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Problems of 2 NZEF

CHAPTER 1 — 2 NZEF is Formed

page 9

2 NZEF is Formed

THE depression of 1931, as was only to be expected, produced a severe curtailment in defence expenditure in New Zealand. The years immediately preceding – 1924 to 1930 – had luckily been fruitful ones, and had been marked by the sending to England of a comparatively large number of regular officers to attend courses of every kind, both general and specialised. At one point 10 per cent of regular officers were training in England. The training thus received was disseminated throughout the forces and, combined with the patriotic self-sacrifice of Territorial officers, served to keep the army alive during the years from 1931 onwards, but only just alive. The abolition of the compulsory training scheme, the reductions in staff, and the disfavour into which all things military fell, meant that nothing productive could be done, and that the machinery to run an army almost ceased to exist.

This state of affairs lasted for three or four years. The principal loss was that there was little or no chance for any constructive thinking, and for the planning that is required if ever it is likely that an expeditionary force will be despatched overseas. It is surprisingly hard to convince a government that planning is a necessity, and that the visible mobilisation of units is only the culminating point of many years of invisible planning. The lack of opportunity for constructive work was the most regrettable feature of the lean years.

However, by 1934 the international outlook was becoming steadily darker and this produced a slight improvement in the way in which the army was regarded. The army staff was able to take the first elementary steps towards planning for mobilisation. A beginning was made with inter-departmental consultations on such subjects as manpower, internal security and censorship, and the first draft of regulations for mobilisation was put together. It soon became clear that with the ever-increasing complexity of modern war it would be impossible for the army to go far until there was some degree of planning on a national scale, and moreover that it would be impossible for the army to carry the whole load of preparing plans for the large number of government departments that would be involved. To start with there were not enough regular officers available; and, more important, the army was only one department among many and could not prescribe to other departments what page 10 they should do. Some slight degree of direction was received from the Government in late 1934. Army Headquarters was given a nebulous authority over other departments for war preparations, and consultation with other departments was increased; but it was still rather half-hearted.

In 1935 there was a change of government, the Labour Party coming into power. Expenditure on defence was against its past policy; but the Government showed considerable realism as the international situation deteriorated. During the years from 1936 onwards the air force was separated from the army and formed as a self-contained force under the guidance of an officer of the Royal Air Force. The army was given some small degree of encouragement and a little more money, although for the moment the air force was the favourite child; and, what was of importance to all arms and to the wider aspects of national readiness for war, an organisation was created similar to the Committee of Imperial Defence in Great Britain. In early 1937 the secretariat of this ‘Organisation for National Security’, as it was called, was set up in the Prime Minister's Department, where it was well placed to deal with the mass of departments whose activities in one way or another would concern the nation in time of war.

The activities of the Organisation for National Security are outside the scope of this volume; but among other work the formation of a strong inter-departmental Manpower Committee helped the army by devising a scheme whereby under compulsory service the calling-up procedure was the task of a civilian department, the army only receiving the men after such things as medical examinations and appeals were finished. There were other committees which not only helped the army directly but also served to impress on many departments that national war was not just the task of the armed forces, and that those forces would need a great deal of help and co-operation.

Despite all the work that was done at great speed from 1936 onwards, the army was not so ready for war in 1939 as it had been in 1914, always making allowances for changed circumstances. It is easy to destroy, and the lean years had almost destroyed the army; but it is a slow business to reconstruct, and the three or four years before the war were not enough.

Part of the work of the Organisation for National Security was to keep in touch with those branches of the United Kingdom Government that were concerned with planning for war, and in particular with the Dominions Office,1 through whose hands there passed the official communications between the governments of the United Kingdom and New Zealand. The New Zealand Government

1 Now Commonwealth Relations Office.

page 11 was kept informed as a matter of normal procedure of the proceedings of all international conferences, discussions and conversations, and of all events of interest, either by periodic (and frequent) printed bulletins, or by day-to-day cables. There was thus in principle nothing different in the procedure in 1938 and 1939 from that in previous years; but the frequency and urgency of the communications gradually intensified until in the weeks preceding 3 September 1939 cables were arriving throughout the twenty-four hours at intervals that became progressively shorter. Such information contained in these cables as was the concern of other government departments was duly passed to them by the Organisation for National Security.

All members of Cabinet were assembled in Wellington in the beginning of September, and Cabinet was in effect in permanent session from the 1st onwards. The period of waiting for fateful news was a strain, not eased on the morning of 3 September by an irritable argument concerning the exact New Zealand equivalent of 11 a.m. summer time in England. However, the right answer was discovered, and New Zealand entered the war at the same time as the United Kingdom, namely 9.30 p.m. local time.

