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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



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War Against Japan

A few hours after Japanese hostilities against British Malaya were known to be in train, the Japanese attacked the United States Naval Base of Pearl Harbour on 8 December (New Zealand time). This act brought the United States into the war. New Zealand, along with the United Kingdom and other members of the Commonwealth, met the challenge without delay. At 11 a.m. on 8 December New Zealand declared war on Japan. Pacific defence was a poor relation of New Zealand's war efforts in the Middle East and Europe. Instructors and equipment for the small Fiji Defence Force had been sent in the last quarter of 1939. Then 8 NZ Infantry Brigade Group with 3,053 men reached there in November 1940 and began fortifying Viti Levu. A detachment of the RNZAF in Fiji became No. 4 General Reconnaissance Squadron, but its aircraft were obsolescent, as were the four flying boats which at the end of 1941 formed No. 5 GR Squadron. A flight of six old biplanes served for local reconnaissance and army cooperation. So weak was the RNZAF at home that it had to call on civil aircraft to search for the German raiders in New Zealand waters in 1940.

American requests for landing grounds in Fiji to take large modern service aircraft brought a spurt of activity in November 1941. No. 2 Aerodrome Construction Squadron, RNZAF, supervised the building of three long concrete runways; the Ministry of Works sent over a Civil Construction Unit of 1,219 civilian employees with heavy equipment, and one runway was finished in January 1942 and the other two by April. By the end of November 1941 Cunningham's force had grown to 4,943 men, including 945 troops of the Fiji Defence Force. In Tonga there were 462 Tongan troops commanded by 13 New Zealanders. In Samoa one New Zealand warrant officer commanded 150 Samoans. On Fanning Island there were 110 New Zealanders. In the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, near the Equator, 22 New Zealand soldiers and 15 Post Office employees manned coastwatching stations and report centres, as did detachments in other island groups including the Kermadecs and Chathams. The civilian status of the Post Office employees in their military work left it open to the Japanese to regard them as spies, a serious oversight. All were captured and half of them, with their army colleagues, were brutally executed on Tarawa in October 1942. The civilians were posthumously given military status for the benefit of their dependants.

The Beginnings of the Pacific War

All three New Zealand services reacted strongly to the outbreak of war with Japan. The Achilles, Leander, and Monowai served as escorts for the many troop movements which took place in the first few months and in January 1942 the Monowai clashed briefly with a Japanese submarine off Fiji. The little HMNZS Gale, a coaster converted to minesweeping, reached Suva on Christmas Day 1941, the first of many small New Zealand vessels to serve in the Pacific.

There were 13,250 men in Army camps at home and 4,600 fortress troops were mobilised. Another 11,000 Territorials entered camp on 15 December and by the 28th 28,850 men were in camp, to be increased to 39,350 by January. A mixed anti-aircraft battery was sent to Fiji in December, and 14 Infantry Brigade, of three battalions, brought the force in Fiji (called the Pacific Section, 2 NZEF) to divisional strength in January. The RNZAF dispatched six of its 36 Hudson bomber-reconnaissance aircraft – the only modern aircraft it possessed – to Fiji in December and six more in February 1942.


No. 1 Aerodrome Construction Squadron and No. 488 NZ Fighter Squadron, RAF, reached Malaya between August and November 1941. The construction squadron worked hard at Johore and in northern Malaya only to see its labours rendered fruitless by the speed of the Japanese advance. The fighter squadron barely had time to take over Buffalo fighters before the Japanese attacked. Ill trained though it was, the squadron soon found itself in the air against large numbers of Japanese fighters of far superior performance. Both New Zealand squadrons withdrew to Sumatra in February and then to Australia under incessant air attack which caused some 30 casualties. They reached home in March and were in due course disbanded.

