The Royal Navy had a significant involvement in the Waikato Campaign in 1863. This was part of an over pattern of naval support during the New Zealand Wars. Read an overview about the Waikato Flotilla, the Gunboat Pioneer and the Battle of Rangiriri.
The Royal Navy had a significant involvement in the Waikato Campaign in 1863. This was part of an over pattern of naval support during the New Zealand Wars. It had taken an over a year of preparation before Cameron felt confident to open the campaign against the Waikato tribes. Prior to the campaign opening, Grey wrote that arrangements had been made for “placing an armed steamer upon it [the Waikato River] which would enable us…to undertake operations with facility and a fair prospect of success.” When Cameron crossed the Mangatawhiri Stream on 12 July 1863 unopposed it was because Maori had not reached this position in order to defend the crossing. Cameron proceeded deliberately slowly and was in no rush. The final victory was due in great part to the participation of the Royal Navy both on land and on the Waikato River.
The Waikato Flotilla
The collection of vessels used by the British on the Waikato River is commonly known as the ‘Waikato Flotilla’. The naval personnel who served in the Waikato formed part of the 12,000 strong force assembled by General Cameron. While that number seems impressive, only about 2,000 men were committed to direct contact during the campaign. Many troops were responsible for the logistical train and guarding the rear areas as the British advanced. There were no roads or useable tracks for the British so these had to be created by had mile after mile. This took manpower. The Waikato River was the dominant feature of the campaign and it was able to be used by steam vessels. It pointed like a dagger into the heart of the Kingite territory. Control of this ‘water highway’ would make or break the campaign and overcome the lack of roads on dry land. The mouth of the river at Port Waikato was a major port in the 1860s.
The impetus for the formation of the flotilla came from Governor Sir George Grey. He realised, as did General Cameron that the lines of communication and supply would be long and need to be secured and both men knew it would be a long campaign. To maximise the potential of the river Grey purchased vessels. They would be supported by the Great South Road, which would bring supplies southwards to meet up with water transport. Grey placed an order in late 1862 for a steam powered gunboat for use on the river.
There was a hiccup to the naval involvement in the Waikato campaign when the Commodore of the Australian Station coming to New Zealand to discuss naval participation drowned when HMS Orpheus struck the Manukau Bar in February 1863. Commodore Sir William Wiseman was directed to take up his station in New Zealand for a short period. It was hoped that this would meet Grey’s continual requests for a permanent Royal naval presence in our waters. Commodore Wiseman reached New Zealand in early October 1863, in time to take command of the Waikato River Flotilla during the invasion. (It should be noted that the Colonial Government had effectively passed the vessels over to Royal Naval command for the duration.) Although less well-known than Cameron, Wiseman’s contribution was crucial to the outcome of the campaign.
Vessels of the Flotilla
In all, some nine steamers served on the Waikato River over the period 1863-1870. Three of the steamers – the Avon, Pioneer, and Koheroa – actually served during the period covered by the Waikato War, July 1863 to April 1864. They were supported by four armoured barges and a number of smaller barges.
The paddle-steamer Avon was arguably the first naval vessel purchased by the New Zealand Government. Originally constructed in Glasgow as the Clyde, she was subsequently shipped to New Zealand in pieces and re-assembled at Port Lyttelton. She was purchased by the Colonial Government in November 1862, and in early 1863 was modified for service at Onehunga. The modifications involved the installation of iron plates, each six feet long by three feet wide and ¼ inch thick, along the bulwarks and down to the water line. She displaced 43 tons, was nearly 18 metres in length, and mounted a single 12-pounder Armstrong breachloading gun on her bow. Her shallow draft of just one metre made her ideal for river operations. Avon even had her own rudimentary self-defence system: “…pipes were fixed in connection with the boiler, so that a stream or jet of scalding water could be thrown upon any party of natives attempting to board.” Avon was towed from Onehunga to Port Waikato on 25 July 1863, and two days later steamed south to the junction of the Mangatawhiri Stream and the Waikato River, where she was tied up until her first engagement two weeks later.
Pioneer was the first warship to be purpose built for the New Zealand Government. She was built over a period of just a few months by the Australian Steam Navigation Company in Sydney, and towed to New Zealand by HMS Eclipse. Originally named Waikato, the new vessel had her name changed to Pioneer after arriving here. She was modified in Onehunga, with the installation of two iron gun turrets (each nearly four metres in diameter and 2½ metres high). Each turret mounted a 12-pounder Armstrong, and was loopholed for small arms. These two turrets still exist, as war memorials in Mercer and Ngaruawahia. She was able to carry 500 men in light order. Pioneer arrived in Port Waikato on 3 October 1863.
At the same time as the modifications to these first two vessels were being carried out, the Government had also purchased four coastal sailing cutters for conversion to armoured troop and cargo barges. These small vessels (each between 9 and 11 metres in length) were armour plated and armed with a 12-pounder Armstrong and a 4.4-inch Coehorn mortar. Each had a crew of seven, under the command of a junior naval officer. They were given decidedly unmilitary names: Ant, Midge, Chub and Flirt.
The By-passing of Meremere
The British were not “held up” at all by Meremere. During this period, the Waikato tribes abandoned their usual tactics of pa building. The attempt to interdict the line-of-communication was only partially successful. The actions of Waikato warriors behind the lines were more a case of random banditry due to civil breakdown than an orchestrated campaign of disruption to the British forces. After the defeat at Koheroa in July, Waikato tribes tried to return and entice the British by offering battle at Paparata but the move southwards by the British forces forced the decision to defend at Meremere. It was only ever intended to delay the British so that Paterangi could be completed. 
From early August, Avon began to reconnoitre Meremere and the river bank to its south and in doing so came under fire for the first time. As would be expected, there was no damage sustained. She returned fire with shells and Congreve rockets, apparently inflicting some casualties. Cameron anticipated moving against the pa in late October – by which time Pioneer would be available – and on 29 October conducted his own reconnaissance on board the Pioneer. A war correspondence aboard the vessel recalled the experience of being under fire. The first shots fell short, endangering the Maoris more than their target itself. Finally:
“…a jet of water spouted up alongside the gunboat; she was hit at last. A broken rocket tube fell on board, but without any injury resulting. The natives had evidently dug up this projectile and used it as a charge of langridge. [The steamer fired] and the fragments of a shell tore up the ground about the rifle pits at the landing. Another followed, and another, while not a movement was made in the native position. Now a sharp crack was heard in another direction, followed by a sustained hissing sound – the 40-pounder Armstrong gun had sent its shell from Whangamarino, and this burst over the long line of rifle pits on the hill-top. The steamer again fired and alternately the 40-pounder fired, the missiles bursting over every part of the position…[After a pause, the Maoris returned musket fire]. The balls pinged on the steamer and pattered on the iron plating, occasionally going through an opening or glancing off one of the cupolas. No one was struck, save perhaps some man in his coat-skirt or the brim of his hat….Cameron and his staff had now made themselves acquainted with the nature of the position; and at each loophole a sketch was being made, while the natives expended their ammunition in vain.”
During another reconnaissance the next day (the 30th), Pioneer received her most serious damage of the campaign, when a seven pound baker’s weight, fired from a Maori cannon near the water’s edge, penetrated her hull and lodged itself in a barrel of beef. The Maori gunners were hampered by a shortage of ammunition, and in addition to using shop weights fired large nails and fragments of the Congreve rockets earlier fired by Avon. The attack against Meremere was launched the next day, on 31 October. Cameron’s plan involved a three-stage operation. During the first stage, while guns shelled the main position from Whangamarino redoubt (nearly two kilometres away), Avon and Pioneer would shell the pa from the River, before landing 600 troops at Takapau, 12 kilometres to the rear. In the second stage, another 600 troops would be landed at Takapau. Once they were in position, these troops would deliver the main attack against the rear of the pa, which Cameron perceived to be the weakest point. This was the third stage. Although a relatively simple plan, for the period it was relatively innovative, especially with regard to the use of water to transport the troops.
The failure of the Waikato defenders strategy at Meremere came about with the ease of manoeuvre Cameron had at this stage of the campaign. A strategy had been agreed upon by the Waikato tribes to operate on the flank of Cameron’s forces moving into the Waikato and cut off his line of communication with Auckland. Three pas were constructed at Paparata, Pukehana and Meremere. All were designed to stop the southward progress of Cameron’s troops. None of these positions was ever attacked. From an operational and strategic purpose, Meremere would only ever be a significant position if the British were forced to conduct an assault. The deployment of technology, such as the armoured gunboats towing armoured barges, negated the need to launch such a fruitless and potentially costly attack. There were three reasons for this failure to stop the British at Meremere.
Firstly, the defenders had no way of preventing vessels moving upriver past the pa in spite of the presence of artillery within the defences. The combination of rudimentary training and improper ammunition combined with poorly mounted artillery was insufficient to stop the vessels from sailing past the position. For example, the 24-pdr carronade that fired upon Pioneer was using ammunition consisting of chains and seven-pound iron weights. It penetrated the armour but was stopped by a cask placed for protection and did not hinder movement.
Secondly, it was the ease with which Cameron was able to gain intelligence on the strength and location of the pa. The armoured steam-powered vessels enabled him to sail past the pa and withstand any fire from the defenders and allow the gathering of vital information. For example, this freedom of movement allowed Cameron to conduct three main reconnaissance efforts using the armoured vessels Avon and Pioneer. The speed at which the British moved meant that they left behind a large group of Maori who were seen moving along the river trying to fire upon the fleet. The result of the intelligence gained undoubtedly influenced Cameron’s decision to bypass the position as it was a very formidable position to conduct a land-based attack.
Battle of Rangiriri
While the Waikato River gave Cameron the opportunity to manoeuvre, he was still dependent upon land transport. It was at Rangiriri that a frontal attack against a hard surface was necessary. In order to ensure the logistical support for further campaigning in the Waikato, a supply route road had to be forced through this narrow piece of dry terrain which had been wisely chosen as a piece of terrain to defend, with the knowledge that the government forces had no choice but to attack.
Cameron moved against Rangiriri on 20 November. His plan was similar to Meremere. 900 of his force, together with a battery of artillery, would advance against the pa from Meremere, while Avon and Pioneer would drop a force of 520 men to the rear. In the event, due to the strength of the current and the wind the ships were unable to land the men until after 4.30pm. Thereafter the waterborne force quickly overran the rear positions, and the main attack began.
Upon arrival of the British force, the pa was manned by 500 defenders and there was a further 400 warriors under Wiremu Tamihana nearby as reinforcements. This position was unique. It had no palisade, uneven construction, defended on both sides, and a nasty surprise in the unobserved traverses and the redoubt. Cameron believed the position could be taken in reverse by landing a force in the rear. Cameron noted from his initial reconnaissance at the end of October:
“The entrenchment…appeared to be open from enfilade from the river, besides seeming otherwise informidable [sic]. It is a common embankment thrown up, with a trench cut in front of it…”
The naval artillery was also ineffective. Naval guns were intended to rake the defenders rifle pits but the clever construction prevented any effective suppression by Pioneer’s guns. The gunboat had run aground and lost time due in part to the river being in flood. The poor steerage of Pioneer and the slow speed of the steamers meant that the vessels were unmanageable given the strength of the wind and current conditions. The vessels not get close enough to the bank to deliver an enfilade fire in the trenches. The consequence of this problem was that Pioneer masked the fire of the other gunboats, which were retrictd to lobbing the occasional shell. Just as with the land-based guns, the naval artillery was not designed for high-angle fire. In summary, there were many reasons for the failure of the artillery preparation. These include the gunboats had been ineffectual in clearing the rifle pits hindered by the problems Pioneer had.
After the failure of the infantry assault against the pa, it was at this stage that General Cameron called the Naval Brigade to take up the attack armed with pistols and cutlasses. The reason for their use was that he believed that the defenders were caged in and his infantry could not get at them. This command decision requires some explanation as Cameron’s own account is very vague on the issue. It must be noted here that the naval party were not infantry trained Royal Marines but sailors. There were very few marines on vessels serving in New Zealand. The question here is what exactly Cameron expected from a lightly armed naval party without basic infantry skills assaulting a well-defended and difficult position. The presumption can be made that because they were lightly equipped, they would have a better chance of storming into the redoubt and overcoming the defenders via hand-to-hand combat. Midshipman Foljambe, who throughout the campaign served on the Pioneer, was one of those ordered into the fray:
The General then sent a message to the Commodore, saying that the natives were caged up, and firing from behind their fern on our men, and that the soldiers could not go in; so he sent for the blue-jackets without rifles, and armed only with cutlasses and revolvers. We went straight up to the redoubt and charged them…[the Maoris] only showed their heads for a second, and then bobbed down, and let fly at us without taking much aim…I made a rush through the fire, and jumped into the ditch. We made several attempts to get over the earthwork, but failed. We also threw hand-grenades in amongst them, which must have done a great deal of damage.
By this time it was growing dark, and all night all the blue-jackets and soldiers were lying in the ditch, with the Maoris yelling awfully and firing at us. The Sappers then set to work to dig under them, as we intended to blow them up; when, just before daylight, when the mine was nearly ready for springing, they showed the white flag, and soon after they all surrendered…
While in light of later evidence it appears that the garrison did not, in fact, intend to surrender, the fact remains that by early morning on 21 November, Rangiriri pa was in British hands. The action cost more Government lives than any other in the New Zealand Wars: British casualties totalled 47 dead and over 120 wounded. Of the approximately 50 naval personnel engaged, five were killed and 25 wounded. After the action, Avon and Pioneer assumed new roles, ferrying the Maori prisoners of war and the British wounded away from the battlefield. The journey back was not without excitement:
We brought all the wounded we could carry down in the steamer, and arrived at the Bluff Stockade [at the mouth of the Mangatawhiri Stream] at 10pm, November 21; we had run aground two or three times. We brought fifty of the worst prisoners [sic] and greatest chiefs down with us, and [on the way north] they fired at us [from the riverbank]. The chief Horo Takarei spoke to them, and hoisted a white flag, [after which] they left of firing.
The Naval Brigades’ attack was unsuccessful because of the lack of ladders, the fact that sailors made no headway in storming the parapet. A further attempt to suppress the defenders using hand grenades was also unsuccessful, due more to the poor quality of the weaponry. Failure here comes down to the tactical maze and sailors undertaking the tasks of infantrymen. At this point Cameron is held up by the tactical maze. There was no artillery on hand to drive the defenders out, nor could infantry suppress the defenders in the redoubt and secure a lodgement. This is how the battle at Rangiriri ended.
The British now had operational flexibility to advance in any direction they wished and at a time of their own choosing. The Waikato hope built upon the strategy of hold, inflict and retreat was shown for being the limited strategic/operational/tactical philosophy it was. It could not hope to counter an enemy fighting in an asymmetric manner. Cameron himself was to telegraph Grey when he landed at Ngaruawahia with 500 men on the Pioneer with no opposition. “There can be, I think,” he wrote, “no doubt that the neck of this unhappy rebellion is broken.” After capturing Rangiriri the British drove deep into the Waikato, through the former Kingite capital at Ngaruawahia to Te Rore, near Pirongia. From there Cameron bypassed an enormous defensive position the Maori had built at Paterangi to destroy the agricultural centre at Rangiaowhia, south of Te Awamutu, in February 1864. The destruction of Rangiaowhia was followed by a heavy defeat of a strong Maori force at nearby Hairini, an action which effectively ended the Waikato War. The final act of the drama was the battle of Orakau, fought over the period 30 March – 2 April, an epic which has gone down in history as Rewi’s Last Stand.
The Flotilla’s impact on the campaign: an overview
Many accounts of the Waikato campaign have focussed on land operations: the ongoing controversy about the fall of Rangiriri, the tactical genius of the Maori engineers at Rangiriri and Paterangi pa, and the popular legends associated with Rewi’s Last Stand at Orakau, for example. Nonetheless, it is clear that the gunboats and barges which are the subject of this study made a significant impact on the outcome of the campaign. As James Cowan notes:
Without this river flotilla General Cameron could not have carried on the Waikato campaign. The gunboats and troops they carried enabled him to outflank the Maori positions at Meremere and Rangiriri, to capture Ngaruawahia unopposed, and to keep his army fed and equipped on the Waipa Plain. It was the great water-road into the heart of the country, Waikato’s noble canoe highway that gave the British troops command of the Kingite territory and prepared the way for the permanent European occupation.
