Captain Wybrants Olphert

Captain Wybrants Olphert DSO*, DSC, MID, RD

Captain Wybrants Olphert DSO*, DSC, MID, RD was a career Merchant Navy officer who fought several successful actions against U Boats, before his ship was sunk and he was taken prisoner of war.  Post war he continued with the merchant service but was also instrumental in establishing the Wellington division of the Royal Naval (NZ) Volunteer Reserve.  When these divisions were given names in 1950, the Wellington unit was named HMNZS Olphert.

Wybrants Olphert was born in Liverpool on 15 September 1879 and raised by an Aunt at Harptree Court, near Bristol.  At the age of 14 he joined the Training Ship Worcester, training to become an officer in the Merchant Navy.  Two years later he joined the New Zealand Shipping Company (NZSC) serving is several of the companies ships over the next 18 years, being 1st Officer of the Remuera, which was in New Zealand when war broke out.

In 1896 Wybrants had joined the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) as a midshipman, rising to the rank of Sub Lieutenant by 1907.  But this required undertaking periodic training which was proving difficult for Wybrants, continually sailing between Britain and New Zealand and in 1912 he applied to be placed on the Retired List.  With the outbreak of hostilities Wybrants reported to the Senior Naval Officer, New Zealand and was placed as Naval Transport Officer on a New Zealand Troopship, eventually arriving in Britain in November 1914.

On 12 November he was appointed in command of the armed yacht HMS Scandaun, which was employed on anti-submarine patrol out of Queenstown (now Cobh) on the south east coast of Ireland.  On 21 June 1915 Scandaun was on patrol off Fastnet when a U Boat was encountered.  Fire was quickly opened from the ships single 6 pounder gun and it is believed the submarine was hit, although it quickly dived.  Scandaun remained in the area for some hours, fearing being torpedoed, but searching for any indication that the U Boat had been sunk.  Nothing was seen.  During this time he was granted a temporary rank of Lieutenant.

Between August and October 1915 Wybrants was ashore, first to HMS Pactolus, the base unit for the Auxiliary Patrol at Ardrossan and then the Torpedo Training facility HMS Actaeon.  On 29 October he took command of another armed yacht HMS Pioneer II and returned to the Queenstown Auxiliary Patrol.  While his time in Pioneer II was mainly the monotonous patrol work, Wybrants was instrumental in salvaging the Terpsichore which had run aground in Roaringwater Bay on the south west coast of Ireland.  For his work in the Auxiliary Patrol between 1 January 1915 and 31 January 1916 Wybrants was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC).

With the ship beginning to break up Wybrants sent all except himself, the forward guns crew and a few essential men away in the boats.

On 1 January 1917 Wybrants assumed command of the near new HMS Q 15, later renamed Salvia.  Although built as a convoy escort, this was a submarine decoy ship, camouflaged to resemble a merchant ship and was armed with two 4 inch guns.  Still based at Queenstown Salvia was quickly in action sinking four submarines in the first half of 1917, for which Wybrants was made a member of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).  Such was the secret nature of the ships, there is no mention in the London Gazette as to the reason for the award.  At 6.40am on 20 June 1917 Salvia was on patrol in the Atlantic when a torpedo struck, destroying the engines and exploding a depth charge which threw the after gun over the side.  With the ship beginning to break up Wybrants sent all except himself, the forward guns crew and a few essential men away in the boats.  The submarine closed for the kill, shelling the ship continually and having got a signal away, Wybrants ordered abandon ship.  He was taken prisoner on board U 94, but the remainder were left in the boats.  Fortunately another Q-ship in the area received Salvia’s signal and rescued the crew.

Some weeks later Wybrants was in Freiberg POW camp, but his war was not over.  He was one of a few officers who had been taught a special code for use in the event he was taken prisoner.  Now this came into play and vital messages were encoded in letters to his wife, which had to be processed by the War Office before they were delivered to her.  Although escape was an option, the war ended on the day that Wybrants was to have broken out of the camp.  Three weeks later on 3 December 1918 he arrived in England.  In the next two months more of his wartime service was recognised.  In January his name was Mentioned in Despatches and he was retrospectively promoted, first to Lieutenant in 1914 then to Lieutenant Commander in 1917 and in February he was awarded a bar to the DSO.  Both awards were for actions against enemy submarines.

When it was decided to give the RNZNVR units names, the Wellington unit became HMNZS Olphert and the unit’s badge is based on the Olphert family crest.

With the war over Wybrants contacted the NZSC and was offered the position of Assistant Marine Superintendent and that of Marine Superintendent when the current incumbent retired.  Accepting this, the family emigrated to New Zealand, initially in Christchurch and then Wellington.  During the 1920s there was a desire on the part of many officers who had served in the naval reserves during the war to establish a branch of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in New Zealand.  This came to fruition for officers in Auckland in 1925 and in 1928 was extended to ratings and also to Wellington, Canterbury and Otago.  Given his extensive experiences, both maritime and wartime, Wybrants was appointed to command the Wellington Division of the RN(NZ)VR.  Technically, he was a RNR officer, on loan to the New Zealand Government.

Wybrants died in 1938, but such was his mark that in 1950 when it was decided to give the RNZNVR units names, the Wellington unit became HMNZS Olphert and the unit’s badge is based on the Olphert family crest.