Political and External Affairs
CHAPTER 16 — A Second Front
A Second Front
THE astonishment of New Zealanders–as of the rest of the world–at the news of the Japanese attacks was not due to lack of warning. The likelihood of a southward thrust by Japan had long been a commonplace of political discussion. Her renewed attack on China in 1937 and her subsequent conduct of the China ‘incident’ was fresh in mind during the early days of the war. Indeed, among New Zealanders interested in the Far East there was, if anything, a tendency to simplify the problem, stressing the difficulties genuinely facing Tokyo and under-emphasising the factors which might have led to compromise solutions. When war came in 1939, New Zealand thankfully took advantage of Japan's revulsion against the Russo-German Pact, and hoped that her neutrality would continue. Yet the obvious calculation was widely made: that Japan would take advantage of the European war to push her own cause, and each reverse for the Western Powers in the European theatre would be followed by pressure against their possessions in the East. So, in fact, it turned out. In 1940 and 1941 the newspapers periodically gave full reports of Japan's diplomatic and military progress, to which was added, as the months passed, news of America's growing counter-measures. In the main this information, and newspaper comment upon it, was marked by the characteristic pre-war New Zealand attitude of detachment. These things were happening; many of them were grievous; but they were occurrences in another world.
It was not so very long since New Zealanders in their hearts had viewed even Europe in this way: a stage on which a fascinating drama took place, but a drama which, if it affected the Dominion at all, did so with uncontrollable fatality; New Zealand suffered impacts from an outer world which was utterly remote from New Zealand influence. This passive colonial attitude was not unchallenged in the nineteenth century and it gradually lost its dominance, though not its influence, between the two wars. It was vigorously challenged on the one hand by J. G. Coates, and on the other by the leaders of the Labour Party; and it was eaten away by New Zealand's growing national consciousness in the ten years that followed the great depression. It clung longest in relation to the ‘Far’ East; yet in page 208 newspaper and parliamentary comment there appeared increasing reminders of New Zealand's involvement in Pacific issues. And these were reinforced from time to time by broad hints from political leaders. As early as January 1940 Fraser said publicly with unusual bluntness that Japan was a potential enemy, against whom Britain was New Zealand's sole protector.1 A year later Coates, then a member of War Cabinet, and Fraser himself reminded New Zealanders with some force, if with circumlocution, that New Zealand was seriously threatened by developments in the Pacific as well as by the current crisis in the European theatre.2 In July the Leader of the Opposition called off a parliamentary debate largely on the ground that the Pacific situation ‘has become too grave to permit of party wrangling3.’ As the crisis approached, official warnings became about as plain as was possible when the prospective attacker was still technically friendly, and when delicate negotiations were still in hand.4 Finally, when chastising the Opposition for playing party politics, Fraser on 4 December said that he was hourly expecting ‘the most serious developments in the Pacific’;5 he had been told on 30 November of the message just sent to American naval and military authorities in the Pacific that ‘an aggressive move is expected by Japan, possibly within the next few days6.’
3 NZPD, Vol. 259, p. 522.
7 W. Perry, later member of War Cabinet, NZPD, Vol. 261, pp. 71–2.
These successes were startling enough, even when filtered by censorship. New Zealanders were well accustomed to bad tidings, and to reading between the lines. Their wildest fears scarcely touched the reality of Japanese success at Pearl Harbour; yet they realised well enough that a crippling blow had been struck at the United States Pacific Fleet, and that Japanese forces had landed in Malaya and the Philippines. The arrival at Singapore of two capital ships, Prince of Wales and Repulse, was a relief and encouragement. On 10 December both were lost, and in the days that followed the Japanese made spectacular advances in both Malaya and the Philippines. As Churchill commented at the time, American and British losses had almost overnight given the Japanese ‘full battle-fleet command of Pacific. They can attack with any force overseas at any point1.’ Though no one said as much in public, fears fermented in men's minds, and enough was published to make the whole situation tolerably clear.
1 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 554.
The Herald's comments were, of course, exceptional; most editorial comment was both calmer and less well-informed. But there does seem to have been at this time, as was natural enough, ‘a growing feeling of discontent and frustration among many people over the trend of recent events1.’ The phrase was used by S. G. Holland, Leader of the Opposition, in describing the impressions formed during a recent tour through New Zealand. At the end of January Fraser cabled to Churchill that without fighter protection for Auckland and Wellington ‘the government may have to face serious repercussions in the morale of the public, which may lead to an appreciable diminution in the total war effort2.’
Moreover, restiveness in Australia and New Zealand was stimulated by the consequences of the principle of ‘beating Germany first’ which had been formulated by Anglo-American service planning early in 1941,3 and confirmed by Churchill and Roosevelt at their recent meeting. On 7 February Fraser cabled to Churchill that ‘I feel you should be told that the ill-informed comments emanating recently from America and elsewhere concerning the very large forces retained inactive in the United Kingdom as compared with the needs elsewhere, the despatch of American troops to Northern Ireland, and the use of Dominion forces in the Middle East have been taken up with some force in this Dominion and were indeed reflected, with some degree of embarrassment to us, at the secret session of Parliament yesterday.’ Commenting on the news that the New Zealand Division had just been ordered to move for a full operational role in the Western Desert–an order cancelled on New Zealand's protest–Fraser added that coming after heavy losses suffered by the Division in the fighting at the end of 1941 this might well add point ‘to a demand that the New Zealand Forces should be returned to the Pacific area to meet the danger nearer home4.’
2 PM NZ to PM UK, 30 Jan 1942.
3 McNeill, p. 8.
4 Documents, II, p. 93.
5 Ibid., p. 96.
Another current of opinion was expressed at the annual conference of the Federation of Labour at the beginning of April. This showed that there was general resentment among the trade unions–or at least among their leadership–at the degree to which the New Zealand Government was believed to have acquiesced in the British Government's war policy. A motion recommended by the national executive, and adopted unanimously by the conference, urged a more critical attitude; and Angus McLagan, president of the Federation, who was shortly to become a member of cabinet, urged the Government to follow the example of the Australian Government. This, he said, was ‘standing on its own legs’ instead of ‘refraining from criticism where criticism is not only justified but absolutely necessary2.’
Too much stress should not be laid upon public criticisms of war policy in the early part of 1942. They played their part in the formation of the War Administration later in the year, but–except in so far as members of the Government shared the general feeling–it does not seem that the Government's defence policy was influenced by them in anything like the way it had been when conscription was introduced eighteen months earlier. Public opinion, if not tranquil, was not cantankerous, nor was there substantial, organised criticism with concrete purposes. This time the Government led the way instead of being driven.
2 Standard, 9 Apr 1942.
The arguments that presented themselves for and against the despatch of the Third Echelon show how very difficult was the problem of home defence during this period and, indeed, why no effective land force had been built up by December 1941. Apart from men in camp as reinforcements for the NZEF the country was dependent at that time on the Territorial Force, supplemented by the National Military Reserve. Of the National Military Reserve, 1150 members had been permanently mobilised as coastwatchers or guards for vital points. Its 7800 other members received only about a week or ten days' training each year. It was a voluntary force and its membership was rather mixed as far as age groups and medical gradings were concerned, though it included a large number of returned soldiers of the First World War.
1 GGNZ to SSDA, 3 Aug 1940; Documents, I, p. 171.
The Territorial Force itself was about 31,000 strong, but still suffered from the disorganisation caused by the withdrawal of men for the Division overseas. At first, separate ballots covering the same classes of men had been held for home and overseas service. Since men called in Territorial ballots found themselves later called in overseas ballots, which naturally had first priority, entry into the Territorial Force was later restricted to men not eligible for service in the NZEF–that is, men medically unfit for overseas service, youths of 18 to 20 and men of 41 to 45. Single men only were affected, as the Government had not begun to call up married men for service either within New Zealand or overseas. The Territorial Force was not mobilised, but its members received three months' initial training, two weeks' annual camp, and out-of-camp parades. General Sir Guy Williams, called in by the New Zealand Government to report on the defence of the country, criticised the composition of this force, and observed that it was not fit for active service and with its existing tempo of training never could be. He made recommendations for its improvement, some of which were being put into effect when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour.1 At that time, 5700 Territorials were mobilised, and the remainder of the force was due to enter camp within the next few months to begin the two months' annual training which had been recommended by Williams.
