The Navy in the South Pacific in the 20th Century

The history of the Navy in the South Pacific in the twentieth century is one of promise unfulfilled.  During the early years a number of visionaries led developments, and set New Zealand on the path to the establishment of an independent navy.  Of these the most important was Colonel James Allen, the Minister of Defence from 1912 to 1920. 


The history of the Navy in the South Pacific in the twentieth century is one of promise unfulfilled.  During the early years a number of visionaries led developments, and set New Zealand on the path to the establishment of an independent navy.  Of these the most important was Colonel James Allen, the Minister of Defence from 1912 to 1920.  He was determined to change the focus of New Zealand’s naval effort, and managed to get the process of local naval development underway.  He can deservedly be termed the ‘father of the New Zealand Navy’.  His Prime Minister, William Massey, also espoused the cause of a New Zealand-oriented naval approach.  During Imperial discussions, he was apt to speak with exaggeration about New Zealand’s great naval future, predicting that New Zealand would one day emulate Britain, another island state, in the creation of a powerful navy.  My third visionary is Lord Jellicoe, who visited New Zealand in 1919 and prepared a detailed report for the Government setting out how the vision might be pursued.  He then served as a very popular Governor General of New Zealand from 1920 to 1924, privately advising Massey on naval matters.

As we approach the end of the century, there is little to suggest any early achievement of the goal espoused by these visionaries.  The main characteristic of the Navy in the South Pacific has been a constant struggle for the resources necessary to sustain even a minimal naval capacity.  Even in the 1990s the role of the Royal New Zealand Navy is not well understood in the public mind.  A significant minority do not see any value in having a navy at all and are easily seduced by those who argue that New Zealand only needs a coast guard.  In part their attitude is a reflection of the lack of publicity and debate about the roles which the Navy has played over the years in a number of fields.

There are three dimensions to the evolution of the navy in New Zealand: the Royal Navy, the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy and the Royal New Zealand Navy.  The Royal Navy aspect goes back to the very beginnings of New Zealand’s emergence as a colony.  Captain James Cook mapped the islands and claimed the South Island for King George III, Captain William Hobson oversaw the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and became the first Governor of the new colony, and his successor as Governor was another naval officer.  The Royal Navy played an important role in the New Zealand wars, and naval personnel were involved in some of the ground action.  I don’t intend today to look at this aspect, but it is important to remember that the Royal Navy forms a backdrop to New Zealand naval activity right up until quite recent times.  And, of course, the Royal Navy’s traditions and its practices permeate New Zealand’s naval establishment even today.

The second element in New Zealand’s naval development was the creation early this century of separate New Zealand naval forces.  New Zealand in effect followed an Australian example, albeit with some important differences of emphasis, at least in theory.  There was a split in New Zealand opinion as to the course that New Zealand should adopt.  The Liberal administration of Sir Joseph Ward from 1906 to 1912 was firmly of the view that New Zealand was too small to set out on any independent naval path, and firmly against being subsumed within an inevitably Australian-dominated Australasian force.  It accepted the Admiralty’s view, which was summed up succinctly in the Mahanic phrase: One sea, one Navy.  Ward took this approach to its extreme in 1909 when he offered to defray the cost of a capital ship, and another if necessary, for the Royal Navy to help ensure its superiority over the rising German fleet.  The manifestation of this dramatic intervention was HMS New Zealand, which visited the South Pacific twice, in 1913 and 1919, and was present at all the Grant Fleet’s clashes with the German High Seas Fleet in the First World War.  In the South Pacific Ward’s Government considered New Zealand’s best course to be to continue subsidising the Royal Navy squadron on the Australian Station, an arrangement which met New Zealand’s requirements for a naval presence and allowed the training of New Zealanders for naval service.

This Liberal approach was challenged by the opposition Reform Party.  James Allen argued that New Zealand should make a start with its own naval development, and should co-operate closely with Australia.  He got his opportunity to advance this cause when the Liberal Government fell in 1912, and was replaced by a Reform Government led by Massey.  In some difficult negotiations with the Admiralty in 1913, he managed to secure agreement to British assistance in developing a local naval capacity, starting with the loan of a training cruiser.  The Naval Defence Act 1913 provided statutory authority for the establishment of New Zealand Naval Forces, and the ageing cruiser HMS Philomel was commissioned on 15 July 1914.

