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The 1950s

Page 8 – 1955 - key events

Who dares wins

SAS in Malaya

The New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) is the ‘premier combat unit of the New Zealand Defence Force’. Its formation was seen as the most effective and economical contribution New Zealand could make to the Far East Strategic Reserve and the British counter-insurgency effort in Malaya. Major Frank Rennie was appointed to form and command the unit, which was recruited mainly from the general public with a cadre of Regular Force personnel. More than 800 men applied and 182 were eventually selected, including 138 civilians (101 with previous military experience).

Training began in June and in late 1955 a 133-strong NZSAS Squadron was attached to the British SAS in Malaya. From April 1956 until late 1957 it operated in the jungle against communist insurgents. In more than a dozen engagements only one NZSAS trooper was killed.

In 2007 Corporal Willie Apiata of the NZSAS became the first member of the New Zealand Defence Force since the Second World War to be awarded the Victoria Cross, for his bravery in rescuing a wounded comrade under fire in Afghanistan.

NZ cricketers set unwanted world record

Bert Sutcliffe in action

At Eden Park, Auckland, on 28 March the New Zealand men’s cricket team was dismissed for just 26 runs in the second test against England. Only opener Bert Sutcliffe made it into double figures, scoring 11.

The New Zealanders had competed well before this debacle. Dismissed for 200 runs in its first innings, New Zealand restricted England to a lead of 46. But then the English bowlers ripped through the New Zealand line-up in 27 overs. Off-spinner Bob Appleyard took 4 for 7 from six overs and New Zealand lost by an innings and 20 runs. In both innings Appleyard was denied a hat-trick by tail-ender Alex Moir.

A busy year on the gallows

Mt Eden Prison

The 1950s was the last decade in which capital punishment was used in New Zealand. Of the 28 men executed for murder in the 20th century, eight were hanged in the 1950s – four in 1955 alone.

Among those executed that year was 20-year-old Edward Te Whiu. Despite serious questions over his ‘childlike mental state’, Te Whiu was convicted in just 35 minutes for the murder of pensioner Florence Smith. Of greater notoriety was the killing of 19-year-old Sharon Skiffington by her jilted lover Frederick Foster in March 1955. Skiffington was shot at close range as she left Somervell’s milk bar on Queen St, Auckland. Then in July Alan Jacques was killed by Albert ‘Paddy’ Black next to the jukebox in Ye Olde Barn, a Queen St café.

The ‘Jukebox killer’ and the ‘milk bar slaying’ appeared to confirm the serious moral decline outlined in the previous year’s Mazengarb Report. Some felt that the ultimate punishment would deter those indulging in such lifestyles.

‘There’s uranium in them thar hills!’

Uranium icecream poster (detail)

In 1955 a couple of 70-somethings, Frederick Cassin and Charles Jacobsen, discovered uranium near Hawks Crag, a prominent landmark in the Lower Buller Gorge on the South Island’s West Coast. Cassin and Jacobsen made their discovery after stopping to relieve themselves by the roadside while driving home from the pub. Jacobsen put a Geiger counter on the rock face and the ‘needle went off the scale’.

The discovery caused a sensation, as local people believed it could bring riches akin to the gold rushes of the 19th century. Demand for uranium was high, given its importance to nuclear weapons and energy programmes in the United States and the United Kingdom. In the end little came of the discovery. There was insufficient high-grade uranium in the area and mining stopped in 1962.

Other events in 1955:

  • In November the 8.8-km Remutaka rail tunnel was opened, bypassing the infamous Remutaka incline and dramatically improving transport links between Wairarapa and Wellington.
  • The Tasman Pulp and Paper mill opened at Kawerau in eastern Bay of Plenty.
  • On 1 May, in Malaya, Vampires of 14 Squadron carried out the RNZAF’s first operational strike mission since the Second World War, and the first using jet aircraft.
  • New Zealand’s last polio epidemic broke out. More than 1500 people would be affected over the next two years before the advent of the Salk and then the Sabin vaccines stopped the disease in its tracks.
  • On 20 December the first long-distance flights into Antarctica from the outside world left from New Zealand.
  • A new tourism experience began with the first landing of a ski-plane on the Tasman Glacier, below Mt Cook (Aoraki).

How to cite this page

1955 - key events, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated