The Second World War at home

Page 7 – Back home

Peace at last

Two days stand out as signposts on the path to peace in 1945. The first was VE Day – Victory in Europe – declared on 8 May, a day after Germany surrendered. New Zealand celebrated in the knowledge that the thousands of sons, brothers, fiancés, husbands and friends were safe, and would soon be homeward bound.

In spite of the huge relief of VE Day, Japan was still to be defeated. Some predicted that this might not happen for another 18 months. But the final phase of the conflict was much shorter. At the beginning of August, in the same week that Russia declared war on Japan, the United States Air Force dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing an estimated 200,000 people. The Japanese surrender, on 15 August, marked VJ Day – Victory over Japan. The Second World War had ended. In New Zealand, there was jubilation in the streets, but the coming of peace brought with it mixed feelings.

When the war in Europe ended there were still 58,000 Kiwis serving overseas, most with 2NZEF in Italy and the Middle East. Over the following months, families and friends waited patiently as troopships brought them home.

For the engaged and married, post-war reunions were often followed by times of adjustment. Although there was a record number of marriages in 1946, the same year also saw a peak in the figures for divorce – nearly double the rate for 1940. There had to be stated grounds for divorce, and in 1947 and 1948 the most common one cited, by both men and women, was 'separation for more than three years'.

Even those who remained married after their husbands returned from war found there were changes to absorb. Other families endured long-term consequences of the conflict. Of the men who came home, 15,000 returned with physical injuries. And there were also those less visibly damaged. In the 1940s the term used to describe psychological and psychiatric war wounds was 'anxiety neurosis'. Today, some of the men labelled in this way would be said to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of PTSD can include nightmares and flashbacks, irritability and outbursts of anger, emotional withdrawal and depression. By December 1949 the War Pensions Branch had a total of nearly 7600 'neurosis' cases, placing, 'a great strain … on the shoulders of the doctors'.

Looking back

In the immediate post-war years, thousands of families experienced the joy of beginning, or adding to, their families. In 1947, a record number of nearly 50,000 births was registered. The New Zealand children born in late 1940s and the prosperous 1950s would be the first in three generations not called to fight a world war.

The 'great unknown' faced by civilian New Zealanders as the world went to war in 1939 unfolded differently for each of them, as the interview extracts gathered here suggest. But when these interviewees were asked what they would most want subsequent generations to understand about that time, there is some common ground. Memories of anxiety and disruption are overridden by a sense of waste and loss. Marian Beech's brother was among the thousands of servicemen who died.