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Tongan Defence Force

Nelson Bennett
Collection Technician - Research Support

The Second World War was a time of significant social and political change in Tonga, influenced in part by the establishment of the Tongan Defence Force (TDF). The roots of Tonga’s involvement in international matters dates back to 1875, when the Kingdom of Tonga - Tongan Fakatu'i 'o Tonga - asserted its sovereignty with a formal, written constitution. Recognised first by Germany, the island nation later aligned itself with Britain and entered into a Treaty of Friendship in 1879 that was reaffirmed in 1900.

When the First World War broke out in 1914 the Tongan government firmly sided with the Allies. Ninety four Tongans would go on to fight in different Allied armies.1 This first experience with global war would prove to be just the beginning of Tonga’s involvement in international conflict. During the interwar period Japan had developed into a major political and economic power, and one increasingly focussed on expansion. As a result of this changing diplomatic landscape the Pacific became an increasingly contested space in the lead up to the Second World War.

In December 1938 the British High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, Sir Harry Luke, was aware of the rising tensions in Europe. He asked Her Majesty, Queen Sālote Tupou III of Tonga, what she intended to do if war broke out between Great Britian and Nazi Germany. Tonga’s Treaty of Friendship with Britain required the British to defend the Kingdom, but Her Majesty decided to act much more emphatically, responding that the Kingdom of Tonga would place all of its resources at Great Britain’s disposal.2

On the 3rd of September 1939 Tonga declared war on Germany, joining the Allies. Due to its strategic geographic position Tonga was already an important ally in the Pacific, but Queen Sālote and the Tongan government were determined to actively contribute to the war effort. Great Britain was required to defend the Kingdom, but given their rather dire military position, after the defeat of the Allies in France in June 1940, the British government handed this responsibility over to the New Zealand Defence Force. Unwilling to simply sit around and wait for the New Zealanders to arrive, the Tongan government formed the Tongan Defence Force (TDF). 

How Long Will This Hitler War Last? Headline from the \u003ca href=\"https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-315282345/view?partId=nla.obj-315293664\" target=\"_blank\" \u003ePacific Islands Monthly\u003c/a\u003e, 15 September 1939.

How Long Will This Hitler War Last? Headline from the Pacific Islands Monthly, 15 September 1939.

Image may be subject to copyright restrictions

The courage and determination of the Tongan people and their respect for their Queen was clearly evidenced by the fact that virtually every adult man in the Kingdom volunteered to serve. Tungi Mailefihi, Royal Consort and Premier, became Colonel-in-Chief, and the Minister for Police 'Akau'ola Siosateki Faletau was commisssioned as Lieutenant-Colonel and TDF Commandant due to his experience with the New Zealand Forces in the First World War. All officers received their commissions from Queen Sālote herself and swore allegiance to their Queen.

The Queen of Tonga inspects her soldiers. Taken by an unknown photographer in Tonga on March the 24th, 1940. Image kindly provided by the Alexander Turnbull Library. \u003ca href=\"https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22668114\" target=\"_blank\"\u003eRef: 1/2-082384-F\u003c/a\u003e

The Queen of Tonga inspects her soldiers. Taken by an unknown photographer in Tonga on March the 24th, 1940. Image kindly provided by the Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: 1/2-082384-F

Image may be subject to copyright restrictions

The first hundred men were chosen within a week of the declaration of war, and drills began before the New Zealanders arrived. Soon another 150 were selected and in 1941 the Force was increased to 800. The ingenuity shown again underscores their determination. Drilling first with sticks, the men of the TDF built a firing range by hand. While women, who were exculded from serving directly,  were sent by the Queen to collect pieces of khaki cloth from the British residency to sew into uniforms and formed groups to roll up bandages and assemble field-dressing kits. With the Queen in charge, Tongan cultural traditions of care and hospitality were also carefully respected. The TDF and their labourers were fed by different villages in turn, as was customary, and the privileges of those chiefs who enlisted in the TDF were observed.3

Aerial view of Fua\u0027Amotu Airfield with runways surrounded by bush, Tonga. Aerial photograph taken by Whites Aviation. Image kindly provided by the Alexander Turnbull Library. \u003ca href=\"https://natlib.govt.nz/records/30660622\" target=\"_blank\"\u003eRef: WA-01154-G.\u003c/a\u003e

Aerial view of Fua'Amotu Airfield with runways surrounded by bush, Tonga. Aerial photograph taken by Whites Aviation. Image kindly provided by the Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: WA-01154-G.

CC BY 4.0

The TDF not only focused on training but was also responsible for guarding the strategic airfield at Fua'amotu on Tongatapu, where the International Airport stands today. The Force was also involved in all important Coastwatching activities undertaken throughout the Tongan archipelago. The TDF would eventually rise to some 2,000 soldiers, around 12% of the male population of Tonga. Consequently, the burden on the island economy was significant with the Queen, and some of her government officials, sacrificing part of their salaries to help fund the effort.

The Mark V Spitfire Queen Salote, purchased for the British by the people of Tonga. Image kindly provided by Imperial War Museum. \u003ca href=\"https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205445924\" target=\"_blank\"\u003eCH 5576\u003c/a\u003e

The Mark V Spitfire Queen Salote, purchased for the British by the people of Tonga. Image kindly provided by Imperial War Museum. CH 5576

© IWM CH 5576

The TDF was supported by part of the 3 NZ Division, T Force, which arrived in Tonga in October 1942. The T Force was created to support the training of the Tongan Defence Force and provide essential supplies and war equipment. Queen Sālote and her consort personally managed much of the Tongan organisation for war. This included everything from leasing airfields to the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), training women in First Aid, and writing a play about an air raid to raise funds for the Red Cross.

The leadership of Queen Sālote and the stability provided by the TDF were to be vitally important as change was about to come to Tonga. The coming presence of the New Zelanders, and later the Americans, had a profound effect on the Kingdom. The arrival of the New Zealanders meant a large group of socially and culturally dissimilar soldiers in the heart of the Kingdom, shifting the tone of the war which up until that point had been entirely led by Tongans. However, there were fewer than 2,000 New Zealanders in the Kingdom at any point during the conflict, which helped limit their impact.

Members of the Tonga Defence Force of 2nd NZEF on parade in Tonga celebrating the capitulation of Italy during World War 2. Photograph taken in 1943. Photographer unidentified. image kindly provided by the Alexander Turnbull Library. \u003ca href=\"https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22896862\" target=\"_blank\"\u003eRef: PA1-f-107-27-7\u003c/a\u003e

Members of the Tonga Defence Force of 2nd NZEF on parade in Tonga celebrating the capitulation of Italy during World War 2. Photograph taken in 1943. Photographer unidentified. image kindly provided by the Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: PA1-f-107-27-7

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The American impact on the small island nation was much more significant. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on the 7th of December 1941, the Americans utilised the friendly and accomodating attitude of the Tongans to make the Kingdom an important strategic lynchpin of their operations in the Pacific. 30,000 American service people passed through Tonga during the War, a massive number when we consider the population of the Kingdom was around 33,000. The Americans brought western wealth, advanced military technology, and their cultural influence, taking over the responsibility for defending the Kingdom from New Zealand in 1942. As Elizabeth Wood-Ellem writes, 'The New Zealanders were dependent on their hosts, the US forces were independent of them.'4

The Commanding Officer of the TDF (1944-1946), Robert Hardy, wrote in his diaries, 'How different it is now. Great Highways. Modern camps (American, not NZ!)' He also gushes about his visits to US forces, '... believe it or not, hamburgers & trimmings and ICE CREAM! What a feed!'5

While the Americans did their best to bring comforts of home with them whenever they went, Hardy and his New Zealand comrades were much more reliant on their Tongan hosts. The images below, sourced from Hardy's personal papers, show the hospitality extended to the commanding officer and his peers.

Ephemera from the papers of Robert Boyd Hardy, \u003ca href=\"https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_library-manuscriptsandarchives-2395\" target=\"_blank\"\u003eMS-1317\u003c/a\u003e Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Ephemera from the papers of Robert Boyd Hardy, MS-1317 Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Image may be subject to copyright restrictions.

Much of the credit for maintaining good relations and traditional systems throughout this period of seismic change can, and should, go to Queen Sālote but the importance of having Tongans serving and contributing to the war effort as a collective cannot be understated. The role and existence of the TDF was important to maintaining social and cultural cohesion. It made Tonga an equal partner in the war and brought pride to the Kingdom. The Americans took over coastwatching from the TDF while soldiers from the TDF remaining in Tonga took on guard duties for the Queen and her government due to the threat of a Japanese invasion. There was a point of discomfort between the Tongans and Americans, with the segregation of the African American troops of the 77 Coastal Artillery troops, who were welcomed warmly by the Tongans. 6

While relations with the Americans were often rocky, the relationship between the New Zealand Divisions and TDF was not always smooth sailing either. Discrimination was common, with New Zealanders serving with the TDF being paid more than their Tongan equivalents.

