Chapter 1: After Greece and Crete
IN the history of the New Zealand Division the campaigns in Greece and Crete are chapters of waste and frustration, an unhappy introduction to battle. An earlier New Zealand contingent had endured greater hardship and suffering in another Balkan adventure, the eight Anzac months at Gallipoli in 1915; but in 1941 there was a double dose of humiliation. The challenge to the Wehrmacht on the mainland of Europe failed miserably and then the Cretan outpost was lost. A third of the Division was left behind on battlefields and beaches from Salonika to Sfakia, 900-odd dead or dying and the rest facing years of captivity.1 Time might tell that this costly experience would prove invaluable; but in June 1941 the loss was more evident than the gain.
Of the 16,700 men who had sailed to help ward off the German threat to Greece, 5816 (on a July estimate) did not return, and it was but a small consolation that reinforcements at hand or on the way were more than enough to replace them. Many desert-trained veterans of the First Echelon were gone, and many, too, of the Second Echelon men who had served England in the dark days after Dunkirk. Their places would be taken by men from the 4th, 5th, 6th and even 7th Reinforcements – in ascending scale of inexperience – who would outnumber the ‘old hands’ in many units. Yet morale proved remarkably buoyant, as the Prime Minister, Mr Fraser, noted when he reviewed 5000 survivors from Greece on 18 May and found them ‘in great heart and excellent condition’, and again when he met men from Crete at Alexandria a fortnight later, the fit and the wounded all ‘convinced of superiority man for man over the Germans given equal weapons and equal air support.’2
It was in arms and equipment, above all in transport, that the Division was reduced to penury. All guns and vehicles had been lost, most small arms, even personal belongings in many base kits
sent by an error of judgment of Greece. Lorries in base camps at Maadi and Helwan were barely enough for administration, to say nothing of training, a situation which from the lower levels looked uncomfortably close to stalemate. Middle East quartermasters were unmoved by appeals on behalf of units not assigned an active role, and less fortunate units could see no way to reach this envied status without a modicum of training equipment.
Sixth Brigade, having missed the holocaust of Crete and returned to Egypt with its units largely intact, was among the blessed. By 27 May its battalions – the 24th, 25th, and 26th – were so far restored to battle-worthiness that they could assume a role in the defence of the Canal Zone against airborne or Fifth Column attack. The two other brigades – the 4th and 5th – could not hope for a high priority in replacement of war stores until reinforcements had been absorbed and the units brought up to something approaching their normal complements. Even then the flow of new equipment would depend on the future role of the Division, which remained for some months in doubt. By the end of June the field regiments had their full quota of gun-towing vehicles (‘quads’) and a third of their 25-pounder guns, but most other units were living from hand to mouth.
By 10 July General Freyberg3 was able to point out to the New Zealand Government that the units were ‘almost up to strength’, though the 6th and 7th Reinforcements had not yet arrived; but he expected ‘wastage’ – the bloodless technical term for what was chiefly the shedding of blood – to increase in the autumn and winter and therefore needed the 8th Reinforcements as scheduled.4
The future of these reinforcements was much affected by a new War Office plan5 for expanding the effort of the British Commonwealth which entailed increased manpower demands. Mr Fraser and the Adjutant-General, Colonel Conway,6 discussed this plan in Maadi with Lieutenant-General Sir Guy Williams, Military Adviser to the New Zealand Government, and senior officers of 2 NZEF while Freyberg was still in Crete. One part of the plan was to form an army tank brigade in New Zealand for oversea service, providing at least for the training months an insurance of sorts against aggression nearer home. For this reason Fraser and
his Cabinet approved, as Freyberg did too (when he found time to study it), though he had an eye to the Middle East rather than the Pacific. Meanwhile General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East Forces, had welcomed a suggestion that the Anzac Corps which had existed for a short time in Greece be reconstituted on a permanent footing, a proposal which ran parallel to another part of the plan. Freyberg was offered command of this Corps when the crisis in Crete passed, but his response was lukewarm. ‘I would personally prefer to stay with the New Zealand Division’, he wrote on 11 May, though he would accept the command provided he could ‘remain a servant of the New Zealand Government by continuing to be GOC 2nd NZEF and provided the New Zealand Division remains part of the Corps. ...’ By the time he was able fully to consider this scheme and examine other parts of the War Office plan the Maadi consultations had ended, Fraser was on his way to England, Williams and Conway were flying to New Zealand, and discussion continued by cablegram. By 25 June Freyberg was almost enthusiastic about the proposed Anzac Corps and as late as 20 September he was still interested, not knowing that the Australian Government, plagued by manpower shortages, had decided against it.7 New Zealand was nevertheless committed in principle to provide a fair share of Corps troops, either for a new Anzac Corps or for any other Corps in which the Division operated, and planning continued accordingly until outdated by the outbreak of war with Japan.
Other matters which Fraser tackled before he left Egypt included Freyberg’s status as GOC 2 NZEF. Freyberg was to feel free, Fraser told him, to put his opinion direct to the Commander-in-Chief Middle East Forces on any matter concerning ‘the safety of the D[ivision]’ (as Freyberg noted in his diary). The New Zealand War Cabinet, he continued, ‘should have the benefit of your experience and in future ... will definitely ask for your advice.’ Freyberg had the right to refer ‘any matter affecting the safety of the NZEF’ to the New Zealand Government and the latter would in turn refer any proposal for the employment of 2 NZEF to him for comment.
