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

353 — The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs

page 257

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

9 March 1941

The most careful and most earnest consideration has been given by His Majesty's Government in New Zealand to your telegrams Nos. 345 to 352 inclusive, the last of which was not deciphered until 11 o'clock last night. Their first reaction is that the operation, which they had always regarded as highly dangerous and speculative, is now obviously much more hazardous than that previously contemplated. They generally agree with the comments of the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff as set out in telegram No. 350.

With the experience of Norway and Dunkirk in mind they would like to add the following appreciation of the situation as it appears to them:

There seems to be little prospect of Yugoslav or Turkish assistance, and consequently the possibility of such assistance should be disregarded entirely as a factor in the consideration of the matter.

The risk is grave that, with the Greeks, the first British troops on the scene may be overwhelmed before an adequate British force can be in position. In any case, the position must at all times be one of extreme gravity even when all the British troops available are operating with the Greeks.

The Germans have an almost unlimited number of divisions which in time can be utilised for an attack through Bulgaria, through Yugoslavia, or through Albania, and to these forces must be added the possibility of further reinforcements from the Italians.

While the Axis are moving on interior lines, the British reinforcements (apart from those—obviously limited in number—which may be available from the African theatre of war) can arrive only at the end of a very long sea voyage, except in the unlikely event of the Mediterranean route being available. Similar remarks of course apply to supplies, munitions, and equipment of all kinds.

Aided by the Italian Air Force, the German Air Force can be brought to bear in very great strength upon troop concentrations, communications, ports of landing, transports, and supply ships, and the Suez Canal. British air action must necessarily be weak.

Constant attacks upon sea communications may be expected from the Italian fleet, perhaps reinforced by units of the German fleet. These attacks, both by sea and by air, will be facilitated by enemy control of islands flanking the sea communications.

It may be expected that the Suez Canal will be the object of constant attack and it might be prudent largely to discount its use.

page 258

His Majesty's Government in New Zealand are not without apprehension that pressure by the Germans might perhaps lead to a rapid collapse of the Greeks, which would leave the British force in the air.

Nevertheless, having regard to all these considerations, His Majesty's Government in New Zealand look upon the first and last of the alternatives set out in the fifth paragraph of the Secretary of State's telegram1 as completely unacceptable. In particular 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 operation. Therefore, in the circumstances, they find themselves in agreement with the conclusions arrived at by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, as now approved by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom—a decision which they consider to have been correct in a most difficult situation.

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. They are confident that New Zealand troops in this dangerous enterprise will worthily uphold their traditions and indeed would be the first to approve of the decision now taken.

However, in the light of the hazards involved, they urge His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom and the authorities on the spot to direct the most careful attention, first, to the provision of the strongest possible sea and air escort for transports, and, second, to a full and immediate consideration of the means of withdrawal both on land and at sea should this course unfortunately prove to be necessary.

Finally, it is assumed by His Majesty's Government in New Zealand that unless the full British force contemplated can clearly be made available at the appropriate time the operation will not be undertaken.

1 See No. 346.