The fall of France came as a huge shock to New Zealand, which had been lulled into ‘phoney war’ complacency. As in the United Kingdom, it prompted measures to bolster the war effort, with governments assuming greater powers of direction over national life. A persisting anti-war sentiment in the Labour government mostly evaporated. The crisis also led to political changes. The government, now led by Peter Fraser after Michael Joseph Savage’s death on 27 March 1940, resisted calls for a national coalition. However, in July 1940 it formed a six-person war cabinet, including two members of the opposition National Party. With Labour winning the 1943 general election (postponed from 1941 because of the emergency), these political arrangements persisted to the end of the war.
The crisis prompted the institution of conscription in July 1940, ironically by Labour politicians who had opposed it in 1916. Enlistment for the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF) had fallen off (almost 60,000 in total had volunteered) and many in the community supported the concept of equality of sacrifice. Māori were not drafted (leaving recruitment for the Māori battalion in the hands of the Maori War Effort Organisation). With conscription came conscientious objection. About 800 men refused to serve after having their appeals denied; they found themselves in detention camps for the duration.
The provision of men for Britain’s Royal Navy and Royal Air Force (RAF) was speeded up or extended. By 1945, 12,000 New Zealanders (of whom 27% died) had served with the RAF and 7,000 with the Royal Navy. In the RAF seven ‘New Zealand’ squadrons were formed, though most New Zealanders served in ordinary RAF squadrons. Naval personnel were spread throughout the fleet. Numerous New Zealanders made their mark in the Fleet Air Arm.
Close to home
The sense of crisis in New Zealand in 1940 was bolstered by the arrival of German armed raiders in the South Pacific. On 19 June a mine laid by the German raider Orion sank the trans-Pacific steamer Niagara off Bream Head with the loss of 590 bars of gold. Then on 20 August the freighter Turakina was sunk in a gun battle with the Orion off the Taranaki coast, and 35 crew died. Finally, on 27 November the Orion sank the passenger liner Rangitane. Seven passengers and eight crew died. Five seamen were killed while clearing enemy mines in New Zealand waters in 1941.
Battle of Britain
Following the fall of France, a hesitant Hitler endorsed plans for the invasion of Britain. With this venture depending upon air superiority over the landing beaches, the Luftwaffe (the German air force) launched a major campaign against the RAF in July 1940.
New Zealanders took part in all three dimensions of the ensuing Battle of Britain. More than 130 served in the RAF’s Fighter Command, the third-largest national grouping. A New Zealander who had made his career in the RAF, Keith Park, played a crucial role as commander of the group covering south-east England.
New Zealand naval personnel served in minesweepers in the English Channel, while on land in south-east England soldiers, including Māori, prepared to repel a landing. They were members of 2NZEF’s Second Echelon, which had been diverted to Britain and made available for the defence of the islands.
An important victory
The RAF’s victory was the first major setback for Germany in the war. It had huge strategic consequences. Postponing the invasion attempt, Hitler turned east. In June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and for the next four years the bulk of the German armed forces were engaged in this titanic struggle.