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

First Echelon in Egypt: Command and Employment

page 62

First Echelon in Egypt: Command and Employment

The High Commissioner for New Zealand (London) to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

28 February 1940

Advice has been received from the War Office that the Military Secretary of the British Expeditionary Force has raised the question whether, in the event of the Dominion forces joining the British Expeditionary Force, staff officers of such formations are to be regarded as other staff officers within the British Expeditionary Force and whether they can be made available for transfer, upgrading, &c., into British formations. Similarly, can British staff officers be appointed to Dominion formations? Secondly, in regard to brigade and unit commanders and seconds-in-command, is it intended to keep the Dominion forces intact or should the British Expeditionary Force draw on them, and vice versa, as the demands of efficiency suggest? Thirdly, he states that very many advantages would result in pooling our resources both in the case of staff and commanders, and also that the interchanges and infusion of new blood would mutually benefit both British and Dominion formations. The War Office would appreciate your views on the above proposals. I am advising Headquarters, 2nd NZEF, by air mail.

The Chief of the General Staff (Wellington) to General Freyberg (Cairo) [Extract]

2 March 1940

…. 1 The High Commissioner for New Zealand in the United Kingdom has communicated with you by air mail regarding the interchange of staff officers of the British Expeditionary Force and those of the Dominion forces; similarly in regard to brigade page 63 and unit commanders. The Government do not like this idea. On receipt of Jordan's air mail letter I would be glad to have your views by cable. The progress of the Second Echelon is very satisfactory.

1 Text omitted concerned the appointment of commanding officers for 5th and 6th Field Regiments, New Zealand Artillery.

The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the Governor-General of New Zealand

11 March 1940

The following telegram has been received from His Majesty's Ambassador at Cairo:1

On General Freyberg's invitation I attended a parade this morning of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and was privileged to take the salute. The men looked in fine fettle and are evidently settling down well in their new surroundings. As I told them, their general bearing and appearance was most impressive.

1 Rt. Hon. Lord Killearn, PC, GCMG, CB, MVO; at time of reference, Sir Miles Wedderburn Lampson.

The Prime Minister to the High Commissioner for New Zealand (London)

20 March 1940

Your telegram of 28 February (No. 73). It is the wish of the New Zealand Government that New Zealand staff officers should be retained for service with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The same applies to brigade and unit commanders and seconds-in-command.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

25 May 1940

In the terms of the emergency powers given me by the New Zealand Cabinet as General Officer Commanding, New Zealand Expeditionary Force, 2 I was empowered to commit the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to active operations in the event of page 64 an emergency. My move to the United Kingdom1 and Italy's possible action in the near future may necessitate fresh powers being given to a competent military commander on the spot. For the information of Cabinet, the training of the troops has progressed well, but it has been greatly handicapped by lack of equipment and latterly by very hot weather. Collective training upon a full scale has been handicapped by the absence of necessary instruments and signal equipment and by the shortage of many classes of weapons, in most cases only 25 per cent being available. Even if complete equipment is made available from the Middle East war reserve a further period of training is necessary before the force could be used for active operations. At present the New Zealand Expeditionary Force are responsible for the security of Cairo, where more than 30,000 Italians live and where fifth column activities may be attempted. Later, when Cairo is pacified, units may be required to garrison defences or have some other role connected with the internal security of Egypt. Had I been here and time did not permit the whole question being referred to the New Zealand Cabinet, I should have agreed to commit the force to the defence of Egypt. As speed is the essence of combating fifth column activities I recommend that in my absence authority be given to General Wilson, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief [British Troops in] Egypt, to use the 2nd NZEF in defence of our vital interests here.

The Prime Minister to General Freyberg

26 May 1940

In view of the way the situation appears to be developing and the threat of impending hostilities with Italy, the New Zealand Government are strongly of the opinion that you should remain in Egypt and that you should not proceed to the United Kingdom at this juncture. Please act accordingly unless you can show us strong reasons to the contrary, which will receive every consideration. We feel that Falla2 and Park, in co-operation with the High Commissioner, can adequately look after accommodation, &c., for the Second Echelon in the United Kingdom.

page 65

On the assumption that you remain in Egypt and retain immediate and personal command, we authorise you to use New Zealand troops as you suggest for operations against any possible fifth column, and subsequently on any necessary garrison or other duty in defence of Egypt for which your force is adequately trained, fitted, and equipped. This authority is subject to the express condition that you should not, except in an emergency of which you must be the judge, commit your troops to any operations for which, in your opinion, they are not yet adequately trained, fitted, and equipped.

