The secret history of WW2 in New Zealand

by Murray Horton

(This was originally written in 1974 and published in the Canterbury University student paper, Canta, which Murray edited at the time. We thank him for his permission to run it here; in a few days time we’ll be putting up another 1974 piece by Murray about Labour’s reintroduction of peacetime conscription in 1949 and the campaign against it. While we wouldn’t write the same opening sentences about ‘grand exploits’ etc, we haven’t cut them because they relate to common views of NZ’s role in the war and the second paragraph doesn’t make sense without them. Also, we feel that this is a very important historical article, and deserves to be re-published in full.)

New Zealand’s grand exploits during World War II are well-known. NZ servicemen fought with distinction in all the main war zones, and the cost was high for a small country – 11,425 killed and 17,000 wounded plus prisoners-of-war. At the outbreak of war, Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage put New Zealand at the service of Britain, saying: “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.”

However, there are many episodes which are less well-known and less creditable. There was the fatal machine-gunning of a large number of Japanese prisoners-of-war during the attempted mass escape from a Featherston P.O.W camp. There was also when US servicemen stationed in NZ were involved in racial clashes with Maori servicemen.

On the night of Saturday 3 April, 1943, a group of Southern US servicemen refused to let some Maori drink in the Allied Services Club in Manners St, Wellington, taking off their Army Services belts to emphasise the point. A brawl erupted and spread into the street, with US military policemen siding with the US servicemen, using their batons on their NZ opponents. The battle involved over 1000 US and NZ servicemen, plus several hundred civilians. The Battle of Manners St (as it came to be known in popular myth) raged for four hours, and by the time NZ police had restored order at least two US servicemen were killed and many injured.

There were two similar riots in Auckland about the same time, a later clash outside a Cuba St cabaret (May 1945) and a further one between a small party of US servicemen and Maori civilians at Otaki in October 1943. These riots were caused by American servicemen’s racist attitudes towards Maoris. But no results of any ensuing inquiries have ever been published and wartime censorship stopped any reference to the NZ-American riots in the local papers.

New Zealand had in fact a whole secret history during World War II. The strange irony is that a government that fought so fiercely overseas for freedom against fascism also waged war on freedom and used fascist methods at home.

Notorious censorship regulations

A pall of censorship was thrown over the whole country. The 1939 Publicity and Censorship Regulations were introduced under the framework of the notorious 1932 Public Safety Conservation Act. The chief censor was J.T. Paul, a right-wing Labour journalist/union secretary. One of his assistants was a former editor of the Dominion. All mail was to be opened, read and stamped by the censor. Wartime censorship can be justified on the grounds that military secrets mustn’t be disclosed and the morale of armed forces must be maintained. However, censorship in WW II [what about WW I?] was a further means to harass left-wing and anti-war people and it was responsible for suppressing material for purely political reasons, rather than military of national ones.

The censor worked directly under Prime Minister Peter Fraser (who took over when Savage died in office in 1940). In 1943 Fraser personally banned from the press (including the Police Journal) any reference to police discontent over pay. In November 1943 Paul forbade any publication of “any statement of resolution is containing direct or indirect reference” to the regulations, preventing policemen or their wives doing outside work without the approval of the Commissioner of Police. In that same month Paul forbade “any suggestions that only by striking or threatening to strike can persons of bodies of persons with legitimate grievances gain redress” – he said that such suggestions were prejudicial to public morale.

In December 1943 Paul decreed that: “information is not to be published relating to any act of any person if such an act amounts to counselling or inciting of any person to commit an offence against the emergency regulation.”

This Orwellian order was attacked in an editorial of the Palmerston North Times with the result that the editor/publisher was prosecuted and convicted in the Magistrate’s Court but won on appeal to the Supreme Court. Fraser complained to the British Government several times about the laxity of its wartime censorship. (The censorship regulation prohibited any reference to the fact that something had been censored, i.e. total secrecy.)

Underhand conscription battle

There were several areas in which the Labour Government systematically violated civil liberties. The first involved military mobilisation and the highly contentious issue of conscription. Conscription was a particularly bitter and divisive issue amongst the Labour Government and Labour movement in general. Many of the cabinet had been involved in the movement against conscription in WW I and had been gaoled for it – Peter Fraser, the Prime Minister, and Bob Semple, the minister of Public Works, had been goaled for sedition; Wally Nash, Minister of Finance (and later Prime Minister) had been goaled for refusing to join up. John A. Lee said in Simple on a Soapbox: “The Hon. Mark Fagan had smuggled conscription resistors in timber and coal vessels out of NZ into anti-conscription Australia. Tim Armstrong had gone to court to seek exemption for his sons from conscription and Paddy Webb had gone from Parliament to gaol when he called in the ballot.”

In November 1915, the Maoriland Worker quoted Bob Semple as saying “Conscription is the negation of human liberty. It means the destruction of every principle that is held sacred to the working-class. It means the destruction of the democracy at home. It is the blackest industrial hell..”

In February 1940 the Labour Party and FOL (headed by Angus McLagan and Fintan Patrick Walsh both former communists, with McLagan destined for cabinet rank) made a joint statement declaring “There will be no conscription while Labour is in power”. Yet that very same month the government established a manpower register based upon Social Security returns. A campaign against conscription was mounted, made up of pacifists, left-wing groups, unions, students and women’s groups. But Fraser had made up his mind. By June 1940, 60,000 men had volunteered for the armed forces and the NZ expeditionary Force was already in action in the Middle East. Fraser wanted conscription, and by that month he had secured the backing of both the Labour Party and the FOL, and conscription regulations were gazetted in June and the first ballot was drawn in October. (Bob Semple drew the first marble). Fraser told the first FOL conference “We can have no consideration for any person who sets about manufacturing a conscience for the occasion.” (The anti-conscription forces within the government had been greatly weakened by the expulsion of John A. Lee from the Labour Party, and accompanying resignations, including that of the Speaker of the House.)

Hit the anti-conscriptionists

The Government launched an all-out drive against the anti-conscriptionists. Particular attention was focused on the Wellington Peace and Anti-Conscription Council (PAAC) which was made up of prominent pacifists, Communists, unionists, academics and left-wing Labour men. From the outbreak of the war onwards Wellington police broke up anti-conscription meetings on the city streets and speakers invariably ended up being arrested. For example, in February 1940, Bill O’Reilly of the Communist Party of NZ (CPNZ) and well known Christian Pacifist, the Rev. Ormond Burton, were each sentenced to a month’s hard labour after speaking at an anti-conscription meeting. The Mayor of Wellington personally declared that we would have this particular meeting stopped.

In March the Government forbade Labour Party members from taking part in the PAAC’s national conference and threatened participation Party branches with disenfranchisement at the Party’s annual conference. It also declared the PAAC to be a ‘political party’ and that its members couldn’t attend the annual Labour Party conference. In May police raided the homes of the PAAC’s executive in Wellington and in New Plymouth police seized the books of the local Anti-Conscription League. Mail was held up by the censor while books and personal belongings were seized in the raids.

After conscription was introduced, police prevented any PAAC public meetings and the public service was purged of active anti-conscriptionists. The Labour Party likewise purged itself of anti-conscriptionists. For example the Rev. Doug Martin was sacked as president of the Miramar Branch of the Labour Party because of his membership of the PAAC and was later sentenced to 12 months prison for a `subversive statement made on behalf of the PAAC. The PAAC had its open air meetings broken up, hall owners were pressured into not hiring halls to them and printers were pressured into not printing for them; members were sacked from their jobs in the public service or private enterprise; homes were raided; some were arrested, tried and gaoled.

Public servants fired

The Government reserved its worst brutality for two individual cases. Noel Counihan, the acting secretary- of the PAAC was fired from the public service as was his wife – he was hunted by the police and in June 1940 he was arrested in Auckland, held in custody, and without publicity, charge or trial, deported back to his native Australia. His wife knew nothing of what happened to him until he contacted her from Sydney.

