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Political and External Affairs

CHAPTER 6 — Defence Policy

page 57

Defence Policy

IN respect of external relations—as indeed in much else—the impact of a Labour government sharpened and clarified existing trends in New Zealand evolution and set the course for the wartime period. It was perfectly clear well before the final catastrophe that New Zealand would stand by Britain in any crisis then conceivable. Yet she plainly proposed to exercise her right to have her own policy, and the directions in which she would exercise her influence—such as it was—were boldly sketched out. Further, though there was some conservative criticism of the Government's plain speech, the line was sufficiently close to that previously followed by the Opposition leaders to give it a broad basis in political assent. In the sanctions crisis the Government of Forbes and Coates made confidential information available to the leaders of the Labour Party. In 1939 they in turn showed the vital cables to Coates and to Adam Hamilton, then Leader of the Opposition; and there is, to say the least, no reason to suppose that in either case the particular decision or the general attitude would have been different if the parties in power had been reversed.

The political decision, however, was only half of the problem: dominion status carried freedom not only to decide whether or not formally to go to war, but also to determine whether participation would be whole-hearted or merely nominal. Mr Chamberlain told the House of Commons in December 1938 that ‘It is a matter for each member of the Commonwealth to decide the extent to which it will participate in any war in which any other member of the Commonwealth may be engaged.’ He added that the United Kingdom would undoubtedly go to the aid of any part of the Commonwealth that was attacked; but made it clear that such a policy could not be presumed for the Dominions.1 The Imperial General Staff acknowledged in the same year that it had to accept the same uncertainty: ‘Each Dominion now had the responsibility for deciding for itself the extent and nature of its defence preparations in time of peace as well as the question whether it should

1 5 Dec 1938; Keith, Journal of Comparative Legislation, Vol. XXI, Pt. I, p. 100.

page 58 employ these resources in war in a common cause with the remainder of the Empire1.’

In short, entwined with the political problem was the technical difficulty of ensuring that the military efforts of a team of independent nations would be adequately prepared and coordinated. The soldiers might hope ‘that the whole of the British Commonwealth would form a united front in an emergency which must ultimately threaten the security of all’;2 but they could not count on such a united front nor press too boldly for the prior planning necessary to make it effective. Ireland would clearly stand aside in any case. At the Imperial Conference of 1937 Mackenzie King said plainly that any attempt to commit Canada in advance would destroy national unity. The Australian Opposition was notoriously isolationist and the Government, to say the least, was lukewarm about opposing German expansion in Europe. General Hertzog, as Prime Minister of South Africa, said bluntly that his country would give no help if Britain became involved in war through interference in the affairs of central or eastern Europe. As Stanley Baldwin gently reminded his fellow prime ministers, no democratic community readily goes to war unless a vital national interest is evidently at stake, and it was plain that in no part of the Commonwealth was opinion then ready for a firm commitment to resist Hitler by force, nor indeed for a businesslike set of detailed plans for military co-operation by Commonwealth countries.3

Nevertheless established procedures within the Commonwealth provided at least a framework for action. Within this framework New Zealand had of all the Dominions probably the least to contribute in material resources: but in spite of strong anti-war sentiment, she had less psychological difficulty than any of them in contemplating prior commitments and in accepting British leadership. On technical as well as political grounds her defence, like her economic existence, was inconceivable to her citizens except in terms of co-operation with Britain. Yet the upshot, even for New Zealand, was a group of commitments which, however clear in political principle, remained up till the outbreak of war obscure when translated into practical terms.

New Zealand, like every dominion, accepted ‘primary responsibility for its own local defence’.4 Yet this notion was almost devoid of meaning when applied to an isolated community without naval, air, or industrial resources, except in so far as it gave respectability to the commonsense determination not to despatch an expeditionary

