New Zealand's first warship, HMS Philomel formed the core of the country's naval forces during the First World War. The aged and largely obsolete vessel was commissioned in New Zealand in July 1914 and went on to serve in the Pacific, Mediterranean and Middle East. In the interwar period Philomel cemented its unique place in New Zealand’s naval history as a stationary training ship at the Devonport naval base.
In the years immediately prior to the outbreak of the First World War, the New Zealand government had been actively trying to establish its own naval forces to complement those of the Royal Australian Navy. The Minister of Defence, James Allen, persuaded the British government to provide New Zealand with a cruiser to use as a seagoing training ship. The Royal Navy offered the aging and outdated Pearl-class cruiser HMS Philomel. Command of the ship was given to the New Zealand Naval Forces – which were established under the Naval Defence Act 1913 – but would revert back to the Royal Navy in time of war.
The Philomel had already had an eventful 24-year career when it was commissioned in New Zealand in 1914. Launched in Devonport, England, in 1890, the ship had served the Royal Navy in Africa and the Middle East. During its deployment at the Cape of Good Hope Station, Philomel protected trade and intercepted slave traders along the African coast before serving in the South African War of 1899-1902. It was one of five Royal Navy vessels which bombarded the Zanzibari sultan’s palace during the shortest war in history, the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896. The ship was later stationed in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and finally in Singapore, from where it was recommissioned for New Zealand service.
First World War service
On 15 July 1914, as Europe stumbled towards war, New Zealand officially commissioned HMS Philomel as its first warship. The ship was under the command of Captain Percival Hall-Thompson of the Royal Navy, who also served as naval advisor to the New Zealand government. On 30 July Philomel was in Picton on the first day of its shake-down cruise with the first class of New Zealand naval recruits when it was ordered back to Wellington to prepare for imminent war with Germany. When war was declared on 5 August (New Zealand time), Philomel reverted to Royal Navy command. However, the New Zealand government continued to pay the entire crew’s wages and for the maintenance of the ship throughout the conflict.
New Zealanders on HMS Philomel
In order to bring the ship’s company up to a wartime complement of 221 sailors, approximately 60 New Zealand naval ratings joined the British crew of HMS Philomel at the outbreak of the First World War.
Philomel's first task, in late August, was to escort the Advance Party of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to Samoa, with the aim of capturing the German colony. The first leg of this voyage between New Zealand and Noumea, where larger escorts were waiting, was extremely dangerous. The Philomel, along with two even smaller escorts, were no match for the modern ships of the German Pacific Squadron – the whereabouts of which was unknown at the time. On arrival in Apia Philomel guarded the occupation force as it went ashore. It was then ordered to visit American Samoa and other islands to advise that Britain had occupied German Samoa.
After its safe return from the Pacific, Philomel underwent essential maintenance before joining the escort of the Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Ten troopships carrying 8454 soldiers and almost 4000 horses left Wellington on 16 October 1914, ultimately bound for Egypt. Philomel was part of the escort until the convoy reached Western Australia, but was then diverted to Singapore to provide an escort for three French troopships returning to France. In December the dilapidated Philomel was sent to Malta for a refit.
After being refitted Philomel joined the Royal Navy’s Northern Red Sea Patrol before transferring to the eastern Mediterranean. Its objective in these areas was to maintain a watch on the Ottoman Turkish forces and remove any threat to the Suez Canal and British coaling stations. At the start of February 1915, as an Ottoman force approached the Suez Canal, orders were issued to the ships of the fleet to engage with enemy targets of opportunity at sea and ashore. Philomel was assigned to patrol duty in the Gulf of Alexandretta, the easternmost part of the Mediterranean Sea, where it was ordered to harass the Ottoman Army around the town of Alexandretta (now known as İskenderun). It was here, on 9 February 1915, that Able Seaman William Edward Knowles became one of the first New Zealanders to die as a result of combat during the First World War. Read more about Knowles’ death here.
In July 1915 Philomel was transferred back to the Red Sea, where it patrolled for arms smugglers and supported the British garrison at Aden. In late September Philomel landed a party with a machine gun as part of a force which repelled a Turkish advance to within 20 km of Aden. During their return to Aden three men succumbed to heatstroke and died. Two were New Zealanders – Chief Petty Officer George Phillips and Able Seaman Bruce Beagley, who both died on 29 September 1915. From the Red Sea Philomel was sent to the Persian Gulf, where it operated from November 1915 until early 1917. The ship’s main tasks were patrolling to intercept gun runners and German spies. It also protected trade, mediated between disputing Arab tribes and harassed Ottoman forces in Mesopotamia (Iraq). During this deployment New Zealander Victor Adlam died of suspected food poisoning in June 1916.