This clarified Freyberg’s status, as a further safeguard of New Zealand interests. The Greek enterprise had in its very conception taken Australian and New Zealand help too much for granted – a situation to which the current naval negotiations between the United
Kingdom and the United States provided an unhappy parallel.8 The war effort of the two Dominions was concentrated in the Middle East to a far greater extent than that of the United Kingdom and disaster there was to them a relatively more tragic prospect. Twice in two months New Zealand came close to losing its one and only division, with its invaluable nucleus of trained officers and NCOs, and the Government had to take what steps it could to make sure that any such grave risks taken in future would be fully warranted. Fraser was not making Freyberg sole judge of this except in case of dire emergency; he simply wanted the facts relating to the employment of the Division to be adequately disclosed to the Government.
The Prime Minister was sharply dissatisfied, now he knew the facts, with the Government’s briefing prior to the Greek campaign, and interviews with men back from Greece and Crete had impressed him deeply, in particular, with the need for strong air support if the Division’s contributions to the war effort were to be effective. But Freyberg’s charter already gave him unusual powers for a divisional commander9 – an arrangement which, even with tact and restraint on all sides, could be embarrassing. Short of stationing a minister in Cairo – a step which even the United Kingdom War Cabinet did not take until the end of June – there was no way the New Zealand Government could gain the influence it sought without adding to the already considerable burden on Freyberg’s discretion.
There had also been criticisms of operations in Greece, some of them aimed at Freyberg himself. Mr Fraser put some points as questions to an inter-services committee being set up to inquire into other aspects of the campaign and got reassuring answers. The committee in due course found that ‘unavoidable circumstances’ were to blame and gave Freyberg ‘an unsolicited testimonial’.10 A parliamentary colleague, Brigadier Hargest,11 commander of 5 Brigade in an arduous rearguard in Crete, returned to Egypt physically exhausted and unburdened himself to Fraser with particular reference to Freyberg’s method of command. Hargest was in no condition just then to make a balanced judgment; but
he soon got over it and (on 30 October) wrote to Fraser, when he heard the latter was back in Wellington, in warm terms, expressing abounding confidence in Freyberg:
I have often worried over the anxiety I caused you when I unloaded my cares on you in Cairo. I have no doubt now of the justification for doing so, but the effect itself justified it all. The General met us in several conferences and we cleaned up a great deal of important details. I was forthright in my remarks and he was splendid about it all – but the result has been good beyond my strongest hopes. Now we meet in conference and the whole details are placed before us – we on the other hand are free to express ourselves – and we must accept a share of the responsibilities. Thanks to you we have developed a new method - conference before the details are fixed. ... I have never been so happy soldiering as now and never had more confidence – I cannot say more.
None of the other brigadiers who served in Greece – Miles Puttick and Barrowclough – joined Hargest in his complaints. Moreover Freyberg had had little opportunity until after Crete for the kind of consultation mentioned. The improvement in relations Hargest thought he discerned, therefore, was possibly due to closer acquaintance with a distinguished soldier who was not personally well-known in New Zealand military circles when he was appointed GOC.
Meanwhile Fraser had obtained opinions on Freyberg’s ability at the highest level in Cairo and when he reached London. ‘While Mr. Fraser likes Freyberg and is keeping an open mind’, General Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote on 20 August to Wavell and his successor as C-in-C MEF, General Auchinleck, ‘this is causing him grave anxiety.’ None knew Freyberg’s qualities better than Wavell, who replied on 21 August that Freyberg had ‘produced one of best trained and disciplined and fittest divisions I have ever seen and he must be given fullest credit for their exploits in Greece and Crete.’ Auchinleck also wrote reassuringly and considered that ‘it would be great mistake to move Freyberg from the Command of the New Zealand Division. ...’12
Mr Fraser’s own position was in some ways like Freyberg’s. The civilian conduct of the war, like the military side, could not always be restricted to formal channels, and Mr Churchill in particular was no respecter of hierarchies. In urgent and important affairs London sometimes deemed the effort and delay of Dominion consultation to be, like a Bank of England note, redeemable only on demand. As Fraser’s grasp of these affairs grew his demands naturally increased. Both he and the acting Prime Minister, Mr Nash, showed
a proper respect for the opinions of the experts but felt in no way bound by them and did not hesitate to voice disagreement. Neither was happy about the way the situation in the Indian Ocean and Pacific was being handled and they said so. Their mandate was from the people of New Zealand alone and their Government would not abdicate its authority in favor of the Middle East Commanders-in-Chief, the London Chiefs of Staff, or the United Kingdom Government.13
On the delicate preliminaries to the campaign in Greece it was Smuts whose views Churchill sought, not Fraser’s, though the South Africans could not serve there and the New Zealand contribution was essential. Personality was, as always, a coefficient of formal authority: Smuts was an established and impressive figure on the international plane, Fraser a newcomer. As the war moved towards its third year, however, Fraser and his government colleagues were moving on from a fairly general acquiescence in the strategic decisions of the United Kingdom and its professional advisers to a more critical and independent standpoint.