Story: Second World War

The Second World War of 1939–45 demanded of New Zealand its greatest national effort. The least controversial of New Zealand’s overseas wars – and the only one in which New Zealand has been directly threatened – it was a struggle that changed the world and New Zealand’s place in it more fundamentally than had the First World War.

Story by Ian McGibbon
Main image: New Zealand soldiers near Maleme, on Crete, by official war artist Peter McIntyre

Story summary

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When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, France and Britain declared war on Germany. New Zealand also declared war and became part of the Allies. It agreed to supply produce to Britain and provide troops.

Defeat in France

Poland was quickly defeated. Germany attacked France in May 1940. France was defeated, and British forces retreated from Dunkirk.

More intense effort, 1940

New Zealanders from the army, air force and navy took part in the Battle of Britain, in which Germany was prevented from invading Britain.

Italy entered the war on Germany’s side in 1940. Their combined forces were known as the Axis.

The Soviet Union joined the Allies when Germany invaded it in 1941.


New Zealand forces took part in an unsuccessful attempt to defend the island of Crete, Greece, in 1941 when German airborne forces attacked. 691 New Zealanders died and 2,180 were taken prisoner.

North Africa

From 1941 to 1943 New Zealand was involved in the campaign against Axis forces in North Africa. Māori, serving in their own battalion, achieved great distinction in this and other campaigns.


In 1941 Japan attacked territories in Asia and the Pacific and bombed Darwin in northern Australia. A territorial force was developed in New Zealand to protect against possible Japanese attack, and civilians were directed to work in key industries. US forces were stationed in New Zealand from 1942.

Pacific war

New Zealand troops supported the US against Japan in the Solomon Islands. Japanese prisoners of war were held in a camp at Featherston.


New Zealand troops fought in Italy and took part in the main air and sea campaigns contributing to Germany’s defeat in May 1945. More than 8,000 New Zealand prisoners of war were freed when the war ended in Europe.

Japan surrendered in August 1945 after atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


11,625 New Zealanders died in the war. Economically, New Zealand benefited. The war also brought Māori and Pākehā together, overseas and at home. Women had also taken part – in the armed forces, or working in factories or on farms.

Defence installations remained around the country, and many war memorials – mostly functional, such as halls and pools – were built.

New Zealand took an active part in the 1945 conference that set up the United Nations.

How to cite this page:

Ian McGibbon, 'Second World War', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 October 2023)

Story by Ian McGibbon, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 May 2016