Cabinet was in session from early on the evening of 3 September until dawn on the following day, passing emergency regulations to cover the action necessary in moving from peace to war, and among other messages informing the United Kingdom Government that New Zealand would be glad to receive suggestions regarding the methods by which she could best assist the common cause. The reply from the United Kingdom Government, received a few days later, while in some ways a diffident one, included the words, ‘We therefore hope that New Zealand will be able to exert her full national effort, including the preparation of her forces with a view to the despatch of an expeditionary force’.1 The New Zealand Government then indicated to the United Kingdom that it proposed to enlist a vclunteer force for service in any part of the world, the First Echelon – so called – comprising about one-third of a division, plus certain additional units, to be taken into camp at an early date.

It will be noted that the term ‘echelon’ was used for this first portion of the Division, and was in due course applied to the other portions, which became known as the second and third echelons. The term, in its meaning of successive waves, had some background and appeared quite suitable. When the force went overseas, however, some confusion was caused by the fact that the extensive and important office concerned with all forms of record, including casualties, was known as ‘Second Echelon’. This unit was a permanency, the name was in accordance with normal British military

1 Documents, Vol. I, p. 18.

page 12 procedure, and it was desirable that the name should be retained. Towards the middle of 1940, when preparations were being made in Egypt for the reception of the Second Echelon of the Expeditionary Force, i.e., the second contingent to sail, an attempt was made by headquarters overseas to abolish the term for the drafts coming from New Zealand and to use the term ‘contingent’ instead. However, the attempt was a failure, and we had to rely on context to make it clear which ‘second echelon’ we meant. Once all three contingents were overseas and welded into one force, the term as applied to contingents went into the background, and only came into the limelight again when the furlough scheme was being discussed in 1943. On occasion even today, as will be seen, it becomes necessary to say which ‘second echelon’ is meant.

It was on 6 September that Cabinet decided to mobilise a Special Force of 6600 men, to be organised as a brigade group, with staff for an overseas base and some elements of a divisional headquarters. Enlistments commenced on 12 September and on 3 October the men went into camp. Training was to be for three months; and if at the expiration of that time the force was not required, all ranks would be granted leave without pay until called up again. During September the Government decided to raise a full division for service overseas and the Special Force became the first of the three echelons in which the Division was to be raised and despatched. The public announcement that the Division was to go overseas was made by Mr Savage on 23 November.

Towards the end of September the United Kingdom Government proposed that each Dominion (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) should send a minister to London to consult on the war effort of their respective countries and on war matters generally. The Hon. P. Fraser therefore left New Zealand by air on 13 October, accompanied by a small staff, including a military adviser. The 13th was a Friday, the air route to England was in its infancy, and indeed the section between New Zealand and Australia was still in the stage of test flights only, so that perhaps it is not surprising that there was a large party to take farewell of the delegation in Auckland and to express the sincere hope that all would be well.

The delegation arrived in London on 27 October. During its visit it was arranged with the United Kingdom Government that the First Echelon should go to Egypt, which was to be the concentration area for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. There was no difficulty in agreeing to this; but a difficulty did arise over the dates of departure. Shortage of transports and shortage of escorts dictated that the three ‘groups’ constituting the first Australian contingent, page 13 and the one ‘group’ constituting the first New Zealand contingent, should travel in two convoys, each of two groups, and separated by an interval of two months. The strategical situation necessitated the first Australian troops leaving at the end of December so as to relieve United Kingdom troops in Palestine. New Zealand was offered the alternative of supplying one of the two groups in the first convoy, or of waiting until the second convoy, in which case the first convoy would consist of Australian troops only.

All planning so far had been based on the First Echelon leaving New Zealand at the end of January 1940, by which time the three months' training specified and the final leave would be over. To send the force by the first convoy meant that it would be sailing a month earlier than had been expected. The alternative before it was not conveyed to the New Zealand Government until the end of November 1939, so that the time in which to make a decision was short. Nevertheless the Government decided to send the force by the first convoy, one of the reasons – if not the compelling reason – leading it to this decision being the desirability that New Zealand's first contingent should sail at the same time as that of Australia.

There had also been a difference of opinion with the United Kingdom Government regarding the adequacy of the escorts to be provided, especially across the Tasman Sea. At one point Mr Fraser said firmly that the First Echelon would not sail until a stronger escort was provided. A conversation with that realist, Mr Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, produced the answer, and the battleship Ramillies duly appeared in Wellington in time to act as escort. The New Zealand Government of the day had shown concern about escorts in the First World War; and in the period between the wars the point had been recorded many times in state papers in England that escorts, probably stronger than normal, would be necessary for Dominion forces proceeding overseas. Nevertheless, when the occasion arose the point had either been lost sight of or had been minimised. It was not the only time during the Second World War that the New Zealand Government showed concern over sea escorts.

