World War II: New Zealand

Figure 1.--Here New Zealand air cadets are drilling in Auckland during 1943. Like Australia, the New Zealasnders after Pearl Harnor were endangered by the Japanese and most of their army was in the Middle East. The press caption read, "Training airmen of the future: School-boy members of air training corps spend a week in barracks at King's College near Auckland, New Zealand. Nearly-uniformed cadets marching in the King's College grounds." The photograph was dated June 3, 1943.

New Zealand following the NAZI invasion of Poland was one of the first countries to join Britain after it declared war in Germany (September 1939). New Zealand had a population of only 1.6 million people when the war broke out (1939). Not only was the population smll, but there was no indistry capable of producing modern weaponry. New Zealand in relative terms made a significant contribution to the Allied war effort. New Zealand fielded an army of about 20,000 men, with a division in North Africa and a brigade in the South Pacific. The contribution to the Western Desert was particularly important because it came at a time after the fall of France when the British were hard pressed (1940). New Zealand deployed an air force of about 15–20 squadrons, of course equipped with British and American aircraft. The navy included two cruisers. New Zealand played a role in the Battle of Britain. New Zealand like Australia also was an important part of the British forced that fought in North Africa. As a result, New Zealand and Australia found itself imperiled after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor (December 1941). Only the remaining American fleet stood between the Imperial Fleet and Australia and New Zealand. The Japanese turned back after the Battle of the Coral Sea (April 1942). The immediate danger was not relieved until the American Navy devastated the Japanese carrier force at Midway (June 1942). American men and material poured into New Zealand in preparation for the Allied offensive in the South Pacific.

Declaration of War (September 1939)

New Zealand public opinion after the losses sustained in World War I was strongly pacifist. The rise of Fascism in Europe was strongly opposed by most New Zealanders. As a result, most New Zealanders supported the Allied effort to resist the NAZIs. There was also a hige attachment to Britain. And even New Zealand pacifists watched the impact of appeasing Hitlker at Munich. New Zelanders were also concerned about Japan, but for a variety of reasons, events in Europe were considered a greater threat by most. New Zealand following the German invasion of Poland (September 1, 1939) was one of the first countries to join Britain after it declared war on Germany (September 3, 1939 ). New Zealand like Britain and the other British dominions were the countries that fought first the Germans and later the Japanese from the very beginning of the War through to the surrender of the Axis powers. New Zealand entered World War I differently than what occurred World War I. New Zealand and the other British Dominions entered World War I on the basis of the King's declaration. There was no action by the dominion governments. This time the New Zealand Government acted on its own to declare War on Germany. There was little discussion of this decession of the time. New Zealand was still tied to Britain economically and well as culturally. New Zealanders still viewed Britain as the mother country and there individuals still had strong family ties with Britons. New Zealanders also saw Briton and the Royal Navy and the bulwark of its defense. Few New Zealanders understood how much the Royal Navy had been weakened during the inter-War era. The only oposition to the War came from the small Communist Party which followed orders from Moscow. At the time of course Stalin was virtually allied with Hitler as a result of the NAZIi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 23, 1939). New Zealanders served in the Royal Navy (RN) and Royal Air Force (RAF). New Zealand's small naval force was placed under the command of the British Admiralty orders. Bombers being built in Britain for New Zealand were turned over to the RAF.

Battle of the Rio de la Plata (December 1939)

The first New Zealad action in World War II occurred in of all places. HMNZS Achilles was a Leander-class light cruiser. It was part of the Royal Navy cruiser force that hunted down the pocket battleship Graf Spee (December 13, 1939). In the esuing action, HMS Exeter was reduced to a urning hulk, but did nor sink. Achilles was only lightly damaged. Graf Spee also suffered danage which forced it into Montevideo harbor. The captain fearing that he faced a large British force, scuttled his ship.

Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force--2NZEF (January 1940)

New Zealand located in the South Pacific was hardly in a place to play a major role in the European War against NAZI Germany. In addition, New Zealand is a small country with a limited population. New Zealand could not have a major impact on the War. The country was, however, determined to do its part. Despite the potential threat from Japan, New Zealand focused on assisting Britain in Europe. The essential decession taken was that New Zealand's security was in the end dependant on fate of Britain and the Royal Navy. New Zealand as in World War I began preparing a second expeditionary force to assist Britain in Europe. Joined with Australian units, the New Zealand forces are commonly referred to as ANZACs. As in World War I, the New Zealand forces were primarily deployed to the Middle East. The first of three deployments left for Egypt (January 1940). There the small New Zealand force proved to be critical in organizing the defense of Egypt when Italy declared war (June 1940).

War Cabinent

After the NAZI invasion of Poland (September 1939), there was for a time little fighting in Europe. The success of the NAZI Western offense and the fall of France (June 1940) significantly changed the strategic balance. New Zealand formed a War Cabinent made up of both governing and oposition parties which assummed sweeping powers. The Cabinent approved a concripition law.

Military Forces

New Zealand had a population of only 1.6 million people when the war broke out (1939). Not only was the population small, but there was no indistry capable of producing modern weaponry. New Zealand in relative terms made a significant contribution to the Allied war effort. New Zealand fielded an army of about 20,000 men, with a division in North Africa and a brigade in the South Pacific. The contribution to the Western Desert was particularly important because it came at a time after the fall of France when the British were hard pressed (1940). New Zealand deployed an air force of about 15–20 squadrons, of course equipped with British and American aircraft. The navy included two cruisers.

Battle of Britain (July-September 1940)

New Zealand played a role in the Battle of Britain. Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Rodney Park commanded the vital 11 Group in southeastern England. He was the mastermind behind the British victory in thr Battle and the most important New Zealander in the War. He would go on to mastermind the survival of Malta.

North Africa

New Zealand like Australia also was an important part of the British forced that fought in North Africa. New Zealand sent largely untraind troops to Egypt where they could prepare for the European conflict. While in Egypt events ovetook them and they were soon involved in the fighting from their Egyptian bases . Once it was clear that the Germans had defeated France, Mussolini declared war on France and Britain (June 10, 1940). The Italians from their Libyan colony prepared to invade Egypt and seize the Suez Canal. The New Zealanders were directly involved by the enemy advance. New Zealand and other Commonwealth troops were a major part of the rather small British force defending Egypt. Tge New Zealanders played a key role throughout the North African campaign. They administered the final blow to the Afrika Korops in cracking ghe Mareth Line blocking the 8th Army's driveinto Tunisia (March 1943).

Crete (May 1941)

After the fall of France, Britain was no longer in a position to win the War. Many questioned whether Britain could even survive. The outcome of the War would be decided by the United States and the Soviet Union. Small countries like New Zealand played an important role, especially in the early phase of the War when Britain's survival was in question. The 2NZEF rushed to Egypt in 1940 helped to forestall an Italian victory. The New Zealanders also played a major role in the defense of Crete. While unsuccessful and suffering substantial asualties, the New Zealanders desimated the German paratroop force used to take Crete. Hitler as a result resolved to abandon paratroop assaults. If the German paratroop force has not so weakened on Crete, it may have been used to take Malta a target of far greater strategic importance than Crete. The Axis seizure of Malta could have significantly affected the North African campaign.

Japanese Threat

An appreciation of the threat posed by Japan grew in New Zealand after the fall of France (June 1940). Japan already controlled the coastal areas of China as well as various Pacific islands that it seized from Germany during World war I. Taking advantage of France's defeat, Japan occupied French Indochina (Viet Nam). This brought the Japanese to the border of British Malaya where Singapore was located. Not only was the New Zealand Army in Egypt, but the Royal Navy hard pressed to combat the U-Boat Threat in the North atlantic and the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean had seriously depleted its Pacific fleet. The only substantial naval force standing between New Zealand and the Japanese was the American Pacific Fleet which President Roosevelt had moved to Peal Harbor. America at the time was still neutral with a strong isolationist movement. New Zealanders could not be sure that they could count on America in their defense. That question was to resolved at Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor (December 1941)

It was the Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into the War. While Pearl Harbor was a stunning tactical victory, it was a strategic blunder by the Japanese of incaluable proportions. It was a stunningly successful military success, brilliantly executed by the Japanese. Eight battle ships, the heart of the American Pacific fleet were sunk. But the three carriers were not at Pearl. Despite the success of the attack, it was perhaps the greatest strtegic blunder in the history of warfare. The Japanese attack on the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor changed everything. A diverse and quareling nation, strongly pacifistic was instantly changed into a single united people with a burning desire to wage war. The issolationism that President Roosevelt had struggled against for over 7 years instantly disappeared. Even Lindburg asked for a commision to fight for the United States.

