Political and External Affairs
CHAPTER 7 — The Eleventh Hour
The Eleventh Hour
THE intractable chaos of British Commonwealth strategy in the Pacific was surveyed with dignity and commonsense by a conference of defence experts drawn from Britain, Australia and New Zealand in Wellington in April 1939. For New Zealand thinking about defence this conference was a decisive experience: or perhaps, more accurately, would have been decisive if time for effective action had still remained. The meeting itself originated in a New Zealand suggestion, and New Zealand was the driving force throughout. For her officials and politicians the mere organisation of such a gathering was an education, apart from the material information which came to light, and the conference drew together the streams of foreign policy and strategic thinking which had at times seriously diverged. More specifically, it made an essential conversion within the New Zealand cabinet. The Prime Minister, M. J. Savage, was in this context the key person. Personally optimistic and anti-militarist, he resisted the political judgment that armed force in addition to good will might be necessary to resist evil; and he was repelled by the idea that New Zealand manpower should be sent to fight overseas. Accordingly, though his cabinet had approved of expanding preparations for defence, the emphasis lay on Air Force and Navy and technical expertise; and the Prime Minister himself was unimpressed by the need to strengthen the Army. In April 1939 he changed his mind. ‘The conclusions reached by the Pacific Defence Conference,’ he said later,1 ‘convinced me of the necessity of having in New Zealand not only a modern Air Force and Navy, but also an Army reasonable in numbers and efficient, with a proper scale of modern weapons.’ In the remaining months of peace the Prime Minister threw his powerful influence into the strengthening of the Army in terms which in good faith repudiated the possibility of an expeditionary force, but in fact directly prepared for it.
1 PM Aust to PM NZ, 29 Mar 1939 and 1 Apr 1939.
1 GOC to Minister of Defence, 12 May 1936.
These proceedings naturally led to complex diplomacy, of which New Zealand was kept informed, and her opinion frequently asked. Great Britain agreed to discuss marginal cases, and ultimately accepted an American suggestion that Canton and Enderbury Islands should be jointly controlled for fifty years, without prejudice to ultimate ownership. Her view, however, was that claims for islands were connected with the general problem of trans-Pacific air routes, and that the four countries concerned—USA, Britain, Australia and New Zealand—should confer to plan a solution for the problem as a whole. Co-operation of several governments was clearly essential, and the possession of various islands could best be decided when the needs of the rival services had been studied in a joint political and technical discussion. The United States rejected this approach. She refused to confer on the broad problem of civilian aviation or to agree to the principle that the countries concerned should give each other reciprocal rights in their various territories. She laid claim to a string of islands which bit deep into territories long regarded as British, and which would have given a chain of potential air bases. American action at Canton, moreover, showed that in crucial cases the only claim she would recognise was that the claimant was actually developing the islands in question, and was not merely represented there by governmental officials. Between 1935 and 1939, then, there was something like a scramble to establish island claims in the central Pacific. Ostensibly it was a matter of legal definitions. Behind lay rivalry in commercial air routes, and perhaps behind this again, at least in American eyes, the possibility of a naval war against Japan.
New Zealand's policy in this tug-of-war behind the scenes was to support the British attitude, with perhaps slightly greater asperity than Britain herself. She clearly wanted to prevent British aviation in the Pacific from being swamped by America: therefore she wanted surveys to be pushed ahead, and took an active part in them. The cruisers Achilles and Leander were used in such surveys, and in October 1938 New Zealand willingly acted on a British request to prepare an air base on Christmas Island, one of the most important and most controversial of the islands concerned. She approved of discussions on marginal islands—while refusing to admit that any of hers fell within this category—and urged that, if necessary to win reciprocal rights, the British countries should refuse landing rights to the Americans.page 76
In relation to the Pacific islands, then, as in relation to Japan, New Zealand had worked herself into a foreign policy mildly independent from that of the United Kingdom. Perhaps it would be fanciful to find here echoes of the Pacific imperialism of Grey and Vogel and Seddon. Yet New Zealand may well have been responding to the same basic factors which stung those elder statesmen to aspire to leadership of the British peoples in the Pacific area. To men of foresight, New Zealand's destiny was tied up with trade and communications in that area, no less than with her lifeline to Europe. She had, in fact, the embarrassment of an inescapable dualism: tied at once to Europe and the Pacific, she was deeply committed to Britain, yet was situated in an area where American was displacing British dominance. Some aspects of this change appeared to distress her Ministers more than their colleagues in London; but it was with British approval that New Zealand proposed for the conference agenda an item covering ‘Policy in relation to Trans-Pacific air routes and United States activities in the Pacific.’
The Pacific Defence Conference opened in Wellington on 14 April 1939. On the crucial issue of Singapore, the British delegation was firmly optimistic. The base would be reinforced, even in a simultaneous war against Germany and Japan. No crisis in the Mediterranean area, however severe, would interfere with the despatch of a fleet to the Far East, and it could reasonably be presumed that the Singapore base would hold out indefinitely. Thus protected from any risk of major attack, New Zealand could plan long-term co-operation along much the same lines as in the First World War. ‘Once New Zealand is involved in war,’ wrote the British Chiefs of Staff, ‘the best means by which her land forces can co-operate is by the formation of a division, as in 1914–18, and its eventual despatch for operations overseas wherever it can be employed most usefully. We suggest that in peace time the New Zealand Army should be organised with this role in view, so that the division could be despatched in as short a time as possible.’ Admiralty spokesmen also denied that New Zealand's overseas communications would be cut in the opening months of warfare against a combination of Germany and Japan. By ‘evasive routing’, they said, most ships would get through.1
1 Sir R. Colvin on 14 Apr 1939.
So far as concerned New Zealand, such conclusions were of political, not of military importance. They showed an attitude, which influenced wartime and post-war policy; they could not lead to adequate preparations to meet the eventuality that was feared. A hint of the reality was contained in a dialogue which then sounded almost flippant. Suppose, asked the New Zealanders, that Singapore has fallen and the reinforcing fleet has been smashed, how do we then defend New Zealand? ‘Take to the Waitomo Caves’, replied the British delegation. The exchange was significant. The British delegates refused to take seriously a fundamental factor in New Zealand thinking–that Singapore was vulnerable, and that with or without it, New Zealand was in danger. On the other hand, supposing New Zealand to be exposed to major attack, the preparations she could make were desperately limited by lack of industrial resources, local or overseas, even if she undertook a ruinous expenditure. The consciousness of danger, and of the impossibility of doing anything about it, was a factor in New Zealand statesmanship until the tide of Pacific warfare turned decisively in 1943.
1 Hull, Memoirs, Vol. I, p. 630. In May 1939 the Committee of Imperial Defence was to accept the view that ‘There are so many variable factors which could not at-present be assessed that it is not possible to state definitely how soon after Japanese intervention a fleet could be despatched to the Far East. Neither is it possible to enumerate precisely the size of the fleet we could afford to send’.
3 Morison, United States Naval Operations, Vol. III, p. 49.
In the upshot, the Defence Conference placed its authority behind a line of thinking already accepted by New Zealand soldiers; that the Army must be considerably strengthened with the immediate object of equipping it to deal with substantial raids–or even with major attacks–but with the ulterior hope that it would also be thus enabled to provide an expeditionary force at need. This policy–with explicit reference to an expeditionary force tactfully omitted–now became that of the New Zealand Government; and Major-General P. J. Mackesy, chief British military delegate, was invited to remain to advise as to details. Meanwhile, discussion at the conference showed where the crucial problem lay–in equipment rather than in men. British advice was to build up locally stocks to cover mobilisation as well as a period to allow reprovisioning from the United Kingdom; no time was mentioned, except that it must be longer than for reinforcing Singapore. No allowance had been made for New Zealand's needs, however, in estimating Britain's manufacturing capacity in wartime. The conference was told firmly that no provision had been made in the United Kingdom to make munitions for New Zealand after the outbreak of war, and that nothing would be done at the British end without firm orders, which should therefore be placed immediately. The situation was such, however, that there would be long delay in delivering anything ordered now. Nor could much help be expected from Australian industry. Local defence needs would absorb all that was being produced, and though expansion was not in itself difficult it would take time. Plans for the supply of munitions to New Zealand's forces were evidently in a rudimentary state as late as April 1939; and the conference could not do much more than lay bare the problem.
In dealing with the Pacific islands, New Zealand was in some sense the pacemaker, and her government was very conscious of the page 79 development of modern aviation which gave vastly increased importance to the islands in her neighbourhood. Fiji and Tonga, noted the Chiefs of Staff in December 1938, are ‘entirely undefended, they invite capture’. A Japanese expedition, once established, could be dislodged only by a major operation; meantime it would disastrously disrupt shipping and bring much of New Zealand within range of air attack. The New Zealand delegation, therefore, pressed upon the conference the strategic importance of the islands to the north. For her part she had already promised to garrison Fanning Island and offered to keep a brigade group ready to reinforce Fiji and other islands. The conference's general conclusion was that it was impossible to defend all islands that might be useful to the Japanese. Fiji, it was agreed, should be held and plans were prepared. For the rest, there must be reliance on small local militia forces to make landing difficult and a mobile force to deal with intruders. In May 1939 it was reported that small defence forces actually existed at Ocean Island, Fanning Island, and Tulagi. The plan was to make these forces strong enough to deal with raids by forces of up to 200 men; this, of course, being the official estimate of the strength of raids which might be expected by New Zealand itself.
The problem of the Pacific islands, however, obviously concerned friends as well as enemies, and the New Zealand delegation urged that a co-operative air route should be organised with the Americans by ‘the granting of full reciprocal rights’ to the aircraft of either nationality operating along a common route; though British countries should control the Tasman. It urged also that a British policy towards American claims on Pacific islands must be ‘formulated and agreed upon’. To many this insistence was ill-timed. The cardinal problem in the Pacific appeared to be that of planning for a war against Japan and Germany simultaneously, and no positive conclusions were reached on attitudes towards America. The New Zealand Government, however, remained intensely uneasy lest the Americans might, with the additional advantage of British preoccupation in Europe, oust British aviation from the Pacific and establish claims among the islands. This uneasiness was strongly expressed as late as November 1939, when New Zealand urged that the trans-Tasman link should be quickly established for reasons of prestige in the Pacific as well as for material and strategic purposes. The whole matter, however, was soon dropped by common consent, New Zealand being watchdog to the last, on the ground that discussions likely to irritate one's friends should be postponed till the enemy was beaten.
When the Defence Conference separated, General Mackesy remained behind at New Zealand's request to report on the state page 80 of her army: his report, together with the conference's own recommendation, set the pattern of New Zealand's preparations in the remaining interval of peace. Many of these preparations were technical, and beyond the scope of this volume; for example, possible air reconnaissance, and the organisation of forces to serve in the Pacific islands, and, more generally, the efforts made to obtain munitions, both for home defence and for the equipment of a possible expeditionary force. A good deal was done towards remedying weakness in liaison between the armed forces of the British countries. The conference showed, for example, that information flowed freely between Britain and New Zealand but that there was lacking the intimate co-operation given by personal contacts. The Australian and New Zealand navies evidently kept in close touch, but there was need for great improvement with the armies and air forces. In the remaining months of peace, some advance was made in these directions. In the political field, the conference made plain the corresponding need to improve cooperation with the Government of Australia on matters of broad policy. This problem had been raised from New Zealand in September 1938, when it was pointed out that the two countries often got information about each other's plans through their mutual contact with the British Government. New Zealand wanted to ‘establish the principle of complete mutual interchange of information between Governments as opposed to between individual services’, and favoured periodical conferences.1 Australia's reply had been cautious, and her partial acceptance of New Zealand's proposals did nothing to bridge the considerable difference in point of view between the two governments as revealed in the whole story of the 1939 conference. At this stage, it appears that New Zealand rather than Australia was pushing for closer political liaison between the two countries, and for a more independent line in Pacific policy. Nor is there much evidence of change in this matter before the Japanese entered the war.
