New Zealand’s gift ship to Britain – the politics, the technology and the debt

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Matthew Wright

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I'm a New Zealand historian with a life-long interest in matters military, particularly naval engineering. My books have principally been published by Penguin Random House. I'm a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.
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The story of HMS New Zealand – an Indefatigable class battlecruiser completed at New Zealand’s expense in 1912 – has been long shrouded in mythology. Reference books frequently fail to recount the actual story. Some even misquote her vital statistics, repeating Admiralty propaganda of the day.

hms new zealand
HMS New Zealand. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The ship was the outcome of the controversial ‘dreadnought offer’ made in 1909 by New Zealand’s Prime Minister of the day, Joseph Ward. Wholly for political reasons, he declared that New Zealand – then a self-governing Dominion within the greater British Empire – would buy Britain a first-class dreadnought. And a second if necessary.

This gesture was made partly in context of the  ‘naval race’ between Britain and Germany, but was mainly driven by tensions between New Zealand and Australia over defence policy. The issue was how best to persuade the Royal Navy to provide forces for Australasian waters when Australia and New Zealand both saw threat from Britain’s ally, Japan. Where the two came apart was on how to meet the problem. Australia – whose six states had unified under a single government just a few years earlier – wanted stronger forces in local waters. New Zealand wanted to strengthen the Royal Navy at the centre, seeing Germany as a more immediate enemy.

That was the context of Ward’s ‘dreadnought offer’, which he made one Sunday from a small town in southern Hawke’s Bay, without calling Cabinet – a precipitate decision that ran across all protocols. Ward floundered when pushed for an explanation of his precipitate act. In fact he intended to pre-empt an Australian conference being held across the Tasman that weekend, where he expected they would draw New Zealand into asking Britain for local defence.

Gifting Britain a battleship seized the moral high because of the way that the new ‘dreadnought’ ship type had become a popular sole measure of naval strength. Nor was it much of a political gamble for Ward; there was instant popular applause. At the time, social militarism was on the rise – the evangelisation of all things military by populations who had not experienced large scale war. Children were dressed up in sailor suits, popular music gained a martial air, and military commanders gained rock-star status with the public. The idea of personal glory in battle – all for one’s country – became a social goal. There was even a word for it: jingoism, coined as part of a music hall song. And of all Britain’s children, New Zealand was the most enthusiastic jingo of all.  But Australia was not far behind, and amidst huge popular acclaim for Ward’s action on both sides of the Tasman, the incoming Australian government of Alfred Deakin had also offer Britain a dreadnought.

For all that, New Zealand could not really afford such an extravagant gesture – and both gifts were an embarrassment to the Admiralty at a time when they were trying to manage Royal Navy procurement in the face of Liberal governments that sought to reduce defence spending. The two Australasian gifts also dictated capital ship construction, interfering with Admiralty efforts to manage it on their own terms. The Admiralty’s answer, hammered out at an Imperial Defence Conference in 1909, did not suit Ward. The term ‘dreadnought’ implied a battleship; but both offers were transmuted into battlecruisers – a lesser type – to lead so-called ‘fleet units’ based in Sydney and Hong Kong .

HMS Lion, a vastly superior design to HMS New Zealand and already under construction when the ‘gift ship’ was laid down. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

This gave the Australians what they wanted at New Zealand’s expense. But things got worse for Ward’s intention of supporting the Royal Navy at its centre. Both the Australian and New Zealand ‘gift ships’ were built as Indefatigable class battlecruisers, already obsolescent in the face of the massively larger Lion class, the first of which was already under construction.

Why the Admiralty went down this path is unclear but seems to have related to availability of heavy gun mountings. These had to be ordered well ahead of any ships, and construction was switching to the Mk V 13.5-inch/45 calibre weapon, which was designed into all British capital ships from 1909 until superseded by the Mk I 15-inch (based on the same design) in the 1912 programme. The Mk V 13.5-inch initially fired a 1,250 lb shell, later 1,400 lb, and had excellent ballistic characteristics. However, demand for them soared as a result of the 1908 ‘naval panic’ in which Britain ordered eight instead of the usual four dreadnoughts, advancing the construction of their planned 13.5-inch gunned battleships and battlecruisers.

Crowds waiting to board HMS New Zealand at Lyttleton in 1913. Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/1-002307-G

The fact that the ‘gift ships’ were built to a superseded design and carried obsolescent weapons did not, however, reduce the hype – or the cost, which was billed back to the New Zealand government during construction via a tortuous paper trail that ran from the builders, Fairfield, to the Admiralty, thence the New Zealand High Commissioner in London and to the Minister of Defence back in Wellington. Everything had to be authorised individually, even down to internal fittings, and papers kept in Archives New Zealand reveal that there was even discussion and consultation over the advantages or otherwise of one fit-out or another.

The ship was commissioned on 19 November 1912 under Lionel Halsey and – after some debate – sent the following year on a thank-you cruise to New Zealand. Here her crew and officers were mobbed by cheering and enthusiastic crowds who viewed them as heroes. Up to 500,000 New Zealanders went on board. To put that in perspective, New Zealand’s population at the time was just under one million. In other words, half the entire population visited the gift ship during its ten-week tour.

HMS New Zealand’s sister ship Indefatigable sinking after blowing up at Jutland, as seen from HMS New Zealand. LT CMDR H T DAY – Q 64302, Imperial War Museums (collection no. 3904-01). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The military weakness of the ship was never advertised, though it is possible nobody in New Zealand would have cared. But in any event, the Admiralty had long since put about false information about the Indefatigables, obscuring the fact that both HMS New Zealand and HMS Australia had the same 45-calibre Mk X 12-inch mountings as the original Invincible class battlecruisers of seven years earlier. Instead, their armament was misrepresented as Mk XI 50-calibre, an official lie reappeared in some reference volumes for decades afterwards.

Official figures also overstated the armour, which in fact was no better than Invincible’s. That had already provoked internal criticism within the Admiralty. While Invincible was conceived as an ‘armoured cruiser killer’ and a fleet scout with punch, she was never intended to fight heavy ships for long. Her speed, the theory went, meant she could choose optimum range and always run clear of their gunfire. However, as soon as the Germans began building the Von der Tann, the reality was that the Invincibles could be met with a ship of similar speed and fire-power, meaning better armour was essential.

There was even less excuse when the two gift battlecruisers were laid down, by which time Germany was already building the Moltke class, which were just as fast and whose ten 11-inch guns could theoretically penetrate an Indefatigable’s armour. The result was that the New Zealand government ended up borrowing just over 1.7 million pounds sterling – a fortune in period standards – to build an obsolescent battlecruiser that had already been superseded.

HMS New Zealand spent the whole First World War in British waters, taking part in all the main sea battles: Heligoland, Dogger Bank and Jutland. She proved an able steamer, topping 26 knots at Dogger Bank – in excess of her design speed. Her armour was only tested once, at Jutland, where an 11-inch shell knocked a piece of 9-inch plate from X-turret, filling the turret with fumes. Fortunately there was no fire, or she might have suffered the same fate as her sister ship Indefatigable, which exploded with heavy loss of life.

Whether New Zealand’s 12-inch armament was effective was another matter. Like all the battlecruisers, her shooting was terrible – a function in part of the state of fire-control technology, but also of a near-complete lack of practise facility in the battlecruiser base at Rosyth. At Jutland, HMS New Zealand fired some 420 shells but is thought to have scored only four hits.

After Jutland it seemed clear that the surviving older battlecruisers were a liability. An additional inch of armour was added to New Zealand’s magazines and turret tops afterwards; but this could only be a palliative. Although the ship was kept in service to the end of the war, she had only minimal military value by this time. She was saved from immediate decommissioning by being sent on a tour to New Zealand in 1919, in part a thank-you tour, in part to bring Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Jellicoe out as New Zealand’s new Governor General.

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On return to Britain in early 1920, HMS New Zealand was laid up. She was scrapped from December 1922, and would have apparently met that fate whether Britain had signed the ‘Washington’ naval treaty on naval arms limitation or not. She was only a decade old. However, the debt raised by the New Zealand government to buy her was not paid off until 1947 – long after the ship was a memory.

If you enjoyed this article, check out my new book Dreadnoughts Unleashed – eleven essays on naval battles and battleship design of the twentieth century.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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