The RNZN Gunnery Branch

Why the Western navies dominated in the 19th century was their pursuit of better gunnery and better guns. Read about the origins of naval gunnery, its development after 1941, and the gunnery branch in the RNZN.


Why the Western navies dominated in the 19th century was their pursuit of better gunnery and better guns.  This began in 1850 and continued into the 1900s – designers realised the muzzle loading guns would not be suitable for a turret – therefore breach loading had to be developed.[1] This required a development in metallurgy in order to have breach loading weapons that were both reliable and safe. Sealing the breach became the key point in a successful design note that after some initial failures the RN went back to muzzle loaders only to revert back in the late 1870s – the first mastless warship in RN service was HMS Devastation 1873.[2]

The home of the Gunnery Branch for all the Commonwealth navies was Whale Island, HMS Excellent, in Portsmouth.  At Whale Island every one went ‘at the double’ and the parade ground was of course the holy of holies! However Commodore John Peddie has a tale of circus elephants being marched onto the Excellent parade ground, to the fury of the Gunnery Instructors. All Gunnery Officers (and Gunnery Instructors) were trained to have very loud voices, a habit they never seemed to lose even as they rose to higher ranks. Rear Admiral Linn Tempero was a gunnery officer; he died in office (as CNS) and so was entitled to a full naval funeral, including burial at sea. Some say that was his last joke as a Gunnery Officer, knowing the amount of marching and drill practice it would cause!

1941 – 1950[3]

Gunners and Gunnery have been in existence for hundreds of years, but it was in 1805AD at the battle of Trafalgar that Lord Horatio Nelson, through his total belief, and faith in his gunners, and gunnery systems that he was victorious.    It was said of that time that the Gunners of the Royal Navy (R.N.) were the finest of their day.

Throughout the decades that were to follow Naval gunnery, and gunners have continued to display the discipline, team work, dedication, and skills of their predecessors to ensure their values, and qualities are forged into the principles and traditions of Gunnery branches throughout the Navies of the world.

In October 1941, His Majesty King George V1 granted the New Zealand Navy defence force the title, Royal New Zealand Navy [RNZN]. This was the beginning of the Gunnery branch of the RNZN as we know it today. Over the next sixty three years, many men, and women would join, train, and qualify as Gunnery rates into this very traditional and unique branch of the RNZN.

Around the time of becoming our own identity, the main focus of our Navy was on mine sweeping, and coastal watching around New Zealand which meant that the type of vessels we had were, corvettes, mine sweepers, motor launches, Fairmiles, and armed merchant ships, which were armed with close range, small arms weapons, they were, gunnery platforms, which meant that gunnery was very much to the fore, and training was very much in evidence.

“The men we acknowledge, and identify as the pioneers of our branch,”

“The men who ‘shaped’ and established our branch,”

“The men who guided and structured our branch”

The trainers were known as Gunners Mates, and Gunnery Instructors. Many of them had previously served in Royal Navy ships such as HMNZS Achilles, Gambia, Leander, they had served with distinction and honour during the Second World War, had been part of sea battles, and had known victory, and defeat., they were gunners onboard cruisers with large six-inch guns. These were men of discipline, courage, and principle. Gunners Mates/Gunnery Instructors such as: Spiddell, Bill Lambeth, Ike Cliffe, ‘Hank’ Cowen, John Barnes, Fry, Jacobs, Dick Fordyce, Vic Fifield, Dave McCurrie

The original Gunnery school was situated along the water front block of class rooms just inside the main gates of HMNZS Philomel.  The Gunnery school had an armoury, magazine, three classrooms, lookout, and gun platform. All basic, and class three courses were carried out at the school, with advanced courses in Australia, and first class/Instructors courses conducted in the UK, dependant on numbers available.   Seamanship was also part of the Gunnery school at that time.

1950s and on   

HMNZS Royalist was our last all-gunnery ship. Once the Type 12 frigates came into service with their sonars and ASW mortars, the Torpedo Anti-Submarine branch claimed primacy – although the Type 12s [HMNZS Otago& Taranaki] and the subsequent Leander-class all had twin 4.5″ guns and either the Flyplane 5 or MRS 3 gunnery systems (until the 1990s when HMNZS Canterbury and Wellington were refitted with the digital R76 system for their 4.5″ guns).  The Flyplane 5 systems had their individual quirks, in Royalist it is said that all the gunnery ratings would bow to the Gyro Rate Unit to ensure it behaved during a shoot. So even in the frigates there was plenty of scope for gunnery drills and target practice.

