Like previous conflicts, the Second World War allowed New Zealanders to judge themselves against the world. Abroad, soldiers compared themselves with others; at home, newspaper and radio accounts, tributes of Allied leaders, and a flood of books, official and unofficial, provided a picture of New Zealanders – or at least of their adult men. They continued to be regarded as good at war. Defeats in Greece and Crete and initially in North Africa were blamed on poor British decision-making. Victories at El Alamein (North Africa) and in Italy were attributed in part to the New Zealanders’ courage and strength. On meeting his compatriots in North Africa in 1942, the writer John Mulgan noted, ‘Everything that was good from that small, remote country had gone into them – sunshine and strength, good sense, patience, the versatility of practical men. And they marched into history.’ 1
The secret of New Zealanders’ success in war was said to be the rigours of rural life. The double Victoria Cross winner Charles Upham was described as ‘the typical New Zealand soldier’ who developed his qualities as a musterer in high country Canterbury, ‘where men have to match the ruggedness of nature with their own ruggedness of physique and temperament.’ 2
While there was much that was familiar in the image of the New Zealander at war – the egalitarian spirit of the officer who led from the front ‘as one of the boys’, the emphasis on the quiet unemotional nature of mateship – there were subtle changes. New Zealand men were no longer regarded as notably tall, but as strong and wiry. And there was a growing acceptance that they not only fought hard, but also played hard. New Zealand writer Dan Davin wrote, ‘you couldn’t have the wild dash of the Galatas counterattack or, after it, the grim steadiness of that ferocious withdrawal over Crete’s spine without this same discharge of vigour in the drunken backstreets of Cairo where pimps prospered and gutters stank of piss.’ 3 The war also saw a full acceptance by both Māori and Pākehā of their joint identity as New Zealanders. This time Waikato Māori enlisted, and while the Māori Battalion was a separate unit, both peoples joined in a mutual pride in its reputation.
When American servicemen arrived in 1942 the New Zealand government gave them a booklet, Meet New Zealand, which gave definitions of Kiwi slang. Here are some examples:
BLOKE: a man
CORKER: very good
COW: may just mean cow, but may also mean an unpleasant man, woman or situation. These things may also be called, progressively, a FAIR COW, and a FAIR ADJECTIVAL COW.
CROOK: ill, bad. To FEEL CROOK, to feel ill. A CROOK
BOSS, a bad employer.
SHEILA, SKIRT: girl
SKITE: boast, brag (verb), boaster (noun)
TOO RIGHT: certainly, sure
Once again war reinforced the reputation of New Zealand women as physically and emotionally capable. Whether serving overseas as nurses or working in factories, they too came to be regarded as strong and adaptable, and their stoicism while the men were overseas reinforced their image as committed and effective home-makers. By the late 1940s their ability to ‘make do’ was legendary.
The war did not disrupt the sense that New Zealanders were essentially British. Most New Zealanders approved when, at the end of the North African campaign, the troops stayed in Europe to fight Britain’s fight rather than return like the Australians to the Pacific, and there was a strong commitment to the ‘food for Britain’ campaigns. The presence of up to 100,000 Americans in Auckland and Wellington from 1942 reinforced a sense of how different New Zealanders were from the ‘Yankees’.