The Royal New Zealand Navy

Page 3 – First World War

Establishing NZ's naval forces

When the Reform government took office in 1912, the way was opened for New Zealand to begin a new approach. The new minister of defence, James Allen, had long wanted New Zealand to follow the Australian lead by beginning the development of its own navy. To this end, he secured passage of legislation – the Naval Defence Act – establishing the New Zealand naval forces in December 1913.

In London he persuaded a reluctant British government to provide a cruiser as a training ship – as the starting point in creating a local New Zealand navy. The outcome was the arrival, on 15 July 1914, of the aging Pearl-class cruiser HMS Philomel under the command of Captain P.H. Hall-Thompson, who became naval advisor to the government. Its shake-down cruise would be interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War.

Alongside this development New Zealand continued to subsidise the British naval presence in the local administrative division of the China Station set up in 1913 following the establishment of the Royal Australian Navy. The amount was raised to £150,000. The British ships in the division comprised two Pelorus-class cruisers, HMS Psyche and Pyramus (which had about 90 New Zealanders among its crew), and the sloop HMS Torch.

Philomel at war

When New Zealand found itself at war on 5 August 1914, its first step was to return Philomel to British control. Its training scheme was put on hold for the duration of the war. Instead Philomel was involved in escorting the expeditionary force New Zealand quickly dispatched to German Samoa, along with Psyche and Pyramus. Later Philomel accompanied the New Zealand Expeditionary Force on its passage to Suez. It operated briefly in the eastern Mediterranean before being assigned gunboat duties in the Persian Gulf.

Supply of men

New Zealand arranged for naval reservists to be returned to Britain immediately war broke out. In 1916 it agreed to dispatch New Zealanders to bolster the ranks of the Royal Navy. As a result 193 left for Britain to serve in anti-submarine motor launches – foreshadowing a much greater effort in the next war. Naval reservist William Sanders was awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions in the Q-ship HMS Prize – the only New Zealand-born person to win a VC while serving at sea. In all, about 500 New Zealanders served in the Royal Navy during the First World War.

HMS New Zealand

Perhaps New Zealand’s most spectacular contribution to the naval war was made indirectly – through the activities of the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand, which had been paid for by New Zealand. This gesture had been made in 1909 when it appeared that Germany might soon take the lead in the naval arms race. New Zealand took part in all the main engagements between the British and German fleets during the war, including the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916.

How to cite this page

'First World War', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 31-May-2016