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.
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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
Britain and France were in no position to directly assist Poland, which was quickly defeated. Soviet forces, in accordance with the Russo-German Pact of 23 August 1939, occupied the eastern part of the country. As Poland suffered, New Zealand Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage’s anti-war sympathies led him to urge an international conference to seek a negotiated settlement – a course the British government dismissed out of hand.
The war continued in curiously muted fashion, reflected in its widespread description at the time as a ‘phoney war’.
As in 1914, the Allies took steps to defend France from an attack by Germany. A British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was deployed in the northern sector facing Belgium, with the French manning the Maginot Line on the French–German border. The only New Zealanders involved were a handful of airmen serving with RAF squadrons.
Most expected the conflict to be similar to the previous war. But Germany’s assault on France – its long-awaited offensive in the west in May 1940 – shattered such illusions. The German blitzkrieg (a violent offensive by ground and air forces) split the Allied front. The BEF was forced to pull back northwards, eventually being evacuated, almost miraculously, from Dunkirk (Dunkerque).
France soon capitulated – with huge strategic consequences. Occupying the coastline facing Britain, Germany could tighten its blockade of Britain. The naval balance had been upset, and the British attacked parts of the French fleet to try to keep them out of German hands.
French colonies were now controlled by a collaborationist regime set up in the city of Vichy, though those closest to New Zealand, in New Caledonia and Tahiti, soon rallied to a free French entity that fought on with the Allies. New Zealand assisted this process, sending the cruiser Achilles to Tahiti in September 1940.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Italy’s entry into the war threatened the British in the Middle East, who had interests in protecting the Suez Canal, a vital communications link, and ensuring the availability of the region’s oil. There were huge Italian forces in Tripolitania/Cyrenaica (Libya) and Abyssinia (Ethiopia), but the danger was more apparent than real. When British forces attacked in the Western Desert in late 1940, Italians surrendered in droves. Only a few 2NZEF units took part in this offensive, though New Zealanders were in supporting RAF squadrons. Other British forces soon secured the southern flank by defeating the Italians in Abyssinia.
The arrival of German land forces under Erwin Rommel – the Afrika Korps – in early 1941 changed the picture. But even as they landed the British campaign was distracted by the need to provide support for Greece.
Italy had attacked Greece in October 1940 but been thrown back. When German intervention loomed in early 1941, a British force was sent from Egypt to bolster Greek morale and defences. New Zealand’s division, just united in Egypt with the arrival of the Second Echelon from Britain, formed part of this force.
The campaign on the Greek mainland was quickly over. German forces, driving into Greece from Yugoslavia, outflanked the main defence line, forcing a hasty retreat by the British force. Most of the 2nd NZ Division was among the troops evacuated by the Royal Navy in the last week of April 1941. In the ill-fated effort to support Greece, the division lost 291 men killed and 1,826 taken prisoner.
On Crete, New Zealander Charles Upham won the first of his two Victoria Crosses. During the counter-attack on the Maleme airfield he destroyed German machine-gun posts with grenades three times. Then, despite wounds to foot and shoulder, he repeatedly went forward to engage the enemy, on one occasion surviving by pretending to be dead. Finally, with three others, Upham ambushed a German force which threatened the men leaving Crete. Throughout he suffered from dysentery as well as being wounded and bruised. When Upham won another Victoria Cross in North Africa, he became the only combat soldier to achieve this feat.
The bulk of the 2nd NZ Division ended up on Crete, where it became part of the island’s defence forces. Bernard Freyberg commanded all Allied forces on the island – a difficult task given shortages of equipment, though helped by British foreknowledge of German plans provided by ULTRA (operational intelligence gained by deciphering enemy radio signals).
The German airborne assault on 20 May was fiercely resisted, but mistakes by New Zealand officers allowed the capture of Maleme airfield. When a counterattack failed, the British position on the island became untenable as German reinforcements poured in. Once again, the Royal Navy evacuated most of the defenders. In all, 691 New Zealanders died on Crete; 2,180 were taken prisoner.
Read more about the Battle for Crete on NZHistory.
