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The birth of the Royal New Zealand Navy

This year is the 75th anniversary of the creation of the Royal New Zealand Navy. Ships from international navies have sailed here to participate in four days of celebrations known as Operation Neptune. To mark the occasion, we've delved into our collection to highlight some of the ships and service people that helped found New Zealand's modern navy. 

HMS New Zealand

New Zealand had been eager to have the Royal Navy permanently present around its waters since at least the early 1900s. Naval support was deemed so necessary that the Colonial Government began paying an annual subsidy to the Royal Navy to guarantee a war ship patrolled its coasts.

H.M.S. New Zealand sails into Auckland Harbour.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-TECH-925-407.

In 1908, Sir Joseph Ward dramatically upped the ante by offering to pay for a "first class battleship." Britain gratefully accepted the offer and in 1909 HMS New Zealand was purchased by New Zealand as a gift to Great Britain. 

‘New Zealand’s gift’ was offered against a background of uneasy debate about the relative strengths of the German and British naval fleets, so the battlecruiser became a symbol of New Zealand’s patriotic contribution to the defence of the Empire.

HMS New Zealand was laid down in June 1910, launched on 1 July 1911, and commissioned on 19 November 1912 under Captain Lionel Halsey. Several months later HMS New Zealand embarked on a flag-waving tour around the world — a distance of 72935.5 kms (45,320 miles). A core purpose for her trip was to show the people of New Zealand what their money had purchased. However, the opportunity to reinforce the message of duty and patriotism throughout the Empire was too good to miss.

She sailed from England on 6 February 1913, stopping off at several ports before arriving in New Zealand on 12 April 1913. HMS New Zealand’s arrival in Wellington caused a sensation, and at every port and place, huge crowds turned out to marvel at the latest in warship technology.

During her 10-week tour of the country, HMS New Zealand and her entourage visited 18 places, from Bluff to Russell – even Milford Sound. Captain Halsey, his crew and mascot Pelorus Jack, were lavished with gifts and honoured at special events. By the time she departed New Zealand on 28 June for the return voyage to Britain, more than half the population had viewed the battlecruiser, if not stood on her deck and explored her workings.

HMS Philomel

With the HMS New Zealand now back in Britain, New Zealand was still without a battleship to defend her shores. A proposal was made to from a great Pacific Fleet and HMS New Zealand would be its flagship leading Australian, East Indies and China units. The fleet was never formed and with war looming in Europe HMS New Zealand was assigned to the British Home Fleet. HMS New Zealand went on fight in three key engagements — the Battles of Heligoland, Dogger Bank, and the Battle of Jutland. This detail of a track chart from our collection shows some of the many of the voyages she took between 1914 and 1918.

Detail of manuscript chart of the North Sea showing the courses steered by HMSNZ for the years 1914 - 1918.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

In spite of all this, New Zealand remained determined to have its own navy to help guard its interests. Government officials continued to press the matter at the 1913 Imperial Conference in London. At last the Admiralty relented and agreed to loan a ship so that New Zealand could train its own men. By July of that year the cruiser HMS Philomel was commissioned for service in Wellington under the command of Captain Percival Hall-Thompson. New Zealand's journey to full fledged navalism was almost realised.   

H.M.S. Philomel docked at Hobart.

Cook, George Evan (1914).Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB-406-1-p49-3.

The outbreak of the First Wold War all too quickly reversed this situation, and the command of the Philomel reverted to the Admiralty. A training cruise for New Zealand naval recruits in the Marlborough Sounds was cut short and the ship was ordered back to Wellington to prepare for war.

The Philomel then joined three other cruisers in the invasion of Sāmoa — their objective to capture the German-controlled communications tower and, with the help of Australian naval reinforcements, defend the merchant navy from the Imperial German Navy.

The Philomel's next duty was to escort the New Zealand Expeditionary Force troopships to Egypt. Following that she and her complement of soldiers was ordered to the Gulf of Alexandretta to harass the Ottoman forces there. During one engagement, three men were killed, including Seaman W. Knowles RNR — the second New Zealand combat death during the First World First World War.

