The New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy (renamed in 1941 the Royal New Zealand Navy) possessed at the start of the war the light cruisers Achilles and Leander, the minesweeping trawler Wakakura, and the training ship Philomel. Three trawlers were taken over and fitted as minesweepers, and two other small craft took up port duties. Half a dozen merchant ships were equipped each with a 4 in. gun and the Monowai was requisitioned to be fitted as an armed merchant cruiser. Coastwatching stations, numbering in the end 58, were set up at key points, manned by reservists and civilians. No further immediate expansion was possible, but the demand for men, particularly to serve in the Royal Navy, steadily increased.
Naval manpower at the outset was as follows:
|New Zealanders||RN Personnel||Total|
The table (titled 'Naval Personnel'), although it does not tally with that above, shows how strengths increased
Thus a force predominantly officered at first by the RN was soon able to supply New Zealand officers not only for its own units but for the RN as well. The main expansion, of course, took place in the RN Volunteer Reserve (NZ), later the RNZVR. The NZ Auxiliary Patrol Service which started in December 1941 reached a maximum of 463 part-time volunteers, and the Women's Royal NZ Naval Service – “Wrens” – were formed for home service in 1942, and reached a maximum of 519.
The Achilles and Leander
After 10 weeks of inspecting ports and shipping on the coast of South America, the Achilles suddenly became famous as one of the three cruisers which, on 13 December 1939, defeated the powerful “pocket battleship” Admiral Graf Spee off the mouth of the River Plate . This was the first occasion – and what a thrilling one! – that the New Zealand ensign was hoisted in action. The Achilles fired a greater weight of shell in this action than either the Exeter or Ajax – 1,240 6 in. rounds at the phenomenal average of two rounds per gun per minute – and her company, led by Captain E. Parry, thoroughly deserved the applause of the crowd of 100,000 when they marched to the Auckland Town Hall on 23 February 1940. They had sailed 52,323 miles in 168 days.
Back from Fanning Island, the Leander, after escort duties, became in June 1940 the senior ship of the Red Sea Force and served as such for five months under frequent Italian sea and air attack from East Africa. Then, in 1941, she joined a hunt for raiders in the Indian Ocean, sinking the 3,667 ton Italian auxiliary cruiser Ramb I in February and next month seizing the Vichy-French motor vessel Charles L.D. of 5,267 tons. More adventures followed in the Arabian Gulf in April, and off Syria in June, and by the time the Leander docked at Wellington on 8 September 1941 the New Zealand ensign was already the proud emblem of a young navy.
War in New Zealand Waters
Early in June 1940 the German raider Orion laid mines in the northern approaches to Auckland and on the 19th the 13,415 ton Niagara struck one and sank. (The recovery of most of the gold it carried later became an epic of naval salvage.) In August the same raider sank the Turakina in the Tasman Sea and in November the Komet sank the small steamer Holmwood off the Chathams. Then both raiders sent the 16,712 ton Rangitane to the bottom, a day out of Auckland. Leaving New Zealand waters the raiders next appeared off Nauru Island near the Equator, sank five ships, and wrecked by shellfire the valuable phosphates plant. These acts caused much commotion. The Monowai, commissioned in August as an armed merchant cruiser, and the Achilles searched for the raiders; many air searches were flown, and minesweepers swept approaches to the main ports. In May 1941 the little Puriri, searching for floating mines, struck one and quickly sank with the loss of five lives. (That two more minefields were laid off Wellington and Lyttelton in June 1941 by a captured whale-chaser renamed the Adjutant was learned from German records after the war; they were never found.)
New Zealanders in the Royal Navy
Some 7,000 New Zealanders served in the Royal Navy. They were to be found in every type of naval vessel and aircraft, in most naval engagements and every major action, and they took their share of the routine of patrol and escort. They served in Arctic convoys to Murmansk, in the long-drawn-out Battle of the Atlantic, in the two-year struggle against commerce raiders, in minesweepers in the English Channel or off Sicily, or at Diego Suarez in Madagascar, and in the submarine service. They manned guns of merchant ships. Some of them helped to evacuate their countrymen from Greece and Crete. A few of them as Fleet Air Arm pilots flew obsolescent aircraft from Malta when its very name was a symbol of gallant defiance. All told, though their identity was submerged in the vastness of the war at sea, they did well and gained New Zealand many friends. Total casualties were 451 dead and 134 wounded or captured.