The Victoria Cross is the highest British decoration awarded to members of the armed forces for valour while on active service, and was bestowed upon New Zealand servicemen in all of the three major wars in which New Zealand forces were engaged overseas. It was also awarded to a New Zealand militiaman and to 14 Royal Navy and Imperial Army personnel during the Second Maori War of 1860–72.
The original Royal Warrant instituting the Victoria Cross, dated 29 January 1856, restricted the award to “Our Naval and Military Services”, and required submissions from “Our Commander-in-Chief of Our Army” before an award could be made. In 1864, when Captain Charles Heaphy of the Auckland Militia was recommended for the Victoria Cross by the General Officer Commanding the Forces in New Zealand, the award was not approved because it was held that locally raised forces did not constitute an authorised part of the Imperial Army and were, therefore, ineligible under a strict interpretation of the existing Royal Warrant. Further strong representations made on Heaphy's behalf pointed out that he had initially been recommended by Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Henry Havelock, himself a Victoria Cross winner during the Indian Mutiny, and by whom he had been placed in command of a detachment of Imperial troops.
Eventually, on 1 January 1867, the Royal Warrant was amended and in the preamble to the amendment, drew specific attention to the operations “undertaken against the Insurgent Native Tribes of Our Colony of New Zealand” and the then ineligibility of “persons serving in the Local Forces of Our said Colony” for the high distinction of the Victoria Cross. The Warrant went on to authorise the award to “persons aforesaid provided that it be established in any case that the person was serving with Our Troops, under command of a General or other Officer”. Heaphy's Victoria Cross was gazetted a few weeks later, being the first awarded to a member of a colonial force as well as the first to a non-regular serviceman.
Later, in 1867, when New Zealand assumed full responsibility for the suppression of the hostile Maoris, the General Officer Commanding returned to England after relinquishing his command, and the Imperial troops were progressively withdrawn. Although further acts of valour were performed by New Zealanders before the end of hostilities, the Government of New Zealand did not forward any recommendations for the Victoria Cross as the local forces were no longer either serving with the Imperial troops or under command of an Imperial Army officer. Thus they were again considered ineligible for the award.
In 1869 the Governor of the colony, Sir George Bowen, instituted on his own authority the New Zealand Cross as a substitute award in place of the Victoria Cross. Although Queen Victoria subsequently ratified the award of this decoration in New Zealand, there is no doubt that the Governor's action made clear the inflexible regulations governing the award of the Victoria Cross. In 1881 the Royal Warrant was again amended and clarified for all time the eligibility of the regular and auxiliary forces of all parts of the Empire for the award of the Victoria Cross.
Since its institution in 1856, 1,344 Victoria Crosses have been awarded and three bars or second awards, made. A New Zealander, Captain C. H. Upham, is the only combatant recipient of a bar to the Victoria Cross and this was also the only bar awarded during the Second World War. The other two awards of a bar were made to medical officers during the First World War. The first Victoria Cross to be won in the air was posthumously awarded to Second-Lieutenant W. B. Rhodes-Moorhouse, a New Zealander serving in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. The first award of the Victoria Cross to an airman for sinking an enemy submarine was made posthumously to Flying Officer L. A. Trigg, RNZAF, whose blazing aircraft later crashed into the sea. Although there were no survivors, his award was made on the recommendations of the captain and crew of the U-boat he had sunk, a distinction without precedent in two world wars. The first and, to date, the only award of the Victoria Cross to a member of the Maori race, was that bestowed posthumously upon Second-Lieutenant Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu.
A total of 21 Victoria Crosses and one bar have been awarded to New Zealand servicemen, one during the Maori War of 1860–72; one during the South African War of 1899–1902; 11 during the First World War; and eight and a bar during the Second World War. In addition, seven awards were made to New Zealanders serving in other forces during the First World War, but these are not credited to New Zealand in official records and statistics.