HMNZS Leander

Page 3 – Leander goes to war

HMS Achilles won instant immortality in the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939. Leander’s early war was much quieter.

The cruiser left Auckland at the end of August 1939 to land a small garrison at Fanning Island in the central Pacific to protect the cable station. Leander’s other early war duties included escorting troopship convoys and representing the navy at the Waitangi Day centennial celebrations.

By mid-1940 the cruiser was escorting convoys in the Red Sea and Aden areas. In between escorting merchant ships, Leander further pummelled the Italian submarine Torricelli, which had been crippled and driven ashore by British warships, and shot up shore facilities.

Leander’s finest moment came on 27 February 1941 when lookouts detected a merchant ship on the horizon. It was the Italian commerce raider Ramb I, a modern ‘banana boat’, fleeing across the Indian Ocean towards the Dutch East Indies to escape the British advance on its home port of Massawa, Eritrea.

Ramb I attempted to bluff by flying misleading signals, but when the New Zealand cruiser drew closer and ordered it to stop, the Italians ran up their ensign and opened fire.

It was hardly an equal battle. Ramb I mounted just two 120-mm guns compared to Leander’s broadside of eight 152-mm and four 102-mm guns.  But the Italians got in the first shots, and Leander was fortunate that their fire was poor, causing only minor splinter damage. In contrast, Leander’s reply was fast and accurate – in just a minute five broadsides left Ramb I burning and listing by the bow. Soon afterwards, an enormous explosion sent it to the bottom. Two Italian sailors died in the battle.

The New Zealand government acceded to Admiralty requests and delayed Leander’s return home. Leander went to the Mediterranean to join British cruiser and destroyer task forces. During this time the ship came under air attack and also exchanged fire with large Vichy French destroyers.

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'Leander goes to war', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 10-Jan-2022