HMS Pyramus
HMS Pyramus in 1914

HMS Pyramus

One of the ironies of World War One was that more New Zealanders went to war in HMS Pyramus than the Dominion’s own ship, HMS Philomel. Like Philomel, Pyramus was an old ship, but it still played its part in places as far afield as East Africa and the Persian Gulf.

In August 1914 over 60 New Zealanders went to war in HMS Pyramus, under the command of Acting Commander the Viscount Kelburn. The ship was one of the old cruisers that formed the New Zealand Division, the remnants of the Australasian Squadron which was based in New Zealand from 1913.

Launched in 1897 the ship was 313 feet long, displaced 2,200 tons, had a maximum speed of 20 knots and was armed with eight 4 inch guns. Most of the New Zealanders had earlier declined to join the Royal Australian Navy and although Royal Navy ratings retained their original Australasian service numbers, distinguishable from those of the Royal Navy by the prefix ‘ANF’.

With Philomel, the first wartime operation of Pyramus was the occupation of German Samoa in August 1914. It subsequently replaced HMS Psyche as part of the escort of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force at Hobart on 21 October. On leaving New Zealand tangible reminders of its commander remained in the suburb of Kelburn and Kelburn Park in Wellington, they having being named after him when his father the Earl of Glasgow, was Governor 1892 – 1897.

The ship was one of the old cruisers that formed the New Zealand Division, the remnants of the Australasian Squadron which was based in New Zealand from 1913.

From Fremantle, Pyramus sailed with Philomel, to Singapore, searching for the German cruiser SMS Emden en route. Having failed to locate Emden, they arrived at Singapore on 12 November. Three weeks later Pyramus sailed for Colombo after which the ship proceeded to Bombay and spent the next six weeks around India.

At this time the last remaining German cruiser outside of Germany was SMS Könisberg, which had been located up the Rufiji River in German East Africa (now Tanzania). While adequate forces were being assembled to deal with Könisberg the area had to be blockaded to prevent any assistance or supplies reaching the German ship. Pyramus joined this force on 11 January 1915. The blockade, which continued to the end of the war, involved continuous patrolling and investigation of shipping, monotonous, usually uneventful, but essential. Exacerbating the boring nature of the work was the tropical heat.

Apia, Samoa, 27 August 1914: New Zealand naval officers landing with the demand for German surrender. Hackworth, Philip Vernon, d 1960 :Photograph album. Ref: PA1-q-107-29-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22811918
Apia, Samoa, 27 August 1914: New Zealand naval officers landing with the demand for German surrender. Hackworth, Philip Vernon, d 1960 :Photograph album. Ref: PA1-q-107-29-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22811918

After three months Pyramus left Zanzibar for a refit at Simonstown, South Africa, returning on 17 June. By July a suitable force was available, comprising two monitors, Mersey and Severn; four cruisers, Hyacinth, Weymouth, Pioneer (RAN) and Pyramus; with two armed merchant cruisers, Laconia and Laurentic, supplemented by several aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service for spotting. The attack took place on the 6th with the two monitors in the van with their 6 inch guns, supported by the cruisers, while the armed merchant cruisers covered the approaches to the river. When in range fire was opened by both sides, Mersey being hit and put out of action and Severn also being hit. Few hits were scored on Könisberg, because not only was she screened by the jungle, with both British ships firing together, spotting was ineffective. By mid-afternoon the Royal Navy withdrew. Pyramus did not actually take part in this action, being at Komo Island at the time.

On 9 July Pyramus re-joined the fleet, in preparation for continuing the operation. Having learned the appropriate lessons from the first action, a second attack took place on the 11th, with Könisberg being sunk.

Meantime the situation in Mesopotamia was becoming critical and on the 25th Pyramus sailed for the Persian Gulf, arriving at Muscat on 5 August. From Muscat, Pyramus went to Bushire, which was being threatened by attack from the Targistani tribe. A naval brigade comprising 50 seamen and marines from the ships was landed to assist in the defence of the port. Pyramus was then employed on patrol duties, sending a landing party ashore at Dilwa, with a force of Indian troops on 13 August. In the ensuing action Pyramus fired 200 rounds from her 4 inch guns in support and Stoker James Ford was killed fighting ashore. The landing party returned on the 15th and the ship continued on patrol. Four days later the ship was at Guttah and again a landing party was sent ashore. This time a fort was destroyed and some field guns captured.

Pyramus was on patrol off Bushire at the beginning of September and on the 8th a landing party was sent ashore to assist in the defence of the port and was in action the following day. Chief Petty Officer Gentry, one of the New Zealanders and Yeoman of Signals Wood were killed in the fighting. Both were buried on shore on 10 September, a funeral party from the ship being present.

The next six months were spent in the Persian Gulf with the ship undertaking routine patrol work, similar to that undertaken by Philomel, indeed often under the command of Philomel when Captain Hall-Thompson was Senior Officer, Persian Gulf. The two ships were together at Jashk on 9 December, Philomel bringing presents for the New Zealanders, and Pyramus gave a concert for Philomel personnel on the 11th. During the month Patrick James Boyle, Commander the Viscount Kelburn, succeeded to the title of Earl of Glasgow on the death of his father.

HMS Pyramus going alongside at Lyttleton
HMS Pyramus going alongside at Lyttleton

By July 1916 the boilers of the ageing ship were in need of re-tubing, necessitating 14 weeks in dockyard hands. Pyramus sailed from Muscat on 11 August and paid off on the 24th at Bombay. Having been operating in the arduous conditions of the tropics since October 1914, with two hot seasons in the Persian Gulf, it was considered that a further commission would be more than the men could stand and consideration was given to changing the personnel. As a first step the New Zealand ratings were sent to New Zealand on leave, for the duration of the refit.

In October the Admiralty approached the New Zealand Government on, amongst other things, the question of the future of the personnel from Philomel. One option was to post them to Pyramus, or another ship, in which New Zealand had a particular interest. This was declined on the basis that Pyramus was not considered suitable as a training ship after the war and difficulties in respect of pay and allowances. Similarly a suggestion to appoint the Naval Adviser to Command Pyramus was not approved.

While some of the New Zealanders were posted back to Pyramus after their leave, most went to other ships.