New Zealand

New Zealand was involved for all but three of the 2179 days of the war - a commitment on a par only with Britain and Australia. It was a war in which New Zealanders gave their greatest national effort and a war that New Zealanders fought globally, from Egypt, Italy and Greece to Japan and the Pacific.


New Zealand was involved for all but three of the 2179 days of the war — a commitment on a par only with Britain and Australia. It was a war in which New Zealanders gave their greatest national effort — on land, on the sea and in the air — and a war that New Zealanders fought globally, from Egypt, Italy and Greece to Japan and the Pacific. In contrast to its entry to the First World War, New Zealand acted in its own right by formally declaring war on Germany on 3 September (unlike Australia, which held that the King's declaration, as in 1914, extended to all his Dominions).

New Zealand provided personnel for service in the Royal Air Force and in the Royal Navy. The New Zealand government placed the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy at the Admiralty's disposal and made available to the RAF 30 new Wellington medium bombers waiting in the United Kingdom for shipping to New Zealand. The New Zealand Army contributed the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF). In total, around 140,000 New Zealand personnel served overseas for the Allied war effort, and an additional 100,000 men were armed for Home Guard duty. At its peak in July 1942, New Zealand had 154,549 men and women under arms (excluding the Home Guard) and by the war's end a total of 194,000 men and 10,000 women had served in the armed forces at home and overseas. A total of 11,928 New Zealanders, or 0.73% of the 1939 population, lost their lives.


Strategy determined that New Zealanders involved in combat with Germans would mostly do so at a distance from New Zealand. New Zealand's security, it was accepted, depended on the success of British arms, which would inevitably be concentrated in Europe. Only there could the British Commonwealth be defeated; and New Zealand's contribution, necessarily relatively small, could help prevent such an outcome.

As in 1914, the government immediately pledged to send an expeditionary force to assist the Commonwealth war effort in Europe, and the first of three echelons departed for Egypt in January 1940. Other New Zealanders were provided for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. New Zealand's naval vessels were placed under Admiralty orders, and its new medium bombers, which were about to be ferried to New Zealand, were made available to the RAF.

New Zealand's reaction to the outbreak of war was curiously muted. Even the departure of the First Echelon on 5 January 1940 excited little of the enthusiasm of the previous war. The 'phoney war' was shattered by the German onslaught in the west in May 1940. Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France all succumbed to the blitzkrieg tactics of the German forces, and most of the British Expeditionary Force was dramatically evacuated from Dunkirk.

On 10 June 1940 Italy entered the war on Germany's side. This sudden reversal of fortunes had an immediate impact in New Zealand. Sweeping new powers, including conscription, were introduced, and a War Cabinet of both government and opposition members was established. Following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, New Zealand declared war on Germany's Eastern European allies - Finland, Hungary, and Romania on 7 December 1941, and Bulgaria on 13 December 1941.

The Greek Campaign

The New Zealand authorities deployed the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force for combat in three echelons — all originally destined for Egypt, but one diverted to Scotland (it would arrive there in June, 1941) following the German invasion of France. In April 1941, after a period training in Egypt, 2NZEF's New Zealand 2nd Division, stationed in Egypt, deployed to take part in the defence of Greece against invasion by Italian troops, and soon German forces too when they joined the invasion. This defence was mounted alongside British and Australian units - the corps-size Commonwealth contingent under the command of British General Henry Maitland Wilson known together as W Force, supported a weakened Greek Army. As German panzers began a swift advance into Greece on 6 April, the British and Commonwealth troops found themselves being outflanked and were forced into retreat. By 9 April, Greece had been forced to surrender and the 40,000 W Force troops began a withdrawal from the country to Crete and Egypt, the last New Zealand troops leaving by 29 April. The New Zealanders lost 291 men killed, 1,826 captured and 387 seriously wounded in this brief campaign.

