II: New Zealand Emerges in the Pacific Plan
II: New Zealand Emerges in the Pacific Plan
Urgent requests for men and equipment went from Wellington to the United States and the United Kingdom immediately following Japan's entry into the war. It seemed, at times, as though little heed was being taken of the requirements for other theatres where action was already in progress and decisions were vital, but New Zealand was deplorably short and unable to meet her own immediate defence needs, for little equipment had been imported into the Dominion in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of hostilities.page 66
Both before and during negotiations for the mounting of an offensive in the Solomons, New Zealand was requesting help from London and Washington for the defence of her own shores and for Fiji. She persistently stressed the need for a full American division in Fiji and another for New Zealand and, because she considered Fiji her first line of defence, she wished to leave her own troops there when American troops ultimately reached the Crown Colony. Ghormley agreed to this proposal, but it was obvious from subsequent action that the American planners did not.
From the time of his arrival in Washington, Mr. Nash kept the New Zealand Government fully informed of all the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposals and planning, which included that, if Fiji and New Caledonia were lost, it would be essential to hold the North Island of New Zealand, particularly its northern regions. The apprehension felt at that time in New Zealand, and the Dominion's vulnerability should Japan press towards her shores, had been fully set out on 24 December 1941 in a cable message from Fraser to Churchill, who was then in Washington. (See Appendix II.) He said that the crippling of the United States Fleet at Pearl Harbour, the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse off Malaya, the violent and successful attacks by the enemy in Malaya, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Wake, and Guam had increased the probability of attack on Fiji and its importance in the scheme of Allied defence to a degree which could not be exaggerated. Extensions to the Nandi aerodrome, which New Zealand was undertaking at the request of the United States Government, would become a liability if they were not adequately defended. New Zealand could supply an extra brigade for the western area of Fiji, but the Dominion could not equip these men. New Zealand had already denuded herself of arms to a degree which was causing the gravest concern. Fraser urged Churchill to impress on Roosevelt the importance of Fiji and the urgent need for equipment. On the following day the Prime Minister despatched a cable to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs in London regretting that New Zealand was unable to send a force to Malaya to assist in the defence of the naval base of Singapore, which had been suggested during an inter-Allied conference there. In the same message he again set out the situation in Fiji and appealed for urgent assistance, particularly in armoured fighting vehicles and anti-tank equipment. (See Appendix II.) The Secretary of State replied that the Government of the United Kingdom concurred in the decision to reinforce Fiji, and that early provision would be made to send equipment. Because of commitments elsewhere—to the Middle East and Russia particularly—this could not be despatched immediately, and calls on page 67 the United Kingdom were beginning to embarrass her. This was revealed when Fraser received a cable from the Secretary of State on 4 February, eleven days before Singapore fell, indicating Britain's mounting difficulties, which informed him that ‘the task of allocation is one of some difficulty at the moment with a rapidly changing situation in several parts of the world. We are already heading dangerously near the point where the spreading of our resources must lead to a general weakness. There is a point beyond which we cannot interfere with the flow to the Middle East, whence so many army and air force units, with their equipment, have already been withdrawn for the Pacific’. His inference in part was to the withdrawal of Australian forces, ground and air, which began their return to the Commonwealth from the Middle East in early 1942, as soon as the Japanese threat to Australia seemed imminent. Despite the uneasy position in the Mediterranean theatre, however, the fighter aircraft sent to New Zealand in the early days of the war were deducted from Royal Air Force allocations originally intended for the Middle East.
New Zealand was beginning to feel the strain on her manpower by March 1942, by which time 61, 368 men had gone overseas. The Army had absorbed 52,712, the remainder going to the Navy and the Air Force. Another 67,264 were in New Zealand camps, including 52,983 in the Army, and an additional 100,000 aged between sixteen and sixty were in the Home Guard. The New Zealand Chiefs of Staff, reviewing the situation in the Pacific early in April 1942, considered that six divisions were required for the defence of the Dominion itself, though only three were available. In submitting their appreciation to War Cabinet, they said that additional forces, as requested by Mead, were still required for Fiji—two brigade groups and one battalion for Viti Levu, one brigade group and one battalion for Vanua Levu (the second largest island of the group, which remained completely defenceless), and eight air squadrons. They pointed out that the airfields, still inadequately defended, were being enlarged and three others were to be constructed outside defended areas. Additional forces could come only from New Zealand or the United States, but the Americans, who were then considering sending a division and strong air forces to New Zealand, did not wish to divide their strength between New Zealand and Fiji. The United States Joint Working Committee, at the end of April 1942, thought that in asking for six divisions for the defence of New Zealand, the Dominion was not fully aware of American intentions in the South Pacific. They considered New Zealand would be reasonably secure with four divisions—two New Zealand and two American—and suggested that any remaining page 68 divisions be moved to Fiji. This committee also recommended at the same time that the following aircraft be provided for Fiji: 50 fighters, 26 medium bombers, 13 observation, and 12 navy type seaplanes.
The New Zealand Chiefs of Staff recommended placing the situation before Ghormley while he was still in the United States and, if land forces could not be obtained immediately for Fiji, then the risk of sending the New Zealand army reserve brigade group should be taken, as the situation was then sufficiently serious to warrant such urgent action. Cabinet approved the recommendation and Nash was asked to put the situation to Ghormley. Nash replied on 29 April that the United States Chiefs of Staff refused to consider Fiji as a separate problem and insisted that in their Pacific plan it was only one of a series of mutually supporting islands, which it was. The security of the Pacific area and subsequent operations in it must be considered as whole. They proposed to have an air strength of 1000 personnel in Fiji before the end of 1942, and New Zealand was requested to supply 12,000 troops within that time.