Singapore (February 1942)

Singapore was the keystone of Britain's military position in the Pacific. The Bulwark of Britain's Far East defenses and thus Australia and New Zealand defenses was Singapore. British officials assured the New Zealand and australian Governments Japan was not likely to enter the War and even if they did, the bastion at Singapore guaranteed that Japan could not threaten Australia and New Zealand. The importance of Japan's powerful carrier force was still not fully understood. Only after these reassurances from Britain did the New Zealand Government order the 2NZEF to be deployed to Egypt to defend Suez. Japan took the large well supplied British garison at Singapore with surprising ease. British General Percival has been sharply criticized. The defense of Singapore was bady planned. The Japanese briliantly executed their offensive down the Malay Peninsula. The key factors were that the Japanese were able to achieve aerial and naval mastery that was never anticipated in defense plans. Pearl Harbor and the Japanese massive carrier force left the American fleet unable to respond. Two of Britain's most powerful battleships Prince of Wales anf Repulse were sent without air cover and sunk by Japanese bombers. [Gilbert] Churchill was outraged and Percival's surender (February 15, 1942). It was Percival's seming willingness to so quickly surrender that enraged Churchill. The British 8th Division had been rushed to Singapore after it was already too late. The fall of Singapore was a military catastrophy of emense proportions to the British. Japanese forces within 6 months moved through Burma to the border of India in the West and New Guinea in the South. Australian trrops had garisoned Singapore, after previosly sending forces to North Africa, left the country virtually undefended. Singapoe's fall even had consequences after the War. The prestige of the British Empire has been irreperably damaged and Australia and New Zealand would never look to Briain as they had before the War.

Australia and New Zealand Imperiled

As a result, New Zealand and Australia found itself inmperiled after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor (December 1941). Only the remaining American fleet stood between the Imperial Fleet and Australia and New Zealand. Japanese forces rapidly moved south, seizing the Dutch East Indies with its vital oil resources and landing on New Guinea. Japanese mombers hit Darwin in northern Australia and the Japanese prepared a task force to seize Port Moresby to complete their conquest of New Guinea. The Austrakians braced for a Japanese invasion. Presidebt Roosevelt ordered Mac Arthur to Australia to command Allied forces in the South Pacific. Soon after General ??? surrender Corregidor giving the Japanese control of the Phillipines. MacArthur found Australia totally unprepared to fight the Japanses. The Australian Army had lost substantial forces at Singapre and most of the remaining force was in Egypt

Coral Sea (April 1942)

The Japanese turned back after the Battle of the Coral Sea (April 1942). The first importantAllied effort o stop the Japanse sweep through the Pacific occurred in the Coral Sea. The Japanse vplanned to seize Port Moreseby, completing their conquest of New Guinea. Port Moresby would have also posed a threat to Australia itself. A Japanese naval task force en route to seize Port Moresby was intercepted by an American carrier force, alerted by code breakers. It was the first carrirer to carrier engagement in history. The Japanese succeeded in sinking Lexington and heavily damaging Yorktown. The Japanese lost a light carrier and another carrier was heavily damaged. Despite the American losses, theJapanese invasion force turned back, the first major Japanese reversal of the War.

Midway (June 1942)

The immediate danger was not releaved until the American Navy devestated the Japanese carrier force at Midway (June 1942). Admiral Yamamoto was convinced that the remaining American carriers could be brought to battle and destroyed at Midway. The Japanese plans were based on achieving an element of curprise and on the fact that two American carriers had been destoyed in the Coral Sea, in fact the Yorktown, although heavily damaged had not been sunk. American code breakers had alerted the Ameicans to the Jaspanese plans. Admiral Nimitz positioned Enterprise and Hornet, along with the hastily patched up Yorktown northwest of Midway to ambush he Japanese. The American carrier victory at Midway dealt a crippling blow to the Imperial Navy. The Americans sank four first-line Japnese carriers, killing most of the well-trained crews. While the Imperial Navy still held an advantage, it was no longer an overwealming one. Meanwhile American shipyards were turning out the new Essex class carriers that would engage the weakened Imperial Navy in 1943.

Allied Buildup

The Allied buildup in Australia and New Zealand was essentially an American buildup. Few New Zealanders had ever been to New Zealand and most of the Americans who came had never even heard of New Zealand. American men and material poured into New Zealand in preparation for the Allied offensive in the South Pacific. The Allies decided to give priority to the European theater, but still the flow of American men and material was unprecedented--especially given the small New Zealand population. Eventually about 100,000 American troops were deployed to New Zealand. This was primarily during the early stages of the Pacific War during 1942-43. At this time the fighting was primarily in the South Pacific, first at Guadacanal, the Solomons, and New Guinea. New Zealand was a stageing area for the Allied South Pacific offensive. Many troops deployed in these campaigns were trained and prepared in Australia and New Zealand. These Americans were New Zealand's first major experience with the wider world outside the British Commonwealth. They had a major impact on New Zealand after the War.

Wellington Dock Strike (July 1942)

One of the most disgraceful chapters in New Zealand history was the wellington Dock Strike (1942). The First Marine Division was given the assignment of taking Guadacanal in the Solomons from the Japanese. It would be the first American offensive of World War II and the first American amphibious landing of the Pacific War. The airfield the Japanese were building on Guadacanal was part of a larger Japanese effort to cut the sea lanes between America and Australia and New Zealand. The losses at Midwat had impaired that undertaking, but theJapanese had no abandomed it. The 1st Division's men and equipment was scattered all over the Pacific. Much of the Division and support units were either in New Zealandc or in the way to New Zealand. Loading the Division's equipment for the assault force was tremendously complicated by the Wellington dock workers strike. The workers had gone on strike before the orders came in, but they refused to come backnin to assist the American Marines who were preparing to fight for New Zealand. The Marines had to do all the loading themselves, including the vital reconfiguration from administrative to combat assault. What resulted was 11 days of dockside mayhem (July 1942). Combat loading was critical because even after Miday, the Japanese still held naval superority in the Paciffic and it was vital that the most critical equipment be landed as quickly as possible. The Marines cursed the doickworkers. Rain destoyed cardboard packging. One naval officer recalls walking through 100 yards of sodden corn flakes. Food abd amunition supplies were reduced. [Birkitt, p. 21.] The 89 ships carrying the 1st Division finally departed Wellington (July 22). General Vandergrift described landing exercizes on Koro Island as a "disaster" (July 28-30). The Marines landed (August 7). Thankfully, the Japanese did not believe the American forces were capable of an offensive action. There were no Japanese combat units on the island. The Marines landed unopposed. Korean workers fled into the jungle. The mayhem at Wellington, however, would affect what the Marines were able to load and what they were able to unload on the beaches before Japanese naval and air forces began to target the Marine bridgehead.

