands of historians is the kind of difference that is inevitable when living material is studied, selected, and drafted into words. It inescapably reflects to some

1 Documents, I, p. 245.

2 Eden to Churchill, 7 Mar 1941.

page 185 extent the viewpoint of the men concerned; and it may well be that this range of documents, passing under Churchill's powerful influence, reflected more than it should have done his conviction—or that of Eden—that the Greeks should be aided. The steady development of the idea of intervening in the Balkans, and the close association between Churchill and Eden, strongly indicates a political decision maintained by Eden on his mission that the Greeks must be kept in the war, and if necessary persuaded to accept the only kind of help which Britain was in a position to offer. The Greek attitude on 22 February was that, having made their own views clear, it was a British responsibility to decide whether or not British troops should be sent to Greece. That responsibility was accepted, and the formal decision taken, with constitutional propriety, by War Cabinet in London. Present evidence does not show conclusively what human realities underlay this conclusion.

This much is plain. The decision, however achieved, was a British decision, and was accepted by Greece, by Australia and by New Zealand. So far as New Zealand was concerned, it was accepted not only because this was a British lead endorsed, incidentally, by the Australian Prime Minister, who was then in London and had recently been in Cairo, but also because the New Zealand Government felt that it understood the issues and the risks and gave deliberate approval to the operation. Its cable of 9 March 19411 showed, up to a point, a sound enough understanding of the situation, including the predominance of German air power and the extreme unlikelihood of help from Turkey or Yugoslavia. ‘His Majesty's Government in New Zealand, with a full knowledge of the hazards to be run, align themselves with His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom and agree with the course now proposed.’

In military terms, then, the New Zealand Government knew that the operation was extremely hazardous—they strongly urged that plans for evacuation should be immediately prepared—but they rated highly the moral and political arguments for action. ‘They cannot contemplate the possibility of abandoning the Greeks to their fate, especially after the heroic resistance with which they have met the Italian invader. To do so would be to destroy the moral basis of our cause and invite results greater in their potential damage to us than any failure of the contemplated operation2.’ According to the subsequent testimony of H. G. R. Mason, Attorney-General during the war, the decision was a political one, taken with knowledge of the military arguments against it, and even with realisation that the whole Division might be lost. ‘At that time,’ he

1 Documents, I, pp. 257–8.

2 Ibid., p. 258.

page 186 said, ‘we dared not do anything that might have appeared to be a moral failure…. No blame should be passed on to soldiers when the responsibility belonged to politicians1.’ Peter Fraser, in his efforts after the whole campaign to get at the basic facts, also stressed succinctly the same viewpoint: ‘the operation was necessary (unless militarily impossible),’ he wrote in June 1941, ‘for non-military, political and moral reasons’; and in the same circumstances the New Zealand Government would do the same again.

This emphasis on moral issues was characteristic of New Zealand policy, and it was one of the factors leading the Government to accept a really grave military risk. If Fraser had known in February and March that the Greeks were being persuaded to accept aid, not asking for it, and that the military risks were even greater than those which he had deduced from the information available, his reaction might have been different. It would almost certainly have been different if Freyberg on 23 February or even up to 7 March had expressed the doubts of the expedition's military feasibility which he afterwards said he already entertained. No more can positively be said.

On 27 March there occurred just such a development as must have been in Churchill's mind when he envisaged military operations in the Balkans. A military coup in Yugoslavia overthrew the regime of the regent Prince Paul which had just acceded to the Tripartite Pact. Hitler's reaction, however, was prompt. On 6 April both Yugoslavia and Greece were invaded by German forces.

The campaign in Greece, as in Yugoslavia, was short and disastrous, and the story, told elsewhere in this series, followed the course which the soldiers in their hearts expected. The Division was in action on 10 April; on the night of the 28th a fighting evacuation was completed.2 Of 53,000 British, Australian, and New Zealand troops in Greece, 12,000 were lost, 19,000 were evacuated to Crete, and the remainder found their way to Egypt.3


In the weeks that followed, a further politico-military problem had to be unravelled, and a further disaster endured. The decision to defend Crete was made by the British War Cabinet, despite the grave misgivings of Wavell, Commander-in-Chief on the spot. In any case, for the moment, the ships for evacuation were not available.4 Moreover, the King of the Hellenes and his government were

