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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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Navies have always provided civilian support – both in peace and in war. Naval humanitarian work has saved countless lives and spread relief the world over.

That’s true for navies all around the world – and in the last century that work has ranged from providing basic civil amenities in peacetime emergency, through to important disaster relief, humanitarian aid and a good deal more. That speaks not just of the roles envisaged by government but also of the dedication of the officers and sailors involved, who – often enough – have gone beyond and above the call of duty to help those in need.

humanitarian aid
A U.S. Navy Helicopter provides supplies to Japanese citizens following the 2011 earthquake that severely damaged parts of the country.

There are innumerable examples – ranging from the 200,000 civilians transported by the Royal Navy after recent volcanic disruption of air travel, through to earthquake relief, humanitarian aid after hurricanes and more.

Just in the last 70-odd years, for instance, the US Navy has been involved in everything from flood relief work in Kansas City, humanitarian aid in Haiti in October 1954, assisted flood recovery in Spain in 1957, provided supplies and tents to the people of Koniya in December 1958, and much more, including sending helicopters to join flood rescue efforts in Pennsylvania in mid-1972. That assistance hasn’t been restricted to ships at sea, either; in August 1960, personnel from the Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Fallon, Nevada, joined fire-fighting efforts in Tahoe National Forest. There are many examples of work that continues to the present day.

Sometimes it’s been subtle – as in 1929 when the carrier Lexington was brought in to solve a power crisis in Tacoma. A drought that year sent water levels plunging in Lake Cushman, a hydro lake whose power station supplied energy for the city. Lexington’s turbo-electric drive made her a floating power station able to deliver up to 130,000 kilowatts. Two miles of high-tension line were built to connect the ship to the power grid ashore, cables were slung from the vessel, and the carrier provided over 4.5 million kilowatt-hours worth of electricity for the city between mid-December 1929 and mid-January 1930 – about 45 percent of Tacoma’s needs at the time. It was not easy; to provide power at the required 60 cycles, the turbo-generators had to run at 45 rpm over maximum rated speed.

naval humanitarian work
HMS Veronica at Port Ahuriri after the Hawke’s Bay quake of 1931. Arthur Bendigo Hurst, MS-Papers-2418-5-01

In New Zealand, the navy has a special place when it comes to earthquakes. By coincidence, every time there has been a major quake in a significant city since 1848, a warship has been in harbour and lent immediate assistance – and then the navy itself has rallied to the district. The best known is the devastating Hawke’s Bay quake of February 1931. On the morning of the 3rd the sloop HMS Veronica – part of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy – was moored to the wharf at Port Ahuriri, Napier. The earthquake struck at 10.47 am, magnitude  7.8. In just three minutes the entire district was reduced to a ruin. Veronica nearly capsized as the harbour bottom struck her keel, and was saved only by the hawsers holding her to the quayside. After securing his ship, Captain Morgan sent parties ashore to render aid, then signaled the main naval base at Devonport, Auckland.

The two light cruisers of the New Zealand Division were about to leave on a training exercise with the Royal Australian Navy and had steam up. Commodore Geoffrey Blake immediately cancelled the exercise and sent word to Auckland Hospital for doctors, nurses and medical equipment. They were at the dockside within 90 minutes, and the Dunedin and Diomede put to sea, working up to full speed for an overnight dash to the disaster zone. En-route, bakers went to work preparing fresh bread, and they arrived early next morning off Napier – carefully sounding their way in after reports of a sea-floor rise – and anchored in the roadstead. The sailors immediately went ashore. Afterwards, there was a general consensus that without the Bluejackets – who worked without stint to clear debris, search for survivors, and handle the gruesome task of clearing more than 250 dead – the Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 1931 would have been a far greater disaster.

‘Thank God for the Navy!’ one survivor said afterwards, and it was true.

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Don’t forget to check out Dreadnoughts Unleashed, available on Kindle. Be sure to read some of my other articles such as the design behind the “Mighty Hood” or this list of obscure facts about the Washington Naval Treaty.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017




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