The New Zealand Home Guard
by Dave Homewood
On the 8th of October 1940 the New Zealand Government officially formed the New Zealand Home Guard. It grew to become a vital part of this country’s defences against the threat of German invasion, and later Japanese invasion. However in today’s New Zealand our Home Guard is an insignificant memory, of which most Kiwis have no knowledge.
When New Zealand declared war on Germany on the 3rd of September 1939, it left itself open to possible attack by Nazi forces. This may seem a little far-fetched these days, but consider this, there were German raiders, both ships and U-boats, throughout the Pacific during the war. German mine layers were active around our coastline, and were responsible for the loss of and damage to New Zealand shipping and many other allied ships in the Pacific. The most famous case was the luxury liner SS Niagara, which was sunk by a German floating mine in the Hauraki Gulf after leaving Auckland. There were others, the Rangitane and the Holmwood were also sunk in NZ waters.
Another perceived threat to New Zealand was a possible invasion. New Zealanders suspected Germany may have been considering such an attack. Why? By taking New Zealand they could strangle the vital supplies of food such as butter and meat, wool, trained men and other goods that New Zealand was constantly sending in convoys to Britain for the war effort. An invasion would also give the Nazis an incredibly valuable strategic position in the Pacific Ocean. Fears of such a German attack were paramount in the minds of Kiwis by mid-1940 following the rapid defeats in Europe and the North African desert under the Nazi Blitzkrieg. Kiwis had read all the bad news in the papers. By June 1940 Britain stood alone, and should it fall too, how long could the Commonwealth hope to hold out?
New Zealanders had seen and admired the way their British cousins had pulled together to form the LDV in May 1940. Many men here began to think along the same lines. Two well-established institutions, the Returned Soldiers Association (RSA), and the Federated Farmers movement, were being called upon by their members to act. Many veterans of World War One, the Boer War, and earlier British conflicts, were keen to form their own LDV. And farmers across the country, worried that their land would not be adequately protected, were keen to take matters into their own hands.
At that time, New Zealand’s military defences were not much short of a joke. An invasion would have been easy for any average army. There were admittedly by 1940 many men and women in our services, but most were being shipped overseas to places like Britain and Egypt to bolster British forces, or Canada for Air Force training.
The army had few tanks, nothing modern enough for 1940’s combat. We had little in the way of a Navy, with usually one cruiser defending the entire NZ waters while the rest of our naval presence was abroad with the Royal Navy. And the juvenile RNZAF, just three years old, was mostly equipped second hand, obsolete training aircraft. Our only modern bombers, two squadrons of Vickers Wellingtons, were given to the RAF to form a squadron in the UK. They fought valiantly in Europe as No 75 (NZ) Squadron., one of the best bomber units of the war. But at home the RNZAF made do with old biplane Baffins, Vincents and Vildebeest aircraft as our main defence, and later things got so desperate that they even fitted bomb racks to the Tiger Moth trainers! Much new modern equipment was on order for the Air Force and the Army, but it would be mid-1941 at the earliest before most of the new equipment began to be delivered in dribs and drabs.
By July 1940 the citizens of New Zealand finally began to form their own army, to do the job that the stretched defences couldn’t. Under the administration of the Returned Soldiers Association, the new force of veterans rose steadily. It was called the Auxiliary Reserve. Units sprang up in every city, town, and district. The strongest units were in fact those in remote rural areas, probably because they knew the army wouldn’t come to their aid in an emergency.
Interestingly one of the forerunners in the movement was the Cambridge unit, which was one of the first Auxiliary Reserve units to form, and was the first in the country to achieve Company strength. Over the next year it would grow into a Battalion.
The New Zealand Government decided to take over the running of the Auxiliary Reserve from the RSA, because they felt such a force should not be civilian run. So after much planning, the Aux. Res. became a sister force to the regular New Zealand Army. And once in Army hands, the Government declared the Aux. Res. would officially become the New Zealand Home Guard on the 8th of October 1940.
From that time on, things really started to move. Rifles were supplied in numbers – which had been found, bought, impounded and brought out of retirement for the Home Guard. Some, like the case in Britain, were ex-US owned Springfield P17 rifles. Trucks and cars were impounded, buildings were commandeered, and special rations of petrol were divided out to the units. Training manuals were imported or written, and printed in numbers – mainly by Watties Canneries of Hastings. Eventually uniforms were supplied, first the old World War One style khakis which were hand-me-downs from the Territorials, and eventually modern Battledress like the real army. Men were trained to fight, to march and drill, to watch for any sign of the enemy and to employ guerilla tactics. Young boys and old men were trained to become bomb makers and cut throats.
The development of our Home Guard was very similar to that of the British Home Guard, although ours had a lot less money and resources, so supply was often slower. But in no time the NZ Home Guards were becoming an efficient military unit. Some areas even had massed cavalry units, to cover the vast expanses of countryside and hill country more efficiently. Soon they began to take over some of the regular army’s duties, such as guarding hydro-electricity dams and dairy companies, relieving the real soldiers to take on other more important roles in the war effort.
The importance of the New Zealand Home Guard increased on the 8th of December 1941, local time, when Japan entered the war by attacking British Empire forces in Singapore and Malaya, and the US Navy fleet in port at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Now the once-worrying threat of the Germans was far outweighed by the menacing hoards of Japanese troops who were slicing their way through the Pacific. Invasion was really on the cards for New Zealand. And the Japanese really did intend to invade us. Submarines were sent to scout out landing points, and they sent aircraft off the subs to photograph major cities and assess defensive positions. The Japanese even had New Zealand money printed for use when they occupied this country, and they were intending to take New Zealand to use as a staging point to invade Australia.
It would have been interesting to see how well our Home Guard troops, many veterans of the Great War trenches and the Gallipoli campaign, would have fought on their own ground.
Recruiting was constant, and conscription to the Home Guard was eventually brought in. Under the Manpower Act, men who were not part of a regular military service could be drafted into the Home Guard, the Emergency Precautions Scheme (EPS – which included looking after essential services like water, gas, electricity supply and also Air Raid Precaution) or to munitions factories. Even the conscientious objectors who refused to fight overseas with the army were forced into the Home Guard.
The New Zealand Home Guard ranks peaked at over 100, 000 men. Perhaps this figure doesn’t seem a lot, but considering the population was only 1.5 million people, and of them a further 100, 000 were in the army and more than 60, 000 in the RNZAF, and thousands more in the RNZN, the RAF, The RN and the FAA during the war, the force was indeed significant.
Eventually New Zealand was invaded in June 1942, but by thousands of troops from the friendly US Army and US Marine Corps, sent here to train before heading into the Pacific, and after battle there they returned to NZ to recuperate. From that time onward the US Forces remained a continuous presence here till late in the war. The New Zealand Government eventually considered that the NZ Army and the US troops were now sufficient to defend NZ if anything happened, not that it would by then because the Allies had halted the Japanese onslaught, so the Home Guard was disbanded in late 1943.
Today few remember the New Zealand Home Guard – the tens of thousands of men who gave their spare time, and in most cases a good amount of their own money, and a few even their lives, to train in the defence of their country. Britain’s Home Guard is remembered fondly, partially thanks to a certain television comedy, Dad's Army, but here there are few reminders of our own men and the efforts they went to.
This book began when I simply tried to establish some facts in a family dispute. My grandmother, Vera Fitness, was always adamant when she was alive that grandad, Ian Fitness, had not served in the Home Guard. However Mum reckoned her father had told her he did. I set off to the Cambridge Museum to find out if anyone had written up the history of the local Home Guard hoping to find if he was among them. No-one had, so i began to explore the newspapers and find the facts myself.
I soon discovered that the editor and owner of Cambridge's local community newspaper, the Waikato Independent, Mr Vincent "Sam" Boulton had been a Home guard himself and a staunch promoter of the local unit. He wrote reports in almost every issue of the newspaper while the Home Guard was in existence and so a fine history had been recorded. So using these articles, for which i am very grateful to the late Sam for writing and to the Cambridge Historical Society for allowing me to use the newspapers, I have compiled the following story. Many other sources have also contributed to the story.
In the end I did discover that Grandad Fitness was indeed in the Home Guard. So goodness knows where Nana thought he was going off to when he went to parades. So that was a mystery solved and from it a history compiled for others to read, learn from and hopefully enjoy.
I have attempted to capture the memory in this online book of at least one town and its district, and record what they achieved for posterity. Most of them are long gone now, but hopefully their story will remain and people will remember them. The Cambridge Home Guard were significant for some reasons but in the whole of the nationwide Home Guard structure they were just another cog in the machine. So I have tried to record a little also of what was occurring elsewhere around New Zealand too. And though this history is devoted to the Home Guard unit that protected my hometown and its environs, I dedicate this book to all the New Zealand Home guards who stood and watched and waited, ready to do their bit should the time have come.
Dave Homewood - December 2008
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