Prisoners of War

Page 2 – Capture


Most of New Zealand's Second World War POWs were captured in the European theatre in the early stages of the war. Only about 100 New Zealand servicemen fell into Japanese hands, mainly airmen or seamen attached to the Royal Navy or Royal Air Force. Just 26 soldiers (mostly coastwatchers) became POWs in the Pacific theatre; only seven of these men survived their captivity.

Four campaigns fought by 2NZEF during the first half of the war accounted for 94 per cent of the 8369 men of the force who fell into enemy hands between 1939 and 1945. The first was the ill-fated deployment of a Commonwealth force, which included 2 New Zealand Division, to Greece in early 1941. In all, 1856 New Zealanders went into the bag. Soon after, 2180 New Zealand POWs were taken on Crete – the most ever lost in one battle.

Reactions to being taken prisoner

'Disgusted, shocked and disillusioned' - John Senior, PG Udine, 107/4  

'A sense of failure' - James McQueen, Dulag Luft, 8B Lamsdorf

'Absolute dismay!' - Donald Croft, 4B, 8F, 1 8A&B Oflag 79

'Shocked and frightened' - Arnold Kyle, 8B Lamsdorf

'Shocked and dazed. Felt as if it was the end of the world' - Colin Burn, 8B Lamsdorf, E535 Milowitz and others

'Disbelief – amazement to still be alive – disappointment' - Sidney Howell, PG 57 Udine, 8B Lamsdorf, working camps

'Far from pleased!' - Robert Wood, Bari, Sulmona, PG 46 Modena

'Dumbfounded!' - John Harris, captured and held briefly near Tobruk

'Dismay and despondency, but some relief' - Norman Jardine, 8 B Lamsdorf, 8A-E Ratibor

'Emptiness: foreboding' - Paul Day, PG 57 Udine, 107/11

On a number of occasions in November–December 1941 during Operation Crusader, New Zealand battalions or field regiments were left exposed to the enemy when armoured support failed to materialise; disasters at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed were the most notorious examples. Confronted by enemy tanks, units had no option but to throw up their hands and surrender. Altogether 2042 men of 2 New Zealand Division became POWs in these battles. In the desperate struggle to hold the Axis forces thrusting towards Cairo between 20 June and 31 August 1942, further disasters occurred as unsupported infantry were overrun at El Mreir and Ruweisat Ridge. Another 1819 New Zealanders went into the bag.

The Eighth Army's victory at El Alamein in October–November 1942, during which a further 131 men were captured by the enemy, changed the picture in North Africa. Now firmly holding the initiative, the Commonwealth forces pushed steadily westward until, with American help, they forced the capitulation of the Axis army in Tunisia in May 1943. In this fighting 47 New Zealanders became POWs, mostly in Tunisia. Most of the 225 New Zealanders who became POWs in Italy were cut off during attacks or strayed into enemy positions accidentally.

Air Force

With more than 600 New Zealanders serving in the RAF when the war began in 1939, it was inevitable that some would soon fall into enemy hands. During the war more than 500 New Zealand airmen were captured, the worst month being March 1942 when 46 became POWs. While most of New Zealand's airmen POWs were in German hands, the Italians held about 40, mainly taken in North Africa. A small number serving with RAF squadrons in the Far East were captured by the Japanese during their onslaught on south-east Asia between December 1941 and March 1942. The RNZAF, which mounted a substantial campaign in the South-west Pacific in 1944–45, had only seven POWs among its casualties. In contrast to their army counterparts, a high proportion (45 per cent) of New Zealand airmen POWs were officers.


The nature of their service ensured that few New Zealanders serving in the New Zealand naval forces or the Royal Navy were taken prisoner—just 21 officers and 42 ratings. Most New Zealand naval POWs were captured while serving with the Royal Navy in the Far East. The Japanese also interned at least 58 New Zealand merchant seamen and the Germans about 70–80 during the course of the war.

How to cite this page

'Capture', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-Nov-2023