1 Documents relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War, Vol. I, p. 338.
The Governor-General, Lord Galway, farewells the First Echelon at Parliament Buildings, Wellington, 3 January 1940
Evacuation from Greece, April 1941
Drinking milk on the wharf, Wellington, June 1942
The Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser is welcomed at Washington
Left to right: Lord Halifax, British Ambassador to the United States; Brigadier-General Patrick Hurley, United States Minister to New Zealand; Hon. Walter Nash, New Zealand Minister to the United States; Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser; and Mr Cordell Hull, Secretary of State
Hudsons of No. 3 Squadron leaving Whenuapai in the early morning for the forward area, October 1942
Mud in the Kaimai Ranges – 3 Division manoevres in New Zealand
Once the policy had been determined, there was nothing maladroit about Mr Savage's appeal for recruits. He spoke indeed from a position of unique personal strength. The very cloudiness of his past thoughts on the subject cleared him from any suspicion of militarism–his conception of defence had always been based on that of a population who could be relied upon to do the decent thing because of their basic goodness of heart and because Labour's social programme had removed the source of evil. With this programme he was popularly identified. A successful radio personality had convinced countless New Zealanders of his manifest kindliness and faith in humanity.
The recruiting rate immediately increased: in June, 1550 men joined the Territorials, as compared with an average of 530 in the three months February-April. Yet to some the flow seemed pitifully slow, and there was a renewed demand for compulsory military training. A resolution advocating it was passed at the NZRSA Conference on 22 June, and a few days later when the Address-in-Reply debate opened the Opposition took a much more definite line on the matter than it had in the past. Colonel Hargest said that ‘We stand for universal military training for home defence, and we consider that if citizens desire to enjoy all the rights and privileges of a British democracy they should be prepared to do their share towards defending them’.2 Most other opposition members spoke strongly in favour of compulsory service. However, the Government still stood firmly against peacetime conscription. Labour tradition was strongly against it, and the idea was repugnant even to those who could contemplate the possibility of compulsion in times of war. This, it seems clear, was already the position of Savage and of Peter Fraser, who was to succeed him as Prime Minister in 1940; when the nation had its back to the wall, suggested Savage in mid-1938, compulsion may prove necessary, but ‘we will not begin with human flesh and blood’ or allow some men to profiteer while others are dying.3 That conscription of wealth would precede conscription of manpower became the stock formula of Labour speakers whenever the latter problem had to be discussed.
In the meantime, however, it is doubtful if, even if they had wished, the members of cabinet could have carried the Labour movement with them on compulsory military training. If diehard opponents of conscription had been added to critics who complained that cabinet's financial policy was too conservative, the position of the party leadership might have become precarious. Voluntary recruiting continued, therefore. In the last three months of peace over 6000 men enlisted in the Territorials, the roll of whom at the end of August stood at nearly 17,000. In addition roughly 10,000 men with military training had volunteered for the National Military Reserve.
1 Press, 31 May 1939.
2 NZPD, Vol. 254, p. 36.
Ultimately the responsibility in such fields must rest on cabinet, and particularly on the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, the lessons of the First World War showed clearly the need for planning ahead of urgent need and the utility of well organised professional institutions to guide statesmen through problems impossibly complex for last-minute study.
Such lines of thought demanded a departure from New Zealand's general tradition, namely, that a few key men should know everything and give decisions without interference by specialists. They demanded, too, that something more systematic than personal contacts between individuals should integrate the work of the different branches of the armed services, and plan defence in terms of civilian as well as of military organisation. Overseas models were, in fact, not lacking. Some institution was needed on the model of the British Committee of Imperial Defence to link together the research and policy-forming work of politicians, servicemen and civilian departments, and to assure that when action was needed, it could be taken promptly. The Committee of Imperial Defence was, of course, an active body in Britain during the years before 1914. It was a group of interlocking committees, covering all departments that would be concerned with the outbreak of war, but crowned by a small ‘Prime Minister's Committee’ which could ensure effective action. In such a body the transition from peace to war could be organised as a national problem; and mere prudence dictated that every department should know its function in any crisis and have confidence that the government machine as a whole was proceeding according to a coherent plan, and dealing with contingencies that had been foreseen. One of the major functions of the Committee of Imperial Defence was, therefore, to compile page 85 and keep up to date the overall plan, embodied in a complex set of documents which came to be known as the ‘War Book’.
