How We Saw The War
by Ron Palenski (Hodder Moa, $59.99

For most of his career Ron Palenski has written about sport. Prolifically. Rugby tours, books on All Black greats, whopping digests on athletes who wore the black singlet or men who pulled on the black jersey.

All the time, he nurtured an absorption with New Zealand and the wars it had fought. He wrote his MA history thesis on ill-starred World War I war correspondent Malcolm Ross.

The new focus for the Otago author is World War II and how it unfolded at home through the columns of newspapers, pictures in weekly publications and letters sent home from soldiers in remote theatres of battle.

He has stitched them together with a narrative which starts in September 1939 with New Zealand embarking, for the third time in its short history, on a faraway war and ends six years later, after thousands of deaths, with the surrender of Japan.

Says Palenski: "I wanted to write for a younger generation, whose fathers or families may not have been to war. For them the notion of war seems something very distant.

"I've tried to show how it was to live here through the war, to read of fighting in unknown places involving people they might know."

The text is framed on many pages by newspaper clippings and illustrated with a treasure trove of black and white photographs. Sourced mainly from the Alexander Turnbull Library and Palenski's own collection, the pictures are the compelling core of this war history.

Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage - just months away from an early death - is shown farewelling soldiers of the first echelon and urging all New Zealanders to answer "the call to duty", Bernard Freyberg in a lemon squeezer and khaki shorts addresses soldiers in the Egyptian desert, Winston Churchill doffs his hat as men from the Maori Battalion march past on a tree-lined road in England.

There are images from the frontlines - from Crete, where the Allies took a pasting, from North Africa, where the New Zealand Division with the Eighth Army started to turn the war tide, from Europe and from the Pacific.

Palenski found the task of poring over papers a stimulating task. The war news was usually found about page five, after the dense classified ads on the front few pages.

Censored coverage from the wire services often had a stirring tone: "Wellington pilot is first war ace", The Dominion exulted on 29 March 1940, going on to report how Flying Officer E.J. Cain, better known as "Cobber Kain", had bagged five and possibly six German aircraft.

Twice forced to ditch his plane and land by parachute, Kain was all but written-off after one sortie. An Australian Associated Press correspondent told how the 21-year-old Hawkes Bay pilot turned up at a French village, "his face brick-red from burning oil, his eyebrows singed, bandages on a leg and on a hand, and his hair still streaked with oil".

Kain's luck deserted him early. Dubbed "the flying fool" by the French, he died in June 1940 when his Hurricane fighter plane crashed as he performed aerobatics for his mates.

Palenski pays dues to the names that loom large from New Zealand's War: among them Charles Upham - VC and Bar - wartime commander Bernard "Tiny" Freyberg, North Africa Army army head Howard Kippenberger and Lance Sergeant Haane "Jack" Manahi, the brave Maori Battalion soldier whose official Victoria Cross recommendation was denied by an "unknown hand".

He also provides a sense of the apprehension that would grip families In Zealand when a telegram arrived. For the people at home, serving the cause of soldiers in far-off conflicts, the sight of a delivery boy was a moment to dread.

He relates a moving story of a father chopping wood when a boy appeared at his gate. The man knew what it meant, and told the boy to leave the news by the door.

"He continued chopping," writes Palenski, "tears streaming down his face. He hadn't needed to read the news to know it was bad."

By the time the war was over, New Zealand had lost more than 11,000 of its people, killed in battle, lost in captivity or who succumbed to wounds and illness.

From his research, Palenski concludes that New Zealanders fought with a quiet determination to get the job done - usually efficiently, sometimes ruthlessly.

He thinks the writer John Mulgan - an expatriate who served with distinction in the British Army - got it right about the Kiwis who went to war: "They had confidence in themselves, such as New Zealanders rarely have, knowing themselves as good as the best the world could bring against them, like a football team in a more deadly game, coherent, practical, successful."

THE KIWI NAZI

When the war ended in September 1945, Lance Corporal Roy Courlander was missing from the thousands of New Zealand servicemen anxious to sail home.

Instead, the 30-year-old was awaiting trial in England, charged with aiding the enemy in Europe by writing Nazi propaganda for the British Free Corps, a unit of the German Army.

Born in London, Courlander came to New Zealand in the 1930s. He enlisted with the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force and was attached to its intelligence section because of his knowledge of German.

Captured during the retreat through Greece in 1941, Courlander was held in Stalag XVIIIA, where he became the camp interpreter.

According to evidence given at his trial, Courlander toured the camps to recruit war prisoners for the Free Corps, a unit set up by John Amery, a British pro-Nazi idealist and son of a British minister, Leo Amery.

At his military hearing before New Zealand authorities in London, Courlander claimed he had joined the corps in order to sabotage the unit.

He also was said to have become a member of the Waffen-SS, the armed wing of the Nazi Party. His defence was that he joined in order to escape and pass details to the Allies. The court martial heard from one witness who said that Courlander told him he had met Hitler.

Found guilty, Courlander was sentenced to 15 years' jail and sent back to New Zealand to a cell in Mt Eden.

Over the next few years he appealed his sentence and was freed in 1951. He moved to Australia where he died in 1979.

Amery did not fare so well. He admitted high treason and treachery and was hanged in London in December 1945.