1 COS paper, 15 Oct 1938, quoting CID paper of June 1938.

2 Ibid.

3 Imperial Conference, 1937, 3rd meeting, 21 May 1937.

4 Resolutions of Imperial Conference, 1923.

page 59 force if New Zealand was in danger of invasion. Plainly, the security of New Zealand depended ultimately on victory—military or diplomatic—overseas. ‘The defeat of Great Britain would vitally imperil the various Dominions, which, even if successful in their own local defence, would in all probability be lost eventually to the enemy,’ wrote the GOC, Major-General Sinclair-Burgess, in April 1936.1 The primary object, he added, ‘is the preservation of the integrity of the Empire as a whole and not merely the local defence of each component part.’ In the following year the New Zealand delegation to the Imperial Conference accepted the same line of thought, and it was strongly held at the Defence Conference of April 1939. ‘We have to take risks because of the need to make sure that things were all right in the North Sea and the Atlantic,’ said Walter Nash. ‘If we are not all right there it does not matter whether we in the Pacific are all right or not.’ To the same gathering C. A. Berendsen, as head of the Prime Minister's Department, went so far as to say that ‘there is no disposition in any quarter of New Zealand to question the basic fact that in any war in which the British Commonwealth was involved the decision would be reached in the European theatre, and no one in New Zealand would dream of suggesting that a fleet should come to Singapore if such a step might prejudice the situation there. We entirely realise that the defence of New Zealand depends on the defence of the Commonwealth.’ The first part of Berendsen's statement would have been vigorously criticised by an insistent minority if made publicly. Nevertheless his conclusion fairly states the views both of the service chiefs and of the community over the whole inter-war period.
What, then, could New Zealand do to help herself and to strengthen the Commonwealth system within which she sought security? The basic answer to this question between 1919 and 1939 was that in the event of war she should send food to Britain and fighting men to serve under British command, probably in the traditional battlefields of France and the Middle East.2 At the Imperial Conference of 1926, for example, it appeared that New Zealand's plans were already deposited with the War Office in London, and that in a major war she was prepared to send at short notice an infantry division and a mounted brigade, and to maintain them for at least three years. Yet in practice this commitment was from time to time fairly heavily qualified by anti-war sentiment, by

1 GOC to Minister of Defence, 6 Apr 1936. Mr Churchill had said much the same in the House of Commons on 17 Mar 1914.

2 ‘For we had guessed right: it was to Egypt we were going; as in the previous war we would doubtless train there, even do some fighting in the vicinity, and then go on to France for the great battles. So it had been and so it would be ….’—Kippenberger, Infantry Brigadier, p. 8.

page 60 unpreparedness and lack of funds, and by the impact of her Pacific environment upon a European-minded community.

The last-named factor was of great long-term importance in influencing New Zealand's attitudes. As early as 1921 Massey defined the issue at the Imperial Conference referring to the First World War: ‘supposing Japan had been on the enemy side, one result would have been quite certain, that neither Australia nor New Zealand would have been able to send troops to the front, neither could we have sent food or equipment’ for the armed forces or the civil population of Great Britain.1 At that date, of course, the good neighbourliness of Japan was taken for granted, but by 1930 confidence had been to some extent shaken. At the Imperial Conference of that year G. W. Forbes bluntly inquired as to the place of New Zealand's forces in Commonwealth defence, and was answered by the Imperial General Staff in March 1931. Japan, it appeared, was the power most likely to challenge Commonwealth security in the Pacific area, but it seemed reasonable to hope that before any danger could materialise the Singapore base would be completed, the main fleet would reach it, and the general level of Commonwealth defence preparations would be adequate. There followed concrete suggestions which amounted to some alteration of emphasis from Europe to the Pacific area. The old commitment—that in war New Zealand would on request supply an expeditionary force—still remained. In addition it was now suggested that New Zealand might, if she wished to help, reinforce Singapore's peacetime garrison, or train airmen to relieve Royal Air Force units in the Far East, or prepare a force to be despatched immediately on the outbreak of war to menaced points in that area.

These suggestions were temporarily lost to sight in the domestic economic crisis, when defence expenditure like everything else was cut to the bone. In New Zealand, as in Britain itself, ‘the financial and economic risks of the time were [judged to be] even more serious than the military risks.’ In September 1931, however, Japan launched her Manchurian adventure, and at the beginning of 1933 problems of Pacific defence were raised by British experts with a new urgency. The plain fact, it then seemed, was that the existing condition of the Singapore base and other facilities made it impossible for the main fleet to go to the Far East: ‘The whole of our territory in the Far East as well as the coast line of India and the Dominions and our vast trade and shipping lies open to attack,’ reported the Committee of Imperial Defence in February 1933. And they added some oddly prophetic remarks. ‘We have no reason to impute aggressive intentions to Japan unless she is goaded into precipitate action’; yet she had shown herself disquieteningly adept

1 Summary of Proceedings, Cmd. 1474, p. 31.

page 61 at surprise attacks, and the state of British defence preparations would be greatly tempting to any aggressively minded power.

This strongly worded report was taken up by General Sinclair-Burgess, who on 28 August presented to his government a formidable argument for rearmament. He recommended in some detail a six-year programme of defence expansion, and asked specifically for the adoption of one of the suggestions made by the Imperial authorities in March 1931. A special force of an infantry battalion and an artillery battery should be stationed in India in peacetime to be transferred to Singapore in war. The men should be recruited for twelve years' service, of which three would be spent overseas; and the result would be an immediate contribution to Imperial defence, and the formation of a reservoir of trained men to be drawn on for an expeditionary force in the event of war.

In spite of the depression, cabinet felt bound to act; yet it remained fearful of public opposition and was firmly held in a European-wise tradition. Nothing was heard of the special force for the Far East. That suggestion remained a closely if not quite successfully guarded secret, which the Army hoped to operate one day. This apart, cabinet accepted its advisers' six-year plan for expansion, and the defence vote was slightly increased. A year later, in August 1934, Parliament was asked to approve a further and substantial increase in defence expenditure. The basis of appeal was broad and emotional—men should defend their homes and womenfolk1—and the Opposition complained that for six years there had been nothing like a reasoned government statement on defence policy.2

No serious attempt was made to educate Parliament or public opinion as to issues in defence and foreign policy, and in fact the Government was at some pains to conceal what it was doing.3 In October 1933 the GOC had drafted a short but coherent statement on the recent policy decisions. This was condensed into meaninglessness before publication. The Prime Minister solemnly announced on 13 October4 that the Government had ‘given consideration to the question of strengthening the defences of New Zealand and has come to certain definite conclusions.’ A beginning was to be made with improvements in aerial defence, but ‘the Territorial force has a responsible task to perform’; liaison with Australia would be improved; and certain naval vessels replaced in due course. Critics could be forgiven for thinking that nothing more than

1 NZPD, Vol. 239, p. 875.

2 Ibid., p. 755. Cf. Vol. 237, pp. 213, 255.

3 There was much anxious debate between cabinet ministers, service chiefs and Treasury as to how a rearmament programme might be decided upon and financed over a period of years without recurrent reference to Parliament.

4 Evening Post, 13 Oct 1933.

page 62 a gesture had happened, in spite of the misleading assurance that the Government's proposals had been decided ‘only after the closest consultation with the United Kingdom.’ Again, in August 1934, the Minister of Defence, J. G. Cobbe, vigorously denied that the Government's defence plans included preparations for an expeditionary force.1 At this time the Territorial Force was expressly organised so that it could be promptly developed into an expeditionary force, the Army had detailed plans, approved by cabinet, for facilitating the transition, and a cabinet decision on defence policy bracketed the provision of an expeditionary force with local defence as being of primary importance in the general programme.
By 1935, in short, New Zealand had embarked on a significant though not very costly armaments expansion, which the politicians did not dare to publicise even though it followed traditional lines. This situation left the Navy and Air Force in a stronger position than the Army, which did not receive adequate political support to cure its lack of equipment and of standing in the community. Yet in the service view, which was tacitly accepted by politicians, an expeditionary force would be New Zealand's major contribution in any war then envisaged. This was made plain in March when the Chiefs of Staff produced a memorandum on the defence of New Zealand to guide the Prime Minister in the forthcoming conference in London. This document acknowledged the possibility of war with Japan, arising out of trade problems, rather than from hostility to the Empire or desire to conquer parts of it; nevertheless, the whole trend of argument swung away from the Pacific, and laid emphasis upon the possibility of war in Europe and methods of co-operation with Britain, if such a war should come. It was plainly stated that New Zealand must be prepared to send ‘the maximum expeditionary force possible’, a force which would be proportionately bigger than in 1914–18 because the population had grown. Peacetime organisation should be designed to ‘produce an expeditionary force of the maximum size in the shortest possible time’, and some definite understanding should be made, on which Great Britain could rely in wartime. It was expressly recognised that if Japan were an enemy ‘it would be difficult in the early stages to find the necessary naval escort for an expeditionary force’, but ‘in the case of a war in Europe or in the Middle East no insurmountable difficulties would arise’; and that was the kind of war which soldiers and statesmen alike anticipated. The alarm inspired by Japanese expansion, which had driven the same cabinet to action in 1933, had now evaporated. In April Forbes told his fellow prime ministers in London that ‘The Japanese question … was not a matter of special concern in New Zealand. The Japanese had

