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The Road to RNZN

King George VI granted the title of Royal New Zealand Navy to the New Zealand naval forces on 1 October 1941. Read about the history of Naval Volunteers, the Torpedo Corps and the New Zealand Division of the Royal New Zealand Navy.


King George VI granted the title of Royal New Zealand Navy to the New Zealand naval forces on 1 October 1941. While we justifiably celebrate this ‘birthday’, 1 October 1941 was not the actual birth of New Zealand’s national naval forces. Just how old, then, is our nation’s navy?

The Naval Volunteers

Naval forces, funded by the settler’s parliament, were an integral part of the NZ militia and security forces in the 19th century. The Militia Act 1858 authorised the formation of citizen militia units for land and coastal duties.  As part of the new militia, Coastguard Volunteer units were embodied (later called Naval Volunteers and generally known as the “Navals”). They were responsible for gunnery, boatwork and manning coastal batteries.  Later they also trained in submarine mining, being responsible for minefields which were laid in Auckland and Wellington harbours. The first unit was the Auckland Volunteer Coastguards established in 1860, however the name didn’t last long (only until 1861).  With the re-organisation of 1862 the unit was called the Auckland Naval Volunteers.

Their function was small boat work and supplementing the crew of Government vessels, such as Midnight which were employed on anti-smuggling (to the Maori) patrols.  They also helped round up ‘rebel’ canoes etc. In the 1880s they were redesignated Naval Artillery Volunteers and trained to help man the coastal gun batteries. They were not responsible for the minefields per se, which was the function of the New Zealand Submarine Mining Corps, a part of No.2 Company of the Permanent Militia.  Some men certainly qualified as submarine miners, but this is a very messy field to get into.

1863-66 The Waikato campaign

  • 1863-4, the Auckland and Onehunga Naval Volunteer units saw active service in the Waikato
  • coastal trading vessels were purchased by the NZ Government, refitted and armed for the campaign
  • three shallow draught stern paddle-wheelers gunboats were designed and built in Sydney; manned by a mixture of personnel from the Royal Navy, the Waikato Regiments and some civilians
  • 1864 a two-storied naval barracks built at Sandspit (Devonport)
  • 1883 all Naval Volunteer units re-titled Naval Artillery Volunteers.
  • The number of Naval Volunteers peaked in the 1880s, with 20 units around the country.

The Torpedo Corps

The Armed Constabulary Act of 1867 developed the Permanent Militia of 1862 into four corps – Artillery, Infantry, Engineers and a Torpedo Corps. The New Zealand Torpedo Corps, wearing naval uniform, formed a part of No. 2 Company of the Permanent Militia. No. 2 Company was formerly the Engineers.  The details of just what uniform they wore are a matter of some conjecture.  The few photographs which exist show them wearing a blue ‘navy’ style double breasted jacket with peaked cap.  Having closely examined the only good image of a chap in a sailor suit, standing on the forecastle of a torpedo boat, his cap ribbon clearly states “Wellington Naval Artillery Volunteers”.

The plans for the coastal defences of Auckland date from about 1878, when the first battery was mounted there.  The permanent defences were planned in 1884, which include the approved minefield which was from the east face of North Head across to Rangitoto. In 1884 four Thorneycroft spar torpedo boats that had been purchased by the government deployed to Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton, and Dunedin. The Auckland spar torpedo boat initially operated from the Admiralty Reserve at Sandspit (today Windsor Reserve). It then operated from a wharf down by where the Masonic is and by the early 1890s was at Torpedo Bay, hence the name. In 1884 the government acquired land at North Head, Devonport, for defence purposes. With the ‘Russian Scare’ of 1885 construction of a submarine mining station and depot below the south west face of North Head was approved. This became known as Torpedo Bay.  When it was actually laid around the turn of the century (it wasn’t operational until 1904 off the top of my head) it went from Torpedo Bay to Oraki.

The Australasian Auxiliary Squadron

At the 1887 Imperial Conference, the first Naval Agreement was drawn up between Britain and Australia and New Zealand. The ships of the existing RN Australia Squadron would be supplemented by a new combined naval force, of five cruisers and two torpedo gunboats. These ships had been laid down and were assigned for Australasian service and based in Sydney, forming a new Australasian Auxiliary Squadron.  Two ships, one from the Imperial squadron and one from the new squadron, would be stationed in New Zealand waters.  The new ships were given Australasian names, among them HMS Tauranga. The NZ government agreed to pay a subsidy of £20,000, one sixth of the cost of the new force. The five Australian colonies paid the balance. New Zealanders were eligible for service in the new naval squadron, and Reserves would help man the three ships of the new squadron that were not in full commission. This policy, of subsidising the Imperial naval force in order to have a cruiser presence in New Zealand waters, and to allow entry into the RN by New Zealanders, was followed by Wellington for the next twenty years.

