(WWII) New Zealand in the South Pacific – The Strategic View 1919-1945

Read about New Zealand Navy, New Zealand Army and New Zealand Air Force operations in the pacific during World War Two.


The wartime experience therefore reinforced the naval approach adopted by New Zealand, and it underlay preparations between the wars.  Britain would provide the strategic basis, while New Zealand prepared to assist with protecting the sea lanes behind this shield.  The problem was complicated by the rising power of Japan, which emerged from the war as the third largest naval power after the British Empire and the United States.  The strategic implications of Japan’s possible hostility had been masked since 1902 by the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, but this was terminated in 1921.  New Zealand authorities had long regarded a Pacific battle fleet as the answer to this strategic problem – an approach encouraged by Jellicoe’s proposals to this effect n 1919 – but it soon became apparent after World War I, that Britain was in no position to underwrite such a scheme.  Instead a second best strategy was adopted – the main fleet to Singapore strategy, which formed the basis of New Zealand’s naval strategy between the wars.  In an emergency involving Japan, the British main fleet, stationed in peacetime in Europe, would be transferred to Singapore, where a major naval base would sustain it.  This force would contain the Japanese fleet in the North Pacific, and ensure that Australia and New Zealand would only be liable to raider attack.

New Zealand did its best to support this strategy, and in doing so again contributed to the strategic framework of its security.  More than a million pounds was made available to assist with the construction of the Singapore Naval Base.  The New Zealand naval forces were organised on the basis that in wartime they would come under Admiralty orders and would be disposed as part of the overall Commonwealth naval effort as and where required in light of the overall picture, as determined by Admiralty.  A key role would again be trade protection.  They would remain under New Zealand command while on the New Zealand Station.

Once again World War II seemed to justify the New Zealand approach.  To be sure, the Singapore strategy proved to be an illusion.  It fell apart when Japan launched its onslaught in December 1941: the inadequate fleet sent by Britain was quickly sunk and the Singapore base soon succumbed to the Japanese driving down through Malaya.  But Japan was defeated by seapower – that of the United States Navy.  The battles of Coral Sea and Midway in 1942, particularly the latter, were crucial.  At Midway the Japanese lost the strategic initiative when the heart of its carrier fleet was sunk, and this removed its capacity to intervene decisively in the South Pacific.  Japanese naval operations in New Zealand waters were confined to several submarine intrusions – far less than the more distant Germans managed.  German armed merchant raiders laid mines and sank ships in New Zealand waters in 1940-41.

New Zealand naval forces were not confined to the South Pacific: at the outset of the war one of the cruisers, Achilles, headed off for South American water, where it took part in the Battle of the River Plate and the destruction of the German commerce raider Admiral Graf SpeeLeander carried a garrison to Fanning Island, and provided a local naval presence.  This pattern would be sustained, with one or other of the cruisers serving in more distant theatres.  During the Pacific War, both saw service in the South Pacific, as did New Zealand corvettes.[1]

The New Zealand Army in the Pacific

The Army’s first deployment in the Pacific was the 8th Brigade [5,000 men] that was sent to Fiji in November 1940. On 10 December 1941 Japanese forces occupied the Butaritari Atoll in the northern Gilbert Islands capturing seven New Zealanders.  Other New Zealanders were acting as coastwatchers some of whom fell into Japanese hands some of whom were executed in October 1942.

In 1942 the 14th Brigade was sent to Fiji accompanied by a HQ formation and the two-brigade unit was known as the 3rd Division from May 1942. With the deployment of American forces to Fiji, the 3rd Division returned to New Zealand for amphibious warfare training.  Other New Zealand troops formed garrisons in New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, Tonga.  Manpower was such an issue that the government asked for the return of the 2nd Division from North Africa. This was refused in part due to the fact that Australia had already withdrawn most of its divisions from the theatre to be sent to New Guinea.[2]

In August-September 1943 the 3rd Division was sent to Guadalcanal. The brigades of the division were employed as separate units undertaking small landing operations in the Solomons along extended lines of communication.  In September 1943 the 14th Brigade and the 1st Fijian Commando (comprised of Fijian and Tongan troops along with NZ NCOs and Officers) took over the clearance of Vella Lavella of Japanese forces from the Americans. On 27 October 1943 the 8th Brigade landed at Mono and Stirling in the Treasury Islands.

On 15 February 1944 the 3rd Division landed on Nissan in the Green Islands in the northern Solomons.  After this action the Division was recalled to New Zealand and disbanded because of the need for labour at home and need to supply the American forces with food for their operations.

In summary, the New Zealand Army’s part in the Pacific campaign was not large due in part to the fact that the 2nd Division remained in the Mediterranean theatre and needed to be kept up to strength. Also to, the Australian-New Zealand Agreement of January 1944 caused the American commanders some reluctance in using Australian and New Zealand formations in operations. This is highlighted by the fact that Australian Army units remained in the New Guinea area until 1945.

The RNZAF in the Pacific

At the outbreak of war with Japan, there were 400 New Zealand RNZAF personnel located in Malaya and Burma. An air reconnaissance squadron was also based in Fiji.  488 Squadron was equipped with Buffalo fighters and was stationed in Malaya training.  Other New Zealanders were serving with the RAF’s 243 Squadron. In January 488 Squadron was operational and flying Hurricanes. However by 8 February most had been destroyed on the ground by Japanese bombing. The squadron evacuated to Java after the fall of Singapore then to Australia. An airfield construction company was sent to Malaya to build a bomber base in Malaya. It was completed in January 1941 but was ordered to be demolished and the New Zealanders were returned home. In 1942 the RNZAF was operating from bases in Fiji and the New Hebrides.

In 1943 the RNZAF was operating in the Solomon Islands sometimes in support of the New Zealand troops. It had started in 1942 with a bomber/recon force based in Guadalcanal. In 1943 a fighter wing consisting of two squadrons moved to a base in New Georgia in October. In January 1944 the wing was located in Torokina on Bougainville where the RNZAF planes carried out bombing raids on the massive Japanese base at Rabaul.

In contrast to the Army, the RNZAF underwent a substantial increase in size in the Pacific. By September 1944 RNZAF squadrons with supporting formations were organised into a seven-squadron Air Task Force under the command of General MacArthur’s South West Pacific Command.

In 1945 the Japanese base at Rabaul was cut off by air and sea. The Allied commanders decided to bypass the base leaving the 100,000 strong Japanese garrison in a contained area. RNZAF bases were located at key points around Rabaul from where New Zealand aircraft carried out bombing missions against the garrison. These bases were at Nissan (Green Island), Emirau (St Matthias Group), Los Negros (Admiralty Islands), and Jacquinot Bay (New Britain).

Air Vice Marshall L.M. Isitt signed the Japanese surrender document on behalf of New Zealand on 2 September 1945 aboard the USS Missouri. Air Commodore G.N. Roberts represented New Zealand at the surrender of Rabaul on 6 September and Torokina on 8 September.

The Royal New Zealand Navy in the Pacific[3]

New Zealand’s first two acts in preparation for war were undertaken by the cruisers Leander and Achilles during August of 1939.  The former took a detachment of troops to garrison Fanning Island, a key station in the telegraph cable network in the Pacific and later in the month Achilles sailed for its war station in the South Atlantic.  Although the ships were under the operational control of the Admiralty, command rested firmly with the New Zealand government, which had a loud voice in the deployment of the cruisers, similar to 2NZEF, but somewhat more difficult to apply at sea.  This essentially ensured that until 1943, when the direct threat to New Zealand was seen to have been reduced somewhat, there was always at least one cruiser and one Armed Merchant Cruiser in New Zealand waters.[4]

Despite a willingness to be involved, and much effort, the Royal New Zealand Navy as such, did not see a great deal of action in the year following the entry of Japan into the war.  The Armed Merchant Cruiser, Monowai did actually meet the enemy in an encounter with a Japanese submarine off Suva harbour in January 1942.   Having fired a torpedo at the ship, the submarine surfaced for a gun engagement, but quickly realised the nature of Monowai and withdrew.