The Imperial Conference of 1911 had recognised the need for some such body in every dominion; but action lagged. In 1920 an effort was made in New Zealand to organise an advisory committee, and it met once. In 1928 the British Government told the Dominions that its own War Book was complete, and sent out a description of it and of the work of the Committee of Imperial Defence, in the hope that this would be of value to those drafting the Dominions' War Books. It also raised the whole question of imperial defence, the function of the CID and the need for defence committees in the Dominions. The New Zealand Minister of Defence, T. M. Wilford, discussed the matter with his service chiefs, and memoranda were drafted for the Prime Minister adapting British practice to New Zealand conditions. But then the suggestion lapsed, and was lost to sight under the waves of economic depression, in spite of awkward reminders from London that something should be done about a New Zealand War Book. At the Imperial Conference of 1930, for example, it appeared that Australia, Canada, South Africa and India had made considerable progress, but New Zealand had achieved nothing. The advent of Hitler at length gave new stimulus: in February 1933 the Prime Minister said that the War Book should be pushed ahead; and, after considerable service prompting, announced in October his decision to form a New Zealand section of the Committee of Imperial Defence.
It met for the first time on 15 November 1933 and was addressed by three cabinet ministers; and a series of sub-committees got promptly to work. Yet the way remained hard. Outside of a few keen servicemen, of whom Major W. G. Stevens became secretary, there was little appreciation of the magnitude of the task in hand. An under-staffed Prime Minister's Department and cabinet secretariat could not undertake their natural function of administering the new co-ordinating committee. Army officers who acted as secretaries to sub-committees were distracted by other duties. Moreover, the structure was incomplete; the New Zealand Committee of Imperial Defence was essentially an affair of officials, civilian and military. It lacked the Prime Minister's committee of British precedent, the direct link with cabinet which would have given both leadership and the prospect of action. As it was, cabinet ministers could find no time to consider CID papers, let alone press forward its work which, in cautious official phraseology, ‘proceeded with no great enthusiasm or result till November 1935’. An impasse had been reached, with preparatory work piling up and the bridges to link up government departments still unbuilt.page 86
Towards the end of 1935 the Committee itself worked out plans to make action at last effective. The key man must be the Prime Minister, in whose office an adequate secretariat should be lodged and to whom the organisation–soon to be re-christened the Organisation for National Security–should have direct access. The group of sub-committees working on specific problems should be crowned, as in Britain, by a Prime Minister's committee attended by ‘appropriate ministers and the Heads of the Fighting Services.’ A senior civil servant should be sent to the Imperial Defence College and given experience of the British Committee of Imperial Defence, and then appointed secretary to the New Zealand organisation with status as Assistant Secretary to the Permanent Head of the Prime Minister's Department. This scheme was recommended to Cabinet on 20 December 1935, just after the change of government, with reminders in March and August of the following year.
It was late in the day for such a gap in effective planning to be tolerated; and in March 1937, with nothing yet achieved, the matter was taken up again by uneasy servicemen. Paymaster Commander E. L. Tottenham, as Naval Secretary, had long been fighting for a more efficient organisation at headquarters; and the Chiefs of Staff now asked with some emphasis for a Council of Defence composed of the Prime Minister, Minister of Defence, Chiefs of Staffs of the three services, and such other persons as the Prime Minister might appoint. Here was a Prime Minister's committee on the British model, strong enough to co-ordinate the policy of the defence departments and to direct the work of the sub-committees of the Organisation for National Security–work involving almost all government departments. It could keep contact with parallel bodies in Britain and other dominions, and should be served by a secretariat in close contact with the Prime Minister's Department. It was planned as an advisory body, which would propose action to cabinet: a means of focusing expert advice, so that politically responsible action could be prompt and well informed.
The general scheme was at last approved, and in May 1937 the Council of Defence was created. Major Stevens was accordingly established within the Prime Minister's Department with the triple function of Secretary to the Organisation for National Security, to the Council of Defence, and to the Chiefs-of-Staff Committee. The means were thus formally provided by which the planning of New Zealand's war effort, military and civil, could be studied in a systematic way through sub-committees, their reports co-ordinated, and recommendations placed before Cabinet in a form suitable for quick decision.
