John Mulgan: New Zealand wants you.

Author:Ross, Ken

Ken Ross discusses one of the country's best and brightest whose prospective diplomatic career was tragically forestalled.

'Had he lived [John Mulgan] would almost certainly have been drawn into the New Zealand External Affairs service and would have become ambassador in Washington.' (Geoffrey Cox, 1964) (1)

'John's great mistake was not to transfer to the New Zealanders in 1940. He would have ended up a brigadier.' (Sir Geoffrey Cox, 1998) (2)

John Mulgan died on Anzac Day 1945, depriving Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg of an able recruit to the 2nd New Zealand Division's intelligence team and Alister Mcintosh of the biggest catch he sought for his new External Affairs operation. For the remainder of 1945 Mulgan was on McIntosh's crowded desk as he managed the 'duty of care' that prime minister, Peter Fraser, insisted Mulgan and his family deserved, not least because since his suicide the British had bureaucratically buried Mulgan's cause of death.

When he took his life Mulgan was at the end of his time as a British lieutenant-colonel with Churchill's 'secret army'--the Special Operations Executive (SOE): he was scheduled to 'come home' the next day. That is, he was expected at Maadi Camp, near Cairo, to complete his transfer to the New Zealand Division, reduce rank to major, and soon after be whisked on to Italy to join Freyberg's intelligence team, then headed by Major Geoffrey Cox, Mulgan's long-time friend. For two years the general had wanted Mulgan on his team: Paddy Costello likely introduced them in August 1942. By then, Freyberg already knew much of Mulgan from Cox: he may have read Man Alone.

Even before the war started, Mulgan had been singled out for New Zealand public service roles. Carl Berendsen, the prewar head of the Prime Minister's Department, used him on the New Zealand delegation at the League of Nations annual assembly in Geneva in September 1936. He next envisaged Mulgan, even though only in his late 20s, taking on a senior role at New Zealand House, London. Berendsen kept track of Mulgan, on occasion meeting him in wartime London. (3) Later, when he took up the top position at the New Zealand legation in Washington in 1944, Berendsen wanted Mulgan to be Geoffrey Cox's replacement there. (Cox was returning to Freyberg's intelligence team after a two-year absence.) Mcintosh replied 'sorry': Mulgan 'as far as I know is running Tito or some other Partisan activity in Yugoslavia'. (4)

Moreover, before Mcintosh began seriously tailing Mulgan for External Affairs, Freyberg had written to Mulgan in February 1943 about his transferring to his 2nd New Zealand Division: he confirmed that it could be done. (5) As Vincent O'Sullivan details in his biography--Long Journey to the Border: A Life of John Mulgan (2003)--Mulgan equivocated: it was seemingly a step too far. Loyalty played a part: when war had broken out, Mulgan stayed with the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Regiment, with whom he had signed on six months earlier and already undertaken much training. His war diverged from those of Geoffrey Cox, Dan Davin and Paddy Costello, who, all living in Britain, headed for the 2nd New Zealand Division, once it had a presence there, in 1940. Within a year that trio had been blooded by the division's disasters in Greece and Crete and had emerged as key figures on 'Freyberg's brilliant if iconoclastic intelligence staff. (6) Mulgan missed that steeling of the New Zealanders, whom he was to meet a year later in North Africa and eloquently write about in Report on Experience.

Transfer intention

When he came out of Greece on 8 November 1944, after his fourteen months there for the SOE, Mulgan was intent on transferring to the New Zealand Division--he told his parents, his wife and Geoffrey Cox. He got the paper trail started. A formal sign off from the British military cleared him to go to the New Zealanders. The New Zealand side was slow in wrapping things up--Freyberg had to sign the final authority (he was busy fighting in Italy). It was all done by the end of December 1944 but, by then, Mulgan had made the fateful decision, knowing that it was a mistake, to go back to Greece for the SOE. While working in Athens he got the...

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