The Second World War at home

Page 2 – It's war again

‘The war to end all wars’

For older New Zealanders, the news that the world was once again at war was especially chilling. Just over 20 years earlier, most New Zealand families had been shaken by the First World War, known as the Great War. When that conflict began in 1914, the population of the country was just over one million. In the six years that followed, 103,000, or one in 10 people, left to serve overseas. Most were in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) that fought at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

The names of faraway battlefields where thousands of men fought and died, such as the Somme, Messines and Passchendaele, were carved into many family histories. In all, 18,500 New Zealanders died in the Great War – one in six of those who went to fight. Amid the inevitable grief, there was grim comfort in the belief that this had been 'the war to end all wars'.

The next generation grew up in the shadow of the First World War. They saw its effects on their parents, aunts and uncles. As children, some watched their battle-worn fathers struggle with post-war life; most were aware of wounded men in their communities; many helped to carry wreaths, in silence, on Anzac Day. So, when the Second World War was declared, even the young, like 17-year-old Mae Carson, felt 'terror' that her brothers would have to go through what her father had experienced.

Where Britain goes…

On 3 September 1939, Britain, with the support of France, declared it was at war with Germany. The New Zealand government was quick to follow suit. Soon after war was declared, Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage made the stirring speech that would be remembered for decades to come and encapsulated the dominant outlook among New Zealanders at the time.

Both with gratitude for the past and confidence in the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go. Where she stands, we stand. We are only a small and young nation, but we are one and all a band of brothers and we march forward with union of hearts and wills to a common destiny.

Family connections were strong between New Zealand settler families and Britain. But other ties bound the 'band of brothers' together. New Zealand depended on Britain and the Commonwealth winning the war and it ‘entered the war in 1939 with one fundamental aim: to ensure its own security’. As well, trade with Britain was crucial to New Zealand’s economy. Farmers had been sending frozen meat and dairy products to Britain since the 1880s and in the late 1930s, 80% of the country’s exports were loaded onto ships bound for British ports. Given such a dependent relationship, there was no real doubt that New Zealand would back the Allied war effort.

Sign here

Just 10 days after the declaration of war, volunteers were called for the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF). The aim was to gather 6600 men, aged between 21 and 45, who would be ready to go to war as soon as possible. Within a week nearly 12,000 had joined the army. Mateship, the chance for adventure and a sense of duty all contributed to the success of the initial call-up.

Although adrenalin may have driven many of the volunteers, their families were not always as convinced. Gallipoli veteran James Hunter told his stepsons, 'You'd be fools to be joining up', but his urging fell on deaf ears. Family resistance was up against strong public pressure to conform and enlist, backed by newspaper advertisements and posters. Workplace recruitment drives were held, with doctors present to do the required medical exam then and there. The government’s determined message was carried through city streets by recruiting vans with loudspeakers, and 'outside recruiting booths brightly dressed girls on lorries did tap and Highland dances'. At a rugby match at Lancaster Park in Christchurch, troops paraded round the field with gaps in their ranks, encouraging men to leap the fence and join them: 'in an emotional ten minutes, 22 recruits had joined the march'.

It was not only the army that was claiming the youth of New Zealand. Among the first groups of men who enlisted were those in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), which had been set up to have men ready and trained if war was declared. Fewer than three weeks after the Second World War began, RNVR volunteers were called for duty. Many of them were to serve through the war with the Royal Navy.

For other young Kiwis, the allure of the air force was strong. The peak strength of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) during the war was 34,000. As well, recruits were being called to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Britain. The rate of 'attrition', or death, in an air war is notoriously high and the RAF estimated it would need 50,000 trained air crew a year. Only half this number of young men was available in Britain itself, so the call for support went out to the Commonwealth. Before Christmas 1939, the Empire Air Training Scheme was set up. Most New Zealanders who joined the RAF trained initially at home, then left for Canada, where they trained further with other Commonwealth recruits before heading for operational flying in Britain. By the end of the war nearly 11,000 New Zealanders had served with the RAF in Europe, the Middle East and South East Asia.

Māori support

When the Second World War broke out hundreds of young Māori men were among the first to enlist for service, and Māori leaders were quick to offer support to the government. Within weeks, Māori had their own military unit, 28 (Maori) Battalion, formed after requests from Māori groups, led by politician and scholar Sir Apirana Ngata (Ngāti Porou). Because the Treaty of Waitangi gave Māori the rights of British citizenship, Ngata argued, there were obligations and duties to be met in return.

As in the First World War, not all Māori supported fighting for the British. Some favoured a labour unit, similar to the Maori (Pioneer) Battalion from the First World War. With a Māori population of only 90,000, there were concerns about the numbers needed to sustain a fighting battalion. Others, remembering the bitter history of the 1860s New Zealand Wars, believed that no Māori troops should be sent overseas and that any Māori military unit should serve only at home. But the majority Māori view won the day, and 28 Battalion became one of the legendary units of the Second World War. Of the 3600 men who saw action with the battalion, 649 died on active service, more than 1700 were wounded and over 150 were taken prisoner.

A total of 16,000 Māori served in the Second World War at home or overseas: in 28 Battalion, in other New Zealand army battalions, in the RNZAF and in the RAF in both Europe and the Far East. Smaller numbers served in the navy or merchant marine.

How to cite this page

'It's war again', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-May-2020