1 NZPD, Vol. 239, pp. 81, 84.

page 63 made no demands on them and were consistently friendly.’ New Zealanders remembered that a Japanese cruiser had convoyed the first New Zealand Expeditionary Force, there was ‘a certain sentimental basis of friendship with the Japanese, and such feelings of irritation as arose in economic matters were relatively unimportant.’

At the time of the general election in November 1935 the situation was unchanged. Rearmament was being quietly carried out, and the Army knew that the provision of an expeditionary force was in prospect; but to avow this objective, or to make adequate preparations to achieve it, remained politically impossible. The suggestion would have affronted the optimistic and pacific temper of the community, and also alarmed a politically vocal minority that was conscious of New Zealand's position in the Pacific. The Government of Forbes and Coates accordingly prevaricated on the matter, and service conviction of the need for strong action was restrained by political expediency, rather than by countervailing argument.

In these circumstances the new Labour Government which took office at the end of 1935 naturally needed some little time to formulate its defence policy.1 None of its members had had cabinet experience before; nor had they been kept in touch with the developments culminating in the rearmament programme of 1934. They were anti-militarist and opponents of conscription; in so far as they had ideas on defence techniques they apparently believed in small, mechanised, highly trained forces, particularly the Air Force. From the first, however, they were impressed by the seriousness of the trend in world affairs, and to the pleased surprise of their opponents there was no check to the increase in defence expenditure begun in 1934. On the contrary, within their first two years of office they enunciated ‘a policy of rearmament’ which, said a conservative commentator, ‘ought to satisfy all reasonable criticism2.’ It included a considerable strengthening of the Navy, a vastly increased and independent Air Force, and a reorganisation of the Territorial Army which stopped short of conscription, but which was designed for expansion. The Government even expressed its sense of the great importance for New Zealand of the Singapore base, the construction of which the Labour Party in opposition had warmly criticised.

The Labour cabinet thus adopted, and in some respects strengthened, the defence programme of its predecessors: a programme based on the assumption that in any foreseeable war Japan would be friendly or, if hostile, neutralised by the Singapore base.

1 ‘We have not so far decided our policy with regard to defence.’—F. Jones, Minister of Defence, Press, 10 Jul 1936.

2 Round Table, December 1937, p. 201; Contemporary New Zealand, p. 250.

page 64 The outlines of Imperial strategy were public property, and at this time were broadly accepted in both Australia1 and New Zealand: on the outbreak of war in the Pacific a strong naval reinforcement would immediately sail to Singapore—and hold the base strongly enough to make it unduly risky for any substantial enemy fleet to attack either of the two Dominions.2 Service advice justified politicians in planning accordingly. Minor attacks plainly could not be prevented, and the calculation was that New Zealand might be raided by a cruiser or by armed merchantmen, which might bombard the ports and land parties of 200 men for each raiding ship.3 New Zealand accordingly had a primary duty to prepare for dealing with attacks on this scale. Provided nothing more serious had to be contemplated, however, she had considerable freedom of action: freedom to think in terms of European commitments, of expeditionary forces, and of leisure to prepare for action behind the screen of the Royal Navy. On the other hand that freedom would be gravely limited should Japan seem likely to become a determined enemy, and would be instantly destroyed if there should be reason to suppose that Japanese forces might by-pass Singapore, or that in certain circumstances the British fleet might not be able to reinforce the base in times of crisis. Accordingly, New Zealand's thinking and emotional attitudes towards defence were necessarily dominated by judgments on the probable attitude of Japan and the strategic importance of Singapore in times of global warfare.