The Battle of Crete

The Battle for Crete in May 1941 was one of the most dramatic battles of the Second World War. Over 7500 New Zealanders, along with British, Australian and Greek troops and Cretan civilians, tried to fight off a huge German airborne attack; they almost succeeded.

It was a heavy defeat for the Allies. Over 3500 men were killed, and 15,000 captured. There were 671 New Zealanders among the dead, and 2180 were taken as prisoners of war. German victory came at a huge cost: nearly 4000 Germans died and over 2500 were wounded; more than 350 aircraft were damaged or wrecked. German casualties were so heavy that paratroopers were never again used on such a scale in an airborne assault.

Mediterranean Hot Spots

Crete and Greece had some strategic importance in the Mediterranean. Greece was a gateway to the Balkans and the Cretan harbour of Suda Bay was the best in the eastern Mediterranean. The war in Europe had been raging for over a year when attention turned there. Neither side had done much to secure the area until late in 1940, when the Italians attacked Greece. A few months later, the Germans surged through Yugoslavia. The Allies had hastily sent forces to fight off the invaders, but they were outgunned and outnumbered.

During April 1941, the Allies raced south through Greece. Among them were New Zealanders, as part of a Commonwealth force with the Australians. Over 50,000 Allied troops were evacuated at the end of the month. Nearly 300 New Zealanders had been killed in the few weeks of fighting, and 1800 captured.

To Crete

Major General Bernard Freyberg, the commander of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, took charge of 'Creforce' - more than 42,000 British troops (including 10,000 Greek soldiers). There were more than 7700 New Zealanders, including 28 (Maori) Battalion for whom the experience on Crete would become especially significant. In the rush of the withdrawal from Greece, the British had abandoned most of the essential and heavy equipment. Soldiers had their personal weapons, but ammunition and stores were in short supply; there were barely the tools for preparing the much-needed defensive positions. Big weapons – tanks and guns – were few and far between. Airfields at Maleme and Retimo, and the aerodrome at Heraklion, had no aircraft, for the British needed resources elsewhere in the region.

In these circumstances, the job of defending Crete would be tough. Even the few strengths were potential weaknesses. The port and the airfields would become dangerous if they fell into German hands. Both were vital to the Allies' supply of equipment and air support so they could not be destroyed. A German invasion was expected, and the Luftwaffe bombed and strafed the Allies all though May. There was some discussion among the German high command about whether to take the island or focus efforts on the Soviet Union, but Hitler agreed that Crete should be invaded as it would not disrupt his plans in eastern Europe. The capture of Crete also had advantages for the Germans. It would give them a good base in the Mediterranean and stop the British using the island as a base to mount bombing raids against the Romanian oilfields that were so vital to the German war effort. It would also make it more difficult for the British to get into the Balkans.

Air Attack

By deciphering encoded German messages, British intelligence had learned of German plans for an invasion of Crete. The only question was when, and what the balance between sea and air would be. The Allies on Crete had expected the attack for several days in mid May. They knew of the German delays that pushed the assault from the 15th, to the 17th, and then finally to the 20th. The Allies were ready, but the sight of the enormous airborne invasion stopped them in their tracks. Hundreds of planes lumbered through the sky, disgorging German paratroopers into the area around Maleme and the township of Chania from dawn on May 20. Later in the day, paratroopers dropped into the area around the airfields at Retimo and Heraklion.

The Germans had underestimated the strength of the defenders, and their casualties mounted quickly. Many paratroopers died before they could reach the ground; others, their equipment tangled in trees, were mown down as they struggled to release themselves. In one German battalion alone, about two-thirds of the men were dead before the day was over. By the end of the first day, the Germans had a foothold near Maleme. Many paratroopers had landed in the undefended area west of the Tavronitis River and around Chania. They had gained less than they expected, and morale at German headquarters in Athens was low. It was decided to throw everything into the attack on Maleme the next day because reinforcements could not be sent in without control of the airfield. There were also plans for a seaborne invasion.