1 Memorandum for War Cabinet, 3 Jul 1941.
Preparations within New Zealand were, of course, supplemented so far as possible by consultations with probable allies. In particular, a series of service conferences in Singapore between October 1940 and April 1941 did something to co-ordinate the planning of Britain and the Dominions with that of the United States and the Dutch.2 The actual outbreak of war, however, and Japan's devastating initial success, confronted the New Zealand service chiefs with new and anxious calculations. Unfortunately, records of the advice given to the Government by its Chiefs of Staff in the crucial period just after Pearl Harbour are incomplete. It appears, however, that on 8 December they argued that the danger of hit-and-run raids by the Japanese should not be allowed ‘to contain us in such a way that we are unable to exercise our full effort to the best advantage….’ Consequently the reinforcements for the NZEF should not be held back if adequate naval escorts were available, nor was the mobilisation of the Territorial Force necessary; though some 4600 fortress troops should be mobilised. At about the same date they ‘expressed the opinion that until Singapore fell and until the United States naval forces suffered a major defeat, invasion of New Zealand was most improbable, and … in their opinion six months must elapse before there could be any danger of invasion of New Zealand.’ On 30 December they revised this estimate. ‘They still regarded invasion of New Zealand as improbable and still held that a major defeat of the United States fleet was an essential condition. But as such a defeat could conceivably occur in a matter of hours, it then became a question as to how long it would take Japan to capture Singapore and also to prepare an expedition of the size required for invasion of New Zealand, and the estimate of three months was arrived at3.’
1 PM UK to PM NZ, 14 Dec 1940.
2 General Percival's report, Supplement to the London Gazette of 26 Feb 1948; Gillespie, pp. 11, 14.
3 Memorandum from GOC to Minister of Defence, 3 Aug 1942; Fraser to Churchill, 12 Jan 1942.
1 Statement of Strengths and Losses in the Armed Services and Mercantile Marine, Parliamentary paper H-19B, 1948, p. 10.
2 Minister of National Service to Secy, Fed. Taranaki Co-op. Dairy Factories, 24 Oct 1941.
3 Director of National Service to Minister of National Service, 28 Nov 1941.
However skilfully disposed of, New Zealand's manpower remained minute in face of the enormously increased demand now imposed upon it. In these circumstances nothing could be done to reinforce the New Zealand forces in the Middle East. The 8th Reinforcements were for the time being incorporated into the home army and until December 1942 no more men were sent to the NZEF. On the other hand, the Japanese attack made it necessary to strengthen New Zealand's outlying defences in the Pacific. ‘There was not one anti-aircraft gun in the South West Pacific in November 1941 and the strength of the defences would not have deterred the most irresolute enemy1.’ And the importance of Fiji in particular was being greatly increased by the work on Nandi aerodrome, which was to be one of the landing grounds in the ‘Reinforcement Line’ for American aircraft flying to the Far East. ‘So long as we hold the Islands, large scale operations against New Zealand are unlikely,’ reported the New Zealand Chiefs of Staff on 7 December. Accordingly, another 4000 men were sent to bring up to two-brigade strength the New Zealand force which had been in Fiji since November 1940. Much of the artillery in New Zealand was also sent including, as Fraser cabled Churchill on 24 December,2 ‘the only (four) heavy anti-aircraft guns and the only (four) Bofors guns which we possess’.
1 Gillespie, p. 42.
2 Ibid., p. 328, Appendix II.
In the period when the war had its principal manifestations in Europe, continued Fraser, New Zealand had been ‘content very largely to abide by the decisions of the British Government and the British Chiefs of Staff, who were not only closer to the problems but more vitally affected by the repercussions of any immediate decision that was taken. Now, however, that the war has moved to our doorstep, I am sure you will agree that where the matters under discussion are of immediate and direct concern to us there must be some method devised by which we can intelligently form and explicitly express our views before action is taken…. Mr Eden has recently announced that Canada and New Zealand are satisfied with the existing situations in this connection, but this is not strictly accurate. What I said was that I did not consider it feasible for the Prime Ministers of the Dominions to be constantly or substantially in session in London and thus be away from their own more immediate responsibilities, or for one Prime Minister to represent all the Dominions.’