The same month Ken Bronson, a leading member of the PAAC was fired from the public service, arrested, held in custody, and without publicity, charge or trial, put on a boat travelling through the war zone back to his native England. After some quibbling his wife was allowed to travel with him – she was six months pregnant and there was no doctor on the boat. She lost the baby before reaching England. A Wellington leaflet accused Fraser and Semple of murdering her baby. A man was gaoled for 12 months for ‘subversion’ as a result of this leaflet. NZ serviceman who fought Hitler’s anti-Semitism might ponder on Semple’s description of Bronson – “a dirty East London Jew.”

The whole conscription battle was waged again in 1949 when the same Fraser and Semple introduced peacetime conscription. The Labour Party itself was far from happy about the 1940 introduction of conscription, with the Morningside Branch led by Jock Barnes, disaffiliating itself (Barnes later led the wharfies during the 1951 epic struggles). New Zealand was far in advance of its Western allies in introducing conscription. Australia introduced it for the South West Pacific area only and sent no conscripts there. Canada introduced it in August 1942 and sent no conscripts overseas until November 1944. South Africa and India didn’t introduce it until after New Zealand.

Strikes and lockouts forbidden

The second main area of systematic violation of civil liberties was that of civilian mobilisation. The 1939 Strike and Lockout Regulations forbade strikes and lockouts and any incitement to either of them. The 1939 Industrial Emergency Council Regulations set up a council representing employers and unions to advise the Minister of Labour (Paddy Webb) on any variations of hours or work or award conditions made necessary by the war. The Minister of Labour was given power to suspend decisions of the Arbitration Court and even Acts of Parliament. All or parts of most overtime rates were suspended – the workers being required to make a financial sacrifice not expected of company profits or rents.

Longer hours on ordinary pay were introduced, the limits on the annual total overtime hours worked by women in some essential industries were suspended, and limits on shift work and the number of apprentices were suspended. Acts were suspended so that workers had to work on statutory holidays, (e.g. Christmas Day) with no penal pay rates. The minimum working age was lowered and dropped altogether from farm work.

Most of New Zealand’s industries were declared essential undertakings so that it became an offence punishable by law to be persistently absent or late, to lack diligence or care in one’s job, or to decline to do work that was another’s trade. The practical result of all this was a 54-hour week with no holiday, overtime or Sunday rates in the building construction trade, a 77-hour week in munition factories and an 84-hour week on the wharves. Most of this was accepted as essential sacrifice for the war effort (some of these such as working on public holidays were eased as the war progressed).

In 1941, the Arbitration Court refused an FOL application for a 7.5% cost of living wage increase. The FOL objected strongly but Fraser prevailed. The FOL was won round to supporting the governments strong stabilisation policy launched in late 1942, and its president, Angus McLagan, was made a Cabinet Minister that year (while still continuing to be president). The workers had to sacrifice a lot during the war, and when it was over, Fraser and Nash refused to restore pre-war margins for skill lost during the war.

Laws repress workers

Straight out repression was also used against the workers. A September 1940 Amendment to the Public Safety Regulations gave the Attorney-General (H.G.R. Mason) power to dismiss any employee from any job, and to exclude any individual from any union of employers’ federation. This measure was used in February 1941 when a seaman was excluded from the union. That same month three wharfies were expelled from the wharves for the duration of the war and two more for life for refusing to load goods handled by scab labour (three were later reinstated). This was also used for purely petty ends – a newspaper boy was fired for circulating a petition in his own time asking that his political prisoner father be released.

Strikes were dealt with harshly. In March 1942, 213 men at Auckland’s Westfield freezing works were gaoled for striking, their union was deregistered and Fraser called for volunteer labour. After a rehearing, most of the gaoled strikers were released and the freezing company paid costs plus “a large sum in arrears of wages”. (It’s worth remembering that Bob Semple, a former leader of the Red Feds, was gaoled during the 1913 industrial upheaval.)

In September 1942 the government threatened to prosecute strikers at Waikato’s Pukemiro coalmine, so six other local mines struck in sympathy – 182 striking miners were sentenced to one month’s gaol, the remaining 1,300 refused to return to work. The Government then said it would nationalise these mines for the duration of the war, so the miners voted to go back, and sentences on the 182 were suspended. Despite this, Sid Holland, leader of the National Party and future Prime Minister called the Government’s action “industrial appeasement and capitulation to the forces of lawlessness,” and he and his five Tory colleagues resigned from the War Cabinet.

In January 1942 industrial unrest broke out as a result of bad conditions for NZ Civilian Construction United workers building Nandi aerodrome in Fiji. NZ police arrested three job delegates and, without charge or trial, put them on a boat back to NZ. The CPNZ’s In Print carried this story (leaving out details such as where the job was) and as a result the editor, the famous poet R.A.K. Mason, faced six charges under the 1939 Censorship and Publicity regulations. All the charges were dismissed for lack of a prima facie case.

The third and most deplorable area of systematic violation of civil liberties was that of the groups relentlessly persecuted by the Government. These fall into three main subgroups.

Firstly, the ‘enemy aliens’. On the outbreak of war all ‘enemy aliens’ had to register with the authorities – the government’s definition of ‘enemy alien’ extended as far as Chinese and Dalmatian. All ‘enemy aliens’ were subject to special regulations and were punishable by law for things such as taking an unauthorised route from Point A to Point B. They also suffered penalties such as being fired from their jobs. Those felt to be more dangerous were detained on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour for the duration of the war – some spent several years in detention. It might have been necessary in the case of the genuinely active Fascist supporters amongst them. But some of those detained were leftists whose nationality gave the government a convenient excuse to lock them up.

The ‘enemy alien’ business was used in the Government’s drive against the Left. Some examples. Ernie Barratto was an Italian leftist who had trained Abyssinians to defend themselves against Mussolini’s invading forces, and had fought in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. He came to NZ and worked in West Coast coalmines. He was arrested and spent 3 months on Somes Island before being released. Herman Schmidt, a German leftist, unionist, and naturalised British subject was interned on Somes Island. The Attorney-General (H.R.G. Mason) refused to release him unless he agreed to work on a farm – he did so but was reinterned on Somes Island. In frustration he smashed some windows and was sentenced to 3 months prison. Wolfgang Rosenberg, presently Reader in Economics at the University of Canterbury, was classified an ‘enemy alien’. He is a left-wing German Jew who later voluntarily served in the RNZAF! (One disturbing feature of the ‘enemy aliens’ is that New Zealand-born people of foreign origin could be classified and interned).

Regulations used to smash rights

Before describing the persecution of the other two subgroups, it is necessary to examine the emergency regulations brought into force in the notorious 1932 Public Safety Conservation Act. They contained no less than 8 definitions of a ‘subversive report’ – e.g. “a report intended or likely to undermine public confidence in banking or the currency or intended or likely to prejudice the success of any financial measures taken or to be taken by the Government for the purpose of the more effective prosecution of any war in which for the time being His Majesty may be engaged.”

An oral ‘subversive report’ was also illegal; all mail had to go through the censor – it was an offence to transmit a letter other than through the Post Office and indeed a policeman could arrest a person without warrant if he suspected that the person was about to illegally transmit a letter. This could be dealt with by the police, not the courts, the onus of proof being on the accused.

The definition of a printing press was broad enough to include a typewriter – all publications were subject to censorship. ‘For the purposes of this regulation a periodical shall be deemed to preserve the same identity through the succeeding issues thereof as long as it continues to have the same proprietor or the same editor or the same printer or the same publisher, notwithstanding changes in any of the other persons concerned in these capacities.’

A court could forbid a person ever to be involved in publishing in NZ again. There was no compensation for any damage, loss or injury caused by the regulations, unless the Crown had seized a person’s property and it had been damaged while in the Crown’s custody. The penalty for any offence against the regulations was 100 pounds (sterling) or 3 months prison. Intent to break them or aiding, abetting or inciting somebody else to do so were also offences.