Having regard to your telegram of 25 May (No. 77) and to previous reports on the subject, please telegraph at once a report as to: (a) the extent to which you are without necessary equipment or ammunition for the operations contemplated, and (b) the reserve supplies of ammunition and equipment in Egypt upon which you can draw if necessary. In particular we would like to know whether you have at your disposal, or can at once obtain, sufficient small-arms ammunition.

2 Brigadier N. S. Falla, CMG, DSO, Commandant 2nd NZEF Base, Maadi Camp, Egypt, Nov 1940 - Jun 1941; released from 2nd NZEF and attached to British Ministry of Transport, London, as New Zealand representative; died at sea, 1945. In Feb 1940 Lieutenant-Colonel Falla was appointed Base Commandant, NZ Overseas Base, and at this time was in the United Kingdom.

General Freyberg to the Prime Minister

26 May 1940
I am in general agreement with the contents of your most secret telegram of 26 May (No. 78) and will communicate them to the Commander-in-Chief, who is in accord with your views. For the information of Cabinet, there are ample war reserves of ammunition and equipment here and the men are well trained and fit for the limited operations contemplated by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. In the event of war with Italy the situation in Egypt is giving no anxiety. The Italian forces are unlikely to take the offensive due to Libya's geographical position between Tunis and Egypt; they have no sea communications with Italy, and the lack of drinking water and roads across the desert between Libya and the Nile valley would prevent operations by an army of any size. Although mobilisation equipment for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force has not yet arrived, the garrison of Egypt is adequately equipped and large reserves of troops are available for Palestine and Syria. I am not anxious about arrangements for the reception, accommodation, and comfort of the Second Echelon in the United Kingdom. MacCormick1 and Greville know every detail, and I am sending

1 Brigadier K. MacCormick, CB, CBE, DSO, ED; at this time Assistant Director of Medical Services, New Zealand Division; on 1 Oct 1940 became Deputy Director of Medical Services, 2nd NZEF (later Director of Medical Services), with rank of Brigadier.

page 66 King1 and Crump for Ordnance and RASC problems, making a strong team under Falla. The troops are in great heart and are longing to get to the active work for which they are being trained. One month with full-scale equipment would fit these men for France. From all accounts the Second Echelon have benefited from the new training syllabus and I feel that with two months' collective training they would be fit for war. What I wish my Minister to realise is that none of the senior officers of the Second Echelon are fit to start unit or collective training without first being trained themselves. Every day I am kept from taking their preparation in hand will delay the ultimate preparedness of the troops. While for the present I agree that I should stay here, the situation vis-à-vis the Allies and Italy may ease or be precipitated in the next few days, and the question whether my presence is most useful here or in the United Kingdom could then be reconsidered. As you will no doubt appreciate, splitting a force always raises problems of this kind.

1 Brigadier T. J. King, CBE, New Zealand Ordnance Corps; at this time a Lieutenenant-Colonel.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

13 June 1940

Further to my telegram of 26 May (No. 79), the situation here is really unchanged by Italy's declaration of war. The round-up of Fascist leaders by the police went off smoothly and the danger of the fifth column is now greatly reduced. In the existing circumstances the garrison of Egypt appears to be more than adequate. The possibility of active operations for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force is remote. Due to shortage of equipment no further headway with the training of the First Echelon can be made. I submit that I should now proceed to the United Kingdom with the training staff to train the Second Echelon. Will you cable if you approve my going? Air passages to the United Kingdom are now more difficult. It would help me administratively to have a forecast from Cabinet as to their ultimate plans.

page 67

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

14 June 1940

My message of 13 June (No. 80) crossed the Prime Minister's message of the same date [14 June]. 1 An urgent reply to my question is required as planes to the United Kingdom are scarce and one leaves with a seat for self and Colonel Stewart on Sunday, via Sahara.

1 See Second Echelon (No. 175). The difference in time between New Zealand and the Middle East is responsible for the above error in the date of the message being acknowledged.