German Domination

The German decision to concentrate on Maleme bore fruit. On 21 May it became clear that the New Zealand infantry battalions defending the airfield and the key high ground overlooking it had withdrawn. The airfield was virtually in German hands even though it was still under artillery fire. The Allied withdrawal from the Maleme airfield was the decisive event in the entire battle for the island - and it would prove controversial for those involved. The German transport planes could begin landing troops. They did so from late in the day on 21 May - mountain troops who went straight into battle and tipped the balance the German way.

German dominance in the air left the defenders facing impossible odds. After six days of hard fighting the Allies had little choice but to evacuate. Parts of Creforce pulled back to Sfakia on the south coast, and from here about 16,000 troops left the island over four nights. A separate evacuation took the non-Greek defenders from Heraklion, only to lose many in bombing attacks on the way to Egypt.

Those who remained were taken prisoner and would spend the rest of the war in camps, first in Italy and then in Germany or Poland. Some escaped from captivity, taking to the hills and eluding capture for the rest of the war. Cretan civilians took huge risks feeding and helping these men. Others who escaped were picked up by submarines, or made it to Egypt. A few returned to Crete to work with the anti-German resistance.

North African Campaign

Lasting from 1940 to 1943, North Africa was the longest and most important land campaign fought by New Zealanders in the Second World War. Forces from the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and the British Empire, together with contingents from enemy-occupied European states, and in the later stages the United States, battled against those of Italy and Germany.

New Zealanders were involved in this struggle for three main reasons. First, they were in the area when the campaign opened. This was the First Echelon of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF), the force New Zealand had raised after its declaration of war on Germany on 3 September 1939. Second, Germany's blitzkrieg that led to its occupation of France and the Low Countries in May-June 1940 removed the possibility of 2NZEF reaching its intended destination, the Western Front. Finally, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's decision in June 1940 to throw in his lot with Hitler seriously jeopardised the British position in Egypt. Immense concentrations of Italian forces in Libya and Abyssinia dwarfed the 36,000 British troops in the region. This threat became real when Italian forces crossed the Libyan border into Egypt in September 1940.

For the bulk of the New Zealanders, the main focus was 'the Div'-the 16,000-strong 2 New Zealand Division commanded by First World War Victoria Cross winner Bernard 'Tiny' Freyberg, who also commanded 2NZEF. Composed initially of volunteers, it formed the main fighting element of 2NZEF.

When the First Echelon arrived in Egypt on February 1940, they were in the curious situation of being stationed and engaging in hostilities in a country that was neutral, for Egypt did not declare war on Germany until 1945.

A camp was established on the outskirts of Maadi - twelve kilometres south of central Cairo. A subsidiary camp was established at Helwan, twelve kilometres further south. A railway line linked both these camps to Cairo.

Initially the campaign was fought between Commonwealth forces and Italians. The 'Ities' were not a redoubtable foe. Some units were efficient and effective, and fought well, but in general the Italians were badly equipped and poorly led. Many of the troops were ambivalent about fighting on the German side, and unwilling to give their lives for a cause in which they did not believe.

In February 1941, the first elements of the German Africa Corps (Deutsches Afrika Korps) arrived to bolster the Italians, then reeling from a series of Allied blows. Commanded by General Erwin Rommel, an officer whose bold tactics were well suited to the conditions of desert warfare, this small force soon made its mark in the campaign.

Following the evacuation from Crete, the Division regrouped at its camp near Maadi, at the base of the desert slopes of Wadi Digla and Tel al-Maadi. Reinforcements arrived from New Zealand to bring the Division back up to strength and the training cut short by the move to Greece and Crete was completed. On 18 November 1941, Operation Crusader was launched to lift the Siege of Tobruk (the third such attack), under the command of General Alan Cunningham and the New Zealand 2nd Division (integrated into the British Eighth Army) took part in the offensive, crossing the Libyan frontier into Cyrenaica. Operation Crusader was an overall success for the British, although Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps inflicted heavy armour and infantry losses before its weakened and under supplied units retreated to El Agheila and halted the British advance. The New Zealand troops were the ones to relieve Tobruk after fighting around Sidi Rezegh, where Axis tanks had inflicted heavy casualties against the several New Zealand infantry battalions, protected by very little of their own armour. In February, 1942, With Crusader completed, the New Zealand government insisted that the Division be withdrawn to Syria to recover - 879 men were killed and 1700 wounded in Operation Crusader, the most costly battle the Division fought in the Second World War.

On 14 June 1942 the generals recalled the New Zealanders from their occupation-duties in Syria as the Afrika Korps broke through Gazala and captured Tobruk. The New Zealanders, put on the defence, found themselves encircled at Minqar Qa'im but escaped thanks to brutally efficient hand-to-hand fighting by 4 Brigade. The British forces prevented Rommel's advance was prevented from reaching Alexandria, Cairo and the Suez Canal in the First Battle of El Alamein, where New Zealand troops captured Ruweisat Ridge in a successful night attack. However, they were unable to bring their anti-tank weapons forward, and more importantly, British armour didn't move forward to support the soldiers. Heavy casualties were suffered by the two New Zealand brigades involved as they were attacking by German tanks, and several thousand men were taken prisoner. Charles Upham earned a bar for his Victoria Cross in this battle. Under the new command of Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, the Eighth Army launched a new offensive on 23 October against the stalled Axis forces, the Second Battle of El Alamein. On the first night, as part of Operation Lightfoot the New Zealand 2nd Division, with other British divisions, moved through the deep Axis minefields while engineers cleared routes for British tanks to follow. The New Zealanders successfully captured their objectives on Miteiriya Ridge. By 2 November, with the attack bogged down, Montgomery launched a new initiative to the south of the battle lines, Operation Supercharge, with the ultimate goal of disintegrating the Axis army. The experienced New Zealand 2nd Division was called to carry out the initial thrust - the same sort of attack they had made in Lightfoot. The under strength Division could not have the required impact and two British brigades assisted. The German line was breached by British armour and on 4 November the Afrika Korps, faced with the prospect of complete defeat, skillfully withdrew.

The New Zealanders continued to advance with the Eighth Army through the Tunisia Campaign, driving the Afrika Korps back into Tunisia, and notably fought at Medenine, the Tebaga Gap and Enfidaville. On 13 May 1943, the North African campaign ended with the surrender of the last 275,000 Axis troops in Tunisia. On 15 May 1943 the Division began the withdrawal back to Egypt and by 1 June the Division had returned to Maadi and Helwan, on standby for use in Europe. Total New Zealand losses since November 1941 stood at 2,989 killed, 7,000 wounded and 4,041 taken prisoner.

Italian Campaign

Once the crucial political decision to send New Zealand troops to Italy had been made in Wellington in 1943, it ensured that the bulk of New Zealand's active soldiers would see action there until the end of war in Europe. While there, they would fight as part of General Sir Bernard Montgomery's multinational 8th Army, with which they had also been associated in the desert campaigns. For the New Zealanders of the Second Division, though, the only general who really mattered was their own commander, Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg. 'Tiny' Freyberg was an able, energetic leader who held the hard-won respect of his men, in part because of his well-known concern for their well-being and his aversion to casualties.

The force which Freyberg would lead in Italy had been seasoned by two years of active warfare. With a strong sense of camaraderie forged in the heat of battle, New Zealand 's predominantly amateur soldiers had transformed themselves into the 'Div'—a formidable fighting force, with a reputation for quiet but dogged efficiency. They had definitely acquitted themselves well in the deserts of North Africa where they had fought since 1942 after disheartening defeats and decampment from Greece and Crete. But they were not necessarily prepared for the conditions which they would encounter on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.

