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Royal NZ Navy's Bird-class ships

Page 3 – Early wartime duties

When the New Zealand government ordered the Bird-class ships in September 1939, it gave the job to Henry Robb Ltd of Leith, Scotland. Robbs, as most people called it, specialised in short-sea ships and had built many recent vessels for the Union Steam Ship Company and its subsidiaries. In designing the Birds, Robbs drew on recent experience, including HMS Bassett (1935) and HMS Mastiff (1938).

The job went badly. More pressing wartime priorities caused many delays and drove up per-ship costs from £58,000 to £80,000. Robbs finally completed them at two-monthly intervals from August 1941. Earlier, they had been launched by the wives of former New Zealand governors-general: Lady Ferguson (Moa), Lady Galway (Kiwi) and Countess Jellicoe (Tui). Moa, the first to be commissioned, started life as HMS Moa. Kiwi and Tui, commissioned after the Royal New Zealand Navy came into being on 1 October, were HMNZ ships from the start.

All three ships joined Royal Navy escorts to work up at Tobermory (Isle of Mull) where they were put through their paces under the watchful eye of legendary disciplinarian, Commodore Gilbert Stephenson. ‘The Terror of Tobermory’ was a hard man to please. Author Jack Harker recorded that when inspecting the Moa’s mess deck, Stephenson criticised what he saw as wasteful luxury. ‘Cruet sets, pepper and salt shakers, monogrammed crockery, bunks supplied with sheets, blankets and RNZN monogrammed bedspreads, what next?’ he demanded. ‘Yes, sir, New Zealand has a very socialist government’, Moa’s commander, Lt-Cdr Phil Connelly replied. (Less than a year later Connolly would become a MP in that government.)

When the ships finally arrived at Auckland between April and August 1942, after lengthy voyages, they joined the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla, whose other members were former coasters and trawlers. By now New Zealand was also at war with Japan, putting on hold earlier plans for training and coastal patrols. The new ships were needed at the front.

Life aboard the Birds

Although the ships were newer and better equipped than their flotilla mates, they were still small vessels – and they got more cramped as additional weapons and sensors were crammed in to meet new threats.

American food

‘The dehydrated spuds looked like grey paste when they were mashed up’, Moa Leading Signalman Jack Salter recalled. ‘Cabbage was like chaff, the same colour too by the way, like straw. The best was dehydrated onion, they came up pretty well, they didn’t look like onion, but they tasted alright.’

They were intended to have a crew of 33-35 officers and men, but numbers grew. By war’s end, the ships’ full load displacement of 915 tons had grown to 1025, and they were sitting lower in the water.

In the Pacific the heat and monotony were almost as challenging as the Japanese. Crews had to put up with temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius while patrolling six days out of seven, returning only to refuel and to restock provisions.

Nor was the grub much good. There was plenty of New Zealand-made canned food, and the Americans were generous with their supplies. But fresh meat and vegetables were very scarce. This unhealthy diet and the overpowering heat produced many stomach and skin complaints.

How to cite this page

Early wartime duties, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated