By Mike Groves
Mr. Groves is founder of the Churchill Dining Club of Auckland (FH 158: 7). He retired in 2010 from twenty-two years in teaching and management work at the University of Auckland Business School, before which he had a career in marketing.
“New Zealand has never put a foot wrong from the start.” —WSC
Winston Churchill never visited New Zealand. Yet he thought so much of the country as to remark, during a visit by N.Z. Deputy Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, that since India had become a republic, it was his view that New Zealand was now “the brightest gem in the British crown.”1
Churchill’s earliest known involvement with New Zealand was in 1893, when he was sitting the Sandhurst entrance exam for the third time. He had been told that there would be a question on one particular country in the following day’s exam. Young Winston put the names of all the countries in the atlas into a hat and drew out New Zealand:
I applied my good memory to the geography of that Dominion. Sure enough the first question in the paper was: ‘Draw a map of New Zealand.’ This was what is called at Monte Carlo an en plein, and I ought to have been paid thirty-five times my stake. However, I certainly got paid very high marks for my paper.2
Thus, aided by New Zealand from the very start, Churchill was admitted to Sandhurst. We can only speculate on how history might have been different if that question had not been asked—but we do know that his success in the exam helped launch him on a successful military career, and all that flowed from that.
Churchill is greatly admired in these South Sea islands. Rarely does a week go by without a favourable reference to him in the media. The mere use of his name suggests leadership, oratory, statesmanship, courage, bulldog spirit and all the best characteristics of Englishmen. There are about one hundred streets bearing Churchill’s name, and others with related names, such as Chartwell. His name is a benchmark against which politicians of all nations are measured. Quite simply, to be “Churchillian” is to deserve high respect and praise. He casts a very long shadow.
An example of that shadow was a 2011 story in Auckland’s daily newspaper. The front page banner read, “Churchill Awed by Kiwi’s Bravery.” The article, head-lined “Bravery Humbled Churchill,” was about 22-year-old Sergeant Jimmy Ward, serving with 75 (New Zealand) Squadron in World War II, who had climbed onto the wing of a flaming Wellington bomber and doused the flames, allowing the plane to return safely home. Ward received the VC for his act, and was summoned to Downing Street, where Churchill reportedly said: “You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence.” When Ward replied that he did, Churchill said: “Then you can imagine how humble and awkward I feel in yours.” Kiwis love stories like that one.3
In his final volume of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Churchill wrote of New Zealand’s political and economic development, noting that the island nation had faced and mastered all the problems of federal government thirty years before Australia did: “the tradition and prejudices of the past weighed less heavily than in older countries.” When the 1906 Liberal government in Britain introduced radical social innovations, he continued, they were in fact no more than had been enacted in New Zealand years earlier. These reforms, he noted, testified “to the survival and fertility even in the remote and unfamiliar islands of the Pacific, of the British political genius.”4
Churchill’s later relations with New Zealand were largely defined by military events: the Anglo-Boer War, World War I, the Chanak Crisis of 1922, defensive preparations in the 1920s and 1930s (particularly over the navy and the defence of Singapore), World War II and the Korean War.
Churchill always saw New Zealand as a strong, loyal, positive and uncomplaining supporter. He must have loved Prime Minister Michael J. Savage’s declaration of war, immediately after Britain’s in September 1939:
I am satisfied that nowhere will the issue be more clearly understood than in New Zealand—where, for almost a century, behind the sure shield of Britain, we have enjoyed and cherished freedom and self-government. Both with gratitude for the past and confidence in the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go. Where she stands, we stand. We are only a small and young nation, but we are one and all a band of brothers and we march forward with union of hearts and wills to a common destiny.5
While there is no record of Churchill meeting New Zealanders during the Boer War, there is every chance that he would have been aware of their fighting alongside Britons against the Boers, and he may have met some individually. The New Zealanders were a mounted division and Churchill was an accomplished horseman, so there would have been common ground. New Zealand sent 6500 men (230 of whom died) and 8000 horses to the Boer War—a large commitment for a young country with a population at that time of just a million.