Expansion of Forces in the Pacific

HMNZS Rata and Muritai relieved the Gale at Suva in January 1942 and the 600-ton corvette Moa, newly arrived from Scotland, soon took over from the Rata. Other small ships, forming the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla, took turns in home and foreign service. The Moa was joined later in the year by her sister ships Kiwi and Tui and four 560-ton minesweeping trawlers were supplied a few months later by the Admiralty. Thirteen ships all told were built in New Zealand, mostly steel vessels of 290 tons, and between October 1942 and December 1943 twelve 80-ton Fairmile launches were built in Auckland. By 1943 there were 26 small ships in commission, two in reserve, and one nearly built. This construction went hand in hand with immense effort and expense to provide static defences for the many American merchant and naval ships expected to be based on New Zealand ports – contact and controlled minefields and anti-submarine loops, with huge auxiliary installations. But the war moved on and in the end these underwater defences all had to be swept or fired.

By March 1942 New Zealand's manpower resources were heavily committed. There were 61,368 men overseas (52,712 in the Army), 67,264 in camp in New Zealand (52,983 of them Army), and 100,000 in the Home Guard. The Pacific Section, 2 NZEF, was relieved in Fiji by Americans (except for 269 men who stayed with the Fiji Defence Force) and returned home. While training in the Waikato, however, this section had its strength soon depleted by the dispatch in October of 34 Battalion to garrison Tonga, and of “N Force”, 1,488 strong, including 36 Battalion, to garrison Norfolk Island.

The RNZAF had to convert itself in very quick time from an organisation designed mainly to train aircrew for the RAF to an independent and balanced operational service with its own ground staff and maintenance facilities. After some argument, its expansion to 20 squadrons by April 1943 was approved by the Allies. The first new squadron under this scheme was established in New Caledonia in July and equipped with Hudsons at the expense of units at home and in Fiji. Another squadron with 13 Hudsons went to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides in September. A fighter squadron took over aircraft and equipment (all in poor condition) from an American unit in Tonga in October, and was joined in December by a radar unit from New Zealand. Eighty Kittyhawk fighters had been allotted to the RNZAF, though only 44 of them actually arrived, and three squadrons were formed. In the first year of the war against Japan, RNZAF strength rose from 10,600 to 20,600 at home and from under 600 to 1,850 in the Pacific – all without limiting the flow of aircrew for the RAF.

Campaign in the Solomons

Most of the islands of the huge Solomons group north-east of Australia were in Japanese hands by July 1942 and next month American marines began the long task of recovering from them the southernmost, vital island of Guadalcanal. The Leander joined an American task force on escort duties in September and continued until her withdrawal to Auckland in late November for a refit. Her place was soon taken, however, by the Achilles, while the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla (the Matai, Kiwi, Moa, and Tui) began anti-submarine and escort duties in the Guadalcanal and Tulagi areas. On 4 January 1943, however, off Guadalcanal, a Japanese bomb wrecked a gun house of the Achilles, killing 13 Royal Marines and wounding eight. At the end of January 1943 the 600-ton corvettes Kiwi and Moa had a furious night engagement with the Japanese submarine I–1, more than three times their size. The Kiwi rammed her prey three times and the Moa took up the chase until the I–1, badly damaged already, was wrecked on a submerged reef. Next night the Moa and Tui sank two barges and drove two more ashore. Retribution followed in April, however, when the Moa was sunk by bombing in Tulagi Harbour. In a high-speed clash with the “Tokio Express” off Kolombangara in the night 11–12 July, the Leander was badly holed by a Japanese torpedo, but Captain S. W. Roskill, himself wounded, brought his crippled ship safely to port. (She went on to Auckland after temporary repairs and thence to Boston, where she paid off in May 1944 after seven years in the RNZN.)

The Pacific Section, 2 NZEF, renamed the 3rd New Zealand Division, under Major-General H. E. Barrowclough, moved to New Caledonia by January 1943 and began training for the Solomons campaign. By June it was established with only two brigades at a strength of 17,831 men, including 2,000 reinforcements, and in August it moved to Guadalcanal. Some 3,700 men, mainly of 14 Brigade, landed on the island of Vella Lavella already partly occupied by Americans, on 18 September to begin a difficult operation of patrolling through dense jungle and barge-hopping from bay to bay to clear nearly 1,000 Japanese from the northern half of the island. All told, some 200–300 of the enemy were killed, and 589 succeeded in escaping. The Division lost 32 killed and 31 wounded.

