[I]f Japan had not been defeated by America in the crucial Battle of Midway in the Pacific, they may have targeted New Zealand. "I don't think people realise how on a knife edge their security was in June 1942," says McGibbon...
McGibbon contends an invasion force would have hit the lower North Island before seizing Wellington. "I think they could have captured the city itself within days to be honest, once they got inside the port defences," he says.
A Japanese invasion is just one of the scenarios explored in New Zealand's first-ever counter factual history book, What If...
"Sometimes when we say that things are inevitable it's sometimes an excuse for us, for leaders having done nothing or having done poorly," says editor Stephen Levine.
McGibbon notes that the vast majority of New Zealand soldiers were overseas in 1942, fighting under British command as the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. After the string of Japanese victories that followed Pearl Harbour a fear of invasion stimulated the growth of the Home Guard, which soon had many more members than rifles or uniforms. The Guard struggled for support in some parts of the big cities, where the working class remembered the role that volunteer police had played in smashing the general strike of 1913, but it was wildly popular in the countryside, where fear of the Japs prompted the formation of a large and fervent movement called Awake New Zealand, whose leaders demanded the immediate conversion of all industry to the production of armaments and other war-related items and the suspension of remaining civil liberites in the interest of the war effort. On the left of the political spectrum Labour Party rebel John A Lee and his supporters demanded the immediate recall of the Expeditionary Force.
Japanese defeats in the Battle of Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway and the arrival of large numbers of American troops in the second half of 1942 helped ease fears of an attack from the north. The Americans, who were planning to retake the Solomons and nearby island groups, had been persuaded to make New Zealand a base by the Churchill government, which was keen to hold onto the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
I grew up on a farm that was used by American troops training for action in the Solomons, and as I boy I was regularly told that 'If it wasn't for the Yanks, you'd be speaking Japanese'. When New Zealanders have argued about issues like the visit of American nuke ships and support for Bush's War of Terror the supposed role of the Yanks in saving us from Japan has often been invoked by commentators on the right. McGibbon's argument, then, has a certain lineage, and I look forward to reading it as soon as I get to a copy of What If. I'm not sure, though, how the man can possibly make a plausible case for a Japanese attack on Wellington in the middle of 1942. How could the Japanese have moved enough troops this far south, without a support base in a place like Fiji or New Caledonia? What sense would it make to seize Wellington but not the rest of New Zealand, and thus invite attacks and harrassment from the South Island and the upper North Island? Why would Wellington be a useful base for raids on Australia's ports, as McGibbon apparently claims, when Japan already held parts of New Guinea and was capable of bombing Darwin and sending subs into Sydney harbour?
There is no evidence Japan ever seriously considered conquering either Australia or New Zealand, though one of its admirals did apparently draw up a plan for a diversionary occupation of parts of Queensland. The Japanese were fond of very complex military operations which included diversionary feints as well as full-blooded offensives: a famous example is the occupation of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, which was an attempt to draw American forces north away from the Battle of Midway.
In fact, the Japanese did make at least one attempt at a diversionary attack on a piece of Australia. In January 1943 one of their submarines surfaced near Port Gregory in Western Australia and fired ten shells, in a rather feeble effort to draw attention from the fighting raging on Guadalcanal in the faraway Solomons.
But old myths die hard. A couple of years ago I bought some Japanese invasion money from a dodgy military memorabilia shop in Auckland, and showed it to a couple of friends. Without much help from me, they decided that it was incontrovertible proof of Japanese plans to colonise this green and pleasant land. The small fact that the invasion money was printed in dollars rather than pounds didn't seem to matter.