History of the New Zealand Air Training Corps


The first unit raised was at Dunedin High School, now Otago Boys High School, in 1864 making it one of the oldest youth service organisations in New Zealand.  By 1870 there were several secondary school units in existence among the first being Nelson College, Christ’s College, Wellington College and Auckland Grammer.

From 1864 – 1902 the training followed that used in the British Public Schools. The emphasis was on rigid discipline and shooting marksmanship, and it was entirely controlled by the Headmaster; the Army was not involved.  The Education Act of 1902 was responsible for most secondary schools forming cadet units and the Army became directly involved in the Cadets training following their Boer War participation.


In 1911, Lord Kitchener stated, during his visit to New Zealand, that the Cadet movement had an important role to play in the Defence of the Empire. Subsequently, the Army began to provide uniforms, rifles and other equipment to the units.  This Army support continued through World War One with many school cadets making up the officers and non-commissioned officers of the First Expeditionary Force.

The Defence Act of 1919 introduced Compulsory Military Training (CMT) for all males from 14 – 21 years; therefore, cadet training became compulsory throughout New Zealand.  Cadet units were structured into Cadet Battalions. Territorial regiments were raised, and on completion of Secondary school schoolboys were posted to these Regiments.

CMT was abolished in 1932, but most Cadet Units continued at the schools on a voluntary basis supported by teachers who had experienced WW1.  During WW2 the Army could not support the cadet movement, but Cadet Officers ineligible for war service continued to manage the organisation.

In 1929 the first open Sea Cadet unit was formed in Christchurch by the Canterbury Navy League.  Units formed in the four main centres and were controlled nationally by the Canterbury branch of the League.  The Navy League continued to manage these open community Sea Cadet units even when they came under the control of the Royal New Zealand Navy.


The Air Training Corps was formed in September 1941, at a time when the Dominion was considered to be at risk from Japanese invasion, and the British Forces were not in a position to help.  Its purpose was to train potential airmen basic knowledge and provide an insight into Air Force work to prepare young men for the Air Force when they were old enough.

In 1950 after a national referendum, Compulsory Military Training (CMT) was reintroduced for all males of 18 years of age in 1951.  This followed a shift for Defence by regular forces from a civilian force.  Specialist training appropriate to their parent service was introduced for the cadet forces.  The rate of increase in the cadet movement from 1948 – 1960 eventually proved counter productive in the 1960’s, as the Army could not effectively support the numbers while meeting their own commitments.

Meanwhile Compulsory Military Training was abolished again in 1958 and replaced by the ballot system of conscripted service for randomly selected 20-year-old males which operated between 1960 and 1970.  By 1964, the Cadet Forces reached a peak strength mainly in school units of 198 units with 1000 officers and about 54,000 cadets.

Reorganisation saw many schools cease cadet support and by 1965 there were about 20,000 cadets; further changes to support by the Army and the communities reduced school cadet numbers to 34 units and 10,300 cadets by 1970. Open community Sea Cadet and Air Training Corps (ATC) units had, meanwhile, slowly decreased to 55 units with 3,200 cadets.


In 1970, the Government announced the decision to remove funding Cadets from the following budget which had provided the funds for Defence control and support of the Cadet Units.  However, after community representation, the 1971 Defence Act established the New Zealand Cadet Force as a volunteer organisation for which the Minister of Defence was responsible.  The open units were required to be initiated and funded by the community, and the Chief of Defence Forces was authorised to “direct and supervise” the Cadet Forces and provide military support which was initially confirmed as uniforms, training and some equipment at a cost of no greater than $400,000.

Centralised supervision was established by the Chief of Defence Forces of all three Corps, and a Commandant appointed with Regular Force Defence personnel, under the control of the Commandant, provided at 5 locations around New Zealand to support units.  Cadet Force officers were appointed by the Minister of Defence with Cadet Force commissions on a voluntary unpaid basis with authority to wear military uniform and rank.

The role of the Cadet Forces ceased being primarily of military training and the preparation of young men for the Armed Forces and became predominantly adventure and development motivated with a military flavour and about 50% military subjects associated with providing knowledge of the roles and functions of the NZDF.  The new thrust was to provide “good citizenship skills” to young men under the training methods used by the Military Forces.  Female cadets were accepted from approximately 1978, and although the service flavour and well tried and tested services training methods and character was retained, additional training was introduced by units which were desired by them and the community supporters.

1985 to the present day

The loss of Government financial support and turbulent social change in the 1970’s caused school units to be abandoned such that by 1985 there were only 9 remaining units, including the two earliest formed at Christ’s and Nelson Colleges.  Meanwhile, the Sea Cadet Corps had increased to 17 units, and the ATC to 50 in the open community units.  A significant development saw the introduction of NZ Cadet Corps Units (the Army flavour) into the open community to satisfy the demand which the schools had abandoned; the first open Cadet Unit being City of Porirua unit in October 1985.

A resurge of interest since 1989 has seen the unit numbers fluctuate around 100 units; many in areas which did not previously have Cadet units.

At this time, there are 106 Cadet Force units scattered around the country from Kerikeri to Invercargill, and after many lean years the cadet numbers approximate 4000 with 360 cadet officers.  The decline appears to have halted in 1996 at about 3000 cadets.

There is renewed interest in the Cadet Forces by parents and young teenagers for the training provided.  The commitment of the local adults, who have taken on cadet force commissions, and the other unit supporters reinforce this interest.  The disciplined training style, provision of rank by achievements, association with the NZDF and the myriad of skills and adventure activities provided will continue to attract teenagers when well understood and forecast for all.  The success of the activities available, the opportunities given and the qualities and skills gained in the cadets depends predominantly on the local community especially the calibre and role models of the cadet force officers reinforced by the training, guidelines and motivation provided by NZ Defence Force.