The RNZN’s notorious gunnery ‘blooper’ was the bombardment of the Aussie village of Currarong (NSW) by HMNZS Black Prince in 1955. The cruiser had over-estimated the range and sent 5.25″ (133mm) practice rounds out of the range boundaries and into the village. Reputedly the shot (not shells, they were surface practice rounds) came to rest outside the village post office.

For many years we used Volkner Rock (off White Island) as our Naval Gunfire Support target; it has since been returned to Maori ownership and is now off limits.  Ship-ship gunnery practice used to be conducted in the Hauraki Gulf – over the years various Auckland fishing boats found themselves surprised by nearby shell splashes, or by being lit up by starshell at night. There is the old story of the ship [or aircraft] towing a target for a warship and the shells begin falling around the tow ship (or exploding near  the tow aircraft) The skipper/ pilot radios: I am towing this target, not pushing it! Dennis Davidson was GO and Divisional Officer to (All Black) Buck Shelford (in Taranaki) who was in the Gunnery Branch as a Fire Controlman (and Seacat missile aimer). Dennis recalls taking over a 20mm Oerlikon shoot from Buck and having the gun promptly jam – to Dennis’ embarrassment.

The final chapter of the RNZN Gunnery Branch 

On 1 January 2000 the nation along with its armed forces ‘awoke’ to the new millennium unaware of the dramatic events that where about to unfold and influence the early stages of the decade. These events were going to have a major impact on everybody’s lives, but more particularly in the lives of those personnel serving our nations Armed Forces. There had already been a sufficient change to the ‘shape and structure’ of the RNZN as it geared up to meet the perceived challenges of a quickly changing world. The Combat Force had altered considerably, and a new breed of ship, the ANZAC-Class frigate, had begun to firmly establish itself as the ‘new face’ of our future fighting force. It was far superior by the time of its interception to its predecessor the Leander-class frigates, but it must be remembered that the Leander was a ‘front line’ frigate in her time, and a very capable platform which provided excellent service. Those personnel who had the privilege to serve onboard can attest to the excellent ‘output’ these ships delivered ‘time and time again’ over a wide range of operational commitments.  How would the Gunners of this new era adapt to the ‘wind of change’ which would force them to alter the course, which ‘they’ as a Branch, had been ‘steering’ since ships with manual loaded guns, and main armament onboard, had been sailing the sea lanes.

When HMNZS Wellington was decommissioned in May 2000, this left only HMNZS Canterbury as the sole remaining ship in the fleet with a manually loaded turret in operation. The answer for what the Branch ‘should do’ to adapt to what was happening with its now limited gunnery platform availability may have appeared easy, with an abundance of ‘4.5 inch’ ammunition, and with the cost of each round reduced considerably, and with only the one ship to ‘deliver the goods’ it was perhaps ‘of course commonsense’ that would dictated that the ‘Gunners’ would be keen to de-ammunition ship the best way they knew ‘out the barrels of their beloved guns’, before, unfortunately, the opportunity, and essence of time, would close this particular chapter of their life’s forever.

It can be said that the Gunnery Branch had always been at the forefront of technology in the past. Systems were ultimately designed to continually increase the effectiveness and capability of a ships fighting power. The ‘G’ Branch with its traditional involvement in the training, operation, and overall responsibility for the various upgrades and ‘gold plating’ that occurred to ‘firecontrol and weapon systems’ in the past, meant that they had always been the ‘go to people’ onboard, when new kit was installed. Their expertise, commitment, and pride were always evident when it came to taking control of the ‘teeth of the ship’. But as circumstances were changing Gunners now found themselves being replaced by this same modernisation. The fully automated ‘5 inch’ gun onboard the ANZAC-class frigates would not require the ‘mighty turret merchants’ to throw ‘bricks onto the tray’ anymore, and the firecontrol system, which was also a key component of our ‘profession at arms’ was also to be ripped from our grasp, by the maintainer operator concept, onboard the new ANZAC-class vessels. There would be no ‘add one change around on the mounting’ from the old ships to the new.

The ANZAC-class frigates would however offer many other exciting opportunities for our Branch members, as operations would require the utilisation of other key skill sets that the Branch had to offer.  In many cases these skill sets would have to be enhanced to a higher level than previously, thus increasing them to a level commensurate to the new threat which existed during this final chapter of our history. Once again we would come to the fore, in a new and versatile role, that still demanded the high standards of the past.

However, there is a need to ‘mark time’ before ‘marching through’ this period of what can best be termed a ‘sufficient shift in focus’ on how we were to evolve as a Branch. The precursor for this change in ‘G’ Branch dynamics had actually been working its way ‘up the hoist’ for many years. There had been a number of reviews conducted. In fact, the need to replace the Leander warships of the RNZN was evident from the time of the delivery of HMNZS Canterbury in 1971, since she was the culmination of a fourteen year, four-ship programme of frigate procurement. Although options were debated, and subsequently discarded through the intervening period, by 1984 the Defence Force recommenced a study for the need to push forward with a finalised review for the replacement combatants. It was determined that this needed to be conducted from a ‘clean sheet’ approach.

Because Australia was seeking a ‘second tier’ warship design to supplement its force, it was decided that both of nation’s programmes actually had much in common. The Defence Review of 1987 saw an agreement signed committing both Governments to the joint procurement of new surface ships of the same design for both navies. This intimately ended with the final selection being made, on the new type of platform for the future, which saw the Bholm and Voss MEKO 200 design acquisition being confirmed. This would lead to the birth of the ANZAC-class frigate. Because of the foresight that a new class of ship would, as a matter of necessity, be required to replace the Leanders, as they reached their ‘used by date’, a number of reviews regarding the future manning and Branch structure of the Navy were also undertaken.

The RAN conducted a seaman categories rationalisation study in the early 1990’s in the belief that their structure had become dated and that some of its categories had outlived their usefulness. It was deemed that its current manning template certainly wouldn’t afford the versatility needed to handle the operational requirements across the wide spectrum of operations, and different platforms designs, in service. It has to be remembered at this time the RAN had modernised DDG’s, and an increasing number of FFG type ships, and their technologically advanced systems had therefore demanded new manning concepts. The RAN was also expecting the introduction of four new ship types around this period, one of those being the ANZAC. The RNZN believed that an evaluation of its own structure was also timely and started developing the manning template for its new ANZAC combatants. The RNZN took cognise of the RAN recommendations, but due to the difference between both services in terms of both trade structure and job descriptions, the RNZN incorporated its own review for focused on the alignment of the Seaman Branch rank, and specialist qualifications. It now seemed that the ‘writing was on the wall’ and that the way we as a Branch had done our core business over the many previous decades would have to be changed.

WOGI Glen Stokes who was Gunnery Training Officer (GTO) around this time and he was instrumental in taking the Branch forward into survival mode. There was still a considerable amount of time left where the guns would still need to be loaded in the traditional manner, remembering it is always the ‘man behind the gun that counts’ whilst the ‘4.5 inch’ was still in activate service. What did occur however was the creation of the Weapon Controller (WC) stream, which was the amalgamation of the Firecontrolman (FC) and Weaponman (WP) ‘arms of the Branch’. This was not a new concept, as in the past the FC and WP variants of the Branch had actually derived from the precursory four main sub section of the Branch, which were the Anti-Aircraft section, Control section, Layer section, and the Quarters section. These had originally been formed when it had become apparent that there was so much to learn ‘gunnery wise’ that a rating could not possibly be taught everything  onboard the larger gun ships of the time, and it therefore became necessary to adopt a much more specialised pipeline for training, and for the employment category options for Gunnery ratings.

Now the Branch would have to adopt a ‘one size fits all approach’ and condense itself back into an earlier time where the ‘G’ rating would require the skills and knowledge to fulfil all the aspects of trade. Given that there was by this stage only one Gun Fire Control System in use, which was the RCA 76, this transformation would be manageable. The change however would still not happen overnight and the WC course would first be introduced at the second class level, with many senior gunners retaining the ‘badge and higher specialisation’ they already had.

However, even given this temporary ‘safety net’, there was still a lot of uncertainty about the future of the Branch between 2000 and 2003. There had been ‘talk’ that there would no longer be a requirement to have a ‘G’ Branch at all, even in a revised capacity. There was also doubt about the various roles that the Branch fulfilled, and if they could continue to fulfil what was considered to be the new look operational concepts required within an ANZAC Navy. These doubts were ill conceived. The misunderstanding came from a lack of knowledge about what Gunners actually did, and did ‘bloodily well’, and it was disappointing at the time that a number of senior personnel, who were not Gunners, were involved in this ‘irrational mindset’.

