Chapter 1: Aftermath of Libyan Campaign
THE New Zealand Division felt injured, puzzled, and to some extent ill-used, but yet was proud of itself as it recuperated in the rest and refitting area of Baggush in December 1941. After twelve days of arduous fighting in Cyrenaica the Division – less its 5th Brigade, the Divisional Cavalry Regiment and the Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies, left temporarily with Eighth Army for further operations – had been withdrawn because, in the words of General Auchinleck,1 ‘two-thirds of the New Zealand Division had been cut to pieces.’
No man doubted that a round had been won against the Germans or that the Division had acquitted itself well. But experienced officers knew, and their junior officers and other ranks suspected, that the best had not been made of the Division’s capabilities. Assertions of bungling and of avoidable losses were put against the sum of achievements. A victory had been won but the fruit had a bitter flavour.
In the isolation his thoughts imposed, Major-General Sir Bernard Freyberg,2 commanding the Division, considered the campaign had been a failure. The German Afrika Korps under Rommel had escaped ‘when he should have been caught like a rat in a trap.’3 Failure and cost were due, in Freyberg’s opinion, to the British Army Command’s persistence with faulty ideas. These had been the greatest factor in the Division’s losses, then estimated at 4000 in killed, wounded and prisoners.4 True, other divisions had suffered heavy losses, in some cases more severe than those of the New Zealand Division. But that was no consolation. It did not ease General Freyberg’s mind concerning his responsibility to the Government and people of New Zealand for the welfare of their Division.
Freyberg’s meditations on this and previous campaigns and his experiences led him to the conviction that in the interests of New Zealand he should do his utmost to get the Division away from the Desert Command.
The belief of the junior officers and other ranks that their part in the campaign had been successful was firmly based. They knew they had acquitted themselves well in battle. The intimate personal doubts which affect the soldier when he first comes under fire had been resolved. Men who had served in Greece and Crete had found that the long period out of battle had not affected their nerves. Gaps in the ranks and losses in equipment proclaimed that the price of victory had been high. But the fighting had been severe and heavy toll had been taken of the enemy. The balance, in the general opinion, was in favour of the British.
Moreover, it was argued, the campaign must have been successful because the enemy was retreating. In Norway and France, in Greece, Crete and North Africa, the British forces had been compelled to retreat in the face of the enemy’s superiority in numbers, equipment and tactics. Now the tables had been turned. The Afrika Korps, then believed to be a specially trained force and the élite of the German Army, was withdrawing to the security of El Agheila. To ensure its own safety, the Korps was abandoning its Italian allies. For this there could be only one reason. It was beaten. At long last the British Army had been trained and provided with the tools for the job. With more and better tools and further training and experience there should be greater and more clear-cut victories.
The Division did not know that the Commander-in-Chief would report that ‘two-thirds of the New Zealand Division had been cut to pieces, and had had to be withdrawn to refit’,5 and that the Division was ‘exhausted but in good heart.’6 Even had the men known that the Commander-in-Chief would thus describe their losses, their good heart was such that morale would not have been adversely affected. The New Zealanders, at this period, had that peculiar quality of good troops – a grim pride in their ability to take hard knocks. They were not aware of being exhausted. They were tired, but not beyond the swift and easy remedies of regular meals and sleep.
Satisfaction with the campaign was not confined to the Division’s own part. Letters to New Zealand from Baggush were generous in praise of the British troops, especially of the tank units and the Royal Air Force. The men listened to the German radio broadcasts and scoffed at assertions that Britain was using only colonial forces
in the field. ‘We are one division out of a whole army,’ a soldier wrote to his parents. ‘We have suffered certainly and so have the South Africans, but nothing much is said of the glorious work of our tank boys. ... There is not a better band of men in the world.’7 ‘I take off my hat to those Tommy tank chaps,’ another soldier wrote. ‘They certainly are wonderful scrappers and the best of chaps.’8
Men who had complained of the lack of air support in Greece and Crete now extolled the Royal Air Force. ‘The Air Force did a great job.’ ‘We hardly saw any enemy planes.’ ‘Not once were we troubled from the air.’ ‘This time the Huns are getting more than they ever gave us and I hope they like it.’ These were typical comments in letters examined by the Field Censorship Section and recorded in the weekly summary. They permitted the censor to report: ‘There can be no question of NZEF morale being anything but of the highest order.’9
This attitude was gratifying. But it reflected the truth of the saying that often the soldier cannot see the battle for the bullets. The men had no inkling of General Freyberg’s analysis of the campaign and of the thoughts that troubled him.
General Freyberg was more than the commander of a division. He was the representative in the field of the Government of New Zealand and its adviser on the employment of the Division. He had a dual responsibility. He was responsible to the commander-in-chief of the theatre in which the Division was deployed and also, primarily, to the Government for the manner in which it was used.
This problem had been discussed by him with the Government on his appointment at the outbreak of the war. In illustration of difficulties that might arise he had cited the possible loss of a brigade. If such a misfortune befell the Division, to whom would he be responsible – the commander-in-chief of the theatre or the Government? The Hon P. Fraser, to whom the question was addressed in London, had replied that account would have to be made to the Government.