In 1888 the Auckland Harbour Board dry dock opened; the Admiralty had rights of use. The Naval Depot by now included a blacksmith shop and boatslip and during the 1890s the Sandspit site was exchanged for land around the dry dock. The ‘Navals’ and the Torpedo Corps existed until 1902, but in 1902 they were transformed into the Garrison Artillery Volunteers, as part of the military forces. In 1905 HMS Sparrow was taken over to become Training Ship Amokura – a government training ship to prepare young New Zealanders for either naval or merchant service.

The Naval Defence Act 1913

The most important event in the development of our national navy was the passing of the Naval Defence Act in 1913, which provided for permanent national naval forces manned and funded by New Zealand. This Act was implemented by the commissioning of HMS Philomel into NZ service on 15 July 1914, with the commanding officer also being appointed as Naval Adviser to the NZ Government. The First World War intervened and, in accordance with the new Act, Philomel was assigned to the Admiralty for operational control. However, as research by the Naval Historian has found, throughout Philomel’s 1915-1917 deployment to the Mediterranean and Middle East, the commanding officer still reported to the New Zealand Government. That is, command remained with the New Zealand Government, as it did during the Second World War under the same Naval Defence Act. The Royal Australian Navy also operated under a Naval Defence Act very similar to that of New Zealand.

During the First World War, men were discouraged from joining the Royal Navy. Despite the implementation of conscription in 1916, a number of New Zealanders went to Britain to serve with the Royal Navy as part of the Royal Naval Reserve. Most prominent of these was Charles Palmer who was instrumental in the 1920s in establishing a Volunteer Reserve for New Zealand. When, in 1917, the German raider Wolf laid mines in New Zealand waters and had claimed two ships, , the NZ Government had to hastily acquire a minesweeping force. Some trawlers were chartered and converted for minesweeping duty.

It was not until the 1920s that further progress was made. The first post-war recruits joined in mid 1920 before HMS Chatham was commissioned for New Zealand service in late 1920. After Philomel was recommissioned in March 1921 as a non-seagoing training and depot ship, further recruits joined her, but in dribs and drabs.  It was not until later on the 1920s that men started joining in groups.

The New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy

By Order-in-Council of 14 March 1921, the New Zealand Naval Board was constituted for the overall direction and administration of the Navy.  The Minister of Defence was Chairman of the Naval Board, the Commodore Commanding the New Zealand Station became First Naval Member and the Chief Staff Officer was Second Naval Member.  The senior cruiser Captain on station was appointed Commodore Commanding the New Zealand Station.

On 20 June 1921, in furtherance of Admiral Lord Jellicoe’s vision for the wartime role of New Zealand’s Navy, the seagoing elements of the New Zealand Naval Forces were designated ‘The New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy’.  That is, in the event of war, the New Zealand ships would form a tactical division within a Royal Navy fleet.  As events transpired the actual composition of New Zealand’s naval force meant that only individual ships served in RN fleets, but a tactical ‘division’ never deployed. However the title “New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy” often gives rise to confusion, because some assume that NZ did not have a nationally-controlled naval force.

Yet by 1921, with the arrival of HMS Chatham, additional facilities including fuel storage tanks, a rifle range, and sports facilities, was being built at Devonport and Chatham came under the operational control of the new NZ Naval Board.  Also on station during the 1920s were two Royal Navy sloops, war-built Flower-Class escorts HM Ships Veronica and Laburnum. Although these were British manned and funded ships they too came under the operational control of the New Zealand Naval Board.

New Zealand was part of a larger, multi-national, defence arrangement. Like Australia, Canada, India and South Africa our Navy was seen as a contribution to the defence of the empire. The NZ Naval Station was an integral part of a naval operational division of the world – after all the recent war against German raiders and U-boats meant that Britain and the Dominions had just learned some hard lessons in naval operations, defence of trade and control of shipping. But this defence cooperation – logical and cost effective – did not mean a loss of national control; it was New Zealand’s government that directed our ships to Samoa, to the Hawke’s Bay earthquake and during sovereignty disputes over various islands in the central Pacific in the 1930s. The New Zealand Division was a national naval force.

The Royal New Zealand Navy

The final step of Royal recognition for New Zealand’s Navy came after the debacle of the 1941 Greece and Crete campaigns. Our government was determined that our forces be under clear national control and it was thought that gaining Royal recognition would place the New Zealand Naval Forces on a status similar to the RAN and RCN. Also, by 1941 more New Zealanders were on loan to the Royal Navy from the NZ Naval Forces, than there were New Zealanders loaned to the NZ Division. At the request of the NZ Government, the King was pleased to grant the title of Royal New Zealand Navy to the NZ Naval Forces.

More to explore. 

Pre World War One