New Zealand’s embryo naval forces were considered an administrative division of the Royal Navy and this was formalised straight after the interruption caused by the First World War with an order in council establishing the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy, New Zealand, had eschewed the trans Tasman model of the Royal Australian Navy.  It had moreover, carefully worded its legislation to provide for the automatic transfer of the New Zealand Naval Forces to the Admiralty in the event of war, or even if war became imminent.  This provision was thought to reduce the dangers to Imperial unity in the Australian legislation, which provided for the Australian Government to make the decision to transfer RAN forces to Admiralty control.  When, however, the time came for these arrangements to be tested, in 1914, there was little difference in practice: New Zealand was bemused to find that it had to ask the Admiralty if it wanted Philomel transferred.  The Admiralty, of course, had other more pressing things to contend with in that first week of the war!

Following the World War I New Zealand re-embarked on the pre-war course.  Another cruiser, HMS Chatham, was obtained.  From 1926 New Zealand settled down to a two-cruiser navy, first Dunedin and Diomede, later HM Ships Achilles and Leander.  These ships were borrowed from the Royal Navy, with New Zealand paying for their maintenance and upkeep.  Most of their personnel continued to be British.  In 1939, only a handful of officers of the New Zealand Division were New Zealanders.  Allen’s hopes of close Australia-New Zealand naval ties were dashed.  In training its personnel New Zealand used British naval schools in preference to Australian ones, if only because they were cheaper and courses could be arranged to take advantage of the cruisers’ refitting programmes.  Some joint exercises were held with Australia but were arranged on an ad hoc basis.  The existence of a powerful outside partner lessened the interest of either Australia or New Zealand in bilateral co-operation.

The third and continuing element in New Zealand naval development is the Royal New Zealand Navy, which was constituted in October 1941 despite the reluctance of the Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, on the grounds that it would indicate a lack of Commonwealth unity at a critical time.  While the change of name had important symbolic implications – New Zealand naval vessels became HMNZS rather than HMS – it did not represent any change of naval approach on New Zealand’s part.  New Zealand continued to borrow ships from the Royal Navy and officers and ratings as well.  In 1950 approximately 25 percent of the RNZN’s personnel were British personnel on secondment, while many others had been recruited in Britain directly.  The British orientation of the RNZN was most apparent at the command level.  It was not until 1960 that the first New Zealand officer, Rear Admiral Peter Phipps, became Chief of Naval Staff, and 1966 before the last British officer left the New Zealand Naval Board, shortly before it went out of existence as a result of a major reorganisation of New Zealand’s defence structure.

The major change for New Zealand came when it was obliged to find the capital cost of the vessels it still required from Britain.  At first this problem was masked – New Zealand continued to borrow British cruisers into the 1960s.  The acquisition of the last of them, HMNZS Royalist, in 1956 was an unhappy experience, and she would eventually end her association with the RNZN ignominiously after engine failure in the Solomon Islands during her last voyage in late 1965.  With the subsequent departure of Royalist, the RNZN was left with a frigate based force.  Shortly after the Second World War New Zealand had purchased six war surplus and therefore relatively cheap Loch-class anti-submarine frigates, and it was their replacement that confronted the Government with significant problems.  Two Whitby class frigates were ordered in 1957, and two Leanders in the 1960s, after some delays.  The Whitby’s were the first major ships deliberately acquired for the RNZN.  The RNZN settled down to a four frigate force, with two further Leanders replacing the Whitby’s in the 1980s.  The replacement of the Leanders was a daunting problem for the Governments, which, however, could not be avoided as the ageing vessels became steadily more difficult, and expensive, to maintain.  During the late 1980s New Zealand agreed to participate with Australia in the ANZAC Frigate Project: amidst considerable public controversy the Labour Government ordered two ships in 1989, with the option to obtain two more.  However, the high cost of the vessels, and continuing public opposition to their purchase, has left the Government hesitant to commit itself to the further two vessels.  Recent reports suggest that New Zealand is seriously considering second-hand American Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates as alternatives for the third and fourth frigates.  While these major vessels were and are the most expensive items, Governments have also been confronted with significant costs in renewing smaller vessels of the fleet, such as the fisheries patrol craft.  In the absence of a serious threat developing, this problem of securing resources for the RNZN appears likely to persist into the twenty-first century, and will serve as a continuing restraint on the size of the fleet.

