Scoop Review of Books

Second World War in Context

Beyond the Battlefield: New Zealand and its Allies 1939-45 by Gerald Hensley
Penguin Books, $65. Reviewed by DENNIS ROSE

A few years ago I visited the grave of a friend’s brother who had fallen, in April 1945, crossing a river near Faenza in Northern Italy. Despite kiwi fruit growing in the fields next to the cemetery it seemed a long way from home.

Gerald Hensley’s Beyond the Battlefield, published by the Penguin Group, with acknowledgements to the National Army Museum, outlines New Zealand’s foreign policy before and during the Second World War. It helps explain that remote grave by tracing the political and military decisions that deployed New Zealand servicemen, and women, to many of the main theatres of war. The span is similar to that of F.L.W. Wood’s official war history volume The New Zealand People at War: Political and External Affairs, but with a primary emphasis on external affairs and much assisted by access to British, American and Australian (but not Russian) archives. It is a well-researched, well-presented, and stimulating review.

The core group responsible for New Zealand’s war policy was, in Hensley’s words ‘startlingly small … barely more than a half dozen, with virtually no participation by the public and very few others in government’. Michael Savage, the Prime Minister when war began, was soon to die and be succeeded by Peter Fraser, who, along with his deputy, Walter Nash, (also Minister of Finance and for a time resident minister in Washington) carried the central political load. Carl Berendsen and Alister McIntosh, successive heads of the Prime Minister’s Department pioneered the way in New Zealand’s external relations. Bernard Freyberg commanded the New Zealand Division in Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy

We are not strangers to war, but looking back over seventy years it hard to grasp the scale of the disasters wrought twice during the first half of the twentieth century. The First World War was arguably an accident waiting to happen and might have been averted by more skilful diplomacy. The Second World War was a matter of choice, for Germany in its attack on Poland and, reluctantly, for Britain and France, who declared war when Germany ignored their ultimatum to desist, and for Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada who chose to join with Britain. France was soon overrun, humiliated and occupied, leaving Britain and the Dominions to fight alone until 1941, when German invasion and Japanese attack brought the Soviet Union and the United States into the alliance that would ultimately prevail and lay down the framework of the post-war world.

New Zealand’s decision to go to war stemmed both from its relationship with Britain and its advocacy during the 1930s of collective resistance, in terms of the League of Nations Covenant, to aggressive acts by Japan, Italy and Germany. For a small country resistance was only possible in association with a major power and the imperial link to Britain provided that power. Menzies, the Australian Prime Minister, saw the link as determinative. If the King was at war so was Australia and he lodged a notice in the Commonwealth Gazette to that effect. For New Zealand, which still relied on the office of the Governor-General for coded communications from the British government, the problem lay in ensuring that New Zealand’s independent declaration followed as immediately as possible on that by Britain. Prime Minister Savage’s broadcast statement ‘both with gratitude for the past and with confidence for the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes we go; where she stands, we stand’, was clearly not a long-term forecast, but captured a national commitment to resist aggression and to accept British leadership in that fight.

How to implement this decision in a nation with only 2,500 persons in the armed forces? In 1936 the Labour government had decided to focus on the development of air defence, a decision that led through the Empire Training Scheme to significant contributions through the RAF and later the RNZAF. New Zealand had two cruisers operating as part of the British navy. But the main call was for soldiers and the general expectation was that, as in previous wars, New Zealand would despatch an expeditionary force to the main theatre of war. The first echelon of that force departed for Egypt in January 1940 and by the end of that year the 2nd New Zealand Division had been brought together under Freyberg.

Freyberg’s charter authorised him to communicate directly with the New Zealand government and with his Commander-in Chief on ‘all details leading up to or arising from policy decisions’. He was concerned to keep his men together as a national force rather than see them dispersed as units within wider army groupings. Concentration carried the risk of devastating and comprehensive loss but in the outcome the 2nd Division fought its way as a unit through the retreats from Greece and Crete to the turn around battle at El Alamein, thence across North Africa and ultimately to the north of Italy and Trieste.

New Zealand deployed troops to Europe despite fears of possible war with Japan, which became actuality with the attack on Pearl Harbour in late 1941 and Japanese expansion into the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, the then Dutch East Indies and Papua New Guinea. Australia responded by switching its main forces from Europe to the Pacific theatre, home defence and Papua New Guinea. Should New Zealand do likewise? Hensley’s chapter Staying in the Mediterranean tells the story, which intersects with the contemporaneous strategic, ‘Europe first’ decision by Roosevelt and Churchill, both of whom favoured retention of New Zealand forces in North Africa. Australia felt differently and in Hensley’s view the damage done to the relationship with Australia remains perhaps the strongest counter argument to the decision to let the 2nd Division stay put.

By the beginning of 1943 New Zealand’s major strategic decisions had been made. New Zealand became a temporary base and springboard for United States troops heading towards one or other of the island campaigns. New Zealand own deployments into the Pacific increased but never to the extent of another division. Indeed allied demands for food production created a competing demand for New Zealand manpower to be deployed at home.

At the diplomatic level attention was turning to the shape of the post-war world. The immediate needs of war led to the opening of offices in Canberra and Washington, and to a continuing sequence of ministerial visits to those same capitals and to London. The longer-term issue was the design of post-war institutions that might prove more effective than the League of Nations. New Zealand, Australia and Canada were active, if minor, players in the founding stages of the United Nations, so active indeed as to cause the then Soviet Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko, to accuse Fraser, Evatt and McKenzie King of making fools of themselves in opposing the granting of veto powers to the US, UK, USSR, France and China.

In the event the threat of nuclear weapons reduced the risk of resort to all-out war by radically escalating the likely consequences. That deal with the devil has not prevented a long sequence of lesser wars. Nuclear weapons have provided a shield under which the major powers have been able to fight wars as devastating as those in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The United Nations peacekeeping framework can claim some successes but the founders would be disappointed by much of what they would see today. Other things would provide some consolation. The creation of the International Criminal Court and the active role of the UN in climate change negotiation would confirm their view of the necessity of developing institutions that enable collective responses to problems that affect us all. The creation of an international price on carbon will mark an important further step along that road.

Finally one editorial matter. Index references to major figures such as Fraser and Freyberg give nothing more than lists of page numbers. In contrast the official war history volumes give brief indications of subject matter (56 such entries in the case of Fraser), which saves a lot of frustration in searching for particular entries. It is a pity Penguin did not do the same, as indeed they have in some other volumes on my shelf.


Listener article.
NZ Herald Review
Dominion Post article

Dennis Rose is a Wellington economist and keen reader of history.


  1. Kerry, 13. December 2009, 21:52

    Great review.

    Now I really want to get my hands on a copy of Hensley’s book.

  2. Trevor Osborne, 1. March 2012, 14:45

    Do you have a book the 24th nz infrantry battllion apictorial history