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

195 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

21 August 1940

The improvement of the military situation at Home continues as re-armament progresses. However, the situation in the Middle East cannot be considered satisfactory until fresh equipment and troops arrive.

No doubt the Axis powers have the initiative for the moment both at Home and in the East, but they also have limitations of action. Their invasion of Great Britain must be attempted before bad weather in September or wait until the spring. Bearing in mind the rate of re-armament, by next spring we should have four armoured divisions and over thirty infantry divisions equipped. page 145 If the German General Staff wish to invade the United Kingdom they must do so in the next three weeks or give up the project for good.

As for the invasion of Egypt, the hot weather would appear to preclude until October any large-scale offensive across the Libyan Desert. The invasion of Egypt, therefore, would not appear likely until after the threat to the United Kingdom has been disposed of. In either case, the Axis powers would need to re-deploy their air force formations, together with a large number of load- and troop-carrying aircraft. Wastage to these load-carriers in the event of attack on the United Kingdom would be very great, perhaps 50 per cent. It is estimated that at least 500 load-carriers would be required, and this is possible as Germany alone has approximately this number. In view of wastage, however, there would appear to be only sufficient load-carriers for one offensive, not both.

Germany is ready to attack. She is known to have re-deployed her Air Force against the United Kingdom and, as rash as it may appear, Germany will consider very carefully before giving up the invasion plan. I still think that it is not a possible operation of war.

There are two schools of thought upon defence in Government circles here, those who argue that all equipment should be concentrated upon the defence of the United Kingdom until the threat of invasion is disposed of, and those who believe that there can be no policy of defence except from the point of view of the Empire as a whole, which brings with it automatically the problems of the defence of the Suez Canal and Singapore. I am of the latter school.

The Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, asked me to place my views in writing, and I have done so. These have been printed and circulated to the War Cabinet. There is no doubt that more attention will be taken of the Middle East. Large quantities of arms and equipment are now being shipped to Egypt. A certain quantity is already upon the water, despatched by fast convoy, but until equipment arrives there in large quantities the situation in Egypt is insecure and will remain so until the end of the current year.

It is my opinion that, of the two threats, the attempt to invade the United Kingdom would be the least dangerous, where, thanks to the progress of re-armament and the efficiency of our Navy and Air Force, we are now reasonably secure. More serious would be an attack by combined German and Italian forces upon Egypt.

Meanwhile, I am glad to say that the Second Echelon have their complete equipment of Brens, Boys rifles, carriers, light tanks, guns, and warlike stores. Training has proceeded well. We have already completed three full-scale Divisional exercises and you can feel confident that the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the United Kingdom is now equipped, organised, and reasonably well trained. page 146 The officers, both senior and regimental, are good and the morale of the whole force is excellent. Further, I anticipate that the remainder of the Division will be completely equipped shortly. There is no doubt, however, that pending the arrival of equipment in Egypt, the position is decidedly weak.

Orders have been received to complete mobilisation by the end of September before leaving for the Middle East. In view of the decision to concentrate in Egypt, I am making arrangements now to get my staff back to prepare for the arrival of the Third Echelon. Brigadiers Falla, Miles, Barrowclough and staff, and Crump, leave the United Kingdom on 5 September by packet boat for the Cape, thence by air to Cairo. With your concurrence, I propose to wait until the invasion is disposed of or the threat is over, then fly to Cairo either via Gibraltar or direct over France. Will you cable me if you agree?1 A copy of my appreciation for Mr. Churchill on the defence of Egypt together with a full written report of my actions here in the United Kingdom is in the post.2

1 On 27 Aug the Minister of Defence cabled his approval of General Freyberg's plans.

2 No. 194.