condensed discuss document expanded export feedback print share remove reset document_white enquire_white export_white report_white
discuss document export feedback print share

Lieutenant Commander (Ret) Ralph John McNabb

Victoria Passau, Online Cenotaph & Enquiry Service Manager

Lt Ralph McNabb

Lt Ralph McNabb

© Royal New Zealand Navy


Lieutenant Commander (Ret) Ralph John McNabb served in the Royal New Zealand Navy for 46 years between 1973 and 2021. Ralph has worn many hats throughout his Naval career including Electrician, Educator and Administrator serving in Sinai, Bougainville and East Timor. His later career and more recent retirement has focused on researching the medals, awards and citations of his Naval comrades. His impressive institutional knowledge is a true asset to New Zealand Naval research. Victoria Passau, Online Cenotaph & Enquiries Manager was lucky enough to interview Ralph over Zoom on the 10th of June 2022. Ralph was in his home office in Wairoa in the northern Hawke’s Bay.

Early life

Ralph was born in Napier in 1956 and after moving to Gisborne aged one his family finally settled in Mahia where he lived from age five to sixteen. Ralph attended Opoutama School during primary school and then traveled to Wairoa College for his high school education; finishing school at the age of 16 at the end of his Fifth Form year.

During his formative years he had interacted a few times with the Navy which piqued his interest in serving.

The navy supply ship Endeavour that visited Gisborne during the Cook  Bicentenary. Gisborne Photo News, No 175 : January 29, 1969

The navy supply ship Endeavour that visited Gisborne during the Cook Bicentenary. Gisborne Photo News, No 175 : January 29, 1969

H B Williams Memorial Library, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ ‘Gisborne Photo News’

When I was a young fella HMNZS Blackpool came into Waikokopu, which is around Mahia, so that got me interested in seeing the sailors and the rest of it. So I wrote off... I think I was about 13 also during the [Captain] Cook Bicentenary in Gisborne in 1969 there was a Navy I wrote off and they said "Yep when you get to a certain age you can come for an interview"...Which I did and went down to Napier and got accepted as a Weapons Electrical Mechanic, joined the Navy.

Naval Career

Ralph first joined the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) as a Rating in January 1973, aged 16, spending his first 12 months of service training to be an Electrical Mechanic.  In January 1974 he posted to sea for the first time onboard the survey ship HMNZS LACHLAN.

In January 1976, after three years of service, Ralph decided to leave the RNZN which cost him the princely sum of $100 NZD or about $1,000 in today’s money. Ralph found that the “grass wasn’t always greener on the outside” and when RNZN changed their recruitment policy he jumped at the chance to rejoin.[1] So in 1977, after one year and ten months of civilian life Ralph joined to serve for another 17 years.

In 1978 he was one of a handful of Able Ratings selected to undertake the Advanced Electrical Course designed to train Leading Ratings for promotion to Petty Officer.  His selection was an aberration due largely to a shortage of Leading Ratings in the Electrical Trade.

On completion of the Advanced Electrical Course in December 1978, he posted to HMNZS TARANAKI serving there until January 1981.  During his posting to TARANAKI, he was promoted to Leading Rate and qualified professionally for Petty Officer.  In July 1981 having completed a Petty Officer Command Course, he was promoted to Petty Officer and posted to HMNZS ROTOITI.  His time on board ROTOITI was the highlight of his sea service due mainly to the challenges associated with a sole charge position, along with the comradeship and commitment he experienced serving as part of a small team in a minor war vessel.

Example of Posting Card from Ralph McNabb\u0027s service (1977-1991)

Example of Posting Card from Ralph McNabb's service (1977-1991)

All Rights Reserved.Royal New Zealand Navy
He remained onboard ROTOITI until February 1984 when he posted ashore to run the Electrical Maintenance Workshop in HMNZS PHILOMEL.  However, little did he know that his shore posting would last only four months and that he would be flying to the United States in June of that year, to join HMNZS CANTERBURY in Seattle.  His posting to CANTERBURY was to last until March 1987 when he posted to HMNZS TAMAKI to take up a position as an instructor in the Electrical School.  Whilst instructing at the Electrical School he was promoted to Chief Petty Officer.

In October 1989, he posted to HMNZS WAIKATO as the Chief Electrician.  He considers his time onboard WAIKATO to have been a rewarding experience allowing him to expand upon his administrative and managerial skills.

Having been selected for promotion to Warrant Officer in September 1991, he was duly promoted in January 1992 and immediately took up the position of Engineer Training Officer (Electrical) in charge of the Electrical School.  Later that same year he applied for and was selected to be the Technical Posting Clerk, a position that saw him responsible for the career management of approximately 600 ratings.

