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

354 — The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the High Commissioner for New Zealand (London) — [Extract]

The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the High Commissioner for New Zealand (London)

27 November 1943

I am still not able to participate actively in the work of the Government although I am consulted on important matters. However, in spite of my compulsory inactivity,2 there are two recent matters about which I feel so keenly as being most detrimental to New Zealand's war effort that I must ask you to place my own views personally before the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, Lord Cranborne, and Mr. Attlee.3 The first deplorable event is the fall of Leros; the second, the release of Sir Oswald Mosley.4

In regard to the capture of Leros, New Zealand is directly concerned. Without either the knowledge or consent of the New page 323 Zealand Government or, apparently, of General Freyberg, who would have immediately consulted us, a number of our Long Range Desert Group troops were ordered to take part in the attack on and occupation of some of the Dodecanese Islands. This was a breach of our agreement with the British Government and Army authorities. The circumstances surrounding the loss of Leros have already largely destroyed my own faith in the present Middle East Command, if it was responsible, and when it becomes known that a number of New Zealanders were stupidly sacrificed without even consent for their inclusion in the task force being asked from our Government, the disappointment and bitterness here will be intensified many times over. General Wilson's statement regarding the capture of Leros, with its out-dated, unhappy, and totally irrelevant references to Greece and Crete, was rejected unanimously, even contemptuously.1 It is felt that to have 1944 war problems dealt with by Commanders with 1941 minds is most dangerous and may be disastrous. The sooner the excuses given by General Wilson, who is a man generally admired by New Zealand soldiers, are forgotten the better.

In the meantime, we have the rehabilitation of the sense of the great power of Germany re-established in the Eastern Mediterranean, as witness the attitude of Turkey. I am very glad that as a set-off there we have the heightened prestige of Britain over the Lebanon trouble. Nothing could be better or more creditable than the attitude in that affair of the British Government.

Since writing the foregoing I have read the cabled press report of Mr. Attlee's statement in the House of Commons2 and the telegram from the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, dated 23 November (No. 352), containing the substance of the appreciation by the Chiefs of Staff. These statements have not enabled me to modify in the least my opinion of the whole unhappy blunder, except that they made it clear that the responsibility in the first place rested with the Chiefs of Staff, not with the Middle East Command, but apparently the latter acquiesced. Apart from all the other mistakes and miscalculations, the decision to leave the force on Leros to become the easy prey of the German air and land forces combined was wrong and, indeed, most reprehensible. The useless sacrifice of fine men in such a fashion is proof that the tragic lesson of Greece and Crete has not been fully assimilated and understood by some of those in the High Command, or else they are prepared not so much to take page 324 a risk, as stated by Mr. Attlee, as to gamble on a poor chance with men's lives. I strongly protest against any of our men being sacrificed in such a fashion.

….1 In New Zealand we are approaching a very difficult time. The Government won the election with a reduced majority, declaring for a continued war effort to the limit of our resources and against the Opposition claims that we had done too much and were over-committed. There is a good deal of criticism at present, even inside the Labour Party, at New Zealand having fighting forces in both Italy and the South Pacific, and the feeling is growing that one of our forces should be withdrawn. Our position has been weakened by the Mosley release, which has aroused opposition to and distrust in the responsible British authorities. The mistake should be rectified at once so that the confusion caused can be cleared away as soon as possible and the harmful situation, with its bad effects in the Dominions as well as in Britain, ended completely….

1The text omitted refers to the release of Sir Oswald Mosley.

2 Mr. Fraser had recently left hospital and was then convalescent.

3 The Rt. Hon. C. R. Attlee had been Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs (21 Feb 1942–28 Sep 1943) at the time the islands were occupied. At this date he was also acting Prime Minister during the absence of Mr. Churchill at the Cairo and Teheran conferences.

4 Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, was imprisoned from May 1940 until 20 Nov 1943, when he was released on medical grounds.

1 In a statement which was published in the New Zealand press on 19–20 Nov, General Wilson said that he considered Leros was worth while as a diversionary operation alone. He recalled the British withdrawal from Greece—a campaign that history had proved worth while—and added that he thought the same thing would be said about Leros and Cos.

2 Published in the New Zealand press on 26 Nov 1943.