In February 1940 the Public Safety Emergency Regulations were extended to cover ‘subversive’ meetings, participation in which could lead to arrest without warrant. The police could raid homes and seize their contents, seize a person’s car, and stop a person withdrawing money from his personal bank account.

Onslaught on rights continues

These regulations provided the basis for the Government’s previously described onslaught on the anti-conscriptionists, as well as on the pacifists and conscientious objectors. They were treated very harshly/ Up to 12 special detention camps were set up for them in the North Island – they were held in these as well as being gaoled.

Estimates of the number of CO’s gaoled and detained range from 650-800. Those who were detained were to be held for the duration of the war, with the result that very many men spent several years in camps and prisons. (Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned outright and thus membership was illegal, punishable by detention or prison. In February 1941 an Oamaru man got a mere 2 months prison for shooting a Jehovah’s Witness in the leg, resulting in amputation.) Their meetings were smashed up and their homes raided. Police raided the home of Norman Bell, a well-known Christchurch pacifist, on an almost weekly basis. For some the persecution was part of the family heritage.

During the Great War six brothers of one family were imprisoned as conscientious objectors. Three of them were deported and brutally treated overseas. In this war five members of the second generation of this family, all bearing the same name, appealed as conscientious objectors. Four of them are brothers, and are nephews of the six mentioned above (their own father was not called for service because of family responsibilities), and one is the son of one of the deported conscientious objectors. All five had their appeals disallowed and have been in prison and detention camp for several years. (This was the Baxter family – Archibald Baxter was NZ’s most famous conscientious objector of WWI. The most recent bearer of the family mantle was the late James K. Baxter.)

Individuals stuck to their guns [!] despite repeated persecution (e.g. Archie Barrington and Ormond Burton). War was declared on September 3, 1939. On September 4, Burton was charged after police broke up a Christian Pacifist meeting in Wellington. He was also charged after another meeting was broken up by police on September 8 (the charges were usually for things like obstructing constables in the execution of their duties). On January 1 1940 he was charged after drunken soldiers broke up a joint pacifist-CPNZ meeting and police broke up an anti-conscription meeting. In March after police broke up another Wellington meeting he was given three months hard labour. And so on. Burton was by no means alone in this.

Times hard for objectors

COs could appear before an Armed Forces Appeal Board, the decisions of which varied widely from district to district.

Appeal Board: Allowed 183 (35%); dismissed, 98 (19%); Dismissed and non-combative service ordered, 244 (46%). Appeals decided by other boards in NZ: Allowed 417 (16%), dismissed 1145 (45.2%); dismissed and non-combative service ordered, 973 (38.4%). (All figures up to December 31, 1943.)

Even if they were registered as COs they faced civil penalties. “Conscientious objectors whose appeals were allowed come under the jurisdiction of a ‘Special Tribunal’ which ensured that they are employed ‘on such work of a civil nature and under civil control as the public interest requires’, and that their financial position shall ‘be no better than it would be if he were serving in the Armed Forces.’ ‘All income above the pay and maintenance of a private soldier must be paid into the Public Account to the credit of the Social Security Fund. Teachers whose appeals are allowed are dismissed from their positions for the duration of the war. This applies also to the members of the staff of one University College (Canterbury).” (At least one present staff member, in the English Department, was penalised by the anti-CO measures of that University).

Those brought before a court could expect little mercy. “A revealing statement of Mr. Luxford, S.M. in laying down the principle the Auckland Court would follow in dealing with conscientious objectors appearing before it, is valuable here. According to the New Zealand Herald of November 15, 1941, he said: ‘When the Court finds that a person is a straight-out slacker he will go to prison. If he is betwixt and between he will go to prison for a shorter term and then be sent to a defaulter’s camp. If he is just a poor misguided person with an inflexible idea, he will be sent straight to a defaulters’ camp.’”

