New Zealand immediately pledged to raise a division-strong expeditionary force to serve with Commonwealth forces, to train pilots for the Royal Air Force (RAF), and to expedite shipments of food—chiefly meat, butter, and cheese—to help feed Britain (before the war, 97 percent of New Zealand food exports went to the UK). Wellington also released the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy for service at the discretion of the British government, and it transferred other assets, including aircraft and personnel, to British command. Finally, the government initiated programs to enhance New Zealand's own military capabilities.
In June 1940, the government introduced conscription. Price controls, wage stabilization, and rationing were all gradually implemented to secure adequate supplies of food for export to Britain and help feed U.S. troops in the Pacific and to protect the economy. In July 1940, the General Assembly formed a war cabinet, and in 1942 a national unity government came into being. For the first time in its histo, New Zealand established diplomatic missions with non-Commonwealth nations, including the United States.
During the war, some 306,000 men were called up for military service. In June 1942, New Zealand had 157,000 in its armed services, 50,000 of them serving overseas. This represented half the adult male population aged 18 to 45 and 30 percent of the adult male workforce. One effect of this mobilization was a dramatic increase of women in the workforce, including in war-related industries. Also, at its peak in 1942, some 75,000 women served in organizations under the Women's War Service Auxiliary. Efforts were also initiated to mobilize the Maori population of 90,000 people, including the formation of a Maori Battalion organized along tribal lines.
In 1939, the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) consisted of 2 bomber squadrons. During the war, the government maintained 2 reconnaissance squadrons in New Zealand and 2 in Fiji. New Zealand's main contribution early in the air war, however, was to train RAF aircrew. At the beginning of the war, more than 500 New Zealanders served in the RAF; at the end of the conflict there were more than 10,000, including those in 7 New Zealand squadrons. RNZAF servicemen were in Great Britain undergoing training when the war began. These crews and their planes fought with the RAF in the Battle of Britain, in which 129 RNZAF pilots died. RNZAF pilots also served on Malta and in Africa. By the end of the war, the RNZAF had 83 aces.
To protect against German raiders in the Pacific, the British turned over a variety of aircraft to New Zealand, including reconnaissance aircraft and bombers. However, most of the planes were outdated, and the entry of Japan into the war necessitated the formation of New Zealand–based air squadrons. These fell under the operational command of the United States.
The RNZAF made a significant contribution to the air war in the Pacific; 7 squadrons and a radar squadron supported the Guadalcanal Campaign and 5 fought in the battles for the Eastern Solomon Islands. Some 45,000 served in the RNZAF during the war, one-third of them in the Pacific. By the end of the war, the RNZAF had grown from 766 personnel and 102 aircraft to 42,000 personnel with 1,336 aircraft. One-quarter of pilots aboard British carriers at the end of the war were from New Zealand. The RNZAF recruited women, and by August 1943 the Women's Auxiliary Air Force numbered 4,000 personnel.
In 1939, the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy consisted of 2 new light cruisers, the Achilles and Leander; a minesweeper trawler; and 2 British escort vessels. The Achilles participated in the December Battle of the Río de la Plata against the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. Since the country's navy was initially part of the Royal Navy, some 7,000 New Zealanders who volunteered for service were assigned to British ships. Meanwhile, efforts were made to increase the nation's own naval resources. During the war, the navy added 2 corvettes, 16 minesweepers, 12 antisubmarine patrol boats, and more than 100 other craft. In October 1941, King George VI authorized the formal creation of the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) with its own command structure, independent of the Royal Navy.
RNZN forces concentrated on minesweeping and defensive minelaying operations and provided convoy protection for merchant vessels in the Pacific. They also escorted troopships on their way to Europe and the Middle East and hunted German commerce raiders. When Japan entered the war, the RNZN vessels joined the British Far East Fleet, but after the sinking of the British Navy battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse, the nation's naval assets in the Pacific were placed under the auspices of the U.S. forces until the return of the British navy in 1944. New Zealand forces participated in the July 1943 Battle of Kolombangara. Women also served in the RNZN; in 1944, there were 500 women in the New Zealand section of the Women's Royal Naval Service.
The initial ground contribution came in the form of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2nd NZEF, so designated to distinguish it from the First Expeditionary Force of World War I). Major General Bernard Freyberg, who had won the Victoria Cross during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, commanded the 2nd NZEF, whose members were commonly referred to as the "Kiwis." The New Zealand Division (designated 2nd Division in June 1942) represented, in terms of percentage of population, the equivalent of 25 British divisions). In June 1940, the government began conscripting men, and over the next five years it called up 306,000 men. At the peak in September 1942, there were 157,000 New Zealanders in the armed services, of whom 50,000 were stationed overseas. This was an astonishing effort for such a small nation.
Troops from the New Zealand Division were sent to Egypt at the onset of the war and then fought in the Balkan Campaign in 1941. Following the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Greece, Freyberg was appointed commander on Crete with two New Zealand brigades. There the Kiwis lost almost half their number as casualties or prisoners of war. In New Zealand, the Battle for Crete was seen as a testament to the toughness of the Kiwi troops. New Zealand troops fought in the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 and in the Italian Campaign.
After Japan entered the war, public sentiment demanded the return of troops to protect New Zealand from Japanese invasion. To forestall the recall of New Zealand forces from the Middle East, British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill called on Washington to take up the slack, and the U.S. government agreed, as in the case of Australia, to reinforce New Zealand. The soldiers intermingled with the local population, and by the end of the war, there had been some 1,400 marriages between U.S. servicemen and New Zealand women. The New Zealand government attempted to raise another division of troops to fight in the Pacific, but after two years, it found it could neither spare the manpower nor did it have the financial resources. Consequently the division was disbanded. In 1944 the government released more than 9,000 men from this 3rd Division for civilian work, half of whom went into agriculture.
Kiwi forces fought in several battles in the Pacific, most notably in the Solomon Islands and in the invasion of the Treasury Islands in 1943. They also relieved American units for service elsewhere, including on Vella Lavella. Royal New Zealand Army (RNZA) units also provided a variety of combat support functions, including engineering and logistics for Allied forces in the Pacific. Women served in the RNZA as well. Formed in 1941, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps had 4,600 members in July 1943.
In the war, New Zealand suffered 11,671 dead (6,839 in the army, 4,149 in the air force, 573 in the navy, and 110 in the merchant navy), 15,749 wounded, and 8,469 prisoners taken. This amounted to some 6.7 percent of the population. Thomas Lansford and Spencer C. Tucker
Baker, John Victor T. The New Zealand People at War. Wellington, NZ: Historical Publications Branch, Department of International Affairs, 1965.; Rice, Geoffrey W., ed. The Oxford History of New Zealand. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.; Taylor, Nancy M. The New Zealand People at War: The Home Front. 2 vols. Wellington, NZ: Historical Publications Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1986.; Thompson, Robert Smith. Empires on the Pacific: World War II and the Struggle for the Mastery of Asia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.; Wood, Frederick L. W. The New Zealand People at War: Political and External Affairs. Wellington, NZ: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1958.
Thomas Lansford and Spencer C. Tucker