New Zealand Navy History

Read a list of facts about the Royal Navy, the New Zealand Navy, naval figures and key historical events.

  • There is an intimate link between the Royal Navy and the History of New Zealand
  • Captain James Cook, a naval officer, put New Zealand on the map and claimed it for the Empire
  • It was a naval officer Captain Hobson that signed the Treaty of Waitangi
  • It was Hobson that selected the Waitemata Harbour as the place for establishing the then capital Auckland [our largest city]
  • It was Hobson that selected what was called Sandspit [Devonport] for a naval base and in 1841 Lt Snow RN established the first naval presence in New Zealand
  • 1848-1856 the Great Survey of New Zealand was carried out by two RN survey vessels starting from Devonport.
  • New Zealand Wars – The RN played a role in the wars supporting the land forces in the Northern Wars, Taranaki Campaign and in the Waikato Campaign. Sailors manned the gunboats that went up the Waikato and fought at the major battle of the campaign Rangariri.
  • The RN supported the Tauranga Campaign in 1864 and naval brigades played a major role in the battle at Gate Pa. The city of Hamilton was named after Captain Hamilton RN who died leading the naval brigade in the battle.
  • As NZ developed as a colony we began to think about naval defence – the 1860s saw the rise of naval volunteer units. As a result of the NZ Wars there was a thriving naval base at what is now the Windsor Reserve in Devonport.
  • The 1870-1880s saw the Russian Scare as the colony spent fund to build coastal and port defences. We also bought our first naval vessels with the purchase of four Spa Torpedo Boats. We also began to build submarine mining bases such as Torpedo Bay in Devonport.
  • In 1881 the Auckland Harbour Board needed a new drydock. A decision was made [with the casting vote by the representative from Devonport] to construct a new drydock at Devonport. It was also hoped that having this drydock would encourage the Royal Navy to base ships in NZ. The drydock was completed in 1888 making it one of New Zealand’s and the southern hemisphere’s oldest maritime site. The first ship to enter was HMS
  • In 1889 NZ agreed to fund the Royal Navy an annual payment to station ships in New Zealand waters. RN vessels were based in Australia and did visit NZ. This finding continued through to 1914.
  • At the end of the 19th century the naval base relocated from Windsor Reserve to the reclaimed land around the drydock.
  • In 1907 NZ obtained Dominion Status and wanted more protection for our trade with Britain, nearly the whole market for our exports. By this time we felt more threat from Japan.
  • In 1908 the Great White Fleet made a stop in Auckland.
  • In 1909 Sir Joseph Ward made the singular decision to purchase a battleship for the Royal Navy with a view to form a Pacific Fleet. Unlike Australia, we sought protection from the RN and did not think to form our own navy. At a cost of 2 pounds & 3 shillings for every man, woman and child in NZ we purchased an Indefatigable-class battlecruiser named HMS New Zealand.
  • In 1913 the Government passed the Naval Act for the establishment of a navy in New Zealand. The RN agreed to provide a vessel to be the nucleus of the fleet.
  • HMS New Zealand visited NZ and over half of the population visited the ship at the various ports she stopped at. Maori gave the commanding officer a piu piu and tiki with the request that they be worn in battle to protect the ship.
  • In July 1914 the cruiser HMS Philomel arrived at Wellington to serve as the flagship for the NZ navy. Two weeks after arriving she returned to Admiralty control as the First World War had broken out.
  • New Zealand and the First World War
    • HMS New Zealand fought at all three major engagements in the North Sea and suffered only minor damage at Jutland – she was known as a lucky ship
    • Over 1,000 New Zealanders served in the Royal Navy, Royal Australian Navy and in such units at the Royal Naval Air Service, RNAS Armoured Cars, RN Coastal Forces many New Zealanders fought at Zeebrugge and a few were awarded gallantry decorations. It is estimated that 150 NZers were killed on naval service
    • The first NZer killed in the war died on HMAS AE1 when it went missing on patrol in September 1914
    • NZ’s only naval VC was awarded in 1917 to LT CDR William Sanders commanding Q-ships
    • HMS Philomel after escorting troopships [with Japanese naval vessels] served in the Red Sea 1914-1917. She returned to NZ in 1917 to become a depot ship at the naval base at Devonport
    • The German raider SMS Wolf laid mines in NZ waters claiming two merchant vessels – minesweepers were taken up for service in 1918-1919
  • In 1919 HMS New Zealand made a second and final visit to NZ with Admiral Jellicoe to discuss post-war naval plans. The proposed fleet was beyond the government’s budget but some thought was given to what was possible.