Turning to the roles of the New Zealand Naval Forces, these may be grouped in four main categories: as an element of defence policy, as an instrument of foreign policy, as an aid to the civil power, and as a provider of assistance to the civil community.  These roles, particularly the latter three, have fluctuated in their importance throughout this century.

The raison d’être of the navy is, of course, its contribution to the defence of New Zealand.  Where then does the Navy fit into New Zealand defence plans, historically and currently?  For a small population inhabiting a group of islands in a vast ocean with no neighbours closer than 1,800 kilometres, seapower was a vital element.  Only by sea could an adversary approach.  Although this has changed with developing technology with aircraft and missiles now having the range to attack New Zealand from long distances.  Seapower remains the key to New Zealand’s physical security, and indeed its economic prosperity (given New Zealand’s dependence on seaborne trade).

New Zealand was settled by the European component of its population behind the shield of the Royal Navy, the predominant navy of the nineteenth century.  When that Navy proved insufficient midway through the twentieth century, New Zealand managed to secure an alliance with the United States, which had, during the Second World War, assumed the mantle of the world’s paramount navy, stronger than all others combined in 1945.  New Zealand throughout its 157 years has been allied to the strongest naval power in the world for all but the period 1945 to 1951 and from 1986, when the ANZUS Treaty was declared inoperative and the United States reduced New Zealand’s status from ally to friend.  It can be argued that a de facto alliance remains in existence, given that the ANZUS Treaty has not been terminated, Australia and the United States are still firmly allied, and New Zealand has a close relationship with Australia.  The strategic basis of New Zealand’s naval defence has, therefore, been provided by its primary allies and this has greatly affected naval requirements in the South Pacific.

For New Zealand, naval defence has been a dual problem – first, to help ensure the continuing viability of the strategic framework and, second, to make provision to meet any dangers that might arise in the South Pacific, with the latter strictly related to the state of the former.  Both aspects of the problem were apparent before the First World War.  At the strategic level the Royal Navy’s overall position was under challenge as both Germany and Britain engaged in a race to build dreadnoughts.  Defeat for the Royal Navy in this sphere would, it was accepted, open the way to the development of a major threat to the South Pacific, given that command of the seas throughout the world would pass to the German fleet.  So long as the British fleet was undefeated, German power would be contained, and the most that might be expected in the South Pacific would be hit and run raids on the South Pacific dominions or their trade.  This was the same type of threat that had induced New Zealand to throw up fortifications at the four main ports in the late nineteenth century, though Russia had then been perceived as the most likely enemy.

New Zealand responded to the strategic threat by contributing to the naval strength on which it depended.  The presentation of a battle cruiser to the Royal Navy was one way of directly influencing this strategic framework of New Zealand’s security, and it was accepted that the vessel, HMS New Zealand, would be stationed in the North Sea (especially once plans for an Eastern Fleet developed in 1909 which would have seen her at Hong Kong were abandoned).  Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, lauded New Zealand’s action:  ‘No greater insight into political and strategical points has ever been shown by a community hitherto adversed in military matters.’

In the South Pacific New Zealand looked to the naval forces of the Australian Station, augmented by Australia’s new warships, to provide the first line of security against raider incursions, with the harbour defences as the second line.  From the time of the Australasian Naval Agreement in 1887 a key New Zealand interest had been the stationing of two of the Station’s naval vessels in New Zealand waters.  New Zealand had agreed to contribute financially to the proposed Australian Auxiliary Squadron – an augmentation of the vessels already on the Australian Station – only on the understanding that two of the Station’s cruisers would be based in New Zealand in peacetime.  This was achieved with the arrival of HM ships Tauranga and Ringarooma in 1891.  The two ship presence, under several guises, would underpin New Zealand’s naval policy until the Second World War.

The assumptions underlying New Zealand’s approach were justified by the World War I experience.  In the early stages, the naval forces in the South Pacific played a key role.  Their very existence, especially the Australian battle cruiser HMAS Australia, was a deterrent to Admiral Von Spee’s German East Asiatic Squadron, which comprised the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and several light cruisers.  This force, based at Tsingtao but in the Caroline Islands at the outset of the war, posed a potential threat to the South Pacific dominions until its destruction at the Falkland Islands in December 1914.  The ships of the Australian Station were active in escorting the New Zealand and Australian expeditionary forces which took the German colonies of Samoa and New Guinea respectively, and later in escorting the two countries’ expeditionary forces to Europe.

But the naval position overall was dominated by the Anglo-German confrontation in the North Sea.  Here the British Grand Fleet, though unable to defeat its German adversary decisively at sea, imposed a strategic clamp on Germany.  Allied command of the seas through the world, with all its advantages in terms of the movement of supplies and men, was assured by the continued existence of the British fleet.  New Zealand, by means of its gift battle cruiser, contributed to the maintenance of this advantageous position, and in 1916 it even offered to present another capital ship to make up losses suffered by the Grant Fleet at the Battle of Jutland.  German operations outside the North Sea were, after the first few months, confined to raiders – and the near successful commerce warfare waged by the German submarine fleet.  In 1917 one of these raiders, the Wolf, managed to penetrate as far as New Zealand and sink ships with mines which she laid off the approaches to Wellington and at North Cape.  The New Zealand naval forces were belatedly set to minesweeping.

The wartime experience therefore reinforced the naval approach adopted by New Zealand, and it underlay preparations between the wars.  Britain would provide the strategic basis, while New Zealand prepared to assist with protecting the sea lanes behind this shield.  The problem was complicated by the rising power of Japan, which emerged from the war as the third largest naval power after the British Empire and the United States.  The strategic implications of Japan’s possible hostility had been masked since 1902 by the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, but this was terminated in 1921.  New Zealand authorities had long regarded a Pacific battle fleet as the answer to this strategic problem – an approach encouraged by Jellicoe’s proposals to this effect n 1919 – but it soon became apparent after World War I, that Britain was in no position to underwrite such a scheme.  Instead a second best strategy was adopted – the main fleet to Singapore strategy, which formed the basis of New Zealand’s naval strategy between the wars.  In an emergency involving Japan, the British main fleet, stationed in peacetime in Europe, would be transferred to Singapore, where a major naval base would sustain it.  This force would contain the Japanese fleet in the North Pacific, and ensure that Australia and New Zealand would only be liable to raider attack.

New Zealand did its best to support this strategy, and in doing so again contributed to the strategic framework of its security.  More than a million pounds was made available to assist with the construction of the Singapore Naval Base.  The New Zealand naval forces were organised on the basis that in wartime they would come under Admiralty orders and would be disposed as part of the overall Commonwealth naval effort as and where required in light of the overall picture, as determined by Admiralty.  A key role would again be trade protection.  They would remain under New Zealand command while on the New Zealand Station.

Once again World War II seemed to justify the New Zealand approach.  To be sure, the Singapore strategy proved to be an illusion.  It fell apart when Japan launched its onslaught in December 1941: the inadequate fleet sent by Britain was quickly sunk and the Singapore base soon succumbed to the Japanese driving down through Malaya.  But Japan was defeated by seapower – that of the United States Navy.  The battles of Coral Sea and Midway in 1942, particularly the latter, were crucial.  At Midway the Japanese lost the strategic initiative when the heart of its carrier fleet was sunk, and this removed its capacity to intervene decisively in the South Pacific.  Japanese naval operations in New Zealand waters were confined to several submarine intrusions – far less than the more distant Germans managed.  German armed merchant raiders laid mines and sank ships in New Zealand waters in 1940-41.

New Zealand naval forces were not confined to the South Pacific: at the outset of the war one of the cruisers, Achilles, headed off for South American water, where it took part in the Battle of the River Plate and the destruction of the German commerce raider Admiral Graf SpeeLeander carried a garrison to Fanning Island, and provided a local naval presence.  This pattern would be sustained, with one or other of the cruisers serving in more distant theatres.  During the Pacific War, both saw service in the South Pacific, as did New Zealand corvettes.

Following World War II, New Zealand defence policy continued to be based on the same principles that had underlain defence policy before 1939 – that is, that any major threat would be contained outside the South Pacific and that the local threat would be kept to a minimum.  Indeed there was a feeling that New Zealand was safer than it had ever been, given the balance of naval forces and especially the predominance of the United States.  New Zealand augmented its fleet with the Loch class frigates, and continued to co-operate closely with the Royal Navy.  In 1949 the Government agreed to make available all naval vessels not required in the South Pacific for service in the Middle East in the event of war with the Soviet Union, and exchanges were made with frigates of the Mediterranean Fleet.  The conclusion of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951 further buttressed New Zealand’s local security, and reduced the need for local naval preparations.

New Zealand naval forces have had few opportunities for active service in the last fifty years – the frigates all served in Korea, two at a time, from 1951 to 1953 and two minesweepers were engaged in anti-infiltration operations in Malaysian waters during Confrontation.  Nevertheless they remain an important element in New Zealand’s defence policy, even if New Zealand no longer has the ability, as it did in 1909 or 1927, to contribute directly to the strategic balance upon which it depends.  No less than in 1914 or 1939 New Zealand depends for its prosperity on the trade routes, and the Royal New Zealand Navy’s frigates represent a capacity to assist in operations in protection of such routes.  As Korea demonstrated, the frigates also provide a rapid deployment capacity in the event of a sudden crisis demanding a New Zealand military involvement.

Let me turn now to the second role of the New Zealand naval forces – as an instrument of foreign policy.  There have been a number of occasions this century when the New Zealand naval forces were used to support New Zealand’s or the British Commonwealth’s foreign policy initiatives.  One was the deployment of one of the cruisers to the Mediterranean in 1935 to bolster British initiatives against Italy following that country’s invasion of Ethiopia.  Closer to home, the cruisers were involved in New Zealand’s dispute with the United States over the sovereignty of a number of Pacific Islands in 1938-39.  To reinforce New Zealand’s claims, Achilles was sent up to survey airfields, and to show the flag.  On one occasion she and an American warship awkwardly found themselves at the same island.  In 1930 Achilles was also used to convey the head of the Prime Minister’s Department to Tahiti, where pro-Free French elements had just ousted the Vichy regime, in what was a form of gunboat diplomacy.

Perhaps the most spectacular example of New Zealand naval vessels being used to buttress New Zealand’s foreign policy in the South Pacific was the dispatch of HMNZS Otago carrying a cabinet minister to the vicinity of the French nuclear testing facility at Mururoa in 1973.  There was an echo of this role in 1995 when the survey vessel HMNZS Tui was despatched to the same area with two members of Parliament on board in support of a protest flotilla from New Zealand.

In 1982 a New Zealand frigate was sent to the Indian Ocean to relieve a British ship, which was then deployed to the South Atlantic as part of Britain’s campaign to re-take the Falkland Islands from Argentine forces.  This was the result of an offer by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon in London – carefully calculated no doubt to increase British goodwill towards New Zealand and to assist New Zealand in its trade negotiations with that power.

As in Korea, the frigates have been useful in New Zealand’s support of the United Nations, for example by deployments to the Persian Gulf in recent years to help enforce sanctions on Iraq.  Another important contribution of the navy to New Zealand’s foreign policy was made by the New Zealand frigate which provided the site for peace negotiations between warring parties in Bougainville.  The seagoing vessels of the RNZN ‘show the flag’ with port visits as a matter of routine – all part of the general foreign policy objective of promoting New Zealand’s interests in friendly countries.

