“Ask your mother!” That’s what John Fallow’s father told him, when he said he’d like to join the navy at the outbreak of World War II. She relented and John embarked on his wartime career aboard minesweepers. A six month course in Australia followed and, after exemplary work, an accelerated promotion; just one of three granted by the Royal NZ Navy during the war. Clearing mines from major ports following the sinking of the RMS Niagara outside the Hauraki Gulf led to working alongside US allies in the Pacific. John had a lucky war. His ship never fired a shot in anger.
In his matter-of-fact way, James Murray reflects on some of the horrors of the War in the Pacific. Joining the New Zealand Navy at 17, Murray found himself aboard an American destroyer, watching the first atomic bomb explode above Hiroshima. “We thought they’d blown up Japan,” he says. Earlier, aboard HMNZS Gambia, he’d watched Japanese kamikaze planes attempting to sink the aircraft carriers his ship was trying to protect. Later he was among the first to land on the Japanese mainland, helping take control of the Yokosuka Naval Base.
Ron Childs’ father had fought at Passchendaele in World War l. With another conflict looming, Ron signed up for the Territorials at age 18. A few months later war broke out, and he was in the army, guarding the entrance to Wellington Harbour with heavy artillery and searchlights. Poor health meant he never made it overseas; he spent the rest of the war on the home front. Serving in both the army and the air force, Childs was variously a gunner and dispatch rider.
John Wills joined the New Zealand Army as soon as he could when war broke out in 1939. He ended up serving in North Africa and Italy until war’s end in 1945. Now 96, Wills looks back at his time as a driver for an artillery battery. Taken prisoner and held by the Italians in Libya, he was liberated by Indian troops in time to see action at the battle of El Alamein. He was also present, behind the lines, at the brutal Battle of Cassino, north of Naples. Tales of fighting, hardship and bravery are balanced with humour.
This edition of the New Zealand history series looks at the beginning of World War II. With war declared in 1939 NZ faces the new decade with a call to arms. Presenter Bernard Kearns explains how Kiwis mobilised and set sail for the Middle East, before being sent to Greece and Crete where overwhelming German superiority sent them into retreat. Prime Minister Peter Fraser explains the defeat to New Zealanders in an NFU newsreel filmed in Egypt. The contemporary footage also shows the victory at the naval Battle of the River Plate and looks at some Kiwi war heroes.