At the outbreak of World War II New Zealand was a British Dominion. Despite being a small Country and far away from the Theatres of Battle it made a most important contribution to the Allies’ war effort that did not stand in any proportion to the size of its population at the time, which numbered about 1.6 million human-beings.
Soon after Britain declared war on Germany, the Government of New Zealand announced its support of Britain’s stand.
Its modest Army was subordinated to the British Army and began operating within the latter’s framework, as the Ground Forces sent off an Expeditionary Force that included an Infantry Division and an additional Motorized Regiment (another Division stayed behind for Home protection missions. The small Navy was joined with the Royal Navy as a Fleet, and its two Bomber Squadrons were joined with the Royal Air-Force. Units from New Zealand also operated under American command in the Pacific Ocean, beginning in 1943.
In proportion to the size of the population, this New Zealander Division (which became the 2nd Division), commanded by Major General Freyberg, was equal to 25 British Divisions. The Division (actually only two of its Regiments) arrived in Egypt in the course of 1940, and at the end of that year it was already participating in the Western Desert Battles.
The third Regiment was transferred to Britain and prepared for the defense of a possible German invasion and later joined the Division, which was engaged in extremely fierce Battles in the Campaign that the 8th Army was conducting in the Western Desert.
This Division suffered heavy losses – more than 10,000 persons – in the fighting in Greece and in Crete, as well as in the Battle of Tobruk.
Later, it participated in the decisive Battles against the Afrika Korps, until the occupation of Tunisia, in 1943. The Division continued and participated in the Campaign in Italy, from October 1943 onward, after the New Zealand Government’s intention to return it home was cancelled, thanks to Roosevelt and Churchill’s influence over its Prime Minister.
New Zealand’s involvement in the Campaign against the Japanese in the Pacific Ocean intensified in that period. This brought the dispatching of an additional Expeditionary Force – its 3rd Division – to various Islands in the Ocean, at first as a Garrison and later to join the American Forces in the Solomon Islands Campaign.
Manpower problems eventually led to the decision to abolish the 3rd Division and turn it into a reserve force for the 2nd Division, which was operating in Italy.
In 1941, a Women’s Auxiliary Force was established in the Army, which numbered about 4,600 women at its peak.
The New Zealand Air-Force contributed with training pilots for the RAF, in the framework of the Empire Air Training Scheme throughout the British Empire. The New Zealand Air-Force’s efforts were split between Britain, where most of the Force operated, especially in the early years of the war, and the Pacific Ocean, in the Solomon Islands Campaigns, where an additional part of the Force was operating from 1942 onward.
A quarter of the pilots serving on board the British Aircraft Carriers in the Pacific Ocean Fleet were New Zealanders.
Overall, the New Zealand Air-Force numbered about 45,000 persons at the conclusion of the war, including the Women’s Auxiliary Air-Force, which was established in January, 1941, and numbered about 4,000 women at its peak.
The Fleet consisted of two Cruisers, one of which, the “Achilles”, participated in the sinking of the famous German Battleship, “Graf Spee”, in the Battle of the Rio de la Plata River, in Argentina. The second Cruiser operated in the Indian Ocean as well as in the Mediterranean Sea.
A small Women’s Force was established in the Fleet too, numbering around 500 women.
More vessels of various kinds were added to the Fleet in the course of the war – Corvettes, Minesweepers, Anti-Submarine Ships, and so on.
The Cruisers were shifted to the Pacific Ocean Theatre, and they were even damaged in 1943, in the Battles that were being conducted in the Solomon Islands; later, they operated within the framework of missions that were undertaken in the Battles near the shores of Japan.
New Zealand’s casualties in the war totaled: 11,671 dead, 15,749 injured and 8,469 captured, most of them from the Ground Forces.
The Air-Force suffered a relatively high percentage of casualties – 4,149 dead. The Fleet suffered 573 dead.
In relation to the size of the population, these casualties constituted a high percentage overall