Devonport: A sea of stories

By Jim Eagles

Auckland's maritime military past, present and future are put on fine display at the new Navy Museum in Devonport, writes Jim Eagles.

Commander David Wright inside a room at the Navy Museum dedicated to sailors who lost their lives. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Commander David Wright inside a room at the Navy Museum dedicated to sailors who lost their lives. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Walk into the first exhibition hall in the new Navy Museum and the thing that catches the eye is an ugly great chunk of shrapnel, roughly the size of a truck tyre, covered in grey paint.

Seeing me staring at it, museum director Commander David Wright explains that a German shell blew this massive chunk of metal out of an armoured gun turret on HMS New Zealand during the crucial World War I Battle of Jutland. The gun crew, miraculously uninjured, simply moved it out of the way, then resumed firing at the enemy.

"This weighs around 500kg. It's seriously heavy," he adds. "When we shifted it in here we had three people and an engine lifter and it was still a strain.

"Yet during the battle two of the crew were apparently able to pick it up and throw it outside. It just goes to show what you can do when the adrenalin is pumping."

It also seems like a great story with which to introduce the Royal New Zealand Navy to the visitors who - since the official opening at the weekend - can now explore this museum at its marvellous new site in Torpedo Bay, Devonport.

Of course this country's naval connection really goes back to the earliest days of European contact. James Cook, who put New Zealand firmly on the world map, was a Royal Navy officer. A model of HMS Endeavour, the ship in which he made his first voyage of discovery here in 1769, is on show in the museum.

Naval vessels also played a part in the various New Zealand Wars. Probably the oldest artefact exhibited is a cannonball that HMS Hazard fired into Kororareka during the Northern War in 1845.

During the great Russian scare of the 1880s New Zealand acquired four Spa torpedo boats - which were supposed to drop their mines alongside any enemy craft and then try to escape before they blew up - and it was those boats and an associated minelaying operation which gave Torpedo Bay its name. There is a model of one of the ungainly craft on display too, if you look carefully.

The refurbished buildings in which the museum is now housed date back to that time, making this probably the oldest continuously used military site in the country, but for now that historical tidbit goes largely unmarked. "It's a story we'd like to tell more fully," agrees Wright, "but that will have to wait until we've got the funds to do more site interpretation. That's stage two."

Instead the first stage of the new museum is firmly focused on its core job of outlining the history of New Zealand's Navy.

I've made many visits to the old Navy museum, in its rambling wooden building on the outskirts of the Devonport Naval Base, but while it was always a joy to visit, the lack of suitable space meant it was more an accumulation of fascinating bits and pieces than a co-ordinated series of exhibitions.

Wright says the move to Torpedo Bay "provides the opportunity to organise the displays around a series of themes telling the stories - exciting stories I believe - of the Navy".

Enter the exhibition area and you'll be greeted by the stirring sounds of a haka performed by naval personnel and then the moving music of the naval hymn.

On one side of the entrance are photos of current Navy people - showing how diverse the service is - and on the other side is a room full of pictures of those who have died. "There's a story for every one," says Wright. "Those twins" - he points at a photo in one corner - "tragically drowned. That's a rating who died at the Battle of River Plate. The officer there was executed by the Japanese. Byron Solomon died recently on the Canterbury ... They've all got something to say."

The exhibition on HMS New Zealand is the start point for the Navy's story, which seems appropriate because even though the old cruiser was part of the Royal Navy and had only a few Kiwis in its crew, in a way it represented the beginnings of a distinctive New Zealand naval force ... and it's also a rattling good yarn.

"The idea of HMS New Zealand was dreamed up by a prime minister over a sherry and a hot bath," says Wright, referring to the dramatic gesture by Sir Joseph Ward, who in 1909 decided to demonstrate New Zealand's loyalty by offering the British Empire "the free gift of one first-class battleship and, if necessary, two."

This proved hugely popular and when the ship visited here in 1913 500,000 people - roughly half the population - took the chance to have a look round.

Among those visitors was an elderly rangitira who presented the commander, Captain Lionel Halsey, with a flax piupiu and a greenstone tiki, prophesying that as long as he wore them the ship would never be badly damaged.

Halsey and his successors did so - though they must have looked very peculiar - and it paid off: the ship never lost a man and acquired the reputation as "the luckiest ship in World War I".

The piupiu that inspired this legend also survived the war unscathed and today it is on display in the museum.

The New Zealand contribution during the fighting - providing not only a ship but also some 500 men for the Royal Navy - led after the war to the creation of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy.

As a result, by the time of World War II there were several New Zealand warships, and the second big exhibition in the museum features their exploits, most notably HMS Achilles' famous contribution to the Battle of the River Plate.

But the story I found most interesting involved the amazing exploits later in the war of the two little minesweepers HMNZS - by that time the division had become the Royal New Zealand Navy - Moa and Kiwi, which confronted the Japanese submarine I-1 at Guadalcanal and, even though it was twice their size, rammed and sank it.

Just how brave that was is clearly illustrated by the massive gun from the submarine which is on display - I paced it out as about 7m long - which was subsequently salvaged by HMNZS Otago and was quite clearly capable of blowing a small boat out of the water.

Later displays feature the naval presence in Malaya, Korea - the gun turret from HMNZS Kaniere, which served in Korea, is on display outside the museum - and Vietnam plus later involvement in the Balkans, East Timor, Afghanistan and the First Gulf War.

There are also exhibitions on the Navy's important peacetime roles including fisheries protection, charting the coasts, servicing Operation Deep Freeze and maritime rescue work.

But for me the most poignant item in the museum is part of the display on the Navy's disaster relief efforts. It is a simple hat band once worn by a rating on HMS Veronica which happened to be in Napier at the time of the massive 1931 earthquake.

In recognition of the rescue work carried out by the crew, the local Harris family named their newborn baby Veronica and she was presented with this hat band.

Veronica Biebner, as she became, kept that band all her life and when she died in 2005 her family gave it back to the Navy. I found that strangely moving and a nice reminder that the Armed Forces do a lot more than fight wars.

"As I said, everything here has a story," says Wright.

"That's what we've tried to do in the museum: tell the Navy's stories. Of course it's inevitable some people will be disappointed that a lot of stories have missed out and we understand that. But I think we've made a good start."

* Further information

The new Navy Museum has opened for business and is at 52 King Edward Pde, Torpedo Bay, Devonport. It's open 10am-4.30pm daily and admission is free. Phone (09) 445 5186 or visit navymuseum.mil.nz

- NZ Herald

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