He posted to the Marine Engineering School (MES) in September 1996 as the MES Warrant Officer.   During his tenure at the MES, he joined the Marine Engineering Branch Restructure team (MEBR) and campaigned for the splitting of the Marine Technician into two streams, Propulsion and Electrical which became a reality in October 1998.  He also, as a senior member of the Electrical Trade, assuaged the integration of the Electricians, formerly members of the Weapons Electrical Branch up until June 1993, into the Marine Engineering Branch.  In March 1999, he was awarded the New Zealand Meritorious Service Medal in part, for his involvement with the MEBR.

Aerial oblique of the East Timor coast near Dili.

Aerial oblique of the East Timor coast near Dili.

Air Force Museum of New Zealand CC-BY-NC ‘MUS0212036’
In January 1999 he posted to the staff of the Fleet Personnel Officer as the Personnel Services Advisor (PSA) where his primary role was the investigation of complaints and the processing of applications for discharge.  In June 2002 he took a break from the Navy and deployed to East Timor for six months with the NZ Army.  Whilst in East Timor he was employed as the Administration Officer in the National Command Element located in Dili, the capitol of East Timor.  Upon returning to the Navy in December 2002, he resumed his duties as the PSA where he remained until August 2003, when he commissioned from the ranks as a Branch List Administration Officer in the rank of Lieutenant.

In January 2004, he posted to Naval Staff in Wellington to take up the position of Assistant Director Naval Personnel Complaints (ADNPC).  In October 2006, he deployed to the Sinai Peninsula for six months as part of the New Zealand military contribution to the Multi-National Force and Observers serving as the Aide-de-Camp to the Force Commander.  On completion of his deployment to the Sinai in May 2007, he returned to Naval Staff to resume the role of ADNPC.

Lt Ralph McNabb aboard ship

Lt Ralph McNabb aboard ship

© Ralph McNabb
In May 2009 he was granted the acting rank of Lieutenant Commander (substantive promotion granted in December 2010) and posted into the position of Deputy Director Naval Personnel Policy and Development where he remained until transferring from the RNZN into the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve (RNZNR) in June 2010.  During his tenure in the RNZNR, he was actively involved in providing medallic advice on an as required basis to the Medals Policy Section located in Defence Headquarters.  He also transferred back to the RNZN on two occasions totalling approximately 12 months.  On the first occasion he was employed rewriting the complaints chapter in Defence Force Orders and setting up the Complaints Investigation Cell in Defence Headquarters.  On the second occasion, he worked on the NZDF Long Service Awards Review.

Naval research - 'to create a permanent record'

This work experience in his later career fostered his interest in undertaking military research both for his peers but also for publication. His aim is 'to create a permanent record' for future generations of researchers and whānau. Ralph has long been a go to person in the Defence Force fraternity "I've managed to help a lot of the old boys...get their New Zealand Defence Service Medal for their Compulsory Military Training or National Service. A lot of them weren't aware of its existence so that was quite good…I’ve been able to do bits and pieces.” Ralph and his wife Sherayl McNabb are both well respected military researchers, with Ralph publishing a book about the New Zealand Meritorious Service Medal of the Royal New Zealand Navy[2] and Sherayl writing about New Zealand military nursing.[3] Both are key resources for Online Cenotaph work.

On the 1st of June 2021 he retired from the RNZNR having attained the age of 65 years and completed a total of 46 years’ service in both the RNZN and RNZNR.  At a farewell luncheon hosted by the Chief of Navy (CN) on the 17th of May 2021 he was awarded a CN Commendation: ‘For his commitment to the service and his shipmates.’

Ralph, despite formally retiring from the Navy, is still undertaking research into New Zealand Naval history.  He is currently writing a book on the Navy Long Service Medal from 1941 (when the Royal New Zealand Navy was established) through to 2020 when the rules were updated. “… So I've still got an active role [in supporting Defence Force research]."

Ralph has very kindly provided us with a number of resources that have helped to clarify the complexities of Naval service and administrative processes. His research and insights will help us to create 1,000s of Online Cenotaph records. We thank him for his research and continued commitment to acknowledging his fellow Navy personnel.


[1] Instead of personnel having to sign up for a full 8 years they could now sign up for 20 years but were only required to give three months notice if they wanted to leave at any time.

Cite this article

Passau, Victoria. Lieutenant Commander (Ret) Ralph John McNabb. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 1 August 2022. Updated: 1 August 2022.