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The Long White Cloud

Chapter III — Second World War

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Chapter III
Second World War

The menace of a second world war had been hanging over New Zealand for years. The Japanese aggression in Manchuria was sufficient warning to the Labour Party not to neglect the country's defences. Though there was some criticism of the precautions taken, events proved that consultations with Britain and Australia had been constant and productive. In his first speech to the Assembly of the League of Nations in 1936, W. J. Jordan supported effective sanctions against Italy for her aggression against Abyssinia. He said New Zealand had witnessed with consternation the ominous failure of the League to carry out its main function—the preservation of the peace of the world. Though intensely desirous of peace, New Zealand could visualize a situation resulting from the application or non-application of the Covenant which would compel her to face dangers and assume burdens which, in proportion to her population and resources, would be no less severe than those to be borne by any other State.

Nash, in his book New Zealand: A Working Democracy, says that the policy of the New Zealand Government in the stormy years before the war was that both military and economic penalties should be enforced by the League of Nations against countries determined to break the peace: “New Zealand called for League action in support of China. New Zealand urged the League to take up the case of Republican Spain. New Zealand banned the shipment of scrap iron to Japan as far back as 1936. The policy of appeasement as it was pursued during those years both in Europe and in the Far East was vigorously opposed. It was urged that foreign policy ought to be based on principles and not on expediency, and New Zealand's independent views to this effect were freely and frankly expressed. But with the successive failures of the nations to live up to the principles of the League system, it was recognized, particularly after Munich, that war was inevitable and defence preparations were speeded up accordingly.”

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Semple, in August 1939, was able to say that if war broke out, “we can build roads through virgin bush and over mountains overnight, because bulldozers and angle-dozers can work on gradients of one in two. We can erect temporary bridges, we can build forts, and we can make gun emplacements in hours, where these works would have taken days hitherto. We can dig trenches as fast as you can walk; before, men took days to build the same trenches. We can erect bomb-proof shelters with our powerful machines, and these could be used not only at vulnerable points, but also to make shelters for women and children.” The mechanized Public Works department was to make good these claims by the Minister in a remarkable series of war-time achievements, one of the most spectacular being the provision in one month of quarters for the first U.S. forces.

Expenditure on defence was 12s. 11d. per head of population in 1934–35, £5 5s. 3d. in 1939–40, and £87 12s. 3d. in 1942–43. The Labour Party had always been opposed to conscription and an attempt was made to carry on with the voluntary system of recruiting. The response was good, but the fall of France showed that the war would be long. The Government bowed to the logic of events and on 18th June, 1940, the National Service Emergency Regulations were gazetted. All single men between 19 and 45 were enrolled in the General Reserve and called up on 7th August. Married men were called up in stages from May 1941. By September 1942, 157,000 were serving in the Forces in New Zealand or overseas, while a further 250,000 men and women were serving part-time in the Home Guard, Emergency Precautions Service, and other auxiliary bodies.

The fall of France also led the Labour Government to reverse its traditional policy of non-co-operation with other parties and invite Adam Hamilton, leader of the Opposition, and J. G. Coates to form a War Cabinet to control war policy, while the existing Labour Cabinet continued to control other matters. This device worked reasonably well.

The first contingent of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force arrived in Egypt on 12th February, 1940. The second contingent was diverted to England when the news of the Nazi offensive was received. It helped to man the sketchy Channel defences while Hitler debated whether he should stake page 352 all on an attempt at invasion. Proceeding to Egypt when the danger passed, the contingent helped to form the New Zealand Division under Major-General B. C. Freyberg. When it was decided, for reasons likely to be debated for a long time, that a force should be sent to the assistance of Greece, the New Zealand Division formed the advance guard. In the historic Olympus positions, the New Zealanders played havoc with advancing Nazi troops but were forced to retreat south to Thermopylae. The Maori Battalion was prominent in a fantastic fight in drizzling rain and mist which ended in the temporary withdrawal of the Germans, but the capitulation of the Greek Army in Epirus necessitated a general withdrawal of the Allied forces. The New Zealanders, after some tense fighting, were taken off by the Royal Navy and landed in Crete.

