According to a recent poll New Zealand is the second most peaceful country in the world. I’m not sure why we came in behind Iceland but I am prepared to accept the result. During the 20th Century things were different. New Zealand participated in both World Wars and several other wars that resulted from them, such as Korea and Viet Nam.
At the beginning of the century we even participated in a naval arms race, despite not having a navy. These are very expensive races to join and looking back it seems illogical that we wanted to pay for a ship that in time of war would serve on the other side of the globe. The New Zealand Government was not forced to do so. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. Looking back, it is very difficult to see why. There is more chance of the Pope converting to Islam, than of New Zealand doing the modern equivalent. Pay for a nuclear-powered submarine to be built for the Royal Navy.
The original offer was for New Zealand to pay 1.7 million pounds for a dreadnought. This was modified slightly when larger guns meant an increase in the size and cost of battleships. We paid for an Indefatigable class battle-cruiser instead to keep within the original budget. This class were about the same size as the early dreadnoughts but with one less gun turret and less armour. The weight saved was used to increase the size and power of the propulsion machinery to give greater speed. The ships had coal fired steam turbines that were heavier and bulkier than the gas turbines and diesels used in modern warships. To explain why New Zealand was so generous it is best to start from the beginning.
New Zealand was late being settled. It did not become a British Colony until 1840 when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed with the local Maori. This period also marked the end of two centuries of stable naval design. In terms of size and firepower Sovereign of the Seas 1637 is similar to HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar 1805. This was the battle that set the seal, after centuries of conflict, on British naval supremacy. In the century after Trafalgar they fought none while the ships changed out of all recognition.
During the 19th Century steel and steam replaced wood and sail. Guns increased greatly in size and power. Battles could be fought at a much greater range. Armour was used on the bigger ships its appearance soon followed by the armour piecing shell. The torpedo was invented and the little boats to carry them. The battle fleets had to include Torpedo Boat Destroyers for protection. These versatile ships were soon referred to simply as destroyers and trained to attack a rival battle fleet with their own torpedoes. Destroyers of this era were much smaller than they are in modern times. They were tiny in comparison with the battleships. Tasks that needed a medium sized ship were performed by one of the several types of cruiser. These tasks included operating independently and scouting ahead of the battle fleet. Duties that used to be performed by frigates.
At this time New Zealanders were proud to be part of the biggest and best Empire in the world. To protect this Empire Britain had the world’s largest navy. The Royal Navy was designed to be large enough to take on the combined forces of whoever was second and third. The navy kept Britain safe from invasion and from being blockaded. Instead of being starved into submission Britain could blockade her European enemies and ruin their trade. In the early years of the 20th Century Germany mounted a serious challenge to the Royal Navy’s supremacy. This naval race climaxed with the two sides building as many Dreadnoughts as possible. The term Dreadnought needs explaining.
Theoretically all elements of the fleet should work well together. There is however a problem with theories that also applies to manufacturers’ claims. They is no substitute for battle experience. Nobody can afford to start a war just to test a theory. A much cheaper option is to observe two other countries have a battle and watch carefully what works and what doesn’t. Russia obliged by taking on another empire that was a protégé of the British. While this was an empire that kept many of its traditions they were also avid students and imitators of the Royal Navy. They had their warships built in Britain and their Emperor was an honorary Field Marshall of the British Army. This is of course a long time ago. This was back when Britain had a massive ship building industry and Emperors couldn’t have too many fancy uniforms. Have you guessed it yet? I am referring to Japan.
How what was originally the Russian Baltic Fleet travelled 29,000 kilometres, only to get totally smashed by the Japanese in Tsushima Strait, is a fascinating story. They had many difficulties to overcome, such as getting enough coal. The British had an extensive coaling network but refused to help the Russians on their way to fight a British ally. The Russians had to make other arrangements. I don’t have the space to do justice to the story despite feeling it deserves to be better known.
The reason I have included the Battle of Tsushima 1905 into this article, is the effect the outcome had on battleship design. Admiral Togo had been trained by the British and had British observers on board his ships during the battle. They noticed that while the battleships carried a range of different sizes of guns, only the biggest were truly effective. The observers would also have admired the way Togo handled his fleet. He used his advantage in speed with great skill to dictate the way the battle would be fought. He completely outmanoeuvred the Russians and virtually wiped them out.
Battleships of that period carried a variety of guns for a reason. It was expected that the size of the splash would indicate which size of gun had fired the shot. The range could then be altered by changing the elevation of the gun. Under battle conditions this proved to be impractical. This problem was made worse by the individual gun turrets making different estimates of the range. It was not until the Second World War and the invention of radar that a truly effective method was found. There have been refinements but this is the basis of the methods used today.
The British observers on the Japanese ships learned other things from the battle. The big guns proved to be even more effective at long range. A far greater range than what any previous battle had been fought. This confirmed the theories that “all big gun” battleships would be more effective. That centralized firing would be more accurate and if it was possible to fit turbines to large ships the increase in speed would be useful. It was time for the next step in battleship evolution. It was time for HMS Dreadnought to be born and make every other battleship in the world obsolete. .