The attack on Manchuria in September 1931 caused some uneasiness, but relatively little public criticism in New Zealand. Most newspaper comment condemned Japanese methods, but recognised that Japan had a major economic problem to solve and that ‘the expansion of a virile and increasing people is inevitable4.’ The country as a whole allowed its preoccupations with economic problems and the general trend of its strategic thinking to remain undisturbed by nightmares of immediate war with Japan.

A sharp new turn was given to the situation by Japan's renewed attack on China in August 1937. By contrast with 1931 and 1932, there was now an emphatic public reaction in New Zealand. A section of opinion, mainly conservative, which had long feared Japanese expansion as the spearhead of Asiatic reaction against the West, now pointed to visible proof of the danger, and found unaccustomed allies in powerful sections of the trade union movement. Railwaymen and watersiders saw this new outbreak as another fascist adventure of the pattern made familiar by Italy

1 Round Table, December 1937, p. 131.

2 Dominion, 22 Aug 1939, ministerial statement.

3 NZPD, Vol. 246, p. 560.

4 Otago Daily Times, 18 Mar 1933; McKinlay in Pacific Affairs, 1933.

page 65 and Germany in Ethiopia and Spain, an adventure, moreover, which would extend from China to engulf the whole Pacific area under Japanese domination. They accordingly proclaimed a boycott on goods destined for Japan, and the Federation of Labour also urged its members to boycott Japanese imports. It was acknowledged that such measures would have little material importance in impeding the Japanese militarists; ‘but any action taken by New Zealand had a valuable propaganda effect in other countries’, and it was claimed that on this occasion the New Zealand watersiders led the world in holding up Japanese cargoes. The New Zealand Government took very seriously this vigorous action among its followers. There was a conference between cabinet ministers, officials of the Federation of Labour and the waterside workers, and it was agreed that the ships should be worked, but that the export of scrap iron should be prohibited in the interests of New Zealand industry. The campaign for a boycott of Japanese goods went on.

With this background Mr Jordan, as New Zealand's representative at Geneva and at the Brussels conference of November 1937, pressed for the application of the Covenant and deplored the failure to find some basis of collective action. In September 1938 New Zealand and Russia alone criticised the platonic resolution with which the Council of the League met China's appeal for help, and Jordan expressed his country's ‘sincere regret that the terms of the Covenant are not being collectively applied without qualification in conditions about which there is unfortunately no room for doubt.’ New Zealand maintained this general attitude through 1939. There is evidence that while Australia was cautious and feared that Britain might go too far in opposing Japan, New Zealand was uneasy at the possibility that principle might be sacrificed in an effort at ‘appeasement’. There was much criticism among rank and file members of the Labour Party of the so-called Tokyo Agreement of July 1939, when Britain recognised that ‘Japanese forces in China have special requirements for the purpose of safeguarding their own security and maintaining public order in regions under their control, and that they have to suppress or remove any such acts or causes as will obstruct them or benefit their enemy1.’ The Government, when pressed on the point, was non-committal but admitted that it had not known in advance the terms of the agreement between Britain and Japan.

The whole episode seemed to some New Zealanders to show not only the weakening of the British Empire in the Far East and Pacific but also that Empire policy in a matter vitally affecting

1 Jones, Japan's New Order in East Asia, p. 150. It is perhaps noteworthy that this scholarly book deals with British policy in the Pacific virtually without consideration of the importance of that policy to Australians and New Zealanders.

page 66 New Zealand could still in emergencies be decided in London without the full consultation provided for in the constitution of the Commonwealth. Further, it left the impression that New Zealand was more anxious than Britain herself that a stand should be made against Japan. At a time when the Germans were seriously trying to persuade Japan that England was obviously her number one enemy,1 New Zealand among British countries had taken the strongest public stand against Japanese policy.

