Chapter 13: Reflections
THE uncertain state in which 3 New Zealand Division was maintained from its inception, and its removal from the order of battle at the height of its efficiency as an amphibious fighting force, suggest that it was beyond the manpower resources of New Zealand to maintain two divisions in the field, or that the available resources were mishandled and not employed to their greatest advantage.
At the outbreak of war, the state of the Dominion's defences and shortages of military equipment were eloquent proof of the condition into which her armed services had drifted during the years when disarmament replaced preparedness as a political ideal. In 1940, when New Zealand sent a brigade group to garrison Fiji, the force which was ultimately expanded into 3 Division, there was not sufficient equipment available either to arm or even properly clothe that small force. Deficiencies were met piecemeal, and over a period of years, from the United Kingdom and the United States, themselves hard pressed to supply their own increasing needs and those of Allied countries clamouring for more and more armament.
It is readily admitted that New Zealand's commitments in the Pacific were undertaken largely at the request of the United Kingdom and in fulfilment of agreements reached at the Wellington Conference in 1939 and, after she entered the war, of the United States; but the number of formations and headquarters maintained in the Dominion itself from the middle of 1942 and on a diminishing scale until late in 1944 appears to have been excessive. One properly constituted and well-trained division on the home front would have been preferable to three or four incompletely trained and equipped divisions. Had New Zealand maintained one division in the Pacific in addition to that in the Middle East, instead of scattering her limited resources and at the same time maintaining large forces on the home front, the life of 3 Division could have been longer and more effective.
If the Japanese were to be held as far from New Zealand's shores as possible, a policy advocated in 1942–43 by the Chiefs
of Staff and common sense, this could have been done only by equipping and maintaining a strong force for the forward zone to give the Americans as much support as possible where they most needed it—that is, to break enemy resistance and destroy his advanced bases, then established as far south as the Solomons and in the northern Gilbert Islands. Yet in April 1942 New Zealand was asking for six divisions to be stationed in the Dominion itself, in addition to strong forces in Fiji; also for fully manned squadrons of aircraft and for service equipment such as tanks and artillery. (See also Appendix II.) At least two of the divisions and much of the equipment were requested from America. Even when American forces began moving in strength into the Pacific throughout May–June–July of 1942 and assumed responsibility for the defence of several island groups, on which they established a series of interlocking bases as far north as the New Hebrides, and even after the victories of Coral Sea and Midway, New Zealand was slow in realising that she was no longer directly menaced.
There were times, too, when New Zealand's demands for men and material to defend her as yet unmolested shores seemed to ignore the more pressing needs of actual and vital battle fronts, though no doubt the lack of intelligence concerning Japanese intentions influenced all Allied planning.
It was increasingly obvious in 1942 that until the American Pacific Fleet was annihilated and such intervening island groups as the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, and Fiji captured and consolidated by the Japanese, there could be little danger to New Zealand except from hit-and-run raids, either by surface craft or submarines. After the Battle of Midway, all Japanese plans for any advance farther south were abandoned and even submarine activity in the Pacific was undertaken on a reducing scale. Many formations in New Zealand might have been disbanded in 1942–43, when the force of the Japanese drive was blunted and her initiative lost, and the men used to maintain a full-strength division capable of undertaking important roles with admirably trained and highly disciplined troops. But at no time, with her limited manpower so widely dispersed and so cautiously used, could New Zealand support two full-strength divisions on active service, particularly after she was committed to a policy of air force expansion to twenty squadrons in the Pacific.
With only two brigades, 3 Division could not be employed interchangeably with an American division of three regiments—the equivalent of brigades in the British Army. Consequently it was assigned to smaller, individual tasks which, although they
tested the organising ability and peculiar self-reliant qualities of the New Zealander, prevented it from being employed in major undertakings. As military operations these tasks were never really serious, but strategically they were important in a campaign of by-passing which reduced the loss of life and avoided the waste of essential materials, at that time so difficult to obtain. Had they not been undertaken by New Zealand formations (and the same applies to the RNZAF elements employed) units of 14 US Corps or 1 US Marine Amphibious Corps would have been diverted, with a consequent reduction in their efficiency by dispersal. This also would have so delayed the Solomons campaign that enemy resistance would have stiffened and thus prolonged all subsequent action.
The existence of 3 Division seems to have been governed primarily by a desire to use its presence in the campaign as a bargaining factor at the end of the war, but there is no doubt that Fraser sincerely desired to maintain it in the Pacific to aid the Americans, since it was evidence of the Dominion's increasing prestige and prominence as a Pacific power. He was influenced, no doubt, in its ultimate withdrawal and disposal by the desire of Churchill and Roosevelt, supported by Puttick, to retain 2 Division in Italy until the end of hostilities in Europe. On 4 August 1944, after a lengthy and closely-reasoned appreciation, Puttick recommended the Minister of Defence to disband the remaining cadres of 3 Division and retain 2 Division, a recommendation which was in accordance with the wishes of the war leaders and the British Chiefs of Staff. (See Appendix IX.)
Even after the Division was withdrawn from the forward zone, so that men could be diverted to industry on the home front for the production of increased food supplies for the American Pacific forces and the United Kingdom, manpower was wasted and frustrated waiting upon a decision from London on the future employment of New Zealand's forces in the continuation of the war with Japan.
During the whole of its existence 3 Division was inevitably overshadowed by 2 Division, whose prestige as a fighting force was high and attracted the publicity it richly deserved. Nor was there any desire by men of 2 Division to return to New Zealand and serve in the Pacific, where conditions were as unattractive as they possibly could be. The waste of shipping involved in transporting troops already deployed from one theatre to another was perhaps the decisive factor.
In the Pacific, New Zealanders for the first time fought the jungle as well as the Japanese in conditions where there is no
substitute for individual courage, for the jungle exhausts men mentally and physically and throws a great responsibility on the individual soldier. Elements of 3 Division fought on heavily timbered islands which had never previously known war except among scattered tribes of naked savages using bows, arrows, and spears. In the Pacific there were no distractions of civilisation, which was one of the factors contributing to the division's high standard of discipline. Their own companions of the unit and the battle were their only companions; their only possible expeditions were to innocuous beach or forest or neighbouring service establishments. Even in New Caledonia, the island where they found the nearest approach to the amenities of their own civilisation, they remained in the isolated regions which make that island a most perfect army training ground, for the climate is superb and vast tracts of hill and plain, as well as beach, river and forest, are available over which to exercise troops, armour and artillery.
Barrowclough's task, as frustrating as any New Zealand commander has been called on to undertake, was made more exacting and involved by perplexing changes and lack of resources which would have reduced to impotence a leader less resilient and resolute. Outwardly unemotional and completely free from displays of temperament or showmanship, his logical mind and inflexible character enabled him to overcome great difficulties. His brigades were often separated by leagues of ocean and his whole command dispersed over thousands of miles, a condition which contributed little to the smooth functioning of the force. His tact and discretion enabled him to adapt himself, with the least noticeable discord, to the too rigid rules of the American high command which, when issuing operation orders, leave subordinate commanders little or no freedom to meet any tactical situations as they present themselves.
Barrowclough's ‘charter’, which placed him under Army Headquarters, did not allow him the authority accorded the GOC of 2 NZEF in the Middle East. Freyberg was given authority to communicate directly with the New Zealand Government on policy decisions, the use of troops, and on training and administration, and he did so frequently in despatches to the Prime Minister. Only in the most exceptional circumstances was Barrowclough permitted to communicate direct with the Prime Minister and, except in the gravest emergency, he could not employ his force without reference to New Zealand. This meant, of course, that he was unable to act without constant communication with Army Headquarters in Wellington.
One predominant aspect of the Solomons campaign was the proved ability of the American and New Zealand servicemen –
representatives of two peoples differing widely in outlook, temperament and tradition, and often in their interpretation of service language, despite a common tongue—to work together without confusion, dissension, or recrimination. New Zealand components of all three services worked under senior American command with an understanding as complete as with people of the Commonwealth itself. This was stressed again and again by commanding officers and proved by the lack of friction during both planning and execution of any operation.1 New Zealand forces worked as part of the South Pacific Command, but in individual action New Zealanders frequently commanded American units. On more than one occasion Barrowclough had under his authority more American servicemen than New Zealanders, not only of the Army but of Navy and Air Force. As ‘island commander’, which under the American system he became as each island was captured and consolidated, he was responsible for all servicemen and service functions to the South Pacific Command, through corps or task force commanders. Never once was his authority questioned, nor did New Zealand question American authority. Only once did Barrowclough ask Wilkinson to replace an American officer, and this was done at the request of his own people. Senior American officers, particularly Harmon, Fitch, Breene and Wilkinson, expressed the greatest confidence in the ability of the New Zealanders, and at the time the division was withdrawn from an active role, considered it the most efficient striking force in the
South Pacific Command. By that time the whole division, with its thousands of tons of stores, equipment and transport, could be prepared in a few days for an operational move by landing craft to any island.
