Story: Second World War

Page 8. Final victory

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In 1943 the Allies invaded Sicily, then landed on the toe of the Italian mainland in September. Although Italy surrendered, Germans occupied most of the peninsula and a hard-fought campaign ensued to drive them north.

Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand division arrived in Italy in October 1943, and entered the front on the Sangro River. Early in 1944 it was involved in an attempt to take Monte Cassino, the key point in the German line blocking the way to Rome. In this unsuccessful attack 340 of its troops lost their lives. After an advance to the River Po, the New Zealanders endured a harsh winter before taking part in the final Allied offensive, ending the war in the city of Trieste in May 1945. In the Italian campaign 2,003 New Zealand soldiers died.

Defeat of Germany

While the Italian campaign contributed significantly to the weakening of Germany, it was essentially a sideshow. The main Allied focus remained in northern Europe, where Germany’s fortunes were faltering by 1944. New Zealanders took part in the main campaigns that contributed to Germany’s ultimate demise in May 1945.

Battle of the Atlantic

Of all the battles in 1939–45 the struggle to keep open the sea lanes in the Atlantic was perhaps the most important. This struggle began on the first day of the war and continued until Allied victory was achieved in 1943–44. New Zealanders were among the seamen and airmen who fought to protect the convoys that carried supplies to the United Kingdom, gave assistance to the Russians and later deployed the huge US forces that would spearhead the Allied offensive in the West.

Air offensive

New Zealanders also played a part in the massive air bombardment of Germany mounted by the Allies. This campaign severely disrupted the German war effort, obliging the deployment of huge resources in defence, hampering industrial production and undermining morale. But the cost was heavy. 1,700 New Zealanders died flying with Bomber Command (of 6,000 who served), while others died in Coastal Command attacking German shipping and ports.


The Allied landing in Normandy, France, in June 1944 – known as D-Day – opened a new front in western Europe. About 10,000 New Zealanders serving in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy were involved in supporting the operation. The Allied forces had by September cleared France of the enemy and advanced to the Rhine.

Final defeat

At the same time the Russians were inflicting even more devastating defeats on the German army in a series of offensives that brought the Red Army to the Vistula River. In 1945 the western Allies and the Russians linked up in central Germany, with Russian troops taking Berlin. On 8 May 1945 Germany capitulated.

Liberation of prisoners

The end of the war in Europe meant liberation for over 8,000 New Zealand prisoners of war, mostly captured in Greece or North Africa. Over a third had been held in Italy until 1943, before being taken to Germany.

Final operations against Japan

In the Pacific by this time Japan’s situation was bleak. In a series of island-hopping campaigns in the central Pacific, American forces had breached Japan’s defensive perimeter, while effectively destroying the Japanese fleet. The Japanese mainland itself came under ferocious air attack.

Naval effort

The Royal New Zealand Navy was active in the final stages of the war against Japan. The cruisers Achilles and HMNZS Gambia served with the British Pacific Fleet, which joined American task forces in bringing the war to Japanese waters. New Zealand prepared also to make a contribution to the forces that would invade Japan – an operation expected to be hugely costly in terms of both Japanese and Allied lives.

Kiwis and the bomb

New Zealanders were involved in the development of the atomic bomb. Ernest Rutherford had pioneered atomic physics, and all the British scientists who joined the ‘Manhattan’ project developing the bomb in 1943 were students of Rutherford. They included R. R. Nimmo, a New Zealander. In July 1944 two New Zealand scientists joined the Manhattan project working on the electromagnetic separation of uranium-235. In addition, five New Zealand scientists worked on the Anglo-Canadian atomic project in Montreal.

Atomic bomb

To much relief, the war ended suddenly on 15 August 1945. Japan capitulated following the dropping of atom bombs on two of its cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a Soviet onslaught in Manchuria.

Occupation duties

Following the Japanese capitulation New Zealanders served in Japan in Jayforce, the air force squadron and infantry brigade New Zealand made available for the occupation. This effort, involving 12,000 New Zealanders in all, continued until 1948.

How to cite this page:

Ian McGibbon, 'Second World War - Final victory', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

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