Here their situation was anything but enviable, as the air force available consisted of six Hurricanes and sixteen obsolete planes. With no safe aerodromes and no prospect of any great reinforcement, General Freyberg, who was put in command of the island, had few illusions about the possibility of holding out but he made the best of a bad job. As it turned out the resistance put up and the havoc caused among Nazi paratroops almost certainly disrupted the German time-table of aggression. Invasion from the air began on 20th May, and for a time it was touch and go whether the Nazi gamble would come off. The New Zealanders fought bitter battles with great fortitude but once again retreat was ordered and once again the Royal Navy performed miracles in evacuation.

The New Zealand Division, after waiting for weeks to be re-equipped, was sent to work on defences which were to become historic a year later as the El Alamein line. In November 1941, the division advanced for the first time as a complete formation. In Libya the New Zealanders, though short of 25-pounder ammunition and other supplies, achieved contact with the besieged defenders of Tobruk after hard bayonet fighting to take Sidi Rezegh. Rommel struck back with his tanks, overrunning the New Zealand 5th Brigade Headquarters and taking nearly 700 prisoners including Brigadier James Hargest. The attenuated and exhausted New Zealand forces retreated from Sidi Rezegh but later, when Rommel retired west of Tobruk, helped to restore the shattered port as a supply page 353 base. After an interlude in Syria, the New Zealand Division began a dramatic dash back to the Western Desert with orders to hold Rommel, who had dealt the Allied cause a shattering blow by capturing Tobruk. Battle was joined at Minquar Quaim. General Freyberg was wounded and Brigadier L. M. Inglis took command. The division was surrounded but broke through brilliantly with the bayonet and moved on to the Alamein line to defend the Qattara fortress. In the desperate battle for Ruweisat Ridge Charles Upham, a captain in the New Zealand Division, made history by becoming the first combatant soldier to win the Victoria Cross for a second time. The division had played its part nobly in stemming the enemy advance. It was fully prepared to endorse the order of General Montgomery on taking over command of the Eighth Army: “We will fight the enemy where we now stand; there will be no withdrawal and no surrender.”

When Rommel resumed his thrust for Egypt and the Suez Canal on 30th August, 1942, the New Zealand Division was given onerous tasks, and its role in the decisive battle of Alamein—the turning-point of the war—was a leading one. With the two British armoured divisions it formed, as Winston Churchill put it, the “thunderbolt hurled through the gaps which finished Rommel and his arrogant army.” In the great advance across North Africa the New Zealanders also played a leading part as the mobile left flank of the Eighth Army. Their outflanking exploits made the name of New Zealand famous and the divison was ranked as high as any in the Allied armies which were now sweeping all before them.

The division crossed to Italy in November, 1943, and was soon involved in heavy fighting against the German winter line in conditions very different from the desert where they had fought continuously for a year. They achieved victory in the Battle of the Sangro but the Battle of Cassino, which held the world's attention for weeks, gave the division perhaps the bitterest fighting of its career. The Italian campaign was prolonged by severe weather and fierce German resistance as the battles got closer to their own frontiers. The last stage began on 10th April, 1945, when the New Zealand infantry were the spearhead of the Eight Army's greatest Italian attack. The initiative and dash of the Maori Battalion and the 21st page 354 Battalion in crossing the Senio and taking German prisoners gave the campaign a great start and the advance accelerated. By 1st May the New Zealanders had reached Monfalcone and made contact with Marshal Tito's troops.

New Zealanders played a distinguished part in the air war against Hitler. At the outbreak of war the Royal New Zealand Air Force consisted of 91 officers and 665 airmen, but hundreds of others were already serving with the Royal Air Force on short service commissions. By May 1945, some 45,000 New Zealanders had joined the R.N.Z.A.F. and there were still many in the R.A.F. In operations overseas the R.N.Z.A.F. sustained 3,998 casualties, of whom 2,875 were killed or presumed dead. The New Zealand squadrons won a high reputation in all the varying phases of the war and New Zealanders were prominent in a remarkable number of the great actions of the air struggle, including those in which the Fleet Air Arm took part. In the naval campaigns also New Zealanders played their part, while behind the scenes New Zealand scientists were playing a surprisingly important role for so small a country in the production of those secret weapons which did so much to seal the fate of Hitler.