Freyberg thereupon had had prepared a directive which defined the powers of the commander-in-chief, reserved the rights of the New Zealand Government concerning the use of the Division, gave the commander of the Division direct access to the Government and the commander-in-chief, and vested in the divisional commander full authority in organisation and training. The directive was accepted by the New Zealand Government and was incorporated in an
agreement with the Government of the United Kingdom. It was signed by the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon M. J. Savage, on 5 January 1940.10
In brief, the directive placed the Division under the command of the theatre commander-in-chief only for operations and then only with the previous consent of the New Zealand Government, although General Freyberg, or his successors, could act on the Government’s behalf ‘in the case of sufficiently grave emergency or in special circumstances, of which he must be the sole judge’. The directive was similar to those given by the Government of the United Kingdom to commanders-in-chief taking British forces overseas.
At Baggush General Freyberg had to refer to his directive, his ‘charter’ as he was wont to call it. He used his discretion ‘in special circumstances’ to permit the Divisional Cavalry to operate with 2 South African Division at Bardia. Fifth Brigade, under Brigadier Wilder,11 was left with Eighth Army for the pursuit to Gazala. The RMT companies and other transport were also placed at the disposal of Eighth Army. And as the Division would not be required for further active operations for some time, a low priority for replacing lost and damaged equipment was accepted without question.
These, however, were minor matters compared with General Freyberg’s reflections on the campaign. He disagreed with the Army policy of dividing divisions into brigade groups in battle. Brigade groups were suitable only for movement in the desert. Armour ‘in support’ of infantry had proved to be a myth. The Army had not been correctly disposed in the first days of the campaign to deal with the armoured forces the enemy could concentrate against it. On the way to the frontier he had told the Army Commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham, that he would fail with the forces he was deploying. Freyberg had been so apprehensive that he had told Cunningham he would not take the New Zealand Division over the frontier until the armoured battle had been won. Wrong deductions by Army concerning that battle had sent the Division on its way to suffer at Bardia and Sidi Rezegh.12
General Freyberg’s disquiet was not a product solely of the current campaign. It had a background of Greece and Crete. He had also seen Operation BATTLEAXE, an affair on the frontier in June of that year in which the British forces had fared badly. This had seriously disturbed him. Nor was he alone in his thoughts. From Baggush
he visited Lieutenant-General G. E. Brink, of the South Africans, to find Brink ‘in despair over dissipation of his forces and manner in which his Bdes are employed even without reference to him.’13
Middle East Command’s reception of General Freyberg’s draft report on the Division’s operations and the lessons they taught reinforced his doubts of the Command’s wisdom and skill. General Auchinleck asked that the report should be sent to him before it was circulated ‘as he feels that it is most important that nothing should go into it that is not in accordance with the policy he wishes adopted in tactical operations.’ The report was returned with the note: ‘The only item I disagree with is the comment on battle-groups. Also it shows how badly we handle our “I” tanks.’
Auchinleck ordered the deletion of a remark that ‘the dangerous mistake of committing our small force piecemeal was gradually being corrected’, and also references to the ineffectiveness of the binary, or two-brigade, division and the brigade-group organisation.14
The sum of these reflections and the decision they inspired are expressed in Freyberg’s own words:
‘While I was responsible to the Commander-in-Chief in operations, my primary responsibility and loyalty were to the Government and people of New Zealand. No other loyalty could come before that. I had their Division and I was responsible for it.
‘I had seen what had happened in Greece and Crete and in the desert at Sidi Barrani and Battleaxe. I had seen the Desert Command under Auchinleck. I knew their ideas and how faulty they were. I became firmly convinced that the only way to safeguard the interests of New Zealand and of the Division was to get the Division away from the Desert Command.’15
Accordingly, General Freyberg revived with Middle East Headquarters the project of August 1941 for the transfer of the Division to Syria. Other reasons supported the move. Turkey and Syria might become an active theatre if the fortunes of war flowed against the Soviet Union. The Australian divisions then in Syria were likely to be withdrawn for service in the Pacific and would have to be replaced. The New Zealand Division’s experiences in similar terrain in Greece and Crete made it specially suitable for operations in Turkey and Syria. Syria offered a more congenial climate in which to rest, refit and train. There were defensive works to be completed. Further, while Syria remained a non-operational theatre, the Division would be readily available should it be required for the Pacific.
General Freyberg would not have pressed for the transfer without these supporting arguments. His was not the nature to avoid battle or seek only the easiest tasks. Nor was this the spirit of the Division. The Government’s policy was one of fullest co-operation. Although events proved that the danger of a German invasion of the Middle East through Turkey was exaggerated, Auchinleck and his staff were apprehensive of the northern flank.16 Freyberg shared these views. He believed there was a substantial role for the Division in Syria.
It was with relief, therefore, that on 13 December Freyberg cabled the Government: ‘Division is now to refit and train for future operations on the Syrian front. I consider it will take two months’ hard training to get units and formations up to the requisite pitch.’