Skip to main content

Battle of the River Plate

Page 2 – New Zealand's naval forces

In December 1939 the New Zealand naval forces were a quarter of a century old. They had come into being with the arrival of the decrepit training cruiser HMS Philomel at Wellington in July 1914. Almost immediately, however, the outbreak of the First World War interrupted New Zealand’s naval development plans. Philomel was returned to Admiralty control and headed off to the Middle East. For the next three years it was used in a gunboat role, mainly in the Persian Gulf, occasionally carrying out shore bombardments and landing shore parties. In 1917, no longer fit for service, it returned to New Zealand and was decommissioned, becoming a depot ship at Devonport.

Following the war New Zealand resumed its naval programme, forming a New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy in 1921 and taking control of the cruiser HMS Chatham. Three years later a more modern cruiser, HMS Dunedin, arrived to replace Chatham. Dunedin was joined by its sister ship HMS Diomede in 1926. Leander-class light cruisers replaced these D-class cruisers in the mid-1930s. Achilles joined the New Zealand Division in 1936 and HMS Leander the following year. 

As their formal title indicated, the New Zealand naval forces developed within a Royal Navy framework. The cruisers were loaned to New Zealand, which paid only their running costs - a major advantage for a cash-strapped government. New Zealand also depended upon British expertise and personnel. Senior officers, including Achilles’ captain Edward (later Rear-Admiral Sir Edward) Parry, were seconded British officers. In 1939 the New Zealand Division comprised 82 officers and 1257 ratings, of whom eight officers and 716 ratings were New Zealanders; supporting them was a 670-strong New Zealand Volunteer Naval Reserve. New Zealand sent its personnel to Britain for training, relied on British logistic support, and looked to the Royal Navy for traditions, advice and example. A small element of the wider British fleet, this force would be placed under the operational control of the Admiralty on the outbreak of war, in accordance with New Zealand's defence strategy.

Naval strategy

Between the world wars, New Zealand's defence was conceived as part of an imperial system based on the power of the Royal Navy. This system provided New Zealand’s physical security from invasion or attack and also protected the trade routes upon which its economy depended. These routes were comparatively restricted in scope because of the narrow basis of New Zealand’s economy, which was almost exclusively devoted to producing meat, wool and other primary products for the British market. The long sea route to Britain - across the Pacific to the Panama Canal, and thence across the Atlantic - was all-important.

Both countries had an interest in keeping open this sea route and the others on which Britain depended (for Britain’s survival as a market and source of military support was vital to New Zealand). The Royal Navy and the many strategically located bases it controlled gave Britain the means of protecting its sea lanes. Although the approaches to the British Isles obviously needed the most protection, given the proximity of powerful potential enemies, trade protection was a worldwide effort coordinated by the Admiralty in London. New Zealand”s role was to assist by making available the resources it could spare to bolster the collective effort. 

The threat to New Zealand

Physical protection posed a greater problem. The biggest threat in the interwar period seemed to be posed by the Empire's former ally Japan. With the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919, the Japanese Navy had emerged as the world's third largest; only the United States and British fleets were larger. Despite a visit by the US battlefleet in 1925 (much larger than any naval visit ever made by the Royal Navy), New Zealand did not count on US support in the event of war with Japan. Isolationism was strong there, and Japan was expected to avoid attacking US interests if it went to war with the British Empire.

But was the Royal Navy strong enough to assert its power in the Pacific? The admirals in London insisted that it was: they developed a strategy centred on a major naval base at Singapore. In the event of trouble with Japan the British battlefleet would concentrate there, threatening the flank of any Japanese drive towards the South Pacific. Accepting these assurances, New Zealand contributed £1 million towards the construction of this base. But international developments during the 1930s raised doubts about the strength of the fleet that could be sent to Singapore in an emergency.

How to cite this page

New Zealand's naval forces, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated