Second World War

What to do if New Zealand is Invaded

A while ago I shared some advice on how to survive an air raid and another post on what dangers you should watch out for in the aftermath.  I’m pleased to let you all know that so far none of my readers have had the opportunity to use any of the advice.

However one reader did ask about the availability of cheesecloth so they could air raid proof their windows.  The good news is that air-raid preparation products such as cheesecloth are readily available on TradeMe.

The source of my advice on air raid safety was my original 1943 copy of the NZ Civil Defence Wardens’ Handbook.  I thought I’d return to this invaluable resource once again, this time to look for advice on what to do in the event of a full-scale enemy invasion…

One of my favourite board games growing up was Axis and Allies, a two to five player simulation of the Second World War, which starts just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Often the game would follow an eerily similar course to history, with piles of troops facing off on the edge of Moscow, the British and Germans squabbling in North Africa and everyone waiting to see when and where the Americans would show up.  But there was one player who was always a bit of wildcard – the Japanese.

The Japanese Empire was a tricky but fun power to play.  There was always a lot of luck involved, whole fleets and multiple turns of resources could be wiped out with a single roll of the dice and you were often at the mercy of the American player.  In the first few turns there was always a mad dash to try and gather enough territories and industrial strength to put up a fight.  This is where you could have a bit of fun, as early in the game the British and American players would find it difficult to re-enforce some of their distant territories.

The American base in the Philippines would usually be one of the first to fall but then an interesting array of possible targets would become available to the mischievous Japanese commander.  Popular invasion choices included the logical such as China or India, the bold such as Hawaii or Alaska or the seemingly ridiculous such as Madagascar.  However the most rewarding territory to invade was New Zealand.  Not because it held particular strategic or economic value but because a successful invasion of New Zealand would always result in a round of laughter from the other players.

While this was just a game, it is an interesting scenario to ponder.  The reality of just how

Public Domain – Courtesy of Australian War Memorial

close the Japanese came to invading Australia and New Zealand is still debated today and there are some interesting arguments, but personally it is the possibility of invasion that fascinates me, because for many that possibility was a reality.

Hindsight can be a hindrance when trying to understand what it was like to live in another time.  We all know that Australia and New Zealand didn’t fall to the Japanese, but at the time there wasn’t always that same confidence in the outcome of the war.

Over the years I’ve been privileged to meet and talk with many veterans who made up New Zealand’s last line of defence at that time.  Some worked in coastal batteries protecting our harbours, some on naval vessels patrolling the coasts, some manning anti-aircraft guns and some flying aerial reconnaissance missions.  Many of these servicemen and women were being trained to expect an enemy invasion and faced very genuine dangers.

Civilians also had to prepare for the possibility.  Many of them were kept in the dark, in part because some news was censored and in part due to the enforced blackouts.

Out of curiosity I wondered what advice on the subject could be found in my copy of the 1943 NZ Civil Defence Wardens’ Handbook.  To be fair the possibility of invasion had diminished significantly six months earlier when the United States won a convincing victory at the Battle of Midway.  Even still, in 1943 the outcome of the war was not a certain thing and there are indeed a few bits of advice in the Handbook on what wardens should do in the event of an enemy invasion:

What to do if an Invasion Occurs – If fighting breaks out in the neighbourhood, civilians are ordered to “stay put”.  They should keep indoors or, better, in their shelter until the fighting passes by.  Persons at work or those who have special orders should carry on as long as possible and only take cover when danger approaches.  People going to work should continue on their way if possible.  If a few enemy soldiers or tanks are seen, do not assume that the enemy have taken control.  They may merely be an advance party or stragglers from the main body.  Civilians should try in general to behave as normally as possible.

People who want advice should be encouraged to come to the Wardens for it.  Orders will be given to the public by the police and by E.P.S. Wardens, but there may be times when they will have to take orders from officers of the armed forces.  If any one doubts the genuineness of orders he receives from some one in uniform he can ask to see that person’s papers.  Faked orders, false information, and rumours may be used by the enemy.  Don’t let the enemy use you as his unwitting agent.  Wardens should (a) squash all rumours and (b) circulate promptly all reliable information.

The Government may give instructions over the radio.  If so, the Wardens will pass these on.  Any official leaflets will be distributed by policemen, Wardens or postmen.  Genuine posters and instructions will be put up only on E.P.S. notice boards and official sites such as police-stations, post-offices, E.P.S. posts, town halls, and schools.  Wardens should find out and tell the public where to find official notices or news bulletins.  Report to the police any case of faked orders or bogus news.

Newspapers and radio services will carry on as far as possible.  If there is any temporary breakdown in news supply, do not listen to rumours or pass them on.  Wait until correct news comes through again.

Denial of Resources – Wardens may have to assist in the programme of denying resources to the enemy.  The Army Command may decide that in the event of an invasion vehicles and anything else that may be of use to the enemy shall be destroyed or removed in certain areas.  Orders of this nature will be issued only from Army Headquarters and will come to Wardens only through their E.P.S. superiors.  In each locality an E.P.S. Technical Committee is responsible for all Denial plans.  Wardens must get their definite instructions from this Committee, and they must tell the residents concerned beforehand what they must destroy (and the method) when the order comes.

That last bit is particularly interesting, it is just about the only borderline bit of defeatism that I could find in the handbook.  I wonder if many Wardens ever read that section and pondered what they might be asked to destroy in their own community.

I also suspect that had an invasion occurred then the planned response might quickly deteriorate into panic.  Particularly the willingness of the average citizen to ‘carry on working until danger approaches’ might be tested.