RNZAF strength had meanwhile increased in the forward area. No. 3 Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron had operated from Guadalcanal as a more or less self-contained unit until March 1943. Then No. 1 (Islands) Group, RNZAF, set up headquarters at Espiritu Santo under Group Captain S. Wallingford. By June two fighter squadrons and a radar unit were also based on Guadalcanal and another squadron operated from Santo. The same month No. 40 (Transport) Squadron was formed at Whenuapai and by August was making scheduled round trips to the group, carrying personnel, mail, and urgent freight. Two more fighter squadrons also reached the Solomons and the units took turns, two being forward and two in reserve. New Zealand fighters shot down seven Japanese dive bombers trying to attack shipping off Vella Lavella on 1 October, to the delight of men of 3 Division, in the ships or ashore. No. 18 Fighter Squadron reached Guadalcanal in September and next month with 15 Squadron moved on to New Georgia as the NZ Fighter Wing.

The next landing was on 27 October 1943 by 8 Brigade on Mono and Stirling Islands in the Treasury group. Two destroyers gave covering fire and the RNZAF Fighter Wing patrolled overhead (with American fighters) and shot down four fighters. A total of 3,795 men landed, including 1,966 Americans. There was little fighting and organised opposition ended on 3 November. By the 12th all was quiet: 223 enemy had been killed and eight captured, for a loss of 40 New Zealand and 12 American dead, and 145 and 29 respectively wounded. Two radar stations were soon operating to cover the impending landings on the large island of Bougainville and a 7,000 ft runway was constructed on Stirling Island.

The 25th Minesweeping Flotilla meanwhile found plenty of work in the Solomons and in August the Tui was chiefly responsible for sinking the 2,200-ton submarine I–17. Early in 1944 the 80th and 81st Motor Launch Flotillas also reached the areas and their 12 Fairmile launches averaged 3,000 miles per month on escort and patrol duties. In mid-1944 some of the small ships moved on – the Kiwi and Tui to New Guinea, and a new arrival, the corvette Arabis, to the Ellice Islands.

New Zealand fighters had plenty to do from the day of the landing on Bougainville on 1 November 1943. Airstrips were soon operating ashore and in December the RNZAF Fighter Wing made three sweeps from there over Rabaul, destroying 18 aircraft. New Zealand Venturas and Catalina flying boats ranged widely over the Solomons.

The 3rd Division reconnoitred Nissan Island, the largest of the Green Islands at the northern end of the Solomons, at the end of January 1944, and Divisional Headquarters and 14 Brigade landed unopposed on 15 February, covered by New Zealand fighters, though a company on Sirot Island had a hard fight. A 5,000 ft fighter strip opened on 6 March and was used the same day by 20 RNZAF fighters refuelling en route to Rabaul. Then came a shock: 3 Division was to be withdrawn to provide men for 2 Division in Italy and for industry at home. It is doubtful if those who made this decision fully appreciated the skill 3 Division had acquired in amphibious operations, the high regard in which the American command in the Pacific held it, and the importance of the projected operations in that theatre as compared with those that 2 Division faced in Italy. Moreover, in terms of post-war influence there was far more to be gained at this stage by fighting in the Pacific than in Italy. The 3rd Division was disbanded on 20 October 1944.

Another shock followed: no further combat role was allotted the RNZAF in the Pacific – only garrison duties. A compromise softened this grave blow to New Zealand's prestige and influence, and it was agreed that seven RNZAF squadrons should take up garrison duties and that seven more should have an active role under General MacArthur's South-West Pacific Command. Even this, however, was in the end disappointing, because the squadrons were kept back in the Solomons and Bismarcks where Australian troops were clearing Bougainville, New Ireland, and other bypassed centres of Japanese resistance while the war moved up through the Marshalls to the islands of Japan. For the last year of the war, therefore, the RNZAF rarely saw a Japanese plane in the air and scarcely a single enemy warship, though it undoubtedly did valuable work in close support of the Australians or in attacking Rabaul. In April 1945 four RNZAF fighter squadrons on Bougainville flew more than 2,500 sorties and dropped over 1,000 tons of bombs. The following squadrons all served at some time or other in the Pacific:

Bomber or general reconnaissance: Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, and 9.

Dive-bomber: Nos. 25, 30, and 31.

