Lieutenant Commander Charles Keily RNR

Lieutenant Commander Charles Keily Royal Naval Reserve joined HMS Philomel in 1914 and served in that ship until 1920. He assumed command of the ship when it was recommissioned for harbour service in 1917 and was in charge of minesweeping operations off the coast in 1918-19.

Charles Joseph Keily was born in Khandalla, India on 19 October 1882 and went to sea as a young man. By 1899 he was with the Shaw Savill and Albion Line’s Oamaru, voyaging between England and New Zealand. In August 1901 Charles joined the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) as a midshipman, being promoted to Acting Sub-Lieutenant in December of that year.

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

Naval life obviously appealed to the young Charles as he spent five to six weeks each year undergoing training, culminating in 1907, in which year he undertook six weeks early in the, year followed by torpedo and gunnery courses mid-year and being approved for 12 months experience in August. His year in HMS Britannia went well and his Commanding Officer recorded that he had “shown great zeal and interest, most capable and well above the average of many of the regular service officers. Of very good form and physique, fond of athletic recreations and sets a good example in the gun room.”

Unfortunately however, this time away from the Merchant Navy had a detrimental effect on his maritime career as he was unable to obtain another berth at sea and he had to enter private business to earn a living. Charles was in the cruiser HMS Vindictive for the fleet manoeuvres of 1909, where again his performance was most satisfactory and he was sufficiently competent to keep watch in company. By February 1913 his lack of employment in the Merchant Navy, an essential requirement for the RNR, resulted in his being formally placed on the retired list in the rank of Lieutenant. Around this time he moved to New Zealand with his family.

Minesweeper Simplon
WWI Minesweeper Simplon

With the outbreak of war Charles was appointed to HMS Philomel, which after participating in the occupation of German Samoa, was part of the escort of the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force when it left New Zealand in October 1914. The ship left the troopships at Fremantle and proceeded to the Mediterranean, where in February 1915 it was deployed to patrol the coast of southern Turkey and Syria. On 8 February an armed party was sent ashore to find out, peacefully if possible, the contents of the packs of a mule train. The landing party ran into a well laid ambush and during the fighting one man was killed and five others wounded. All except Able Seaman Moreton from Christchurch were evacuated to the ship. It was thought that he had been killed but after dark a searchlight showed he was alive. A party of volunteers under Charles then went ashore to find him. The first attempt was unsuccessful, but a second brought him off to the ship. Unfortunately he was mortally wounded and died the following day.

With the outbreak of war Charles was appointed to HMS Philomel, which after participating in the occupation of German Samoa, was part of the escort of the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force when it left New Zealand in October 1914.

Philomel returned to New Zealand in March 1917 and paid off, recommissioning the next day as a depot ship in Wellington. Charles assumed command, still in the rank of Lieutenant although he was promoted to Acting Lieutenant Commander in October. Despite the arduous nature of the deployment there had been time for recreation and some members of the crew, with Charles in charge, formed a concert party. Public performances were held in Bombay with proceeds going to the New Zealand wounded Sailors and Soldiers Fund and also later in in Wellington.

After Philomel returned to New Zealand the potential threat of mines being laid around the coast was addressed. Charles undertook a survey of all the fishing vessels in the country with a view to their potential use as minesweepers and located an invalided Royal Navy Petty Officer who had experience of minesweeping. His report concluded that there were only two vessels in the country suitable for use as minesweepers and that there was none of the requisite equipment available. Because the threat of mines was not recognized, the report was filed until it was learned in the latter part of 1917 that mines had indeed been laid off New Zealand. The two trawlers identified, the Nora Niven and the Simplon were requisitioned and the necessary equipment manufactured under the supervision of Charles, by the Railway Department.

Because there were no available naval personnel in the country, the vessels were chartered with their normal crews and Charles with a Petty Officer and a Signalman controlled the minesweeping operations.

Because there were no available naval personnel in the country, the vessels were chartered with their normal crews and Charles with a Petty Officer and a Signalman controlled the minesweeping operations. At 6.20 am on 11 February 1918 the two ships left Wellington on their first minesweeping operation. They soon found their first mine and eventually brought it to the surface. Minesweeping continued off Cook Strait and off the Three Kings until May 1919. In April 1919 Captain Hall-Thompson, the Naval Adviser to the New Zealand Government recommended Charles for appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, an honour that was duly approved. Charles continued to serve until he was demobilised in November 1919. He was further honoured at that time by being promoted to the rank of Commander in recognition of his war service. Charles died in England in 1948.