Accordingly, after the decision was made to commit the New Zealand force to Italy, its members were allowed a period of recuperation and some months to reorganise in Egypt. Many of those who had served longest were permitted a furlough back home and the Second Division was strengthened with reinforcements from New Zealand before setting off for Italy in October 1943. The new arrivals were fresh, but they were untested in battle and had yet to be integrated into the ways of the 'Div'. Moreover, the seasoned soldiers who remained were as battle weary as they were battle hardened. Their first port of call was Taranto before they moved on to assemble in Bari, which would serve thereafter as the main staging base for New Zealand troops arriving in Italy.

The Sangro River

The 'Div' was soon in action at the end of November. The New Zealanders were assigned the task of joining the Allied effort to breach the Gustav Line by attacking its eastern margins and traversing the Sangro River with the hope of initiating an advance to Rome.

They made good initial progress, suffering about 150 casualties, but capturing several hundred Germans and skilfully using Bailey bridges to ford the Sangro—one of a seemingly endless succession of rivers they would traverse in their long advance up the Italian peninsula. On 2 December, the 'Div' had secured the village of Castelfrentano—a place name memorialised in a popular song of the Italian campaign. They moved on to attack the town of Orsogna and it even seemed possible that they would break the Gustav Line. Although New Zealand infantry actually entered the town on 3 December, they were repulsed by German reinforcements, bolstered by tanks. Despite repeated attacks in the succeeding weeks, the Germans proved immovable. With winter deepening, the whole Allied offensive ground to a halt and spirits were low amongst the New Zealanders when they were finally withdrawn from the stalled front line in January 1944 after suffering some 1600 casualties during their first two months of combat in Italy.


The Division was to enjoy only a brief respite before being called upon to participate in a new attack on a strong point which would prove the most tragically elusive prize of the entire campaign for the New Zealanders. They now marched across to the other side of Italy to join the Allied forces massing before the town of Cassino.

The Germans' success in blunting the Allied offensive prompted an effort to push through the strategically pivotal Liri Valley and on to Rome. The problem was that the entrance to the valley was just over ten kilometres wide and was overlooked by the 500-metre high monastery of Monte Cassino. Augmented by the Germans' meticulous deployment of minefields, fortifications and flooding though demolition of stop-banks, Cassino was a defender's dream and an attacking army's nightmare. New Zealand involvement in this challenging task was in part due to the failure of the American 5 Army's attack on Anzio in a sea-borne attack intended to by-pass the German front line.

Temporarily heading a New Zealand Corps bolstered by the inclusion of the 4 Indian Division, Freyberg now steeled himself and his forces for the battle ahead. Desperate to minimise casualties, he requested a massive bombardment of the German defences to precede the assault by his troops. Approved by the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean himself, General Sir Harold Alexander, the subsequent aerial bombardment on 15 February laid waste the historic monastery and its environs. Controversy about this decision would persist long after the war was over. Tragically for the waiting New Zealand soldiers, most of the German defenders survived and exploited the ruins to create an even more formidable set of defences.

They nevertheless proceeded with the plan, which involved the Indian Division attacking Cassino from the north, while the New Zealanders were to attack the town from the south with the hope of punching an opening for the Allies into the Liri Valley. It fell to the 28 (Maori) Battalion to initiate the attack on the town's well-defended railway station on 17 February.

After one of the fiercest and costliest battles in the annals of this legendary unit, the Maoris seized positions in and around the station. But the equally courageous engineers behind them were thwarted in their efforts to clear a path through the flooded terrain for reinforcements. Without that much needed support the isolated Maori soldiers were forced to withdraw after a withering counter-attack by German infantry backed by tanks. It was the first of numerous bitter disappointments for the New Zealanders at Cassino.

A series of other brave but unsuccessful assaults ensued. After another heavy bombardment, New Zealand forces fought their way into the devastated town on 15 March. Once again, the Germans put up tenacious resistance from hidden positions in the maze of rubble that was once Cassino. After eight days of fighting, Freyberg decided the cost was proving too high and he ordered his troops to cease seeking to advance. Shortly afterwards in early April, the New Zealand Division withdrew from the Cassino area, having suffered almost 350 deaths and many more wounded.

