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

199 — The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs3

The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs3

17 February 1942

Following for the Prime Minister:

Thank you so much for your telegram of 14 February. We quite appreciate the force of your remarks as to the difficulty of supplying us with fighter squadrons from the United Kingdom, and we fully realise that these and, indeed, many of our other needs must no doubt in many cases be supplied from American sources. We fully concur, therefore, in your suggestion that a request should be made to the Americans for the immediate allocation and despatch of the squadrons to which you refer. A separate communication4 will be addressed to you page 224 to this effect, but we must retain the opinion that the four squadrons asked for are the minimum that is required.

2. In view of the serious situation in the Pacific accentuated by the fall of Singapore,1 we feel compelled to lay the following considerations before you and before the Far East Council for consideration and transmission to President Roosevelt:


The Dominion of New Zealand, together with the Commonwealth of Australia, have been regarded from several distinct points of view in regard to defence:


As British Dominions to be defended because they are British.


As producers of primary products—notably food and wool, both of which are important to British security.


As sources of fighting forces.


As intrinsically desirable to the enemy for colonisation and for commodities.

In the situation that has now developed, however, it is our view that the following are the two aspects of fundamental and paramount importance:

As intermediate stages in the route for reinforcements from America.

As main bases from which operations could be developed against the enemy.


The deterioration in the Pacific situation has been so rapid and disastrous that the problem now as we see it is completely different in many important respects from what it was only a few short weeks ago. It seems clear to us, as the result of an unbroken series of retreats and territorial losses of the highest strategical importance and significance, that neither the greatest personal gallantry nor the most strenuous attempt now to reinforce the central ABDA area can be relied upon to retain that area for us.


Our inability to develop adequate naval and air power to prevent further conquest by the Japanese in the Netherlands East Indies has made it evident that we can scarcely hope to develop a secure base within that area. Since secure bases are the first essential for the successful launching of future offensive operations, it is of the utmost importance to decide now where these base areas should be located and, in this connection, to re-examine decisions which have already been arrived at.


While of course not relaxing in the slightest degree any effort that appears to offer a promise of success in halting or at page 225 least delaying the Japanese advance in the ABDA area, we must, therefore, now and at once, consider the position that will arise should these territories fall into Japanese hands, noting of course that they would serve a double purpose to the Japanese as a strong line of defence and, at the same time, a jumping-off place for further aggression.


We do not know how much further west, south, or east Japan is capable of going during the present phase of conquest. But it is certain that Japan's capacity for conquest is not unlimited. Nevertheless, Japan may intend to do any of the following in the near future:


Secure Burma.


Proceed through Burma to India.


Invade Australia.


Invade New Zealand.

The relative magnitude of each of these undertakings in relation to the advantages to be gained must be the deciding factor in Japan's choice. We think there are strong reasons for supposing that the conquest of India by military force is not practically realisable in the near future. The invasion of Australia appears more immediately advantageous to the Japanese.


It is of course possible that, having attained control of the principal ABDA territories, the Japanese might be content to rest there, and from that defensive line to defy us to oust them from the positions that they have taken which, they might feel, provide them with everything that they need for the New Order in the Far East. We cannot believe that they would be satisfied with this, having regard to the potential menace that would always exist of our organising from bases further south the means which, they must know, will ultimately be at our disposal to attack them, and we assume, therefore, that having got so far they would consider it essential to their own preservation to go further and deprive us of the means of attacking them if and when we are able to do so.


In either case it seems inevitable that the struggle in the Pacific will be one of considerable and, indeed, indefinite duration, and we must set ourselves now to meet a long war and to retain at the very worst the minimum requirements that will enable us in time to recover the ground that we have already lost and, in due course, turn to the offensive against Japan itself.

page 226

These minimum requirements—and we suggest they are the very minimum—are those that are necessary to maintain:


the line of reinforcement by air and by sea from the United States; and


adequate and suitable areas for the provision of naval, air and land bases.


Strategic base areas from which to fight our way back athwart the China Sea need to be established in Australia and New Zealand. The relative isolation of New Zealand, with its accompanying freedom from attack by land-based aircraft, provides, we feel, the ideal locality for a final and potentially most secure base for reserves—land, sea and air—and should accordingly be prepared and equipped for that purpose forthwith.


Confining our attention in this paragraph to the areas for which this Government is directly responsible, it seems abundantly clear to us that the retention of Fiji as well as of New Zealand is, in the literal sense of the term, vital to our prospects of recovering the position in the Pacific. Fiji as an essential link on the line of air communication and as a potential naval base is of the utmost value to us and, correspondingly, is obviously a point at which the Japanese may aim. If Fiji falls then New Zealand becomes even more essential. 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 thin.


As we see it, Australia will now become a base for operations against the central ABDA area, and 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.


In our view then, the defence requirements of New Zealand and Fiji are no longer related solely or primarily to New Zealand's capacity for export, nor to the fact that they are British territory; they must be based upon:


the necessity for maintaining the channel of communication to the United States, and


the necessity for preserving their integrity as bases for future action.

We feel it essential therefore to press on the highest grounds of strategy for the provision of the necessary equipment both for New Zealand and for Fiji.

page 227

3. We have already told you generally of our shortages of equipment but, in accordance with your request, I am forwarding in my immediately following telegram a full statement of the equipment which we require at the moment and which we do beg of you to expedite, either from United Kingdom or United States sources, to the utmost degree that is practicable.

4. We feel, however, that it is not possible to formulate fully the defence requirements of New Zealand until it is known what role is to be assigned to the Dominion in relation to Pacific strategy. We are definitely of the opinion that it is essential for the successful prosecution of the war in the Pacific that New Zealand must become a main base area and must be equipped and defended as such.

5. Believe me we are fully appreciative of what you and our American friends have already been able to provide for the defence of New Zealand and Fiji. Believe me, also, no selfish fear of our own personal fortunes in the battle prompts this appeal. It is our firm and fixed belief that the war in the Pacific will be long and hard and that the retention of Fiji and the successful defence of New Zealand are, in the highest sense of the words, absolutely essential.

6. This telegram is being repeated to the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia, to Vice-Admiral Leary, and to the New Zealand Minister at Washington. Would you please give a copy to the High Commissioner for New Zealand in London, who is being instructed to bring it before the Far East Council as a matter of the greatest urgency and importance with a view to its consideration. As we are naturally anxious that our views should be understood not only in London but also in Washington, and as under the arrangements at present in force we have no direct means of bringing our views on the strategical requirements of the Western Pacific before the American authorities, who are of course responsible for the defence of the Anzac and Pacific areas, you might perhaps think it possible to convey a copy of this communication to President Roosevelt.

3 Repeated to the Prime Minister of Australia, Vice-Admiral Leary (Anzac Station) and the New Zealand Minister, Washington.

4 No. 200.

1 Singapore fell on 15 February.