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Ron Palenski's history HOW WE SAW THE WAR:1939-45 THROUGH NEW ZEALAND EYES

Reviewed by Dorothy - 03/09/09

The publication of Ron Palenski's history, How we saw the War: 1939-45 through New Zealand eyes has been appropriately timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II on September 3.

How we saw the War: 1939-45 through New Zealand eyes

The author explains that the material and illustrations are drawn from newspapers published at the time. Quotations from original sources are linked by clearly written narration of intervening events. Written material published during the war was of more significance than similar publications today as there was no television or Internet and radio news broadcasts were few. Although I was a child in 1939 I well remember how through all the six years of the war my parents began the day reading the war news in the newspaper and listened every evening to the radio to hear Big Ben chiming nine o'clock followed by the news.

The book opens with comment on the fact that most New Zealanders were actually aware that war was on the horizon because of Hitler's rise to power and his policies. An enormous two page spread shows a huge crowd of Germans expressing their support for Hitler after his annexation of part of Czechoslovakia in 1938. There is also a concise account of Neville Chamberlain's negotiations towards hoped-for peace with Hitler.

Michael Joseph Savage's speech after New Zealand's declaration of war against Germany in 1939 is known to many New Zealand students of history and oratory, but it has particular poignancy when read in the context of this account of the war the illness and death of Savage, the repercussions in New Zealand, the memories of those who had seen the suffering inflicted by World War I, and the propaganda machine at work with posters encouraging men to enlist and before long appealing to women to join the Women's Land Army.

This history gives a balanced account of what was happening. We read of the courage of the New Zealand troops in campaigns in Greece and Crete, the outstanding bravery of the Maori Battalion, the naval engagements of the Achilles and the Ajaxin the battle of the River Plate, the war in the air, and the servicemen who were awarded the Victoria Cross. It presents the heroism of VC winner Charles Upham as New Zealanders first heard of it. It also describes opposition to the war from the Pacifist movement led by Ormond Burton previously known as a decorated hero from World War I.

Illustrations of events at this period include Savage shaking hands with Peter Fraser who was to be the next Prime Minister, Ormond Burton with his wife and children, the farewell march in Auckland of the first echelon of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, the appointment of General Freyberg, the Achilles during a visit to Wellington, the Graf Spee in peacetime, later to be damaged and scuttled at the battle of the River Plate, and the huge crowds at the welcome home parade in Wellington for the ship's company of the Achilles.

This pattern of extracts from the press, photographs, cartoons and the author's linking narrative, established in the opening sections, is used throughout the book to describe the desert war in North Africa, the war to retake Europe with special coverage of the battle at Cassino, and also the Pacific, covering such traumatic events as the fall of Singapore and the attack on Pearl Harbour, followed by fierce fighting to drive the Japanese out of the areas they had invaded.

Events and issues in New Zealand included the fear felt in New Zealand in 1942 as the Japanese offensive moved south and there were even attacks on Darwin and northern Queensland; 'the Battle of Manners Street' where some New Zealanders, resenting the presence of US servicemen in New Zealand and the attitude of some Americans to Maori, fought them in Auckland in April 1943; and the 'mutiny' when New Zealand soldiers back in the country on leave refused to return to war in 1943-4..

The closing chapters of course deal with VE Day, the award of the second Victoria Cross to Captain Charles Upham, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the end of the war and VJ celebrations.

Ron Palenski states that the aim of this book is to give to those who have never known war 'some idea of how it would have been to live through the war and read day by day of fighting in hitherto unheard of places, of fighting by people known to them, people they may or may not see again.'

In this aim he is eminently successful. The book is also effective in renewing the buried memories and correcting the partial understanding of people in my generation who lived through the war, but often did not comprehend the significance of what was happening - or as children were shielded from full awareness of it.

9781869711559, $59.99, HB, Hodder Moa.
Available at all good book stores in New Zealand and online at

To read about some of the ways in which people at home coped during the war years go to the NZine articles on this topic.

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