Between 1933 and 1939, in short, New Zealand opinion was reluctantly assimilating two disturbing facts: that in a new war Japan might not be an ally or even a friendly neutral, and that the consequence of Japanese hostility would be more serious to New Zealand than to those British statesmen who controlled Commonwealth policy in the Pacific. Realisation of responsibilities involved in being a Pacific country brought, therefore, not subservience to her predominant partner, but renewed willingness to differ from Britain. In this matter, political judgment was reinforced by a new sense of intimacy. If things went wrong in the Pacific the impact on the Commonwealth partners would be fundamentally different: as the perspicacious head of the New Zealand Army, General Sinclair-Burgess, noted during the earlier scare of 1933, ‘the difference in degree is that between embarrassment in the case of Great Britain and disaster in the case of New Zealand2.’

Accordingly, as tension mounted, New Zealanders naturally rated higher than did Englishmen both the likelihood and the destructive possibilities of a Japanese move against a weakened Commonwealth. In February 1936, for example, the incoming government was told by its service chiefs that Australia and New Zealand were ‘open to attack as never before in their histories.’ The Singapore base, they noted, when completed ‘will act as some deterrent to Japanese activities’, but, they added, the British main fleet, the greater part of which would be required at Singapore to deal with a serious Japanese attack, could not move east of Suez if things were complicated in Europe.3 In December 1936 they returned to the attack with a forcible reminder that on any reasonable calculation the fleet would, for the foreseeable future, be tied firmly to European waters. The risk of invasion remained, therefore, unless New Zealand could obtain an explicit promise that an adequate fleet would arrive at Singapore in time.4

Thus prompted, the New Zealand delegation raised the matter at the Imperial Conference of 1937. ‘There was a feeling in New

1 Nazi-Soviet Relations, p. 70.

2 Cf. Toynbee, World in March 1939, p. 32.

3 GOC to Minister of Defence, 27 Feb 1936.

4 GOC to Minister of Defence, 16 Dec 1936.

page 67 Zealand,’ said M. J. Savage, ‘that if the United Kingdom were hard pressed the Dominions in the Pacific would get little assistance from her.’ His view, he said, ‘was emphatically that all must sink or swim together.’ The delegation was reassured, but in general terms only, and in fact realised clearly enough that the reinforcement of Singapore in wartime would depend on the course of the fighting in the Atlantic. Indeed the British Government firmly resisted any attempts to extract from it the specific promise which New Zealand desired. As late as August 19381 she was notified that her Chiefs of Staff were not justified in assuming that the Navy would proceed to Singapore ‘in sufficient strength to serve as a strong deterrent against any threat to Commonwealth interests.’ ‘The standard of naval strength’ to be sent to the Far East ‘was still under consideration.’ In February 1939 the Imperial authorities for the first time said explicitly that Singapore would be reinforced if the Commonwealth were involved in war both in Europe and the Pacific: this promise was warmly welcomed by the New Zealand Chiefs of Staff, but they emphasised with some pain that the British pledge was silent both on the strength and timing of the reinforcement. The fact was that the period before relief, which was put at forty-two days in 1926, was now thought to be at least ninety days; and it was by no means clear whether the reckoning started with the outbreak of war or with the naval clearing of European waters. By 1939 the British promise to reinforce Singapore, which was the basis of Imperial strategy in the whole Pacific area, had been qualified almost out of existence.2

The resulting situation was regarded realistically in New Zealand. In 1933 the Army estimated that New Zealand would have to hold out alone for two months; in 1936 it put the period at six months, with the reflection that if the fleet could not in the end reach Singapore, Australia and New Zealand would have to defend themselves indefinitely from their own resources.3 At the end of 1938 the New Zealand Council of Defence was told by its chief civilian official, C. A. Berendsen, that ‘New Zealand might well get no assistance from Great Britain for very many months or even years’; and the Navy spokesman ‘agreed that the British fleet could not come to Singapore for an indefinite period.’

