"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

by Sir Martin Gilbert / 05 September, 2009
New Zealanders were among those honoured by Winston Churchill for their efforts during World War II and New Zealand itself received his full praise.

"... admiration for New Zealand and all that she stands for". -Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill understood and valued New Zealand's contribution to World War II from the outset. When the New Zealand Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, only a few hours after Britain, Churchill was impressed. He knew well New Zealand's World War I contribution and sacrifice both at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

He was much moved by Savage's stirring statement a few days after the outbreak of war: "With gratitude for the past and confidence in the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand. We are only a small and young nation, but we march with a union of hearts and souls to a common destiny."

These were not just words: of the 127 New Zealanders who fought in the Battle of Britain, three were among the top-scoring Battle of Britain pilots; Flight Officer Brian Carbury, Pilot Officer Colin Gray and Pilot Officer Alan Deere each shot down at least 12 German planes. Carbury shot down the first German aircraft over British territory since 1918. Of 6000 New Zealanders in action with Bomber Command, 1703 were killed.

A man who was among those who taught Churchill to fly in 1913 gave me an insight into one aspect of what was to become Churchill's successful war leadership: his ability to absorb and master the complex details of a previously unfamiliar topic. British-born Robert Hamilton Clark-Hall, who had served as Fleet Aviation Officer of the Grand Fleet in 1918, emigrated to New Zealand in 1934, joining the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1940. As Air Officer Commanding Islands Group Pacific in 1944-45, he helped carry out Churchill's desire for a strong British and Commonwealth participation in the Pacific War.

It was my good fortune to have corresponded with Clark-Hall in 1962: I have his letters in front of me, written from Weyhill, Macmillan Ave, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Another New Zealander to whom Churchill gave high command in the Pacific was Sir Keith Park, in February 1945 appointed Allied Air Commander, Southeast Asia, where he served until the end of the war against Japan. As a newly promoted Air Vice Marshal in 1940, Park had commanded the Royal Air Force's No 11 Group, responsible for the fighter defence of London and southeast England at Britain's most desperate time. As Churchill said about the job these men did, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Watched approvingly by Churchill, Park organised the essential protective fighter patrols over France and the North Sea during the Dunkirk evacuation. During the Battle of Britain, Park's command took the brunt of the German air attacks.

In January 1942, as a victorious German and Italian army threatened to overrun Egypt and seize the Suez Canal, cutting Britain's supply lines with the East, Churchill sent Park to Egypt; at a time of danger for Britain and the Commonwealth, Park secured the air defence of the Nile Delta.

Six months later Park commanded the air defence of besieged and bombarded Malta. From there his squadrons gave essential air cover to the British and Commonwealth forces in the North African and Sicilian campaigns.

Another example of the New Zealand aspect of Churchill's war policies was the telegram he sent from the United States to his Defence Office on January 2, 1942. "What has been done," he asked, "about the New Zealand telegram asking for a large quantity of weapons, &c? They have behaved so well and deserve every help possible." That same day, Churchill telegraphed the War Cabinet in London that he and the British Chiefs of Staff were "pressing the Americans to extend the area of operations of their Pacific Fleet to include the whole region between 180° [which the International Date Line largely follows] and the coast of Australia. They would thus cover Fiji, and strengthen the defence of New Zealand."

Five days later Churchill telegraphed Peter Fraser, then New Zealand Prime Minister. US President Franklin Roosevelt was surprised at the attention Churchill gave to New Zealand.

"We have tried our best in consultation with United States authorities to meet your most urgent requirements" regarding New Zealand's urgent defence needs, Churchill wrote: "You will see that we have been able to make up a fairly good instalment and will try and do more as soon as we can." Churchill ended: "We are all deeply grateful for the splendid courage and loyalty to the Mother Country shown by New Zealand under stress of danger."

Six days later, in endorsing the US naval command of the Australian and New Zealand areas of the Pacific, Churchill explained to Fraser that "the advantages of persuading the United States to undertake the responsibilities for this area as part of their main Pacific Command" outweighed the criticisms, and gave his detailed reasoning.

On January 13, 1942, back in Washington, Churchill overcame Roosevelt's reluctance to have Australia and New Zealand represented on the Pacific War Council, and insisted the council, which Roosevelt wanted solely in Washington, also meet in London.