The division evolved a system of training, tactics, and maintenance, proved by the test of actual experience over a period of years, which should be invaluable for future guidance. Each succeeding action revealed that troops engaged in amphibious operations among groups of tropical islands require equipment undreamed of in land combat—small landing craft for the use of senior officers, specially designed wireless equipment to overcome the peculiar difficulties of communication in the jungle, a special habitable boat for the divisional commander, a revised list of transport for island warfare where landing craft are often more necessary than motor vehicles, special clothing for the jungle and the heat, and special foods to overcome the exhaustion of heat and fatigue. That Barrowclough trained his division to a high state of efficiency was proved by the despatch with which its tasks were completed, reduced casualty lists which could have been much higher with less competent troops, and the emergence of the whole force from its engagements as knowledgeable and proficient in jungle and amphibious operations, in the opinion of the American command, as any troops in the Pacific. The fighting in the Solomons tested the individual, his initiative and stamina, as no other form of warfare did. There was no support from massed artillery or aircraft as in the later years in Europe. Actions were limited and restricted, often fought at close quarters with rifle, automatic weapon, grenade or revolver; and the country was such that working in anything other than small groups would have caused unnecessary waste of life.
It is impossible to write of New Zealand's commitments and action in the Pacific without reference to the broad plans of the American command. Nor can this be done without comparison in numbers and equipment, for by comparison, and without disparagement, New Zealand's contribution in men and equipment was not great, though what her fighting men of all three services lacked in numbers they made up in fortitude and enterprise. Credit must also be given to American generosity in the supply of material and equipment. They were issued to Barrowclough without hesitation if he required them, even though, on occasion, the Americans were themselves short because of losses in transit. The Pacific war was fought not only on a lend-lease basis
but with an even-handed distribution of service material which revealed the mutual esteem and admiration of one nation for another, and perhaps indicated a future policy for both.
All operations in the earlier stages of the South Pacific war were governed by time, space, and limited resources. There were never sufficient men or equipment to mount an overwhelming offensive; the whole campaign was conducted with an economy which made its ultimate success all the more meritorious. If landing craft were lost in an action or by storms they could not be replaced. Reserves of men and material were held on islands hundreds of miles away from the scene of action. During the greater part of 1943, perhaps the most critical year in the Solomons, the South Pacific Command was restricted to the use of only eight transports and four cargo ships with which to move and supply the whole of the forces engaged on islands north of New Caledonia. Supply was an ever-recurring problem, for the Americans required six tons of equipment for every fighting man and one additional ton a month to maintain him in action. The New Zealanders, more economical by nature and necessity in the use of material, got along with a lot less.
Another difficulty in the advance through the Solomons was the lack of reliable intelligence information. This was hard to obtain, but for individual actions it was sought by landing small groups of officers and men at night from submarine, motor torpedo boat, or canoe to interrogate natives and reconnoitre the proposed assault areas. Little information was revealed by captured Japanese.
New Zealand ground forces played no part in the battle for Guadalcanal, which will be regarded by future historians as one of the critical battles of history, but her air force and, to a lesser degree, units of her navy, aided the Americans in their initial assault on Japan's outer bastion in the Solomons. Fijian scouts, led by New Zealand officers and non-commissioned officers, entered the battle there and went on to New Georgia with 14 Corps, but 3 Division was not committed until the final stages of the conquest of that group.
One of the more unfortunate aspects of campaigning in the Pacific, particularly in the opinion of the men in the ranks in the earlier days of the war, was the public attitude towards those who had served there. This was no doubt due to the lack of publicity which, correctly interpreted and efficiently distributed, would have informed public opinion on activities in the Pacific. No publicity was extended to the division until long after it was established in New Caledonia. This lack of attention by the press and radio
irked most of the men and no doubt added considerably to their sense of frustration.
As yet the importance of the Pacific war has been insufficiently understood, since it was overshadowed by the European and Mediterranean campaigns. Not until the years adjust them to their proper perspective will the Pacific campaign be fitted correctly into its place in the global war of 1939–45.