Merchant marine

Page 2 – The merchant marine goes to war

The outbreak of war in 1914 posed special problems for New Zealand because of its dependence on sea trade. While trade with Australia was relatively safe, and would increase during the war, ships on the vital United Kingdom route ran great risks whenever they entered northern hemisphere war zones.

The ships of the New Zealand Shipping Company and Shaw Savill & Albion mostly bore Māori names. But they, like those of the Federal Steam Navigation Company and the Port Line, were British-owned. These companies were ‘the Conference Lines’, named for the shipping agreement that fixed freight rates and market shares. Many Kiwis called their ships ‘Home boats’, after a common term for Britain. New Zealanders travelled to and from Britain in them and depended on them to deliver machinery, vehicles, fashion items, medicines, fancy foodstuffs, toys, books and newspapers. The exporters of the wool, meat and dairy products that paid the country’s bills were just as dependent.

The figures were telling. In 1914 about 81% of our exports went to the UK and 56% of imports came from there. Britain’s ‘Red Duster’ (Red Ensign) dominated our waterfronts. In 1914, 46% of the tonnage entering them was British. Only 5% was ‘foreign’. The rest was ‘colonial’, New Zealand or Australian, much of it also British-financed.

The job of maintaining this vital 19,000-km ocean highway fell not to trained naval crews, but to civilians. Unlike most landlubbers, many would find themselves in the front line, crewing slow, vulnerable ships armed with at most a single defensive gun. That’s why people began to call the merchant marine the merchant navy. For centuries, Britain’s Royal Navy had seen its commercial shipping and fishing fleets as training grounds for the men it would need in wartime.

Most Home boat crews were British, but we also had a big merchant marine of our own in 1914 – more than 5400 New Zealanders earned their living at sea. This figure included around 60 stewardesses, about half of whom worked on the Union Company's passenger ships and ferries.

Over half of these men sailed with one shipping line. On the eve of war, Dunedin’s Union Steam Ship Company (known as the ‘Red Funnel Line’) owned 75 ships with a total volume of 240,553 tons. That made it the largest shipping line in the Southern Hemisphere – bigger than the five largest Australian companies combined. It also gave New Zealand clout in the war effort, with a huge pool of seafarers, managers and repair and maintenance staff able to adapt ships for wartime requirements.

Between 1914 and 1918, many ‘Red Funnel Line’ steamers were requisitioned for war service. Most carried troops overseas, but some served in more specialised roles.

Transporting the expeditionary force

Our access to British and local shipping made it easier to send troops overseas. Just days after declaring war, London asked New Zealand to seize German Samoa as ‘a great and urgent imperial service’. Two Union Company liners, the Moeraki and Monowai, took about 1400 troops to Apia, which was seized without bloodshed on 29 August.

A few weeks later the Main Body and First Reinforcements of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) boarded ships at Port Chalmers, Lyttelton and Auckland and converged on Wellington to meet their escort.

Those 10 ships carried the largest single group of troops ever to leave our shores. Three were Union Company ships – the Limerick, Maunganui and Tahiti – and seven were Home boats – Arawa, Athenic, Hawke's Bay, Orari, Ruapehu, Star of India and Waimana. Each bore a military designation, HMNZT (His Majesty’s New Zealand [Military] Transport) followed by a number; the Maunganui, the convoy’s flagship, was HMNZT No. 3.

While sailing was delayed until 16 October by uncertainty about the whereabouts of the cruisers of the German East Asiatic Squadron, the ships were quickly prepared to carry troops and their horses (3815 horses sailed with the 8427 men), ammunition, equipment and supplies. It was a big job. Paint alone cost thousands of pounds – it took about 7 tonnes of grey paint to cover the biggest ship, the Athenic. The Star of India was painted between 4 p.m. on a Thursday and noon the following Monday thanks to good weather and a lot of overtime. Coaling was just as difficult. The convoy required thousands of tonnes of coal to get to Britain (the rumoured destination, later changed to Egypt). As the river levels at the Greymouth and Westport bars were low, the Union Company had to put on extra coasters to supplement its regular coal ships.

But perhaps New Zealand’s greatest assets were its trained seafarers. The Admiralty appointed a navy officer and seven ratings to each transport, and soldiers helped keep the crowded ships clean, but the Union Company transports sailed with their regular crews.

How to cite this page

'The merchant marine goes to war', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 16-Oct-2014