(1919-1939) The Navy in New Zealand in 1939

In 1939 the navy in New Zealand was organised as the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy. Our vessels were operated by the New Zealand government but came under the control of the Royal Navy. Hence all our ships’ prefixes at this time were HMS not HMNZS. Read about our ships, shore establishments, aircraft and personnel.


The Ministry of Defence controlled the navy through the Navy Department. The Naval Forces of the Dominion are administered by a Naval Board, consisting of the Minister of Defence as Chairman, two Executive Officers of the Royal Navy as First and Second Naval members, and an Accountant Officer of the Royal Navy as Naval Secretary and member. The First Naval member is appointed in the rank of Commodore, and holds office as Chief of the Naval Staff, New Zealand. The Admiralty has vested in him the charge and direction of Imperial ships and Imperial Naval interests on the New Zealand Station.The Chief of Naval Staff was the senior naval officer in New Zealand. In the 1937-1938 year the government spent £760,529 on naval forces in New Zealand. This amount also included a contribution to the Singapore Naval Base.

Our fleet at the outbreak of the Second World War consisted of the following:

Surface Combatants:

HMS Achilles [Leander-class Light cruiser]

HMS Leander [Leander-class Light cruiser sister ship to Achilles]

HMS Monowai [Armed Merchant Vessel [i.e. a merchant ship which has been armed by the navy]

HMS Leith [Grimsby-class Escort sloop] – on loan from the Royal Navy. She was sent away from New Zealand with the outbreak of the war.

HMS Wellington [Grimsby-class Escort sloop] – on loan from the Royal Navy. She was sent away from New Zealand with the outbreak of the war.

Matua – [Defensively Armed Merchant Cruiser] – a merchant vessel that had been armed by the Navy but was not used for naval operations.


SS Humphrey – converted fishing trawler taken up for naval service

SS James Cosgrove – converted fishing trawler taken up for naval service

SS Thomas Currell

Patrol Launches:

Lady Gay – private launch taken up for naval service

Wairangi – used as an examination vessel

Wirihana – private launch taken up for naval service

Training Vessel:

HMS Wakakura [WW1 Minesweeper]

Depot Ship:

HMS Philomel [Pearl-class cruiser] – tied up alongside at Devonport – used for training and accommodation.

Hydrographic Survey Vessel:

HMS Endeavour – on loan from the Royal Navy. She was supposed to carry out surveys in New Zealand 1939 but with the outbreak of the war she was sent to Singapore.

Shore Establishments:

Naval Base at Devonport

Navy Office at Wellington

Kauri Point – Naval Armament and ammunition storage and depot.

Calliope Dry Dock – owned by the Auckland Harbour Board but used by the Navy and formed part of the naval base.


Two Walrus seaplanes – carried by Achilles & Leander


In 1939 the Royal New Zealand Navy had approximately 1,200 personnel both officers and ratings. Of these, six officers and 634 ratings were New Zealanders. The rest were on loan from the Royal Navy. There was also the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve New Zealand or RNVR [NZ]. There were units of the volunteer reserve located in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin. There were 54 officers and 548 ratings serving as volunteer reserves. These men would train once a week and also take other concentrated periods of training during the year. They would go straight into the navy at the outbreak of the war. The Volunteer Reserves were appropriated to the four Divisional Headquarters at Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch, and Dunedin. Men would enrol for a period of four years and may re-enrol for periods of two years up to twenty years’ total service. They would undergo annual training of seven or fourteen days in H.M. ships of the sea-going squadron or in HMS Wakakura. Note in 1939 there were no women serving in the navy. There are also recorded 13 officers and 144 ratings serving with the Royal Naval Reserve. These were men who had served with the Royal Navy and completed their engagement but were still liable for service in case of an emergency or war five years after they left the navy.