Whether actual achievement was greatly hastened is another matter. Even after Munich the Chiefs of Staff complained that page 87 Cabinet was dilatory in giving decisions on their recommendations, and as late as August 1939 the Manpower Committee could not go ahead because it had had no ‘indication of the Government's view of manpower problems in war’. Nor was the necessary administrative machine built up with any sense of urgency. Within ONS itself all depended on one man, Major Stevens, for a year or more, both for the organisation of committee work and the drafting of reports. It was only in the course of 1938 that the secretarial work of various committees was gradually taken over by the departments likely to be most concerned, and it was not till September 1938, the month of Munich, that the ONS got a civilian Assistant Secretary.
Ill provided as it was, the ONS grappled manfully with problems of central planning, aided by recurrent crises in Europe. In September 1938, it seemed, an effective beginning had scarcely been made in the War Book which would guide every department through the transition to a state of war; in that month, wrote Stevens, ONS ‘achieved more … than in the previous three and a half years of its history’; ‘during the crisis all departments were most helpful and the work advanced rapidly’. With relaxed tension, however, pressure still was necessary to finalise details and ensure revision; as late as 12 June 1939 it was still necessary for the Prime Minister to ask all departments concerned to have their sections of the book complete by the end of July. As tested in the outcome, the work was well done, and just in time.
Other aspects of the work depended on factors harder to control. No efforts made in New Zealand in 1939 could significantly increase the equipment available for the armed forces, nor, short of conscription, produce a wholly adequate number of recruits. From time to time, for example, there was talk of producing military equipment locally, and in April the Defence Conference recommended that New Zealand's capacity to make military equipment should be explored. The New Zealand delegation ‘pointed out that if any armament production capacity were to be inaugurated in New Zealand its creation must depend upon the provision of basic industries such as [an] iron and steel industry’. This cautious pomposity did not conceal the fact that nothing whatever could be done beyond the frantic, ingenious improvisation which in wartime did enable New Zealand industry to do useful work with existing resources. There was a certain industrial development in New Zealand between 1935 and 1939. It is, of course, debatable whether much of this was due to direct government action, except in so far as public policy was responsible for a general inflationary movement, and for the system of import control imposed in 1938. Cabinet was, however, conscious of the relevance of industrial activity to warfare. Thus Mr Savage said in March 1939, ‘…it is page 88 our bounden duty to prepare for the worst, not only in defence along ordinary lines, but in industrial development upon which the defence of the country will largely depend1.’
So far as manpower was concerned, difficulties were not economic but political. By common consent, a national register was the essential foundation for any intelligent planning, and on 25 January 1939 the relevant ONS committee pressed cabinet for the compilation of a compulsory register of the country's manpower, and failing that a voluntary register–‘The Committee desire to put forward the view that the only method which allows time for planning ahead and for obviating confusion is a compulsory register in peace; but it must be made clear that this almost inevitably leads on to full compulsory control from the outset of the war’. Here lay the crux of the matter. The unwillingness of cabinet to treat conscription as anything more than a remote possibility has already been noted, and despite the efforts of the committee the decision to compile a register was not taken until after the outbreak of war.
In the upshot, New Zealand entered the war better prepared, psychologically, technically and administratively, than might have been anticipated in view of her far from warlike past. Fortune favoured: the war against Japan, against which she could not have armed herself or her economy, was postponed till, with American help, it could in fact be faced. For the war as it actually evolved, the channels of her co-operation had been clearly marked out as regards Army, Navy and Air Force alike. The men were there, untrained it is true, but eager; and the machinery, military and administrative, was there, much of it built at the eleventh hour and untried but ready for use. To have done much more–for example to have raised and trained an expeditionary force and to have had it ready for export on 3 September 1939–would have been politically impossible. It would also have been of doubtful strategic wisdom in view of New Zealand's situation and of the professional advice received. New Zealand moved into line slowly, reluctantly, and in response to irresistible pressure; but for the particular task in hand she was not ill-equipped.