The Royal New Zealand Navy

Page 5 – Second World War

Achilles and Leander go to war

Even before New Zealand went to war with Germany on 3 September 1939, war plans had been put into operation as a precautionary measure. By the time war began the leander-class cruiser HMS Achilles, commanded by seconded RN officer Captain Edward Parry, was heading for South America, where it joined the America and West Indies Squadron. Achilles helped patrol the west coast of South America before moving into the South Atlantic. On 13 December 1939 the cruiser famously took part in the Battle of the River Plate.

Meanwhile, HMS Leander patrolled in the South Pacific before proceeding to the Middle East. After sinking the Italian raider Italian Ramb I in the Indian Ocean in February 1941, Leander deployed in the Mediterranean.

On 1 October 1941 an order-in-council changed the name of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy to Royal New Zealand Navy. This change had not been sought or favoured by the prime minister, Peter Fraser, who believed it was not the right time for such a step. In reality, the change made little difference, though New Zealand vessels now became His Majesty’s New Zealand Ship (HMNZS) rather than His Majesty’s Ship (HMS).

Provision of men

As in the First World War New Zealand’s contribution was not confined to its own naval vessels. It also provided men for service in the Royal Navy. The first batch arrived in Britain in mid-1940, and were soon operating on mineseepers in the English Channel, helping protect British shipping. They found themselves in the hot seat of the Battle of Britain as the Luftwaffe began attacking shipping passing through the channel. Among those who took part were several New Zealand officers who would be prominent later: Peter Phipps, who would end his career as a vice-admiral, and Phil Connolly, a minister of defence in the 1950s.

HMS Neptune disaster

The worst disaster involving New Zealand naval personnel occurred within the Royal Navy. When HMS Neptune, which had been earmarked to join the RNZN, sank with the loss of all but one of its crew after hitting a mine off Tripoli in December 1941, 150 New Zealand seamen were killed.

A series of secondment schemes greatly expanded the New Zealand presence in the Royal Navy from 1941. In all, 7000 New Zealanders would serve on attachment, and they were to be found spread through British warships in every theatre.

Many took part in the all-important Battle of the Atlantic, and many of the 4700 serving in 1944 were involved in operations connected with the D-Day landings at Normandy on 6 June. About 800 New Zealanders served as naval aviators in the Fleet Air Arm; in May 1944, the peak month, they comprised 7% of the arm’s personnel. Among those who made their mark were James Macdonald, who commanded motor torpedo boats, Archibald Richardson, who was recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross for his August 1944 attack on the German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian fiord, and Commander ‘Kiwi’ Smith, a midget submariner who took part in a celebrated raid on Singapore harbour in 1945.

Local defences

In New Zealand the RNZN was involved in local defence measures, initially in response to intrusions by German armed merchant raiders.

The armed merchant cruiser HMS Monowai, which had been commissioned in 1939 to supplement the cruiser strength, patrolled local waters, but raiders slipped through. A minefield accounted for the trans-Pacific liner Niagara in the Hauraki Gulf in June 1940. Dealing with enemy minefields could be dangerous. On 14 May 1941 the minesweeper HMS Puriri sank after hitting a mine, with the loss of five seamen, the only New Zealand naval personnel to fall victim to enemy action in New Zealand waters in two world wars.

Local naval resources were bolstered by the formation of the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service in 1942. It reached a peak strength of 519 during the war. Commanded by Chief Officer Ruth Herrick, the Wrens made a substantial contribution in the fields of signalling and intelligence in particular, and were also employed as drivers and watchkeepers. (Disbanded in December 1946, the WRNZNS was re-established three years later and remained in existence until 1977, when women became part of an integrated navy.)

Solomons campaign

Japan’s onslaught in the Pacific in 1941-42 reached as far south as the Solomon Islands. The US Navy’s South Pacific Command, with headquarters initially in Auckland, launched a counter-offensive at Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942. New Zealand forces were made available to the command. Initially the RNZN contributed to the US campaign in the South Pacific by escorting American troopships but both the RNZN’s cruisers soon became involved in the Solomons fighting. Both suffered such damage that they had to be withdrawn. During a Japanese air raid off Guadalcanal on 5 January 1943, Achilles was badly damaged by a bomb, which killed 13 men; it would not rejoin the RNZN until mid-1944 after extensive repairs. Leander was torpedoed during the Battle of Kolombangara on 13 July 1943, with the loss of 26 men. The ship limped back to New Zealand. After repairs in the United States, it reverted to the Royal Navy.

New Zealand’s naval effort in the Solomons campaign was then confined to minesweepers and, later, motor launches. The 25th Minesweeping Flotilla, comprising the minesweeper trawlers HMNZS Kiwi, Moa, Tui and Matai deployed to Guadalcanal in December 1942 to carry out anti-submarine patrols. Working from a base on Tulagi, on 29 January 1943 Kiwi and Moa destroyed the Japanese submarine I-1 off Guadalcanal. Kiwi had to return to New Zealand for repairs after ramming the submarine; its place was taken by the converted coastal vessel HMNZS Gale. In April Moa was sunk by a bomb in Tulagi harbour, with the loss of five lives; HMNZS Breeze took its place. In March 1944, 12 Fairmile launches were sent to the Solomons as the 80th and 81st Motor Launch Flotillas. All these small craft remained in action there till the end of the war.

Final operations

The RNZN took part in the final operations against Japan. The cruisers Achilles and HMNZS Gambia, which replaced Leander in September 1943, were part of the British Far Eastern Fleet which helped American task forces destroy what remained of Japanese naval power in 1945. By the time that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the war to a close, they were operating in Japanese waters. The corvette HMNZS Arbutus was also present. Many New Zealand naval aviators flew off British aircraft-carriers during these final operations. Gambia was present in Tokyo Bay when Japan formally surrendered aboard USS Missouri.

The cost

During the Second World War, 10,000 men served in the RNZN and RNZNVR. Compared with the other two services, the death toll was comparatively light. In all, 800 men became casualties, of whom 573 lost their lives.

How to cite this page

'Second World War', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-May-2013