The Minister of Defence to General Freyberg

15 June 1940

Your telegrams of 13 and 14 June (Nos. 80 and 81). The Government approve of your proceeding to London at your discretion….2

2 For complete text see Second Echelon (No. 180).

General Freyberg to the Chief of the General Staff (Wellington)

16 June 1940

The following is for the Minister of Defence and General Duigan: As arranged with the Minister, I leave here on the 17th arriving in England approximately on the 21st. After the 17th all personal or very secret telegrams for me should be addressed to the High Commissioner for New Zealand in London; all telegrams involving new matters should go to London with a copy to Headquarters, 2nd NZEF, Cairo; all other telegrams should go to Headquarters, 2nd NZEF, Cairo. Headquarters' office staff will still be in Cairo with Stevens and Gentry for (a) administration, and (b) training of Divisional units, for both of which purposes they deal direct with me. Puttick is responsible for training the 4th Infantry Brigade and for local administration and discipline. In the event of active operations during my absence in the United Kingdom, the New page 68 Zealand troops in Egypt would come under his command. I recommend that during my absence you should grant Brigadier Puttick the same special power granted to Brigadier Miles.1

The Prime Minister to the High Commissioner for New Zealand (London)

17 June 1940

The following message is for the personal information of General Freyberg:

Your telegram of 16 June (No. 83). The Government agree to all your proposals and are willing that the same powers as were granted to Brigadier Miles be granted to Brigadier Puttick.

The High Commissioner for New Zealand (London) to the Prime Minister

13 August 1940

This morning I took up the matter of equipment with the Secretary of State for War,2 who admitted that the First Echelon requires certain additions to bring it up to war establishment and stated that these are being supplied as quickly as possible. The force from here3 will be fully equipped with modern arms. Equipment on a training scale will await the arrival of the Third Echelon and every effort has been promised for earliest completion to war establishment.

I expressed your concern at the slow progress in equipping our force and at the vagueness as to the date of delivery to the First and Third Echelons.4 The Secretary of State for War promised to give the matter his personal attention. He will give me full details on 16 August, after which I will cable you.

2 Rt. Hon. R. A. Eden.

3 The Second Echelon.

page 69

The High Commissioner for New Zealand to the Prime Minister

16 August 1940

With reference to my telegram of 13 August (No. 85), I saw the Secretary of State for War, who explained the equipment situation as follows:

The First Echelon in Egypt is at present better equipped than similar formations there, and with additional equipment, including the latest 25-millimetre [-pounder?] guns now en route, will have full war equipment except tanks for the Divisional Cavalry Regiment. The Second Echelon in this country is now receiving full war equipment. This is to be completed by 30 September in readiness for possible movement. The Third Echelon will have a training scale of equipment on arrival at its destination. Its full war equipment is now being shipped. By October or November when this echelon will have completed its training, the 2nd New Zealand Division will be fully equipped, except possibly for tanks, the shortage of which is due to losses in France. However, every effort is being made to overcome this shortage.

Headquarters 2nd NZEF (Cairo) to the Chief of the General Staff (Wellington)

22 August 1940

On the arrival of the Australian division1 at Helwan by the end of August our troops are to take over defence of Lines of Communication. The infantry relieve an Indian brigade.2 The 26th Battery, which is not yet equipped, is to take over in position one troop of 4.5-inch howitzers at Amiriya and one troop of six 18-pounders at Maaten Baggush. Two companies of the Machine Gun Battalion defend the Amiriya area against airborne attack. The Divisional Cavalry, 25th Battery, and the Machine Gun Battalion, less two companies, are in reserve and work on defences in the vicinity of Maaten Baggush. The 6th Field Company remain at Alexandria. The Anti-Tank Battery is training 180 Regular British and Indian and Australian infantry officers and other ranks on one month's course and will remain at Maadi till 15 September.

1 6th Australian Division.

2 A brigade of 4th Indian Division.

page 70

The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs1 to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

1 September 1940

The despatch of reinforcements in personnel and equipment to the various theatres outside the United Kingdom has been given active consideration here. During the first eight months of the war, the greater part of the Army's effort was devoted to building up the British Expeditionary Force in France, and since the evacuation from Dunkirk it has been necessary to allot most of the current armaments production to home defence. In consequence, the forces overseas have received very little reinforcing of men or of material since the outbreak of the war. The present position is that the French collapse has greatly increased the scale of the attack in the Middle East, and our interests in the Far East are also threatened by Japanese hostility. If the British Empire is to retain its position in these areas, substantial reinforcements of men and equipment must be despatched. The bulk of the equipment must be obtained from the United Kingdom.

We have still much to do before all requirements for the defence of the United Kingdom have been met, but the equipment of our forces here and the strength and organisation of our defences have already made considerable progress. Furthermore, as winter approaches, the practicability of an invasion will decrease because of weather conditions. It has therefore been decided to allocate from now onwards a considerably larger proportion of United Kingdom resources in men, and approximately 50 per cent of future production of equipment, to reinforcements for other theatres and to the provision of equipment for their garrisons and reserves. The corresponding slowing up in the completion of the defence arrangements of the United Kingdom will be accepted.