When Philomel docked in Bombay (Mumbai) in January 1917 for a further refit, it was found that the hull and deck required extensive repairs. By this time Philomel was the Royal Navy’s oldest fighting ship, and the cost of further repairs was too great for the New Zealand government. The ship was detached from the Royal Navy fleet and sent back to New Zealand. When it arrived in Wellington on 16 March 1917, Philomel was met by a guard of 50 corporals from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and a number of politicians. This ended the ship’s active service; for the remainder of the war it was a stationary base, or depot ship, berthed near the Wellington suburb of Thorndon. When, in 1918, it was learned that the German raider Wolf had laid mines off New Zealand, Philomel took on its last active role as a depot ship for the trawlers used for minesweeping operations in Northland and the Kermadec Islands. In December 1918 Philomel was again paid off, with only a care and maintenance party remaining on board.
When the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy was formed in 1921 it was decided that New Zealand’s naval forces would comprise up to three cruisers, supplemented by destroyers. Supporting the operational ships would be Philomel in the role of a depot ship, providing training for new entrants and specialist maintenance personnel. The naval base at Devonport, Auckland, was chosen as the location for these facilities. Philomel was recommissioned in Wellington in March 1921, and the following month completed a three-day voyage to Auckland under its own power (escorted by the cruiser HMS Chatham). The old ship was berthed alongside what would become known as ‘the Training Jetty’, and served as a home to generations of new entrants joining the New Zealand Division.
To create additional classroom space the ship’s engines were removed in 1925. As the years passed by more of the superstructure was removed and replaced by huts fitted to the deck. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Philomel was still in use as a training ship at the naval base. The ship housed volunteers for naval service from 1939 until 1941, when a training base was commissioned on Motuihe Island. Most of Philomel 's training function was transferred to this base, known as HMNZS Tamaki, along with the ship’s mainmast. In 1941–2 the hulk of the Philomel was used as officers’ accommodation, and from then until the end of the war it served as a base for the Auckland fleet of patrol launches.
At the end of 1945 the old ship was sold for scrap to the Strongman Shipping Co. for £750. At sunset on 16 January 1946 the Navy’s White Ensign was ceremonially lowered for the last time on Philomel. The New Zealand Naval Board sent the following signal on the last night Philomel was alongside the naval base:
The Naval Board wish to record their regret at the passing from the Service of the first of His Majesty’s New Zealand ships – a ship which meant so much to all who have served in her, She goes, as many good ships have gone before her … the tradition which she has established during her long career will live on in the depot to which she has given her name.
At 8 a.m. on 17 January 1946 the White Ensign was hoisted over the naval base which, following Admiralty approval to retain the name, was commissioned as the shore establishment HMNZS Philomel. On the same day the hulk was taken under tow from Auckland by the new owner to Coromandel. There it was stripped, much of the wood being used to construct a small coastal trading vessel named Coromel. In accordance with the request of the Royal New Zealand Navy that the ship receive a fitting ceremonial end, 4 kg of explosive sent the hulk to the bottom of the sea off Cuvier Island on 6 August 1949 – 59 years after Philomel had been launched.
- Royal New Zealand Navy's First World War origins (NZHistory)
- Capt. P.H. Hall-Thompson, 'The work of the "Philomel"', in H.T.B. Drew (ed.), The war effort of New Zealand, Whitcombe & Tombs, Auckland, 1923 (NZETC)
- HMS Philomel log books, 1913-17
- Naval Historical Society of Australia
- Captain Hall-Thompson biography (DNZB)
Books and articles
- H.M.S. Philomel, a history of the training and depot ship of the Royal New Zealand Navy, 1944
- Damien Fenton, New Zealand and the First World War, 1914-1919, Penguin, Auckland, 2013
- R.J. McDougall, New Zealand naval vessels, GP Books, Wellington, 1989
- Ian McGibbon, Blue-water rationale: the naval defence of New Zealand 1914-1942, Historical Publications Branch, Wellington, 1981
- Kelly Ana Morey, Service from the sea, Penguin, Auckland, 2008
- Peter Singlehurst, ‘Naval Sideshows of World War I: HMS Philomel and a landing in the Gulf of Alexandretta’, The Volunteers, vol. 32, no.2, pp. 69-73