Fraser replied that New Zealand was still of opinion that reinforcements for Fiji should come from the United States. ‘We have despatched to Fiji,’ he cabled, ‘greater forces than we can reasonably be expected to spare, amounting to approximately a quarter of our effective strength at that time.’ He added that to provide 12,000 men would cripple the defences of the Dominion. Besides, it would denude New Zealand of equipment. ‘Even if we were to withdraw our Division from the Middle East, a lengthy period must elapse before its return would enable us to release additional men for Fiji.’ He suggested either American or Canadian reinforcements.
The suggestion that New Zealand might withdraw her 2nd Division from the Middle East to reinforce the Pacific had first been mentioned in a cable to Churchill in February, in which Fraser had hinted that there was some public feeling ‘that the New Zealand Forces should be returned to the Pacific area to meet the danger nearer home’. During negotiations on Pacific manpower requirements, Churchill agreed that it would be preferable to send United States forces to New Zealand rather than withdraw 2 Division from the Middle East, as it would conserve shipping and overcome the needless movement of troops, and shipping was an embarrassing problem in 1942.
While the interchange of opinion proceeded through March and April, America was speeding her first trained forces into the Pacific as she built up her series of mutually supporting bases, in page 69 fulfilment of the Chiefs of Staff planning. Many of the garrisons were already in position. The occupation of New Caledonia was announced on 25 April, and by the end of that month the United States Joint Working Committee recommended that the following be completed by the end of December 1942:
Tonga: 7000, including air forces
New Caledonia: 24,000 already in position
Fiji: 1000, including air forces; New Zealand to provide another 12,000.
By May there were 81,000 American troops, including air personnel, in Australia, and the total American strength in the Pacific south of Hawaii had risen to between 130,000 and 150,000 officers and men of the three arms of the service.
The first intimation that the United States resolved to accept full responsibility for the defence of Fiji and Tonga came on 6 May (the day that Corregidor fell) in a cable from Nash, who had conferred with King. While the Coral Sea battle raged, messages passed between Wellington and Washington stating that New Zealand agreed to the American proposal but expressing surprise at the rapidity of such developments. The Governor of Fiji raised no objection, his only proviso being that two divisions were necessary to ensure the safety of the Colony and that, on political grounds, the identity of both Fijian and Tongan forces should be preserved within the framework of the American command.
Nash continued negotiations with King, who stated that both he and Nimitz considered the urgent strengthening of the islands would result if the United States took them over. Precipitate action had been taken, he said, because troops were already on their way. Nash continued to stress the necessity for at least six divisions in New Zealand, the number recommended by the New Zealand Chiefs of Staff, but King, who still very wisely regarded the whole of New Guinea, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa as vulnerable, explained that the number of American troops was limited and there were requests for them from many sources, particularly from Australia and Great Britain. Plans, outlined in Washington in January, were then in hand for the landing in North Africa later in the year.
Even after the arrival of American troops in Fiji, New Zealand still felt that her troops should remain there. It was still her first line of defence, but although Ghormley personally agreed to their retention, by 13 May King issued a joint Army-Navy Plan for the page 70 relief of the New Zealand forces and the assumption of United States responsibility for the defence of the Fijian Group. When a copy of the relief plan reached Wellington in June, Fraser cabled Nash to the effect that New Zealand was still in favour of leaving her troops to assist the Americans and that no conditions were attached to that offer. King's reply was that he and General Marshall had given further consideration to the New Zealand offer. ‘After discussing the pros and cons,’ he replied, ‘we are of opinion that a greater service to our combined effort in the Pacific would be served by carrying out the present plan for their relief. The New Zealand troops thus relieved, we hope, can be made available for amphibious training with our 1 Marine Division in anticipation of joint offensive action to the north-west.’ The signal also intimated that the United States would increase her ground and air force troops in Fiji to 23,000 by September 1942, but pending the arrival of reinforcements it might be desirable to supply some New Zealand troops to Fiji. Any decision on that point, however, could be made on the spot between Mead and Beightler. Finally, New Zealand accepted the American decision, but the Prime Minister's accepting cable said: ‘We must emphasise our view that 23,000 troops are inadequate to defend the Fiji Islands. It was because of our apprehension … that we made the offer to allow our troops to remain.’ America was to have 14,529 men in Fiji with an additional 6583 by August.
From the time the first troops of the relieving force, the American 37 Division from Ohio, reached the Colony to replace the New Zealand forces, Fiji fulfilled its destined role as a training ground for combat troops, a forward depot for supplies and reserves, and a staging centre for aircraft being ferried to the combat zones. The terms and conditions under which the United States forces occupied the group were, in so far as they were applicable, the same as those in operation for the leased bases set forth in the agreement for the use and operation of United States bases by Great Britain, signed in London on 27 March 1941. The Governor of Fiji remained the single authority responsible to the British Government, and he was also responsible for civilian rights and property. This similarly applied to Tonga and to all British territory in the Pacific zone where military security and defence were vested in the American forces. The system worked well and there was no friction on a high level. As the New Zealand forces remaining in Fiji and Tonga after the withdrawal of 3 Division were equipped with British types of arms, the responsibility for their maintenance remained with New Zealand.