The Middle East is the theatre in which reinforcements are most urgently required, since there are indications that a large-scale offensive by the Italians will be launched when the weather is favourable for campaigning in this area (September to April). The urgent requirement is for additional armoured fighting vehicles and artillery (including anti-aircraft artillery). One army tank battalion, one cruiser tank regiment, and one light tank regiment have already been despatched by fast convoy, and a further convoy carrying artillery reinforcements will sail shortly. One division is being sent from India. The despatch of the balance of the 6th Australian

1 Rt. Hon. Viscount Caldecote.

page 71 and New Zealand Divisions from the United Kingdom to the Middle East will be arranged as soon as practicable.

Urgent steps are also being taken to provide the equipment required (including the equipment for the reinforcement of the Special Service units) in all items essential to enable them to fight, and to provide the necessary reserves of weapons and equipment. Although equipment will not be issued exclusively to each theatre in turn, military priority will be given to the Middle East. To meet the most urgent requirements in this theatre, 48 anti-tank guns, 20 Bofors anti-aircraft guns, 48 25-pounder guns, 500 Bren guns, 250 antitank rifles, with ammunition for all the above, 1,000,000 rounds of tracer small-arms ammunition, and 50,000 anti-tank mines have been recently despatched and a further large consignment will leave shortly. In addition, a separate allotment of weapons and equipment is being sent shortly to East Africa.

It has been proposed that the forces in Malaya should shortly be reinforced by one Australian division, and the defence of Fiji increased by a brigade group from New Zealand.1 Consideration is also being given to the provision from other sources of anti-aircraft artillery reinforcements. It is intended that the forces in the Far East should be equipped in all items essential to enable them to fight and to provide 180 days' reserve of all essential weapons and equipment as soon as possible.

Additional African infantry brigade groups are being raised in East Africa and West Africa for employment in these theatres. The detailed composition of the garrisons which will eventually be required is under consideration. Certain additional anti-aircraft batteries are required to reinforce the (Aden?) land garrison, and will be provided, together with thirty days' reserves, as soon as possible. In India the British garrison has been depleted by eight battalions since the outbreak of war. Replacements for these battalions will have to be sent from the United Kingdom as soon as they can be spared.

As far as the Air Force is concerned, the immediate essential requirement is not to despatch squadrons from the United Kingdom but to re-equip the existing squadrons overseas with first-class aircraft. This re-equipment will later be supplemented by the reinforcement of first-line strength squadrons. In the Middle East the first objective is to provide bomber aircraft capable of attacking Benghazi, the only effective base for operations against Egypt, and modern fighters to defend the Fleet base at Alexandria. Eighty-four Blenheim aircraft, which will re-equip five existing squadrons in the Middle East by the end of September, are being despatched.

1 8th New Zealand Brigade Group.

page 72 Wellington aircraft to equip one squadron and Hurricane aircraft to re-equip three squadrons will be sent out during the same period. In addition, commencing at the end of September, thirty-six long-range Blenheims and eighteen Hurricanes per month will be provided to replace wastage overseas generally. It is hoped also to provide two fighter squadrons and two general reconnaissance squadrons for Malaya by the end of 1940, but this must depend on the development of the situation in the United Kingdom and in the Middle East.

The above proposals also involve heavy shipping and naval escort problems, and these are receiving urgent consideration.

The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom (Wellington)

7 September 1940

With reference to the telegrams of 3 and 12 August from the Governor-General of New Zealand.1 His Majesty's Government in New Zealand will now have been informed of the general policy regarding reinforcements in personnel and equipment to the Middle East as indicated in my telegram (No. 88). The following are the comments of the United Kingdom authorities regarding the outstanding points raised in the telegrams under reference, namely: (1) the prospects of a large-scale attack in the Middle East, possibly from more than one direction and possibly with German assistance; and (2) the position, in detail, of the scale of equipment for the New Zealand forces in the Middle East.