Churchill had several roles during the Great War, but the one that resonates with New Zealanders is the attempt to force the Dardanelles and, subsequently, to invade the Gallipoli Peninsula on the European side of the straits. The operations were not conceived by him, but Churchill became their most vocal supporter. Labour’s Clement Attlee, an infantry officer at Gallipoli, said on WSC’s 80th birthday that the Dardanelles was “the only imaginative strategic idea of the war. I only wish that you had had full power to carry it to success.”6
Sailing a fleet into the Sea of Marmara, arriving off Constantinople and forcing a Turkish surrender was an imaginative concept which, if successful, might have shortened the war and saved many lives. Churchill pushed hard for the initial naval attack. When this proved unsuccessful there evolved a joint army-navy operation which ended after eight months in ignominious failure. Over 2700 New Zealanders were killed at Gallipoli, among 7200 casualties. Despite the high loss of life and Churchill’s involvement, little blame was attached to him in New Zealand and his reputation does not appear to have suffered. Rather, Gallipoli marked the birthplace of the Australia-New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), and a strong sense of national pride and identity emerged from the horrors. Nowadays thousands of New Zealanders visit Gallipoli every year, peaking on Anzac Day, April 25th. New Zealand’s involvement is remembered with pride, and Churchill’s is seen as a positive contribution.
A month after World War I ended, Churchill spoke to the Australia and New Zealand Luncheon Club at the Connaught Rooms in London, where he referred sadly to Gallipoli’s “mournful splendour.” The feeling of what might have been, he continued, was intensely painful: “…although we did not succeed in gaining the astonishing results which would have flowed from success, the event was one from which almost every point of view was fruitful and played a definite part in the attainment of the final result.”7 Churchill tended to portray himself, like the Anzacs, as a victim of Gallipoli, not its instigator. His view seems to have been shared in New Zealand.
Of course, as in any country, there are significant pockets of New Zealanders who do not like Churchill. Many of these hold Irish ancestry; some with working class ancestry still resent his supposed roles (real and perceived) in the miners’ strike at Tonypandy and the General Strike of 1926. There are Kiwis who dismiss him as an aristocratic toff, and others who hold him responsible for the losses at Gallipoli.
In 1922 Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, was keen to resist the Turkish advance on Chanak, in the occupied neutral zone of the Dardanelles, and asked all dominion prime ministers for support. New Zealand agreed. Her positive response and willingness to rally to Britain’s side left a positive and favourable impression in Churchill’s mind.
Churchill was concerned to maintain Singapore as a major base to defend Australia and New Zealand, which he felt received insufficient attention by Britain, and which might fall into the American sphere of influence. But Japan was a blind spot. In 1924, while Chancellor of the Exchequer, he wrangled with the service chiefs over defence expenditure: “A war with Japan! Why should there be a war with Japan? I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime….I am therefore convinced that war with Japan is not a possibility any reasonable government need to take into account.”8 How wrong he was, and how things change in twenty years.
By 1940 he was more resolute. Should Japan attack a British Dominion, he said, “we should at once come to the assistance of that Dominion with all the forces we could make available. For this purpose we should be prepared, if necessary, to abandon our position in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.”9 These good intentions soon proved unrealistic. Confronted simultaneously by Germany, Italy and Japan, it was not possible to match deeds to those words. Stunning early defeats like Singapore and the sinking of HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales (FH 139: 40-49) caused great alarm in New Zealand and influenced Wellington to move away from dependence on Britain towards greater involvement with the USA, a shift Churchill observed with regret.
Unlike her husband, Clementine Churchill did visit the country, arriving at Wellington in February 1935 on the yacht Rosaura, hosted by their friend Lord Moyne (Walter Guinness). Moyne had captured for the London Zoo specimens of the Komodo Dragon, the world’s largest lizard, found only on five small islands in Indonesia. From that expedition they sailed along the coast of Australia and eventually found their way to New Zealand. They arrived at Auckland on February 20th.
Unfortunately the weather was unseasonably bad, and Clementine was not greatly impressed by what she saw. She visited the mountains and coasts, Wellington, Napier, the Thermal Region, Rotorua, Waitomo, Bay of Islands, Auckland and Russell, but didn’t enjoy it. She quickly “exhausted the charms of Wellington” and wrote of a “horrible gale” which raged for a day and a night, of “torrents of rain” along a “wild and lonely stretch of coast….I felt faint and wanted food…so sick I could only drink claret and suck some very strong peppermints.” On 26 February “the weather at Bay of Islands was atrocious.”10 With that sort of feedback she may have discouraged her husband, a notorious lover of warm and “paintaceous” climes.
The New Zealand Expeditionary Force left Wellington in January 1940 for Egypt, where it would help guard the Suez Canal and counter any Italian threat in north and east Africa. Two months later, Peter Fraser11 became Prime Minister. Shortly after Churchill succeeded Chamberlain in Britain, Fraser told the British High Commissioner that he would personally rather die than yield to Nazi domination. This greatly impressed Churchill. “I am deeply touched by your message,” Churchill cabled, “which is only in keeping with all that the Mother Country has received in peace and war from New Zealand.” Later, he told a colleague, “New Zealand has never put a foot wrong from the start.”12
Soon after their arrival in Egypt, the New Zealanders were despatched to Greece, where Churchill had hoped to support Greek resistance to the Italians and Germans. Fraser, the effective prime minister with Savage terminally ill, gave his support, and Churchill cabled him: “We are deeply moved by your reply, which, whatever the fortunes of war may be, will shine in the history of New Zealand and be admired by future generations of free men in every quarter of the globe.”13
When Britain had to evacuate Greece, the New Zealand Division moved to Crete. Again Churchill cabled Fraser: “I have so greatly admired the grandeur of the attitude of your government, and my thoughts turn many times a day to the fortunes of your own splendid New Zealand Division and of my heroic friend Freyberg.”14
Greece and Crete were failures which cost many New Zealand casualties, but again Churchill was not blamed. Rather, he was seen as the man who had opposed appeasement and whose advice, if taken earlier, might have prevented such disasters before they happened.
After Crete, the New Zealand army went on to fight with distinction in North Africa. Churchill wrote of “the most generous manner in which you have responded to our appeal to allow the glorious New Zealand Division to represent the Dominion on the African battlefield.” Those splendid troops, he continued, “gave me utmost confidence in the part they will play in the near future…and renewed all my feeling of gratitude to New Zealand for the high and broad strategic conception which has enabled her sons to fight in the vanguard of the victorious desert army.”15
Churchill visited Tripoli in February 1943, where he addressed the New Zealand Division: “All are filled with admiration for the Desert Army. All are full of gratitude to the people of New Zealand who have sent this splendid Division to win fame and honour across the oceans.”16 It is not hard to imagine New Zealand hearts swelling with pride whenever those words were quoted.
By late 1942 there was real fear that New Zealand and Australia might be attacked by Japan. Churchill asked the two Dominions to leave their troops in North Africa, where fighting continued and victory was not yet certain. Fraser agreed, but in return American troops were based in New Zealand, and the swing away from Britain towards America had begun. Fears redoubled in early May, when the Japanese bombed Darwin, Australia. But almost simultaneously, the North African campaign ended with a complete Allied victory.
By 1944 the New Zealand army had moved on to Italy, where Churchill hoped to press on, forestalling the Russians in central Europe. New Zealand troops sustained severe casualties in Italy, especially during the battle for Monte Cassino. (See page 38.)
Clearly Churchill held warm feelings towards New Zealand by the end of the war, particularly for Fraser and Freyberg (although neither was New Zealand-born). He had enormous respect for the island nation’s contribution to victory which, like Canada’s, was far out of proportion to her population—militarily and economically as a supplier of much-needed food. He probably thought of New Zealand as a very English sort of place, but a long way away and inhabited by a very small population.
It is tempting to think that he would have liked to visit, despite his wife’s grim experience in 1935. There is no doubt that he would have received a rapturous welcome. The exhibition of his paintings, which toured New Zealand in 1958, a year before it was shown in London, attracted big crowds in the four cities it visited. Prime Minister Walter Nash, at the opening of the Wellington exhibit, described Churchill as “the greatest man of his age if not of all time in the English-speaking world.” Opposition leader Keith Holyoake called him “the greatest commoner of our time.” Undoubtedly they represented a widely-held view.