There is much empirical evidence to back Cowan’s assessment. James Belich has suggested that, by October 1864, the overland logistic chain from Whangamarino Redoubt to Auckland was occupying no less than 80% of the total forces available to Cameron: for each soldier available to the column of attack, another four were required for convoy escort duties, counter-insurgence patrolling, and so on. Pioneer’s arrival at this point, however, had two significant results: the number of men committed to the lines of communication was able to be reduced, and the surplus transferred to the front; and the whole supply process was able to be speeded up and streamlined.
Without the steamers, either the advance would eventually have bogged down by supply difficulties, or Cameron would have had to abandon the supply chain in favour of moving his whole army en masse. Indeed, this single factor is was makes the Waikato War unique: in most of the other campaigns of the New Zealand Wars, armies took the field as largely self-sufficient units, and effectively pursued their enemy through the theatre to seek out a decisive engagement. Only in the Waikato were supply lines so critical to the outcome. And the steamers were the critical component of the supply lines. In light of this, it must be said that Wiseman’s KCB was as merited as Cameron’s – notwithstanding the delay in its presentation. Neither should we confine our assessment of the Flotilla’s impact to their strategic value. Their requirement for coal (and that of the later boats on the Waikato River) gave impetus to the development of the Waikato coalmines. Further, they ensured the opening up of the fertile land around Pirongia, Te Awamutu, Cambridge and Hamilton for farming and settlement.
For their part, in losing control of the River the Maoris had also lost control of their land. In 1865, shortly before his death, the Ngati Haua chief Wiremu Tamihana (the ‘Kingmaker’) expressed his bitterness to a Government agent thus: “We have stood on Maungakawa [his tribal mountain], we have looked over at Horotiu, and the pain is forever gnawing at our hearts.”
Alexander, Major-General Sir James Edward, Bush Fighting: Illustrated By Remarkable Actions and Incidents of The Maori War In New Zealand, Christchurch: Capper Press, 1973. (1873 facsimile)
Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives, 1862-1865.
Belich, James, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict, Auckland: Penguin Books, 1998.
Best, Eldon, The Pa Maori, Wellington: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 1995. (1927)
Cowan, James, The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period Volume 1: 1845-64, Wellington: Government Printer, 1955.
Featon, John, The Waikato War 1863-1864, Christchurch: Capper Press, 1971. (1879 facsimile)
Foljambe, C.G.S., Three Years on the Australian Station, London: Hatchard & Co, 1868.
Fortescue, J. W., A History of the British Army, London: Macmillan & Co., 1930, pp.475-518.
Lennard, Maurice, The Road to War: The Great South Road 1862-64 Monograph 16, Whakatane: Whakatane & District Historical Society, 1986.
Miller, Harold, The Invasion of Waikato, Dunedin: John McIndoe Ltd, 1964.
Monin, Paul, This Is My Place: Hauraki Contested 1769-1875, Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2001.
Naval Records Club, ‘The River War in New Zealand’, Warship International, 5:2 (1968), pp.120-123.
Taylor, Major Richard, ‘Matelots in Maoriland’, MSI Working Paper Number 1/2000, Upper Hutt: Military Studies Institute, 2000.
Personal interview with Tom Roa, Senior Lecturer/ Pukenga Matua in the School of Maori & Pacific Island Development at the University of Waikato, 10 June 2003.
 Maurice Lennard, The Road to War: The Great South Road 1862-64 Monograph 16, Whakatane: Whakatane & District Historical Society, 1986, p.52.
 Despatch from Governor Grey to the Secretary of State for the Colonies 6 April 1863, AJHR, 1863, (S3) Native Affairs E No.3 Section I, No.12 p. 22.
 Despatch from Lieutenant General Cameron to Governor Grey 13 July 1863, AJHR, 1863 (S3), The Native Insurrection, E No.5, No. 3, p. 6.
 Richard Taylor, Matelots in Maoriland: The Waikato Flotilla and the Waikato War 1863-1864.
 John Featon, The Waikato War 1863-1864, Christchurch: Capper Press, 1971 (1879 facsimile), p. 34.
 J.W. Fortescue, A History of the British Army, London: Macmillan & Co., 1930, pp. 496.
 Paul Monin, This Is My Place: Hauraki Contested, Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2001, p. 195. See also James Belich The New Zealand Wars, pp. 133-141.
 Tom Roa interview, June 2003.
 Cited in James Cowan, The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period Volume 1: 1845-64, Wellington: Government Printer, 1955, pp. 319-320.
 Maurice Lennard, The Road to War: The Great South Road 1862-64 Monograph 16, Whakatane: Whakatane & District Historical Society, 1986, p. 124. Belich makes the claim in the Oxford Illustrated History of New Zealand that the fire was “fast and accurate.” This is an improbability given they were-muzzle loaders and by their very construction highly inaccurate. The artillery in the pa was insufficient to stop any vessels due to calibre and ammunition. The defenders would have needed batteries of heavier land-based guns to stop Pioneer and the Avon.
 Cameron undertook two personal reconnaissances, the first on 3 October 1863. The Pioneer was sailed up to the pa while under fire from the defenders. The ship replied along with land artillery from the redoubt. The next day a second patrol was conducted and sailed upriver bypassing Meremere and reaching to the pa at Rangiriri.
 Maurice Lennard, The Road to War: The Great South Road 1862-64 Monograph 16, Whakatane: Whakatane & District Historical Society, 1986, p. 124.
 Daniel P. Bolger, ‘Maneuver Warfare Reconsidered’, Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology, Richard D. Hooker Jr. (ed.), Novato CA: Presido Press, pp. 27-29. Bolger outlines the failings of those who would propose the application of Manoeuvre Theory to every campaign.
 Maurice Lennard, The Road to War: The Great South Road 1862-64 Monograph 16, Whakatane: Whakatane & District Historical Society, 1986, p. 160. See also Cowan, The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period Volume 1: 1845-64, p. 332. This party did not take part in the battle being too late to fight their way into the pa. Tamihana was eager to seek a peace with the British as he had given his greenstone mere to Cameron as a peace token however, his warriors were still eager to fight. They moved back up river to Ngaruawahia.
 ibid., p. 143.
 ibid., p. 144.
 ibid., p. 143. See also Eldon Best, The Pa Maori, Wellington: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 1995 (1927), pp.400-401.
 ibid., p. 145. See also Major-General Sir James Edward Alexander, Bush Fighting: Illustrated by Remarkable Actions and Incidents of the Maori War in New Zealand, Christchurch: Capper Press, 1973 (1873 facsimile), p. 99.
 Tom Roa Interview, June 2003.
 Maurice Lennard, The Road to War: The Great South Road 1862-64 Monograph 16, Whakatane: Whakatane & District Historical Society, 1986, pp. 147-148. See also Alexander pp. 100-104.
 C.G.S., Foljambe, Three Years on the Australian Station, London: Hatchard & Co, 1868, pp. 29-31.
 Ibid, pp. 32-3.
 Maurice Lennard, The Road to War: The Great South Road 1862-64 Monograph 16, Whakatane: Whakatane & District Historical Society, 1986, p. 155. See also Eldon Best, The Pa Maori, pp.401-402. Heaphy also estimates the defenders numbering 220 holding the bastion and the traverses that came off it. The parapet was 6 metres high and the trench was 4.5 metres deep at the point of attack by the naval party.
 Despatch from Governor Grey to the Secretary of State for the Colonies 9 December 1863, AJHR, 1864 (S4), The Native Insurrection, E No.3, No., 13, p. 9.
 James Cowan, The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period Volume 1: 1845-64, Wellington: Government Printer, 1955, pp. 311-312.
 James Belich, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict, Auckland: Penguin Books, 1998, p. 139.
 Cited in Harold Miller, The Invasion of Waikato, Dunedin: John McIndoe Ltd, 1964, p. 192.