She carried ten 12-inch guns rather than the four carried by earlier battleships and was faster. All this was achieved for only a modest increase in size. While not usually credited with being the first ship to introduce centralised firing she was immediately put to use in an experimental gunnery programme to benefit the many similar ships that followed. A fleet is only as fast as its slowest ship as they have to be kept together to fight effectively. This meant that the old style armoured cruiser also became obsolete. These began to be replaced by Dreadnought like battle-cruisers sending the older ships to fill secondary roles. The older battleships became known as pre-dreadnoughts.
Some historians claim that the British was foolish to start the race by building the first dreadnought. I think they are missing the point. With the rapid development of ships and the improvements in technology the building of such a ship became inevitable. If Britain had not got in first someone else would have and the Royal Navy would be forced to try and catch up. With regards to HMS Dreadnought there were problems as there often are with experimental ships. By 1916, only ten years after her completion she was considered not quite good enough to be part of the Grand Fleet that fought at the Battle of Jutland. This was fought by newer ships the core of the fleet consisting of 28 dreadnought battleships and 9 battle-cruisers. They included HMS New Zealand.
Some New Zealanders would have found it exciting to be part of an arms race. Especially the large number that still considered themselves to be British. It was their empire that was being threatened. The Government would have used this sentiment to gain public support. The Royal New Zealand navy was not formed until 1941 as before then there seemed to be a need for one. Japan was a stanch ally of the British Empire and we were thousands of miles away from any possible threat. It made a lot more sense for the new ship to be based in European waters rather than the Pacific.. There was only one condition. She must be called HMS New Zealand.
There already was a HMS New Zealand in the Royal Navy but not for long. The older ship, a pre-dreadnought battleship of the King Edward VII class, was promptly renamed Zealandia to free up the name for the new ship. The public of New Zealand were happy with the arrangement especially in 1913 when HMS New Zealand made a good will visit to our shores. The British were very grateful to have such a fine ship paid for by New Zealand. She cost 1.7 million pounds, equivalent to $265 million today. People came to visit her in their thousands eager to see if the tax payers had got their money’s worth
The eleven-week tour of HMS New Zealand was a huge success. It is estimated that 500,000 people, half the total population of the country came to visit the ship. This begs the obvious question as to why? What was there to see? The most impressive feature of the battle-cruiser were her four gun turrets. Each weighed 450 tons and mounted two 12-inch guns that could fire a shell weighing 386kg a maximum distance of 18 kilometres. The gun barrels were about 14 meters long.
She visited as many ports as possible and numerous gifts were exchanged and presentations made. The most interesting were those from the Maori people. These consisted of a piupiu or warrior’s skirt and a hei-tiki. Frequently shortened to tiki, this was a greenstone pendent. These items were blessed by magic to keep its owner safe in battle. The captain wore them in battle and had no cause to regret doing so. HMS New Zealand became known as a “lucky ship.”
During the war HMS New Zealand fought in all three of the major North Sea battles; Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland. Despite this she was only hit once and this caused no serious damage or casualties. Other ships were not so lucky. Three British battle-cruisers, including sister ship HMS Indefatigable, were blown to pieces at Jutland. They paid the price for sacrificing armour protection for speed. Not following proper safety protocols in order to increase their rate of fire, also contributed by turning what would have been serious damage into disaster.
HMS New Zealand survived the war, but her days were numbered. The British Empire had been on the winning side in the war but the cost in men and money had been far too high. Britain could no longer ignore world opinion and budget restraints. In 1922 a navy treaty was put in place to prevent another ruinous navy arms race. The Royal Navy was quite literally cut down to size. As well as restrictions on new construction most of the existing battle fleet was scrapped. Three later battle-cruisers were converted into aircraft carriers. After making another triumphant tour in 1919 HMS New Zealand’s luck had finally run out, although a memento still survives. The family of the last captain of HMS New Zealand returned the piupiu to its country of origin. It occupies pride of place in the Navy Museum, Torpedo Bay in Devonport. Well worth a visit. Ther are also two 4 inch guns from the old ship outside the Auckland War Memoria; Museum.
I have included a link to a locally made video clip. It gives extra details and features the piupiu and guns mentioned above. While viewing the clip it is however important to remember that size is relative. HMS New Zealand is far bigger than any ship that has ever served in the New Zealand navy. Modern combat ships such as the frigate HMNZS Te Kaha, look small when compared. nzhistory.govt.nz/media/video/…
HMS New Zealand specifications
Displacement 18,500 tons
Length 590 feet Beam 80 feet
Speed 25 knots
Armament- 8 (4x 2) 12 inch guns, 16 ( 16x 1 ) 4 inch guns, 2 ( 2x1} 18 inch torpedo tubes.
Armour – Belt 6 inch, deck 1.5 – 2 inch, turret 7 inch.
Indefatigable class battlecruisers would have been an impressive sight in their day. It is however best not to get too carried away. Second World War battleships such as the Iowa class are far larger.