Frank Kivell

Frank Kivell was a young New Zealander who joined the first New Zealand Naval Forces in August 1914 and spent the war in New Zealand’s cruiser, HMS Philomel. In 1916 he saved two fellow members of the ships company of Philomel from drowning and was awarded the New Zealand Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal.

Frank Kivell was born in Wellington on 5 November 1897 and went to sea as a young man, his trade being defined as ‘sailor’ when he entered the New Zealand (Royal Navy) Emergency Force on 19 August 1914. This was a group of volunteers to wishing to serve in the Navy for the duration of the war. The designation of this force was soon changed to the New Zealand Naval Force to avoid confusion with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF). Frank’s official number was NZNF 8, out of a total of approximately 49.

Frank had safely reached the shore when he saw Anderson’s predicament. Without a thought for his own safety, and not waiting to remove his clothes, he swam back out through the heavy breakers.

These men were borne on the books of HMS Torch, although accommodated at Alexandra Barracks. Frank was there until HMS Philomel returned from the expedition to occupy German Samoa, when he joined that ship in the rank of Able Seaman. Philomel left New Zealand in October 1914 as part of the escort for the main body of the NZEF, leaving the convoy at Fremantle and proceeding to the Mediterranean. The ship operated in the eastern Mediterranean until June 1915 when it was deployed to the Red Sea, where it operated until September. Philomel was then sent to the Persian Gulf where it was employed until its return to New Zealand in 1917, having been overseas for three and a half years. Conditions on board the ship in the Persian Gulf were most uncomfortable. Captain Hall-Thompson recorded that the temperatures were extremely high, in the order of 100o Fahrenheit (38oC) and on occasions it was 105o (41oC) at midnight. The standard dress for the ship’s company was a white helmet, back pad, vest and white shorts. Double awnings were rigged both fore and aft to keep the sun off the decks, but even with this the heat was insufferable and most of those on board suffered from boils, ring-worm and prickly heat.

Communication with the shore was usually by boat because the ship had to anchor off, there being no wharfage suitable for Philomel at most ports. The weather for the latter part of January was generally bad and communication with the shore was cut off most of the time. On 1 February it was important that contact be made with the shore and the ship’s cutter was sent away with orders to anchor outside the breakers and the final part of the trip to be made in a local surf canoe.

Shortly after the boat anchored in about 14 feet (4m) of water, a series of steep waves completely swamped it and the canoes were capsized. The majority of the crew were able to swim to shore, however Able Seaman Anderson, a weak swimmer who was tending the anchor, did not. He had been swept to the stern of the boat and began to panic.

HMS Philomel in the Red Sea
HMS Philomel in the Red Sea

Frank had safely reached the shore when he saw Anderson’s predicament. Without a thought for his own safety, and not waiting to remove his clothes, he swam back out through the heavy breakers. On his way to the cutter Frank encountered Able Seaman Norman Castel, another of the New Zealand Volunteers, who was trying to float ashore on the mast, but who had got his foot entangled in the rigging. Frank dived under the water and cleared Castel’s foot, but on coming to the surface, was struck by the mast. Notwithstanding this he assisted Castel about 30-40 metres towards the shore, until Castel could touch the bottom. Frank then continued to the boat and rescued Anderson, a feat made considerably more difficult by Anderson gripping him around the neck and nearly drowning him. Despite this he managed to get him safely ashore. Captain Hall-Thompson recommended Frank for a lifesaving medal and on 6 May 1916 he was awarded the Bronze Medal of the New Zealand Royal Humane Society.

Frank remained in Philomel after the ship’s return to New Zealand and recommissioning as a depot ship, until he was demobilised on 13 January 1919. He subsequently married and settled in Auckland after WWII and died there in January 1972.