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Royal New Zealand Air Force

Page 2 – Overview: 1913-1945

Early aviation experiments

The beginnings of the RNZAF can be traced back to 1913. In that year a Blériot monoplane was gifted to New Zealand by the Imperial Air Fleet Committee in London. The aircraft was christened Britannia and officials hoped it would form the nucleus of a flying corps, but it was only flown briefly in New Zealand before being placed in storage. When war broke out in 1914 it was sent back to England for use by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC).

First World War airmen

More than 800 New Zealand ground and aircrew served in British and Australian air forces during the First World War. Twelve New Zealanders commanded their own squadrons, including Keith Caldwell and Keith Park. More than 70 lost their lives, some 40% through flying accidents. Nearly 30 were captured or interned after crash-landing due to battle damage or mechanical failure.

With no military flying corps in New Zealand, hundreds of adventurous young Kiwis joined British and Australian air services during the First World War. Over 800 New Zealanders served in the RFC, Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Australian Flying Corps (AFC). About half saw operational service – flying dangerous missions over the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East – and more than 70 lost their lives.


In 1923 New Zealand established its first air force. The New Zealand Permanent Air Force (NZPAF) was made up of 11 full-time staff in charge of carrying out administration and training. They were backed up the New Zealand Air Force (NZAF), a territorial unit of around 100 part-time volunteers, most of them ex-First World War pilots.

The fledging air force struggled for recognition over the next decade. A lack of funding during the Depression restricted the activities of the NZPAF and prevented the purchase of new equipment. From the mid-1930s, an improving economic position and the threat of war in Europe led to an increase in defence spending; the air force was able to upgrade aerodromes, order new aircraft, and fund an increase in personnel.

The Labour government elected in 1935 decided to concentrate New Zealand’s defence resources on developing the recently renamed Royal New Zealand Air Force. In 1936 RAF Wing Commander R.A. Cochrane reviewed the country’s air defence requirements. On Cochrane’s recommendation, the government passed the Air Force Act 1937, which established the RNZAF as an independent arm of the military services, equal in status to the army and navy.

Impact of the Second World War

Despite its expansion, the RNZAF were underprepared for the outbreak of war in September 1939. With only 756 full-time personnel (backed up by 404 territorials), the air force launched a large-scale recruitment drive. Thousands of new recruits were channelled into the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS), completing their training in Canada before serving with the RAF in Europe and the Mediterranean. Around 10% ended up in one of the RAF’s seven ‘New Zealand’ squadrons – No. 75 and Nos 485–490 – set up under the EATS to maintain a symbolic link to the Dominion.

NZers in the RAF

About 420 New Zealanders were serving with the Royal Air Force (RAF) when war broke out in September 1939 – the most from any of the British Dominions. A further 7002 Kiwi airmen joined RAF squadrons from the Empire Air Training Scheme. They served with distinction in all theatres of the war. Read more about New Zealanders involved in the Battle of Britain and D-Day invasion of Europe.

Closer to home, the RNZAF undertook operations in South-east Asia and the Pacific against Japanese forces. About 400 RNZAF personnel took part in the disastrous Malayan campaign, while New Zealand pilots also flew with RAF squadrons in Burma. By late 1942, New Zealand combat squadrons were serving alongside United States forces in the South Pacific. Equipped with American-made aircraft, the RNZAF conducted anti-submarine patrols, reconnaissance, bombing, rescue, and fighter escort missions throughout the Solomon Islands and over the Bismarck Archipelago off New Guinea.

The end of the war brought major change for the RNZAF. Hundreds of aircraft were scrapped and tens of thousands of personnel demobilised. The RNZAF, which had peaked at around 42,000 in 1944, had shrunk to 5300 personnel by mid-1946.

Of the 22 wartime squadrons, only five remained. No. 14 Squadron (Corsairs) – was sent to Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force.

How to cite this page

Overview: 1913-1945, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated