Page 1: Biography
Bank clerk, naval officer
This biography, written by Ian McGibbon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Peter Phipps was born in Sydney on 7 December 1908, the son of Fanny Josephine Seymour (née McOwen), who had married Claude Hamilton Seymour in Christchurch on 9 September 1908. He believed his father was Robert Julian Scott, a Canterbury College professor. He was brought up in the Seymour household in Christchurch, but was distinguished from his half-sister by being given the surname Phipps. Most of his primary schooling was at Sumner, where his mother lived after her husband’s death in 1914. After attending Christchurch Boys’ High School from 1923 to 1926, he worked as a clerk in the National Bank of New Zealand from 1927.
Sailing yachts with Robert Scott having sparked his interest in the sea, he joined the Sea Scouts in Christchurch, and was one of a group of scouts who journeyed to Wellington aboard the cruiser Chatham in 1924. In June 1928 he joined the Canterbury branch of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (New Zealand Division), and two years later received a probationary commission. After spending 1933 to 1936 working for the bank in Hokitika, he was transferred to Wellington, where, on 16 April 1938, he married Jessie Helena Hutton. They would have three children.
Phipps persevered with his naval career, transferring to the naval volunteers in Wellington in 1936. Called to active service in August 1939, he served as assistant staff officer (intelligence) in the Navy Office at Wellington until May 1940. He was then sent to the United Kingdom for service with the Royal Navy. From July 1940 to December 1941 he commanded the Bay , a 600-ton anti-submarine trawler, in convoy escort in the English Channel, for which service he was awarded a DSC in June 1941. His quiet and unassuming nature, common sense and courteous manner made a good impression on his superiors.
Phipps arrived back in New Zealand in August 1942 in command of Scarba , an anti-submarine and minesweeping trawler made available to New Zealand by the Admiralty. In January 1943 he took command of the Moa , part of the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla, which was deployed against the Japanese in the Solomon Islands. On the night of 29–30 January 1943 his ship was involved with the Kiwi in the destruction of the much larger Japanese submarine I-1, an action that earned him a bar to his DSC and the Navy Cross, an American decoration. After being wounded two months later during a Japanese air raid on Tulagi, he was evacuated to New Zealand. From 21 August 1944 he commanded the 25th Flotilla, first in the Matai , and from December 1944 in the Arabis. He established an excellent relationship with the American officers in the theatre, and represented the New Zealand government at the surrender of Japanese forces in Nauru and Ocean Island (Banaba) on 13 September 1945, ending the war in the rank of commander.
Phipps transferred to the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1946. As commander of the training establishment Philomel he performed well when confronting mutinous personnel in 1947, and then from June 1948 spent a difficult year – because of a clash of personalities with his captain – as executive officer on the cruiser Bellona. After commanding the training establishment Tamaki on Motuihe Island, he held a staff appointment at Devonport in 1951–52. In 1952 he became one of only two RNZN officers in the rank of captain. During 1953 he underwent a series of courses in the United Kingdom before being seconded to the Royal Navy for 18 months, during which he served as deputy director of the Admiralty’s Operations Division. He commanded the Bellona from September 1955, and was in command of the Royalist from April 1956. Royalist was with the British Mediterranean fleet when the Suez crisis erupted in late 1956, and Phipps almost found himself involved in active operations.
In 1957 he became the first New Zealand naval officer appointed to the New Zealand Naval Board, serving as second naval member. His appointment as chief of naval staff and first naval member of the board three years later was equally unprecedented, and he was the first New Zealander to reach the rank of admiral in the New Zealand forces. After the establishment of the Department (later Ministry) of Defence, Phipps in July 1963 became chairman of the chiefs of staff committee, soon retitled chief of defence staff. He was promoted to the rank of vice admiral, in which capacity he helped set up the new framework of top-level defence administration.
Phipps was made a CBE in 1962 and a KBE two years later. After his retirement in July 1965, he resided at Plimmerton before moving to Picton and then Kenepuru Sound. He was dominion commander for Sea Scouts. Jessie Phipps died in 1983, and he married Olwen Leonora May Sandall (née Jones) on 31 July 1987 at Porirua. He was killed when the car he was driving collided with another at Woodbourne, Marlborough, on 18 September 1989. He was survived by his wife and children.