HMS New Zealand Great War Story

New Zealand had no real navy of its own during the First World War. The outdated cruiser HMS Philomel, the country's first warship, reverted to Royal Navy command on the outbreak of the conflict and served without great incident in the Pacific, Red Sea and Mediterranean. At the same time, New Zealanders followed with intense interest the fortunes of a far larger and more impressive warship that bore the nation's name − HMS New Zealand. Although the vessel was never under New Zealand control and there were few Kiwis among its crew of 800, this sleek Indefatigable-class battlecruiser symbolised the Dominion's contribution to British sea power and the vital importance of the naval struggle to the outcome of the Great War.

In 1909 Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward announced that New Zealand would fund the construction for the Royal Navy of a battlecruiser (a capital ship of similar size and offensive power to a battleship, but generally faster and less heavily armoured). HMS New Zealand cost £1.7 million (equivalent to $275 million today). Built in Scotland, the ship was launched in July 1911 and commissioned for service in November 1912. New Zealand boasted a main armament of eight 12-inch guns and a top speed of almost 26 knots (48 km/hr).

HMS New Zealand visited the Dominion in April 1913 as part of a nine-and-a-half-month world tour that saw it visit 47 ports. During its 10-week stay in New Zealand waters it visited 18 ports, during which time an estimated 500,000 people − virtually half the country's population − inspected their gift to Mother England. Ten sailors deserted in Auckland, while Dunedin sightseers had to be ferried out to the heads because the ship was too large to enter Otago Harbour.

The ship’s first captain, Lionel Halsey, was presented by Māori with a piupiu (flax kilt) and a greenstone tiki (pendant) which was intended to ward off evil. He wore these items while in command of New Zealand at the Battles of Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank. His successor, Captain John Green, inherited the piupiu and tiki from Halsey and had them with him during the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, when, as in the earlier battles, the ship escaped significant damage or casualties. At Jutland New Zealand was in the line directly behind the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary when the latter blew up and sank with the loss of 1266 lives. The explosion sent a shower of debris on to New Zealand's deck; a ring bolt from the ill-fated Queen Mary is held by the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum in Devonport, Auckland. Soon after, New Zealand suffered a hit on its 'X' turret but sustained only minimal damage. Its subsequent reputation as a lucky ship was attributed by some to the piupiu and tiki.

In 1919, when Admiral Jellicoe took a Royal Navy fleet on another tour of the dominions to report on their defences, he chose HMS New Zealand as his flagship. In New Zealand ports, crowds once more flocked to visit the ship. This time more than a third of the country’s 1.2 million people went aboard during the 11 weeks it was here.

By now obsolescent, HMS New Zealand became a casualty of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. The vessel was decommissioned and sold for scrap in 1923. New Zealand did not finish paying for it until 1944.

The piupiu is now held at the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum in Devonport, Auckland. Two of the ship's secondary 4-inch guns are positioned outside Auckland War Memorial Museum.

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