I also imagine that communication would break down pretty quickly and arguably in a modern scenario this would be even more of a problem.  Cell phone towers and electricity supplies would be easy targets for an attacking force and I wonder how many of the iPod generation own battery-powered radios.  I have a wind up one in my survival kit so am ready for the latest updates during any enemy invasion or zombie apocalypse.

In all seriousness, it is an interesting exercise to try and look back at our wartime history from the perspective of someone who doesn’t possess the benefit of hindsight.  At the time the general populace had no way of knowing that the much-feared Japanese attack would never come.  Had the Japanese commander had a luckier roll of the dice then perhaps New Zealand would’ve been invaded, or maybe even Madagascar.

© Lemuel Lyes

Apologies for the short absence, I’ve been tied up with my day job but hope to be posting more in the upcoming weeks.

19 replies »

  1. I found the Japanese ‘Occupation Plan’ in Archives New Zealand a few years back, it’s in the Prime Minister’s papers from 1947 – Peter Fraser asked the Americans if they’d found it while trawling Tokyo’s records after the war. They had. It was basically economic imperialism.

    The issue was actually doing it; Japan didn’t have the military power to do everything, and there was in-fighting between army and navy which diluted what they did manage. Basically it boiled down to EITHER invading Hawaii, OR Australia, OR New Zealand, OR the island chains to the north (Solomons, Fiji, Rarotonga, Tahiti),. The navy said they couldn’t support invasion of Australia, and the same applied for New Zealand – the supply chain was far too long. But taking the island chain was militarily feasible and would have cut off Australasia from US help. A US navy assessment suggested this was all Japan need do to knock New Zealand out of the war effort – neutralisation rather than invasion. The Japanese proceeded with that plan, and were half way there when the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway stopped them at Guadalcanal.

    Our likely fate in that circumstance would have been starvation, because although we had colossal food production, it relied even in 1940 on imported petrol – both to produce it and to then distribute it.

    These things didn’t stop me running an ‘invasion’ scenario past some of my war-gaming friends, which I wrote into my science fiction history ‘Fantastic Pasts’ a few years back.

    Cool poster!

    • Wow that Japanese “Occupation Plan” sounds fascinating! I’d love to see it sometime. The most interesting document I’ve seen on the subject was a personal account in the Auckland War Memorial library which talked about setting up a resistance movement in Canterbury in the event of a Japanese invasion. I suspect that half of it was exaggerated enthusiasm, but it talked of the necessity of taking reprisals on collaborators etc. All pretty brutal stuff and I’ve always thought it would make a an interesting premise for a television mini-series.

      I wonder what the American strategy would’ve been had the battles at Coral Sea and Midway gone the way of the Japanese. Also I wonder if it would’ve made any difference to the “defeat Hitler first” strategy or New Zealand’s decision to keep our troops in the Middle East. Sometimes what if scenarios are just too tempting to ponder!

      • Absolutely. They’re also fun. Though on a more serious note I have a family anecdote. My mother’s uncle, who won the DSO at Jafa in WWI (he was in the Palestine campaign) had a plan for the invasion. He was going to evacuate his famly to a remote part of his farm near Pahiatua, which was accessed via bridge over a gully, blow the bridge, then snipe any Japanese who approached. He’d have done it, too, if the war had gone that way – my family in Napier were on stand by to head down there as a safe haven, just in case. He was a decorated war hero with practical experience in such things, and an absolutely determined sort of character. And given the Kiwi spirit, I think he was far from the only one to have that sort of idea, I suspect that had Japan invaded, they couldn’t have sustained it against this kind of thinking. Not given the supply lines. But still, it’s a relief nobody had to go to such extremes.

      • Oh wow, how incredible to have a family connection to the Palestine campaign. I suspect that you are right, both Australia and New Zealand would have been challenging countries to occupy and the locals would certainly have had many advantages such as knowledge of the terrain and determination like demonstrated in your family story.

  2. I was always intrigued by the glib (but somewhat unrealistic) “If we are invaded we’ll all just take to the bush with rifles” … yeah, right …

    • One does hear that a lot! “Grandpa said that if the Japanese invaded then he was gonna head for the hills”. I have no doubt that some will have done just that, and that there would have been at least some form of resistance against the invaders, but nowhere near the extent that some might think. In some ways it almost trivializes the reality of what an invasion would have meant for New Zealanders – a reality that thankfully we didn’t have to experience.

  3. Very interesting and sheds some light on an old book I once saw in my grandfather’s desk (after his death). The book, although not a manual, was his Warden’s book. I think he was one of the wardens for his area of Christchurch.

    • Booklets such as those certainly draw attention to one of the many different experiences that non-combatants had during the war. Their stories are just as important as those of front line soldiers. My own grandparents were also in Christchurch then – I wonder if they crossed paths! My grandfather once told me about what it was like to see anti-aircraft guns in cathedral square. That reminds me – I really need to see if anyone has photos of that. Thanks for stopping by!

      • Mmmm…I must ask my father if he remembers the anti-aircraft guns in Cathedral Square. He was in the Air Force. For awhile he was stationed at Clarence Bridge, on radar duties. Because their work was high priority, they were given very good food, apparently.

      • Radar duties sounds interesting! My grandfather also signed up for the Air Force when he was old enough and was based for a while at Wigram. I used to enjoy visiting the Air Force museum there with him when I was a child.

      • I have been thinking it’s about time I visited the Air Force Museum again. I haven’t been there for about 10 years. My father was at Wigram, Burnside and Burnham and Piha. They seemed to be moved around a great deal.

  4. My grandfather fought in the coral sea on an australian light cruiser and claimed the americans fought to the death for us……….

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