Centre battery camp for members of the Tonga Defence Force of 2nd NZEF (Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force), in Tonga. Shows a row of thatched dwellings, amongst palm trees. Photograph taken between 1943-1944. Photographer unidentified. Image kindly provided by the Alexander Turnbull Library \u003ca href=\"https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22777659\" target=\"_blank\"\u003eRef: PA1-f-107-12-1\u003c/a\u003e

Centre battery camp for members of the Tonga Defence Force of 2nd NZEF (Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force), in Tonga. Shows a row of thatched dwellings, amongst palm trees. Photograph taken between 1943-1944. Photographer unidentified. Image kindly provided by the Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: PA1-f-107-12-1

Image may be subject to copyright

Despite this obvious inequality Tongan soldiers fought bravely for the Allies, serving alongside the 3 NZ Division in the crucial 1942 Solomon Islands campaign. This campaign helped turn the tide of the war in the Pacific, which up until that point had been an unbroken string of Japanese victories. The campaign was crucial in relieving pressure on Tonga as a loss there would have made the Kingdom one of the major forward operating bases for the American forces. Instead, the victory meant that the Americans began moving troops out of the islands with those remaining personnel falling into ill-discipline.

Many Tongans also fought in the armed forces of Aliied countries. Friends Manoel Santos, Alexander (Aleki) Leger, and Vailima Meanata served in the 28 Māori Battalion during the Greek, African and Italian campaigns, carrying on the Tongan tradition of service from the First World War. Many Tongans who had fought for New Zealand in the First World War had served with the 28's predecessor, the Māori Pioneer Battalion.7

Siaosi 'Alipate Halakilangi Tau'alupeoko Vaea Tupou, also known as Baron Vaea, was Tonga's first pilot and Queen Sālote's nephew. He joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) and served in the Pacific, before returning to Tonga to fulfill his duties in the nobility and eventually becoming Prime Minister of Tonga from 1991-2000. The stories of these men show how the experience of Tongans in the Second World War were not just limited to the occupation or the TDF.8

Members of the Tonga Defence Force of 2nd NZEF, during a bayonet drill in Tonga 1943-1944. Image kindly provided by Alexander Turnbull Library. \u003ca href=\"https://natlib.govt.nz/records/23132164\" target=\"_blank\"\u003eRef: PA1-f-107-07-2\u003c/a\u003e

Members of the Tonga Defence Force of 2nd NZEF, during a bayonet drill in Tonga 1943-1944. Image kindly provided by Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: PA1-f-107-07-2

Image may be subject to copyright

The TDF proved to be not only a point of pride for the Tongans but also one of the lasting legacies of the conflict. The Force was officially disbanded at the end of the war, but quickly reformed in 1946 and went on to form the basis for Tonga's modern-day military, His Majesty's Armed Forces. In a twist of fate Tongan soldiers were deployed once again to the Solomon Islands as part of a multinational peacekeeping force in 2002, sixty years after they served there the first time.

Queen Sālote, photograph taken by an unknown photographer from the Auckland Star. Image kindly provided by the Alexander Turnbull Library. \u003ca href=\"https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_library-photography-58276\" target=\"_blank\"\u003eRef: PH-CNEG-S1195b.\u003c/a\u003e

Queen Sālote, photograph taken by an unknown photographer from the Auckland Star. Image kindly provided by the Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: PH-CNEG-S1195b.

Image may be subject to copyright

Many Tongans gave their lives to the war effort in loyalty to Queen and country. The Kingdom faced massive social and political upheaval as a result of their generosity in opening the Kingdom to the Allied war effort. To quote Wood-Ellem once again, 'Tonga's overall contribution was outstanding for a country of its size and population, and its financial contribution considerably more than that of any other Pacific nation.'9


REFERENCES

1 Liava’a, C. (2011) Koe Kau To’a Na’anau Poletau Valiant Volunteers: Soldiers from Tonga in the Great War, Polygraphia Ltd. Auckland. 

2 Wood-Ellem, E. (1997) 'Behind the Battle Lines: Tonga in World War II' In: Scarr, D., Gunson, N., Terrell, J. (eds)  Echoes of Pacific War: Papers from the 7th Tongan History Conference held in Canberra in January 1997. Target Oceania, Canberra.

3 Papers of Robert Hardy, Auckland War Memorial Museum, MS-1317

4 Hopgood, S.J., 'Tonga's heroes remembered in unique circumstances', 24 April 2020, Radio New Zealand

Cite this article

Bennett, Nelson. Tongan Defence Force. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 30 August 2022. Updated: 6 September 2022.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/features/Tongan-Defence-Force