Story: Second World War

Page 6. Japan enters the war

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While New Zealanders fought in the Mediterranean, dramatic events in the Pacific were bringing danger to their homeland. On 7 December 1941 Japan attacked both American and British territories in Asia and the Pacific. The US had provided material support for the British effort since 1940; it now became a full participant in the war.

The immediate impact of the Japanese attacks was sobering. Japanese troops landed in the Philippines and Malaya, and Japanese carrier-borne aircraft crippled the US battle fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Japanese swept down the Malay peninsula to capture Singapore on 15 February 1942. Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast, was bombed four days later and Japanese forces moved as far south as the Solomon Islands from their pre-war holdings just north of the equator. The Japanese also invaded Burma and attacked Ceylon (Sri Lanka), both British territories.

Bolstering the defences

These events shocked New Zealanders, who found themselves directly threatened for the first time. An unprecedented mobilisation began. By mid-January 1942, 43,000 men of the Territorial Force were on duty. Urgent action followed to throw up defence works at vulnerable points. As forward defence an infantry brigade was sent to Fiji, reinforcing another brigade deployed there in 1940.


Civilians were also mobilised and became subject to direction for their labour. ‘Manpowering’, affecting both men and women, placed workers in key industries. Unlike conscription, this direction of civilian labour also applied to Māori. One outcome was their movement into cities and towns, where many stayed long-term.

Pacific versus Mediterranean

The threat to New Zealand raised questions about the continued involvement of the 2nd NZ Division in the Mediterranean. But it was decided not to bring it home. By the time shipping was available, Japanese forces were present in the Indian Ocean, through which the New Zealanders would pass. The deployment of US forces to New Zealand was considered a safer alternative. In any case, the composition and training of the division better fitted it for combat in the Mediterranean than in the Pacific, and, its continued service in the 8th Army accorded with Allied strategy, which gave priority to defeating Germany.

Impact on daily life

For those not in the forces or manpowered, war became a daily reality as blackouts, rationing and shortages of goods dominated national life. Many activities were curtailed.

US presence

US troops landed in New Zealand in June 1942, encamping near Auckland and Wellington. They were the first of 80,000 who were stationed in New Zealand over the next two years. Their presence had considerable social impact, and led to 1,300 ‘war brides’ going to the US after the war.

How to cite this page:

Ian McGibbon, 'Second World War - Japan enters the war', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

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