Prison conditions were harsh – e.g. in July 1942, a CO in Mt. Eden was given 10 days solitary confinement with bread and water for refusing to salute the superintendent! Conditions in the camps weren’t all that much better. There was a similar episode to this in the Hautu Detention Camp in the winter of 1944.

“In this camp a special compound containing single huts was set aside for punishment purposes, and a group of men who had refused to work in the camp were kept in solitary confinement on a reduced diet. This was a severe ordeal, as for 23 hours a day the men were confined in unheated huts, in the depth of winter in a very cold part of this country. One hour a day was allowed for exercise. The only recreational material allowed was the Bible or one educational book. Two men were kept in this state for three months, and the others for shorter periods, before being transferred to gaol.”

The cost to the country in wasted production was high. “This great waste, especially in time of shortage of food, is exemplified by the news (Christchurch Press, February 3, 1945) that a dairy farm in Taranaki of 200 acres had been completely out of production since the owner was sent to detention in September, 1942. At that time it was carrying 84 head of dairy cattle. The farm had been unattended all that time; the Minister of Agriculture refusing to take over the running of it as it might involve the Crown in a number of similar actions (sic)!” (The above quotes come from a 1945 pamphlet, Penalties on Conscience, by Lincoln Efford, a well-known Christchurch pacifist.)

Anti-communist witch-hunts invoked

The third and final subgroup singled out for savage treatment and persecution was the Left, especially the CPNZ. There was a general witch-hunting atmosphere during the early years of the war. Some examples – in September 1939 the Christchurch City Council banned open air meetings (the Mayor was Bob MacFarlane, the present Deputy-Mayor [1974]). In March 1940 the Dunedin RSA pressured the owner of a left-wing bookshop to close it down. June 1940 – the Rangiora Borough Council resolved to weed ‘subversive’ books out of its town library. July – a WEA tutor was sacked by the Council of Victoria College for writing an anti-war leaflet the previous November. December – two leftist teachers were sacked by the Auckland Education Board. And so on.

In mid-1940 police, acting on Fraser’s instructions, warned the printers of Tomorrow, a left-wing publication produced in Christchurch, that they would be prosecuted if they didn’t stop printing it. They stopped.

But the particular target of the Labour Government was the CPNZ which attacked the war as a capitalistic and imperialistic one from the start. There was a bitter irony in this, considering the past of some Cabinet Ministers (e.g. in 1921 Wally Nash had been convicted and fined for bringing banned Communist literature into the country.) The CPNZ was under pressure from the outbreak of war – the censor held up mail, detectives sat in on meetings. A 1939 Labour Party circular said that the Party’s National Executive ordered all members, branches and Labour Representation Committees to give no support to the CPNZ, the Friends of the Soviet Union, “or any Communist auxiliary, or publish any resolution or information that was not Government policy or attacked the Government. Under no circumstances shall any member, branch or LRC send any reports, information or letters to the People’s Voice, the Communist Party’s official organ.”

Active persecution began in January 1940 – drunken soldiers attacked a joint CPNZ-pacifist meeting in Auckland, with two communists and Rev. Ormond Burton being arrested as a result. Soldiers attended another CPNZ meeting that night, with one more arrest. The arrested communists, including National Chairman Tom Stanley, were fined. In February a CPNZ man was gaoled for a month with Burton after police broke up an anti-conscription meeting in Wellington. Things hotted up considerably midway through the year – this can be seen by following the chequered career of Don McCarthy, publisher of the People’s Voice during these hectic few months. In April he was one of five Auckland men charged under the censorship regulations for publishing ‘subversive reports’ arising out of the People’s Voice and leaflets. They were fined a total of 190 pounds (Stg). That same month he was ordered to pay 10 guineas costs on contempt of court charges because the People’s Voice had commented on the previous charges BEFORE they were heard. He was further charged with defamatory libel of Semple and other Cabinet Ministers as a result of a People’s Voice cartoon and editorial. The last legal issue of the People’s Voice in May lists him as the ‘prominent D.McCarthy, of His Majesty’s Prison, Mt. Eden.’ He eventually got two months.