The third role of the Navy in the South Pacific has been as an aid to the civil power, especially in the administration of New Zealand’s Pacific Island dependencies.  They were a source of transport for officials at times, and were a visible sign of New Zealand authority.  At times they also fulfilled a policing role.  In 1921, for example, the sloop Veronica was sent to Niue to help quell unrest, and Chatham was later involved in transporting prisoners from there to Fiji.  The most significant involvement of the RNZN in such activities was, however, the despatch of cruisers to New Zealand’s League of Nations mandate of Western Samoa in both February 1928 and January 1930.  These operations were in support of an administration which was struggling to sustain its authority in the face of a Samoan nationalist movement, the Mau.  On the first occasion, it was felt that the presence of the two cruisers, Dunedin and Diomede would overawe the Mau.  Marines and seamen were landed, and some 400 Mau rounded up.  They were confined in a hastily prepared confinement area of the Mulinu’u peninsula, from which they escaped with ease, simply by going round the wire through the sea.  The only serious incident occurred when one of the Dunedin’s crew went berserk with a rifle on board, and had to be shot.  The cruisers departed on in mid March, and the marines followed in May.

Following Black Saturday in December 1929, when a number of Samoans and a New Zealand policeman were killed in an affray, Dunedin was again sent to Samoa.  The Mau was declared illegal, and some 1,200 to 1,500 of its members took to the bush.  In mid January Dunedin landed about 150 men, who were soon engaged in the ‘war in the bush’ – a largely futile effort to round up the Mau supporters.  Several Samoans were shot and killed during these operations.  Dunedin’s Commander quickly realised that his force was far too small to achieve its object.  The enthusiasm of the seamen and marines for the operation rapidly declined, as they became exhausted by the intense heat.  By 12 March 40 percent of the men ashore were sick.  The unsatisfactory situation was unexpectedly resolved when the Mau gave up, and came out of the bush.  Dunedin left for home on 13 March, leaving 25 marines.

The Navy has also played a role at times of civil strife in New Zealand.  During industrial turmoil in 1913 the presence of the Imperial P class cruisers Psyche and Pyramus in Wellington and Auckland respectively had a calming effect on unruly strikers.  The Governor, Lord Liverpool, went so far as to report to London that but for the arrival of Psyche in Wellington ‘a certain section of the Federation of Labour would have endeavoured to proclaim a Provisional Government, which would certainly have entailed bloodshed and serious rioting’.  In April 1932 naval personnel were even more directly involved in restoring order, following riots in Queen Street, Auckland by unemployed workers.  The Police sought help from Devonport, and a party of 32 naval personnel marched up Queen Street from the wharf with rifles slung, while 55 RNVR personnel soon reinforced them.  The following night naval assistance was again requested and 88 men were involved.  For some time after naval personnel guarded key points.  The Navy was also involved in the industrial strife that erupted in 1951, this time as in effect scab labour.  At the expense of severe disruption of the RNZN’s planned programme for all ships and establishments, some 300 men were made available from the outset to work on the wharves, though 200 of them soon had to be withdrawn to man some 20 coastal vessels.

The fourth role of the navy in the South Pacific has been in aid of the civil community.  This has been both routine and to meet sudden emergencies.  As an example of the latter, the Navy had a notable presence at Napier following the devastating earthquake there in February 1931.  Fortuitously the sloop Veronica was present in the port when the earthquake struck.  It quickly summoned help in the form of the two cruisers, Dunedin and Diomede.  They landed seamen and marines for rescue work, and to guard against looting.  New Zealand naval vessels have been involved in numerous hurricane relief exercises in the Pacific Islands to the north.  As for routine assistance, the Navy has been involved in hydrographic surveying (since taking over from the Admiralty after World War II) and fisheries protection, supported weather stations, provided divers to assist the Police, and carried out a host of other minor tasks.

If there are few signs of any early fulfilment of the aspirations of James Allen and William Massey in regard to the Navy, except perhaps in the area of co-operation with Australia, their vision has been achieved in one sense.  New Zealand has developed a naval tradition of its own.  It has created and sustained a small force which has been able to play a variety of useful roles in the South Pacific, often quietly and unspectacularly.  The public perhaps does not fully appreciate the extent or value of these roles.  The long period of peace has lowered concerns about security, and weakened public appreciation of the importance of seapower to their country – a very different situation to that which existed at the beginning of this century.  This has left the RNZN in a defensive position, struggling to sustain its seagoing capacity.  Ultimately its development will depend upon recognition by the public of the importance of the sea to New Zealand and of the need for a capacity, albeit limited, to make our presence felt in the vast expanse of ocean which surrounds this country.