From 1941 to 1943 the 2nd NZ Division took part in the 8th Army’s effort to drive the Axis (Italian and German forces) out of North Africa. This was a see-saw campaign fought between two gateways, El Agheila in the west and El Alamein in the east. With no natural defences, outflanking was a perennial danger. The result was big advances and retreats.
In November 1941 the 2nd NZ Division entered the fray in Operation Crusader, designed to relieve the siege on the port of Tobruk in Libya and defeat the Axis force which had driven east into Egypt. In this confused battle about 700 New Zealanders were taken prisoner when their units were overrun, most notably at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. But the outcome was satisfactory: the link up was made with Tobruk, and Rommel’s forces retreated.
The New Zealand division spent February to June 1942 in Syria, recently captured from Vichy France (the French regime that collaborated with Germany). While continuing their training, the New Zealanders formed part of the defence against a possible enemy thrust down from the north through Turkey.
The island of Malta, lying astride the Axis supply route across the Mediterranean, was of crucial importance to the North African campaign. It was subjected to a fierce bombing onslaught. Among its defenders were New Zealand airmen, and several, including Keith Park, commanded its air defences.
In June 1942 a new crisis in the desert brought Freyberg’s division hastily back to the front. An Axis counter-offensive had swept into Egypt, capturing Tobruk. After a dramatic escape from destruction at Minqar Qaim, the New Zealanders helped the 8th Army to halt the enemy at El Alamein. In this hard-fought battle, the New Zealand division suffered heavy losses. Most were prisoners, taken when their units were overrun, especially at Ruweisat Ridge and El Mreir. A stalemate developed. Among the New Zealanders a strong distrust of British armoured units and high command had developed.
In the last stages of the North African campaign two Māori soldiers achieved great distinction. On 26 March 1943 Lieutenant Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu led his platoon to capture and hold the crest of a hill at Tebaga Gap. He was killed the next morning and was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Less than a month later Sergeant Haane Te Rauawa Manahi led his section to capture and hold a pinnacle at Takrouna, a Tunisian village. The Italians retook the pinnacle, but Manahi led a successful counter-attack. In this case the recommendation for a VC was not accepted. There has been an unsuccessful campaign subsequently for Manahi to receive the award.
Command of the 8th Army passed to Bernard Montgomery, whose incisive leadership restored morale. In the second battle of El Alamein (October–November 1942), the New Zealanders were again prominent. The 8th Army’s victory was the beginning of the end of the Axis presence in North Africa.
From November 1942 to May 1943 the New Zealanders took part in the pursuit of the Axis forces across North Africa to Tunisia. There, caught between the 8th Army and Allied forces that had landed in Algeria, the Axis forces capitulated on 13 May. Victory in North Africa came at a heavy cost to New Zealanders – 2,989 died, 4,041 became prisoners and over 7,000 were wounded.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Even before US troops arrived in New Zealand American naval victories had transformed New Zealand’s security situation. Contrary to the belief of many in New Zealand at the time, Japan never developed plans to invade either Australia or New Zealand. It sought instead to cut them off for the time being, but this plan was thwarted when the US Navy defeated a force making for Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.
Any chance of eventual invasion was removed by the US navy’s victory in the Battle of Midway in June 1942. With the heart torn out of its carrier fleet, Japan lost the strategic initiative to the resurgent Americans. Its focus shifted to defending the vast perimeter it had secured in the Pacific.
The Japanese Navy, in consequence, had less impact on New Zealand’s own waters than the German Navy. Its presence was confined to occasional intrusions by Japanese submarines, which did no damage.
The US South Pacific Command launched a counter-offensive in August 1942. Forces that landed on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands were soon embroiled in a desperate struggle. After the Japanese were finally defeated there, the Americans drove north through the Solomons until late 1943, when the focus shifted to the central Pacific.
When the American servicemen arrived in New Zealand for rest and recreation they were given a pocket guide which included a section on ‘What you won’t find’. The list included no central heating, no nightclubs, little organised entertainment, no hot cakes, doughnuts and waffles, no hot dogs or hamburgers, and no decent coffee. But the guide also told them they would find a warm welcome and hospitable people.