Freedom of the press exposed

In late May the Government banned the People’s Voice and police raided its Auckland office, wrecked it and confiscated all printing gear. By June 10 Communists from Auckland to Invercargill were serving terms ranging from two months to 12 months for subversion. (The present Secretary General of the CPNZ, Vic Wilcox, was fined one pound for assaulting an unidentified soldier at an earlier CP meeting in Auckland which was attacked by soldiers, led by officers.)

Although the CPNZ itself wasn’t banned, its publication had to go underground. Wellington and Canterbury Communists put out their own illegal editions of the People’s Voice which later changed their names to Tribune and Torch respectively. In Print, a national CPNZ paper, produced in Auckland, started in September 1941 and continued until the ban on the People’s Voice was lifted and that reappeared in July1943. Police harassed CPNZ meetings, mail was interfered with, Party premises were raided, members were fined and gaoled on ‘subversion’ charges ranging from possessing anti-war stickers to distributing illegal Communists papers.

Communists were subject to all sorts of persecution. In August 1940, Alec Drennan was ordered not to engage in any CPNZ activity for three years as part of his probation; in1941 two communists and an anti-conscriptionist were released after serving eight months of a twelve-month sentence, and were put on eight months probation instead of the usual four. One of them, Alec Ostler, as well as this was released from Paparua straight into Army custody and taken to Burnham where he was railroaded into the Army. Semple said the Communists and pacifists were “direct agents of a foreign power”, he also called Communists “curs, vultures, vipers and wreckers”. Papers referred to ‘Communazis.’

When the Soviet Union entered the war in mid-1941, the CPNZ swung to full support of the war effort and its old enemy, the Labour Government. Communists, such as today’s Party leader, Vic Wilcox, served at the front line, while Gordon Watson, the CPNZ’s rising young star and talented expert, was killed on active duty. The People’s Voice was back in full swing by mid-1943 and the persecution ended.

Some of the repressive features of the WWII home front are still with us today (e.g. the forerunner of the Security Intelligence Service was created in 1941 by an ex-convict who turned out to be a con-man). That was one of the few funny features of the local scene. Apologists could say that drastic domestic action was justified as NZ faced the threat of a direct military attack from Japan at one stage. This overlooks the fact that most of the repression took place in the two years before Japan came into the war. Raids, deportations, bans, censorship, hundreds of men spending months and years in camps and prisons as political prisoners. It happened here.

After WW2, Labour introduced peacetime conscription; Murray writes about this and the resistance to it here.


  1. That’s a great article.
    A must read for anyone who wants to understand the functioning of the capitalist state.
    Murray writes: “A pall of censorship was thrown over the whole country”
    This was certainly the case after the fatal machine-gunning of Japanese prisoners-of-war at the Featherston P.O.W camp. Not only was the incident blacked out of the media. When the shooting took place my mother was working as a pharmacist in Wellington hospital. When a large number of wounded enemy soldiers were suddenly brought into the wards the staff got no explanation “You didn’t ask, it wasn’t done.”
    My mother recalled that many of the Japanese seemed to have lost the will to live and refused to eat. There was some feeling of resentment at having to nurse enemy troops, especially from staff with family members killed or missing in the Pacific. However, everyone got on with it and the job was done.
    It was not till years afterwards that the hospital workers treating these Japanese had any idea where their patients had come from and how they’d been shot up.

  2. Both this article and the one to come should also help to dispel romantic notions about the first Labour government. Really, it was every bit as awful as the fourth Labour government, while the second and third Labour governments were just ordinary run-of-the-mill capitalist governments.

    I was a new young student when Murray edited Canta and, although I had plenty of disagreements with parts of his politics, he was the best editor Canta had in my living memory and the paper was actually worth reading that year. It was interesting going back and finding the Cantas of 1974 not long ago and comparing it to the Canta (and other student papers) of today. A world apart.


Comments are closed.