When Japan entered the war by attacking Pearl Harbour and launching her forces for the long-prepared attack on Singapore, New Zealand's difficulties were, of course, greatly enhanced. Public opinion in the Dominion was naturally disturbed by the monotonous succession of disasters in Malaya and the communiques, with their masterpieces of understatement and liking for such phrases as “successful disengagement,” did more than all the propaganda of Goebbels to diminish faith in the reliability of British news.

Fraser, reviewing the calamitous situation before the House of Representatives went into secret session, emphasized the increased danger of a Japanese thrust on Fiji or on New Zealand. To wrest the initiative from the enemy and begin an offensive required a gigantic effort by the Allied nations. The stage had been reached when we could not afford a single mistake. New Zealand had lost no opportunity of expressing her point of view and pressing her needs before the British and United States Governments, and as a result a large measure of assistance had been promised. The Prime Minister added page 355 that the spirit of New Zealand was good. It would not wince or falter in the hour of danger: “We have the power and will to do our part and we are not alone.”

When the war Budget was presented in May 1942, war costs for the current year were estimated at 133 millions—more than the total cost of the first world war to the Dominion and 80 millions more than in the previous year. A joint war administration was formed of seven Government and six Opposition members but the experiment did not last long, the Opposition members, except Hamilton and Coates, withdrawing as a protest against the Government's handling of a strike in the Waikato coal mines. Coates died suddenly while at work at his desk in Parliament Buildings on 27th May, 1943. His singleminded devotion to New Zealand won for him the esteem even of those who had most bitterly opposed him when he was Prime Minister. As Minister of Armed Forces and War Co-ordination he was in his element, for he was a lifelong enemy of red tape. He made three visits to Pacific islands to confer with Allied commanders and to him must be given a great deal of the credit for the close understanding with the United States forces which did so much to assist in the bitter campaigns leading to the overthrow of Japan.

A general election was held in September 1943, and the Labour Party, though losing five seats, still had a majority of ten. The result was an endorsement of the Government's war record, for ineptitude in high places would certainly have received rough treatment from the electors at this critical stage of the war. The party's decreased majority showed the Labour Party that it was not immune from the normal processes of rise and decline which have affected parties in New Zealand from the first grant of responsible government. There is a sporting tendency to give the other party a chance—usually encouraged by the other party's proclivity for adopting all the best planks of its rival's platform and adding a few attractive inducements of its own.

For the anticipated war in the Pacific New Zealand had prepared as early as 28th October, 1940, by sending a force of 949 men to Fiji, followed within a month by the whole 8th Brigade Group. It was afterwards discovered that the Japanese plans included the capture of Fiji, so the vast amount page 356 of work expended in defence works and in the training of the 3,000 New Zealand troops in tropical warfare was fully justified. When Japanese readiness to move south was signalled by watchers, guerrilla troops were recruited in Fijian villages and trained by New Zealanders. These Fijian commandos later won fame in jungle fighting in the Solomons.

