HMS Philomel has the distinction of being the first ship commissioned into the New Zealand Naval Forces and was in service from 1914 until 1947 and the name continues in the shore establishment at Devonport. The ship spent most of World War One in the Middle East, mainly in the Persian Gulf as part of a Royal Navy force protecting British interests and ensuring the continued supply of oil from the region and the safety of the Suez Canal.
“Arrangements having been made for the paying off of HMS Philomel by the Admiralty, and also for her recommissioning for service under the New Zealand Government on the 15th day of July, 1914, it is my direction that you hoist your pendant on board that ship at 9 a.m. on the date mentioned, and assume command from that date and time.” In accordance with these instructions from the Governor of New Zealand, Lord Liverpool, Captain Percival Henry Hall-Thompson, Royal Navy, commissioned the first ship into the New Zealand Naval Forces.
HMS Philomel was a third class cruiser of the ‘Pearl’ class laid down at Devonport Dockyard, England, on 9 May 1889. Of 2,575 tons, 265 feet in length, armed with eight 4.7 inch guns, eight 3 pounder guns and four 14 inch torpedo tubes, Philomel had a speed of 17 knots. The ship first commissioned on 10 November 1891 and spent the majority of the next 21 years around Africa. Philomel was provided to New Zealand as a training ship under the terms of the New Zealand Naval Defence Act 1913, which permitted the Dominion to maintain warships that, in the event of war, would be placed at the disposal of the Admiralty.
Ships of the New Zealand Naval Forces were designated ‘His Majesty’s Ships’ and wore the Ensign and Jack as other ships of the Royal Navy. The New Zealand Government were particular however, that such vessels should clearly appear in the list of the ships of the Royal Navy as serving under the New Zealand Government and being paid for and maintained by New Zealand.
Of 2,575 tons, 265 feet in length, armed with eight 4.7 inch guns, eight 3 pounder guns and four 14 inch torpedo tubes, Philomel had a speed of 17 knots.
The complement of Philomel, as a training ship was 11 officers, 17 senior ratings and 137 junior ratings, a total of 165. The majority of these were Royal Naval personnel on loan, although a number, such as Able Seaman John Moreton were of New Zealand origin. It had been envisaged that the majority of the ships company would be New Zealanders however, a large number of them had recently transferred to the newly established Royal Australian Navy.
Philomel sailed from Wellington on 30 July for a shakedown cruise before embarking the first class of trainees. During the day a warning telegram was received, stating that war was imminent and having spent the night at Picton, the ship returned to Wellington.
To bring the complement of the ship up to a war level of about 222 reserve personnel were mobilised, such as William Knowles, drawn from the New Zealand section of the Royal Naval Reserve, supplemented by Imperial Reservists and a small number of personnel from HMS Torch also joined the ship. As a final measure a few volunteers were also engaged for the duration of the war and have the distinction of being the first men to enlist in the New Zealand Naval Forces.
Of equal importance to personnel was preparing the ship for war, including thorough inspections of every part. The result was not encouraging and Captain Hall-Thompson had to report that “even taking into consideration her age, the ship was suffering considerably from neglect in the past.” Throughout the next two years the material condition of the ship was a continual problem and the Admiralty agreed to pay for repairs to the ship, up to and including a refit of the ship at Malta in January 1915. In addition to short periods spent in dockyard hands, the ships engineering personnel continually worked hard to not only keep the ship operational, but to rectify many of the defects apparent on commissioning.
With the outbreak of war Philomel came under the operational control of the Admiralty. This was a matter of operational utilisation of the ship, not one of command – throughout the war Philomel was a New Zealand unit – and Captain Hall-Thompson often used the signature block “Captain Royal Navy, Naval Adviser to the New Zealand Government”. A good example of the nature of the difference between Philomel and ships of the Royal Navy was the question of who was to issue death certificates. The Admiralty did not think it appropriate that they issue them and in the event they were issued by Captain Hall-Thompson.