Cassino did not eventually fall until May 1944 to British and Polish troops, with support from New Zealand artillery. The Gustav Line was finally breached. Allied forces entered Rome on 4 June, two days before D-Day. The success of the cross-channel invasion meant that the Italian campaign became an undeniably secondary theatre of operations, with seven Allied divisions redeployed to France in August 1944. The Italian campaign's main purpose was now to divert part of the German war effort and to tie down forces which might otherwise have been used to defend France and Germany itself.

North to Florence

After a period of rest and recuperation, the 'Div' was back in action again in July as part of the Allied effort to breach the Germans' new so-called Gothic Line running from Pisa to Rimini in the northern Apennines. The New Zealanders enjoyed early success in their return to the battlefield, capturing the town of Arezzo on 16 July. Seeking to move on to Florence, they encountered solid German resistance but eventually reached the city on 4 August. The New Zealanders were back in the line the following month, fighting their way across difficult terrain in a slow advance which brought them to the Savio River by the end of October. They now had a month's break during which the Division was reorganised.

Ruins at Faenza

They rejoined the attack in late November and succeeded in capturing Faenza on 14 December. Having reached the Senio River, the Division halted and endured its second Italian winter. After another period of relief, the 'Div' lined up again on the banks of the Senio River on 8 April to begin what would prove the final offensive in Italy. The New Zealanders now moved forward at an increasingly rapid pace. After crossing the Senio, the drive continued to the Santerno River and then on to the Gaiana River. Briefly halted there, the New Zealanders then pushed on to the Idice, finally crossing the Po river on Anzac Day 1945. Taking Padua on 28 April, the 'Div' embarked on its last helter-skelter advance, amidst disintegrating German resistance and partisan success everywhere.

To Trieste

The 'Div' crossed the Izonso River on 1 May and reached Trieste the next day just as the German forces in Italy surrendered unconditionally. After their exhilarating final charge covering over 220 kilometres in less than a week, the New Zealanders arrived just in time to share in the city's liberation with local partisans and units of Josip Tito's Fourth Yugoslav Army. It should have been a final moment of glory in the Italian campaign—a chance to savour the end of the war in Europe and relax before a speedy return home. Instead, it proved a 'helluva way to end a war', as one soldier recorded in his diary.

The fortunes of war had pitched the 'Div' into an international hot spot, as Trieste became the setting for the first inter-Allied clash of the post-war era in Europe. The city was the focal point of a bitter territorial dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs had hoped to strengthen their post-war claims to Trieste by being first to liberate it and then putting in place their own military administration. The Western Allies, however, had planned that the city should come under Allied Military Government like other parts of liberated Italy, pending a final peace settlement. By arriving in Trieste when they did, the Second Division dashed the Yugoslavs' hopes of presenting the Western Allies with a fait accompli. For some weeks, Trieste was under an uneasy dual occupation. Only after the problem was resolved diplomatically at the highest Allied levels were the New Zealand soldiers able to relax when the Yugoslavs reluctantly withdrew from the city in mid-June.

Home to New Zealand

The following month, the Division began moving to Lake Trasimene, from where most of the New Zealanders would began their long journey home. Limited availability of shipping meant that it would prove a slow process and it was not until February 1946 that the last members of the 'Div' ended their wartime Italian sojourn.

War in the Pacific

Thousands of New Zealanders fought in the Pacific War in the 1940s. There's a certain irony in the phrase 'the Pacific War'. The ocean that was named for peace became an arena of battle between Japan on the one side, and the United States, New Zealand, Australia and their allies on the other. It was a conflict fought on a vast scale over huge distances: from Darwin to Midway, the Solomons to Iwo Jima. For the New Zealanders, this was a war fought close to home.