Fortunately for the Branch, the Navy hierarchy, comprising of our senior leadership, who had been warfare officers and commanding officers of ships in their times, did not buy into supporting this ‘poorly conceived idea’ and they acknowledged there was a necessity to have Gunners play an active role in contributing to the new shape and direction of the Navy. It was pleasing to see that commonsense had prevailed in the end. After all there was still a requirement to have specialised personnel responsible for things such a GDP crews, close range weapons, small arm weapons, boarding teams, force protection, ceremonial, and a gambit of additional roles, which we as a Branch were already highly skilled at, and had always taken the lead on in delivering these vital outputs in the past. There was also the core skill of seamanship which still needed a conducted in a safe and professional manner. Because of manning constraints onboard the ANZACs this saw the introduction of the evolution team concept. This concept meant that other Trades were used to conduct seamanship evolutions, under the watchful eye of the seaman experts onboard. It was natural that our Branch therefore became the sole custodians for looking after, and overseeing ‘all things’ seamanship.

By the year ‘2000’ Branch members were no longer identified as FC, WP, or even by our newly introduced WC rate, but were instead called Seaman Gunners, and identified firstly by rank OS,ABS,LS,POS,CPOS, WOS, and then abbreviated as (GUN). This system of identification would remain extant until after the outcomes of the ‘Operations Branch Rationalisation’ review, which was completed at the end of 2003, were instigated. This review recommended that the name of the Branch needed to be changed in order to reflect the expansion of some of the duties it would be undertaking in the future, as well as that ‘we’ needed to “leave the negative connotations, which have dogged the Gunnery trade in recent years” behind. Gunners would disagree that this was the case. Although there were seminar’s, in an attempt to get buy in from the Trade, it was pretty much decreed that this change would happen anyway, ‘like it or not’. The proposed name change for the Branch was Seaman Combat Specialist (SCS), and this name change came into effect in late 2004.

Those Gunners who served through this ‘transitional period’ may believe that the contribution they made to the ‘history’ of the Branch was perhaps insignificant. However, in the hindsight of time I am sure they will look back and acknowledge that they played a vital role in maintaining the special ‘esprit de corps’ and ‘ethos’ of the branch right to the ‘bitter end’. Especially with the operational tempo which were about to ‘switched on’ to ‘full speed ahead’ over these years. Therefore it would not be a fitting tribute, if we did not acknowledge the valued contribution these people made ‘when Gunners were still Gunners’. In fact it would perhaps be an injustice to them, so here is their story at the ‘coal face’.

It has been said ‘that the world loves a sailor’ but when it comes to describing a ‘Gunnery Instructor’ the subject becomes almost embarrassing. He is often seen as the most trustworthy and efficient person, both, onboard ship, and ashore, whose ‘power of command’ is second to none, and whose commitment and loyalty to his ‘team of Gunners’, and to ‘fighting the ship’ for the ‘Command’ is beyond reproach. It was therefore essential that Gunnery Instructors, the pinnacle of the branch, and some would say the Navy, still had a place in the RNZN while the gun, once ‘the final arbiter in naval battle’, was still in active service. The last Gunnery Instructors course to be run in the RNZN was supposed to have been conducted in 1999. The personnel that were earmarked for this highly prestigious course were PO FC1 Steve Poka, PO FC1 Robert Moutere, PO FC1 Shane Dixon, and PO FC1 Tom Seymour. However due to a number of influencing factors the course was cancelled. Notwithstanding this, a year later it became apparent that a final course had to be conducted to provide GIs to see out the service life of Leander frigates. Steve Poka and Robert Moutere, although privileged to have their names put forward, decided that due to the service time they had remaining that they would not ‘muster’ with the rest. Two other personnel therefore come into the ‘frame for contention’ to be a unique part of history. They were PO WP1 Grant Waho, whose expertise and knowledge in the turret would be invaluable, and PO FC1 Andrew Fleck who had excellent ‘system knowledge’ and was considered to be an extremely ‘polished operator’.

The final GIs course was therefore run in 2000, with these selected few making up the ‘last of the chosen’. To say this course was not the most intense course conducted by those students involved would be an understatement. No other course prior to this, or since, had been as ‘testing’. The course instructor was CPOGI Pete Vanderveen, who was a stickler for high standards, definitely a hard man at times, but was also someone that had the ability to alter his instructional style to get the best from his team. He was the ideal person to take on the responsibility of this course. His wealth of knowledge was considered a ‘golden pot’ which he was only to happy to pass on, like all of those GIs before him. He also had a good sense of ‘Gunnery humour’ which was injected at the right times to make the course entertaining to say the least. Pete’s excellent report with course members meant that it was certainly a privilege to have somebody of his high calibre as the course instructor.

As expected, the course members were required to have an in-depth knowledge of everything gunnery. It could be said that they lived and breathed Gunnery 24/7 through this defining period of their lives. There were also numerous assignments, projects, and exercises to be completed ‘in ones own time’, which was a good indicator of what being a good GI really required. That ‘thorough planning and preparation’, as well as the often forgotten execution of the ‘after action activities’ was something that the GI had to be able to accomplish while maintaining the ‘projected image’ of being in complete control. Many a Gunner no doubt fondly remembers the high sea firings they conducted, the loud report of the gun, the smell of cordite in the air – but for the GI there was always that additional work that had to be completed, which was not witnessed by many. Work like the completion of the ‘G’ records and analyses, gunrep signals, and all the others ‘bits and pieces’. However, it must be said that because of the passion they had for the job, and getting that gun ‘to go bang’ as much as possible, that the extra effort was always well worth it, and I don’t believe there would have been any GIs who didn’t always push for as many firing as possible.

The GIs course was thus able to mould people in a special way, and the beauty of it was that the same high standards which had always been demanded in the past remained extant through the passage of time. Those that had gained the ‘GIs badge’ previously had left their legacy, and those inspiring to ‘walk in their footsteps’ knew that they had to deliver the goods and prove their worth before being awarded this same honour. So by the time the last GIs course finished those that had passed were ‘biting at the bit’ to make there mark. There is nothing quite like unleashing new GI’s into the fleet.

One of these GI’s, POGI Shane Dixon, posted onboard HMNZS Canterbury to establish his mark.  Promoted to CPO inside the 4.5 inch turret, adjacent to the left hand gun loading tray, by the ships CO – Commander Cummings – was a fitting setting for any Gunner to be promoted in. Also promoted to PO FC1 at the same time was Steven ‘Penny’ Lane. During this period it had also become common for the ships GI to ‘double hat’ and act as the ‘Buffer’ as well.

The training approach taken onboard HMNZS Canterbury by the GI was to move back into conducting preliminary gun drill ‘by numbers’. These drills had not been trained at such a degree of detail for quite sometime as there had always been those experience ‘G’ personnel to guide the new ‘numbers’ through, so the effort to carry out regular drills in this manner was seen as unnecessary.  However, when you want to achieve the best you need to revert back to the drills which were designed for the highest possible level of efficiency to be obtained. The purpose of this type of instruction was to ensure that the turrets crew, and the rest of the Gunners onboard, had a very good idea and understanding of equipment which they are required to man. It was also to instil into them the discipline and smartness which were essential in gelling together a highly competent turrets crew. Another key aspect was that alert obedience to all orders was insisted on whenever carrying out drill and this flowed onto ‘real time firings’. The same training occurred with the R 76 Gun Fire Control System (CFCS), the GDP and Close Range weapons etc. The Gunners onboard got right into this intense training philosophy as well, and they really enjoyed it, and the end result was a highly polished Gunnery team onboard who were extremely confident in their ability to deliver ‘the goods’. The reason it is essential to mention these types of facts, is to show that the pride of being Gunners, and striving to be the best never altered, and that Gunners of this period were just as good as their predecessors.

A prime example of this was that HMNZS Canterbury, right through from 2000 until her decommissioning in 2005, achieved very good gunnery results. There was ammunition ‘to burn’ and there were regular firings where a high numbers of salvos were ordered, and expended each time – Gunnery Heaven – for all those involved. It was not uncommon for HMNZS Canterbury to be awarded with the best results while conducting different gunnery serials, especially for Naval Gun Fire Support (NGFS), when up against far more advanced Units she still showed her class. Although, even given this level of capability, to provide an appreciation of what the future held in terms of advancement onboard the ANZAC-class frigates we only need to look at one of HMNZS Te Kaha’s early firings. Whilst conducting an AA 5-inch firing against a target towed by a Learjet operating out of Norfolk Island in 2000. Its first round exploded within 10 yards of the target, the second round severed the tow wire at the target, and the third round destroyed the target. And the aim of the shoot was only to trial new ammunition types in the AA mode. This type of accuracy was to become a common trend on these new ‘sleek’ ships.

One of the other huge changes that occurred within the Branch was the standing up of the Force Protection organisation at the highest level. Although Ship Protection was not a new concept and it had been put in place by the RNZN in ‘real world’ situations previously, like when ships deployed to the Gulf, or implemented to deal with lower level threats, such as when HMNZS Te Mana was involved in peace keeping in the Solomon Islands, where the ship’s company trained in scenarios such as stopping locals trying to get onboard while the ship was trying to evacuate nationals, or the scenario of repealing locals trying to stop local delegate discussions taking place onboard.