When report of the attack on Pearl Harbour was received, Achilles was immediately ordered to proceed to Singapore to join Force Z, that is, HM Ships Prince Of Wales and Repulse.   This was cancelled when the ship was enroute to Singapore, on 10 December 1941, when news was received that the British Group had been sunk off Malaya.

In late December 1941 a unified command was set up covering the South West Pacific area.   This was known as the ABDA area, comprising American, British, Dutch and Australian forces and covered Burma, Malaya, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies.   It was under the command of General Wavell, who opened his headquarters at Bandung, in Java, on 10 January 1942.   This appointment and organisation was effectively superseded in just over two weeks, when, on 25 January the United States Chiefs of Staff decided to re-organise the unified command areas, although the ABDA was not formally dissolved until 25 February.   The United States re-organisation allowed for a contiguous ANZAC area, to the South West Pacific Command.   The ANZAC area comprised the area south of the Equator, from the east coast of Australia to Tonga and the Chatham Islands, including the British half of New Guinea, but excluding the Gilbert and Ellice Islands.   The naval forces allocated to the ANZAC area included Achilles, Leander and Monowai as well as a Royal Navy aircraft Carrier, 1 United States cruiser and 2 destroyers, 3 Australian cruisers and 3 Armed Merchant Cruisers.   Vice Admiral H.F. Leary USN was placed in command of the ANZAC Area with Rear Admiral J.G. Grace, in HMAS Australia in command of the ANZAC Squadron.

In the months following Pearl Harbour, all the New Zealand major vessels were engaged in escort duties.   The assets available to New Zealand were increased by the addition of HMS Ascania, an Armed Merchant Cruiser, during April 1942.   This ship supplemented the others on the necessary, but mundane duty of escort work, until she left the station in July.[5]

The ANZAC Area organisation lasted only marginally longer than its predecessor, being dissolved as part of a further re-organisation on 22 April.   This followed high level discussions in Washington between United States, Australian and New Zealand government representatives.

A new South West Pacific Area, which included Australia, was established which came under the command of General MacArthur.   The remainder of the Pacific, including New Zealand, was under the Command of Admiral Nimitz.  An important sidelight to United States naval operations in the Pacific is the fact that much of the essential communications traffic was channelled through a specially built radio station at Auckland.

On 4 May, Achilles and Leander with three American destroyers were covering the landing of a convoy at Port Vila, in the New Hebrides, having assumed responsibility for it four days before.   While undertaking this essential, but routine task the Battle of the Coral Sea was taking place, a day’s steaming away to the south west.  Similarly, on 4 June, Leander was escorting a convoy of American Troops to Suva and Achilles was covering the landing of American Marines at Wallis Island when the Battle of Midway took place.   This was the most significant battle of the war against Japan.

One of the ironies of the major campaign of 1942, that for the Solomon Islands, was mounted from New Zealand, however, the Royal New Zealand Navy did not, initially get closer to the scene of active operations than Noumea, in the case of Achilles, or Suva in the case of Monowai and Leander, although all three ships were escorting troopships destined for Guadalcanal.

Operations off Guadalcanal, particularly the period immediately after the Battle of Savo Island on 13 November 1942, left the Allies particularly short of cruisers, and it was decided that Leander would be deployed to the active area.   Leander joined Task Group 16.6 on 16 November, but three days later cracks were detected in the ship’s hull and she had to proceed to Auckland for repairs.

Achilles, which had been undergoing a refit in Auckland, was deployed to the Solomons in December, having escorted the 8th reinforcements of 2NZEF as far as Tasmania.   She initially joined Task Force 65, later transferring to Task Force 67, comprising 6 USN cruisers and 5 destroyers, at the end of December.

Also deployed to the Solomons at this time was the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla, comprising Matai (Senior Officer) and the corvettes Kiwi, Tui and Moa.   These vessels were employed as anti-submarine escorts in the Guadalcanal/Tulagi area, under the Commander South West Pacific.

In early January Achilles, with TF 67 formed part of the escort of the relief of the 1st US Marine Division on Guadalcanal.   On the 5th Achilles with the others of the Task Force was patrolling off the western end of Guadalcanal when at 9.25am it was attacked by Japanese aircraft.   Achilles suffered a direct hit on X turret, the Marines turret, resulting in the death of 13 and wounding of 8 others.   The damage to Achilles was such that it had to return initially to Auckland, and subsequently to the United Kingdom for repairs.   During the repairs and refit in England there was an explosion on board the ship, further delaying its return to operational service, which eventually took place in May 1944.[6]

January 1943 was an eventful month for the RNZN.   Not only was Achilles hotly engaged, but so were the ships of the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla.   Towards the end of the month Kiwi and Moa located and sank the Japanese submarine I-1.   Kiwi rammed the submarine causing significant damage to her bows, necessitating a return to Auckland for repairs.   The following night the Moa and Tui were on patrol, sighting and engaging 4 Japanese landing craft.

Some form of revenge was inflicted by the Japanese for these successes in April, when, during an air attack, Moa took a direct hit from a 500 pound bomb.   This passed through the captain’s cabin and through the bottom of the ship, which sank within 10 minutes.   Moa was replaced by a converted coastal vessel, Breeze, which joined her sister ship, Gale, which had joined the Flotilla in February as a replacement for Kiwi.[7]

Leander returned to active service in March and immediately deployed to the Solomons.   The next few months, were however, quiet for the ship, finding itself languishing in harbour most of the next six weeks, rather than on patrol.   While keenly felt by the ship’s complement, it also resulted in some considerable acrimony between Leander and the USN.   This was followed by seven weeks of escort duty between Honolulu and Noumea.   One reason advanced for this lack of active duty was that the ship was not supplied with flashless cordite.   As one of the officers stated ‘Leander with her flash cordite was spectacular, if not so really effective.’

In mid June, however Leander joined Task Force 18, under Rear Admiral W.L. Ainsworth, but again, not fully integrated into the Force.   On the afternoon of 12 July Admiral Ainsworth sailed from Tulagi to intercept the ‘Tokyo Express’ with Leander replacing USS Helena which had been sunk in an engagement a week earlier.   In the early hours of 13 July the two forces met in Kula Gulf and in the ensuing action Leander received a hit by a 24 inch torpedo, as did the other two cruisers in the Force, USS Honolulu and St Louis, although that which hit Honolulu failed to explode.

By superb damage control, a direct result of the efficiency and dedication of the man who was to become the Royal Navy’s historian of World War II, Commander Stephen Wentworth Roskill, and Leander was able to be steamed to Auckland.   There temporary repairs were made to enable it to steam to Boston, where it paid off.[8]

One of the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla, Tui, was next in action, in August.   The ship was escorting two ships from Noumea to Espiritu Santo when ASDIC contact was gained with a submarine.   The commanding officer was not convinced of the contact and having made one attack run over the target, without dropping any charges, made a second, but only dropped two charges instead of a full pattern.   Contact was then lost and Tui made to rejoin the convoy, but five minutes later was signalled by a seaplane that a submarine had been sighted in the area of the contact.   Tui returned to the area and sighted the submarine and when in range opened fire and sank I-17.

