The Royal New Zealand Navy

Page 4 – NZ Division of the Royal Navy

The First World War experience convinced defence minister James Allen that New Zealand’s approach to naval defence had been on the right lines. The escort requirements of 1914, the intrusion of the German armed merchant raider Wolf into New Zealand waters in 1917, and the demonstrated importance of seapower – all pointed in the direction of re-instituting the pre-war policy of creating a local navy. Allen’s views were strongly reinforced by the advice of one of the Empire’s premier naval personalities, Lord Jellicoe, in 1919.

Jellicoe arrived in New Zealand aboard HMS New Zealand, as part of his mission to advise dominion governments on post-war naval defence. Jellicoe’s report set out a strategic arrangement within which a New Zealand navy could play a role. His influence would continue after he returned to New Zealand in 1920 as governor-general.

New Zealand Division established

In the meantime the government pressed ahead with administrative arrangements for the New Zealand naval forces. An order-in-council in March 1921 created a naval board to control local naval activities. Three months later, on 20 June 1921, another formally constituted the ‘New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy’, with a small staff, the Navy Office, in Wellington. A New Zealand volunteer naval reserve would be established in 1925, and by 1939 it numbered 670 men.

HMS Chatham

By this time HMS Philomel had long since been de-commissioned. The ship was so decrepit by 1917 that it was returned to New Zealand as no longer fit for active service. It became an administrative and training depot, initially in Wellington. As a replacement Prime Minister William Massey secured the cruiser HMS Chatham, which arrived in New Zealand in January 1921, under the command of Captain Alan Hotham. Hotham became first naval member of the naval board.

Devonport Naval Base

The already existing naval facilities at Devonport, including the Calliope Dock, and Auckland’s location in relation to the Pacific Islands to the north made it the logical place for the New Zealand division’s base. Philomel moved north to the base, where it became a longstanding feature as a non-seagoing depot.

D-class cruisers

The strength of New Zealand’s navy was greatly enhanced in 1924 with the arrival of two D-class oil-burning cruisers, HMS Dunedin and Diomede, to replace the coal-burning Chatham. An oiler, RFA Nucula, was acquired to support these ships. The division also included the Castle-class minesweeper HMS Wakakura.

Dunedin and Diomede were both deployed to Western Samoa in 1928 to support the New Zealand administration, which had come under pressure from a Samoan nationalist movement known as the Mau. Dunedin returned in early 1930 following a riot in which a number of Samoans and one policeman had been killed. Naval personnel were deployed ashore to round up Mau personnel. Naval forces also provided aid to civil authorities back home – during the Napier Earthquake in 1931 and in response to Depression riots in Auckland in the following year.


In the mid-1930s the naval forces were significantly upgraded with the replacement of the D-class cruisers with more modern Leander-class cruisers, HMS Achilles and Leander. As previously, the ships were borrowed from the Royal Navy with New Zealand paying their running costs. Almost immediately the new cruisers were involved in British deployments in the Middle East in response to the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) crisis.

The New Zealand Division still depended on the Royal Navy to make up the shortfall in its manning. In 1939, only eight of its 82 officers were New Zealanders. Of the 1257 ratings, 541 were loaned British personnel.

How to cite this page

'NZ Division of the Royal Navy', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012