Concurrently with these matters Mr Fraser was in consultation with the United Kingdom Government over the question of a commander for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, no New Zealand officer being thought suitable for the post. Soon after the outbreak of war Major-General Freyberg, recalled from retirement, had offered his services to the New Zealand Government. He had been educated in New Zealand and had always kept up his connection with the country; but his military service had hitherto been with the British Army. Mr Fraser interviewed him soon after the delegation arrived in London, and after discussions with the Chief page 14 of the Imperial General Staff and other persons who had a knowledge of General Freyberg, advised the New Zealand Government to offer the appointment of commander to him. The Government accepted this recommendation, and in turn General Freyberg accepted the appointment, the date being 22 November 1939.1 It was then hurriedly arranged that he should spend a short time in France with the British Expeditionary Force and should then fly to New Zealand, spending a few days in Egypt en route, and arriving in New Zealand before the First Echelon sailed.

During the course of discussions in London, which naturally ranged over a wide field, an incident took place that had unexpected consequences. At a conference at the War Office dealing with possible army contributions from the various Dominions, the War Office spokesman said that there was a shortage of technical engineer units, particularly those suitable for constructional work of any kind. The New Zealand military adviser remarked semi-jocularly that New Zealand had a forceful Minister of Public Works (the late Hon. R. Semple) who, he was sure, would just love to make some military use of all the wonderful mechanical equipment that he had been importing into New Zealand in the previous few years. No more was said at the time; but the remark must have been taken more seriously than it was meant, for in the course of the next twelve months New Zealand was asked to supply a number of non-divisional engineer units, and moreover complied with the request. We shall meet these units elsewhere in this volume.

Up to the end of November the one or two decisions referred to above had taken up the major part of the time of the delegation, and very few points of detail had been settled. At that point the military adviser left London on his way back to New Zealand, preceding Mr Fraser and the GOC by some ten days. His journey took him through Egypt, where he spent one night at Alexandria. He was somewhat embarrassed when he was met at the airport by senior staff officers of the British Army in Egypt and asked for decisions on a multitude of points – where we wanted to establish our training camp or camps, what equipment we would want, whether or not we would want special rations, whether we would want institutes to be provided by the British NAAFI – Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes – and so on. Even if the adviser had known the answers there was all too little time to settle the points, as he left on the next stage of his journey at 3 a.m. the following day; but in any case these points had not been settled at that stage, and all the adviser could do was to cable back to London to tell the GOC what points had been raised, so that if possible he should

1 From now on General Freyberg is referred to as ‘the GOC’, i.e., General Officer Commanding.

page 15 settle them when he in turn passed through Egypt. The intentions of the army authorities in Egypt were most praiseworthy. They were anxious to do their best for us and had little time to arrange accordingly.

Before leaving England in early December, the GOC was in fact empowered by the New Zealand Government to make the arrangements for the reception, training, and welfare of 2 NZEF in the initial stages. His main decision while in Egypt was to select sites at Maadi and Helwan for our base camps, Maadi being some six miles from Cairo and Helwan about fifteen. In making this decision he took into account the health of the troops and the suitability of the areas for training and recreation. Both sites were desert ones with a hard sandy surface, healthy and free from mosquitoes. In directions away from Cairo the desert was to all intents and purposes endless, with room to manoeuvre to one's heart's content with the satisfying knowledge that no one was being incommoded or dispossessed.

The GOC's selection was even better than he probably realised at the time, and both sites proved well chosen. As it happened, Helwan was little used by New Zealand troops, and after the middle of 1941 was handed over to the South African forces; but Maadi remained our base camp from first to last, a total period of over six years. By the end of that period, and indeed by the end of two or three years, it was as nearly the perfect base camp as is possible. However, in late 1939 and early 1940 it was merely an area in the desert, and everything remained to be done. During his visit, which lasted only four days, the GOC approved plans for water supply, sanitation, recreational buildings, hutting, and all the myriad items that go to the making of a large permanent camp. It was clear that not all this construction would be finished by the time the First Echelon arrived, so that a strict order of priority had to be drawn up, water supply and sanitation, for instance, being of greater importance than hutments, for which tents would provide an adequate temporary alternative.

Before leaving England the GOC had asked that a small advance party should be sent from New Zealand. A party numbering two officers and fifty other ranks for administrative duties duly arrived in Egypt in early January 1940, together with a party of some sixty all ranks for special courses in the various arms. At the same time some officers who had been posted to the force in England travelled to Egypt and joined the advance party.

