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New Zealand's Fighting Ships and Men at War

The War Illustrated, Volume 9, No. 212, Page 206, August 3, 1945.

A recent official message expressing appreciation of the very valuable services rendered by the R.N.Z.N. contained the passage: “The Board of the Admiralty and the officers and men of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines look forward to the continued co-operation of the Royal New Zealand Navy in bringing about the early defeat of Japan.” Outstanding actions of the R.N.Z.N. are here recalled by FRANCIS E. McMURTRIE.

The Royal New Zealand Navy was granted that title as recently as September 1941, but its actual existence began in 1913. In that year the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy was formed, with a Captain, R.N., as Senior Officer. It was composed of three small cruisers, the Philomel, Psyche and Pyramus, and a sloop, the Torch, partly manned by ratings recruited in the Dominion.

All four of these ships took part in the First Great War. They escorted convoys across the Indian Ocean, patrolled the East African coast and the Persian Gulf, and shared in the occupation of German territory in Samoa and New Britain. After a time the Psyche was transferred to the Royal Australian Navy, while the Philomel was made over entirely to New Zealand for use as a training ship. In May 1920, with the return of peace conditions, the New Zealand Division was reconstituted. The Philomel was joined by H.M.S. Chatham, a cruiser of 5,400 tons, which was presented to the Government of the Dominion by the Admiralty. Captain A. G. Hotham, R.N., was appointed to her with the rank of Commodore, second class, for command of the N.Z. Division.

Within a year the New Zealand Naval Board was constituted. It was modelled on the lines of the Admiralty, with the Commodore as the First Naval Member. This arrangement has stood the test of time, and holds good today. In the years between the two wars the strength of the force gradually increased. By 1939 it included the cruisers Achilles and Leander, of 7,030 and 7,270 tons respectively, both maintained at the charge of the New Zealand Government. A couple of sloops attached to the station remained the responsibility of the Admiralty.

There were besides certain local units which were entirely New Zealand property; these were the veteran training ship Philomel, built as long ago as 1890, the trawler Wakakura and the fleet tug Toia. To these have since been added five corvettes – one of which has been lost – and 18 additional trawlers. The latter are mostly organized in flotillas for minesweeping. Most recent and important of the war additions is the fine new cruiser Gambia, of 8,000 tons.

In the Battle of the River Plate, one of the three cruisers which drove the Admiral Graf Spee into Montevideo, a beaten ship, was the Achilles. She was largely manned by New Zealanders, who were highly commended by their commanding officer, Captain W. E. Parry, in his report after the action. Though no less hotly engaged than her consorts, the Achilles was more fortunate in that she received damage of a less severe nature. All eight of her 6-in. guns continued to fire throughout the action. In the final phase she was assigned the task of shadowing the Admiral Graf Spee right up the estuary of the Plate until it was certain she was entering the port of Montevideo. Of the other two ships, H.M.S. Ajax had taken a course to the southward of the large sandbank which lies in the mouth of the estuary, in case the enemy ship should try to double back around it; and H.M.S. Exeter, which had been badly knocked about early in the day, had been obliged to break off the action to repair damages.

A Great Ovation for the Achilles

Rear-Admiral Sir Henry Harwood in his dispatch records “the honour and pleasure I had in taking one of His Majesty's ships of the New Zealand Division into action”, and declared that “New Zealand has every reason to be proud of her seamen during their baptism of fire”. As may be imagined, the Achilles and her officers and men received a great ovation when the ship returned to New Zealand waters a few months later.

Her sister ship, the Leander, saw a good deal of service in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. In March 1941 she intercepted the Italian armed merchant cruiser Ramb I, an ex-banana carrier, in the latter area, and sank her by gunfire. Two months later, while cruising in company with H.M.A.S. Canberra, she was responsible for rounding up the German merchant vessel Coburg, which had been acting as a supply ship to enemy raiders, as well as a Norwegian tanker which had been captured.

In June 1941 the Leander was one of a squadron operating against French naval forces under the orders of the Vichy Government off the Syrian coast. Later she returned to the Pacific, and in company with the Achilles and certain ships of the Royal Australian Navy, was attached to the task force of the United States Navy operating in the Solomon Islands area. More than once she was in action with Japanese cruisers and destroyers, and is understood to have sustained some damage.

Amongst the first war-built ships of the R.N.Z.N. to come into service were the three corvettes Kiwi, Moa and Tui. All three were built at Leith, the order for their construction having been placed before the war. On the night of January 29-30, 1943, the Kiwi and Moa, while on patrol to the northward of the island of Guadalcanal, in the Solomons, detected the presence of a Japanese submarine of 1,600 tons. Depth charges were at once dropped, and the enemy was forced to the surface. A brisk gun dual ensued between the submarine, which mounted a 5.5-in. gun, firing and 80-lb. shell, and the Kiwi. The latter carried a single 4-in., whose projectile weight only 31 lb. Several hits were scored on the enemy, which was also rammed three times by the Kiwi. In attempting to escape the submarine ultimately ran into shallow water and struck a reef, on which she was completely wrecked.

On April 7, 1943, the gallant little Moa was lost. She fell a victim to a cluster of bombs dropped by Japanese aircraft during an attack on the U.S. positions at Tulagi. H.M.N.Z.S. Tui, the third of the trio of corvettes, was in action with another Japanese submarine in the Solomons area. She was supported by aircraft of the United States Navy, and the submarine was ultimately destroyed. It is believed to have been one of the largest type, with a displacement of 2,563 tons, and was probably carrying supplies to some isolated Japanese garrison.

These are merely the outstanding incidents in a series of active patrols carried out by these ships in hostile waters. When the full story of their achievements is released, it will be possible to full in the gaps in this narrative. Many officers and men of the Royal New Zealand Navy are serving in ships of the Royal Navy and with the Naval Air Arm.

They have specially distinguished themselves in Coastal Forces, both in Home waters and in the Mediterranean. In the official report of a smart action in the North Sea on the night of March 21-22 last, when German motor torpedo boats were driven off with loss in an attempt to strike at a convoy, it mentioned that H.M. corvette Puffin was commanded by a lieutenant-commander of the R.N.Z.N.V.R.


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