WHEN the armed forces reached their peak strength, in September 1942, the civilian labour force had been depleted by well over a fifth. The services had taken mostly younger, fitter men; for part of 1942, over half of all males aged between 18 and 45 were serving.
The threat of Japanese invasion had seemed most ominous in the first nine months of 1942. Between November 1941 and September 1942, the numbers serving in New Zealand increased from 36,000 to 107,000. With some 50,000 men then serving overseas, there were at the peak mobilisation point 157,000 persons in the forces, out of a labour force estimated at the outbreak of war at 700,000 men and women.
But the limit had been reached. It was difficult enough to transfer so many people out of industry; quite impossible to keep the economy working efficiently without them. What had been achieved under stress of the threat of Japanese invasion could not be sustained for more than a few months.
From the middle of 1942 the increasing flow of American forces into the Pacific had stepped up the demands on New Zealand for food and services; but the depleted civilian work force was hard pressed even to maintain existing supplies.
In July 1942 the Director of National Service, writing to his Minister, had suggested that New Zealand was rapidly approaching the limit of its resources. His Department estimated that, by then, armed service recruitments had taken 14 per cent of all the male workers in primary industries, 25 per cent of those in secondary industries, and 37 per cent of those in other industries. He recommended that no further men be balloted for the armed services.
The Government, however, faced with commitments to maintain overseas forces on two fronts and still seized of the need to strengthen the home army, decided to continue with the ballots.page 482
It was already apparent that the demands of the armed services for more men could no longer be met without curtailing food production and essential services.
There was some pressure at this stage for a ‘total war effort’,1 with drastic reorganisation of industry to provide for the maximum use of every available man and woman in the interests of the war effort. Suggestions included a minimum working week of 48 hours for manual work, and 44 hours for shops and clerical work, the elimination of non-essential services and commodities, and the substitution of womanpower for manpower to the furthest possible extent. There would be rationalisation of industry based on the standardisation and simplification of products, pooling of plant and transport, and zoning of distribution. Of the proposal, the Director of National Service wrote, ‘… the Forces may be able to be supplied with the manpower they require, if the economy of the country as a whole is placed on a total war basis’.
In August 1942 an inter-departmental committee, the War Planning and Manpower Committee, started detailed work to this end. It is by no means certain that the proposal would have been adopted had a detailed scheme emerged. The Government had, so far, avoided major reversals of its labour legislation, except as required in essential industries. Wood writes:2
‘Administrative difficulties would have been immense, and unless the community had been confronted with an immediate threat of invasion or defeat, discontent at such drastic measures might well have been keen enough to cause that economic dislocation which they had been designed to avoid.’
In the event, the Pacific war situation improved later in the year. The Committee ceased to function and, though the demand for scarce manpower was still increasing, no more was heard of the ‘total war effort’.
We have seen, in Chapter 5, how men had been drawn out of the unemployment pool and from subsidised work, as wartime pressures for extra manpower increased. Of 19,000 men on unemployment benefit or in subsidised employment in September 1939, 13,000 remained in December 1940, and 6000 in December 1941. The year of peak mobilisation reduced this figure, by December 1942, to the then unbelievably low figure of 2000.
2 Wood, p. 248.
As late as mid-October 1942, the army was still calling for more men to serve in New Zealand. A summary presented to a secret session of Parliament estimated overall needs for the services at this time at 30,000 more people than at the peak mobilisation point.
Without further mobilisation of manpower and much more intensive use of the remaining industrial labour force, it was impossible to meet all demands.