Did NZ declare war first?

READ ALL ABOUT IT! A newspaper boy with a billboard headlining the beginning of World War II.
READ ALL ABOUT IT! A newspaper boy with a billboard headlining the beginning of World War II.

September 1939, a crowded room, a short-wave radio and a world on the brink of war.

It's a recipe for confusion confusion that has lingered for 70 years. Did New Zealand declare war on Germany before Britain and its other World War II allies?

For most of his 73 years, that is what former defence secretary Gerald Hensley believed. It is also what Britain's high comissioner to New Zealand, George Fergusson, and many others believed.

But in a new book launched today — Beyond the Battlefield: New Zealand and its Allies 1939-45 Mr Hensley has debunked the myth. New Zealand did not declare war on Germany before Britain; it did so at exactly the same time.

Using documents held by Archives New Zealand, the reminiscenses of the former head of the prime minister's department, Carl Berendsen, and old letters, Mr Hensley has painstakingly reconstructed the events of September 3, 1939.

They show that ministers, officials and service heads who gathered in Mr Berendsen's office to listen to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's declaration of war engaged in a "heated" debate about the time difference between New Zealand and Britain and were flummoxed by the poor quality radio reception.

"No-one was quite sure what he had said. ... It would be awkward if New Zealand turned out to have gone to war on a burst of static."

But the documents examined by Mr Hensley show the Cabinet held off its declaration until its members saw an Admirality notification to the British fleet that war had broken out. The actual declaration was signed in the early hours of the morning by governor-general Lord Galway and backdated to 9.30pm New Zealand time, the equivalent of 11am British summer time the moment Chamberlain declared war.

Mr Hensley attributes the myth to the "muddle" over time zones. "I thought it. George Fergusson, the British high commsisoner, was saying the other day he had always believed it. He was disappointed to hear we hadn't led the world in declaring war."

Beyond the Battlefield: New Zealand and its Allies 1939-45 examines New Zealand's diplomatic relations with its allies during what Mr Hensley describes as the "most demanding six years" in the country's history.

"The whole point about history is not really to learn the lessons or avoid repeating them; it just is to know who we are. The history of that (period) and how we behaved does shine, I hope, a little light on who we are now."

In this edited excerpt from the book, Mr Hensley details what occurred on a tense September 3, in 1939.

IT was afternoon in the Prime Minister's Department, wedged into a few rooms on the ground floor of Parliament Buildings, and the daily collection of wire-service messages had just been brought round. Carl Berendsen, the departmental head, showed one to his assistant. Asked for his opinion, Major Stevens gave it crisply: "We're for it," he said. The cable announced the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (the deal done by Hitler and Stalin to divide up Poland between them).

The reaction in New Zealand as elsewhere was not so much surprise as an odd kind of relief. The dread of war, the growing certainty that it was unavoidable, had cast an oppressive gloom over these months, a "sinister twilight" in Churchill's words.

The arrival of the news of the Moscow agreement on 24 August 1939 started a dead march in official Wellington with each of the next ten days bringing another step in the inexorable moves towards war. The script for going to war was laid down in a large scarlet-bound volume, the War Book which had been finished just in time, at the end of July. It contained draft telegrams, legislation and regulations covering everything from mobilisation, management of the economy and control of essential supplies down to paper and ink all the guidance a modern state needed to go to war. On Friday, 1 September, the Government cabled its approval of Britain's last-minute reaffirmation of its guarantee to Poland, giving a strong indication (if anyone had doubted this) that it would join in going to war over that unhappy country.

Walter Nash, the Finance Minister, said, "If Eastern Europe goes, Western Europe will be the next. And New Zealand is part of Western Europe."

A state of emergency was proclaimed, announced by Peter Fraser to the House that afternoon. A thunderstorm broke as he was speaking, flashes of lightning lit up the sombre twilight in the chamber, and some of his words were drowned in peals of thunder.

Hitler's attack on Poland became known late that night. Cabinet met twice on Saturday and again on the morning of Sunday, 3 September. By then the British ultimatum to Germany was ticking out its time. There was no prospect of Hitler's accepting it and withdrawing from Poland so it was simply a matter of waiting until nightfall when the ultimatum on the other side of the world would expire at 11am, British Summer Time.

From eight o'clock that evening ministers, heads of department and service chiefs gathered in Berendsen's room. New Zealand was anxious to declare war at the same time as Britain but exactly when this might be was not at first clear. A heated argument broke out as to the equivalent time in New Zealand. In the end it was (correctly) decided to be 9.30pm. At this time a pre-arranged coded message would be sent from London confirming that Britain was at war and the lines were cleared of all other traffic in expectation. The message did not arrive. At 9.45 everyone gathered around Berendsen's large radio to hear Neville Chamberlain's broadcast; Fraser sitting intently, the British High Commissioner slumped with his legs across an armchair and a hand over his eyes.

The short-wave reception was not good, Chamberlain's words were mangled by static and at the end no-one was quite sure what he had said.

Cabinet withdrew to the next room to consider its declaration of war. In the absence of the formal notice, though, could such a step be taken? It would be awkward if New Zealand turned out to have gone to war on a burst of static. On Berendsen's advice Cabinet waited and waited. The war message did not arrive until just before midnight. Chamberlain's speech had been followed in London by an air-raid warning. It was a false alarm but the messenger boy carrying the telegram for despatch to Wellington had dived into the nearest shelter and only emerged some time later.

In the meantime the gathering in Parliament Buildings had seen the Admiralty's notification to the fleet that war had broken out and decided that this was good enough. With little or no discussion Cabinet approved the declaration of war.

Berendsen's drafting was more than adequate for the occasion: "His Majesty's Government in New Zealand desire immediately to associate themselves with His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom in honouring their pledged word. They entirely concur with the action taken, which they regard as inevitably forced upon the British Commonwealth if the cause of justice, freedom and democracy is to endure in this world."

With a slight sense of anti-climax it then asked the British Government if it could pass the declaration on to Germany (the American Embassy in Berlin did so).

That done, Cabinet turned to the long list of regulations and other consequential measures enjoined by the War Book. The crowd in the anteroom had now swelled to nearly a hundred as departmental officials waited for their regulation to be called. When all was done Cabinet gathered up the papers and marched in a group to the large wooden Government Building across the street where the Governor-General was waiting to convene the Executive Council in order to validate the declaration of war and the rest of the night's work. There the formalities were completed and Lord Galway issued the Proclamation of War, carefully back-dated to 9.30pm on 3 September.

When dawn came, Fraser took Berendsen to breakfast in the members' restaurant ... Fraser then departed to broadcast to the country: "We address ourselves with firm determination to the immediate task in hand the rallying of all the forces and resources of our land."

His many sterling qualities did not include eloquence. [Michael Joseph] Savage's did and from his sick-bed he also decided to speak. His words were largely the work of Henry Cornish, whose position as Solicitor-General has never before or since been combined with speechwriter. But Savage's words, broadcast on 5 September, became all that New Zealanders ever remembered of the outbreak of war: "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."

No time had been wasted in putting the country on a war footing. A Ministry of Supply had been established and nine `controllers' appointed to handle essential foods, medical supplies, electricity, mining and timber. The Evening Post could report with satisfaction, "The enemy did not catch New Zealand napping on September 3, 1939."

This was a great administrative achievement. New Zealand had prepared for everything about the war except how to fight it. It was 18 months before its neglected army was ready for battle.

* Beyond the Battlefield: New Zealand and its Allies 1939-45 is being launched in Wellington tonight to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of war. Published by Penguin, it retails for $65.

The Dominion Post