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

232 — The Prime Minister to the High Commissioner for New Zealand (Canberra)2

The Prime Minister to the High Commissioner for New Zealand (Canberra)2

15 May 1943

The summary following sets out the main aspects of the problem to which I referred in my telegram of 14 May to Mr. Churchill, which was repeated to you earlier today.

Mr. Churchill asked last month that the New Zealand Division be used as an assault force for a special operation in Europe, for which purpose it was to be withdrawn immediately for training. I replied that in view of my pledge to Parliament that the future role of the Division would be reviewed at the end of the African campaign, I regretted I was not in a position to express my concurrence, but that I would place the whole matter before Parliament for their

2 Sir Carl A. Berendsen, KCMG; Permanent Head, Prime Minister's Department, Wellington, 1932–43; High Commissioner for New Zealand in Australia, 1943–44; New Zealand Minister in the United States, 1944–; at the time of this reference, Mr. C. A. Berendsen, CMG.

page 204 consideration. Mr. Churchill accepted the position and another division was allotted for the task and sent into training. There-upon we were requested to consider making our force available as a follow-up division.

Mr. Jones discussed the whole matter with Mr. Churchill while in London, and it was proposed, as a further result of their talks, that a scheme of relief for the longest service personnel of the Division should be instituted, covering up to 20 per cent of strength.

I then arranged with General Freyberg for Mr. Jones to proceed to the forward areas in Tunisia to examine and discuss every issue with him and to advise me as soon as possible. I have since received Mr. Jones's reports.

It appears, on first examination, that a large measure of relief for the men of the first three echelons would be possible, but only at the expense of the final capital troops required for the 3rd Division. Should Parliament agree to the retention of the 2nd NZEF in the Middle East, the relief scheme thus provided would be instituted. Shipping available in June would bring the men back to New Zealand early in July, their places on shipboard being taken by the relief force.

The whole question has so far been discussed in War Cabinet only; I have yet to broach it with the ordinary Cabinet, probably on Monday, following, I hope, the receipt of the message from Churchill and Roosevelt.1 Discussion must then take place in caucus and in Parliament itself on 19 May.

Mr. Jones, on my directions, also raised with Mr. Churchill the question of Freyberg's promotion. As you know, we felt that Freyberg's loyalty to New Zealand should not be allowed indefinitely to react detrimentally against his chances of promotion. I have now been informed that Freyberg has been appointed temporarily to the command of the 10th Corps and that the permanency of this arrangement will depend apparently upon the New Zealand Government's advice to Freyberg himself. Mr. Jones strongly urges that Freyberg should be asked to pay a flying visit to New Zealand to discuss this and other related problems.

The major issue is, however, the future role of the Division, and this raises large questions of the utmost complexity. There are, first of all, the direct requests from Churchill, and these will, I expect, be reinforced by one from Roosevelt. It is not only difficult at all times to resist an appeal of this nature from the United Kingdom, but there is much to be said for our standing by Britain to the very end.

1 No. 237.

page 205

Manpower is, however, the overriding factor, as I explained in my telegram to Churchill, and since we cannot maintain both divisions we must choose the one or the other. If the Middle East division is to stay and the Pacific division is to be used to reinforce it, we are confronted with consequences both immediate and far-reaching in their nature. We undertook, when our manpower resources and the perils confronting us were both greater than they are today, to provide a division for offensive operations in the Pacific. Now, with diminishing manpower and, fortunately, with the greater degree of security, the point has been reached when we will proably have to tell Halsey1 that we cannot complete our undertaking; though we could nevertheless for some time maintain a two-brigade group, and if, as now seems possible, we could obtain a Fijian brigade, we might yet provide a mixed 3rd New Zealand Division.2

We are, of course, alive to the necessity of avoiding any reduction of morale amongst our men in New Caledonia by changes which would delay unduly their offensive role or probably might result in their being used solely as garrison troops.

You will appreciate, and I will not enumerate, the very sound reasons why we should, from the long-term political point of view, maintain the strongest possible military and air forces in the Pacific. Even if we do not keep up the Division, we could, on the basis of our Air Force (which is likely to reach the 42,000 mark before long) still play no small part in offensive operations. This effective form of assistance could and should in fact entitle us to claim a say and a share in what is decided in the Pacific area, both now and in the future.

The effect of our decision upon relations with Australia has also not been overlooked. Just as the return of Australian troops has had an unsettling effect upon our own people, the retention of our Division must similarly continue to exercise an influence on Commonwealth troops and public opinion. We realise, too, that if we retain our Division in the Middle East, and if by so doing this necessitates the withdrawal of our Pacific division now, or ultimately, then Australia may feel we are taking our share of responsibilities in the Pacific too lightly. The Commonwealth Government may indeed consider that such action runs directly counter to their plea for greater energy and greater resources in the Pacific area. For our part we feel that the Pacific danger for us, though diminished, still persists, but that with the ever-increasing momentum of the flow of United States men and materials our position is being rendered increasingly more secure than is that of Australia. The circumstances of the two countries are undoubtedly different.

1 Admiral W. F. Halsey, Commander South Pacific Forces and South Pacific Area, 18 Oct 1942–15 Jun 1944.

2 See Volume III, Formation and Employment of 3rd New Zealand Division.

page 206

Leaving aside the strategic factors, of which you are well aware, we must consider finally the feelings of the men themselves on this matter and of the country generally. Whether the Division is withdrawn or not, a relief scheme to provide furlough appears to be essential. It is just unfortunate that it is beyond our capacity to supply fresh troops except at the expense of the 3rd Division. The facts of the situation appear to render no other solution possible. Above all things I want to avoid, and in good time, any form of collapse in our war effort due to straining our resources beyond their utmost practicable limit.

I cannot at this stage foretell what the decision of Parliament will be, nor, for that matter, how my own Cabinet will see the problem. We have throughout realised the necessity for taking the Commonwealth Government into our confidence, but until we had come to a decision ourselves, and the Government Cabinet could be informed and express their opinion, I have been reluctant to have the matter thus discussed. If, however, you feel that it would be unwise to delay discussing the question with Mr. Curtin, you are at full liberty to make the approach and to acquaint him with the nature of the problem which confronts us.