Philomel was placed under the operational control of the Senior Officer of the ‘New Zealand Division‘, the remnants of the Australia Squadron after the formation of the Royal Australian Navy, which comprised two old ‘P’ Class cruisers and a sloop, HM Ships Psyche, Pyramus and Torch, under the command of Captain J.M. Marshall RN. For operational purposes the Division, was a part of the Eastern Fleet; which when formed, consisted of the China Squadron, the Australian Fleet, the New Zealand Division and the East Indies Squadron, all being under the command of the Commander in Chief of the China Station.
The untrained nature of the ships companies of Psyche and Philomel were recognised by Captain Marshall and several ratings from these ships were exchanged for others from Torch. The majority of the officers of Torch were also dispersed amongst the other ships, Lieutenant Charles W.A. Baldwin, joining Philomel.
The first offensive action taken by New Zealand was to occupy German Samoa. A composite force was raised from the Dominion and sailed from New Zealand escorted by the New Zealand Division. Philomel then formed part of the escort of the troopships conveying the Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to Egypt, departing at Albany to spend the next two years serving with the Royal Navy in the Middle East. Initially this was in the eastern Mediterranean, where a landing party from the ship near Alexandretta (now Iskenderun) encountered a body of Turks and sustained New Zealand’s first naval casualties. Personnel were also involved in the defence of Aden, again sustaining casualties. In the main, however, Philomel spent the war in the Persian Gulf.
“…when HMNZS Philomel’s colours are hauled down for the last time at sunset this evening, the tradition which she has established during her long career will live on in the depot to which she has given her name.”
The Persian Gulf was one of the backwaters of naval operations in the First World War. For a short time during 1916 it assumed some importance during the campaign in Mesopotamia, but generally the operations comprised keeping the peace and maintaining a British presence, to ensure the continued supply of oil from the region. Captain Hall-Thompson was Senior Naval Officer in the area for much of 1916, reporting to the Commodore Persian Gulf. In this position his duties gradually became more political and the ship primarily a means of moving him between one port and another.
By the end of that year it was apparent that Philomel was in need of a major refit and there was considerable discussion as to the value of spending a large sum of money on such an old ship, heightened by the fact that a more modern ship would be required after the war. Thus Philomel returned to New Zealand, where it was met at Wellington by a guard of 50 corporals from the NZEF as well as VIPs. It paid off on 19 April 1917, recommissioning the next day as a depot ship under a care and maintenance party and the armament was removed and fitted on Defensively Armed Merchant Ships.
With the need to sweep mines laid off the coast by the German raider Wolf, Philomel, the depot ship, was of some considerable importance in 1918/19. Personnel from the ship arranged the provision of the minesweeping equipment and provided personnel with the requisite expertise to guide the fishermen who actually undertook the work of sweeping the mines.
At the end of the war Philomel was presented to New Zealand by the British Government, but with war work being completed Philomel was left essentially uncared for at Wellington. In 1921 a working party from HMS Chatham, made the old ship seaworthy again and it was steamed to Auckland to become the depot ship for the ‘New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy’, as the sea-going elements of the New Zealand Naval Forces had then become known. On 16 January 1947 the White Ensign was hauled down for the last time on board the ship, being hoisted the next morning in the shore establishment at Devonport, which assumed the name HMNZS Philomel.
The Naval Board record their regret at the passing from the Service of the first of His Majesty’s New Zealand Ships, a ship that has meant so much to all who served in her. “She goes as many good ships have gone before her; but when HMNZS Philomel’s colours are hauled down for the last time at sunset this evening, the tradition which she has established during her long career will live on in the depot to which she has given her name.”
That day the hulk was towed to Coromandel to be stripped. A small coaster, largely constructed of parts from Philomel was completed in August 1948 and named Coromel. With dismantling complete, the hull was towed to a position 10 miles off the Eastern entrance to the Hauraki Gulf, where soon after 3.00 pm on Saturday 6 August 1949, five pounds of explosive sent the remains of the cruiser to the bottom, in 80 fathoms of water.