The Solomons Islands

New Zealand's principal contribution to the Pacific War was in the Solomons. After the U.S. Maine stopped the Japanese on Guadalcanal, the New Zealanders participated in the Solomons campaign. They fought on Vella Lavella, Mono, Nissan (Green), and Bouganville. New Zealanders were also stationed on other islands in rear areas such as New Caledonia, operating radio and radar stations and medical facilities. The 3rd New Zealand Division began arriving in New Caledonia (November 1942). They were thgen sent to Guadalcanal (August 1943). By this time it was a rear area. Even so, they were shocked at the destruction on the island. The shelling had stripped trees the lush vegetation of leaves and volsge. The trunks of palms and trees wee snapped. There were bomb abd shell craters everywhere. Bodies of Japanese abd American soldiers had been burried in make-shift graves. The New Zealanders participated in the drive up the Solomons Chain to isolate Rabaul. The 14th Brigade took over from the Americans on Vella Lavella (October 1943). Thid was their first taste of jungle combat. The New Zealanders then landed on Mono in the Treasury Islands (November 1943). This was the first opposed amphibious landing by New Zealand forces since Gallipoli in World War I. They successfully seized the island. Next the New Zeaanders landed on Nissan in the Green Islands to the north of Bougainville (Febuary 15-18, 1944). This allowed for the construction of another air base to join the air asssaukt in Rabaul. With Rabaul isolated and the cfighting moving westward to the Philippines, the 3 rd Division returned to New Zealand (August 1944). The New Zealand government was finding it difficult to sustain the forces in Europe. There was asevere labor shortage developing in New Zealand. Men were needed on the farms. Some of the men from the 3rd Division were sent asreplcements to Italy.

Naval Forces

New Zealand seamen played their role in the Pacific War. HMNZS Leander and HMNZS Achilles joined the hard pressed American naval forces attemopting to protedt the Marines on Guadalcanal. Achilles had previously seen action in the South tlantic, taking on Graf Spee with Nritish cruisers. The naval action around Gudalcanal was some of the most despetate of the Pacific War, fought before the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been reinfirced wuith many new ships from American shipyards and many of thge ships did not yet have radar. Achilles was badly damaged by a bomb off Guadalcanal (January 5, 1943). RNZN corvettes Kiwi and Moa sank Japanese submarine I-1 off Guadalcana (January 29-30, 1943). A Japanese submarine torpedoed Leander off New Georgia (July 12-13, 1943) and it had to return to New Zealand for repairs.

New Zealand Air Units

Airmen from 3 Squadron arrived at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal (October 1942), when the battle for the island was still in doubt. More New Zealand squadrons arrived over the next months. They were eventually equippe with American Coursairs. New Zealand aircraft than took part in the attacks on Rabaul.


After Midway (June 1942), the Japanese threat to New Zealand was substantially reduced. Also American troops were rushed to the island, both fir defense and training for offensive operations. As axresult the New Zelanders stayed with the 8th Army through North African, Sicilkian, and Italian campaigns.


New Zealand made a substantial contribution to the Allied war effort. As explained above, the New Zealand contribution was important to Britain during the early phases of the War after the fall of France when it fough the NAZIs without America. New Zealand's war effort was the greatest national enterprise in the country's history. New Zealand deployed About 140,000 men and women overseas. The great bulk of these forces wwas the 104,000 men in the 2NZEF. Almost all of the rest served in the in the British or New Zealand Royal Navy ot Air Force. New Zealand lost over 11,600 men. In terms of a percentage of the population this was the largest of any Comminwealth country: New Zealand (6,700 per million), Britain (5,100), and Australia (3,200). The combat contribution was primarily in the North African and Italian campaign. New Zealand primarily relied on the United States for its security in the Pacific War, although it did cintribute a combat division and naval and air units..

Home Front

New Zealand was at the time primarily an agricultural country. New Zealand harvests were important to the overall war effort. During the War, New Zealand did not have the population to support an active involvement in the European and Pacific theaters and maintain domestic agricultiral production. Thus New Zealand limited its participation in the Pacific War so that it could maintain agricultural production. The Government put the domestic econonomy on a war footing. A range of controls were implemented. Labor policies involved both constription for the military and the direction of labor into priority strategic industries. Fiscal measures included new taxes, war loans, bulk purchase, and market controls. The ruling Labour Party pursued a policy of economic stabilization using price controls and wage restraints. Prime Minister Savage died and was replaced by Fraser and Nash.


Baker, J.V.T. War Economy (War History Branch, Wellington, 1965) .

Birkitt, Philip D. Guadalcanal Legacy, 50th anniversary, 1942-1992 (Turner Publishing Company).

Gibert, Martin. A History of the 20th Century.


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Created: June 4, 2004
Last updated: 12:40 AM 8/26/2012