During the autumn, an Italian attack on Egypt from Libya is likely, and we are taking all possible steps to deal with such a contingency. Certain information as to these steps was contained in my telegram (No. 88), and further information will shortly be sent. Although there is a possibility that German forces might co-operate from Libya or initiate an attack from Syria, it is unlikely that either of these threats could materialise without considerable preparation by the Germans, and of this no definite indication has yet been received. In particular, an advance from Syria would take a considerable time to prepare and long warning of such preparation should be available.

page 73

As the New Zealand Government have no doubt been informed by the Officer Commanding the New Zealand troops in the Middle East, arrangements have been made by the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East for a brigade group to be moved from Cairo to an operational theatre in the Western Desert in the near future.1 As for the equipment of this brigade group, it is not possible to say exactly what are the deficiencies, since it has been found necessary to pool all equipment and vehicles in the Middle East, but this brigade group and one of the Australian brigade groups, which is also moving into an operational theatre, are being equipped to the highest scale possible from existing sources in the Middle East. After this has been done the combined deficiencies of the two brigade groups in the principal items of equipment will, as far as can be ascertained at present, be as follows:

  • 37 2-inch mortars

  • 144 anti-tank rifles

  • 65 light machine guns

  • 32 machine guns

  • 44 light tanks

  • 18 Bren carriers

  • 48 25-pounder guns

While, therefore, the equipment of this New Zealand brigade group is not complete, it is on as generous a scale as is possible at the moment, and it is thought that it should be adequate for the role which it is intended these troops should undertake.

As regards the remaining New Zealand forces now in the Middle East, the available training equipment will include the following among the principal items:

  • 1730 rifles

  • 9 2-pounder anti-tank guns

  • 8 18-pounder guns

  • 4 4.7-inch howitzers

As regards the third New Zealand echelon, which has sailed in US 4, the New Zealand Government were informed in my telegram to the Governor-General of 30 July,2 of the major items of equipment which are being made available to this contingent. This equipment has already been shipped and should arrive in the Middle East about the middle of September. It is on an equivalent scale to that provided for many Regular units in the United Kingdom.

As indicated in my telegram to the Governor-General of 26 July,3 it is the intention in the autumn to move the second New

1 No. 87.

page 74 Zealand echelon, now in the United Kingdom, to the Middle East. The New Zealand Government will be fully informed as soon as definite proposals for the movement of this contingent can be communicated to them, but they may wish to know at once that it is hoped that this contingent will be fully equipped here before it sails.

Further, as indicated in the third paragraph of my telegram of 1 September (No. 88), the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East will be allocated a very large proportion of the new equipment from the United Kingdom to make up the deficiencies among the forces under his command.

The Minister of Defence to General Freyberg (London)

10 September 1940

The New Zealand Government is disturbed by information received as to the present deficiencies of the New Zealand brigade group now moving into an operational theatre in the Western Desert—see the telegram from the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Wellington, dated 7 September (No. 89). It would appear that the brigade group probably has 18 2-inch mortars instead of 36, 23 anti-tank rifles instead of 95, 182 light machine guns instead of 215, 19 machine guns instead of 36, 6 light tanks instead of 28, 21 Bren carriers instead of 30, no 25-pounders instead of 24.

I should be glad, (1) if you could ascertain, or else instruct Puttick to inform me, what actual supplies of equipment have been issued to the New Zealand brigade; (2) whether it is sufficient for the task allotted; and (3) if possible, how soon are the deficiencies likely to be made good. Your personal opinion on the equipment position would be appreciated.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

12 September 1940

Your telegram of 10 September (No. 90). I can appreciate how anxious you must be about the lack of equipment in Egypt. The delay in answering your telegram is due to being near Dover in bivouac waiting hopefully for a German landing. I have not yet page 75 seen the Secretary of State's telegram of 7 September (No. 89); when I do I will communicate with Puttick and will then send you the answers to your three questions, but it will take some days. Meanwhile I am in constant touch with Cairo. For your information, I forward a cable received from Puttick, dated 31 August:

The move of the New Zealand forces to the Western Desert commenced on the 28th and will be completed by the 6th, less the Anti-Tank Battery and the signal class.1 Inglis2 with Headquarters 4th Brigade commands Lines of Communication, which include Cavalry, Artillery, and Machine Gun Battalion, which are employed on the defences. Divisional Headquarters, in reserve near Daba in readiness to assume command of groups concentrating for active operations, will carry out reconnaissance and TEWTs3 and reinforce Lines of Communication headquarters or Maadi as necessary. Stevens with small staff and Base details remains at Maadi to prepare for the Third Contingent. Army Service Corps surplus to field force requirements remains at Maadi but is organised ready to reinforce on Lines of Communication if required. Reserve Mechanical Transport Company, ASC, and 6th Field Company remain detached as at present.