In 1954, New Zealanders contributed generously to Churchill’s 80th birthday appeal, which helped to launch Churchill College in Cambridge. After receiving greetings on his 90th birthday ten years later, Sir Winston responded: “I will never forget the staunch friendship and unswerving courage of our brothers and comrades in arms in New Zealand.” During his funeral a few weeks later, New Zealanders observed a two-minute silence, during which trains and traffic stopped, while race meetings and a cricket test match were rescheduled to avoid the day altogether.
Following his death, a New Zealand branch of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust was organized with funds raised from government, business and the public. It allowed up to fifteen New Zealanders annually to travel overseas for educational and vocational purposes, following Churchill’s belief that world peace and understanding can be furthered by ordinary people travelling to other countries and experiencing other cultures, as he did so comprehensively.
It was left to Prime Minister Keith Holyoake to summarize New Zealand’s view of Sir Winston: “I think we all felt during that tremendous time in history that so long as the heart of this great man continued to beat and Big Ben continued to toll the hours, the heart of Empire and the free world was still beating and the world was safe for democracy.”17
1. Keith Holyoake, New Zealand House of Representatives, 4 August 1964, in John Ramsden, Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and His Legend Since 1945 (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 416-17. Ramsden added: “It is unlikely that he ever made this remark in the presence of [Australian Prime Minister] Bob Menzies, but the distinction was nevertheless a real one in his mind, and it is significant that the lifelong Cavalier Churchill saw it as the Crown’s role in the Commonwealth to be the glue that held the gems together.”
2. Winston S. Churchill, My Early Life (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1930), 33.
3. New Zealand Herald, Auckland, 25 April 2011, A5.
4. Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 4, The Great Democracies (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1958), 130.
5. Michael J. Savage, broadcast address, 5 September 1939, in New Zealand History Online, http://xrl.us/bpxot2, accessed 5 October 2013.
6. Clement Attlee, 80th Birthday Celebration, Westminster Hall, London, 30 November 1954.
7. Winston S. Churchill, “The Anzacs,” 16 December 1918, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963 (New York: Bowker, 1974), III 2651.
8. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 5, Prophet of Truth 1922-1939 (London: Heinemann, 1976), 76.
9. WSC confidential annex to the War Cabinet, 8 August 1940, Cabinet Papers 65/14, in Martin Gilbert, The Churchill War Papers, vol. 2: Never Surrender, May 1940-December 1940. (New York: Norton, 1994), 634.
10. Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill (London: Cassell, 1979), 264.
11. Chartwell Papers, CHAR 20/14, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge. Peter Fraser CH (1884-1950) served in office from 27 March 1940 until 13 December 1949. A major figure in the history of the New Zealand Labour Party, he held office longer than any other Labour prime minister, and is to date the fourth-longest serving Prime Minister.
12. Ibid.; Lord Caldecote to Sir Harry Batterbee (Dominions Office), 26 July 1940, Michael King Papers, MS 2096, Folder 2, Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library, Wellington.
13. WSC to Prime Minister of New Zealand, 12 March 1941, in Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance (London: Cassell, 1950), 950. Prime Minister Savage was terminally ill, so the cable was received 0and read by Fraser.
14. WSC to Fraser, 22 April 1941. Churchill discarded a Dominions Office draft and wrote his own, more expansive note. Prime Minister’s Office Papers, 3/206/1, National Archives, Kew, London. Gerald Hensley, Beyond the Battlefield: New Zealand and Its Allies 1939-45 (London: Penguin Viking, 2009), 117. Lieutenant-General Bernard Cyril Freyberg, 1st Baron Freyberg VC GCMG KCB KBE DSO KStJ (1889-1963), British-born New Zealand soldier and Victoria Cross recipient; he later served as the seventh Governor-General of New Zealand.
15. Hensley, Beyond the Battlefield, 221 and RG84, Wellington Legation 1941-42, United States National Archives, College Park, Maryland. Hensley wrote: “Churchill in the flowery mode he liked for these occasions expressed the British Government’s gratitude….” The date was around 8 December 1942, since Roosevelt is quoted in the same paragraph on that date, saying to Fraser: “I believe you have done the right thing. It is altogether generous.”
16. Complete Speeches, VI 6742.
17. Ramsden, Man of the Century, 416.
Get the Churchill Bulletin, delivered to your inbox, once a month.