1 Dominion, 23 Apr 1953; NZPD, Vol. 299, pp. 213–17.

2 Freyberg's report in Documents, II, p. 16.

3 Figures from Churchill, Vol. III.

4 Freyberg, memoranda of 31 Oct 1949 and 5 Dec 1949.

page 187 installed on the island, making a further responsibility for the defenders. The security of Crete had been a British responsibility since November1 and the understanding throughout was that it would be defended to the utmost;2 yet in the six months which passed before the German attack little was done—perhaps little could be done—to equip it as a fortress capable of dealing with a crisis which could have been foreseen. From the time that Commonwealth troops moved into Greece the Australian and New Zealand governments had repeatedly pressed that plans should be made for evacuation, and this was done.3 Yet when that evacuation had in fact to be carried out it was a desperate effort, not part of a planned regrouping of strength for the defence of Crete. That defence had to be virtually improvised, with quite inadequate resources, in the three weeks that remained before attack. Once again political decisions had outrun military capacity.

On 30 April General Wavell conferred with Freyberg at Canea, and asked him to take command of the British, Australian and New Zealand troops on the island. Freyberg's plea, made before he knew of the imminence of an attack, that, as the servant of the New Zealand Government, his job was to go back to Egypt and reorganise his shattered division, was overruled on grounds of duty. He accepted the commission, reflecting that after all the bulk of the Expeditionary Force was still on Crete, and asked for an estimate of the probable scale and timing of the German attack. To his concern, the War Office estimate of the weight of attack was vastly greater than he and Wavell had expected. He accordingly reported that in his opinion, bearing in mind his experiences of German attacks in Greece, Crete could not be held without full naval and air support. Failing this, he urged that the decision to hold Crete should be reconsidered. This report went to Wavell, as his commanding officer, and also, in terms of his charter, to the New Zealand Government. ‘I recommend,’ he cabled to Fraser, ‘that you bring pressure to bear on the highest plane in London either to supply us with sufficient means to defend the island, or to review the decision that Crete must be held4.’

The decision was not reversed. Maybe it was too late to do so. In any case, said Wavell, his instructions were ‘most definite’; he thought it very doubtful whether there were ships available to move the troops, and he reported that opinion in Cairo judged that the War Office had exaggerated the probable scale of attack. Every effort would be made to equip Freyberg's force adequately: but air

1 Documents, I, p. 193.

2 Ibid., p. 268.

3 Cunningham, A Sailor's Odyssey, p. 315.

4 Documents, I, pp. 285 ff.

page 188 support would evidently be lacking until more aircraft arrived from Britain. Churchill, appealed to by Fraser, could not do much more than assure him that the holding of Crete was of high importance, and that all things physically possible would be done to help its garrison. Freyberg, in fact, had to do the best he could; and so the results of the basic decision to intervene in Greece moved to their inevitable disastrous conclusion.

The attack fell on Crete on 20 May 1941, and heroic resistance was on the verge of success. After a week's fierce fighting, however, it became clear that the island could not be held, and there followed the tragic and costly operation of saving as many as possible of the defenders. The story is one of purely military history, save for one factor, the presence in Egypt of Peter Fraser. The position had its difficulties. The political head of a state was established on the edge of a battlefield at military headquarters which were under the control of a great, friendly ally. For practical purposes, the whole of New Zealand's military forces, and a high proportion of her trained manpower, were involved; yet the British Government, while not unmindful of this fact, had preoccupations which straddled the world. In these circumstances, the Prime Minister had a very personal and vigorous conception of his duties. His activities were incessant. He was in touch with everyone, from rank and file soldiers as they arrived from Crete to the Commander-in-Chief, and, by cable, with Churchill himself. On the one hand he kept warm the humble but stimulating human contacts for which, among contemporary politicians, he appeared to have an almost unique skill. On the other, he kept the highest officers under constant pressure to ensure that all things possible were done for the men who had fought on Crete. As one result of Fraser's activity, the much battered Navy sent yet one more ship to Crete, and an additional 1400 soldiers, half of them New Zealanders, were carried safely to Egypt.1 More important in the general picture was the stiffening given by the whole episode to the concept of dominion status in wartime, and the clarification of the character of military co-operation.