Things were now about to change. These events can perhaps be best described onboard HMNZS Canterbury while conducting NGFS on Beecroft Range. While waiting for the maintainers to rectify faults on the system, it soon became apparent that something more serious ‘on a world stage’ which was happening. There was talk throughout the ship, even the poor reception of the TV in 1H WO/CPO mess could not hide the magnitude of events what were unfolding. The events of 11 September 2001 would end up having an immediate impact. The huge RAN Federation Fleet Review which was planned for Sydney would be cancelled straight away, by the time the ship got alongside in Sydney security measures had been put in place much the same as the equipment seen, and search policies used, at any modern Airport now a days. For the RNZN this was to mean that Force Protection training was to become a priority. The next attack could after all come from anywhere. Unfortunately after the disbandment of IS platoon training, and given the state of the Gunnery training ashore at the time, which by now was being conducted by the staff at the Parade Ground, as the Seamanship School had been directed to take over Gunnery Training, after the disbandment of the Gunnery School, but lacked sufficient numbers of staff to instruct in Gunnery matters, since most of its instructors were Sonarman at the time. Ships therefore had to generate their own training.

This increased focus also meant a reinforced commitment, and change of attitude was needed, as ships would now undertake operations in an environment in which potential threats had to be taken seriously. After all terrorist had demonstrated that they were now willing to give up their lives for their beliefs. For the RNZN this would be the deployment of its Units to the Gulf. In essence Force Protection required the previous ships organisation based around Operations such as ICELOCK and AWKWARD to be integrated to provide full protection against a wide range of asymmetric threats. A fundamental principle behind FP is self projection. That is that the ship in terms of both its capabilities and appearance is perceived by any asymmetric opponent to be a ’hard’ rather than a ‘soft’ target. For an effective result, focused and motivated duty watches can achieve much of what FP relies upon. It can be said that the whole ship relies implicitly on generating a warfighting stance to effectively dissuade the ill dispose, maintaining it 24/7, while every member of the team remains vigilant, whether on or off duty, or onboard or ashore. Of course operational detail can not be provided on how all of this was achieved, and what type of advanced training took place, but it can be said that the GI’s onboard our ships that deployed to the Gulf through this period, highly supported by their gunnery team members, played a huge part in the successful conduct of these operations.

Boarding Team operations would also become one of the main operational roles of this era. The ‘G’ Branch was instrumental in making sure ‘we’ where ready to achieve the objectives of the Command in this testing environment. Commander Andrew Watts, RNZN (ONZM) provides an excellent account of what these Boarding operations entailed:

I had the great good fortune to Command HMNZS Te Mana for two deployments to the Arabian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Horn of Africa in 2003-04. The first deployment occurred during the build up to and the combat phase of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, and regional tensions were high. There were concerns that Al Qaeda and the Taliban were using the regional sea lines of communication to infiltrate senior leadership in and out of Afghanistan, and that there might be terrorist attacks on shipping passing through the Straits of Hormuz, perhaps the single most critical shipping choke point in the world.

The roles assigned to Te Mana for these deployments brought the Gunnery Branch very much to the fore. Over the course of 49 separate operations, we escorted 72 coalition ships, including USN and Royal Navy amphibious and replenishment ships, submarines, Mine Counter Measures vessels, and every type of merchant vessel through the straits. The threat was real, and we conducted these operations in a high state of readiness. The main threat was suicide attackers who it was thought might use the small aluminium “go fast” boats that proliferate in the region, and which cross the straits from Oman and the UAE to Iran in huge swarms – the largest we saw numbered nearly 40.

Our tactics were based on riding off any go fasts that we detected approaching the High Value Unit – coming up to full power on gas turbine and charging straight at them – great stuff for any red blooded PWO. If they turned away, they were obviously not bent in instantaneous admission to Paradise, and we returned to station. However, the effectiveness of this tactic depended on the efficiency of the GDP lookout – always manned by Gunnery ratings, which never once let me down. As good as the ANZAC class radars are sea clutter and the infitesimal radar return from the go fasts mean that without an effective lookout, a suicider could have got past us in the clutter before I had a chance to bring the ship around and bring weapons to bear. I also depended on the Gunnery branch for the efficiency of the close range weapons, and it was with their guidance that we increased the accuracy of the .50 calibre gun crews to something approaching the standard required to hit such difficult targets, should the need have arisen.

