The Second World War began in some respects as a second round of the 1914–18 contest (the Great War, later called the First World War). The German dictator Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 determined to throw off the shackles of the Treaty of Versailles, the 1919 peace settlement. In fact his aims were much wider in scope. He sought to extend, by conquest, Germany’s living space (lebensraum) to its east, and to rid the country of its Jewish population.
Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 precipitated the war. Two days later France and Britain declared war on Germany. In June 1940 Italy entered the war on Germany’s side. The Soviet Union, which had invaded Poland from the east in 1939, joined the Allies after being invaded by Germany in June 1941. The war became global in scope when Japan attacked the United States in December 1941. Germany thereupon declared war on the US. China, which had been fighting Japan since 1937, became one of the Allies.
Who called the shots?
In 1914 New Zealand was committed to the First World War by King George V’s declaration of war. Australia followed this precedent in 1939. New Zealand did not. The constitutional evolution of the Commonwealth and the attitude of the ruling Labour government, led by Michael Joseph Savage, ensured that New Zealand declared war on Germany in its own right. This declaration was then backdated to the same moment as Britain’s. New Zealand shared with Britain, Australia and Britain’s colonial possessions the dubious distinction of having the longest participation in the war.
New Zealand’s strategy
Sentimental attachment to Britain, economic dependency and military weakness meant that New Zealand’s strategy in 1939 was the same as in 1914 – to ensure that the Commonwealth emerged at least undefeated, an outcome that depended on Britain’s power. A radio broadcast by Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage on 5 September highlighted New Zealand’s approach: ‘Both with gratitude for the past, and with confidence in the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go, where she stands, we stand.’
New Zealand’s strategy was inevitably Europe-focused, for the Commonwealth effort was concentrated there. The potential danger presented by militaristic Japan in the Pacific was not ignored, but Japan had stood aside from the conflict for the time being. Since New Zealand’s defence against Japan was believed to rest on British capacity to send a battle fleet to the major naval base at Singapore, New Zealand’s security against Japan ultimately rested on the outcome of the conflict in Europe.
New Zealand’s contribution
New Zealand responded to the outbreak of war as it had in 1914. It promised to contribute as much as possible to the main Commonwealth war effort:
- economically, by helping to sustain Britain with produce, as in 1914–18, so bulk purchase arrangements were again soon put in place
- militarily, by making available elements of its armed forces, which this time included greater naval and air resources than in 1914.
Battle of the River Plate
One of New Zealand’s two cruisers, HMS Achilles, left immediately to join a British squadron in South American waters. In December 1939 she helped destroy the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in the South Atlantic off the Rio de la Plata (River Plate) – a huge boost to Commonwealth morale.
Air force contribution
New Zealand made available to Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) modern bombers that it had obtained in Britain – and the airmen sent to fly them out to New Zealand. These formed the nucleus of the later 75th (New Zealand) Squadron. Steps were also taken to augment the 500 New Zealanders already serving in the RAF. Under the Empire Air Training Scheme, set up in December 1939, New Zealand provided 7,000 airmen over the next five years.
2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force
As in 1914–18, the centrepiece of New Zealand effort was a ground force – the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF). Its main component was an infantry division, with an additional battalion to be manned by Māori. This force was created through voluntary enlistment. Bernard Freyberg VC, a New Zealand-raised British Army officer, assumed command of both the expeditionary force and the division.
Because the Territorial Force was unprepared, New Zealand was less able to provide the force rapidly than in 1914. The men were trained in three echelons, which left at four-monthly intervals from January 1940. Although 2NZEF assembled in Egypt, its ultimate destination was France.