So far as the defence of New Zealand was concerned, the Government which was ‘responsible for the lives and safety of this Dominion’ could not wholly divest itself of this responsibility in favour of expert opinion, however authoritative. It had constantly been maintained in the past by the Chiefs of Staff both in the United Kingdom and New Zealand that there was no ‘immediate large-scale threat to the territory of Australia and much less of New Zealand’, an opinion expressed from London as late as 11 December. ‘Frankly,’ wrote Fraser, ‘we do not accept this, and, even if we did accept it, prudence and the demands of our own people would oblige us to prepare against the worst. He recalled that, page 218 only a few months before, ‘the highest military authority’ pronounced New Zealand and Fiji to be ‘in no danger of serious attack unless in the “unthinkable” contingency of the British and American fleets being driven from the Pacific and Singapore having fallen…. Our reflection on this is that the unthinkable is now in everyone's mind.’ New Zealand, he concluded, had very little knowledge of the intentions of those responsible for the higher direction of the war, practically none of American intentions. ‘We feel we must have an eye, an ear and a voice wherever decisions affecting New Zealand are to be made and we are by no means happy with the arrangements so far as we know them for the conduct of the war against Japan1.’
Churchill replied at length. On the two major points raised, he wrote that he found the idea of a unified command for the Indian and Pacific oceans ‘more attractive in theory than, in my view, it could work out in practice, unless it were possible for the United States Navy Department and British Admiralty, with the Naval Boards of Australia and New Zealand and of the Dutch Government, to be merged into one large united national [sic] Navy Department.’ He was, however, ‘entirely sympathetic’ to the New Zealand desire for a place in the framing of Pacific war policy, and had suggested ‘that a body should be formed in London with representatives, on a Ministerial plane, of the Australian, New Zealand and Dutch Governments’ to deal with major problems concerning the Pacific.2 The Australians had pressed, with even greater vehemence, for a share in the overall strategic planning for the Pacific area; and both the South Pacific dominions felt that Churchill's plan was very far from meeting their needs. In particular, it gave them no direct contact with the American authorities, though it was clear that power in the so-called ‘Anzac’ area–Australia, New Zealand and part of New Guinea–would rest in American hands; unless indeed it were in those of Japan.
1 At the Churchill-Roosevelt discussions of December 1941 Roosevelt at one stage proposed that Australian, New Zealand and Dutch representatives be attached in an advisory capacity to a committee in Washington which (under Roosevelt and Churchill) would be responsible for the direction of the Pacific war. As ‘everybody and his grandmother’ wanted to be represented on this committee, it was finally decided to assign the job of advising the President to the British and American group known as the Combined Chiefs of Staff.–Hopkins Papers, Vol. I, p. 481.
2 PM UK to PM NZ, 17 Jan 1942.
3 PM NZ to PM UK, 20 and 26 Jan 1942.
The discussions on this problem showed how far New Zealand policy had moved in the three war years. On 6 February Walter Nash, now Minister at Washington, though still a member of the New Zealand cabinet, summed up the Dominion's criticisms of a Far Eastern or Pacific Council in London. The proposal, he wrote, will ‘lead to the formation of a British Commonwealth or sectarian point of view, which will then have to be reconciled from a considerable distance with another sectarian point of view in Washington’. His argument was for a council at Washington to direct the Pacific war, and he urged that New Zealand should continue to press for this ‘not only for our own sakes but for the sake of the common cause. Clinging to pre-war policies and exaggerating present loyalties will not help towards our objective–the winning of the war–and neither policies nor loyalties will matter much if we lose.’ His cable ended, ‘Sir John Dill has just advised me over the telephone that Churchill has announced the setting-up of the Far Eastern Council in London, and I presume we will not say much publicly at present; but it does not appear to me that we can effectively carry on a successful Pacific campaign other than through Washington as suggested.’
