World War II marked a new friendship with the US. New Zealand stood faithfully at Britain’s side throughout the war – but the Americans were the ones to defend the Pacific after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Find out about these war years and their effect on New Zealanders’ lives, including on the home front.
- ‘The United States serviceman is a fine chap, a genuine friend, and above all an intensely loyal soldier.’
- Editorial, The Evening Post, September 1942
World War II was sparked when Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Two days later, Britain declared war on Germany, followed promptly by its faithful dominion New Zealand. Life here was about to change dramatically.
Emergency regulations & conscription
New Zealand’s Emergency Regulations Act 1939 was passed shortly after the declaration of war. The act gave the government wide powers. In May 1940, an amendment placed people and property in the hands of the government, enabling the introduction of conscription (compulsory military service).
From March 1941, New Zealanders had to dim lights in buildings, streets, and vehicles. The severest restrictions were in coastal towns, which were considered most vulnerable to enemy attack. People used heavy curtains, paper, wood, or paint to black out their windows.
Peter Fraser (1884–1950) was New Zealand’s Prime Minister for most of World War II. He skilfully used radio broadcasts and newspapers to build support for the war effort. The government also promoted the war through posters aimed at different sectors of the community.
Fraser was the leader to introduce conscription (compulsory military service), which, ironically, he’d been imprisoned for opposing during World War I.
Japan enters the war – US enters New Zealand
In December 1941, Japan attacked American forces at Pearl Harbor in Hawai‘i. The war was suddenly on New Zealand’s doorstep, but the country’s soldiers were fighting in North Africa.
Britain had its hands full in Europe, so US troops were sent to New Zealand to operate in the South Pacific. Their arrival brought jazz and pizzazz to wartime New Zealand. The country had a new ‘buddy in arms’.
Contributing on the home front
Practically all New Zealanders contributed to the war effort, including those not in the armed forces. Older men were active in the Home Guard. Many people volunteered for organisations supporting the war, including the Women’s Land Service. Others were made to work in essential industries (‘manpowering’). Still others maintained households and families, knitted and baked for soldiers overseas, and lent savings.
Between 1942 and 1944, half New Zealand’s national income went to fund the war.
Watch 1943 National Film Unit Weekly Review No.108 of the home front