The other area where the Gunners made their commitment felt was in boarding operations. Our boarding parties had to be rapidly brought to a much higher standard of efficiency than the RNZN had attained since the Confrontation operations in the 1960’s. A full boarding party consisted of 18 hand picked sailors, all armed with pistols or shotguns (and highly proficient in their use), and all tasked with specific responsibilities during boarding operations. A “visit and search” operation on a merchant vessel could take up to four hours, and we boarded day and night – we were one of very few navies to do night boardings (the others were the USN, Royal, and Dutch navies). We reached such a standard of proficiency n boarding operations that a US cruiser Captain (our CTG at the time) told me that it was considered throughout the Area of Operations that RNZN Boarding Parties were up to “Commando” standard – his words. Perhaps the highest praise of all came from the Commanding Officer of the destroyer USS Cushing, who asked if he could borrow some of my Boarding Party as he had some particularly tricky operations to conduct in the Arabian Gulf. I couldn’t comply due to national Rules of Engagement, but my pride in having been asked can scarcely be imagined.

In addition to our assigned roles, I was determined to use every single round of our practice ammunition allowance. My Gunnery Officers, Lt Cdr’s John Butcher (now Cdr) and Shane Arndell and their teams became expert at blowing apart “killer tomato” targets with the five inch and .50 calibre, and had push ever come to shove, Te Mana would have given a very good account of herself.

The Gunnery Branch made an exceptional contribution to Te Mana’s operational effectiveness. Some of my most valued former shipmates are proud members of this proud branch, which is why I am very glad indeed to contribute to this history. In my current role as Captain Fleet Personnel and Training I can see that the branch has an excellent future and will only grow in importance over time. I wish all members of the gunnery branch past and present all the very best for what I am sure will be a wonderful reunion.”

The Boarding team was a very selective role. Gunnery members onboard each ship made up a large part of the team given their advanced training in trade, and they normally fulfil key positions within the team.  Team members in this highly visible role also had to be able to demonstrate excellent interpersonal skills. Their professionalism had to leave the crew of the boarded vessel with a positive impression of the team, ship, navy, and New Zealand. They were after all representing much more than just themselves. Team members had to have the ability, to endeavour as much as possible through how they projected themselves, to enhance an image that promoted support and cooperation. They had to posses the maturity, temperament and judgement necessary to make critical decisions on ‘Use of Force’ when placed in positions of tension. This meant being adaptable and being able to think on your feet. Remaining relaxed, confident and polite while always being mentally and physically alert to respond quickly to any situation required. Team members had to trust their partners within the team, well at all times maintaining their own moral ascendancy through their conduct, dress and bearing, professionalism and weapon presence.

Of course it was necessary to spend a huge amount of time, and effort, in training, not just the Boarding Teams, but also the whole ship with Force Protection, in what was required when deployed to the Gulf. This meant the GI and his Gunnery crew were always extremely busy running training and exercises for these activities. However, the reward of being involved in operations such as these was immense. This is what our Branch is all about preparing for action.

This was not the only area of operations where this same type of level of commitment was evident. Many of our senior rate Gunners during this time had rotated through a tour of duty, as part of Operation KORU, to East Timor. These land based operations, as members of the New Zealand Small Arms Training Team (NZSATT), stationed at Metenaro Camp, gave our personnel the opportunity to make a contribution to the establishment of an effective East Timor Defence Force. Preparing there soldiers and local army instructors to become self sufficient in the future. It was the ‘Navy Gunners’, in particular, within these teams that made a huge impact with the locals. Our unique mannerisms, sense of humour, and natural approach worked wonders. We treated our local instructors as equals, not like some of the other nationalities, and because of this we earned their respect.

The reports about all of the Gunners involved with this tour of duty were glowing. They acted as positive role models, and through their professional manner and high standards they positively portrayed themselves to not just members of the East Timor Defence Force but also to the wider international military community stationed there. These personnel were responsible for providing training on a wide range of weapon systems that were outside the scope of the normal ‘small arms’ of the RNZN. These included weapons such as the M203 grenade launcher, trip flares, claymore mines, M16A1 rifles, Colt 45 pistols, grenade throwing, jungle lane small arm firing practices et cetera – the list goes on. To name some of the members of the Branch employed on various rotations within this team – WOSGUN Pete Van der made, WOSGUN Chris Cookson, CPOGI Shane Dixon, CPOSGUN Walker POSGUN Aaron Wynyard, POSGUN Clayton Russell. WOGI Rick Derksen also spent time in East Timor as a desk officer for the New Battalion in Sector West, Suai. Whilst employed in this role he managed to get ‘out and about’ in the field.  There were other countries were Gunners assisted during this time, mainly conducting United Nation Peace Keeping duties, or slotting in wherever there was an opportunity. Like always Gunners proved to be adaptable and made the most of these operational experiences.

During this busy period there was a need for things to being ‘ticking over’ at the home Gunnery in the RNZN. However, unfortunately all was not well. The school was basically being run from the Drill Shed. There was a lack of resources and staff, but like always those involved gave it their best and achieved the results needed. Perhaps we were our own worst enemy as we tended to get anything we tasked to complete done. Therefore when we asked for extra, we just didn’t get it. One good thing that did occur was the creation of the Small Arms Training Unit (SATU). Unlike any other Branch in the Navy the Gunners actually had to ‘sand and paint’ the building, and set it up, by themselves. One again it was our pride that would not just let as move into a decrepitated old building. At lest this building gave us a space for developing and delivering the type of training that was needed in the operational conditions ships were deploying to. Although it was never set up correctly, and the staffing requirements requested, and the resources needed to conduct training, at an advanced level were lacking, at least it was a start. The Unit would develop over time, training packs would be produced, and a wide range of courses would be available – Boarding, Force Protection, Range Conductors, Small Arms et cetera. The RNZN would also introduce Conflict Incident Management courses, through an external agent. All Gunnery rates had to conduct this course along with members of the ships Boarding Teams. This course provided all of the tools required for dealing with unarmed combat, restraint techniques, applying the appropriate level of force options to deal with all sorts of situations. It was and is still a very intense physical course, which Branch member thoroughly enjoy.

Ceremonial had not changed a great deal. There where some minor alterations made, but the basics withstood the test of time. The Parade Ground did at time struggle with lack of staff due to the heavy commitments to meet ceremonial events which had increased ten fold. There were so many ceremonial events at that it was hard to keep up. These were high profile as well. Royal Guards of Honour, Tri Service Guards, Credential Guards and the list goes on. There are too many stories to tell about these events, but a couple that stand out are the Golden Jubilee Parade in Queen Street when a bomb threat, just before the G-G come out, added a bit of excitement into to proceedings. The CPOGI – Shane Dixon (the Navy had the lead with the training and execution for this one) – certainly had to think on his feet that day – fortunately things worked out, and it ended up being a impressive event. The other one was for a Royal Tri service Guard of Honour for the Opening of Parliament where before marching on the Army had one soldier cut his hand with a bayonet, and then one of the Air force ratings, not to be outdone, fell backwards onto the persons bayonet behind him, and received a deep cut to his leg. Of course the RNZN personnel stood strong.

In conclusion, I believe that there has been no keener branch in the Service than the Gunnery Branch. It is perhaps true that we considered ourselves to be the naval elite. This at times tended to make as unpopular with other branches and certain officers. This was of course not always intentional, but we always strived to be the best, and get the job done. If this meant being strict disciplinarians or barking out orders ‘so be it’. We never lowered or dropped our standards, and nothing short of perfection was aimed for or accepted. It was sad losing our role within the turret, and it is now lost forever. It was a privilege serving in the RNZN as a Gunner for many years while these ‘beasts’ were still in operation. For me personally spending two years onboard HMNZS Canterbury as a GI was a career highlight, final getting to do what you had been trained and groomed for from day one. All of those who careers have passed through different eras can attest that through the cross over of each generation that the high standards which our Branch was renowned for were always maintained. Even if we only had the bare basics to make it happen. The high operational tempo of this era sent the scene for the new direction of the Branch, and as ‘one door closes another door opens. Still having Gunnery blood running through our veins, we will make the most of the exciting times ahead, and initiate the positive parts of our culture, into the new breed of sailor. Although they will ultimately have to forge their own destiny, as things will never be the same as the past.


[1] Dicke, Iain, Dougherty, Martin J., Jestice, Phyllis J., Jörgensen, Christer, Rice, Rob S., Fighting Techniques of Naval Warfare 1190BC – Present: Strategy, Weapons, Commanders and Ships, London: Amber Books, 2009, p. 197.

[2] Dicke, Iain, Dougherty, Martin J., Jestice, Phyllis J., Jörgensen, Christer, Rice, Rob S., Fighting Techniques of Naval Warfare 1190BC – Present: Strategy, Weapons, Commanders and Ships, London: Amber Books, 2009, p. 199.

[3] By CPOGI John “Jock” Barnes BEM