When I received the above cable, and knowing the position when I left, I considered the equipment of the First Echelon sufficient for the role assigned to it. Your cabled figures do not appear correct but Puttick's reply will give me the correct figure. Even so, it should be remembered that normal brigade groups have no cavalry regiment and only a machine-gun company of twelve instead of nineteen Vickers guns. It is true that the force is weak in anti-tank rifles and lacks new 25-pounders, but it has 18-pounders—a good gun—and besides other arms has a large number of Brens. I consider that the First Echelon when kept together as a formation is a formidable fighting force quite adequate for the task allotted it.

As you know, the equipment situation for the past year has been very bad and has been accentuated by French losses. Production here is much improved, but the quantity required to make the defences of the United Kingdom secure has been enormous. Excellent progress has been made but at the expense of the Middle East. The danger of attempted invasion is nearly over. By the end page 76 of October, unless the German bombing of factories interferes seriously with production, we shall be past the danger point. After the end of September all interest will centre in the Middle East. The equipment [position] there is not good but, thanks to most firm representations to the highest authority here, a new policy has been agreed to and in the immediate future the Middle East is to get 50 per cent of the production of our factories. Enormous shipments were made last month; some have now arrived and will continue to arrive for some months. These include aeroplanes, tanks, guns, ammunition, &c. With regard to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force's equipment, the Second Echelon will be complete in every detail before embarkation except for twelve antitank 2-pounders and minor details of Royal Engineers field company equipment. The balance of the equipment for the First Echelon, including its full complement of 25-pounders and all vehicles, is now on the water. Training equipment for the Third Echelon upon a basis of 50 per cent issues has been shipped and should be available upon their arrival. I believe that from now on the Middle East equipment position will continue to improve, and by the end of November the New Zealand Expeditionary Force should be able to take the field as a division.

Undoubtedly this autumn has been most difficult here. We should have been relieved of our operational role tomorrow and completed mobilisation pending embarkation. Three days ago these orders were cancelled and we are to stay out here covering Dover until the end of the month or when the present good weather breaks. Immediately War Office liberates me I fly to Egypt by the quickest route. Meanwhile the position in England is excellent, everybody, especially the women population of London, showing great spirit. I can assure His Majesty's Government in New Zealand that our men are well trained, fit, and in great heart, and that the equipment position is adequate. I am confident that our men will play their part if called upon to defend either Great Britain or Egypt.

1 The Signal School, which had been left at Maadi, rejoined 2nd New Zealand Divisional Signals on 16 Sep.

2 Major-General Lindsay Merritt Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO, MC, VD. At the time of this reference he was temporarily in command of 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade with the rank of Colonel; commanded 4th Infantry Brigade 1941–42 and 4th Armoured Brigade 1942–44; temporarily in command of 2nd New Zealand Division, Jun–Aug 1942, after General Freyberg had been wounded, and in Jun–Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in the British Zone of Occupation, Germany.

3 Tactical Exercises Without Troops.

General Freyberg to Headquarters 2nd NZEF (Cairo)

13 September 1940

The following is for Brigadier Puttick:

The New Zealand Government is disturbed by information received from the Dominions Office as to your present equipment deficiencies and operational role. The Minister of Defence reports that your brigade group probably has 18 2-inch mortars instead page 77 of 36, 23 anti-tank rifles instead of 95, 182 Brens instead of 215, 19 Vickers instead of 36, 6 light tanks instead of 28, 21 Bren carriers instead of 30, nil 25-pounders instead of 24. To enable me to assure the Government will you as soon as possible send me answers to the following questions: (1) Is the main New Zealand force together or is it split up into two groups, one under you and the other under Inglis? (2) Are our main forces cast in a role to defend Lines of Communication or are they with the Desert Army? (3) When are you likely to get the balance of your equipment?

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

19 September 1940

On 10 September Puttick reported as follows:

All well. I am perfectly satisfied with the conditions under which the force is employed. It has now been decided to form an extensive defensive position at Maaten Baggush.

In answer to my telegram (No. 92) sent after receiving your message of 10 September (No. 90), Puttick reported on 17 September:

I consider the equipment situation very satisfactory and better than that of many Regular units here. Vickers, Bren, and anti-tank rifles are complete for fighting units, and the remainder almost complete. Each battalion has seven carriers out of ten, balance in a week only; also 25 per cent 2-inch mortars. The Divisional Cavalry have nine light tanks and eight carriers, with eleven carriers shortly, but no .5-inch machine guns. The Artillery have eighteen 18-pounders, plus eight howitzers. Twenty-five-pounders are due shortly. Answering your three questions: (1) The New Zealand Expeditionary Force is concentrated and under my command. (2) It is holding a sector of the defence of the Maaten Baggush area with, and under the command of, the 4th Indian Division. (3) The remainder of the equipment, except for 25-pounders and light tanks, will be available in ten days from the 17th.