New Zealand fought in three main areas: in Singapore, in the seas around Japan, and in the Solomon Islands. There was desperate fighting on small island outposts where the rules of war could be ignored. In the islands, rain, heat and humidity seemed never-ending. The climate and conditions took their toll on many.

The Pacific War had profound consequences for New Zealand. It changed the international politics of the region in a way that has endured. New Zealand's connections with the United States grew stronger after the joint efforts in the area during the war. Global consequences of the conflict were enormous. The use of atomic weapons in Japan a week before the Japanese surrender brought an end to the Pacific War ushered in a new and horrific era in modern warfare.

Thousands of New Zealanders from all three of the armed forces served in the Pacific: the Navy, the Air Force, and 3 Division of the Army. It was a war that took young New Zealand men and women to exotic places, many of which they'd probably never heard of: Mono, Nissan, Guadalcanal, Bouganville, Okinawa. Sometimes working closely with the United States, New Zealanders fought the Japanese in three main areas — Singapore, the Solomon Islands and in the waters surrounding Japan. New Zealanders were also stationed in other places such as New Caledonia, operating radio and radar stations and medical facilities.

Moving South and North

After the attack on Pearl Harbor Japanese aircraft arrived over Singapore where the British had a base. At the same time, Japanese troops moved south down the Malayan peninsula. The Japanese forces had Singapore under siege by the end of January 1942, and it fell on 15 February 1942. This was the greatest military defeat for the British in 150 years. Over 130,000 troops surrendered; New Zealand airmen stationed there were evacuated just in time. Four days later, the first of the bombing raids on Darwin occurred, bringing the war very close to New Zealand.

The Japanese moved on into the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia) where they captured some of the New Zealanders who had escaped from Singapore. Some spent the next three years in prisoner of war camps in Japan; others stayed in Java.

The events had repercussions throughout the Pacific. New Zealand sent more troops to Fiji to help bolster defences. At home, anti-invasion defences were thrown up and forces mobilised to man them. The war was suddenly very close to home, and for a time, there were fears that New Zealand itself would become a battlefield.Some people wondered whether New Zealand forces in action in North Africa should come home to safeguard the country. An alternative existed, which did not involve ferrying New Zealanders back across the world: American troops arrived here in June 1942, and used the country as a jump-off point for the Pacific War.

In 1942 the Battle of the Coral Sea (7-8 May) and Battle of Midway (3-6 June) between the Japanese and United States navies left the United States with superior numbers of essential aircraft carriers. Japan had lost the initiative. This set the stage for New Zealand's involvement in the American campaign in the Solomon Islands — the closest point to home where the New Zealanders fought.

New Zealand seamen were the first involved. The ships Leander and Achilles joined American naval forces near Guadalcanal; Leander was later torpedoed and had to return to New Zealand. Then airmen from 3 Squadron arrived at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal in October 1942, and more New Zealand squadrons arrived over the next months.

3 Division

New Zealand's 2 Division remained in the European theatre, but 3 Division was training to go to 'the islands'. In November 1942 New Zealand troops began arriving in New Caledonia and then were sent to Guadalcanal, arriving there in August 1943. The men were shocked at the appearance of the island. Intense shelling had stripped trees of their leaves and snapped their trunks. Bodies of Japanese and United States troops were buried in makeshift graves.

In September 1943 14 Brigade took over from the Americans on the island of Vella Lavella, and experienced the rigours of jungle warfare for the first time. They were in danger of being shot by Japanese snipers or being cut down in an ambush.

"It was dense jungle and all that was left were a few shattered stumps. The rest of it was like a ploughed field from all the shell bursts. There was equipment everywhere, spent cartridges, rifles. Debris everywhere. It was frightening. The smell of death. The Americans had bulldozed great big holes and pushed all the corpses in and put in quicklime in the front line, but up in the hills you couldn't do that and there were arms and legs and limbs sticking out everywhere. The smell. Dead bodies.

