Page 7 – New Zealanders in the air

New Zealanders in the Royal Air Force

By 1944 more than 6000 New Zealanders were based in the United Kingdom, serving in the Royal Air Force (RAF). From the formation of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) in 1937, young men had been trained as officers at Wigram and posted for short stints to the RAF. As the Second World War loomed, the New Zealand government offered more airmen to the RAF.

When war was declared the RNZAF was mobilised and volunteers were called for to serve in either the RNZAF or the RAF for as long as the war lasted. By this time there were already 550 New Zealanders serving in the RAF, 200 of them in the United Kingdom and the others in India and the Middle East.

The RAF estimated need for each year of the war was 20,000 pilots and 30,000 other crew. Britain asked the Commonwealth for help in training pilots, and the New Zealand government committed itself to providing the RAF with 880 fully trained pilots a year. This number later increased to more than 2000.

Pilots had their first flying lessons at bases throughout the country, including Whenuapai, Palmerston North, Harewood, Wigram and Taieri. In all, more than 2700 pilots completed their training in New Zealand before heading for England and the RAF.

From April 1940, 7000 more New Zealanders sailed for Canada as part of the Empire Air Training Scheme. The scheme was established to keep up the flow of aircrew from Commonwealth countries to the RAF. New Zealanders trained in Canada as pilots, navigators, wireless operators, air gunners and bomb aimers.

Once in England, the New Zealanders were posted to Operational Training Units before being assigned to squadrons. The average age of the men when they began their operational careers was 21 years. They were expected to fly a 'tour' of 30 sorties, or combat flights, before being given time out.

New Zealand squadrons in the RAF

There were seven squadrons with a New Zealand identity in the RAF, manned largely by New Zealanders. Two of these were in Bomber Command (75 and 487), three were in Fighter Command (485, 486, 488), and two were in Coastal Command (489 and 490). A year before D-Day the Second Tactical Air Force was formed within the RAF. Its role was to give close support to the Allied armies as they advanced through France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Four of the RAF New Zealand squadrons were assigned to this force – three fighter and one bomber. The first of these to operate from the European continent was 485 (Spitfire) Squadron. It moved to France in August 1944.

The majority of New Zealand airmen in the RAF were not in the New Zealand squadrons but flew alongside men from Canada, Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom. New Zealand was represented, at some stage, in almost all RAF squadrons. During the months of the Normandy invasion, New Zealanders served with both air- and ground crew of the RAF in Bomber, Fighter, Coastal and Transport Commands.

How to cite this page

'New Zealanders in the air', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/d-day/nzers-in-the-raf, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-May-2020