The Philomel's orders next took her to the Persian Gulf for patrol duties, with occasional breaks at Bombay for repairs. One visit to dock late in the war revealed the need for substantial and costly repairs. Rather than remain on active service, the decision was made in 1917 to return the Philomel to New Zealand, where she was stripped of her guns. She ended her war as a depot ship for minesweeping operations off Three Kings and Farewell Spit.

In 1921, the Philomel resumed her training duties. Now based at the Devonport Naval Base in Auckland, she housed and acted as the training facility for the recruits to the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy.

On 1 October 1941, the mostly independent New Zealand navy was officially created as the Royal New Zealand Navy, and inline with this new designation the Philomel was recommissioned as the training base HMNZS Philomel.

The vessel herself was later sold to a private firm and her fittings removed. The hulk was then towed off the east coast of Coromandel and sunk.

Hulk of HMS Philomel arriving at Coromandel.

New Zealand Herald (1930s).Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-NEG-4282.

Her captain for much of World War I, PH Hall Thompson had this to say in tribute:

We spend most of our time going up and down the oceans of the world, always at sea, except just to go to harbour and coal. I consider it a perfect marvel what the ship has done at her age and considering that, when I took her over, the last commission told me that if I wanted her to go more than seven knots she would burst. Now she has outlasted her more modern equivalents and we continue cruising with 12 knots and even go up to 17 at a pinch. She really has done an extraordinary amount of useful work during the war.

Captain P.W. Hall-Thompson, Naval adviser to the New Zealand Government.

Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 5 December 1918 p042.Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19181205-42-1.

Serving in the Philomel

Discover more about some of the service people who served in the Philomel. 

Captain Percival Henry Hall-Thompson, 1874 – 1950

Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG), Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (CB)

Born and trained in England, Hall-Thompson was the first head of the New Zealand Naval Forces and the commander of the first New Zealand naval ship to go overseas in wartime.

Hall-Thompson was originally chosen by the British Admiralty to serve as naval advisor and commander of the Philomel, but became Commander in Chief when war was announced in 1914. After the Philomel was removed from active service Hall-Thompson remained in New Zealand, doing much to develop the New Zealand Navy forces in these early years.

Find Captain Hall-Thompson on Online Cenotaph

Peter David Mulgrew, 1927 - 1979

Well known for his adventures across the globe as a mountaineer and yachtsman and later a successful business leader, Mulgrew spent 20 years in the Royal New Zealand Navy, many of these years on the Philomel.

Mulgrew joined the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1945 and trained as a radio mechanic in New Zealand and Britain. He returned to New Zealand in 1947 and served on the Philomel training establishment which he would return to in 1951 and 1962. He was involved in many expeditions such as the commonwealth trans-antarctic expedition, spending more than a year in Antarctica and meeting and befriending prominent climbers and explorers including Edmund Hillary. Tragically he was killed in the crash of Air New Zealand Flight 901 in 1979.

He was awarded the British Empire Medal and the Polar Medal for his work.

Find Peter Mulgrew on Online Cenotaph

Lorelle Henderson Corbin, 1916 - 1995

Lorelle was a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (Known as the Wrens and later the WRNZNS) in the Second World War. She was initially a clerk typist but was rapidly promoted. In 1950 the WRNZNS were made a permanent part of the Royal New Zealand Navy and by 1954 Corbin was the director of the WRNZNS. They served on the Philomel training facility at Devonport and the Navy office in Wellington.

Corbin was awarded an MBE for her service.

Reginald Lowen, 1923 - 1913

Lowen originally enlisted in the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1939 at age 16. His role was initially Seaman Boy on the HMS Philomel and he continued on to have a long career on many other ships, earning the Royal New Zealand Navy Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. Lowen was the first New Zealand naval person to qualify as a torpedo anti-submarine instructor in the Underwater Weapons Department.

Find Reginald Lowen on Online Cenotaph


  1. Barrett, K.(Ed) (2016). Courage commitment comradeship : celebrating 75 years of the Royal New Zealand Navy. Sydney, Aus. Faircount Media Group.
  2. Grant, H. (1981). The Navy in New Zealand : an illustrated history. Reed Publishing.