If justified, these fears made nonsense of the traditional conception of New Zealand's wartime activity—an expeditionary force fighting in Europe or Egypt; for if New Zealand were in danger of invasion, no statesman could contemplate sending men beyond the

1 SSDA to GGNZ, 4 Aug 1938.

2 According to Cordell Hull, Halifax told the American Ambassador on 22 March 1939 that, in spite of the British promise to Australia, the fleet could not be sent to Singapore. France, it was said, had vetoed the plan.—Jones, Japan's New Order, p. 149n

3 Conference of 28 Sep 1933; GOC to Minister of Defence. 27 Feb 1936

page 68 Pacific area, nor even embarking them on transports unless the seaways were reasonably safe. During most of the period 1936–39 expert opinion appeared to be that New Zealand must face six months of initial isolation if the Commonwealth should be at war simultaneously with Germany and Japan—a circumstance all too likely to arise—and that her strategy must simply be to hold out until rescued. Her soldiers, however well equipped and well intentioned, might be land-bound indefinitely, and New Zealand's military effort be confined to the raw materials and the trickle of technicians and airmen who might slip through a blockade. Some experts added, indeed, that food and technicians would represent Britain's essential needs in any likely war better than an expeditionary force. New Zealand's manpower could perhaps best be employed in producing the food which Britain might be no longer able to draw from Denmark and the Argentine.
Such was the trend of military opinion. Its upshot coincided with views still influential in the Labour Party: that an expeditionary force would be strategically undesirable; and that preparations for it would be a militaristic gesture which could in any case be maintained only by conscription. The probable role of the Army, therefore, remained shrouded in mystery, and New Zealand's growing sense of peril in her own hemisphere had the paradoxical result of preserving chaos in her defence planning. The political decision remained unbreakable: New Zealand would stand with Britain in any crisis then imaginable. Yet technical preparations did not match that decision. It is true that no difficulty arose with the Navy, for it had always been understood that in wartime the New Zealand Division would pass under Admiralty control. New Zealand's willing acceptance of this arrangement had been reiterated and accepted in September and October 1935 when war with Italy had seemed possible. Nor was there much difficulty with the Air Force, which was expanding fast, and which expected to have two new squadrons of modern aircraft available for overseas service;1 though it may be noted that New Zealand preferred to train men for the RAF rather than provide units to relieve the RAF in the Far East. The real problem lay with the Army. Of all the three services its political position was the weakest, it faced the greatest psychological and economic obstacles to expansion, and its role in any future war was the hardest to define. Awareness of danger in the Far East and growing insistence on a specifically New Zealand policy towards Japan, while temporarily destroying the basic plan of a Europeanwise expeditionary force, laid no alternative task on the Army, and did virtually nothing to restore its prestige in the community. The

1 Contemporary New Zealand, p. 255.

page 69 most important concrete suggestion was the revival of the idea that New Zealanders should help garrison Singapore in peacetime; a suggestion made in private, and ill received, partly because of the notion that New Zealand troops might be used to maintain civil order. The apologist for the Army could say in general terms that New Zealand's military forces would undoubtedly be important if war came and that patriots should enlist in the Territorials: but such imprecision could make but little public impact. Volunteers, in the temper of the nineteen-thirties, needed cogent arguments, and a clearer conception of what they might be called upon to do.

The situation was in sharp contrast with that preceding the First World War. Then it was clear to all concerned that in a war with Germany an expeditionary force would be needed. The idea had a certain appeal, and in any case under the new system of compulsory service, peacetime training could be planned accordingly. In the nineteen-thirties public sentiment was on the whole unfavourable, and as late as June and July 1939 the Prime Minister, while appealing for recruits, gave ample assurance that no one would be compelled to serve overseas. The Government's professed policy was that New Zealand should defend herself and also British interests in the South Pacific, but should make no promise to send forces elsewhere; New Zealand would stand with Britain, but as to the disposition of her manpower would ‘wait until the time shows what we ought to do1.’ The Army was thus denied the tangible objective of an expeditionary force by official pronouncement as well as by commonsense calculation; nor was there any clearly conceived threat to New Zealand soil which could give emotional reality to plans for local defence. It was natural, therefore, that the Army should lag behind in the defence expansion programme launched in 1934: it continued to be desperately short of equipment and trained manpower, and army service ranked low in sentimental appeal.