When we came back from that front line we couldn't eat our lunch. The smell of dead bodies in the tropics is something else. It's something you can't get rid of. It was upsetting."

Bill Mitchell 391789, who was a corporal in the RNZAF, describes the aftermath of a Japanese attack on Piva airstrip, Bougainville, Solomon Islands in 1944

The following month, New Zealanders landed on Mono Island. This was the first opposed amphibious landing by New Zealand forces since Gallipoli. They successfully took the island from the Japanese defenders. Early in the following year the New Zealanders attacked Nissan in the Green Islands to the north of Bougainville. An airbase was quickly built on the island which fighter-bomber squadrons used to attack Rabaul.

The men of 3 Division returned to New Zealand in August 1944. The New Zealand government was finding it difficult to sustain the forces in Europe, and extra labour was needed on farms. Some of the men from 3 Division were sent to Italy and the Middle East; others were directed to work in factories or on farms.

Maori and the Second World War

By the time the Second World War ended in 1945 the 28th (Maori) Battalion had become one of the most celebrated and decorated units in the New Zealand forces. The pinnacle of its achievement was the Victoria Cross won by Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu in 1943. Ultimately, nearly 16,000 Maori enlisted for service during the Second World War.

New Zealanders reacted with patriotic fervour to the outbreak of war in South Africa in 1899 and again when the First World War began in 1914. Imperial policy had officially excluded Maori from fighting in South Africa, but a number still enlisted. That policy was still in place in 1914, but a change of heart in London saw several thousand Maori eventually fight in the First World War.

Some Maori leaders, such as Apirana Ngata, saw participation in war as the ‘price of citizenship’. Others, such as the Kingitanga leader Te Puea Herangi, questioned why Maori should fight for an Empire that had, within living memory, invaded and occupied their lands.

When the Second World War began, some Maori opposition to participation remained. One concern was the ability of Maori to maintain a combat force, given the size of their population. Most elders, however, were resigned to the fact that they were obliged to allow their sons to serve.

While leaders such as Apirana Ngata stressed the 'price of citizenship' line, ultimately many Maori enlisted for a mixture of reasons – to escape poverty or life in the backblocks or to follow their mates.

The Merchant Navy

Several thousand New Zealanders served in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. They sailed the ships that delivered troops, military equipment and vital cargoes of food, fuel and raw materials across the world's oceans. This work was so essential to the Allies' war effort that the Merchant Navy was effectively regarded as the fourth service alongside the army, navy and air force. Work on the ships was tough – but also full of adventure. Merchant seafarers often found themselves in the front lines of the war at sea. Many ships were torpedoed or bombed; survivors sometimes spent days or weeks in lifeboats before being rescued. More than 130 New Zealand merchant seafarers lost their lives, and around 140 were taken prisoner. No other group of New Zealand civilians faced such risks during wartime.

Although ships' cargoes, destinations and routes came under government or naval control, the wartime Merchant Navy was neither a military force nor a single coherent body. It remained, as before, a diverse collection of private companies and ships crewed by a multinational workforce of civilian volunteers who ranged in age from 14 to at least 75. Aside from officers, cooks and stewards, merchant seafarers did not wear uniforms; ashore, they were identified only by a silver lapel badge bearing the letters MN.

More than 130 New Zealand merchant seafarers are known to have lost their lives, although the true total may be higher. The great majority of these seamen were sailing on British vessels, and around 90 perished in the Atlantic or Mediterranean. Seven New Zealand merchant ships were lost to enemy action, but these fortunately produced only 11 fatalities. Ten New Zealanders are known to have died while serving on American or Panamanian-flagged ships, and six on Australian vessels; others were lost on Canadian, Dutch, Greek, Indian and Swedish ships.

References and Resources

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Retrieved October 9, 2009, from

From New Zealand History Online
Retrieved 4 March 2010, from

From the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War
Retrieved 11 January 2007, from

Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

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