For the information of the Minister, Maaten Baggush is 29 miles in the rear of Mersa Matruh, our foremost defences, and approximately 140 miles from Sollum.

Realising that the Third Echelon is arriving in Egypt in about two weeks untrained and only partially equipped, I send for your information the latest appreciation from General Wavell of the situation in Egypt, dated 12 September:

page 78

Evidence and indications of enemy intentions on the Libyan front are as yet inconclusive. Movements in the Western Desert on the 10th/11th still appear preparatory and indicate no immediate intention of a major advance. The recent move forward closely follows the plan adopted by the Italians during the last two months of gradual approach by stages to the frontier. As the enemy approach close to the frontier, protective troops covering the formation of defended localities noticeably increase. The immediate intention seems to be the strengthening of defences on a broad front up to the frontier line to prevent our continued penetration which has been a running sore and a consistent cause of casualties in men and material. The propaganda value to the Italians of re-occupying territory previously overrun by us must not be overlooked. Also, Italian occupation of Sollum is projected. Results of air reconnaissance and other rearward indications still provide no evidence that a major attack is impending.

As for the Home front, I still consider a German invasion not a possible operation of war. Movements of shipping off the French coast and the recent savage bombing attacks on London are so pronounced that every precaution must be taken. The weather here is bad and there are indications of equinoxial gales commencing. I understand now that our departure for Egypt is again retarded by the order of the Prime Minister who considers that in our role in the defence of the United Kingdom we cannot be spared while the threat remains. The splitting of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force has caused great difficulties. As Commander I feel torn between the military needs of both theatres, Egypt and here. I know you will be greatly relieved that both echelons are well equipped with modern arms and reserves of warlike stores adequate for all contingencies, also that their training has progressed very satisfactorily. The force in Egypt is, however, short of tanks, artillery, and air support. With the Third Echelon arriving, I feel sure of your approval to my transferring to Egypt as soon as the War Office releases me

Postcript: News has arrived that the Italians have advanced in force to Sidi Barrani and it appears that a serious effort to invade Egypt has begun. I have arranged to fly out as soon as a plane can be produced. This depends on meteorological [word omitted] on account of ice forming on the wings. I shall take Stewart, and Miles will follow as soon as possible. Hargest, who has shaped very well in training, will be left in command of the Second Echelon.1

1 The above text, taken from the GOC's files, differs in a number of respects from the telegram received in New Zealand in which there were many mutilations and omissions.

page 79

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

23 September 1940

On the grounds of the urgency of the situation here, I have experienced opposition to my leaving the United Kingdom. I feel certain, however, that the Egyptian situation is the more difficult and I am leaving by bomber on the 22nd, via Malta, arriving in the early morning of the 24th. I feel that with the situation developing in Egypt, and with our small army in the Middle East, I should go there. Stewart accompanies me, and Falla and Miles will come as soon as passages can be arranged for them.

General Freyberg (Cairo) to the Minister of Defence

24 September 1940

Stewart and I have arrived. I have taken over command.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

27 September 1940

I have just returned after two days in the Western Desert with the 4th Brigade Group who occupy a defensive position in reserve. Everybody is fit and well and in excellent spirits. Their arms and equipment are now practically complete, except that they are still armed with 18-pounders. I would be unwilling to pass any opinion upon the likelihood of the Italians launching a serious attack here. My views two months ago were as expressed in my official appreciation to the British Prime Minister on 29 July1 which should have reached you by now. Owing to the arrival here of aeroplanes, tanks, and equipment upon a large scale the situation is easing. Nevertheless, if the Italians do attack in the next month we shall be fighting numerically superior forces and will be at a disadvantage as regards artillery, tanks, and aircraft. Tomorrow I go to Suez to meet the Third Echelon.

1 For the text of this appreciation see Appendix 4.

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General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence [Extract]

28 October 1940

….1 I have just returned from the desert after a four-day training scheme with the First Echelon. The Artillery have now calibrated and fired a training practice with 18-pounders; they should get 25-pounders any day now. The 4th Infantry Brigade are fit and 95 per cent equipped. In my opinion the 4th Brigade Group are now trained and equipped on a sufficient scale to take any operational role. They will operate in the Western Desert until they are relieved by an Australian division.2

2 6th Australian Division.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

13 December 1940

Our Divisional Signals, Petrol and Ammunition companies, Supply Column, and Reserve Mechanical Transport Company took part in the recent battle, the 4th Brigade Group being in reserve at Baggush. The 6th Brigade continue training at Maadi and are quite fit to fight the Italians when equipped.

