Alongside Britain and Australia, New Zealand was one of the first countries to become involved in the global conflict precipitated by Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939.
In contrast to its entry into the First World War, New Zealand acted in its own right by formally declaring war on Germany on 3 September (unlike Australia, which held that the King’s declaration, as in 1914, automatically extended to all his Dominions).
Officially, New Zealand’s declaration of war was simultaneous with Britain’s, as it was held to occur at the expiry of the British government’s ultimatum to Germany to withdraw from Poland (9.30 p.m. New Zealand Standard Time, 11 a.m. British Summer Time). In fact, ministers and senior officials waited for formal advice of the expiry of the ultimatum, and Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, before taking action. It was not until 11.30 p.m. that the acting Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, issued a statement confirming that New Zealand was at war:
This is not an occasion for many words; it is a dark day in the history of the world … It is with deep regret and sadness that I make this announcement on behalf of the Government, and the people will receive it with similar feelings. That will not, however, affect the determination of both Government and people to play their part.
At 1.55 a.m. on 4 September the Governor-General, Viscount Galway, cabled the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs in London to advise that ‘the existence of a state of war with Germany has accordingly been proclaimed in New Zealand’. The proclamation, and Fraser’s statement, were widely reported in newspapers later that day.
Although it is Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage’s insistent statement, ‘Where she goes, we go’, that is most often associated with this period, it was Fraser who essentially led the country throughout the war. He formally succeeded Savage as Prime Minister after the latter’s death on 27 March 1940.