On September 3, at 9.30pm 80 years ago, New Zealand declared war on Germany. International tensions had steadily risen from mid-year as Germany became more bellicose. On August 24 the Government declared an Alert State. The Government offered the 30 Vickers Wellington bombers ordered for the new RNZAF to the British Government and this was accepted with alacrity.
From the Dominions’ office in London early on September 3 came news of the British government’s ultimatum to Germany, to remove its forces from Poland or face action. In Wellington the Cabinet had met in almost constant session as cable news flowed from London. Only recently had all the cable and cypher equipment been moved from Government house to the wooden departmental building across the road from Parliament House. Before this, all messages from London to the Government came via the Governor-General, at the time Lord Galway.
Alongside the cable services, the New Zealand Broadcasting Services shortwave receivers had been following the stream of news being broadcast by the BBC from Daventry in the United Kingdom. The Minister of Finance Rt Hon Walter Nash arrived home from a four-month visit to Britain and the United States on September 1 and was well-briefed on current developments.
On September 1, the Governor-General issued a proclamation of emergency which transferred reserve forces to the regular forces while the three squadrons of the Territorial Air Force were declared liable for continuous service. Anticipating conflict, the government recalled all personnel on leave from the armed services and naval control of shipping was instituted on that day
Next day, the British government advised a “precautionary” state had been declared against Germany. On Sunday the Government declared war and its timing meant New Zealand and Britain had made simultaneous declarations. For years it was claimed in the United Kingdom that New Zealand had in fact declared the following day.
The declaration was made by the Cabinet, in direct contrast to the First world War where the Governor the Earl of Liverpool announced the outbreak of war. With new letters patent, he became Governor-General in 1917.
By war’s end in August 1945, some 140,000 New Zealanders had served overseas, 104,000 of whom were with the 2nd NZEF. Estimates of the numbers killed range from 11,900 to 11,930 for several reasons ranging from estimates of those missing in action believed killed (mainly airmen) to the dates when death came after wounds, illness or accident some time after the event.