1 The American-British-Dutch-Australian defence area, which was formally placed under the command of General Wavell in December 1941, and which disintegrated with the Japanese victories of the following February.
2 PM UK to PM NZ, 2 Feb 1942.
1 PM to Nash, 19 Feb 1942.
2 PM Aust. to PM NZ, 1 and 5 Mar 1942.
3 PM NZ to PM UK, 6 Mar 1942.
5 McNeill, p. 156.
6 Brigadier A. B. Williams became New Zealand Army representative in the British Joint Staff Mission in February 1942.–Gillespie, pp. 30, 60.
New Zealand was naturally gratified to be told in March 1942 that a Pacific Council was to be set up in Washington, but another detail of the reorganisation made in the same month was much less welcome to her. It was decided to divide the Pacific into the Southwest Pacific area stretching from Australia northward to the Philippines, and under the command of General MacArthur, and the Pacific Ocean area under Admiral Nimitz, Commander of the United States Pacific Fleet. The Pacific Ocean area was subdivided into three, and it was in the southern of these areas that New Zealand and the island groups to the north of her were included. Both New Zealand and Australia were most dissatisfied at this separation. Nevertheless, plans for the garrisoning of the South Pacific were promptly completed in Washington and at the end of March Nash reported from Washington that some of the forces destined there had already been despatched. He concluded that there was no hope of the arrangement being altered, and suggested that ‘To insist now that the naval plans for New Zealand and the Islands and contemplated naval operations should be placed under the control of MacArthur would … extend the delays and differences which we have been trying to clear up1.’ Wellington agreed that the best course was to register a protest, but to accept the arrangement and do all possible to make it work.2
1 Nash to PM, 27 Mar 1942.
2 PM NZ to Nash, 28 Mar 1942.
3 Churchill to House of Commons, 27 Jan 1942.
4 McNeill, p. 157.
Whatever New Zealand's hopes of ultimate succour, the situation in the early months of 1942 was frightening enough. Having long underestimated Japan's striking, power, the experts now tended to exaggerate it.3 Moreover, there were grounds for expecting a strong thrust southwards: on 8 January 1942, for instance, the American authorities told New Zealand that an attack on Fiji by a division and four aircraft-carriers could be expected at any time after 10 January.4 In February the New Zealand Government argued strongly that the Japanese, having conquered the Netherlands Indies, were more likely to attack Australia than India. Australia was after all the obvious base for an Allied counter-attack; ‘it seems to follow that New Zealand must become a base also, and, especially having regard to the vulnerability of Australian bases, it may well become the main base.’ It was essential therefore to hold both New Zealand, whose relative isolation made it potentially a most secure base, and Fiji, which was ‘an essential link on the line of air communication and a potential naval base.’ ‘If they both fall, the prospect of adequately conducting from the United States effective operations in the Mid- and South West Pacific areas seems to us to become exceedingly thin5.’
2 Morison, US Naval Operations, Vol. IV, p. 246.
3 Gillespie, p. 61.
4 PM NZ to PM UK, 12 Jan 1942; Gillespie, p. 61.
5 PM NZ to PM UK, 17 Feb 1942.
Thinking thus, the New Zealand Government was alarmed to find that military opinion in London still apparently expected that the next Japanese move would be west towards India and north towards Burma.1 It would follow that any attack on New Zealand would be on a small scale, say by a brigade group. Realisation of the implications of these calculations stung the New Zealand Government to vehement protest. ‘Candidly I must tell you,’ cabled Fraser to Churchill on 28 February, ‘that my colleagues and I are appalled by this attempt to think in terms of the past, and if this line of thought is persisted in we must brace ourselves to meet the fate of Malaya, and with infinitely less reason or excuse.’ He asked that if this calculation went forward ‘it be accompanied by our very strongest protest’ and a vigorous statement of New Zealand's contrary views. Churchill replied soothingly to this outburst; indeed, the report against which New Zealand had reacted was based on preliminary discussions which he said did not represent the views of the British Chiefs of Staff. In practice, however, the three large measures for New Zealand security which he had in mind amounted to his hopes of persuading America to send adequate naval strength to the Anzac area, to reinforce Fiji and New Caledonia, and to offer troops to New Zealand in compensation for the absence of her Expeditionary Force in the Middle East.2
At this stage New Zealand was pressing primarily for aircraft and for equipment for the army. It was recognised that the ‘most effective insurance against invasion is that given by naval forces, which should with adequate air support intercept any enemy expedition before it reaches New Zealand3.’ Since it was, to say the least, uncertain whether the naval forces available would be adequate, every possible effort was being made to build up the air and land forces in New Zealand. It was painfully clear, however, that New Zealand was utterly dependent on her overseas friends for equipment. Quite apart from her basic industrial weakness, the deliberate policy in the early days of the war had been to rely on overseas supplies. Further, no conceivable disposition of manpower could find, even untrained, more than half the men judged necessary for the local defence of New Zealand.
