On 22 March 1909, the Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward, invited the Governor, Lord Plunket, to urgently cable London that the New Zealand Government offered to cover the cost of one first class battleship and if necessary two. This was a response to a perceived threat that the German naval building programme would outstrip the British. So confident was he in the support of Parliament that it was made without prior approval, a point which caused some acrimony, not that the offer was unsupported, but that the approval of Parliament was not sought first.
Built by Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering, Glasgow, HMS New Zealand was launched on 1 July 1911 and commissioned on 19 November 1912. It was a battle cruiser of the Indefatigable class displacing 18,800 tons with a main armament of eight 12 inch guns and a speed of 25.5 knots. While building, some items with a New Zealand flavour were added, e.g., a large carving of the coat of arms of New Zealand, commissioned by New Zealanders living in London, was fixed to the after part of the superstructure while another, smaller, carving of the coat of arms was fixed to the front of the bridge. From the former ship of the name, now Zealandia, came a silver bell with a bronze hanging bracket in the form of a Maori head. These had been funded by the school children of New Zealand by penny trails and some of the pennies were used to make the head. The cost of the ship was £1,706,000.
It was intended that New Zealand would be the flagship of the China Station, based in New Zealand, with a portion of the China Squadron. However the political situation in Europe resulted in it being retained in the North Sea. On board were a number of New Zealanders including, Lieutenants David Boyle and Rupert C. Garcia, Sub Lieutenant Barcroft, Midshipman H.B. Anderson, and Leading Seaman Robert Greening.
It was a battle cruiser of the Indefatigable class displacing 18,800 tons with a main armament of eight 12 inch guns and a speed of 25.5 knots.
In February 1913 New Zealand was detached for special service – a trip around the world – partly to encourage other dominions to similarly fund a ship and also to show the ship to the people of New Zealand. It visited 47 ports, 18 of them in New Zealand, on a cruise lasting nine and a-half months. In New Zealand 368,118 people visited the ship, from a total population of about 800,000.
In many places, gifts were presented to the ship including a magnificent silver tea service from the Auckland Harbour Board and a pair of silver drums from the Women’s Patriotic League. The women of New Zealand also presented a silk White Ensign and Union Jack. On board during the voyage was Pelorus Jack, a bulldog donated by a New Zealander resident in London, named after a famous New Zealand dolphin.
In New Zealand 368,118 people visited the ship, from a total population of about 800,000.
While in New Zealand a prominent Maori took passage between some ports and instructed a number of the crew in some aspects of Maori culture and instituted the formation of what was called a “Haka Party”. This was maintained until the ship finally paid off in 1920.
While in New Zealand, a Maori Chief made a prophesy to the effect that the ship would soon be in battle, but that none of the crew would be injured. At the time it was dismissed, because it was expected that on return to England the ship would be recommissioned and manned with an essentially new group of personnel.
However, this did not eventuate and when war broke out in August 1914 the crew was the same as that which had visited New Zealand. It has been reliably reported that on each occasion of the ship going into action the Captain wore a greenstone tiki and at the actions of Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank he also wore a Maori piupiu. At the Battle of Jutland, Captain Green who had relieved Captain Halsey was somewhat round and it is reported he had the piupiu with him but did not actually wear it.
New Zealand formed part of the Battle Cruiser Fleet (BCF), under Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty and the first act of war was to paint a White Ensign on either side of the foretop, so that it could never be said that the ship had struck its colours to the enemy. In keeping with its heritage a Maori face was painted on the central top. The officer in charge of ‘X’ turret was Lieutenant Boyle.
The ship was soon in action. On 28 August an operation was mounted against the German destroyer forces based in the Heligoland Bight and the BCF was part of the supporting force. At 10.15am Invincible opened fire on a submarine, which later fired a torpedo that passed across the bows of New Zealand. At about 12.40pm the leading battle cruisers opened fire. As the range closed the target was seen to be the German light cruiser Köln and at 1.05 pm a torpedo fired by New Zealand hit Köln amidships. Shortly afterwards the BCF disengaged.
New Zealand received a special New Year gift from the dominion in early 1915. The Governor, Lord Liverpool taking-up a collection for amenities for the ship had amassed approximately £350. This was remitted to Captain Halsey for the purpose of providing extra oilskins and other such comforts and he considered necessary.
On 23 January 1915 the fleet commanders were informed that units of the German Fleet were to sortie from Heligoland. On 24 January, having sailed in haste the previous evening, the BCF met a force of German battlecruisers in what has become known as the Battle of Dogger Bank. New Zealand sighted the German ships at 8.00am but it was not until 9.35am that they were in range and fire was opened on SMS Blucher, which remained its target throughout. Beatty’s flagship, Lionwas hit and he effectively lost control of his ships, resulting in a less than satisfactory outcome for the British.
At 3.45 pm on the afternoon of 22 April 1916 an unfortunate incident occurred involving New Zealand. It was very foggy and the battle cruisers were zig-zagging at 191/2 knots when HMAS Australia collided with her sister ship. New Zealand lost a propeller and had some dents to the armour belt on the port side, however the damage to Australia was much worse, putting it out of action for several weeks.
In late May both the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet planned operations to bring their enemy to action. The German operation had to be completed by 30 May but the movements of their ships were reported to the British and the Grand Fleet was ordered to sea. The two fleets met in a confused battle on 31 May in the Battle of Jutland. New Zealand went to action stations at 2.45pm and sighted the German battle cruisers at 3.26pm, shortly afterwards opening fire. HMS Queen Mary, immediately ahead of New Zealand in the line was hit and blew-up, some bits falling on the ship. Soon after New Zealand was hit on ‘X’ Turret, that of Lieutenant Boyle, by SMS Von Der Tann. Fortunately the damage was minimal and the turret was soon back in action. Darkness closed the action for the day and a series of blunders resulted in the German fleet being able to return to port without being brought to action again.
For New Zealand, the remainder of the war was one of routine patrols. Admiral Sheer took the High Seas Fleet to sea on two more occasions, but there was no major engagement. Although occupied with patrol duties some men were spared from the Grand Fleet for the raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend in April 1918
During the early morning of 21 November 1918 the Grand Fleet sailed South East from Rosyth, to take the surrender of the High Seas Fleet. Once at anchor each British ship was made responsible for searching one of the Germans, New Zealand being responsible for the battle cruiser SMS Derfflinger.
In 1919 Admiral Jellicoe was despatched in New Zealand to report on the naval defences of the Empire. Additional accommodation was built for the Admiral, his wife and staff and residual damage from the collision with Australia was also repaired. Despite the lack of information provided to the Admiral and the non-binding nature of his recommendations, those relating to New Zealand were to have long lasting effects on the composition of the New Zealand Naval Forces.
Crossing the equator on 8 May the ceremony associated with this event was carried out. So complete were the arrangements for this, of which David Boyle was a principal organiser, that it became the ‘normal’ form of such ceremonies in naval ships. While at Auckland, the Admiral travelled to Takapuna and unveiled a memorial at the primary school, to Lieutenant Commander W.E. Sanders VC, DSO, RNR, a former pupil.
New Zealand returned to Portsmouth on 3 February 1920 and paid off soon afterwards. The design of the ship had been superseded at the time of its construction and it was one of those scrapped by Britain under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1921. Many items of use were sent to New Zealand, including the 4 inch guns and the ship’s silver.
Although not a New Zealand ship in the sense that the Government of this country had no control over it, HMS New Zealand represented the Dominion in a way that no other ship could. When in battle a large New Zealand ensign was flown and its progress was followed in the press and congratulatory messages were sent to the ship by the New Zealand Government on each occasion that the ship was in action.