  • In 1921 the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy was established and would be based at the naval base in Devonport. The cruiser HMS Chatham was sent out to act as the first ship for the Division
  • In 1924-25 Chatham was replaced by two cruisers Diomede & Dunedin. A RFA tanker was taken over to supply fuel oil and the base was developed to accommodate New Zealanders who wanted to serve in the Navy
  • In 1925 the first Volunteer Reserve unit was formed in Auckland. By 1928 the four major centres had their own units. In 1926 a WW1-era minesweeper was taken up for training HMS
  • 1928-1930 The NZ Division was deployed to Western Samoa to assist in the suppression of the Mau Uprising. Royal Marines and Sailors were sent ashore to assist the colonial government. It was also the first time an aircraft was used as a seaplane was taken and operated in 1930.
  • 1931 Napier Earthquake – the sloop HMS Veronica on station with the NZ Division was alongside in Napier when the earthquake struck and the ship’s company provided immediate relief. This was very fortunate as the town was cut off from the rest of NZ and the ship’s radio was the only link to the outside world.
  • By 1937 Diomede & Dunedin were replaced by the Leander-class cruisers HMS Achilles & Leander. These ships carried Walrus seaplanes which were the first naval aircraft to be used by NZ naval vessels.
  • NZ and the Second World War
    • The fleet in 1939 consisted of two cruisers, an armed merchant cruiser, a minesweeper and about 1,300 personnel
    • Achilles won renown at the Battle of River Plate in December 1939 taking on Graf Spee. 300 NZers were serving on the cruiser at the battle and our first naval casualties occurred there
    • In 1940 The German raider Orion laid mines in the Hauraki Gulf sinking a merchant ship carrying gold and a minesweeper. Another German raider laid acoustic mines off Wellington and Lyttleton harbours. From 1940 to 1946 RNZN carried out extensive minesweeping operations in NZ waters
    • NZ’s main contribution was trained personnel – many men went to serve with the RN and Fleet Air Arm – in every aspect of the naval war at sea 1939-45 there is an NZer present serving with the RN or RNZN. BY 1945 over 12,500 men and women were serving with the RNZN in NZ, overseas or with the RN. Over 550 NZers were killed in naval service during the war
    • In December 1941 150 NZers were KIA when the cruiser HMS Neptune was mined off Libya. This was the single worst loss of life and included two sets of brothers.
    • With the outbreak of the Pacific War NZ’s main naval effort was focused in the Solomons from 1942 to 1945 NZ naval vessels served in this theatre of war. It was the only theatre where the RNZN, NZ Army and RNZAF fought together
    • In 1942 the USN arrived in Auckland and began a rapid development of the naval base and leaving a layout that remains to this day. This was also the time that the base was commissioned as HMNZS Philomel after the depot ship that had been tied up there since 1917.
    • On 1 October 1941 with the approval of HM King George VI the NZ Division of the RN was grated the title of Royal New Zealand Navy
    • Both Achilles and Leander were badly damaged in operations in the Solomons leaving NZ without any cruisers in August 1943.
    • In 1942 the WRNZS was formed
    • In 1944 Achilles returned to service alongside the cruiser HMNZS Gambia, the largest warship to have served with the RNZN both ships joined the British Pacific Fleet and served until war’s end.
  • Like all navies NZ underwent a rapid downsizing and we took over two new cruisers which were joined by six bargain price frigates in 1948. The end of the war is also the start of the NZ navy envisioned back in 1913
  • The Cold War brought change to the navy and NZ committed to providing ASW support to keep our SLOC open. This would form the basis of our naval involvement and the type of fleet we maintained until the end of the Cold War
  • In 1949 RNZN commissioned its first survey vessel HMNZS Lachlan
  • During the Korean War the RNZN kept two of its frigates on station with the UN Fleet – this was a major commitment for the navy and pushed our resources to the limit. Each tour was thirteen months in duration.
  • The Korean War was also the last time the RNZN lost a sailor in combat.
  • Most of the action was routine but in 1952 HMNZS Taupo engaged North Korean sampans at Yang Do Island and the NZ frigates went up the Han River to provide naval gunfire support
  • In a break with our history and tradition in 1952 NZ joined with Australia and the United States to form the ANZUS Pact – this began a focus to Southeast Asia and the Pacific and away from Britain and our historical links to Empire.
  • The RNZN provided limited support to the Malayan Emergency – one of the frigates and the cruiser HMNZS Royalist carried out shore bombardments. However the main task for our ships at this time was to be part of the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve.
  • In 1951 a naval radio station was commissioned at Waiouru. This had existed in the Second World War and in 1945 supported the operational communications of the British Pacific Fleet. It was decommissioned in the 1990s.
  • In 1956 The RNZN purchased a ship to assist in the expedition to cross the Antarctic which include the hero of Everest Sir Edmund Hilary. The sailors also helped build the NZ permanent base – Scott Base. Direct naval support continued through to 1971.
  • In 1957-58 RNZN provided two frigates to support the British thermonuclear testing programme Operation GRAPPLE.
  • In 1960 the RNZN purchase its first major surface combatant with the commissioning of the Otago-class frigate HMNZS It was followed by HMNZS Taranaki.
  • In 1963 the training establishment HMNZS Tamaki was brought from Motuihe Island to Narrowneck, Devonport
  • From 1962 to 1966 the RNZN provided vessels to operate alongside the Commonwealth navies during the Indonesian confrontation. In June 1966 the RNZN fired its guns for the last time in anger when a NZ minesweeper engaged with Indonesian infiltrators off Singapore.
  • In 1966 with the commissioning of the first Leander-class frigate HMNZS Waikato, naval helicopters first entered service with the RNZN
  • In 1968 the White Ensign was changed and NZ was issued our own White Ensign with the four red stars from our national flag.
  • In 1969 the RNZN could be called a true NZ navy as the last of the RN officers left service and the leadership was all New Zealanders
  • In 1973 as part of a direct pledge to the electorate, the Labour government sent two frigates as protest vessels to the 1973 French atmospheric testing at Mururoa Atoll in July 1973. HMNZS Otago observed the first test followed by HMNZS
  • In the late 1970s the Navy began a great social change as with new government legislation the separate Womens’ service was disbanded and by 1979 women and men entered basic training together.
  • The late 70s also saw the RNZN in the middle of protests in the Waitemata between anti-nuclear protestors and USN nuclear vessels visiting Auckland – the RNZN had the task of keeping a safe distance between the two.
  • By the early 1980s the RNZN moved to an all-Leander-class frigate fleet and we operated four of the vessels. We were fully integrated into Western navies and our obligations under such alliances as the Five-Power Defence Arrangements
  • In 1982-83 RNZN vessels supported the RN by taking patrols in the Indian Ocean while their ships were deployed to the Falklands.
  • In 1985 the Labour government broke the ANZUS Pact and it began a period of isolation for the RNZN. In 1985 HMNZS Canterbury was exercising with RCN and USN vessels and was ordered to detach as a result of breaking the pact. It has only been in the last three years that relationships have been restored to pre-1985 levels.
  • Despite this, the RNZN still kept up its commitments. In addition the RNZN took part in many peacekeeping deployments.
  • In 1988 the first tanker was commissioned into the RNZN with the arrival of HMNZS Endeavour III
  • During the 1980s trails of women at sea were carried out and by 1990 plans were being made to fully integrate women into the RNZN and for women to serve on surface combatants. This was achieved by 1994
  • In the 1990s the RNZN began to decommission the Leander-class frigates and was looking for replacements. This lead to the controversial ANZAC-class frigate programme. Originally three were to be purchased but this was reduced to two. HMNZS Te Mana & Te Kaha. By 2005 Canterbury was decommissioned leaving the RNZN with only two surface combatants.
  • In 1992-1993 RNZN personnel were deployed for peacekeeping in Cambodia and operated small craft on the many rivers
  • In 1993-1995 RNZN personnel were deployed to the former Yugoslavia as part of the UN–led operations. This included disarming sea-mines which had been taken ashore for rolling down hills by Serbian forces.
  • Naval training was moved again from Narrowneck to the north yard of HMNZS Philomel ending 50 years of a separate training establishment.
  • The ANZAC frigates were deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of the multilateral force. RNZN personnel operated alongside USN vessels in a thawing of relationships.
  • In 1997 the RNZN was involved in peacekeeping in Bougainville. NZ was seen as an honest broker. The RNZN provided two frigates to house the PNG and Bougainville delegations and meetings were held on HMNZS Endeavour III. This was a singular achievement of the RNZN for which it is very proud. Despite the failure of the accords later on, it was at least a start.
  • With the outbreak of violence in East Timor in 1999, the RNZN again deployed and played a role in the naval support to peacemaking and peacekeeping. This showed the flexibility and usefulness of a naval presence in peacetime deployments.
  • In 2000 a new project was started to change the fleet in the RNZN – Project Protector. This was a major project for the RNZN and the first time that a significant number of new vessels would be added to the fleet. It was proposed that one MRV, two OPV and four IPV come into service to support the existing fleet. By 2007 the MRV entered service and by 2011 the patrol vessels entered service.
  • In 2003 RNZN personnel were deployed to the Solomons for peacekeeping duties – 60 years since they were first sent there in 1942
  • In 2009, proving the worth of the design and concept, the MRV HMNZS Canterbury was deployed to Western Samoa to assist in disaster relief after the tsunami.
  • In February 2011 three RNZN vessels were alongside in Lyttleton when the deadly earthquake struck Christchurch. As in 1931 they played an important role in the initial disaster relief
  • In 2013 a RNZN vessel tied up at an American naval port in Guam. This was the first vessel to do so since the breakup of the ANZUS Pact.
  • In 2014 RNZN vessels will be allowed to berth at Pearl Harbour
  • By 2013 the RNZN fleet consisted of
    • Two ANZAC-class frigates
    • One MRV
    • Two OPVs
    • Four IPVs
    • One Tanker
    • One Diving tender
    • Squadron of Seasprite helicopters