The first American forces landed in New Zealand on 30th May, 1942, and Americans later took over from the New Zealanders in Fiji. The New Zealand Third Division was trained to operate anywhere in the Dominion should the Japanese land. It later moved to New Caledonia, its base for operations in the Solomons. Advanced amphibious training was completed in the New Hebrides and the New Zealand attack on Vella Lavella was launched by the 14th Brigade on 18th September, 1943, and a landing made before Japanese aircraft arrived to interfere. The New Zealanders forced their way inch by inch through the drenched jungle to envelop the Japanese garrison. After some desperate fighting the enemy withdrew from the island in barges, many of which were sunk by American destroyers. At the end of October the 8th Brigade launched the first opposed landing by New Zealand troops since the Gallipoli operation in 1915. It was against Falamai in the Treasury Islands and careful preparation reaped its reward when the enemy was forced to retreat to the centre of the island before the onslaught of some 7,700 New Zealand and American troops. In February 1944, the New Zealanders carried out their last major military operation in the Pacific war. They landed on Nissan Island unopposed by the Japanese garrison, which later was wiped out in a series of sharp actions. In May American units took over from the New Zealanders who returned to New Caledonia and eventually home. Their withdrawal was due to the increasing strain on New Zealand's small resources of man-power imposed by the growing demands of the Allied forces for food. Fraser visited Washington on his way to an Empire conference in April and he was able to answer some American criticism by stating that the decision to release skilled men from the Army for farm work had been taken at the request of the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Fraser said that the transfer of men from the fighting forces was to arrest a decline in food production which threatened to have world-wide implications

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New Zealand's air effort in the Pacific War continued unabated. The Dominion's policy was to increase its squadrons in the Pacific islands and by harrying Japanese communications to stave off attack until the time was ripe for the Allied armies to move forward. New Zealand airmen played a big part in the battle for Guadalcanal and at one period shot down sixteen Japanese planes in four days. In December 1943, twenty-four New Zealand aircraft and twenty American engaged the Japanese over Rabaul. The New Zealanders accounted for twelve Japanese Zeros in the engagement. Early in 1945 New Zealand squadrons played a prominent part in the operations on Bougainville.

New Zealand's navy increased in personnel from 82 officers and 1,257 men in 1939 to 1,886 officers and 8,511 men in 1945 —plus 500 women. H.M.N.Z.S. Achilles played a fine part in the first naval action of the war with Germany—the River Plate encounter with the Graf Spee. Hordes of little ships were enlisted for the island war and many more were built in quick time. New Zealand minesweepers engaged Japanese submarines and sank two of them.

The second world war imposed a far greater strain on New Zealand's resources than the first. She was forced by her remoteness from the great manufacturing countries and the comparative nearness of the aggressive forces of Japan to turn her energies to tasks novel to her people but vital to success in a war which seemed to depend more as the years passed on questions of supply. New Zealand had to maintain her usual shipments to Britain and in five years sent 1,654,000 tons of meat, 734,000 tons of butter, and 638,000 tons of cheese. She altered at considerable cost and inconvenience the proportions of butter and cheese sent at the behest of the British Ministry of Food. More dried milk was called for and supplied. Linen flax was grown for the first time and successfully harvested with equipment made in the Dominion. State vegetable farms were established to cope with the vast demands of the American forces in the South Pacific, and dehydrating plants, new to the country, proved very efficient. So much was sent to the forces that the civilian population had necessarily to do without many things and rationing helped to keep down the local consumption of meat, butter and sugar.

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When the war broke out New Zealand had little more than one small arms ammunition plant to make any contribution to the supply of munitions for her forces, but by a remarkable achievement in improvisation small workshops throughout the country divided the task of making hundreds of parts for assembly at central plants. As the Wellington correspondent of The Times wrote, it was really beating ploughshares into swords. “Everybody helped. Jewellers and watchmakers and the university physics laboratories made fine instruments that could not be imported. Telegraph department and radio mechanics designed a new type of field wireless set to stand the shocks of war use.… When Admiral Halsey's ships came to the Pacific there was an urgent call for radar before it could be supplied from America. New Zealand supplied installations and technicians to train in their use.… New Zealand even helped to fill a gap revealed by the Ardennes push—a shortage of shell fuses.” Training aircraft were built, trawlers converted to minesweepers. Woollen manufacturers and the clothing and boot-making trades contrived great increases in output and won at the same time high praise for their products. Uniforms were supplied not only for New Zealand but for other Allied forces. The war-time development of secondary industries is of permanant importance to the Dominion, as it gives hope for the solution of the problem of population. A land so fruitful inhabited by less than two million people is an anachronism—and a temptation—in the modern world.