Mr Fraser, accompanied by the GOC, arrived in New Zealand on Christmas Day 1939. In the period since Mr Fraser had left New Zealand in the middle of October, preparations for the despatch of the First Echelon had gone on apace. The change in sailing dates page 16 caused some slight curtailment of training, for it was still desired to give the troops their full final leave. It was hoped, however, that the loss of training time in New Zealand would be compensated for by better training facilities with more modern equipment in Egypt. In addition, the camps vacated would be immediately available for the Second Echelon, and the fact that one draft had actually sailed would be an undoubted stimulus to recruiting. It may be noted that the ‘more modern equipment’ proved not to be available in Egypt for many weary months. The slowness of arrival of this equipment was the cause of some restiveness in the New Zealand Government later in 1940.

The GOC stayed in New Zealand until the departure of the First Echelon on 5 January 1940. In that period he paid a hurried visit to the main mobilisation camps. In Wellington he had a few short discussions with the senior members of the divisional staff; but there was no time to settle anything, and the many points to be decided by a newly-assembled staff in control of a newly-assembled force had to be left until they would all be together in Egypt.

Above all, the GOC had a series of discussions with the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence and other members of Cabinet, and laid the foundations of an understanding with the Government, and a trust by it in its Expeditionary Force commander, that was of inestimable advantage in the years that followed. If his short visit had achieved nothing else it would have been worth while many times over.

On his way out to New Zealand the GOC had prepared a series of notes on certain policy and administrative matters. As a result of his discussions with the Government, the notes were embodied into two documents, one a charter given to him over the Prime Minister's signature, and the other a list of authorities granted to him, and signed by the Minister of Defence. These documents are analysed in Chapter 7. It will be sufficient to say at this stage that they gave the GOC comprehensive powers, including authority to form new units and reorganise and alter establishments as he thought advisable, and to set up such administrative headquarters as might be necessary. The powers so given were of the first importance in the subsequent history of the Expeditionary Force.

Among other points discussed between the Government and the GOC was whether or not New Zealand troops should draw a ration greater than the normal British ration. The GOC recommended that we should adhere to the British ration, and his advice was accepted. As a result New Zealand troops drew the British ration without augmentation throughout the war, except for a brief period in Maadi in early 1940. The GOC had no occasion at any later date to use the special powers given him by the Government and page 17 there is no ground for the common belief that we drew an extra large ration.

map of Mediterranean and Black Sea areas

The Mediterranean Theatre

It was obvious to all that the sailing of the First Echelon a month sooner than had been expected meant that a number of points had either been settled hastily or had not been settled at all. Army Headquarters had done magnificent work in getting the echelon away in time; but there were many gaps. It was decided therefore that the AA & QMG1 designate of the Division should stay in New Zealand for a further few weeks and should then fly to Egypt and join the force there.

During this period many small points were settled, one being that the registered cable address for the Expeditionary Force should be ‘Fernleaf Cairo’. At first it was thought that it might be necessary to have one for the Division also, and in this case the help of the Native Affairs Department (as it then was) was enlisted, in order that a suitable Maori word might be chosen. Its nomination was ‘Kokiri’, which the Maori dictionary defines as meaning ‘dart, rush forward, charge; a body of men rushing forward’. With such a meaning that now appears prophetic, it is perhaps unfortunate that the address was never used, as in the end all cable communications emanated from and were addressed to the headquarters of the Expeditionary Force and not to the headquarters of the Division.

The state of affairs, as it appeared to the AA & QMG, may be indicated by one incident which took place during January 1940. The Treasury had been pressing Army Headquarters to give some estimate of army expenditure for 1940 – a natural request, but difficult to answer. However, the Quartermaster-General at Army Headquarters drew up an estimate under various headings such as pay, equipment, transportation, and so on. He then brought the estimate to the AA & QMG and asked for his comments, which were given to the best of that officer's ability. The AA & QMG then added that an additional item should be included, namely ‘Cables, £1,000,000’, the reason being that so much had perforce been left unsettled when the First Echelon sailed that it was inevitable that there would be a flood of cables passing between Army Headquarters and headquarters overseas. The remark was meant humorously, but with a measure of seriousness. In years to come, when the GOC was a bit aghast at the length of some cable that had been despatched, the same officer used to say, ‘Never mind. Remember that there is always a million pounds on the estimates to cover this.’

However, despite haste, the first portion of the Expeditionary Force had sailed, and the scene changes to Egypt.

1 Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General.