Flying boat: Nos. 5 and 6.

Fighter: Nos. 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, and 24.

Transport: Nos. 40 and 41.

Casualties of the RNZAF in the Pacific were 338 dead, 58 seriously wounded, and four prisoners.

The War in the Islands of Japan

New Zealand was represented, as the war moved north, by its RNZN units and by the New Zealanders in the Royal Navy. Both the Achilles and the Leander were refitting and the cruiser Gambia (which took the place of the latter) reached Trincomalee in February 1944, took part in a bombardment of Sabang off northern Sumatra in July, and reached the Pacific early in 1945. The Achilles was recommissioned just in time, reached Auckland in February 1945, and with the Gambia sailed north. Leaving Manus Island in March as one of a task force of nearly 100 ships, the Gambia next month had a taste of the Japanese suicide attacks and had to tow the damaged destroyer Ulster back to the Philippines (where the New Zealand hospital ship Maunganui was at that time stationed). In May the Gambia took part in bombardments of the Sakishima Group by the British Pacific Fleet, and later in the month the Achilles arrived to help cover the final series of air strikes against airfields there. Some 100 New Zealand pilots of the Fleet Air Arm, flying from British aircraft carriers, joined in these attacks and nine of them were decorated. Another corvette, the Arbutus, also joined the Fleet, serving as radio and radar repair ship with the Fleet Train from July. The Achilles sailed for Manus on 10 August; but the Gambia was off Tokyo when the war ended five days later, and was actually struck by part of an aircraft which attacked, and was shot down, while the “Cease hostilities” signal was flying.

The Gambia thus had the honour of representing New Zealand in the force of occupation. Air Vice-Marshal L. M. Isitt, of the RNZAF, accompanied by Lieutenant J. D. Allingham, RNZVR, signed the surrender on behalf of New Zealand.

The Occupation: J Force

J Force, under Brigadier K. L. Stewart, reached Kure on 29 March 1946 and was quartered in and around Yamaguchi, with detachments at many points on the coast, supervising the repatriation of nearly 300,000 Japanese and checking illegal immigration. The first relief, 1,605 volunteers from New Zealand, arrived in June 1947. From March 1946 until November 1948, New Zealand was also represented by No. 14 Fighter Squadron, RNZAF, and some elements of it remained until March 1949. J Force withdrew in September 1948.

Summing Up

Total casualties in the New Zealand forces in the Second World War are listed in the table.

The table, taken from a White Paper, does not quite agree with the text.

The cumulative total of New Zealand men and women who served abroad in the Second World War has not been compiled – for one thing there were many who embarked twice or more. But the maximum overseas at one time approached 75,000, and in July 1942 the total mobilised (other than the Auxiliary Patrol Service and Home Guard) was 154,549. The women's services contributed about 8,500 of these. The Home Guard reached a peak of 124,194 in April 1943. Seamen in ships on the New Zealand register in 1940 numbered 2,990.

This huge mobilisation in proportion to population was about the same as that of the First World War, though its cost in lives and injuries was fortunately lower. New Zealand servicemen visited nearly every part of the world in the course of the war and everywhere they made a good impression. Unquestionably they fully lived up to the high standards set by their fathers in the First World War.

by Walter Edward Murphy, B.A., Lecturer, School of Political Science and Public Administration, Victoria University of Wellington.

  • To Greece, McClymont, W. G. (1959)
  • Crete, Davin, D. M. (1953)
  • The Relief of Tobruk, Murphy, W. E. (1961)
  • Battle for Egypt, Scoullar, J. L. (1955)
  • Bardia to Enfidaville, Stevens, W. G. (1962)
  • Italy, Vol. I—The Sangro to Cassino, Phillips, N. C. (1957)
  • The Royal New Zealand Navy, Waters, S. D. (1956)
  • Royal New Zealand Air Force, Ross, J. M. S. (1955)
  • New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force, 3 vols., Thompson, H.L.
  • Vol.I, European Theatre – Sep 1939-Dec 1942 (1953)
  • Vol. II, European Theatre – Jan 1943–May 1945 (1956)
  • Vol. III, Mediterranean and Middle East, South-East Asia (1959).