New Zealand supported this counter-offensive. Its military forces were placed at the disposal of the South Pacific Command. It provided a base for organisation and preparation, a place of recuperation and recovery for American troops, and food and other supplies. Local industry was developed to meet American needs.
Japanese prisoners of war were brought to New Zealand from September 1942, and 800 were held in a camp at Featherston. On 25 February 1943, 31 were killed instantly and 17 died later from bullet wounds when they made a suicidal charge on guards, one of whom was killed (the only New Zealand serviceman to die from enemy action on New Zealand soil in two world wars). Because of this incident, more Japanese died at New Zealand hands than vice versa during the war.
New Zealand also provided forces from all three armed services for the Solomons campaign, where they served under American command. The Royal New Zealand Air Force made a major contribution. In all, 20 squadrons served in the Solomons, and there were 8,000 airmen deployed there in 1945.
The Royal New Zealand Navy sent the cruisers Achilles and Leander successively to Solomon Islands waters. Both were damaged by enemy action and had to be withdrawn for repair. Four minesweepers were deployed in January 1943, and later 12 motor launches.
A 13,000 strong, two-brigade division, the 3rd NZ Division, under the command of Harold Barrowclough, was deployed to New Caledonia in November 1942. It later moved forward into the Solomons, where it took part in three landings. But manpower problems at home forced its withdrawal and disbandment in 1944.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
New Zealand’s strategy in the Second World War was successful. Its security was ensured by the success of the Commonwealth war effort, albeit within the wider Allied context in which the Soviet Union and the United States eventually became the key players.
Far from being physically damaged by the war – apart from the loss of 11,625 lives, the highest percentage of population in the Commonwealth – New Zealand emerged from the war better-developed than in 1939. A series of war measures had expanded its secondary industry, while its primary industries had been sustained by bulk-purchase arrangements. Careful financial management had ensured that inflation was kept under control and that New Zealand, which devoted a third of its national income to the war effort, had largely paid for its war effort.
The war had affected every element of New Zealand society, not least race relations. Māori and Pākehā had been brought together in unprecedented fashion. This brought tensions but also greater familiarity – and respect. The performance of the Māori battalion was widely acclaimed. A Māori migration to the city had begun, and accelerated after the war.
As in 1914–18, women had participated in many facets of the war effort, whether in the armed services, in factories or on the land. They gained new confidence in their roles and abilities, even if most returned to the traditional homemaking role in 1945.
New Zealand escaped serious damage from enemy action, but the war had a significant impact on the landscape. Pillboxes and other defence installations dotted the coastline. After 1945 memorials of various functional kinds – such as halls and swimming pools, rather than monuments – soon began to appear.
The war enriched New Zealand’s literary and artistic landscape. This included the mammoth official war history, a vast array of memoirs, some novels and many artworks produced by both official and private artists.
New Zealand came of age as a state during the war. Forced to act in its own right on the international stage, it established diplomatic relations with several states and formed a rudimentary foreign service. In 1945 New Zealand played an active part at the San Francisco Conference that brought the United Nations into being, campaigning – not wholly successfully – to ensure an effective security organisation.
Hutching, Megan, ed. Against the rising sun: New Zealanders remember the Pacific War. Auckland: HarperCollins in association with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2006.
Hutching, Megan, ed. The desert road: New Zealanders remember the North African campaign. Auckland: HarperCollins in association with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2005.
Hutching, Megan, ed. A fair sort of battering, New Zealanders remember the Italian campaign. Auckland: HarperCollins in association with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2004.
Hutching, Megan, ed. A unique sort of battle: New Zealanders remember Crete. Auckland: HarperCollins in association with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2001.
McGibbon, Ian. New Zealand and the Second World War: the people, the battles and the legacy. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett, 2004.
Montgomerie, Deborah. The women’s war: New Zealand women 1939–45. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001.
Parr, Alison. Home, civilian New Zealanders remember the Second World War. Auckland: Penguin, 2010.
NZHistory.net’s comprehensive section on the Second World War.