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

102 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

9 October 1941
I forecast in the appreciation2 sent to you last year the equal chance this summer of Germany attacking either Turkey or Russia with the object of obtaining wheat, petrol, and lubricants for the long war

2 See Volume I, Concentration of the 2nd New Zealand Division (No. 250).

page 74 necessary to smash the British Empire. We now know that German plans in Syria and Iraq were upset by the losses in Crete. How far he will succeed in getting the above commodities from Russian territory, and when they will be available, is difficult to say. It is certainly possible that in the process of this year's fighting the German Air Force and mechanised army may exhaust their reserves and wear out their machines. There are indications of this, and the authorities are hopeful that such may be the case.

This is a war of machines. Without the preponderance Germany has so far possessed, the offensive in Russia would have been impossible, and should losses be sufficiently great the enemy will have to change his effort and withdraw into a smaller area on the defensive. That stage may be reached before long.

After Crete the situation in the Western Desert developed on these lines: Under pressure from the United Kingdom, the Western Desert Force made an attack on the German position running south from Sollum. At that time maintenance difficulties made it impossible to keep a large number of troops in the forward areas, and there was only a thin outpost position in the front. No additional troops were available for offensive action. The attack had to come forward quickly from sixty miles away from the enemy. An attack requires the concentration of several thousand motor vehicles, guns, tanks, &c., and involves an approach march across open desert providing no cover. Owing to the distances, it is not easy to make an approach march by night and carry out a dawn attack. In spite of these factors, in the June attack we employed inferior forces, especially armoured fighting vehicles and aircraft, with little chance of achieving surprise. The outcome was that we suffered a decided reverse and lost a large number of tanks. After the battle several commanders were sent to other jobs. Upon this fact I do not comment.

The new Commander-in-Chief1 was urged by the United Kingdom Government to do an offensive in the Western Desert as soon as he arrived, and it is rumoured that he refused until the necessary resources were available. Resources for the Western Desert comprise not only the provision of fighting forces but of maintenance and transportation services also. Maintenance is often the deciding factor. There is no doubt that in the Middle East good use has been made of the breathing space.

The situation here is now as follows:

The railway and pipeline have been extended well to the west, which will ease the maintenance situation.

The New Zealand, South African, and Indian divisions have been re-equipped.

1 General Auchinleck.

page 75

The AFV situation has improved on our side and we are reported to have a superiority in numbers of five to four.

The enemy has decided superiority in numbers in the air. Reports give this superiority as three to two, and it must be anticipated that he will also reinforce from Greece, Crete, and Sicily. However, our Air Force is reported to be considerable and we have plenty of airfields in depth from which to operate.

From the enemy point of view, they have had five months to improve the forward defences and have not been idle. They have undoubtedly reinforced the Libyan front with men and material, including guns, tanks, and a large number of tank mines. They are past masters at putting out strong rearguards and launching strong counter-attacks with mechanised forces. Their General Staff is competent and they have resources.

In the circumstances the proposed operations are difficult but, nevertheless, offer a good chance of success. The result depends to a great extent on our ability to effect strategic surprise as to the date and direction of our attack, to break quickly through the crust of the German defences, and to smash the mechanised counter-stroke. This, like all modern battles, is in the first place a battle of machines and exploitation by lorry-borne fighting troops of all arms.

Should we succeed there is a reasonable chance of clearing the north coast of Africa. These are vital times, and our ability to play an early part in view of the fierce fighting in Russia is important. I can assure the New Zealand Government that there are no better equipped or trained troops in the Middle East than their Division. The men are in excellent physical and mental condition and will be fully trained, individually and collectively. At present we are in the process of carrying out three brigade battles under the full support of artillery and trench mortars, followed by two divisional rehearsals.

We have already taken part in two reverses, and I feel my responsibilities deeply. I realise how important it is from the point of view of the people of New Zealand, as well as the fighting men themselves, to have a success. I can assure you that nothing is being left to chance.1

1 The Prime Minister replied on 6 Nov: ‘I would like you to know how very much all members of War Cabinet appreciated the timely and most useful views expressed in your telegram of 9 October…. We are greatly heartened by your assurance that there are no better equipped or trained troops than the New Zealanders in the Middle East. Your own care in achieving this result is fully realised and as fully appreciated.’