World War II

(New Zealand)

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World War II

New Zealand declared war on September 3, 1939, after the German invasion of Poland. Troops were immediately dispatched to Europe, where they engaged the Axis powers in the United Kingdom, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Italy. They were involved in major battles at Crete, El Alamein, and Cassino, among others. When Japan entered the war in 1941, New Zealand troops fought in the Pacific as well, seeing most of their forces concentrated in Singapore, the Solomon Islands, and the waters around Japan. The European side of the war ended with Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945, and the Pacific side ended with Japan’s official surrender on September 2, 1945.

After the German invasion of Poland, New Zealand declared war on Germany and quickly mobilized. The New Zealand Expeditionary Force, initially all volunteers, sailed for Egypt in January 1940. Sailors and pilots also headed west to supplement the Royal Navy and Air Force. By mid-1940, Germany had captured Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. This dominance of continental Europe coupled with Italy’s alliance with Germany led New Zealand to institute conscription and establish a War Cabinet. Additionally, women were allowed to join the armed services, though in limited capacities. Those who remained at home went to work in factories and farms to provide much-needed munitions and foodstuffs. With increased troops, New Zealand would engage opponents in Europe, the Mediterranean, and eventually the Pacific.

Hoping to demoralize the United Kingdom, Germany launched a Blitzkrieg attack in July 1940. The German Luftwaffe flew over the British Isles and bombed aircraft carriers, factories, and airfields, hoping to damage the Royal Air Force before it could properly mobilize. The RAF, which included hundreds of New Zealand pilots, managed to mount a counterattack and cause significant damage to the German Luftwaffe. At the end of October 1940, Germany abandoned its aerial assault.

In the Mediterranean, New Zealand forces saw action in Crete and North Africa. On May 20, 1941, Germany began an airborne attack on the island of Crete. Hundreds of German aircraft flew over the island and dropped paratroopers to engage Allied forces. After twelve days of intense fighting, Allied troops retreated and conceded the island to German occupation. Several hundred miles to the south, New Zealand troops engaged German and Italian forces in North Africa. For three years, the Allies campaigned against the Axis powers, fighting in the difficult desert terrain. They captured important victories at El Alamein and Takrouna and eventually defeated the Axis forces and pushed them out of North Africa.

Following these victories, New Zealand troops headed for the Italian peninsula. On July 9, 1943, the Allies invaded Sicily, captured the island, and witnessed the overthrow of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. From there, they launched a campaign on mainland Italy and slowly made their way up the peninsula. Although the Italians signed an armistice after Mussolini’s fall, German troops stationed in Italy demonstrated significant resistance to the Allies. Fierce battles occurred at Orsogna and Cassino, and the Allies arrived in Trieste just in time for the German surrender.

While the war in Europe raged, tensions in the Pacific boiled over. In 1941, Japan entered the war and launched an aggressive attack in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, occupying territories from Korea to Papua New Guinea. Although many troops remained in the west, New Zealand forces combatted the Japanese in Singapore, the Solomon Islands, and the waters around Japan.

On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered, ending the war in Europe. Almost four months later, Japan surrendered, and World War II ended. Over almost six years, 140,000 New Zealand men and women served overseas. 12,000 gave their lives in the war, and thousands more experienced harsh conditions as prisoners of war. For their service, many received Gallantry Awards and medals for Distinguished Conduct and Distinguished Flying. More information on their experiences can be found in the War Diaries.