Returning from Washington to London, Churchill studied a long request from Fraser seeking assurance that New Zealand's needs would not be neglected. Churchill's reply contained the assurances Fraser sought. It was an example of the care Churchill took when addressing the needs of others, a central feature of his war leadership. "I welcome as always," he wrote, "the frank expression of your views with which, in the main, I am much in sympathy, and the well-balanced reasoning with which you have presented them to me."

The Government and people of New Zealand, Churchill told Fraser, "have always adopted a helpful and realist attitude to this war which, beginning in the narrow confines of Europe, has gradually spread over almost the entire world and is now at the doorstep of New Zealand. If you have thought us unmindful of your necessities in the past, although indeed we have never been so, I can assure you that the vast distance in miles which separates London from Wellington will not cause us to be unmindful of you or leave you comfortless in your hour of peril." He was "entirely sympathetic" to Fraser's feelings that New Zealand "should have rightful place in [the] framing of a major military policy in the Far East".

Churchill had already ensured a New Zealand representative would be present at all the London meetings of the Pacific War Council, which first met under Churchill's chairmanship on February 10, 1942. "In the Staff sphere," Churchill told Fraser, "it has already been proposed that the service representations of Australia and New Zealand and the Dutch should be given expression in London."

Churchill also took a direct personal interest in the New Zealand request for air reinforcements, writing to Fraser at a time when aircraft production in Britain and the US was facing severe bottlenecks: "Improved deliveries of Catalinas should be available in [the] second half of 1942 and when this happens everything possible will be done to help New Zealand."

The New Zealander closest to Churchill in both world wars was General Bernard Freyberg VC, for whom in 1914 Churchill had obtained a commission in the Royal Naval Division and whose exploits at Gallipoli were high on Churchill's list of brave achievements. In World War II, Freyberg commanded the New Zealand Army Expeditionary Force in Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy; Churchill closely followed his exploits and those of his men.

Churchill's commanders kept him informed of New Zealand's contribution and losses. He knew that at the crucial battle of Alam Halfa at the end of August 1942, those losses were second after Britain's, and far higher than those of Australia, South Africa and India.

When, at the end of 1942, Australia pulled out its troops from North Africa, it was New Zealand that came to the rescue. Churchill wrote to Fraser: "All my colleagues and I are very deeply grateful to you and to the Government and people of New Zealand for the most generous manner in which you have responded to our appeal to allow the glorious New Zealand Division to represent the Dominion on the African battlefield. Naturally you are free to reconsider your decision at any time, and especially if your own situation deteriorates. I am sure the President of the United States will share our feelings here of admiration for New Zealand and all that she stands for."

At Tripoli in February 1943, Churchill inspected 8000 men of the New Zealand Division and spoke with pride of their achievements. He knew that in March 1943, the 200-mile dash forward by the New Zealand Division contributed to the decisive victory at Medenine, and that New Zealand troops - as General Bernard Montgomery informed him on the day - had been central to the breakthrough at Mareth, and shortly after that at Akarit. New Zealanders were among those whose many "brilliant actions" in the Far East he spoke of at the Mansion House in November 1943. He appreciated the New Zealand contribution in Italy, and at Monte Cassino.

In April 1944, Prime Minister Fraser was one of the weekend guests at Chequers, Churchill's country residence. When their serious discussions were ended, the two men and the other guests watched several American fighter combat films, and a ghost story, Ealing Studio's Halfway House, with its patriotic theme of national identity being tied directly to the land.

In August 1944, Churchill inspected 15,000 men of the New Zealand Division in Siena. In January 1945, he told the House of Commons of the 8919 New Zealand war dead (the final figure was 11,929). In April 1945, he telegraphed General Alexander in Italy: "Never, I suppose, have so many nations advanced and manoeuvred in one line victoriously. The British, Americans, New Zealanders, South Africans, British-Indians, Poles, Jews, Brazilians and strong forces of liberated Italians have all marched together ... for the deliverance of mankind."

Churchill knew that as a war leader he depended on the courage and perseverance of the armed forces for each Allied survival and each Allied success. New Zealand did not let him down.


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