511 Lord Cranborne, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, to U.K. High Commissioner in Australia

Cablegram 316 LONDON, 20 June 1941, 6.10 a.m.


[The office of U.K. High Commissioner in Australia was temporarily vacant. Sir Geoffrey Whiskard left Canberra on 17 June to return to the United Kingdom. His successor, Sir Ronald Cross, took up office on 16 July.]

Please give the following message which is of the highest degree of secrecy to the Prime Minister [1] for his most secret and personal information. From the Prime Minister. [2] BEGINS.

1. General Wavell's [3] attack in the Western Desert which began on Sunday morning prospered until the evening of the second day but on the third day the German counter attack caused him to yield up all his gains and we were glad to get back to our original position with[out] disaster. The number of armoured vehicles on each side was about 200; we had a superiority in the air. Forces employed on both sides represented an intense form of war effort.

2. Losses on both sides were severe; we lost at least 100 tanks but the enemy seemed in no condition to press pursuit. Had these operations been successful and enemy been pushed to the neighbourhood of Tobruk, substantial results might have been gained. As it is, our effort to regain the initiative has failed, and it may be some months before we can resume the offensive.

There is no reason to suppose that the enemy possesses the strength at present to force the Mersa Matruh position or that he is at all triumphant. On the other hand the situation at Tobruk and at Malta requires the serious attention of the Staffs. We must fight hard.

3. I send you in a separate message [4] the answers to the questions set out in your telegram No. 363. [5] These should dispose of the suggestions that we do not regard the defence of the Middle East as second only to the life of Britain.

4. No immediate crisis is expected on the West Nile.

5. You will have had the telegram about the reported French request for an armistice in Syria. [6] I hope the report is well founded but the news tonight is that sharp Vichy French resistance at various points continues. Now that we are thrown back on the defensive in the West, Wavell may be able to [reinforce] [7] the Syrian operation with more air, tanks and men. We have suggested this to him.

6. Little did we think this time last year that we should stand where we do today in the Middle East. Pray see our previous correspondence after the Dakar fiasco. We are certainly in a much better position to defend the Nile Valley than we were then, but I make no promises and give no guarantees except that we will do our best. ENDS.

1 R. G. Menzies.

2 Winston S. Churchill.

3 U.K. Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East.

4 Cablegram 426/T311 of 19 June in PRO: PREM 3 281/10.

5 Document 500.

6 Cablegram M113 of 19 June on file AA: A1608,J41/1/3, i.

7 Corrected from the London file copy in PRO: DO 35/1009, ii.

[AA: A1608, H41/1/3, i]