2 PM UK to PM NZ, 4 Mar 1942.
3 PM NZ to Nash, 14 Feb 1942.
1 Churchill to Roosevelt, 15 Feb 1941.
2 Churchill, Vol. III; Hasluck, pp. 616 ff; McNeill, p. 152.
The sentiments which animated the Australians were felt in New Zealand too. There had long been a strong current of opinion that too much attention was being paid to the European theatre, and not enough to the Pacific and to home defence. With an obviously menacing situation, the natural feeling, both in the Dominion and among the troops, was bluntly expressed by Freyberg–‘if New Zealand is attacked, our place should be at home.’ Furthermore, the political consideration was soon to be added: that New Zealand, as a Pacific country, should have a voice in the decision of Pacific politics, and that the best way to earn this right was by hard fighting in Pacific warfare. These arguments were raised in the community–and in Parliament–backed by reports, mainly from the United States, that large forces were held inactive in Britain while troops from the Dominions were used mercilessly in North Africa.2 Yet New Zealand characteristically gave great weight to Churchill's solid and eloquent arguments, based on the general interest. He had yielded to Australian pressure, and the bulk of their troops were on the way home. To supply shipping to bring the New Zealand Division to the Pacific, and then replacements to the Middle East, would be a further immense drain on resources, and would gravely weaken the Commonwealth's forces in a still vital area. Accordingly, on 5 March Churchill proposed to Roosevelt that an American division should come to New Zealand on the express condition that the NZEF remained in Egypt.3 Five days later he enthusiastically reported the President's approval. ‘You have never asked for the withdrawal of your division, and we have admired the constancy of spirit and devotion to the cause which has animated your government and people. All the more do I feel that this promised aid from the United States will be gratifying4.’
1 McNeill, p. 153.
2 Documents, II, p. 93.
3 Churchill, Vol. IV, p. 170.
4 SSDA to PM, 10 Mar 1942.
5 On 8 April the Director of Publicity, in a memorandum to editors, asked them to avoid placing undue emphasis upon this news.
Overseas opinion thought New Zealand's estimate of her own needs was somewhat high. The Americans thought four divisions would be fair enough.2 The British Chiefs of Staff put the figure somewhat lower, in a careful calculation at the end of March. They argued that so long as New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa were held, a Japanese invasion of New Zealand would be ‘extremely difficult if not impracticable.’ If the island groups were lost, invasion would become ‘much more possible’ though still unlikely. If the Japanese should decide to invade New Zealand they could use some ten to eleven divisions, together with a large naval force including five aircraft-carriers (240 aircraft). However, the seizure of a base would be a necessary preliminary to a full-scale invasion, for which operation the Japanese might use one or two divisions. It would be essential to repel this initial attack since ‘to provide sufficient land forces to prevent Japanese occupation once they had established a base in New Zealand would be far beyond the shipping resources of Allied Powers.’ Accordingly the British Chiefs of Staff thought that New Zealand's land forces should stand at two or three divisions.3
1 PM NZ to PM UK, 15 Mar 1942.
2 Nash to PM, 29 Apr 1942.
4 PM UK to PM NZ, 15 Mar 1942.
1 PM NZ to Nash, 31 Mar 1942.