The War Years

On the 3rd September 1939, New Zealand officially declared war on Germany. World War II was an extremely difficult time for all New Zealanders, with casualties of war, loss of life, and at home in New Zealand changes in family structure and employment. Millers lost a number of staff to the war effort but promised them all jobs on their safe return. With the war came a need for uniforms and Millers ability to manufacture on such a large scale meant they became the biggest supplier of military uniforms to the New Zealand Army.  
  • Lest We Forget

    Lest We Forget

    As defence spending had been greatly reduced, especially in the Depression of the early 1930s, New Zealand was less prepared for the Second World War than for the First. However, by mid-1940 some 20,000 men had embarked for overseas service with the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2 NZEF). In total, around 140,000 New Zealand personnel served overseas for the Allied war effort, 104,000 in the 2NZEF, and the rest in the British or New Zealand Naval and Air Forces. An additional 100,000 men were armed for Home Guard duty. The Home Guard in New Zealand was an important force until the threat from Japan eased in late 1943. Of those who served nearly 7000 died on active Army service and a total of over 11,000 died in all services. Nearly 16,000 were wounded as well. Lest We Forget.
  • New Battle Dress Uniform, 1940

    New Battle Dress Uniform, 1940

    In May 1940 a new Battle Dress uniform was introduced into the NZ Defence Force. Clothing manufacturers throughout New Zealand responded well to the urgent needs of war, and switched over to high-pressure mass production smoothly and successfully. During the war years, Millers were credited as the largest supplier of military uniforms to the Army, including thousands of Great Coats and some 60,000 Battle Dress uniforms annually. Millers were also heavily engaged in manufacturing uniforms for the New Zealand Air Force.
  • Battle Dress materials

    Battle Dress materials

    Millers manufactured the Battle Dress uniform for the Army in both worsted and a lesser quality woollen fabric. Because very little in the way of raw materials was imported into the country during these troubled years, supplies of worsted fabric were of necessity drawn from South Island Mills.
  • NZEF Soldiers in Battle Dress, Burnham Camp 1943

    NZEF Soldiers in Battle Dress, Burnham Camp 1943

    At the peak of manufacture a complete Battle Dress was being taken off the lines every 3½ minutes. This was no easy task considering the work required to make the Battle Dress was significantly more than in making an ordinary uniform or civilian clothes. Each Battle Dress, apart from the glengarry hat, contained 104 separate pieces of cloth, drill and Silesia, and required 50 separate operations to put it together. Both overseas divisions and the home forces were soon completely clothed in New Zealand made uniforms, and in the Middle East the Kiwi’s Battle Dress was the envy of the United Kingdom troops, both for the quality of the material and the cut. British officers, in particular, coveted the New Zealand made uniform in preference to their own issue.
  • Tuam Street Cutting Room, 1939

    Tuam Street Cutting Room, 1939

    Due to the number of men who left New Zealand to fight in the war and the huge number of battledresses made by Millers the company inevitably suffered a severe staff shortage. As a result the Executives were approached by Leslie Miller and were asked to work in the factory helping to manufacture the uniforms for soldiers. Executive staff members worked in the factory from 8am to noon, where they worked cutting, pressing, marking in, and shrinking cloth. Their own work, which they had to do in the afternoon, and sometimes the evening, was regarded as of secondary consideration. At the time nearly ¾ of the total output of the factory was for military purposes.
  • Sick and Wounded Fund May, 1940

    Sick and Wounded Fund May, 1940

    In 1940 the ‘Sick and Wounded Fund’ was established in New Zealand to aid soldiers returning from fighting in the war. Millers initially donated £1000 to the fund, followed by a commitment from Millers staff to donate £15 a week to the fund for the remainder of the war. The staff contribution was matched £1 for £1 by Millers. In total, the contribution by Millers and their staff to the ‘Sick and Wounded Fund’ equaled approximately $750,000 in today’s terms. Millers also sent parcels to all of their staff that went away to serve in the war, and Leslie guaranteed their jobs when they came back home. At the end of the war, Millers then sent parcels to war-torn countries including Britain and Germany. These gestures were just a small indication of the generosity of Leslie Miller who before and after the war was highly regarded in the community for his support of a great number of charities and for his substantial gifts to staff and the community alike.
  • Towel Sale, 1944

    Towel Sale, 1944

    A particularly sensational sale from which Millers gained tremendous publicity was the coloured towel sale of 1944. At this time with rationing restrictions and reduced imports, towels were an extremely scarce product in New Zealand. The government imposed regulations stating that retail and manufacturing companies such as Millers were unable to import unless they gained government approval. Millers had received assurance from one of their major suppliers in the United Kingdom that towels were available. The government department however insisted that they were not available and that a licence to import them therefore could not be granted to Millers. A lot of dialogue between Leslie Miller and government officials subsequently began. The culminating action was that Millers announced to the public why they could not obtain imported towels and advertised the quantity of 4500 towels they had as reserve stock in a display in their window and in the newspaper.
  • Towel Sale Crowd, 1944

    Towel Sale Crowd, 1944

    This sale caused a phenomenal upset in Christchurch. The queue of customers, five, six and seven deep stretched from Millers down Tuam Street, across Manchester Street all the way to the corner of Tuam Street and High Street. When the doors opened at 9am the crowds surged forward blocking the opening, women were thrown to the ground and shop staff forced to the back of the store. As soon as they could assistants locked the doors, but by this time those already in the store had swarmed over the show cases and counters, and waving coupon books and money, were demanding towels. The crowd was so immense that several people fainted and had to be hauled up on to the merchandise racks, which stood about 2m in height, at the back of the counters.
  • Towel Sale, Police Called!

    Towel Sale, Police Called!

    By 9.30 the position was completely out of hand and the police were summoned. The arrival of two constables was greeted by cheers from the crowd, and soon they also were down behind the counters trying to clear a space in which the assistants could work. However, the police didn’t completely stop the rush - when a woman fainted, a constable bent down to pick her up and immediately nearby women used his back as a stepping stone to an adjacent counter. When the sale ended Leslie expressed his discontent that people should be forced to undergo such an ordeal to obtain essential articles. Walter Nash (then Minister of Finance) and other Labour officials immediately came to Christchurch and finally gave Leslie permission to import 60,000 towels. It is estimated that the crowd in the store totalled between 5000 and 6000, with another 3000 to 4000 waiting outside for the doors to open a second time. Only about 30% of those who gained admittance to the store in the first rush obtained towels as they only had 2250 pairs of towels to offer.
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