This clarification began with an odd incident. A British Inter-Services Committee sat in Cairo to consider some aspects of the Greek campaign. At Fraser's request, it considered also some criticisms of Freyberg's conduct of the Division's retreat in Greece. As Freyberg reported later, the committee ‘upheld my action and gave me an unsolicited testimonial.’ He was then sent for by his Prime Minister, and told that he had failed the New Zealand Government in not giving warning that the Greek operation was in

1 Documents, I, p. 329; Davin, Crete, pp. 448–9.

page 189 his view dangerous and not feasible.1 This explosion raised forcibly the whole problem of the relations between a dominion army and its British High Command, a problem which was also being thrashed out in Australia. General Wavell was under the impression that the Dominions had been consulted. He had, it seems, discussed the Greek project with the Australian Prime Minister, Menzies, in February, and Menzies was present at the British War Cabinet meeting on 24 February when the vital decision was made. In Wavell's view, too, he had explained the situation to Freyberg on 17 February, to Blamey, the Australian commander, on the 18th, and to both of them on 6 March. In the view of these two generals, however, as expressed subsequently, they were on these occasions receiving instructions as subordinate officers, not being consulted as the commanders of independent national armies. Freyberg explained forcefully to Fraser the near-impossibility of a subordinate commander in such circumstances criticising the plans of his superior. In the past, indeed, both Blamey and Freyberg had objected to British army plans, and had exercised the right given them by charter to communicate directly with their own governments. In this instance neither of them gave any report to their respective governments on the strategy of the campaign until well after the political decisions had been made.2 Both of them later reported that they had been opposed to the basic plan from the first. It may be doubted whether, in the military consultations of 17 February and 6 March, Freyberg received—or asked for—enough information to enable him to form a solid judgment on the issues involved.3 He presumably knew considerably less than the New Zealand Government thought that he knew when it read his report that the Division could be safely released for action. It was not easy and would not be easy in the future for a relatively junior commander to probe the plans of General Headquarters.
Faced with this situation, Fraser laid down plainly the conditions under which the New Zealand Expeditionary Force should continue to be used. ‘No matter who your commander in chief or what his rank may be, it is your duty to keep us in touch with the situation.’ In particular Freyberg was required, when the Division was ordered

1 House of Lords debate, 15 Apr 1953; Documents, I, p. 323; Freyberg's comments on Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, and on Fraser's cable of 7 Jun 1941.

2 House of Lords Debates, 15 Apr 1953, Col. 771 et seq.

3 Cf. Freyberg in House of Lords, 18 Mar 1954. At a meeting at GHQ Middle East on 6 Mar 1941: ‘Wavell said he had informed General Freyberg of the latest developments … General Freyberg, though he realises the added difficulties, was not perturbed and was prepared to go ahead. He had made no suggestion that his Government might be unwilling to go ahead.’ Blamey's criticisms were tentatively suggested to Menzies on 5 Mar 1941 and set out strongly to the Australian Government on 10 March. Apparently the dominion troops commenced to embark on 5 March (Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, Ch. XIII).

page 190 into action, to satisfy himself personally that air cover and armoured support was adequate. ‘We are not going to have another Greece and Crete.’ Instructions were, moreover, followed up during the subsequent course of the war by persistent and pertinent inquiries, with which Freyberg as a New Zealander no doubt sympathised, but which to him as a soldier were acutely embarrassing. For long periods, in fact, in spite of his own efforts in 1939 to have these matters clear from the first, he was the spearhead in a fight for dominion status in the Commonwealth's armies. A Commander-in-Chief, he remarked ruefully, takes some little time to understand the matter, to learn that the NZEF was not ‘just another British division’, and to accept the fact that its commanding officer was in duty bound to send to his Prime Minister ‘a full and frank opinion of any operation contemplated where the Division is to be employed’.1 Nor was it easy for Freyberg to deal with last-minute inquiries from Wellington on the eve of battle as to what he thought of his superior officers.2 Yet it may be counted a gain that British commanders learnt to deal with a subordinate who spoke his own and his government's mind. Plans were from time to time modified by discussion rather than by insistence upon rights, and by and large the subsequent extensive use of the Division was along lines approved by its commander and his government. Cabinet, for its part, continued, as from the first, to seek and follow closely Freyberg's advice on military matters. The good relations within the Eighth Army in the hour of victory were the result of the courage and wisdom shown in difficult circumstances.

1 Documents, II, p. 127.

2 House of Lords Debates, 15 Apr 1953.