A medal they didn’t get – thank God
As 2nd NZEF veterans who fought in Italy, now well into their 80s, polish their medals for the Gallipoli anniversary on Anzac Day, I wonder how many know about the battle honour they missed out on – and were saved from.
It would have marked the worst, bloodiest landing battle in our history.
Unknown to them, as they relaxed in Italy in 1945 at the end of their great campaigns, military men and politicians were readying them behind their backs for the carnage of an invasion of Japan, plans only scrapped after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Fight-to-the-death, suicide defences of Iwo Jima, Saipan and Okinawa in the last stages of the Pacific war underlined the certainty of horrendous casualties. One photo in my files shows a Kure naval dockyard crammed with 70 miniature submarines. And that was just one base. Thousands of kamikaze pilots were in training.
Japanese leaders boasted that 2.5 million defending troops – plus a population they quoted as 100 million – were steeled to die in defence of their homeland.
Top US advisers predicted – perhaps extravagantly – 395,000 casualties in the first 120-day campaign, maybe rising to a million by mid1946. Half a million Purple Heart medals, to be awarded to dead and wounded, had already been ordered. All this for what could have been the biggest military disaster in New Zealand history – worse by far than Gallipoli where 2721 New Zealanders died in the disastrous eightmonth campaign.
Then the horror of Passchendaele: 1653 casualties in two days in a first attack. Worse still, in four hours of a second assault there on October 12, 1917, 2700 young New Zealanders were killed or wounded.
Planners put these figures behind them in Honshu plans spelt out in the exchange of what were then top secret messages, later published as war history which I recently bought on that mecca of public availability, Trademe.
Perhaps I am simply the last person to know but it was news to me – more than 60 years later – and I wondered how many of those New Zealanders in Italy, hoping to return to their families, knew what could literally have been their final fate, whether men who will answer the Anzac Day bugle on Saturday have ever known just what history held in store for them.
The official records make it very clear. Remember, these are not the ramblings of some academic analyst. These are actual texts.
The process was well under way when Winston Churchill put the arm on New Zealand in 1945. His secret message to New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser, dated July 5 that year: “We have not hitherto planned to provide land forces to take part in operations against the Japanese main islands, but with the early capture of Rangoon ... it has been possible to reconsider the whole problem.”
Churchill backgrounded a first all-American invasion of Kyushu, the southernmost island, in October. He spelt out a plan for a Commonwealth force of three to five divisions to then join in the second phase, a bitterlyfought assault on mainland Japan, under US command, landing on Honshu in March 1946 in the operation codenamed Coronet.
“I am well aware that the New Zealand government wish to take part in operations against Japan and therefore I propose, with your agreement, that the headquarters and two infantry brigades of the New Zealand division now in Italy should join this force ... of British, Australian, New Zealand, British-Indian and possibly Canadian divisions, it would form a striking demonstration of Commonwealth solidarity.”
And then the final piece of psychological and tactical pressure: “It is impor- tant that we share with the Americans the burden of the assault on Japan. If you concur, I will approach the president to obtain agreement in principle.”
That message didn’t get the reception Churchill had hoped for. Not by a long way. Peter Fraser didn’t quite put it like this but there were problems back at the ranch. While Churchill was campaigning in a general election, New Zealand was in the grip of two byelections and the National Opposition was digging its toes in over sending more men to do more. And face more risks.
Fraser obviously took time to weigh up his options, then wrote to Churchill on July 14 about problems and public opinion.
“You will, I know, fully appreciate the imperative need for complete national unity before embarking on fresh military undertakings in what will be for us, as for you, the seventh year of an arduous war.”
Sounds like: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
Neither man had any insight into the way national disunity would unexpectedly reveal itself within three weeks of this exchange.
War hero Churchill was surprisingly tipped out of office in that British general election of July 26, 1945.
But the issue of the Japanese invasion didn’t go away. The next nudge from the British prime minister on August 4 pushed the same proposition but carried a different signature, the name of Clem Atlee, new Labour prime minister. Just back from the Potsdam conference of Allied leaders, he, understandably, was feeling the first flush of power. He once again outlined the Honshu landing plan and New Zealand involvement.
“I would be very grateful if I might have your general views as soon as possible.”
By now, the Kiwis-to-Honshu plan had taken on a life of its own. Fraser had somehow placated Opposition leader Sid Holland. Parliament secretly approved the strategy and, in London, revered NZEF commander General Bernard Freyberg had a great head of steam on. He said the Honshu expedition “had much to commend it”. He’d already foreseen some role for the division in Asia.
A few months earlier, his signals to Wellington had talked about possible New Zealand involvement, that its battle experience seemed suited for “main and decisive battles for the defeat of Japan which would probably be in China and Manchuria as well as Japan itself”.
He certainly rated Honshu ahead of Burma, and the possibility of his men going there for jungle fighting they were totally unfamiliar with and in a killing environment where 282,000 British and other troops had been hit by terrible illness, along with 40,000 killed, wounded or missing in the 1944 campaign alone.
So as the division enjoyed its days in the Italian sun, Honshu was all on. On August 7 – the day after the Hiroshima bomb – a Freyberg briefing to Cabinet listed the nuts and bolts of Operation Coronet, how his troops in Italy would take leave in Britain, hand over their British equipment and move to the US for refitting with American weapons and training, being educated about a new, strange and dangerous enemy. There was almost an air of enthusiasm in the Freyberg assessment. But at that eventful stage of a long war a day – much less a week – was a long time. On August 11, two days after the Nagasaki bombs on August 9, his message to Peter Fraser was that provisional planning on Coronet was complete. But Japanese surrender approaches after those A-bombs had changed everything. The end of the war was only days away.
That’s how thousands of New Zealanders were saved from carnage on the beaches and in the streets of Japan. It was as close as that.
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