The Government's plan to deal with the general situation was announced in August 1937. The aim was a small force of high mechanisation and efficiency, which could fill the threefold function: to garrison the main ports, to provide a small field force, with an eye to raiding parties attacking other parts of the country, and to build a cadre of skilled men who could in an emergency train recruits and quickly expand the Army to a division. The training was to be made more realistic and interesting and a special Reservist Force was created whose men were to receive vocational as well as military training. Late in 1937 a campaign was launched to attract recruits, appealing to the public ‘to make some sacrifice, and endeavour to infuse into defence some of the enthusiasm

1 NZPD, Vol. 254, p. 172.

page 70 —almost religious in its devotion—which the average New Zealander shows towards the game of Rugby football1.’ The results of these efforts were disappointing. The roll of Territorials remained at about 8000, of whom, it was said, not more than one-third had completed their full training. There were plenty of volunteers for the Air Force, but till the eleventh hour the community as a whole lacked interest in the Army, and its weakness was such that in April 1939 there was doubt whether it could have provided without notice a unit of 500 well-equipped men for Singapore.2

In short, the Government's efforts to strengthen the Army made little progress, as was evident enough to interested citizens. The result was sporadic, but sometimes searching, criticism of this side of New Zealand defence policy. In August 1936 Parliament held what was its first full-dress debate on defence since the abolition of compulsory training, when the Opposition moved to refer back to the Government for consideration the annual report of the GOC Defence Forces.3 Two months later a Defence League was established under the chairmanship of Mr William Perry, a Legislative Councillor and President of the Returned Soldiers' Association. In 1938 this organisation became really active, and the National Party became seriously concerned about the shortcomings of the country's defences. The opinion grew among soldiers, and among conservatives generally, that only compulsion could produce the men necessary to put the Army in order. Accordingly, the Government was pressed from many quarters to re-apply the existing compulsory service law for the benefit of the Territorials.

In answer to this campaign the Minister of Defence on 17 May 1938 gave a lengthy and detailed account of the Government's defence policy. The record was not unimpressive, but the Minister expressed conviction that 9000 would be an adequate peacetime strength for the Army, and admitted that the existing strength was 7400, of whom only 41 per cent had attended camp that year. The following day four colonels of the Territorial Force issued a manifesto declaring their conviction of the complete inadequacy of the system of land defence; and they said bluntly that the voluntary system had failed owing to lack of support for the Army by successive governments. Their precipitate action was widely publicised, but was in plain violation of military regulations. They were accordingly placed on the retired list, though cabinet told General Freyberg at the end of the following year that he could, if he wished, make use of their services in the Expeditionary Force then being organised.

1 Round Table, December 1937, p. 203; Contemporary New Zealand, p. 253.

2 Statement by Minister of Defence, 17 Apr 1939.

3 NZPD, Vol. 246, p. 535.

page 71

In spite of this spectacular incident, public discussion on the Army during 1938 remained inconclusive. It was significant that in the election campaign of September-October 1938 the National Party, while castigating the Government for the inadequacies of its defence policy, refrained from advocating compulsory service. Certain public bodies, it is true, pronounced firmly in favour of conscription: the Farmers' Union in May, for instance,1 and the November conference of the Defence League.2 Moreover, government spokesmen, under pressure, sometimes cautiously admitted that among the incalculable necessities of war, compulsion might turn out to be necessary.3 Yet to the commonsense view compulsory service in peacetime made sense only as a step towards the sending of a large-scale expeditionary force soon after the outbreak of a new war. The theoretical possibility of such an expeditionary force was, of course, present in army thinking, as for instance during the Munich crisis, when the Chief of the General Staff warned his officers that, if the enemy should be Germany alone, such a force would be quickly armed and despatched.4 Yet opinion, professional as well as lay, refused to accept the prompt despatch of an expeditionary force as the probable—or even the possible—consequence of war.5 No one questioned that the young men would flock to serve when fighting actually began. In the meantime, Territorial service had relatively little appeal to the community and it remains doubtful whether Government ‘support’ or renewed exhortations from older men could have made very much difference until the obscurity shrouding the New Zealand Army's role in a new war had been dispelled.

1 Evening Post, 25 May 1938.

2 Dominion, 18 Nov 1938.

3 e.g., Savage, in Dominion, 3 Jun 1938.

4 Memorandum of 16 Sep 1938.

5 Contemporary New Zealand, pp. 262–3; NZPD, Vol. 251, p. 343 (Fagan); Evening Post, 27 Sep 1938 (Barnard).