Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

War Economy

Failure to Prepare

Failure to Prepare

Decisive action in the pre-war years was directed to welfare provisions, public works and housing, rather than to preparation for war.

In fairness to the Labour Government, it should be said that, in its ranks, the view was strongly held that improvements in the welfare of the peoples of the world would remove a major cause of war. Those who were convinced of the rightness of this point of view and of the wrongness of military aggression, no doubt felt justified in delaying the diversion of New Zealand's efforts from provisions for welfare to preparations for war. Less sympathetically one might observe that a large number of members of the Labour Party were pacifists by inclination and did not take sufficiently seriously the mounting evidence of planned aggression by Germany, Italy, and Japan. Be that as it may, the net effect was that suggestions to prepare met with a marked lack of Government enthusiasm.

Combine this with the fact that New Zealanders in the early 1930s had their full share of the anti-military feelings1 which had done so much to weaken Europe in its resistance to Hitler, and it is not surprising that active war preparations were delayed.

By the time Munich had brought home the inevitability of war as the only alternative to ultimate submission to the aggressor, there was a new barrier in the way of New Zealand's preparation for war. In 1938 and 1939 shortage of overseas funds made it inexpedient to build up adequate stocks of imported materials and equipment or to extend refrigerated storage space. By this time, also, United Kingdom firms were having difficulty in filling New Zealand orders for military equipment, because of the urgency of their own government's needs. The supply side of economic preparation had been left too late.

On the manpower side more thinking had been done, but here frustrations were even greater. Pre-war official thinking tended to the view that some form of registration of manpower was essential.

1 Round Table, Vol. 20, pp. 913–14 (1930); NZPD, Vol. 225, p. 303 (1930); Round Table, Vol. 25, p. 215 (1934).

page 30 But registration seemed inevitably to lead to compulsion and here long-established Labour Party policy stood in the way. The keynote of Labour policy on manpower requirements for war was that conscription of wealth would precede any conscription of men. It is not difficult to see that manpower planning would proceed haltingly when faced with this very determined viewpoint and, in fact, in spite of searching investigations and recommendations by the Manpower Committee of the Organisation for National Security, little positive action had been taken up to the outbreak of war.

In March 1939 the Prime Minister, Mr Savage, had warned of the need to ‘prepare for the worst, not only in defence along ordinary lines but in industrial development upon which the defence of the country will largely depend’,1 yet even in April 1939, after the Pacific Defence Conference in Wellington, he seems to have had little idea of the manpower strain war would bring. Probably he still thought of a small voluntary expeditionary force only. His ideas on home defence visualised a citizen army of men who would be citizens and soldiers at the same time2—in marked contrast to the thousands of men who were in fact to be held in uniform in the armed forces in New Zealand while industry cried out for labour.

On a voluntary basis, the Territorial army was built up from 7100 in May 1938 to 10,400 a year later, and further increases were provided for, to bring it ‘within reasonable reach of its war establishment’,3 but in spite of repeated recommendations from the Manpower Committee the Government would make no decision affecting labour for industry until after the outbreak of war.

Economic preparation for war left much to be desired. On the three vital issues of supplies of equipment and materials, refrigerated space for perishable exports and civilian manpower planning, there was considerable discussion and a flow of official recommendations, but no adequate government action was taken before war was declared. Yet the need for planning and action had been foreseen.

A Manpower Committee had been set up as an offshoot of the New Zealand Committee of Imperial Defence as early as 1934. In August 1936, in the debate in Parliament, Minister of Defence F. Jones said:4

1 AucklandStar, 22 March 1939.

2 Wood, op. cit., p. 81.

3 Parliamentary Paper H-19, Annual Report of the Chief of the General Staff, p. 1.

4 NZPD, Vol. 246, p. 559.

page 31

‘… A committee on which some twenty Government Departments are represented is investigating the problem of supplies in war—that is to say, supplies for the community at large, and not merely for armed forces. Some examples of their problems are supply of oil fuel and lubricants in war, including a rationing scheme and the provision of refrigerated space in the event of the interruption of export trade. If our export trade is disorganised, so far as beef, mutton, and lamb are concerned, we can stop killing for meat supplies; but we cannot stop the supply of butter. For this reason, a survey is being made of the refrigerating space, to see to what extent we could store butter until such time as trade was resumed between this country and the countries with which we trade. Other committees are being set up to deal with communications, cables, and wireless; another committee, to deal with manpower, and another with shipping and meteorological services. Provision is being made in the Defence estimates for meteorological service, and we are trying to cooperate with Australia and another country in connection with this service….’

The pre-war period was characterised by awareness, discussion and recommendations for action but very little action. Yet in spite of Government inactivity, consideration of these matters in committee had been of value. Discussion and study had brought an awareness of problems which stood officials in good stead when war broke out, while Labour's policy of development and diversification of the economy, though not part of any plan for war, probably put New Zealand in a better condition to cope with problems of wartime production.