There is no doubt that we have had very great success. Apart from prisoners, estimated at over 30,000, we have captured a large portion of the guns of Italy's Libyan army which will be hard to replace. The result of the battle is far-reaching—we now have the initiative, but I warn you against undue optimism as the enormous distances and the lack of roads, railways, and motor transport must limit success. Had we the necessary rails and rolling stock we could knock out the Italians in Libya before the hot weather. Meanwhile, our success will influence the situation in the Balkans and should stiffen resistance; in any case, little can happen there until the spring.

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Note for the New Zealand Division from General Wavell1

27 December 1940

I feel that I owe an explanation to the New Zealand Division, and especially to the 4th Infantry Brigade, regarding the recent operations in the Western Desert. I know that they are disappointed at not having taken part in the advance on Sidi Barrani or beyond, and perhaps feel hurt that they have been used for all the hard work of making defences and then have not been detailed to take part in the attack when attack became possible.

I therefore give you the reasons which influenced the decision not to use them in the advance. It was my original intention to do so. But the New Zealand Government, quite naturally and quite rightly, has always wished that the New Zealand Division should be employed in active operations only as a complete division under its own Commander. I am sure that if I had been able to explain the situation to the New Zealand Government, they would have granted permission for the 4th Infantry Brigade to be used, as they have granted permission for the special use of a part of the forces they have supplied. At the time when the decision had to be taken, however, it was still several weeks before the operations were to take place, the strictest possible secrecy was being maintained, and the number of those who knew that an operation was to take place at all was extremely limited. To consult the New Zealand Government would necessarily have involved the communication of some details of the plans to several people and possibly some discussion of them. It would have been necessary to place the Brigade under the command of the Commander of the 4th Indian Division. I felt that I could not do all this without some detailed explanation to the New Zealand Government which might have jeopardised secrecy. I therefore decided, somewhat reluctantly, not to use the New Zealand Brigade, and to use instead the 16th Infantry Brigade which I could do without reference to anyone.

As regards the use of the Australian Division for the second stage of the operations, I required a whole division, and if I had sent forward the New Zealand Brigade it would have been necessary to form a composite division of Australian and New Zealand troops, which I had been given to understand was contrary to the wishes of the New Zealand Government. It would have either broken up the New Zealand Division or would have involved a further page 82 relief at a later stage with loss of time and waste of transport. It had always been my intention that the Australian Corps should eventually take over the Western Desert, and that the New Zealand Division when complete should become the General Headquarters Reserve. This explains why I was unable to send forward the New Zealand Brigade in the second stage of the operations.

As you know, however, the assistance that has been given by the New Zealand Division to the operations in the Western Desert has been invaluable, and the recent success could not have been gained without it. The New Zealand Division has supplied its Signals, its transport, its Engineers, Railway and other personnel who have made up our shortage in these very necessary services. I should like to refer also to the magnificent work done by the Long Range Patrols who relieved me of any anxiety about the Southern Libyan Desert, from which the Italians might have threatened Upper Egypt or the Sudan.

I take this opportunity of thanking the New Zealand Division for all the assistance they have so willingly provided during the very difficult period when the defence of Egypt was dangerously weak, and I very much regret that it was not possible for them to take an even greater share in the advance from Matruh. Their turn will come before long, and I have every confidence that their leadership, training, and spirit will win them great distinction in any operation in which they take part.

A. P. Wavell

1 Field-Marshal Earl Wavell, PC, GCB, GCSI, GCIE, CMG, MC (then General Sir Archibald Wavell); GOC-in-C, Middle East, 1939–41; GOC-in-C, India, 1941–43; Supreme Commander, South-West Pacific, Jan–Mar 1942; Viceroy and Governor-General of India 1943–47.

General Headquarters, Middle East, to the Chief of the General Staff (Wellington)

29 December 1940

The following is for publication if you wish:

In the Western Desert New Zealand mechanical transport units have played an important part in the operations up to date. In the opening stages they carried infantry forward to the attack and displayed coolness and resolution under fire. Since the first attack they have worked continuously at the arduous task of bringing forward supplies under difficult conditions and over long distances by day and night. In addition, New Zealand signallers have provided essential links in the system of communications, working long hours under trying conditions; in this way they have contributed largely to the successes obtained.