The 25th Minesweeping Flotilla remained in the general area of the Solomons until the end of the war. They were joined in early 1944 by the 12 Fairmile motor launches of the 80th and 81st Flotillas, both of which were also employed on escort duties in the area until August 1945.[9]

With both the cruisers out of action through battle damage, thought was given to acquiring a replacement cruiser from the Royal Navy.  Initially this was to be a replacement for Achilles, following the additional damage sustained during the explosion while in dockyard hands in June 1943.   It was considered that the extended date for completion of repairs was excessive and with the manpower available they would best be employed in another ship.  Discussions with the Admiralty indicated that a Colony-class cruiser, HMS Gambia, was available and would be ready for recommissioning in September.   The matter became urgent with the damage to Leander and the Naval Board proposed that the ship’s company of Achilles should commission Gambia, and that the crew of Leander would then recommission Achilles.   They requested that Gambia be deployed to New Zealand, because both cruisers were out of action and the New Zealand Government wished to take an active part in the war in the Pacific.[10]

The Admiralty was happy for the general arrangements but wished to keep operational control of Gambia, which was intended to join the Eastern Fleet.   They had no difficulty with Achilles returning to New Zealand on recommissioning.   These conditions were accepted by the New Zealand Government and Gambia commissioned into the RNZN on 22 September 1943.

Gambia was a large ship with a complement of 980, of which a few officers and 75% of the ratings were New Zealanders.[11]   The ship had only been commissioned in 1942 and had recently been modernised for air defence duties.  From the completion of post refit trials and work-up in November, until January 1944 Gambia was employed in the Atlantic on Operation STONEWALL, anti-blockade running duties.   At the end of January the ship sailed through the Suez Canal to join the Eastern Fleet at Trincomalee on19 February.

The Eastern Fleet which had really just been a token force since 1942, was in the process of being expanded with the intention of joining the war in the Pacific.   As new ships arrived so the operations intensified.   Raids on the Japanese naval bases at Sabang and Surabaya were conducted in the period April to November 1944, those in June and October being diversionary raids for American efforts to regain the Philippines, which resulted in the Battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf.[12]

Achilles joined the Eastern Fleet in September, becoming part of the 4th Cruiser Squadron, of which Gambia was also a part. Gambia detached a few days later and proceeded on passage to New Zealand. On 22 November Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser hoisted his flag in HMS Howe, as Commander in Chief of the British Pacific Fleet, which included the 4th Cruiser Squadron. The spearhead of the new fleet comprised the Fleet Carriers, which numbered many New Zealanders in the aircrew.   Additionally there were numerous RNZN personnel on loan to the Royal Navy scattered throughout the other ships.   In May 1945 a third New Zealand ship joined the Fleet, HMNZS Arbutus, a Flower-class corvette which was refitted as a radar repair ship, meeting Gambia and Achilles off Japan in July.

Operations against Japanese installations in what is now Indonesia continued to be attacked as the Fleet progressed towards the Pacific.  It had been arranged that the main fleet base was to be at Manus Island, with the rear headquarters at Sydney.   Admiral Fraser would have been senior to any of the American admirals afloat and most of this time was required on essentially administrative tasks, so he generally remained ashore in Sydney, giving sea command to his second in command, Vice Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings.

By March 1945 the British Pacific Fleet comprised over 100 ships of all types, split into two entities, the Fleet proper and the Fleet Train – all the various support vessels.   The main fleet operated in conjunction with the USN, either as Task Force 37 or Task Force 57, depending on whether it was operating as a part of the 5th Fleet or 3rd Fleet.   With the British Pacific Fleet was the Canadian cruiser HMCS Uganda, a sister ship to Gambia and several Australian destroyers and minesweepers – the Australian cruisers operated as an integral part of the United States 7th Fleet, which came under the command of General MacArthur in the South West Pacific area.[13]

The first operation in which the Fleet participated under the control of CinC Pacific was Operation ICEBERG, the assault on Iwo Jima, in March.   This was followed by the assault on Okinawa, where the task was to operate air strikes against the airfields in the Sakishima Group, those islands between Taiwan and Okinawa.   This group of islands was to be a regular target over the coming operations and the efforts of Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve personnel in the aircrews of the carriers resulted in many decorations for gallantry, and many casualties.

Attacks on the Fleet were regular, and included for the first time, kamikaze aircraft.   In one such attack on 31 March the destroyer HMS Ulster was badly damaged and Gambia was ordered to tow her 760 miles back to Leyte Gulf.   This was the longest tow undertaken by a warship at the time, the most dangerous aspect being the fact that the two ships had no escort for three days.   After safely delivering Ulster on 5 April, Gambia rejoined the Fleet on the 8th.   Operations continued, mainly against the Sakishima establishments, until the 20th April, the Fleet arriving at San Pedro Bay in the Philippines on the 23rd.   This period at sea, of 31 days was, at the time, a record for a Royal Navy Fleet, but as Admiral Fraser noted, this must be tempered in the knowledge that similar American Task Groups were doing continuous operations for twice as long.[14]

Operations against Sakishima Group recommenced on 4 May, a period characterised by kamikaze attacks.   An additional New Zealand feature of these operations was the participation of the New Zealand Hospital Ship Maunganui.   Attacks on the Sakishima Islands continued until 25 May when the Fleet departed the area, arriving at Manus on the 30th.  While the greater part of June was spent refitting, either at Manus or Sydney, Achilles did take part in a bombardment of Truk in mid June.

Operations for the British Pacific Fleet recommenced in July, this time against Japan itself.   The first strikes took place in condition of low cloud and poor visibility on 17 July, the targets being airfields and railways in the Tokyo area.   Strikes in subsequent weeks were against targets such as these, but throughout the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu and shipping in the Inland Sea.   About 100 New Zealand pilots and aircrew took part in these operations.

The three New Zealand ships were off Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped.   Gambia was part of a Task Unit which bombarded the Kaimashi steel works on 9 August, the last bombardment of mainland Japan.   Further air strikes took place over the next few days; the last shortly after the armistice came into effect at 8am on the 15th of August, but before the signal to cease hostilities had been received.   Admiral Halsey was not sure of the reaction of the Japanese to this and sent one of the more memorable signals of the war ‘Any ex-enemy aircraft attacking the fleet are to be shot down in a friendly manner’. Later in the morning a Japanese aircraft attacked the group of ships which included Gambia, co-incidentally at the same time as the ships were receiving the signal denoting the end of the war.   Gambia fired upon the aircraft, which was subsequently shot down by a US Navy corsair.   This action was the last engagement of the war, giving Gambia the distinction of firing the last shots.

Gambia represented the Royal New Zealand Navy at the surrender in Tokyo Bay.

[1] Ian McGibbon, The Navy in the South Pacific, RNZN Museum document.

[2] In the Official History set there is a publication on communication between the Government and Britain during the war that has a section on the messages that passed between Fraser, Churchill and Curtin on their respective forces. Another factor in leaving the New Zealanders in the desert was that the Australia transfer had taken up all available shipping.

[3] Material from RNZN Museum fact sheet.

[4] I.C. McGibbon, Blue Water Rationale: The Naval Defence of New Zealand, Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1981, p. 16.

[5] S.D. Waters, Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War: Royal New Zealand Navy, War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1956, pp. 279-282.

[6] S.D. Waters, Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War: Royal New Zealand Navy, War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1956, pp. 296-306.

[7] ibid pp. 307-309, 314.

[8] ibid pp. 317-325.

[9] ibid., pp. 327-335, see also K.R. Cassells, The Fairmile Flotillas of the Royal New Zealand Navy, Wellington: n.p., 1993, pp. 55-114.

[10] S.D. Waters, Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War: Royal New Zealand Navy, War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1956, p. 351.

[11] ibid., p. 352.

[12] ibid.,  pp. 354-360.

[13] ibid., p. 372.

[14] ibid., p. 381.